Blues Origins: Spanish Fandango and Sebastopol

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    How did fanciful European parlor music influence the creation of the blues? In a more profound way than most fans realize. What follows is one of the most fascinating and least understood chapters in blues history. Special thanks is owed to the Kansas Historical Society and its online archive,, for making available some of the material that informs this article.

    In times before radio, records, and electric lights, people often played music to amuse themselves after dinner and at social gatherings. “Parlor guitar,” a favorite European musical fare during the late 1700s, caught on in America. Played with bare fingers on small-bodied instruments, parlor guitar became immensely popular, as evidenced by the stacks of musical scores published during the 1800s. Many of these compositions called for the guitar strings to be tuned to an open chord. The most common of these tunings, open C (with the strings tuned C, G, C, G, C, and E, low to high) and open D (D, A, D, F#, A, D), clearly had European origins. The origins of open G, a favorite banjo tuning, are more difficult to trace. Two parlor compositions in particular would play a crucial role in the development of the blues.

    Our journey begins with Henry Worrall. Born in Liverpool, England, in 1825, Worrall moved to the United States in 1835 and eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a while he worked as a glasscutter’s apprentice, but his passion was guitar music. A skilled performer and composer, he became a music professor at the Ohio Female College. One of his prize guitar students, Mary Elizabeth Harvey, became his playing partner and wife. In 1856, he completed Worrall’s Guitar School, or The Eclectic Guitar Instructor, which remained in print through the 1880s.

    On June 29, 1860, Worrall walked into the Clerk’s Office of the Southern District Court of Ohio and filed copyrights for two instrumental guitar songs. “Worrall’s Original Spanish Fandango” called for the guitar strings to be tuned to an open-G chord (D, G, D, G, B, D, from low to high), with the explanation that the music was to be read as if the guitar were in standard tuning. Some of the song’s flourishes sounded like watered-down versions of earlier nineteenth-century European music. Its little alle vivace finale, for instance, could have worked as a Rossini opera coda. But with its lilting melody and easy chord changes, this song is clearly the direct ancestor of one of the most common blues strains.

    Two words stand out in Worrall’s title. “Fandango,” thought to be of African origin, first appeared in the English language in the 1760s, used to describe a “native ball,” or dance. Then the term was applied to a lively 3/4 time dance that originated among Spanish-speaking people. An April 1796 playbill for New York’s John Street Theatre, for instance, advertised a “Spanish Fandango” between the play and the afterpiece, listing four dancers and five singers who did not appear in the play. Eventually the word was used to describe the music itself. Of far more interest to blues sleuths, though, is the word that precedes “Fandango” in Worrall’s title, “Spanish.” In the decades to come, this word would echo in the vocabularies of seminal bluesmen such as Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. More on this in a moment.

    Worrall’s other copyright entry that day, “Sebastopol,” was composed several years earlier, when the Crimean War was raging. To commemorate the lengthy siege of the Russian city of Sebastopol (later spelled Sevastopol), Worrall composed a stately march that imitated a bugle and military marching band. He subtitled his piece a “Descriptive Fantaisie for the Guitar.” This time, the music instructed players to retune their guitar to open D so the song’s elegant treble-string melodies and chiming harmonics fell easily under the fingers. In its 1860 form, “Sebastopol” has little harmonic variation and sounds decidedly un-African, but its main melody and voice-leading approach to chords became staples for blues and folk performers as varied as Libba Cotten, Robert Wilkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and Furry Lewis.

    But how did the songs Worrall copyrighted in 1860 enter the blues and folk wellsprings? The answer probably lies in dusty old guitar cases.

