Archive for the ‘old-time music’ Category

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.)


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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 a wonderful image of an old-time kitchen fiddler delivering a dance tune:

[W]e see the old man cross his legs with the old time abandon, and with a bewildering flourish of wrist and elbow the frolicsome old tune comes cantering over the strings like a gamesome colt down a road. . . .

From an online collection of fiddler literature and lore assembled in 2002 by Franco-American fiddler Donna Hébert from Massachusetts, titled The Muse of Joy and Sorrow: Why We Play the Fiddle (quotes, stories, poems, images). This quote is from a piece published in 1882 in the Keene (NH) Sentinel, and discovered and reprinted by Ralph Page, the legendary New England contradance leader from Keene, in his contradance magazine, Northern Junket.

The piece begins:

The old fiddler! What has become of him? The dear old-fashioned fiddler of our boyhood, who occupied the one chair in our kitchen, and beat such heavy time to his music on the bare oak floor.

Ah! What a whole-soled thing his foot was! No dainty and inaudible pulsation of the toe, but a genuine, flat-footed “stomp,” whose boisterous palpitations, heard high above the rhythmic patter of the dancers feet, jarred and jingled the little eight-by-ten window panes at his back and thrilled every chine on the “cubbard” shelves.

Even back in 1882, it seems, the fiddler was seen as a nostalgic and fading character, so unlikely to survive into the “modern” era.

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I was reading through some bios of well-known Appalachian fiddlers in an “Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame,” a great collection of info maintained online by David Lynch, a fiddler and graphic designer now living in North Carolina.

One of the fiddlers is Ed Haley. In a citation (gleaned from liner notes for a Rounder Records CD), he notes that James Edward “Ed” Haley (1883–1951), born in Logan County, West Virginia, was a blind fiddler who made the rounds of fiddle contests and small towns in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Haley was often accompanied by his wife Martha, who was also blind and played mandolin. Clark Kessinger and J.P Fraley both spoke highly of Ed Haley as an outstanding fiddler.

The notes also state that:

One old-timer, after hearing Haley play “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” declared that “if two armies could come together and hear him play that music, they’d kill themselves in piles.”

(. . . I think people may well have said something similar about me after listening to my fiddling, but for slightly different reasons.)

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Great line from a autobiography of a Texas Panhandle fiddler, Cowboy Fiddler in Bob Wills’ Band, by Frankie McWhorter, with John R. Erickson, editor (University of North Texas Press, 1997)

“I told Daddy I’d bought me a fiddle. He said, ‘The heck you did. I thought we either needed to grease that windmill or there was a hog hung under the gate.’”

Editor Erickson (also author of the Hank the Cowdog comic mystery series for young readers) said about McWhorter, a working rancher: “He could cowboy all day and play the fiddle all night.”

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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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