The first version of this song that I remember hearing was a recording of Buddy Spicher playing it on a compilation album of the World’s Best Country Fiddlers. He started out the tune by saying, “Look at the rack on that deer.” I thought that was so cool, that I copied it on my album, “Long Time Comin’“. Buddy Spicher has long been one of my favorite fiddlers. He plays with power and finesse and can play just about any style with amazing facility. And, he’s a heck of a nice guy.
This song is also played for (and with) Brent Hawley, who is a great friend, and a great guitarist. Brent loves tunes that are a little off the beaten path, and especially if they have chords that are a little different, and even better if they have the B Part in a different key than the A Part. This is one of Brent’s Favorite Tunes, and I always enjoy playing it with him.
Notes on Forked Deer According to the Library of Congress
“Forked Deer” is a quintessential fiddle tune of the old frontier. It is old and widely distributed, yet it cannot be traced to the Old World or the northern United States. “Forked Deer” begins with and gives greatest emphasis to the high strain of the tune. And it is fiddled with a fluid bowing style using slurs to create complicated rhythmic patterns, in the manner of the old Upper South. Its title both evokes the forest and (though few fiddlers in the Appalachians realize this) names a river in West Tennessee. An 1839 printed set from Southside Virginia (Knauff, “Virginia Reels”, vol. 1, #4 “Forked Deer”) establishes the tune’s longevity under that title in Virginia. It found its way onto the nineteenth-century stage and into tune collections as a “jig”: see “Brother Jonathan’s Collection of Violin Tunes” (1862), p. 26 “Gas Light Jig”; Coes, “George H. Coes’ Album of Music”, p. 6 “Forkedair Jig,” pp. 34-35 “Come and Kiss Me.” But that did not give it circulation beyond its home region in the Upper South, where it turned up in many twentieth-century sets; see Thomas, “Devil’s Ditties”, pp. 131-133 (compare Victor 21407B, played by Jilson Setters (James Day)); Ford, “Traditional Music of America”, p. 45 “Old Pork Bosom”; Morris, “Old Time Violin Melodies”, #31 “Forkadair”; Thede, “The Fiddle Book”, p. 135 (Oklahoma). Henry Reed plays a third strain, as do some other fiddlers, composed of the low strain recast an octave higher. He once mentioned that another old title for “Forked Deer” was “Hounds in the Thorn Bush,” but he considered “Forked Deer” its proper name. He also mentioned it as one of the tunes in Quince Dillion’s repertory.
More info on Forked Deer from the Fiddler’s Companion
FORKED DEER, (THE). AKA ‑ “Forked Buck,” “Forky Deer,” “Forked‑Horn Deer,” “Forked Deer Hornpipe,” “Hounds in the Horn,” “Long-Horned Deer.” AKA and see “Deer Walk ,” “Bragg’s Retreat,” “Van Buren.” Old‑Time, Breakdown. USA, Widely known. D Major. Standard or ADae (Edden Hammons/Bruce Molsky) tunings. AB (Silberberg): AABB (most versions): AA’BB (Phillips). Many older versions have several more parts than the two that are commonly played in modern times, and Jeff Titon (2001) suggests that the influence of the recording industry had much to do with shortening and standardizing the parts of the melody. Clay County, W.Va., fiddler Wilson Douglas, heir to an older tradition, plays the tune in three parts, as did his mentor French Carpenter. Roscoe Parish of Coal Creek, Va., also had a third part. Blind northeastern Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley (1883-1951) played a five-part version, as did Charlie Bowman and Kentuckian J.W. Day. Kerry Blech says that Bowman’s version includes the familiar ‘A’ and ‘B’ parts, a high ‘C’ part that is also shared with some other sources, and two last parts that seem to be Bowman originals. John Johnson, an itinerant man originally from West Virginia who had artistic talent in several areas, had a version that had six parts, played ABACCDEFDEF (son of a jailer, he was said to have “fiddled his way in and out of most jails from West Virginia to Abiline”). Johnson (1916-1996) visited Kanawha County, West Virginia, fiddler Clark Kessinger (1896-1975) just a week before he died, an encounter from which he remembered:
I went and played the fiddle for him, played The Forked Deer.
Clark said, “That’s not The Forked Deer.” “Well,” I said, “I
don’t know whether it’s The Forked Deer or not, but I learned
it from a record Arthur Smith made when I was a kid, and I
know the tune’s way older than I am.” And Clark said, “That
ain’t The Forked Deer.” But you see, I play six parts of The
Forked Deer and he just played two. So I suppose that’s the
reason why he said that wasn’t The Forked Deer. I learned that
whole tune just like Arthur Smith played it. I’ve heard lots of
other fiddlers put just two parts to it. (Michael Kline, Mountains of Music, John Lilly ed. 1999).