    Credit for this research goes to John Renbourn, esteemed British fingerstyle guitarist and avid student of American parlor guitar. In 1992, John sent me the copies of “Spanish Fandango” and “Sebastopol” shown in this blog, along with these revelations: “I have many other parlour pieces in open tunings from around the same time. I am in the process of comparing these with early recorded ‘folk’ versions to see how much of the originals have been retained. It looks as if a great deal has been retained, so much so that these old pieces seem to me to have laid the foundation for the emerging blues and fingerpicking guitar styles. ‘Sebastopol’ and ‘Spanish Fandango’ were both outstandingly popular solo pieces and their availability in print continued beyond the turn of the century. It seems clear that these pieces lent their names to the folk terms ‘Spanish,’ for open-G tuning, and ‘Vastopol’ for open D or open E. But the connections are not limited to the tunings, they go on in terms of harmonic content and even specific right-hand patterns.

    “What probably happened was this: When guitars began to be mass produced and widely distributed by mail order in the 1890s, they came complete with little tutor books. The most common ones were by a man called Septimus Winner, who almost invariably included versions of ‘Sebastopol’ and ‘Spanish Fandango.’ These fairly simple pieces then would have been the starting point for thousands of rural players around the turn of the century.

    “Most authorities seem to agree on the various strands of Afro-American music that contributed to the makeup of what we recognize as the blues – the field calls and work songs, etc. – predominantly linear music characterized by what has become known as the ‘blues scale.’ What has never been satisfactorily explained is the origin of the basic harmonic format that distinguishes the blues from these other types.

    “If you can imagine a field hand sitting down after work and trying to fit an arhoolie [field song] across the basic chords of ‘Spanish Fandango,’ then you would be close to the moment of transformation, in my opinion. In early recorded blues – i.e., Charley Patton and his school – the harmonic language (right down to specific chord shapes but with bluesy modification usually of one finger only) is straight from parlour music. The same is true for early blues in open D compared to ‘Sebastopol.’ It’s fascinating stuff and fairly controversial, but it fills in the missing gap between the steel-string guitar coming in to circulation and the highly developed styles that appeared on recordings in the 1920s.” The first American guitars designed for steel strings date to around the turn of the century. In its 1902 catalog, the Gibson company stated that their guitars could be strung with steel or gut strings.

    A prime example of an early recording of “Spanish Fandango” is John Dilleshaw & The String Marvel’s 1929 version:

    Dilleshaw, a 6’7” giant of a man, had learned the song while growing up in north Georgia’s rural hill country. On the recording, one guitarist fingerpicks leads in open G while the other flatpicks basic accompaniment. The musicians have changed Worrall’s sedate 6/8 to a more swinging 2/4 and added alternating bass and bluesy bends, but the final chorus’ droning bass recalls the feel of older parlor guitar pieces. Another early version was released by Bo Carter, the main guitarist with the Mississippi Sheiks and an influence on many Delta guitarists. Carter based his song “Country Fool” on “Spanish Fandango” chord progression, but altered the open-G tuning by keeping his highest string tuned to E. This allowed him to pick distinctive treble patterns while retaining a deep, powerful bass.

    By the 1930s, “Spanish Fandango” was part of the country music repertoire, as heard in this 1938 version by Western swing bandleaders Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers, with the melody played on steel guitar:

    For Stefan Grossman, who’s devoted his career to playing and promoting prewar country blues, the existence of Worrall’s parlor music challenges long-held notions of blues development: “That boom-chick, boom-chick bass of parlor music appeared in tons of sheet music from the 1850s straight up until the turn of the century. It was being taught by white middle-class guitar teachers to white middle-class women. How did that switch over into the black field? Nobody’s sure. But it does take away from that mystique that we want to put into black music, that it’s completely from black origins. Black church music was obviously greatly influenced by the white music, but it was sped up. Child ballads from England showed up in the repertoires of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly. There was probably more interweaving of the cultures’ music than we realize. Nevertheless, the blacks played it much better. When you think about the fingerpickers in the 1920s, you’ve got Frank Hutchinson and Sam McGee in the white camp, and that’s it. Among the blacks, you’ve an endless barrage of great fingerpickers.”

