A Short History of Fiddling

The 1920s saw the birth of almost all the variations in country and Western music that have now developed into the multi-million dollar industry in Nashville today. WSB in Atlanta, Georgia, was the first major Southern radio station.  By 1922, there were 90 radio stations in the South.  This same year, Frank Walker, a “collector” or A&R man for Columbia records, went into the South to record rural musicians. He made his first recordings of a fiddler in an old schoolhouse near Atlanta, Georgia.  At first, Columbia did not know what to do with the music.  Finally, they released these recordings in a special “15,000 Series” for distribution largely in the South. A year later, Ralph Peer, an A&R man for Okeh records recorded fiddling John Carson.  This fiddler’s record was one of the first played on WSB, Atlanta (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:26-28,38-42; Seeger 1964:26-27).

In 1924, WLS radio station in Chicago started a weekly barn dance broadcast which became the National Barn Dance in 1926.  Also in 1924, the first singing cowboy, Carl T. Sprague, recorded for Victor. This same year, Otto Gray formed the first cowboy string-band, the Oklahoma Cowboys (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:42,152-156).

In 1925, Union Grove, North Carolina, held its first traditional music contest. This contest for fiddlers and other country musicians has continued annually to the present. Somewhat later, another fiddle contest or festival began in Galex, Virginia, and is still being held there annually. Another event in 1925 of major importance was the beginning of the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. George D. Hay, who got his start with the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago, directed the Opry. On the opening night, Uncle Jimmy Thompson played the fiddle over the radio. Entertainment on the Opry and the WLS Barn Dance was a mixed affair in these early days. Fiddle tunes, songs played by family string band groups, skits of country humorists, gospel and religious songs, and banjo music were all popular with the rural radio audience (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:103-123).

Henry Ford sponsored a series of fiddle contests in 1926: Mr. Ford loved this kind of music and desired to hear it played by the best and most authentic old-time fiddlers available.  In order to attain this desire, he requested all his Ford dealers throughout the East and Midwest to hold local, state and regional contests, to determine who would go to Detroit, Michigan, to play in the finals.  “Uncle Bunt Stephens” from Tennessee was the winner in the finals. His masterpiece was “Old Hen Cackled.” This was for the world championship.  Mr. Ford gave him a new Lincoln car, $1,000 in money, a broadcloth suit of clothes, paid for having his teeth repaired, and entertained him as a house guest for a week (Butler 1973:2).

In 1927, Ralph Peer met and recorded (probably on the same day) Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family in Bristol, Tennessee.  During the few short years until his death of tuberculosis in 1933, Jimmy Rogers, “the singing brakeman,” left a musical legacy that continues today.  His “down and out” music reflected the ethos of a country people soon to be in the throes of the Great Depression.  With Jimmy Rogers, the solitary “star” in rural music was born (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:55-69).

The Carter Family from Blue Ridge County, Virginia, had developed smooth harmonies in their singing and used guitars and autoharp as backup. They followed the string-band tradition of writing new words and using them with old tunes from the mountains (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:73; Cohen 1964:21). In the music of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers, the fiddle is usually absent. Fiddling could still be heard on the radio, but it had clearly taken a secondary place to vocalists by the late 1920s. Then in 1928, Gene Autry (who patterned himself after Roy Rogers) recorded cowboy songs for Victor. A year later, Tex Ritter started the vogue for cowboy songs in New York City. Also in the late 1920s, Bob Wills, a fiddler from Texas, organized his Western swing band. Thus by the 1930s, country music, whose first regional home was in the Southeast, was beginning to be influenced by Western music via Jimmy Rogers. Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana were fulcrums for the development of kindred but different kinds of country music: the singing cowboy and Western swing (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:145,156-158,165,172).

During the Great Depression, the singing cowboy star followed one line of development, fiddle music another. Since country people had no money, record sales fell off drastically and the sale of string-band music recordings came to a close (Seeger 1964:29). Several informants reported that in Oklahoma, the Ozarks, and North Dakota, fiddling for dances was still “big” during the 1930s. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the sale of 3.2% beer was voted in and taverns were started in Oklahoma and elsewhere. Fiddling and square dances moved from schoolrooms and houses into these taverns, where they remained until electricity and the juke box superseded them in the late 1940s.

Western swing, a new development in fiddling, became popular in the late 1930s. As early as 1927, the Serenaders of East Texas had recorded for Columbia. They played mostly popular songs of the time, that is, the swing music or big-band sound, on traditional stringed instruments. They and the other Western swing bands played for all types of rural gatherings, but their main habitat was the dance hall. By 1932, Bob Wills and his Doughboys had recorded for Victor. Wills’ instrument was the fiddle, so this was featured and it gave Western swing its distinctive sound. Wills remained popular until after the Second World War (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:168-175). A number of fiddlers still prefer this music, with its ragtime and jazz influences, to the string-band and old-time types of fiddling.

With no money to buy records, the rural people relied upon radios during the Great Depression. In 1933, the World’s Original WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, began. Other barn dances, patterned after this one and the others in Chicago and Tennessee, sprang up all over the South. However, almost the only music played over the radio was Western or Texas swing and the singing of the cowboy stars (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:50-53).

