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Vastopol: a little missing link

Published on March 8, 2018.
By Milan Milutinovic.

Vastopol: a little missing link

Open D, or what is sometimes referred to as Vastopol, is a favourite guitar tuning of Blues musicians, especially in the Pre-World War II era. Its second name actually comes from the site of a 19th century Crimean war siege. It’s got an interesting history – and I think it’s a little missing link in the history of the blues.

Let’s go right to the start. There was a famous year long siege that happened in the Crimean War between 1854-1855 in the city of Sevastopol, in Crimea. I don’t know much about military history but Wikipedia amusingly refers to the siege as “One of the classic sieges of all time”.

News of the horrors of the bloody war and its siege reached a music teacher in Ohio, named Henry Worrall. Worrall was teaching at a women’s college and was inspired to compose a song about the war. He called it “Sebastopol: A descriptive fantaisie for the guitar.” (Sevastopol was spelled Sebastopol in English at the time)

Sometime around 1860 he published this song, alongside another one of his compositions called “Spanish Fandango”. Over time these two compositions found widespread popularity, mostly with affluent adult white women, who at the time were the common demographic for guitar players. These women generally played small guitars called Parlor guitars. And so the somewhat classical sounding guitar music they would play is often referred to as Parlor Guitar music.

It’s worth mentioning that this music was more a hobby of the landed gentry from the gilded age, rather than a style played by professional, travelling musicians.

I happened to find a re-enactment of someone playing the Siege of Sebastopol, just as I had always pictured it in my head:

By the 1890’s the popularity of The Siege of Sebastopol and Spanish Fandango (Another Parlor guitar composition of Worrall’s) meant that they had found their way into the guitar lesson books that would accompany most guitars sold in the rural south. These guitars and their accompanying books were being bought by the black sharecroppers of the south who would play guitar as a respite after singing work songs and spirituals in the fields.

The Siege of Sebastopol was in Open D guitar tuning, and because of its immense popularity people began referring to the tuning itself as Vastopol tuning. The same thing happened with Spanish Fandango, which was in Open G – which is why you might hear Open G being called Spanish tuning.

You can hear the evolution of this song from a Parlor guitar piece into something of a country blues instrumental in Elizabeth Cotton’s interpretation.

As a songwriter I’ve always been fascinated by how a song can change through the course of time, when it is touched by different artists in different eras – and how a musical tradition is formed out of another one.

And here is our take on Vastopol, I based our version mostly on Elizabeth Cotton’s.

Because it was a ubiquitous song for most rural blues players, Vastopol ended up as the basis to more than a few blues songs. I’d bet strongly that Robert Wilkins re-worked the instrumental into what became his signature song “Prodigal Son”.

“Prodigal Son” song ended up being covered by The Rolling Stones on Beggar’s Banquet. The flicker of inspiration that came through Henry Worrall’s reading of a newspaper article on the Crimean War in 1855 ended up over a hundred year’s later on one of the most famous rock albums of all time. What a journey.

Parlor guitar music, as I mentioned earlier was generally a hobby and a past time, rather than a “serious” music by professional musicians. It also comes from an era before recorded music. So far the only example I could find of this music being executed authentically, and skillfully, without any blues influence, comes from Lena Hughes’ 1965 album Queen of the Flat Top Guitar.

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