CHADWELL’S STATION: Fiddling on the Frontier
Chadwell’s Station was both a stop-over on the Wilderness Road for early settlers traveling west through the Cumberland Gap and a defense against Indian attacks along the frontier. Conflicting accounts of its beginning exist, but it is probable that Captain David Chadwell established his station in 1778 about a mile west of present day Ewing and added a tavern in 1785. Another famous station near present day Rose Hill, built in 1775 by Captain Joseph Martin, was evacuated the following year, due to the outbreak of the Cherokee War. In 1783 Martin returned to construct a fort, “Martin’s New Station,” two miles east of Cumberland Gap. Today at Wilderness Road State Park near the Gap, there sits an authentic re-creation of that first Martin’s Station based on a period description. As no description of Chadwell’s Station is known, the sepia representation on the front is the artist’s rendition. (Bryant White)
This collection continues our search for fiddle tunes played on the Eastern Frontier before 1840. Oh for a time machine allowing us to hear the bow strokes of those early fiddlers! But we do have senior source fiddlers found on Library of Congress and many other field recordings available today. By listening to those fiddlers who can trace their tunes and playing styles back to a time before the minstrel stage came to the rural South (Carlin, 86), before the Civil War blended musical traditions from different regions, before our modern sense of timing, pitch and intonation and, of course, before radio, we can get significant clues to how they sounded.
What tunes were played on the frontier? We know that “common” tunes like “Soldiers Joy,” and “Fishers Hornpipe” were mainstays of fiddle repertory since before the Revolution and we can assume many of them were also played on the frontier. Many of these tunes appear in modern recordings of period music alongside classical, minuet, and Celtic tunes, performed by trained musicians. But what seem to be missing in the modern lexicon are collections of “uncommon” tunes played by the common folk in vernacular styles out in the hinterlands. Our primary goal, then, is to explore other sources not commonly consulted.
Our main source is the Hamblen Collection of “tunes, popular during the early 1800s as played by David Russell Hamblen (1809-1893) and his son Williamson (1848-1920) arranged and copied by A Porter Hamblen (1875-1958) son of Williamson.” (Collection, 1) David R was born in Cumberland Gap, Lee County Virginia. The transcriptions were placed in the Library of Congress and “discovered” in the 1980s by Steve Green, then the archivist for the Hutchins Library at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky. This archive, one of the few examples of “fiddle” melodies played on the frontier, includes 38 tunes, 22 of which are played by David R.
We have also included two tunes from the Virginia Reels, an anthology of 40 fiddle tunes collected by George Knauff in eastern Virginia and published in 1839. Arranged for piano forte, many are directly traceable to Celtic antecedents, though the titles were changed. Because of the constant demand for “shifting” up the fiddle neck to higher positions, a feat not required by most old-time tunes, it is likely the keys were changed. This is evidence that the tunes have been altered from their fiddling roots. We might conclude then, that Knauff and his publishers arranged “real fiddle tunes from real fiddlers…so that genteel folks who had pianos in their parlors could play the folk music of the rural communities.” (Blech) Several of the tunes also appear in the Hamblen Collection under different titles.
To complete our collection we added tunes from the Library of Congress recordings of Marcus Martin and the Berea College recordings of Hiram Stamper to help demonstrate some ways of playing in the archaic styles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These fiddlers were born in the late 1800s and their fiddling at times shows some “modern” influences - either their mentors were Civil War era musicians or they learned some fancier tunes from radio and records. But each has a subset of tunes, defined by speed, subject matter, and accompanying story, that suggest roots in the early 1800s, if not before.
