I once asked famous bluegrass fiddler Leslie Keith about the difference between a violin and a fiddle. “Well, Jim,’ he replied, “you keep a violin in a beautiful tooled leather case, and you tote a fiddle around in an old flour sack.” In other words, same instrument, different social baggage.
Old-time fiddling in the United States has a complicated set of roots. The instrument came from Europe, as did much of the basic repertoire. Settlers from the British Isles, especially Scots Irish, brought their fiddles and their music with them. However, Germans in Pennsylvania and Scandinavians in the Upper Midwest added their specific touches.
And don’t forget African-American fiddlers (this IS Black History Month, after all) who were fiddling for dances in the tidewater South by the late 18th Century. Texas fiddlers learned from their Mexican counterparts. The popular waltz, “Over the Waves,” was composed in Mexico by one Juventino Rosas. And so the American fiddling scene is as complex a patchwork as is any other aspect of our national traditional culture.
I remember being at a fiddle contest in Tucson in the 1970s listening to a Canadian master fiddler play the complex, Irish-influenced tunes of his New Brunswick homeland. Two local fiddlers were sitting near me, and one remarked to the other “I don’t know what that is, but it sure ain’t fiddle music!” It was, of course, but of a style unfamiliar to the listener.
Fiddle styles — how to start discussing them? There are distinctive regional styles: northeastern, midwestern, southern mountain, and Texas all come to mind. However there are always exceptions, and folks do move around. There are swing fiddlers and bluegrass fiddlers. There is even a “contest style” of fiddling, descended mostly from Texas fiddling. And then different skills are needed to keep dancers on the floor, to impress judges at a contest (more of that next blog) and please a seated audience. And so the music changes according to its purpose.
The very names of the tunes are a kind of poetry as well: ‘Soldier’s Joy,” “Possum on a Rail,” “Leather Britches,” Rocky Mountain Goat,” “Cumberland Gap,” and “Devil’s Dream” are a small sample. Some of the tunes even have words that can be hollered out but they are considered tunes rather than songs. And, of course, Every fiddler feels welcome to put his or her own “stuff” into the tune.
Heads Up: The annual Tucson Old Time Fiddle Contest will be held at San Miguel High School on Saturday, February 15. And that’s my next blog.