Like a butterfly, the small and light violin came to America with early colonists. It went from musical culture to culture, and it carried their elements like pollen. Circuit-riding preachers, peddlers and schoolteachers all spread their tunes and styles to the most isolated areas. Even in the deepest rural hamlet, a fiddler was never alone. Then these sounds were amplified by talking machines and radio to become powerful agents of change in disparate musical styles. Lately they have reappeared as popular music with the success of the film O Brother Were Art Thou and its traditional music soundtrack. Modern fiddlers Mark O’Connor and Alison Krauss help tell the story with music by them Eck Robertson, and others.

Segment production: David C. Barnett and Jesse Boggs

Sound Clips

Audio - Merle Haggard describes the fiddle's role in the development of music for house dances.

Audio - In the course of discussing the revival of interest in traditional American music, fiddler Mark O'Connor noted that some old timers were suspicious of Alison Krauss when she first came on the scene. Krauss was surprised to hear this, but upon reflection, she finds it understandable. She spoke with producer David C. Barnett.

Audio - Johnny Gimble talks about his early influences and sources of inspiration.

Audio - Johnny Gimble remembers how one important record taught him to use the "diminished run" in his playing.

Audio - Johnny Gimble talks about the declining importance of dynamics in contemporary music.

Listen to program 9
The Coen brothers quirky film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was rich with music of the Depression-era South. The soundtrack album stunned the music industry, selling millions of records and earning five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, with its mix of bluegrass, blues and old-time country fiddle tunes. For many, the fiddle is the quintessential instrument of rural country music. Small and easy to carry, it came to America with the early colonists and successive waves of immigrants and has helped define a wide range of country music, including old-time, bluegrass, Cajun, and western swing. It's likely that even the earliest rural southern fiddlers rarely, if ever, lived in total isolation: Circuit riding preachers, peddlers, and school teachers all left their marks, bringing new ideas and new technology to the most isolated pockets of rural culture. Radio and the early "talking machines" may have been the most powerful agents of change in the musical styles and tastes of early southern fiddlers, and have played a significant role in defining country music ever since. 

Humanities Themes:

The fiddle is a highly portable instrument. What sort of cross-pollination took place as southern pioneers and laborers traveled with their fiddles from East to West, South to North, rural to urban settings?

What was the role of fiddle music in the early rural South? How did modernization and commercialization, especially radio and the recording industry of the 1920–'30s, affect that role and the playing styles of rural fiddlers?

What were the forces – social, technological, historical – that brought disparate styles of fiddling together?

What was the effect of so-called "race" records carried into the mountains in the 1920's? Did music form a bridge between classes, races, cultures?

Who were some of the most innovative and/or influential fiddlers in early country music, and what most influenced their own playing? Do we still hear their influence in fiddlers of today?

Possible Storylines: 

In The Beginning... 

In 1922 Eck Robertson, an unknown fiddler from Vernon, Texas, showed up at the New York offices of the Victor Talking Machine Company and announced he was there to make a record.  

Eck Robertson: "You couldn't fool that man was running the shop in the Victor office...But then he come at me, he just come into the room in a hurry with a long piece of paper with names on it. He done that on purpose, you see, thought he'd get rid of me just like he had all the rest of them. He said 'Young man, get your fiddle out and start off on a tune.' Said 'I can tell that quick whether I can use you or not.' Well, I said back to him just as honest as I could 'Mister, I come a long ways to get an audition with you. Maybe I better wait and come back another time. You seem like you're in an awful hurry.' 'No,' he said, 'Just start off a tune...' Well, I didn't get to play half of Sallie Gooden; he just throwed up his hands and stopped me. Said, 'By Ned, that's fine!' And just smiled, you know. Said, 'Come back in the morning at nine o'clock and we'll make a test record.'"

