When I read Alan Jabbour's lecture, "Fiddle Tunes of the Frontier," I got my first sense that it might be possible to know what early fiddling in the Upper South sounded like. His lifetime study of this tradition has led him to posit some sound theories.
First, the Appalachian fiddle tradition is more than a remake of British Isles tunes. One collection entitled Virginia Reels published in 1839, many of which are of purely Virginia vintage, "suggeststhet there was a well established fiddle traditionin the Upper South, with its own characteristic repertory and tune contours, by the early 19th century," before the rise in popularity of the Minstrel stage. (Jabbour)
Second, that the explanation for heavy bowing syncopation (not found in the North) among old Southern fiddlers whom he had recorded lay in the structure of African American music. Black fiddle and banjo players infused their tunes with syncopated rhythms. The historical record is not silent on the Black fiddle tradition. "Many runaway slaves advertised in the Virginia Gazette between 1738 and 1779 were identified as fiddlers." (Milnes)
In 1774 traveler Nicholas Cresswell found himself at a barbaque where "A great number of young people met together with the fiddle and banjo played by two Negroes." (Conway) We know from historical accounts that during the Early Republic, Blacks and Whites were playing the fiddle in the Upper South together and in each other's presence. (Jabbour)
Third, the large majority of British Isles tunes consist of two strains; typically the A-part begins low while the B-part plays the higher pitch. But the contour of the tunes from the Upper South that have two strains is overwhelmingly the opposite. Jabbour suggests that "American Indian music of the Eastern Woodlanss...favors a descending tune contour," and while this idea may be tenuous, "no other cultural influence is in sight that can account forthe thousands of fiddle tunes of the Upper South that...start at the top and cascade down."
Another major influence is the large number of German immigrants into the Upper South bringing their fiddle traditions, including the popular use of "scordatura," or cross tunings. Several sources point to the 17th century composer, Heinrich von Biber, who wrote many pieces in various scordatura and brought existing folk trends to the classical stage. (Brose) This idea should not overshadow the Scotch-Irish cross tunings meant to imitate the bagpipe.
So, how can we know the sounds of those early fiddlers? Jabbour recorded old fiddlers, many of whom could trace an ancestry of fiddlers back into antiquity. Others learned from senior fiddlers who had learned from their mentors. By listening to extant recordings of fiddlers who can trace their tunes and styles of playing back to a time before minstrelsy, before radio, before modern notions of timing, we can come close to hearing the echoes of a nearly forgotten form of music that is truly American. Following are some of the source fiddlers for this project and some of their early fiddling influences.
Henry Reed (1884-1968) This source for “frontier fiddle tunes” from Glen Lyn, Virginia was recorded by Alan Jabbour in 1966/67. Among a “bewildering variety” of tunes Reed played were many from the Piedmont of East Virginia that migrated with the settlers in the late 18th century, and a subset of fife tunes he learned from Quincy Dillon, a fifer in the Mexican War.
Emmett Lundy (1864-1953) Emmett’s ancestors emigrated from England in 1687 and his great-grandfather, John, settled in Grayson Co, Virginia in 1787. Although there may have been fiddlers in the family, Emmett’s main mentor was Greenberry Leonard; born in the first decades of 1800’s; married in 1833; acknowledged by local fiddlers as the “best there was.” In 1941 Elizabeth and Alan Lomax interviewed and recorded Lundy for the Library of Congress.
Edden Hammons (1874-1955) Edwin Hammons emigrated from Belfast before the American Revolution and at some point, according to family oral history, settled in the “canebrakes.” This may be a reference to the (then) new western frontier of Kan-tuc-kee, an early Shawnee reference to millions of acres of canelands. The family moved around, arriving in 1847 at the Big Sandy/Tug River Valley in Western Virginia, eventually settling in the wilderness of Webster Co., West Virginia after the Civil War. Jabbour edited the 1947 Louis Chappell recordings of Edden Hammons for the Library of Congress. Edden learned much of his repertory from his father, Jesse (1833 – c.1880). A nephew of Edden, Burl Hammons (1908-1993), [two of his settings we have used here] continued the tradition, as have several other family fiddlers.
Melvin Wine (1909-2003) George Wine (c.1770-1860/70), Melvin’s great-great grandfather of German descent, moved to Braxton Co., then Virginia, before 1840. Melvin’s fiddle ancestry was mainly his father, Bob (1877-1953); and great-grand father, Smitty (1829-1909). Two extra-family influences were Jack McElwain, John Cogar (c.1830-c.1925).
Jack McElwain (1856-1938) We know of no recordings of McElwain’s fiddling. I mention him because Melvin Wine, Bob Wine, Edden Hammons, and Ed Haley, among many others, all made pilgrimages to his home in Webster Co. He won the fiddle contest at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. “Boy he could fiddle,” said one admirer. “I don’t know how he’d do it, but he’d cross his legs and both feet set right on the floor.” (Milnes)
John Salyer (1882-1952) He grew up a farmer in Magoffin Co., eastern Kentucky with a fiddling father and several older fiddlers from whom he learned tunes, including Jeff Gibson, a part Cherokee born in 1844. In 1933 he and his sons played on a train bound for the Chicago Worlds Fair. Upon returning home, a record company scout approached John with what he considered an unfair deal. Get up Kate,” he said to his horse. “We can make more money plowing than we can playing the fiddle.” (Greene) He never did record commercially. Fortunately his son, Grover, bought a portable recording machine in 1941 and preserved his fiddling for posterity with the stipulation that the family never use his recordings for profit.
Ed Haley (1883-1954) Not much is known about his early life in Logan Co., West Virginia. At age three he contracted measles, which left him blind for life. His father, also a fiddler, was killed in 1889 and young Ed, carrying on the fiddle tradition, learned from other area players. One distinctive feature of his playing was his command of a broad range of styles, from old pieces like “Lost Indian” to sophisticated rags and schottisches. Because he distrusted folklorists and commercial recorders, it was left to Ed’s son, Ralph, in 1946/47 to record him on a home disc recorder.
Our Mission Statement: Aside from the few written accounts of fiddle and banjo being played together, a large part of their respective traditions evolved separately until sometime between the beginning of the minstrel era and the Civil War. Many of the fiddle tunes on this project were originally meant for solo fiddle. Also, it is common knowledge that the guitar was not a part of Old Time Music until the 1920’s. However, we have put these instruments together in various combinations because it adds variety for the listener and is fun for us; it is what we do. Rather than attempt to be period correct in our rendition of each tune, we choose to offer settings which meld the flavor of vintage tunes with the instrumentation of the late 19th century to create a unique opportunity to enjoy fiddling from early frontier America.