Edited by Azizi Powell
This pancocojams post provides a compilation of online excerpts about the meaning of the term "breakdowns" in reference to 19th century music and early 20th century music.
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Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2017/02/information-about-two-very-old-african.html for the related pancocojams post: Information About Two Very Old (African American Originated) Dance Forms: "The Breakdown" & "The Breakaway".
FEATURED ONLINE EXCERPTS ABOUT THE TERM "BREAKDOWNS" (19TH CENTURY AMERICAN MUSIC)
These excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.
What does "breakdown" mean?
1. Gconklin, 9/17/96
"In article <51lleo$s...@nadine.teleport.com> mar...@teleport.com (Nancy K. Martin) writes:
“I am wondering if any of you country boys can explain to me why a breakdown is called a breakdown (or, for that matter, what a breakdown is)? It is one of those terms, like hoedown, that intrigues me."....
-end of quote-
Okay, I'll be the first country boy to venture out on your limb --actually, out on your twig. I don't recall ever hearing a definition of "breakdown" in my native Blue Ridge. My buddy John Cephas, country bluesman from Caroline County, Virginia, says it comes from house dances, that some dancing became so energetic that the puncheon floors of cabins were literally broken down by the dancers. John talked about this with three other Piedmont bluesmen (John Jackson, Archie Edwards, John Dee Holeman) when we were filming the documentary, "Blues House Party," in the early 80s and they all knew about it. (But I'm not sure the discussion is in the video; it may have been cut.) Their acoustic branch of the oldest blues draws upon the old black string bands (fiddle, banjo, rhythm groups) for repetoire, performance settings and many terms, so I suspect that you have here a Tidewater term that reveals some of the oldest roots of the American musical tree." Joe Wilson
2. Paul M. Gifford, 9/18/96
"In traditional Canadian terminology (and in areas in the U.S. under Canadian cultural influence, like the U.P. and Thumb of Michigan), "breakdown" is a fast tune (reel) used for the third change of a square dance. The old Michigan (and New York State, I believe) name for the third change was "jig." How it
came to be called those terms, I don't know, but I assume from minstrel shows.
Quadrilles and cotillions seem to have been introduced in the 1840s, and minstrel tunes were used for the (then) five changes, and so maybe the breakdown term was introduced then. Joe's probably describing the original slave term."
3. Yatesian, 9/23/96
"According to the OED (never thought I'd be looking up "breakdown" in the OED), a breakdown is: "A riotous dance, with which balls are often terminated in the country. A dance in the peculiar style of the negroes." It goes on to say the term was coined in the U.S. but was often used humorously in England.
Also, it mentions that a breakdown frequently followed the quadrilles. But I wonder whether, once the term entered common usage, a specific musical form evolved, like the chord change every measure. Anyone?"
4. Kerry Blech, 9/23/96
"I can't answer this question even yet, but I can quote an intersting monologue that is somewhat relevant. This appeared in the liner notes to Folk Music in America Volume 3 (LBC 3) "Dance Music: Breakdowns & Waltzes." This was part of a 15 volume LP issue by the Library of Congress for the Bicentennial, edited by Richard K. Spottswood. The booklet for this record was written by John H. Cowley, and he wrote, in part:
"... The examples included here are mainly from commercial recordings of the 1920s and 1930s and represent only a tiny fraction of European national music which managed to survive and flourish in this country,
even while often incorporating musical elements used here.
Though some of the music heard here is from minority cultures, the feeling and tempos are those associated with most country dancing in the south, both east and west. Designation of the fast pieces as "breakdowns" would be somewhat arbitrary. Uptempo dance tunes have been given many names -- rag, reel, blues, and special are only a few. Unlike the waltz, no special dance or dances were universally designated for breakdowns. Dancing varied according to regional, community, and even individual tastes.
The waltz, of 18th-century German origin, had spread over Europe and the United States by the early 19th century. Because it is strictly a dance for couples it was the subject of frequently bitter controversies. The waltz was almost universally popular until the 1920s, although it was never an important part of black
dancing. Black and black-inspired dances which have become dominant in this century have made the waltz obsolete except in isolated areas. It remains fashionable, for example, among the Acadian French in Louisiana and in the Mexican and Mexican-influenced dancing in the southwest. The vitality of the selections on this record should prove that the waltz is anything but a genteel relic...."