Although hearing recordings like this ("Sallie Gooden") on the early "talking machines" may have seemed like magic at the time, Eck Robertson's fiddling didn't come out of thin air, but grew out of a long and complex tradition, and Robertson was instrumental in popularizing Texas-style contest fiddling, influencing generations to come. As Bill Malone, noted historian and author of Country Music, USA, points out, for some "Sallie Gooden" rings with the drones of Celtic bagpipes, while others hear only imaginative improvisations growing out of Robertson's American experiences. The earliest fiddle styles may have been primarily British, but Malone argues that British folk tunes and folk culture didn't survive intact for long in the southern wilderness. Native Americans, French, Germans, Creoles, and the Africans brought as slaves to America, all contributed to the sounds of even the earliest American fiddling. And while many people may think of country fiddle as the domain of "white" people, another current runs deep and wide through nearly all southern fiddling, and it springs from the vibrant musical heritage of African slaves and their descendants.  

African-American Influences

What are the key stylistic elements of the early black fiddle tradition? Where do we hear these influences in more "mainstream" old-time, bluegrass, Cajun and western swing fiddling? What can we learn by comparing the fiddling of Mellie Dunham or Henry Reed with that of an African-American such as John Lusk or Will Adams. Folklorist Stu Jamieson said of recording (the black old-time string band) Gribble, Lusk, and York in 1946: "I was thunderstruck. We had never heard music like that, nor anything approaching it." 

Doc Roberts, from Madison County, Kentucky, was one of the most recorded fiddlers of his day, cutting over 80 sides for Paramount, Gennett, and ARC in the 1920ss and '30s. What is known of Owen Walker, described by record producer Richard Nevins as Roberts' "main stylistic influence ... a renowned black fiddler born in 1857, who taught [Roberts] most of his tunes?"

In addition to the black fiddle tradition exemplified by John Lusk, Frank Patterson, Will Adams, and others, two other streams of African-American music made obvious contributions to country music. Archival tapes of Bill Monroe and Bob Wills and interviews with authors such as Charles Wolfe, Bill Malone, and Charles Townsend will help us understand the influence of jazz and the blues on southern fiddling, particularly bluegrass and western swing. 

Music As Cultural Bridge?

Long before records or radio, the musical styles of different races, classes, and cultures were "rubbing shoulders." As Bill Malone writes, "Anywhere that blacks and whites mingled in the United States, in field, factory or mine, on railroad section gangs, in juke joints or taverns, at camp meetings or in church, at county fairs or on street corners, the potential existed for mutual cultural transmission." What was the musical contribution of the black laborers who "followed the highways and railroads as they inched their way up the Appalachian Ridges?" Did some early rural fiddlers also share a "culture of poverty" that offered common ground for musical exchange?  

One of the giants of Cajun music was Dennis McGee, who recorded prolifically in 1929 and 1930, and later in the 1970s. McGee's long and fruitful association with black accordionist AmEdEe Ardoin is well-documented. Author Ann Savoy and folklorist Will Spires, among others, have extensive audio recordings of Dennis McGee talking about his life, his music and his long musical and personal friendship with Ardoin. But the story of Ardoin's brutal beating (by some whites who had seen him accept the offer of a white woman's handkerchief to wipe his face at a dance) highlights the dangers of racial intolerance, what Savoy calls "a common social disease of the day."

While he made dozens of commercial recordings, McGee was a fiddler whose style was little influenced by radio or records. As Spires writes in his illuminating notes for the Yazoo CD, The Complete Early Recordings of Dennis McGee, 1929-1930, McGee "had learned most of his repertoire before he ever saw a phonograph and before the radio was invented." McGee once told him, "I play French! I play tunes plain! I don't mix them up with nothing." Spires notes that "McGee referred of course, to the waves of popular music that reached the prairies in the form of recordings and broadcasts." And reach the prairies they did. How did the sounds of swing, rhythm and blues, string bands and steel guitars change Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco music? What has become of the different tunings used to such great effect by McGee and by other fiddlers of his and previous generations throughout the South?  

