A Short History of Fiddling

A Short History of Fiddling and of the California State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association

Written by: Kenneth Leivers
Spring of 1974

Retyped for posting on the Internet by
Ernest C. Yoes of District 7

Traditional fiddling had its reportorial and stylistic roots in the British Isles in the 18th century.  The cultural milieu of that era generated a new type of instrumental tune based on British folk melodies and the new musical influence of the Baroque violin. Thousands of tunes built on these models continued to be played in the 20th century by folk fiddlers (Jabbour 1971:1).

There are only scattered references to fiddle playing in early American history. Thomas Jefferson played the fiddle.  Davy Crockett, in his autobiography, mentions that he enjoyed fiddling. Andrew Jackson, when he was President, frequently had fiddlers play for dances in the White House.  Southern plantation owners had their slaves learn fiddling to play for white dances.  The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-06) included three fiddlers: Lewis’ slave, a Frenchman, and an American trapper (Calkins n.d.:3).  The westward movement of settlers in the 1700 and 1800s spread fiddling outward from the Appalachians (Burman-Hall 1973:8-13; Calkins n.d.:12-14).

The pioneer fiddler by himself or with his fiddling friends played for a wide variety of community activities: “Barn raisings, husking bees, weddings, entertainments, shivarees, wakes, and almost every other social function required the presence of the fiddler and his beloved instrument” (DeRyke 1964:181). A day’s work over, “there was usually a meal for the workers, eventually followed by dancing accompanied on the fiddle, with singing and merry-making continuing frequently until dawn” (Burman-Hall 1973:22). Perhaps the Friday or Saturday night dance is the best remembered of all rural social events.

In southwestern Saskatchewan, the dance was held in the old schoolhouse, beginning about 8:30 PM and followed at midnight with a great lunch. Desks were piled in tiers along the wall to clear the floor for dancing and the teacher’s desk often served as the fiddler’s stage. Coal oil lanterns illuminated the schoolhouse as dancers swirled to the music.  A fiddler might be hired for the night at $2.00 but anyone who could play would take a turn at the fiddle. The floor manager called out the dancers and called the changes in the square dances.  The schoolhouse dance was attended by the whole family and children were laid on desk tops when they fell asleep. It was morning before most of the dancers went home (Horner n.d.:1).  The foregoing was typical not only of Saskatchewan, but of most early American country dances from the “fair dodos” of Cajun Louisiana to the “house parties” of Texas and Missouri (Burman-Hall 1973:15).

A second type of communal event was the fiddler’s contest or convention. Shelton and Goldblatt (1966:25) said that “fiddling conventions and contests have been an institution in this country since the 1880s.”  Bascom (1909:238), with feigned insensitivity, describes a turn of the century “Fiddlers’ Convention” as follows:

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 three 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 not unlike telling which snail 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. The first effect is like one of the strange tom tidi tom noises heard on a midway, but after a few unprejudiced moments of attention, melody, stirring, full of pathos, rich with suggestion, emerges from the monotonous din.  Strangely enough, no matter how sad the words and music may be, they are always rendered as rapidly as is compatible with the skill of the musician, and without inflection.  The tunes are played at all of the dances, whistled and sung by the men and boys everywhere.

11 thoughts on “A Short History of Fiddling”

  1. This article is very interesting to me since some of my ancestors and other acquaintances are mentioned. I am the grandson of Mac O’Neal. Al and Nellie O’Neal were Mac’s brother and sister in-law. That generation of the O’Neal family was all about old-time fiddling. At family gatherings, the guitars and fiddles would invariably come out, and anyone present who could play an instrument was welcomed to play a tune or two. My interest here was sparked by my mother recently giving me two of the record albums cut by groups of the local fiddlers in the 1970’s. I have since transferred them to MP3 files to burn CD’s for my kids.

    The “Sacramento Fiddlers” album was from about 1970 and features my aunt Nellie O’Neal on guitar Frank Gunn and Delbert McGrath on fiddles, Roscoe Keithly on guitar and Gary Gunn on bass. Mike Bibby is the featured fiddler on two tracks. The second album is titled “California Champs 1974”.

    Mac O’Neal taught me to play guitar and “second” for him for a few years until his death in 1972. Playing these albums brought back a flood of memories of the songs we played.

    Of the old time fiddlers of the day that came to our homes and family functions, Frank Gunn was my favorite; his rendition of the Kelly Waltz on the Sacramento Fiddlers album is just beautiful. As I remember back some 40-odd years, he could really make that fiddle “talk” on the Orange Blossom Special.

    1. My name is Jerry Anglin My family has been in the CSOTFA since it began in Paradise Ca. My family was one of those from Oroville not mentioned in the article I was probably the youngest fiddler at the time and I could barely play just make noise on a couple of strings there is a news paper article with me and my fiddle with Grant Spangenberg he was 80 and I was 5 the club was originally called “The California poppies” and everyone wore white shirts with a poppy painted on front I still have my tiny shirt .My Grandfathers name was Fred Wilson Anglin 1918-1977 he played guitar usually accompanying My Father Ronald Wilson Anglin who just passed away days ago 1940-2016 he played fiddle for over 50 years and won the senior division State Championship 3 times I knew Frank Knight as a kid he played Bag Pipes a lot and we went to each others homes for jams also missing from this article is Ray Giles who was present at the beginning he played fiddle. I am still a musician a guitarist playing Rock,Blues etc. but I lived the CSOTFA growing up and know it’s history well we also hung out with Floyd Chilton who was not only a Great Fiddler of the time but made fiddles he made my fathers first fiddle that he really played sounded rough because it was made from Oak and my dad stained it Red! my dad Ron and Mom Carol were given Life Memberships in the Club. and I hope eventually articles such as this will include our family because we were truly part of the clubs history thank you! ……. Jerry Anglin

    2. My grandparents were Algy and Nellie O’Neal. So many memories from all the family gathering. This is a great article about the Fiddler associations and the contest. Went to many of these events. So many of are family are gone now and miss the jam sessions. My name is Debbie Walker my mom and Bud and Jimmie.

  2. I am Marilyn Cunningham and would love to hear from anyone who has recordings of our jam sessions from the 60’s or early 70’s. If anyone responds to this request I will let them know how to contact me.
    My grandfather was Fiddlin’ Van Cunningham, father was Jack, and sister Vicki played the piano. We played often with Scottie Ward, Delbert McGrath, Nellie O’ Neal, Mr. Mosier, and many others. It was great fun. I probably was most well known for my rendition of Mockingbird.

    1. Hi Marilyn, I would try to connect with Bob Snyder for anything like that. Not exactly sure how you get in touch with him but you might try looking for Adrienne Jacoby and or Tex Ash on Facebook.

    2. I met your grandfather sometime in the 60s.He was playing at my grandfathers house in Weldon ca.I remember he used some bands on his fingers.My grandfather was Red Williams .I have a casette recording of them from the 70 s.
      Michael williams

  3. I’m looking for Billy Warwick of grants pass Oregon if someone could help me locate him l would be greatfull as I am a friend from the past from Santa Rosa cal.
    Thank you 707-953-4913 Mark Heald

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