Leather Britches is another tune that I learned when I stayed with Dick and Lisa Barrett as a teen. I remember Dick telling me to leave it exactly how I learned it for now, and that if I play it like that for a year or so that I could change it then. (I had a tendency to make a tune my own before I really knew it back then.) I played it note for note for about a year, and then added a verse that I learned from a Terry Morris Transcription. Later I added some Major Franklin licks, but I still play a lot of it like Dick played it.
SIDE NOTE: The name Leather Britches refers to dried beans, not Lederhosen. Tonight’s Fiddle Tune comes to you from Avogadro’s Number, and features Brent Hawley on Guitar, David Dale on Bass, Matt on Mandolin, and Wayne Wagner on Squeeze Box. Listen up because Brent really tears up his solo. Enjoy!
Leather Britches according to the Fiddler’s Companion
LEATHER BREECHES/BRITCHES. See “Lord MacDonald(‘s Reel) ” which is thought to be the origin of the American version. AKA and see “Breeches On,” “The Irish Lad(‘s a Jolly Boy),” “Old Leather Britches ,” “Oh Those Britches Full of Stitches,” “Lord MacDonald(‘s Reel) ,” “McDonald’s Reel,” “Reel McDonnell,” “Slanty Gart.” Old‑Time, Bluegrass; Breakdown. USA, very widely known. G Major. Standard tuning. AB (Bayard, Silberberg): AABB (Brody, Lowinger): AABCC (Titon): ABCDD (Christeson): AABBCC (Shumway, Thede): AA’BB’CC’ (Phillips): AABCCDDC’ (Krassen). ‘Leather Breeches’ was a nickname in some parts of the American South and West for green (snap) beans dried in the pod and later cooked, although many verses connected with the tune have referred to garments made out of leather. Sometimes the beans would be pieced with a needle and thread and strung together, then hung to dry where they would last the winter (but would need to be soaked to re-hydrate them prior to cooking). Professor Samuel Bayard notes the tune is descended from, or related to, an Irish air called “The Breeches On” or “The Irish Lad” and a widespread Scottish reel generally called “(Lord) McDonald’s Reel.” Generally, the order of the parts is reversed from the ‘MacDonald’ tune. Paul Gifford believes that the earliest version of “Leather Breeches” in print (under that title) appears in numerical tablature in Music for the Piano Dulcimer by R.J. Rudisill (of Missouri), published by Stedman (New York) & Milton (Kentucky) with a date of 1859, sold by L.S. & H. Wade. The volume, says Paul, was apparently written to accompany the dulcimers manufactured by the Wades in Chautaqua County, New York.
Many sources note this tunes popularity in the United States: for example, Marion Thede said it was “among the most frequently heard fiddle tunes in the Southwest,” while Arizona fiddler Kenner C. Kartchner stated it was “a great favorite in early Texas cattle country” (Shumway). Bell Wiley listed it among the popular fiddle tunes played by fiddlers in the Confederate army in his book The Life of Johnny Reb. It was in repertory of Alabama fiddler D. Dix Hollis (1861‑1927) who considered it one of “the good old tunes of long ago” (as quoted in the Opelika Daily News of April 17th, 1926), and it was commonly played by Rock Ridge Alabama fiddlers around 1920 (Bailey). It was mentioned in the autobiography of fiddler Tom Freeman of Cullman County, Alabama, and was listed in the Tuscaloosa News of March 28th, 1971 as a specialty of “Monkey” Brown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who had a local reputation in the 20’s and 30’s (Cauthen, 1990). The tune was recorded for the Library of Congress (by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph) from the playing of Ozark Mountain fiddlers in the early 1940’s, and (by Herbert Halpert) from the playing of Mississippi fiddlers John Hatcher, Stephen B. Tucker, and Hardy Sharp in 1939. “Leather Breeches” was played in the non-standard key of ‘D’ Major by Surry County, North Carolina, fiddler Benton Flippen (b. 1920). Benton told David Holt in a 2002 interview that “Leather Britches” was the first tune he learned on the fiddle, from his Uncle John.
The melody was a standard at fiddlers’ contests in many areas of the South and Mid-West. It was a ‘category tune’ for an 1899 fiddle contest in Gallatin, Tenn., in which each fiddler would play his version; the best rendition won a prize (C. Wolfe, The Devil’s Box, vol. 14, No. 4, 12/1/80). Larkin Hicks of Broadhead, Kentucky, played “Leather Breeches” in the 1919 Berea, Kentucky, fiddle contest, as recorded in lists of tunes played at the event (Titon, 2001). It was predicted to “vie with the latest jazz nerve wreckers for first place” at a fiddlers’ convention in Chilton County, Alabama, according to the Chilton County News of June 1, 1922 (Cauthen, 1990), and was also predicted by the Northwest Alabamian of August 29th, 1929, that it was likely to be played at an upcoming contest. A.B. Moore, in his 1934 History of Alabama, said it was one of the standard tunes in the square dance fiddler’s repertoire, and it was listed as one of the definitive fiddle tunes for a contest in Jackson, Alabama, in the Clarke County Democrat of May 6, 1926 (Cauthen, 1990). It was a tune in the repertoire of fiddler and Confederate veteran Arnold A. Parrish (Willow Springs, Wake County, N.C.), as recorded by the old Raleigh News and Observer. Parrish was a contestant at fiddler’s conventions held in Raleigh prior to World War I. “Leather Breeches” has retained popularity to this day as a contest tune. A story has been told of California old-time mandolin player Kenny Hall who played this tune in the 1970’s at the ‘national’ contest at Weiser, Idaho, a hot-bed of Texas-style or ‘contest’ fiddling that dominated the stage. Hall said he had learned “Leather Britches” from an old Texas fiddler, and that his was what “real” Texas fiddling was all about, which did not endear him to many Texans that weekend. Compounding his faux pas, was his reference to Dick Barrett’s Texas version: “That ain’t Leather Britches, its Perma Press.” The Texans were not amused.
Samuel Bayard suggests the rhyme sung to the melody by old‑time musicians is borrowed from an Irish air (song) called “The Britches On.” Researcher and fiddler Lisa Ornstein, however, says the only association she could find to support this was in Irish novelist and Fenian Charles J. Kickham’s novel Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary (1879), in which a jews-harper plays the tune and then sings: “Oh, my breeches full of stitches, Oh, my breeches buckled on, Oh, my breeches full of stitches, Oh my breeches buckled on” to a visitor who has a torn pant-leg (Chapter 19). “This (Bayard’s 1944 set) is the best set of ‘Leather Breeches’ yet to turn up in western Pennsylvania. The tune is often accompanied by a rhyme that in Greene County (Pa.) tradition runs:
Leather breeches full of stitches,
Old shoes and stockings on‑‑
My wife she kicked me out of bed
Because I had my breeches on.
Bayard’s source Mrs. Armstrong recalled only two lines:
Leather breeches, full of stitches,
Mammy sewed the buttons on.
Ford (1940) prints these words:
Leather Breeches full of stitches,
Leather Breeches, Leather Breeches;
Mammy cut ’em out an’
M’daddy sewed an’ sewed the stitches. (Ford)
Norma Trewhella says
Wow. Fun song.
Vi Wickam says
Michael Friedman says
Lovely song & musical performance !