Fiddle Music Enlivens Symposium

Fiddle Music Enlivens Symposium

Article by  Ann Oppenhimer 

“They said that fiddler Bill Prater could cut down a tree in the morning, make a fiddle from it and be playing on it in the evening,” said John Harrod, musician, high school English teacher and Rhodes scholar from Owenton, Ky. At the Folk Art Society’s symposium, held October 9 at Morehead State University in Kentucky, Harrod began his presentation by playing one of Prater’s fiddle tunes.

“In Northeast Kentucky and particularly in Lewis County, where Charley and Noah Kinney lived, there were a lot of different ways to look at fiddling as an art form, and these fiddlers approached their work as seriously as any other artist,” Harrod said.

Many fiddlers made their own fiddles, sometimes out of strange materials, according to Harrod. Bill Prater sometimes cut up strips of plastic milk jugs to make the purfling, the inlaid border on the face of the fiddle, (“Mother-of-Milk-Jug,” Harrod called it.) “The one he made for me had rhinestones trimming it,” he said. Other musicians made the sound boxes for their fiddles out of cigar boxes. Occasionally a fiddler would use two corn stalks ÷ one stalk for the fiddle and one stalk for the bow. To illustrate this story, Harrod took out his fiddle and played “A Corn Stalk Fiddle and a Shoe String Bow.”

“People say that all fiddle tunes sound alike, but I think classical violinists sound alike. Their bowing sounds a little stiff to me,” he said. “Fiddling is individual, and a fiddler’s rendition, his possession of that tune, is unique.”

Harrod told of his visits to Toller Hollow to listen to and learn the tunes that folk artist and musician Charley Kinney played. “Once when I was playing the fiddle for Charley, I noticed that he was staring at me, and you all know what a discomfiting look he had about him. When I finished playing, he proceeded to play a rendition of my rendition. Charley said he liked to ‘catch a feller’s bow arm.’ ”

Most old-time fiddlers learned to play in this manner ÷ by watching other fiddlers play to see how they did it, Harrod said. He played “Martha Campbell,” a tune which he said he had learned from Asa Martin, who told him, “I got a picture [of the tune] in my mind ÷ you have to see it to know how to do it.” Calling “Martha Campbell” the Kentucky “national anthem,” Harrod pointed out its tricky bowing and syncopated rhythm, characteristics he said probably came from African-American fiddlers.

Early fiddlers practiced with a book under their bow arms to anchor the elbow and force more of the movement toward the forearm and wrist, but each still put his whole body into it, he said.

Harrod pointed out that it takes a lot of leisure time to learn to play the fiddle, and, during the Depression when there was little work to do, the musicians “just sat around and got good.”

The fiddlers had “big, old, meaty hands, but nimble fingers,” and many would say, “I never learned it from nobody; I learned it from myself.”

“But fiddling is a social art ÷ not something you do by yourself. Fiddlers are show-offs. They depend on an audience, and there was usually music around the courthouse steps on a Saturday afternoon,” when musicians would gather after the week’s work on the farms or in the mines.

Before he played “The Yellow Barber,” Harrod pointed out that barbers were usually fiddlers and that people often congregated in barber shops to play and listen.

Another special place where people got together to play was the Kinneys’ barn, near Salt Lick Creek. “There were about five good fiddlers, and they sat around on old car seats and crates. They preferred to hear each other play rather than all play together, so they passed the fiddle around. They relished the individuality,” Harrod said. “Charley would play last because he was the oldest, and somebody would dance on a piece of plywood.” Harrod played “Salt Lick,” an old Lewis County tune that he said sounds more like the fiddling of the North. He said settlers came down the Ohio River Valley, adding German and French influences and not just Scotch-Irish, as is often thought.

Pointing out that some songs had alternative lyrics, a little profane and not for polite company, Harrod listed a few strange titles: “Wild Hog in the Red Brush,” “Rough and Ready” and “Plucking Out the Devil’s Eye” and its companion piece, “We’ll All Go to Heaven When the Devil Goes Blind.”

As Harrod played different tunes, he remarked that every one tells a story. Many were associated with President James Garfield, a fiddle player. Harrod illustrated this by playing “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom.”

Harrod said most fiddlers he has known were generous and were happy to show anyone how to play ÷ except during a competition when they might try to get one another drunk, switch bows secretly or put something on a fiddler’s strings to make them squeak.