The First Country "Star"

If Eck Robertson was the first fiddler to record commercially, Fiddlin' John Carson was the first with a real country "hit," with his 1923 recording of "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow." His Georgia fiddling is worlds away from Robertson's, and reflects different influences. Okeh Records' chief A&R man, Ralph Peer, called Carson's singing "pluperfect awful," but he soon discovered that there was an audience for what they were calling "hill country" or "old-time" music. Charles Wolfe tells the story in his recent book, Classic Country: Legends of Country Music, and estimates that Carson's first disc may have sold as many as 100,000 copies. How did this success affect Carson's music and the music of the thousands of fiddlers who heard him?  

Lure of the Big Stage

While many brilliant fiddlers like John Salyer and Ed Haley (the source for John Hartford's "Man Of Constant Sorrow" in O Brother, Where Art Thou), were distrustful of record producers and had little interest in traveling to the big city to record or perform on the radio, others found the lure of a larger audience irresistible. One such fiddler was Uncle Jimmy Thompson, generally regarded as the "father" of the Grand Ole Opry. In Charles Wolfe's book, The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling, Katherine Thompson speaks about her then 77-year-old father-in-law's disastrous first recording in 1925 and his subsequent appearance on radio station WSM (home of the Opry). Broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee, WSM had a powerful signal that could be heard across North America and indeed, throughout much of the world, and within a month of his first broadcast, Uncle Jimmy Thompson was literally world-famous. 

One of the most famous fiddle bands of the 1920s was Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers (a studio group put together by Columbia A&R man Frank Walker) who seldom played on the radio, instead relying almost exclusively on record sales and personal appearances. The band featured an unprecedented three fiddlers, with two playing (mostly) in unison and the third adding a low harmony. Their first release sold well over 200,000 copies, making it one of the best-selling fiddle band records of its time, and many more successes followed. In 1928, lead fiddler Clayton McMichen's friend and mentor, Lowe Stokes, joined the group on lead fiddle and brought with him clean, articulate phrasing and superb tone, the result of the smooth, long-bow style he had perfected (and taught to McMichen years before). Charles Wolfe writes that "Often Stokes used a mute on his bridge to better match McMichen's sound; [Stokes] also said that this idea of [McMichen playing a close harmony to the individual notes of the melody] came from his listening to jazz fiddler Joe Venuti, who was then in his heyday." The group's last batch of recordings brought back fiddler Bert Layne and featured "an exciting three-fiddle (McMichen, Stokes, Layne) sound that would not be duplicated again until Bill Monroe's experiments with it in the mid-1950s."

Rise of the Long Bow

Besides Stokes, other influential fiddlers of that era in the smooth, long-bow style were Clark Kessinger (a "fiddler's fiddler" who would influence countless fiddlers of his own and successive generations), Tommy Magness (who played with some of the biggest stars of his time: Roy Hall, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff) and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith who, according to Charles Wolfe, was "in a very real sense ... one of the first 'modern' fiddlers. His 1935 recordings bore very little relationship to the fiddle music that had preceded them on record." According to another legendary fiddler, Howdy Forrester, much of the key was in Smith's left hand: "He did a lot of accents with his fingers where the rest of us at that time–Clayton McMichen, myself and others–we did it with more bow work." Smith's fiddling had a profound effect on many fiddlers in the Southeast. Fred Cockerham of the Camp Creek Boys emulated him and later competed against him, and echoes of Smith (and Magness) are heard today in the stylings of countless fiddlers, including National Heritage Award winner Benton Flippen.

Potential Interviews:

Mike Seeger–Musician, folklorist, and record producer with broad personal knowledge and a vast collection of archival audio tapes.

Charles Wolfe–Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University and the author of numerous books on traditional folk and popular American musical genres.

Bill Malone–Musician and professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans and the author of several books on country music.

Stuart Jamieson–Folklorist who recorded John Lusk, et al. in 1946.

Joe Thompson–Contemporary older African-American fiddler.

Earl White–Contemporary younger African-American old-time fiddler and a founding member of the Green Grass Cloggers.

Joyce Cauthen–Musician, folklorist, and author whose book is filled with interviews and the first-hand accounts of old-time fiddlers in Alabama.