    Many early blues and country musicians employed these tunings and almost invariably used the words “Spanish” and “Vastopol” to describe them. To this day, open D and open G remain the most popular open tunings. “These two tuning are the starting gate for most guitarists,” Ry Cooder explains. “They cover most of the territory. You can do most anything you want. One has the timbre and color, of course, and the other has entirely different vibrant points, tighter strings. The D is the blues. The G is melodic, and it’s all triads. The D suggests the modal world of, say, Blind Willie Johnson – it’s his tuning. The melody is on the top strings, so it’s very handy. And the G is almost hillbilly tuning. It’s banjo tuning. If you look at it that way, then obviously it’s a different world. I started in G tuning before I knew D. Probably the best song to start with is Lead Belly’s ‘C.C. Rider’ – the thing he played flat [lap style]. He chose a beautiful chord at the ninth fret to start the song on. It’s perfect. He didn’t move around. He played the chord and used the notes he had in that position. It’s all right there. But, man, to start the song on that chord! It jumped off the record player at me. It’s like looking over the edge of some cliff. And then where do we go now? The tonic. Whoo! I used to get chicken skin listening to that. I used to think, ‘Go where it’s dangerous and say yes!’ as the yogis like to say. And once I figured out how to put the banjo G on the guitar, all of a sudden there were all of John Lee Hooker’s chords, although he doesn’t play slide. There was the whole thing. Wow.”

    Long before John Lee Hooker emerged on record in the late 1940s, other Mississippi-bred bluesmen favored open G, notably Charley Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown, as well as their immediate followers Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Johnson, for example, used Spanish on his 1936 recordings of “Walkin’ Blues” and “Cross Road Blues.” Five years later, Muddy Waters played slide in open G on his very first record, “Country Blues,” recorded in a country shack by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Interviewed on record immediately after he’d completed the take, Waters calmly described how the song had “come from the cotton field and the boy what put the record out – Robert Johnson. He put out ‘Walkin’ Blues.’ But I knowed the tune ’fore I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House.” Muddy added that he picked up his bottleneck style from Son House, and described the three tunings he played in as the “natural,” “straight E” (a variation of Vastopol) and “Spanish.” (In the photo at right, Muddy is seen in Clarksdale circa 1942, clutching a comp pressing of his first 78.)

    In the 1950s, another Delta-bred, Chicago-based blues guitarist, Elmore James, used an open-D-tuned electric guitar to kick-start “Dust My Broom” with what is surely the most imitated slide riff in all of blues. During the 1960s, “rediscovered” or newly discovered old-time artists including Mississippi John Hurt, Sam McGee, Mance Lipscomb, and Elizabeth Cotten recorded acoustic versions of Worrall’s tunes. Soon Jesse Ed Davis, Johnny Winter, Duane Allman, and others were carrying open G and open D into mainstream rock and roll, and these tunings still thrive today. And whether they know it or not, anyone who uses them owes at least a passing nod of appreciation to Henry Worrall.

    But whatever happened to old Mr. Worrall? I am delighted to report that he led an amazing life. In 1869 he moved to Topeka, Kansas, for his health. For decades he gave guitar concerts and lectures and played organ in church. He became a celebrated painter and illustrator, his artwork appearing in important books on Western history and the nationally popular periodicals Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. His famous oil painting “Drouthy Kansas” convinced people around the country that the great Kansas drought of 1860 was indeed a thing of the past. Worrall carved wood – including the Kansas State Seal – and invented several wind and hay instruments. He cultivated grapes and kept a large vineyard. He was well known for his pranks, and into old age he enjoyed accompanying male pupils as they serenaded girls in local colleges. This delightful man passed away in 1902. Today, the Kansas State Historical Society makes an impressive collection of original Henry Worrall materials available to researchers. Are you listening, Ken Burns?


    Thanks to John Renbourn, Stefan Grossman, Ry Cooder and David Rodum for sharing their insights

    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      18 comments on “Blues Origins: Spanish Fandango and Sebastopol

      1. Jon Sievert on said:

        Fantastic stuff. This is an aspect of the blues I never considered. Keep it coming.