Harrod told of a fiddler named Flannery who had dreamed that a bear was chasing him down the mountain while the bear played a tune that the fiddler intended to use the next day in the competition. On hearing the tune, the competing fiddler quit, saying, “I’m beat ÷ I give up.” Harrod closed his program by playing “Flannery’s Dream.”

Alan Jabbour, former director of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, also fiddled during his presentation, a brief history of Appalachian fiddle tunes. Starting with “Old Joe Clark,” a tune he said everyone would recognize, he said, “Like Southern culture in general, traditional music is spreading and occupying more and more of the United States.”

Jabbour said he had learned from many different fiddlers, but spoke fondly of his mentor, Henry Reed: “One or two fiddlers become your models, and you try to emulate them. Henry Reed was my hero.” Many musicians sound like themselves but also like another fiddler, he said. Jabbour said that the Library of Congress will put tapes of Reed’s entire body of work on line on its Web site in the spring.

“When I went to visit people like Henry Reed, I experienced hospitality of the finest sort. Everybody welcomed me, fed me, put me up for the night,” he said. Comparing his experiences with those of Marilyn Mennello whose encounter with folk artist Earl Cunningham changed her life, Jabbour said that Henry Reed changed his life in the same way. He then played “West Virginia Gals.”

Saying that this music was a functional tradition that supported dancing, he noted that it was also art for art’s sake. “People sit around and listen to it, to appreciate it. They are profoundly conscious of the beauty they’re creating.” He said Oscar Wright once said, “It would make your hair stand on end” to hear Henry Reed play.

The music also had a commemorative function, “an artifact that you can always replay in your mind,” and usually is related to an historical or narrative event. Jabbour illustrated this statement by playing “Santa Anna’s Retreat,” from the period of the Spanish-American War. Jabbour noted that it sounded like an Irish air. Jabbour said this seemed to be a strange combination, until it was learned that a large Irish contingent was in the Mexican army in the 1840s. The same musician might play the fife in the military marching band by day and the fiddle for dances on Saturday night.

“Things aren’t done in isolation. The story of the movement and flow of culture is reflected in the history of these fiddle tunes,” Jabbour said. “The fiddle went around the world like culture does.”

Commenting on the historical links between the generations of fiddlers who passed their knowledge down from one musician to another, Jabbour said Henry Reed had learned to play by listening to the great fiddler John Quincy “Quince” Dillion, born in 1810 (“the era of Jacksonian democracy”), who was 90 when Reed was a boy. “Henry Reed was more than 80 years old when he taught tunes to me, a lad in my 20s,” Jabbour said. “So there was only one fiddler between Quince Dillion and me.”

Certain pieces required retuning the fiddle. Jabbour noted that John Harrod had solved this problem by bringing three differently tuned fiddles with him. He said retuning was a widespread practice among 18th-century European court musicians who retuned for songs in different keys.

The old-time fiddlers have kept these traditions, Jabbour said, even though tuning has become standardized in most modern compositions. The old-timers found that the retunings created a different sound, and this became part of the aesthetic. “When you play tunes in a new tuning, you have to learn new finger patterns,” he said. He illustrated this by playing a different version of the same tune.

Jabbour told of visiting and playing with fiddler Burl Hammons. As Jabbour was driving home that evening in a heavy rain with the windshield wipers moving rhymically back and forth, a whole tune popped into his head. He said he played this tune over and over in his mind as he drove along. The next morning, he still vividly remembered the tune and played it, and “When you remember a tune the next morning, you’ve got it!” he said. Years later, when he revisited Hammons and played this tune for him, he asked the fiddler what the name of the tune was. To his surprise, Hammons said he had never heard it before, but he liked it. Jabbour had thought he must have learned it from the older musician. “We still don’t know where that tune came from, but it must have been a gift,” Jabbour said.

Jabbour reminded the audience to think of the times each had visited people like Henry Reed and other musicians. “We have all had these encounters, and our lives are changed when we meet these people. We are part of the cultural process. Our interaction is helping to create it, and we are part of that creativity. We have become part of a larger process that is bigger than any of us as individuals. We have helped it along.”

After this informative and entertaining program, John Harrod and his wife, Jane, and the three other members of the Grey Eagle Band played in concert and for square dancing later in the evening. The internationally famous caller, Leslie T. Auxier, from Frankfort, Ky., led the dancing. Alan Jabbour also joined in the fiddling which gave a real taste of Appalachian mountain music as it was played in the old days and as it is still being played today. FASA members went home tired but happy, with Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia fiddle tunes echoing in their heads.

ANN OPPENHIMER is the Executive Director of the Folk Art Society of America

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top