Some Recent Books on Fiddling and Fiddlers

by Stacy Phillips

Books about traditional fiddling written by academics are a recent, and gratifying phenomenon. Here are three concerning American fiddling from the southeast.

"Fiddling Way Out Yonder - The Life and Music of Melvin Wine"
by Drew Beisswenger (Univ. Press of Mississippi - Jackson)

In his old age, Melvin Wine became a primary resource for fiddle tune revivalists partial to the West Virginia style. He became a respected figure at old time festival, contests and music camps. "Fiddling Way Out Yonder" is an outgrowth of Drew Beisswenger's Ph.D. thesis, which is reflected in some of the tables analyzing Wine's licks and the descriptions of performance practices.

Wine's family has lived in Braxton County, West Virginia for generations, a hot bed of traditional Southern fiddling. He fiddled at many dances as a youth. As a family man, he made his living as a coal miner and then farmer. From about 1940-1957 he stopped playing fiddle in public, the cause of which makes for a fascinating part of his story.

There are ten transcriptions of excerpts of Wine performances, but the bulk of the book examines the man and how his music fits into his life and the culture in which he lives.

The copious quotes help develop a sense of the man, and the transcriptions help with his music (though any reader needs to own some of Wine's recordings). However this biography is a welcome sign that traditional fiddling is becoming more central to the study of American culture and is, hopefully, a sign of more such works to come.

"Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes"
by Jeff Todd Titon (University Press of Kentucky - Lexington, KY))

The styles and repertoire of Kentucky fiddlers have become a focus of attention for Southern old time fiddling enthusiasts in the past decade or so.

Jeff Todd Titon, a professor of ethnomusicology at Brown University, has written one of the few hard cover books about traditional American fiddling. And you know that hard cover is a definite badge of prestige in this era of paperbacks.

The bulk of "Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes" consists of transcriptions and detailed discographies of 170 tunes (many with multiple versions) as played by Kentucky fiddlers. Since most of the material has never been commercially available, the enclosed CD is a critical asset. In fact it is one of the best recent fiddle CD's.

Fiddlers covered range from those commercially recorded in the 1920's, to those collected for the Library of Congress in the `30's (like Luther Strong and William Stepp) to the obscure, sought out by Titon with an eye towards discovering rare, local pieces.

There are about thirty pages of text dealing with the social setting and technical aspects of Southern fiddling in general (explained in terms understandable to those unacquainted with the fiddlers' ways) and the Kentucky repertoire in particular. Thumbnail biographies of all the fiddlers whose settings are included.


by Charles Wolfe
(Country Music Foundation and Vanderbilt Univ. Press - Nashville, Tenn)

Charles Wolfe is a pioneer of the study of American old time music. His latest, The Devil's Box. contains short biographical essays about the great names in early commercial fiddling. These influential players came out of the tradition and, for a significant part of their lives, either made their livelihood playing or made a number of recordings. These were the first generation to take advantage of mass media, like Jimmy Thompson whose solo work on radio led to the creation of the Grand Ole Opry, and Eck Robertson, whose 1922 recording of Sally Gooden is the earliest example of what is now called contest fiddling. Then there is Doc Roberts whose repertoire preserved a part of the Afro-American violin tradition that would otherwise have been lost.

Wolfe also writes about the music and times of a couple of trend setters whose approach bridged the gap from 'old time' to the modern sounds of bluegrass and commercial country - Arthur Smith and Bob Wills. Wolfe also establishes Tommy Jackson's place as the main fiddle innovator in the formative days Nashville's modern country sound.

Additionally, space is devoted to the convoluted history of a couple of fiddle standards Black Mountain Rag and Over the Waves.

All these books are strongly recommended.
Stacy Phillips

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