      2. Jas Obrecht Music Blog on said:

        I can't get the webpage to allow either of the third pages of music to be clicked into a larger format. If any players want a copy, send me an email and I'll forward.

      3. Mike on said:

        Great writing and research. Thanks for making this available to knowledge-hungry blues hounds.

      4. Ben Covington on said:

        I concur with the above and a real eye/ear open for this reader whose sole knowledge initially came via something Paul Oliver wrote in a Jazz magazine almost five decades ago.Keep 'em coming.

      5. Kelly C. Porter on said:

        Fascinating stuff. I love this musical archaeology.

      6. Sales jobs website tailored for only sales jobs on said:

        Hey man I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to create something worth reading . I am all over the internet and I see so much pointless content that is just written for the sake of putting something new on their site . It takes devotion to make good stuff, thanks for caring.

      7. I just found you throught the Squeeze My Lemon blog. You are a treasure! This particular post caught my eye though. I’m an American expat living in the Scottish Highlands. Living here has given me a whole new insight into what i always assumed was ‘American’ music…bluegrass, c&w…even gospel and blues. Are you familiar with Gaelic waulking songs?(a sample: Women would sing these songs as they worked on the tweeds. Other field /work songs are quite common over here. Are you familiar with Professor Willie Ruff’s findings? ( Here is a sample of Gaelic psalm singing: I find all these influences fascinating, i would love your take on this one, too. Liz

      8. neal cass. on said:

        i’m futhur-ly interested in delving into the details, the exact origins (if there even is one to pin-point down), or even the first ‘studio’ or field recordings of compositions/songs/blues in the tuning of OPEN C.

        i’ve read somewhere that it was believed that the guitarist (50′s – 00′s) John Fahey was the first to put a song down on record in open c –

        defiantly could be wrong – but defiantly interested in learning more about the illusive open C; which I guess isn’t so illusive (& just as down home!) compared to the “pervasiveness” of open D or G — but this all could very well be my ignorance talking again

        easy all,

      9. Hi Neal –

        Check out the Peg Leg Howell article in my The Atlanta Bluesmen series. In 1928, he recorded “Low-Down Rounder Blues” and “Fairy Blues” in open C.


      10. I’m glad to find this article.
        I have been researching the song Sebastopol for about a month now and have found the exact same scans of the piece that are displayed in this article.
        They can be found at the Kansas State Historical Society web site:
        I intend to learn it in it’s original form but the way it is written made it impossible. I felt there must be some kind of translation system needed to get it from the page to the guitar but i could not find it until I read in this article:
        “with the explanation that the music was to be read as if the guitar were in standard tuning”
        What it actually says on the first page of the piece is:
        “and finger as if tuned in the ordinary manner”
        which was too vague.
        So I have just completed transcribing the first page to guitar tab and I am very surprised to find it sounds nothing like the versions of Vestopol that is so commonly played. It does not have the same rhythm or melody.
        I would like to find out if the published music sheets really are the right song.

      11. Mind-blowing stuff, Jas. Thanks for such a potent article. Let’s not forget all those Rolling Stones in “Spanish” tuning, either!

        Also, I love how Worrall was from Liverpool.

