Everyone’s a Critic

Here’s an unsympathetic portrayal of an old-time fiddler’s contest, from a 1909 article found in the Journal of American Folklore (22:238-250) by Louis Rand Bascom (“Ballads and Songs of Western North Carolina”):

The convention is essentially an affair of the people, and is usually held in a stuffy little schoolhouse, lighted by one or two evil-smelling lamps, and provided with a rude, temporary stage. On this the fifteen fiddlers and “follerers of banjo pickin” sit, their coats and hats hung  conveniently on pegs above their heads, their faces inscrutable.

To all appearances they do not care to whom the prize is awarded, for the winner will undoubtedly treat. Also, they are not bothered by the note taking of zealous judges, as these gentlemen are not appointed until after each contestant has finished his allotted “three pieces.”

To one unused to the mountain tunes, the business of selecting the best player would be unlike telling which snale [sic] has eaten the rhododendron leaf, for execution and techniques differ little with the individual performers, and the same tune, no matter what it may be called, always sounds the same.

It is composed of practically two bars which are repeated over and over again until the fiddler or banjo picker, as the case may be, stops abruptly from sheer fatigue.

Well, but did you enjoy it, Louie?

(The Bascom passage was quoted in a paper titled “A Short History of Fiddling and of the California State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association,” by Kenneth Leivers (1974), with a distinctly more positive look at the Golden State’s fiddling heritage. The Leivers paper can be found on the web as a PDF.)


The characters in Spoon River Anthology (1916), by Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950), deliver their rambling, pickle-barrel-philosopher monologues from the grave. The fictional poetic epitaphs were said to be based to some degree on real people from the two Illinois towns, Petersburg and Lewistown, in which Masters, later a Chicago lawyer, grew up.

One of most famous characters (of all the underground Spoon River philosophers “sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill”) is ne’er-do-well Fiddler Jones:

Fiddler Jones (Poem 60)
THE EARTH keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill – only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle –
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

By the way, the impatient, over-achieving Cooney Potter, referred to above, appeared in the prior poem as the opposite of a fiddler:

Cooney Potter (Poem 59)
I INHERITED forty acres from my Father
And, by working my wife, my two sons and two daughters
From dawn to dusk, I acquired
A thousand acres. But not content,
Wishing to own two thousand acres,
I bustled through the years with axe and plow,
Toiling, denying myself, my wife, my sons, my daughters.
Squire Higbee wrongs me to say
That I died from smoking Red Eagle cigars.
Eating hot pie and gulping coffee
During the scorching hours of harvest time
Brought me here ere I had reached my sixtieth year.

Another departed fiddler of Spoon River, Blind Jack, a poor fellow killed by a brace of drunks after a country fair, finds solace in heaven:

Blind Jack (Poem 74)
I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

Finally, a glimpse of immortality:

Joseph Dixon (Poem 238)
WHO carved this shattered harp on my stone?
I died to you, no doubt. But how many harps and pianos
Wired I and tightened and disentangled for you,
Making them sweet again – with tuning fork or without?
Oh well! A harp leaps out of the ear of a man, you say,
But whence the ear that orders the length of the strings
To a magic of numbers flying before your thought
Through a door that closes against your breathless wonder?
Is there no Ear round the ear of a man, that it senses
Through strings and columns of air the soul of sound?
I thrill as I call it a tuning fork that catches
The waves of mingled music and light from afar,
The antennæ of Thought that listens through utmost space.
Surely the concord that ruled my spirit is proof
Of an Ear that tuned me, able to tune me over
And use me again if I am worthy to use.

A beautiful closing line, don’t you think?

Fireball in the Sky

Edwin “Edden” Hammons was an outstanding West Virginia mountain fiddler (ca. 1874–1955), and an all-around eccentric, moonshiner, and lazy farmer.

I was reading about him on the “Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame” site. (This is a great online resource I mentioned before in a post about Ed Haley. The site is created by David Lynch, fiddler and graphic designer living in North Carolina.)

One tale from the Hammons bio that struck me touched on the superstitions of the fiddle and its complicated relationship to religion (fiddlers shouldn’t play on Sundays, in church, around preachers, etc.).

According to Lynch’s profile (drawn from John A. Cuthbert’s liner notes in the companion booklet to an LP, Edden Hammons Collection, Volume 1), Hammons wasn’t known to be overly religious but as a precaution, generally avoided playing on Sundays. If playing for a dance, his fiddling stopped “when the clock struck midnight on a Saturday evening.”

But then:

One night, the offer of an extra dollar coaxed Edden to turn the other cheek and play an additional after-midnight set. On the trip home, Edden and his companions saw a bright red object streak across the sky and explode in a thunderous roar. Eddon said “I told you fellers not to play for a dance on a Sunday night. Now I don’t care if you give me twenty-five dollars next time, I’ll never play past midnight.”

Here’s another nice touch: Hammons carried his fiddle around in a flour sack (not uncommon to use a handy sack if a case wasn’t available). And he knew how to play that up for good effect. Arriving for a fiddle contest in Elkins, West Virginia, Hammons was mocked for arriving with his fiddle in a sack, and the crowd’s laughter was uncontrolled when Hammons stepped forward to play, took his fiddle out of the sack, and blew a coating of flour off it.