Although there is increasingly more evidence of fiddle and banjo interaction at this early time (Gibson), many of these tunes reflect the strong solo fiddle tradition, in that their irregular structure makes accompaniment difficult. This does not mean that Appalachian fiddling was dominated by the isolated fiddler in some dark “holler” back in the mountains madly concocting crooked, haunting, modal melodies. No doubt that did occur, but the early frontier rapidly became a busy place, with an ever increasing influx of settlers, black and white, moving in and through, bringing musicians with different tunes and techniques. Add to this the many opportunities for musical interaction, from corn husking bees to dances and fiddle contests (the first documented one being in 1736 in Hanover County, Virginia) and the absence of recording devices, and the emerging picture is one of constant alteration to the fabric of fiddling. The tradition of Southern fiddling is too varied to make many generalizations, but the following selections show a variety of tune types, from melodic British, to Scotch-Irish with gapped scales and irregular length phrases, to African-American pentatonic scales and repetitive short phrases tailored to banjo accompaniment. These tune types appear throughout the Upper South in different concentrations in each area. (Titon, 19-22)
David R. Hamblen [1809-1893]: David R., of Scotch-Irish descent, learned the violin as a small boy and at 17 traveled to Baltimore to buy a fiddle, which he named “Betty.” Though he could not read notes, he had command of some 800 tunes, the performance of which won him accolades from all who listened. Apprenticed as a shoemaker in his father’s shop, he had little schooling, but was well read and self educated. In 1857 David R and family moved to Brown County, Indiana. In the early years of the Civil War, not wanting to fight against Virginians, he remained neutral. But when one of his oldest sons was drafted, he mortgaged his farm to get money to send his sons away. (Hamblen)
Williamson Hamblen [1846-1920]: His early life is similar to his father’s -- began early, could not read music, knew 700 tunes, playing of “the highest order.” In addition Williamson became a luthier, making about 25 fiddles, one of which can be seen on Garry Harrison’s web page along with more of the family history. Since there are no recordings of either fiddler, we cannot know exactly how they sounded. We know they cross tuned and played in modal keys, conventions consistent with existing recordings of senior source fiddlers from Williamson’s generation and vicinity. It is my guess that David R and his son would not sound out of place among them.
Hiram Stamper [1893–1991]: Stamper’s Scotch-Irish mother joined his English ancestors who moved into Knott County, eastern Kentucky about 1800. He and his wife lived back in a little mountain cove near the town of Hindman. He developed his style by learning from “Civil War veterans with colorful names like Shade (Shadrack) Sloan, Si Terry, ‘Black’ Hiram Bagley, and his own uncle, Daniel Triplett.” He played in contests against older fiddlers Luther Strong and Bev Baker, from whom he also learned. At age 98 he was the last of the “old school of nineteenth century Kentucky mountain fiddlers.” (Greene) Much of that school, at least in eastern Kentucky, consisted of unaccompanied fiddle tunes, which allowed for greater latitude in timing and notation. Hiram fit himself into that style with a heavy pulsating emphasis on the up bow and numerous rhythmic interludes between the melody lines. Other fiddlers included unusual phrasing, but “Hiram was probably the most free form of the fiddlers I knew.” (Greene) He concludes that this was definitely a “stylistic device among many eastern Kentucky fiddlers.”
Marcus Martin [1881-1974]: From Ararat, Macon County, western North Carolina, Martin is as rooted in exact repetitions of melodies as Stamper is to a free form style, including his set of archaic tunes learned from J. Dedrick Harris of Cherokee County Tennessee. Both Stamper and Martin made extensive use of cross tunings; both tuned their fiddles a whole step low. Whether this convention survived from a time when pitch hovered below today’s standard A-440, or simply makes an inferior fiddle sound better, we don’t know. This does give their playing a “dark, mysterious quality which has always been closely associated with the older Appalachian fiddling.” (Berea Archive)
Music’s Purpose: In 1941 Alan Lomax recorded Martin’s tunes and thoughts. In response to the question, “what do you think music is for?” he replied that, “music is for the up-building of people.” And a better answer I’ve never heard. Indeed the hard working, hard living people of Appalachia and the Upper South are elevated and inspired by their musical traditions.