      12. John Parrott on said:

        Serendipity strikes! A little introduction might help clarify. I am one of the white boys who hung around the delta players in Memphis during the mid-sixties. We started the Memphis Country Blues Festivals in the Overton Park shell in 66 and called ourselves the Memphis Country Blues Society. Bill Barth, Robert Palmer, Nancy Jeffries were a few of the notable names involved. I spent most of my twenties hanging out with the old men who first recorded blues. I was entranced. I knew Son House,Bukka White, Furry Lewis , John Hurt and most of the surviors of the time. I spent a lot of time with Sleepy John; learned piano from Piano Red(John) and was generally drowned in the music and surrounded by people 40 or 50 years older than me. But,alas,my life took different turns and,like Snow White, I drifted.
        So,last week I was playing with my friend Bill, who is still very keen on the blues,and he wanted to go over some country blues lick I know and, out of nowhere, I began telling Bill how the old timers call G-tuning “Spanish’. I remembered how astonished I had been that even the hard-core bluesmen often knew this lyrical European sounding piece called the Spanish Fandango. And they called D-tuning Vestopol(pronounced:vest-toe-pul). It was a mystery that seemed insoluble as all the originals were dead. Even Furry played a rendition of the Fandango. I don’t know if Skip James knew it but, as eerie and otherworldly as his tunes were-he was a genius after all- I wouldn’t be surprized if he did. I recall times when Palmer was writing his blues book and we roamed through our imaginations trying to find a locus for the emergence of ‘The Blues’ and I’m sorry he never got to see this research. A stupendous job and,thank you, thank you for clearing up a perennial question in my secret mind. jon

      13. kjell karlsson on said:

        Thank You very much for a wonderful essay!
        One little detail only concerning “white fingerpickers”:
        You justfully mentioned Sam McGhe and Frank Hutchison.But to my opinion also to be mentioned as being of very high standard, are of course, as already mentioned in Your essay, John Dilleshaw. But furthermore I would include Riley Pucket, JK Sentell and Roy Harvey & Leonard Copeland. And of course there is a mystery about the ethnic origins of Bayless Rose!…Black or White?…No one seems to know for sure…
        And of course my opinion is that all of these here mentioned, together with the bluesmen of the Delta and ragtime pickers of the Piedmonts would eventually lead up the phenomenon of John Fahey!

        chief karlsson

      14. Paul Christopher Worrall on said:

        dear sir or madam i lived in lancashire all my life until moving to the USA when i was 36 years old often when i was a boy i remember faintly my grand farther talking about a grate musician emigrating to America i never herd of Henry Worrall until my 14 yre old daughter brought home his name given to her by her teacher i also play guitar and write music all published i may say i wonder if i am related to this grate man kind regards Paul C Worrall

      15. john akers on said:

        This is fascinating, but I wonder if you are neglecting the importance of Justin Holland, the author of the nineteenth century’s most important guitar methodology, who also transcribed the Spanish Fandango, and as an African American would have been more visibly on the radar of jazz and blues players.

        Also, could the fandango be of North African origin, and therefore more tied to the Arab world’s lute than than obscure African roots suggested?

        I hope this contributes something helpful.


      16. Ron Gordon on said:

        I found a complete Worrall’s guitar tutorial ,(1856), and have had it slightly restored. I’ve learned a few pieces from it, and was amazed to see the open tunings as described above. There’s quite a bit packed into this small volume, ending with a group of songs, with harmonies and the guitar parts! Of course, like any longtime picker, I knew the Fandango, etc. In this early edition, Worrall names this “Violet Waltz”.I’m hoping to record some of the more elegant pieces sometime this year on my 1880 Martin. Best, Ron

      17. Jim Carroll on said:

        I learned both “Spanish Fandango” and “Sebastopol” from John Renbourn’s columns in Guitar Player magazine in the 1990s. Dilleshaw’s version of “Spanish Fandango” seems to be the one Renbourn transcribed. In any event, these are some simple tunes that lend themselves well to bottleneck playing.

      18. Kevin Worrall on said:

        Henry was my Great Great Grandfather. My Grandfather Anton Worrall inherited a lot of his art and written music, nearly all of which was donated to the Kansas museum by his second wife when he died. I did learn at his passing about Henry’s art, because a few pieces found their way to my parents, but it wasn’t until I read this essay that I knew of his musicianship.

        I started playing guitar around the time he died, and have always liked to play in what I learned were open D and open G tunings, my style is definitely jazz/blues oriented, all acoustic, I feel it in my blood even more now.


        Kevin Worrall

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