This summer I heard a
great tune called “Mike in the Wilderness.” It was at the Lake
Genero Old-Time festival at a late night session around a campfire
in the Pennsylvania woods. Nice folks and a bunch of tunes I had
never heard before, mostly played on banjo, guitar and fiddle.
Later at home, I learned that the single source for “Mike in the
Wilderness” is the playing of John Morgan Salyer, recorded
1940-1941 in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Salyer was a farmer and a
fiddler with an extensive repertoire of old tunes. Click on his
photo to read a fascinating and detailed biography.
1882 - 1952
Here is an excerpt from
the original recording of John Salyer playing "Mike In the
Wilderness" with guitar accompaniment.
There are a number of
variations that people play in sessions today where things have
been smoothed out a bit, but here is my transcription of John
Salyer’s source recording.
Some fiddlers play this
tune in G and some in A and the fiddlers who play it tend to tune
their instruments in what is called cross tuning. That is to say
that they either tune the top two fiddle strings down, making the
open fiddle strings GDGD or they tune the bottom strings up for
What makes this tune so interesting to me is the mixed tonality of
being sometimes in mixolydian and other times not. Salyer’s G
version has both F and F# notes that give the tune a restless
tonality that I really like.
“Mike In the
Wilderness” works great on the C/G Anglo concertina. Listen here to
my solo arrangement played very slowly so I can get in the full
Listen here to an excerpt from a studio recording where I use
material from the solo arrangement to play “Mike in the Wilderness”
up to tempo with fiddler Paul Friedman.
It has been suggested
that the title refers to a notorious incident where in the
confusion of war, the young and brilliant Confederate
Brigadier-General, Micah Jenkins was killed by friendly fire in the
Battle of the Wilderness, 1864.
Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was also severely wounded in the incident
but survived tolater writeof Micah Jerkins:
“He was one of the most estimable characters of the army. His taste
and talent were for military service. He was intelligent, quick,
untiring, attentive, zealous in discharge of duty, truly faithful
to official obligations, abreast with the foremost in battle, and
withal a humble, noble Christian. In a moment of highest earthly
hope he was transported to serenest heavenly joy; to that life
beyond that knows no bugle call, beat of drum, or clash of steel.
May his beautiful spirit, through the mercy of God, rest in peace !
Amen ! “
“The Wilderness” is an
expanse of scrub, stunted trees, brush and rough terrain in
Spotsylvania, Virginia. It was the site of a particularly bloody
battle in the American Civil War.
Was the fiddle tune,
“Mike in the Wilderness” named after the untimely and ironic death
of the “boy general” Micah Jerkins? Who knows, but it certainly
seems possible and makes a good story.