A Short History of Fiddling

Fiddlers’ conventions or contests like the one described above dated ca.1919, were widely popular in such traditional centers as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. The Atlanta Fiddlers’ Convention was one of the oldest of these events. Although held sporadically from 1885, it did not achieve official status until 1913. Conducted much the same as the convention described above, the 1914 Atlanta convention was highlighted by Fiddling John Carson of Blue Ridge, Georgia.  His recordings ten years later served as the catalyst that began the country music business (Meade 1969:27-30). Burman-Hall (1973:16-17) mentions that “one can imagine the popularity of this event, which drew fiddlers of all ages from an eighty-mile radius to compete in a single division which included straw-beating, clog, and square dance accompanying fiddle tunes.”

By the end of the 19th century, regional fiddling styles had developed in various parts of the country. Cohen (1964:12) says that “although a matter of personal preference and background, a good case can be made for the existence of regional fiddle styles.” Burman-Hall (1973:232-233) found that “the most important variables for style differentiation are those connected with bowings: the combinations of bowing patterns or phrasings, bowing style (Plain, Harmonic, or Drone), occasional special effects and accents, and note rhythms within the bow strokes, all create the regional performance idiom.” She found four geographically-related styles within the southern American folk fiddling tradition: “Blue Ridge Style, a complex of related sub-styles in which all examples follow a line parallel to and east of the Appalachian mountains; Southern Appalachian Style, with examples from West Virginia to Mississippi along the line of the mountain range and west; Ozark Style; and Western Style, principally the tradition of Texas and Oklahoma” (Burman-Hall 1973:232-233). Elsewhere in North America, one could hear other distinct styles of fiddling. The Cajun style of fiddling in Louisiana owes much to French dance tunes as does the French Canadian style. The New England or Northeastern fiddle players have blended Irish and Scottish dance melodies. In Wisconsin one can hear a Scandinavian influence and in Pennsylvania, a German flavor can be found (Calkins n.d.:7,12,14).  All of the above fiddle styles fall under the category of “oldtime fiddling” in the sense that up to the end of the 19th century, fiddle music for dancing was played unaccompanied.

The Western or Texas style of fiddling has become more individualistic than any of the others.  The tune is viewed as raw material, to be changed until it is your own. Thus in modern Texas fiddling, the fiddler develops his own variations on each tune.  In other areas of the country, fiddlers play their traditional tunes in one regional style, i.e. all the fiddlers in each area have about the same bowing techniques.

By 1900, two new instruments had found their way into the Southern mountains: the banjo and the guitar. Cohen (1964:13) says that some musicologists have placed the date of the banjo’s introduction as early as 1880. Seeger points out that:

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the banjo, along with the Negro minstrel music, changed American ballads and instrumental music.

The ballads became more Negroid (lyrically, melodically, and rhythmically) because of the banjo, and the fiddle tunes went through similar changes.  The beginnings of a mountain string band style could be seen (Seeger 1964:23).

Lester Flatt has said, “It used to be that a band was just a fiddle and a banjo.” In the memory of old mountain people, this combination was the main source of dance music.  The banjo would often play the melody along with the fiddle, using either picking or frailing.  It was especially admired if the instruments could sound as one (Cohen 1964:17).

According to Cohen (1964:16), “most mountain people say that there were no guitars around before 1910.” An informant from Oklahoma said that there were no guitars there or in Arkansas until about 1914.  The guitar became popular in the mountains due to Negro influences, Guitar and Mandolin Societies, and mail-order houses. With the guitar, fiddle, and banjo, the instrumentation of the early string band was complete (Seeger 1964:23).

The introduction of the string band music necessitated some changes in fiddling.  With the use of guitars, the emphasis shifted from dance music to the accompaniment of popular and sentimental songs. Cohen (1964:12) points out that “in many instances where the fiddle was used as lead instrument in an old-time string band, the fiddle part flattened out as the melodies were simplified and set by popular tunes from Broadway, and the decorative textures then came from the accompanying banjo and guitar instead.”  The guitar then took over the bass but more importantly, also kept the major rhythms.  As such, the accompaniment to songs became chord oriented rather than linear in ornamentation, as was true of old-time fiddling.  The “string-band” style of “old-timey” music marked the first important departure from traditional old-time fiddling.

In the early 1900s, Fiddling Bob Haines recorded “Arkansas Traveler” on an Edison cylinder, fiddle contests were being held in the South and in Idaho, and string-band music was evolving in Appalachia.  However, as Shelton and Goldblatt (1966:26-27) point out, it was not until the birth of radio in 1920 and the development of disk recordings in 1921, that the music of the country fiddler received more than local recognition.  In 1922, while attending a Confederate Soldiers’ Reunion in Atlanta, Eck Robertson decided to go to New York City and audition for RCA-Victor.  According to Seeger (1964:25), Robertson recorded what is still an “unbeatable Sally Goodin.” As a result of his recordings, Robertson gained a large following of fiddlers. Several old fiddlers have commented that Robertson’s music was of great influence on their own.

California State Old Time Fiddlers – District 6