Written by Jim Guinn
This is the first article in a series called America Fiddles, a collection of articles exploring the history and culture of the fiddle in America. These articles are not intended to be scholarly or comprehensive, but more of an outline to give beginning fiddlers of all ages an appreciation of the richness of the fiddle in our American heritage.
The Early Days
Long a popular European musical instrument and because it was small and easily portable, the fiddle found its way to America packed away in the meager possessions of the first explorers, traders, and settlers to our shores. For years, the fiddle was virtually the only instrument found on the frontier. Records show that among the first settlers in Jamestown in 1607 was a fiddler by the name of John Utie, a planter by trade. The first recorded fiddle contest was held in 1736 as part of a St. Andrew’s Day celebration in Williamsburg, Hanover County, Virginia with the grand prize being an Italian-made Cremona fiddle. The oldest American made fiddle still with us today was made in 1759 by John Antes. And, in the journals of the Lewis and Clarke expedition it is recorded there were two fiddlers, and they contributed much to maintaining the morale of the men and establishing good relations with the Indians.
Most of the early immigrants came from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Germany. They brought with them their musical traditions primarily played on the fiddle. Fiddle music played an essential role in the cultural life of 18th-century Americans as it was commonly played at home and in public. Before the age of mass commercial entertainment, these hard-working people would often gather in houses, pubs and dance halls to escape life’s weary labors and hardships, and the fiddle was usually at the center of the entertainment that held them together as they heard, made and danced to music transcending life’s ever-present toils, troubles and tribulations.
The first fiddle tunes and techniques were the ones they brought from their respective homelands that had been passed from one generation to the next. As the settlers began to spread out and mix with other immigrant cultures, their different fiddle tunes and techniques began to mingle. The African culture brought by the slave trade as well as the Native American culture also had an important influence on fiddle music in America. Over time, many original tunes became Americanized. The Colonists adapted new titles, lyrics and playing styles to many of the old familiar tunes, and regional styles and preferences began to develop in the southern, middle, and northern colonies.
Many tunes and songs attributed to the early days of our nation had their origins on the European continent. One of the most popular tunes from the Old-Time, Bluegrass tune genre which many tout as an “American classic” from the Civil War era, Soldiers Joy, has roots it’s in Scottish and Irish music traditions and can be traced back as far as the mid-1700s. In fact, even Robert Burns used it as the tune for the first song in his cantata The Jolly Beggars in 1785. Despite its upbeat tempo and catchy melody, the term “soldier’s joy” took on a much darker meaning than is portrayed by the tune around the time of the Civil War. Opinion has it that this term eventually came to refer to the combination of whiskey, beer, and morphine used by Civil War soldiers, presumably for pain relief.
The American Revolution period saw the cultural influences of the people of our emerging new nation blended into a sound of its own. Many patriotic fiddle tunes were coined during this period including Washington’s Reel, Bennington Assembly and Jefferson and Liberty. As a reflection of anti-British sentiment, many old tune titles and lyrics were changed. The Revolutionary War not only brought fiddlers together from all over, but it also created numerous occasions to be celebrated and remembered in music, and the fiddle played a major role.
Independence won, the nation began to grow, and in the years to follow the fiddle traveled westward beyond the original 13 colonies with pioneers and settlers. Just like their European ancestors, these first settlers had a back-breaking existence. The fiddle continued to play a vital role in their lives as a primary source of entertainment. Many towns and territories had their own fiddler, and traveling fiddlers often received warm welcomes. Even towns with names like Fiddler’s Green, Fiddlers Grove, Fiddletown, and Fiddle Creek illustrate the importance of the fiddle in the early days of the nation.
The fiddler was in great demand and held in high esteem in the pioneer societies which were starved for recreation. His small, lightweight instrument was easily brought west in the wagons, and its music was a welcome antidote for the lonely days of labor. A pioneer fiddler played for a wide variety of community activities including barn dances, weddings, wakes, and almost every other social function required the presence of the fiddler and his beloved instrument. Perhaps the Friday or Saturday night dance is the best remembered of all rural social events.
Fiddling has long been associated with some classic American heroes, too. George Washington had his favorite fiddle tune, Jaybird Sittin’ on a Hickory Limb. Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished player, and his music was particularly significant in his courtship of his wife, Martha. Patrick Henry, who popularized the rallying slogan Give me Liberty, or give me death, was documented as being rather good at fiddle playing. Davy Crockett was a ferocious fiddler and the tune Crockett’s Reel is still played today. Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in the War of 1812 is still celebrated with the popular Eighth of January. And, a governor of Tennessee, fiddler Bob Taylor, liked to refer to the old fiddle classics in his speeches: “Every one of them breathes the spirit of liberty; every jig is an echo from flintlock rifles and shrill fifes of Bunker Hill.”
As the nation continued to grow through the 19th century, the American population exploded with waves of immigrants from other countries who brought with them the latest trends in fiddling from all over the world. Throughout the United States, from coast to coast, new regional fiddle styles and techniques began to emerge and coalesce. American fiddling as we know it today with such styles as Old-Time, Bluegrass, Cajun, Blues, Western Swing, Country, and others, each with its own unique sound and techniques was born.
But, these are subjects of future articles, so be sure to check back here as America Fiddles!