Arts, Culture & Media

Find the geographic link between the Crimean War and blues guitar?


Siege of Sevastopol (Crimean War) by Franz Roubaud


Wikipedia Commons

There's an instrumental song played by the legendary blues guitarist and singer Elizabeth Cotten, that has intrigued guitarists for more than 150 years. 

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Cotten was a self-taught, inventive, left-handed guitarist from North Carolina. Her most famous and beloved tune is called "Freight Train."

She was discovered by Alan Lomax in 1968, but that's another story.

On her tune called "Vastopol," Cotten played her Martin acoustic guitar in a special "open" tuning. That tuning  (six strings tuned: DADF#AD) is often called the Vastopol tuning.

That's a geographical reference to the Crimean War that was fought in the mid 19th century.

The war was raging right around the time that the Victorian parlor style of guitar music was first becoming popular in America.

So any idea what or where where Vastopol tuning is specifically named after? If you need it, here's one more clue.

It's a port city on the Black Sea -- and not just any port -- it was home to the Russian Tsar's mighty Black Sea Fleet which threatened the Mediterranean.

Well without further ado, the tune, and more to the point, the tuning called Vastopol comes from Sevastopol ... as in the Crimean port city of Sebastopol.

There's a cool article tracing the historical link between the Crimean war, and blues guitar by Alex Zaitchick in the online magazine SALON.

“A lot of people remember [the Crimean War] as the first war to be reported by photograph and telegraph,” said Zaitchik, “and people all over the world including the United States were following it closely for this reason." (The World spoke to Zaitchik. Take a listen here.)

One of the guys following the conflict, says Zaitchik, was an Ohio music teacher named Henry Worrall. He taught guitar at a woman’s college. And in 1884 toward the end of the conflict he wrote a song that he called "Sebastopol: Descriptive Fantasie"

It was published in separate versions for piano, banjo, and guitar. The Kansas Historical Society has an original copy.

The musical arrangement that Worrall came up with plays with harmonics and bugle like effects in places to evoke stirring sounds of battle during the Siege of Sebastopol.

The Siege of Sevastopol went on from September 1854 until September 1855.  It's described as a classic military siege that marked the climactic end of the Crimean War.

Over time, it left its mark on painters, composers, and blues musicians.

Additional files


A descriptive fantaisie for the guitar, by Henry Worrall


The Kansas Historical Foundation