Paul Sutphin–Musician and National Heritage Award winner, who can speak personally on the effect of mass media, Arthur Smith's influence, and the role of the fiddle in the rural South.

Benton Flippen– Musician and National Heritage Award winner.

Ann Savoy–Musician and author on Cajun music; lives in rural Louisiana with her husband

Marc Savoy
, Cajun accordion player and builder who also plays Cajun fiddle.

Will Spires–Fiddler and folklorist who studied with Dennis McGee over a 10-year period and has 45 hours of McGee field recordings, both music and interviews.

Barry Ancelet–Cajun Fiddle (Louisiana State University at Lafayette)

Michael Doucet–Popular Cajun fiddler and native of Louisiana who spent time with McGee and many other Cajun and Creole fiddling legends.

Carlton Frank–Creole fiddle elder (if his health permits we could interview him, or we could use archival material from unreleased 1999 documentary video footage).

Ethan Coen–Co-producer of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (from BBC ONLINE): "The reason for our using so much of the era's music in the movie was simple," Ethan Coen said. "It is compelling music in its own right, harking back to a time when music was a part of every day life and not something performed by celebrities."

Potential archival quotes:

John Hartford

Bob Wills (unconfirmed)

Eck Robertson (unconfirmed)

Bill Monroe (unconfirmed)

Dennis McGee (Will Spires, Ann Savoy, others)

Marcus Martin (LOC recording; purpose of fiddle music: "... it's for the uplifting of people. It's the highest, the most high, most high, most high")

Otis Burris–Seminal "transitional" fiddler whose playing changed after hearing Arthur Smith

Resources, Bibliography, Discography, Archival:


Cauthen, Joyce H.
With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: A History of Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Green, Douglas. Country Roots: The Origin of Country Music. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1976.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music, USA. University of Texas Press, 1975.

Malone, Bill C. Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Malone, Bill C. Southern Music / American Music. University Press of Kentucky, 1979.

Oermann, Robert K. America's Music: The Roots of Country. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1996. 

Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Savoy, Ann Allen. Cajun Music: A Reflection of A People . Bluebird Press, 1984. 

Townsend, Charles R. San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills. University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Wolfe, Charles K. The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling. Vanderbilt/CMF Press, 1997. 

Wolfe, Charles K. Classic Country: Legends of Country Music. Routledge, 2001.


Altamont: Black Stringband Music from the Library of Congress. 1989. Rounder CD 0238.

American Fiddle Tunes. 2000. Rounder 18964-1518-2.

Anthology of American Folk Music, Volumes 1-3. Folkways FA2951-53. 

Bob Wills: The Original Columbia Recordings, Volumes I and II. Rounder CD 1145 and 1146.

Championship Years. Mark O'Connor. Country Music Foundation CMF-0150. 

Close to Home - Old Time Music from Mike Seeger's Collection 1952-1967. 1997. Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40097.

Doughboys, Playboys And Cowboys: The Golden Years of Western Swing.Y Proper CD 1006. 

Echoes Of The Ozarks Volumes 1 and 2. County CO-CD3506 and CO-CD3507.

Fiddling Arthur Smith and the Dixieliners. County CO-546. 

From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music. Country Music Foundation.Y CD - 9 46428-2

East Texas Serenaders, 1927-1937. Document DOCD-8031. 

Eck Robertson: Old-Time Texas Fiddler.Y County CO-CD3515.

Legend of Clark Kessinger. County 2713. 

Mississippi String Bands, Volume 1. County CO-CD3513.

Old-Time Texas String Bands, Volume 1. County CO-CD3524. 

Roots 'n' Blues: The Retrospective. Columbia Legacy CK4 47911.

Texas Black Country Dance Music 1927-1935. Document: DOCD-5162. 

Texas Music, Volume 2: Western Swing and Honky Tonk. 1994. Rhino R2 71782/A\ 24956.

Times Ain't Like They Used To Be: Early American Rural Music Vol. 3. Yazoo YAZ-CD2047. 

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