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.

California State Old Time Fiddlers – District 6