Archive for the ‘folklore’ Category

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.


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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.)

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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?”

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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.

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Here’s a note from the History of Morris County [Kansas]: 1820–1890, by John Maloy (Morris Co. Historical Society, 1981, p. 57), touching on the image of the eccentric fiddler and the prevelance of fiddling in the mid-1800s. I believe the event took place in 1867.

The grasshoppers paid their respects on the 19th day of September at about 4 o’clock P.M., to the great consternation of those who had crops, and more especially to those who had none. A rain followed that night, and next morning the pests were found sticking to every available object. They remained but a short time, doing little or no damage.

This was the time when Sampson Pearson, of blessed memory, and a most ardent drinker, was in town on one of his fortnightly sprees. When the “hoppers” alighted Sampson was sitting in Bernstien’s [sic, probably Bernstein’s] saloon playing his favorite tune, “Rock Island,” on the public fiddle. When the grasshoppers began to rain upon on the earth he swallowed another draft, mounted his nag and hied for home. He was in a tremor of excitement, and when a neighbor accosted him on the way to know why he rode so fast, he stopped long enough to say laconically: “Grasshoppers! Hundreds! Thousands! Millions!! Yes, By the Eternal, Units of them!!

I like the reference to the saloon’s public fiddle – a common feature in the day, sort of a do-it-yourself jukebox. And the great storytelling: grasshoppers from the heavens, an eccentric character drinking and fiddling in the saloon, a flight on horseback acros the prairie, a meeting with a neighbor, a comic utterance.A wonderful little story.

Morris County, Kansas, is home to Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail. The entry was given to me by M. Carolyn Steele, an Oklahoma novelist from Tulsa, who, if memory serves, might be related to the excitable fiddler Pearson in some way.

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Here’s an old Scottish riddle:

Ten teeth withoot a tongue,
It is gueede sport t’ aul’ an young;
Take it oot o’ts yallow fleece
An kittle’t on the belly piece?

Answer: A fiddle.

Okay, I’m a little perplexed by the “ten teeth.” I guess I’m not canny enough. But I did find out that “kittle” means “tickle.”

This comes from Chapter 16 (“Riddles”) of the 1881 book, Notes on The Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, by Walter Gregor. (Source: Internet Sacred Text Archive, “a quiet place in cyberspace devoted to religious tolerance and scholarship,” maintained by John Bruno Hare.

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This story just delights me. It has a lot of resonance for us fiddlers of lowly skill but great aspirations.

It comes from Jim Carroll, a folk music collector who, with Pat Mackenzie, began in the 1970s to record and interview musicians of County Clare, Ireland. They did a lot of documentation around Miltown Malbay, including sessions at the Willie Clancy Summer School.

In a post on The Mudcat Cafe, in a wonderful exchange about one-armed fiddlers, Jim wrote a short aside about “the silent fiddler” of Miltown Malbay from the early days of the Willie Clancy Summer School:

“he would sit in on a session, carefully take the fiddle out of the case, rosin the bow — then sit there throughout the session without playing a note. This went on for a couple of years, when he appeared on the scene with a flute — and didn’t play that either. Everybody was completely nonplussed until they realised that (in those days) all the musicians were given free drinks by the publicans.”
— Jim Carroll

Nice technique!

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