R.P. Christeson (1973) notes that the tune bears considerable resemblance to a Scottish tune named “Rachel Rae,” which can be found in some of the older Scottish tune collections (and which in America was printed in such collections as White’s Solo Banjoist, Boston, 1896). He notes that some fiddlers play the first part of this tune differently than the Missouri version he gives, and use a portion of “The Forked Deer” as published by George Willig’s in George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels (vol. 1, No. 4, Baltimore, c. 1839)–which appears to be the first time the “Forked Deer” tune appears in print. It has been suggested (by William Byrne) that the title “Forked Deer” (the first word is pronounced as if hyphenated, ‘FORK-ed’) is a corruption of ‘Fauquier Deer’, referring to the name of a county in northern Virginia. Others believe it may have derived from association with the Forked Deer River in Tennessee. Apparently, it was asserted in a fictionalized traveller’s account (published in the late 1880’s by Dr. H.W. Taylor) entitled “The Cadence and Decadence of the Hoosier Fiddler” that the title referred to a Deer river and its tributaries (i.e. ‘the forks of the Deer’). John Hartford and Pat Sky have speculated the original title may have been “Forked Air,” meaning a crooked melody. Indeed, Paul Tyler reports the “Forked Air” title was used in a 1950 notebook in which A. Hamblen noted down tunes played by his grandfather and brought to Brown County, Indiana, from Virginia in 1857. The tune, as “Forkadair,” appears in W. Morris’sOldtime Viloin Melodies: Book No. 1, and the “Forkedair Jig” is a title Gerry Milnes (1999) says was used in a minstrel-era version.
Miles Krassen (1973) remarks the tune is very popular through most of the southern Appalachians, though it was not played for the most part by Galax, Va., style bands. Tommy Jarrell, quintessential Round Peak (near Mt.Airy, N.C./Galax, Va.) fiddler learned the tune in Carroll County, southwestern Virginia, where he listened to his father‑in‑law, Charlie Barnett Lowe play it on the banjo with local fiddlers Fred Hawkes and John Rector. It is one of the tunes mentioned in the humorous dialect story “The Knob Dance,” published in 1845, set in eastern Tenn. (C. Wolfe), and was also known before the Civil War in Alabama, having been recalled by Alfred Benners in Slavery and Its Results as played by slave fiddler Jim Pritchett of Marengo County. The tune was mentioned by William Byrne who described a chance encounter with West Virginia fiddler ‘Old Sol’ Nelson during a fishing trip on the Elk River. The year was around 1880, and Sol, whom Byrne said was famous for his playing “throughout the Elk Valley from Clay Courthouse to Sutton as…the Fiddler of the Wilderness,” had brought out his fiddle after supper to entertain (Milnes, 1999). Charles Wolfe (1982) remarks it was popular with Kentucky fiddlers, especially in eastern Kentucky (a remark probably based on recordings of regional fiddlers Ed Haley and J.W. Day). Jeff Titon (2001) finds the title in the 1915 Berea, Kentucky, tune lists, and notes that it was played at the 1919 and 1920 Berea fiddle contests. It was one of the few sides cut in the first recorded session of American fiddle music in June, 1922, for Victor–a duet between Texas fiddler Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland (though unissued). The tune was recorded for the Library of Congress by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph in the early 1940’s from the playing of Ozark Mountain fiddlers. It is on Missouri fiddler Charlie Walden’s list of ‘100 essential Missouri fiddle tunes’. Alternate titles “Forked‑Horn Deer” and “Forked Deer Hornpipe” appear in a list he compiled of traditional Ozark Mountain fiddle tunes. Joel Shimberg finds that volume two of G. Legman’s edition of Vance Randolph’s “unprintable” Folksongs and Folklore: Blow the Candle Out (pg. 759), says: “The dance tune known as Forked Deer is regarded as vulgar in the Ozarks, because the title has a double meaning. Forked might refer to the
deer’s antlers, but it is also the common Ozark term for ‘horny’, which means sexually excited. The word is always pronounced ’fork-ed’ , in two syllables. I
have seen nice young girls leave a dance when the fiddler began to play Forked Deer. Lon Jordan, veteran fiddler of Farmington, Ark., always called it Forked-Horn Deer when ladies were present. Buster Fellows once played it on a radio program, but the announcer was careful to call it Frisky Deer! (Station KWTO, Springfield, Mo., May 3, 1947.)”
Ira Ford’s (1940) rather preposterous story of the origins of the title is as follows: “The old dance tune, ‘Forked Deer’, is easily traceable to the days of powder horns, bullet molds and coonskin caps. Like many other very old tunes of American fiddle lore, it had its origin on the isolated frontier and this one has been traced to the first settlers along the Big Sandy River, the border line of Virginia and Kentucky. In the family which preserved this tune, the story, handed down through several generations, credits the authorship to a relative, a noted fiddler of pioneer days. This kinsman was also a famous hunter. There was a spirit of friendly rivalry in the hunt, much the same as there were championships in other lines of activities, and he had established a reputation as a champion deer hunter by always bringing in a forked deer. The forked deer, or two‑point buck, was considered prime venison. As a token of admiration for the hunter as well as the fiddler, his friends set the following words to this popular dance tune which comes down to us as ‘Forked Deer’.
There’s the doe tracks and fawn tracks up and down the creek
The signs all tell us that the roamers are near,
With the old flint‑lock rifle Pappy’s gone to watch the lick,
With powder in the pan for to shoot the forked deer.