It was a clever set-up, an homage to his hillbilly lifestyle. Edden promptly turned the tables by shouldering the dusty instrument and dazzling the crowd with his immense talent.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda, in a history of Bay View, Wisconsin (the neighborhood of Milwaukee where both John and I live), noted the straight-laced, working-class morality of the village in the 19th century as seen in an ordinance (circa 1880) that levied stiff fines for those proved to be one of the following undesirable types:

any vagrant, mendicant, street beggar, common prostitute, gambler, or moutebank …. any common fiddlers, organ grinders, street musicians, common drunkards, common nightwalkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons in speech, conduct or behavior; common railers or brawlers such as neglect their callings and employment, misspend what they earn, and do not provide for themselves or their families.

Well, my goodness. I must say it’s a nice neighborhood these days. I guess the ordinance did its job and ran most undesirables out of town.  (Just don’t let anyone know a common fiddler has slipped back in.)

Farewell to Whiskey

Niel Gow (spelled “Niel,” not “Neil”) was a famous Scots fiddler of the 1700s. Born in Perthshire, the son of a weaver of plaids, young Niel began on the fiddle at nine, and in 1745, at age 18, won a major competition in Perth. Through his long career, he entertained a series of Dukes of Atholl, for whom he was engaged to play for many social events. Gow’s band often included a second fiddle player, and Niel’s brother Donald on cello.

One story goes that when asked about the long road home after a dance, and perhaps having enjoyed a bit to drink, causing a bit of side-to-side rambling, he said, “it wasna the length of the road he minded, but the breadth o’ it.”

Surely he appreciated whiskey at least a wee bit, as he is the composer of the reel “Farewell to Whiskey” (written to bemoan the failure of the barley crop in 1799).

Known for his snappy bow, he emphasized the upstroke in the staccato strathspey and the spritely reel (Gow is also credited with writing “Mrs. McLeod’s Reel,” a lustrous pearl of the Scottish fiddling repertoire), and his music was said to be “a continuous stream of gorgeous sound, like an organ in full gallop.”)

He lived to be 80. On his tombstone is the great couplet:

Time and Gow are even now;
Gow beat time, now Time’s beat Gow

Check out this bio of Niel Gow from the website of Living Tradition magazine.

There is a new award, sponsored by Fiona Ritchie and others, created to honor his place of honor in the pantheon of great fiddlers. According to the award’s website:

The Niel Gow International Fiddle Composition Award is launched in 2008 to encourage creative fiddle composition. Based in Scotland, it seeks to attract entries from the global village of writers/fiddlers. The melodies composed need not be in the traditional Scottish style (jig, reel, strathspey, air etc), however they should in some way evoke the spirit of Gow and his Highland Perthshire homeland.

Staged as part of the 4th Perthshire Amber Festival, it is hoped that this inaugural Award will mark the beginning of an annual event. Six finalists will be invited to perform their original melodies in Birnam, Perthshire on October 28th. The winner will receive an engraved trophy as well as a cash award of £1000. He or she will also be invited to perform the winning melody at Blair Castle during the following evening’s concert as a guest of Dougie MacLean.

Nice bit o’cash, there. Let’s see, tune is due in a week, by Aug. 31. Drawing on my Scandinavian tradition . . . hmmm . . . “Farewell to Aquavit?”

Fiddle Saves Life!

On the use of the fiddle as a winter survival device on the English moors:

A fiddler returning home from a merry meeting, between Alston and Harwood, in Teesdale, in the stormy night of the 20th. ult. [“ult.” means in the month before the report, so November], took shelter in a low out-house on Alston Moor, which was afterwards so overblown with the snow, that he could not get out, nor did any part of the house appear; and here he must have perished, had not some shepherds, who were seeking their sheep, discovered him by the sound of his fiddle under the snow; his playing on which unquestionably was the means of saving his life.

Source: The Hull Packet, 22 December 1807, and reprinted (according to my notes) in the English Dance & Song magazine (Vol. 42, No. 2), 1980.

From the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), English naval administrator, member of Parliament, and all-around bon vivant. He started his now-famous diary on January 1, 1660, and carried it faithfully through the 1665 Great Plague and the 1666 Great Fire of London, until mid-1669, when his eyesight failed him.

His name, I discover, is pronounced like “peeps.” Who knew?

Anyhow, from this entry, his diary would seem to support the stereotype that for the most part, through the ages, fiddlers were ne’er-do-well bums, but always with a bit of a story to explain why.

Wednesday, May 8, 1661

To-day I received a letter from my uncle, to beg an old fiddle of me for my Cozen Perkin, the miller, whose mill the wind hath lately broke down, and now he hath nothing to live by but fiddling, and he must needs have it against Whitsuntide to play to the country girls; but it vexed me to see how my uncle writes to me, as if he were not able to buy him one. But I intend tomorrow to send him one.

– Samuel Pepys, writing in his private diary