5. Paul M. Gifford, 9/23/96
"I'm not sure what you mean, but I wonder what the OED means by "following the quadrilles." As I mentioned earlier, Canadian terminology defines "breakdown" as the third and final change of a square dance (quadrille). Thus the OED definition is close. I gather that the term "change" is not generally
known around the country, but here in Michigan (and also Canada and no doubt elsewhere), it is a call; the first change is an easy one, often to 6/8; the second change a bit more complicated; and the third change faster and more complicated. The partners stand and pause for a bit between each change. I'm pretty sure these derive from the cotillions introduced in the 1840s, with five changes; then about 1855-1860, they began to be called quadrilles (but in fact seem to be the same as cotillions). I'm not sure when the five changes began to be reduced to three, but probably by 1880-1890.
I once knew a Scottish immigrant who played something called the "Banjo Breakdown," so the term obviously went over there and seems to be associated with the minstrel stage."
From http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=115115 What's a breakdown?
1. From: Desert Dancer
Date: 09 Oct 08 - 12:27 PM
"Here are two good responses for the same questions from The Session:
[Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection]
1. Breakdown: instrumental tunes in duple meter (2/4 or 4/4) at a quick dance speed. This general term in the American South is roughly equivalent to the term "reel" elsewhere in the English-speaking world. But it does not imply a particular type of dance; a "breakdown" tune may be used for square dances, longways dances, or other group dances, as well as for solo fancy dancing.
Reels: a class of dance tunes in duple meter (2/4 or 4/4 time), played at a fast tempo. The reel as a dance was originally a "longways" dance with couples forming facing lines, but the reel as a tune class is used for all sorts of group dances. In the American South the reel class has expanded into the large and generic breakdown class of dance tunes.
# Posted on October 19th 2007 by wyogal
2)In American Old Time fiddling the term "Breakdown" is used mostly in the Southern mountainous regions of the U.S ranging from the Appalachian chain westward into the Ozarks - with some spill over into the bordering areas.
In these regions the term "Breakdown" means an up-tempo dance tune that's played mostly by bowing two adjacent strings simultaneously while noting one or the other of'em. The two adjacent string pairs that are bowed will change as the tune's played.
This technique's especially effective when the fiddle's "cross-tuned" usually to ADAE for the key of D or AEAE for the key of A. The effective is to create a louder sound and to impart greater energy to the dancers - who are usually clogging.
In these regions a tune that's played by using mostly single note sequences to impart the melody and rhythm is often called a "Hornpipe" - without regard the how the term's used outside these regions - dotted eighth rhythm.
Southern OT fiddlers who prefer to render a tune using mostly single notes sequences are sometimes referred to as "Hornpipe Fiddlers". This usually a derisive term unless the target's especially good at it. Probably Cyril Stinnett from Missouri was one of our best - if not the best - American "hornpipe fiddler".
Most OT fiddle tunes combine a bit of both styles of playing. Any of these might be called a Breakdown, or sometimes a Reel, or sometimes even a hornpipes, though usually they just have a name that doesn't include any of these terms. We don't really have a rule book... ;-)
In Texas and points West the term "Breakdown" has been replaced by the term "Hoedown". I don't know the origin of the newer term. In Texas - and many of the Prairie states" - it's too hot to clog so the dance of choice there is the "Two step" that wants a slower tempo than that used for clogging. As dancing to live fiddling as has died off over the years, Texas fiddlers have used the slower tempo of the Hoedown as an opportunity to improvise on the older Breakdown tunes - creating the newer "Texas Style" of contest fiddling.
# Posted on October 19th 2007 by OTJunky
and, from the Online Etymology Dictionary under the entry for "break dancing":
breakdown "a riotous dance, in the style of the negroes" is recorded from 1864.
The Slang Dictionary: Or, the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and ... (Google Books Result) by John Camden Hotten - 1869
"BREAK-DOWN, a noisy dance, and violent enough to break the floor down ; a jovial , social gathering, a FLARE up; in Ireland, a wedding"
~ Becky in Tucson
Googling in the morning"
flange5st - Posted - 12/31/2008
"..........a" breakdown" is a tune that's designed to let the individual, whether a dancer or musician, interpret the song in their own style.......when you play for a square dance, some call it a quadrille, it is danced a certain way by the dance "caller" and at a certain tempo also chosen and maintained by the caller.......when you do a breakdown, you just " break down", ( as we say around this section of the woods), and give it your all......I've played Sally Goodin' for a dance and at the end just rip into it and seen folks dance like a free for all.......some of the best dancing and picking you'll get to see and hear are during these times..IMHO.........a "hoedown" is a dance party because you have gathered to party and not to work...ie.. you put you hoe down.......hoe, the thing you dig in the ground with.. and over time the term has been used to discribe a happy " up-medium" timed melody.......and a "special" is a melody designed for a certain musician and their instrument that shows off it's own character..........this is the way I understand these terms and I'm sure that there are alot more learned folk's who can give a better definition/ discription than me, too.............good thread....peace"
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