A picture (photograph) of a fiddlers’ contest at the Pocahontas County Fair, West Virginia ca. 1935, appears in Neely (1967:232) The Agricultural Fair. This picture is similar to Bascom’s description of a fiddlers’ convention quoted earlier. Seven fiddlers are seated in a semi-circle, legs crossed and all appear to be playing music. About 30 people are standing behind them, listening. In the background is a large circus tent. Neely (1967:232) says that local theater productions, art exhibits, and “music by local musical organizations” were important parts of the recreational attractions at fairs in 1935.

Also in 1935, under the aegis of government agencies such as the Resettlement Administration, a number of city-raised musicologists collected songs in the South. Pete Seeger accompanied his father, Charles Seeger, on a field trip to North Carolina and first heard the mountain music that year (Seeger 1972:13). John and Alan Lomax subsequently collected songs throughout the Southeast during the late 1930s.  Most of the music recorded went to the Library of Congress (Seeger 1964:24). One of the by-products of this collecting was the folk music revival emanating from New York City. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and – later in the 1940s – Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman (the Almanac Singers) began singing for city audiences. Their music was based on the mountain string-band music with modern, slick harmony singing. Banjo and guitar were the main instruments. When the folk music craze hit in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the fiddle was absent. Only when Mike Seeger formed the New Lost City Ramblers (with John Cohen and Tom Paley) did the fiddle, in the string-band tradition, began to be played by the “city” folk musicians (Seeger 1972:13-21).

The beginning of the current series of fiddle contests at Weiser, Idaho, was another by-product of folk music collecting in the Southern states. Blaine Stubblefield, raised on fiddling in the Wallowa Valley in Idaho, worked in Washington D.C. before settling in Weiser in 1948. Part of his stay in the Washington D.C. area was spent in Appalachia recording folk music (Weiser Chamber of Commerce 1973:3).

In 1940, Pee Wee King and his band were the first to use an electric guitar on the Grand Old Opry. Greater electrification of instruments in country music quickly followed. Swing fiddling was still popular, but the old-time fiddling for dances all but died out, particularly when people began to migrate to the cities and westward to work in the shipyards at the onset of the Second World War (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:125,128,172-175). Fiddling contests, however, were still being held during the early 1940s. Bayard (1944:xviii) said that “fiddlers are fond of holding contests; in some southwestern Pennsylvania communities, for example, they have held them almost annually, with non-competing traditional players as judges.”

In 1944, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys developed a new string-band format, with unamplified string instruments. Seeger (1964:25) says of Bluegrass that:

It made old-time and mountain music and the 5-string banjo once more a serious thing, and was still dynamic within the established tradition (at least, in the beginning). People began looking to the Blue Grass area, as they had once to old-time music, for the breakdowns and mountain songs (now based on a fiddle, mandolin, and banjo patterns, and with a greater emphasis on singing). (The old-time musical emphasis was on fiddle, sometimes banjo, but singing style did not always get much emphasis in a string band). In a way, Blue Grass also merged the vocal tradition (the older unaccompanied singing) with the instrumental.

In Bluegrass, the 5-string banjo is the lead instrument, with a few solos from mandolin, fiddle, or guitar. The Bluegrass fiddler has developed a stock repertoire of blues and slurred syncopated jazz sounds in his playing (Cohen 1964:12).  Trills, changing keys while playing, and special riffs are among the techniques used in Bluegrass fiddling. They can be added to any melody to spice it up. Bluegrass also has a stepped-up tempo, impossible to dance to. Thus, there is a big difference between it and the old-time fiddling.

By the early 1950s, Western or Texas swing was fading from the country music scene. Bluegrass was only moderately popular in rural areas. Old-time fiddling was next to impossible to find. Square dance clubs were being formed, but dancing was done only to records. Hank Snow and Hank Williams were the big country and Western stars (Shelton and Goldblatt 1966:90,127). Still in the mid-1950s, a few fiddle contests were being held in conjunction with livestock shows in southern California.

In January 1953, Blane Stubblefield, Secretary of the Weiser Chamber of Commerce since 1948, inaugurated the first fiddle contest held there since the First World War. The contest, billed as the Northwest Mountain Fiddlers’ Contest, was held during the intermission of the Fifth Annual Weiser Square Dance Festival. Each succeeding year, the contest grew larger. In 1959, a separate division for Junior (under 18 years of age) fiddlers was introduced. The Senior (over 70 years old) division was begun in 1960. Ladies, Top Accompanist, and other divisions were added later. In 1963, in conjunction with Idaho’s Territorial Centennial Celebration, the name of the Weiser contest was changed to the (present) National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival, held annually during the third week in June. Stubblefield’s purpose in starting this contest was that “he now saw that Bluegrass fiddling was taking over and realized that mountain fiddling would vanish unless efforts were made to interest young people in what he called ‘God’s Music’” (Weiser Chamber of Commerce 1973:3).

California State Old Time Fiddlers – District 6