Bonaparte's Retreat

As played by William Stepp from the Kentucky region

Reel or Breakdown in D

From the Cumberlands Collection

3 files for this tune:

Melody-Only Transcription (PDF)
Full Transcription (PDF)


Field recording of William Stepp (MP3 at


This is certainly the most influential field recording I have ever transcribed, and is perhaps the most influential field recording ever.  Alan Lomax made field recordings of Kentucky fiddler William Stepp in 1937.  This was one of them, somewhat unique among recorded versions of Bonaparte's Retreat because Stepp played it as a fast breakdown rather than a slower march.  The recording was transcribed by Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger's stepmother), and eventually made its way into the hands of composer Aaron Copeland. Copeland proceeded to steal Stepp's melody, using it for the famous Hoedown movement of his Rodeo ballet.  This Hoedown became very famous in the 1990s as the tune used in the beef industry's "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" commercials.

Stepp apparently had a unique way of pronouncing the name Bonaparte.  In the recording, he can be heard saying "This is the Boney Part.  The Boney Part."  Priceless.  More information about this recording can be found here and here.

There are three keys that are essential to achieving the marvelous, distinctive sound in the recording:

  • Tune to DDAD, with the lowest D an octave below the next D.
  • Be very careful of the bowing in the high and low B parts.  In the transcription, the bowing is noted by ties on the drone notes.  It follows a well-defined pattern, 4 2 2, 5 3, 4 2 2.  Being careful of this will let you achieve the pulsing drone that makes Stepp's version special.
  • Play this very fast.

Here is a YouTube video of the Stepp recording:

Here is a video of yours truly playing this:

Here is a YouTube of Copeland's Hoedown (the theme starts around 0:40):

This tune is a member of the following groups:

Bonaparte's Retreat


Dr. Fiddle's Favorite Breakdowns and Reels

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