|Grey Eagle in C
|Rounder CD 0375
|Saddle Old Spike
|Rounder CD 0381
It is now more than twenty years since R P Christesen released his classic compilation of Midwestern fiddling The Old Time Fiddler's Repertory.1 Drawn from hundreds of field recordings made in eight states between 1948 and 1961, I have yet to meet a devotee of American traditional music who hasn't been totally gobsmacked on first hearing this remarkable collection. It's not just that it overflows with music of breathtaking intensity and skill, it literally opens up a whole new dimension to Anglo-American fiddling.
For most people 'old-time fiddle' means the familiar and well documented tradition of the southeastern states. This is a tradition deeply rooted in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. It reflects a society which saw little new settlement after about 1830 and which has remained essentially agrarian, insular and conservative. Though the bulk of the repertoire is probably 19th century American in origin it contains a hard core of older English and Lowland Scots tunes, and everything - even Victorian ballroom dances and minstrel show material - tends to be moulded to the structures defined by this older music. Deep old world roots are also apparent in the playing style which closely parallels the oldest styles in Britain and Europe. Bow strokes are short, attack dynamic, the emphasis on rhythm and volume rather than tone. The music is highly decorated with drones, double stops, shuffles, bowing variations, mild syncopation, occasional grace-notes. Players rarely leave first position or the 'natural' fiddle keys (GDA) and they frequently use non-standard tunings. Until recently few fiddlers could read music so tunes usually differ radically from printed versions and from fiddler to fiddler, and a degree of improvisation and variation is normal. In all fiddle traditions there is a balance between playing for listening and for dancing, and until recently southeastern fiddling was pre-eminently functional dance music. Thus fiddlers often play together or in small bands with strong rhythm sections, nowadays usually based around guitars and frailed banjos, though other instruments such as cellos and tambourines were formerly quite common.
If the southeastern tradition seems rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Midwestern tradition is rooted firmly in the Victorian era. It reflects a less static and insular society, one closely linked to the commercial and cosmopolitan northeast (from where most of its American born settlers originated) and which continued to receive successive waves of European immigration well into the 20th century.2 For the English listener a first hearing of The ... Repertory is like hearing the pages of Kerr's Merry Melodies come alive, or hearing one of the legendary Victorian Hornpipe fiddlers like James Hill or Robert Whinham captured on a rare cylinder. There are a few southern style breakdowns and the occasional old reel or jig but the bulk of the 'repertory' consists of 19th century ballroom dances (Polkas, Waltzes, Schottisches, 6/8 Quadrilles etc) and of Hornpipes - so pervasive is the hornpipe influence that in the hands of midwesterners even reels and square dance tunes tend to sound like hornpipes.
These are not the simple 18th century hornpipes of the southeastern tradition but the sort of virtuoso 'competition' hornpipes that abound in Victorian English and Scots collections and which few people over here play any more - tunes of baroque complexity, frequently in the 'unnatural' keys of C, F, Bb and often utilising second and third position. This is music influenced by classical conventions and techniques and fiddlers tend to use smoother bowing, to pursue a sweeter tone, to play with fewer drones and decorations, and to stick to standard tuning and printed settings - indeed, most midwestern fiddlers seem to be musically literate and habitually learn tunes out of books, with Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes playing much the same role as O'Neill's in Ireland and Kerr's in pre-war Britain. This is still dance music but the emphasis on playing for listening, on individual virtuosity, and on formal competition is greater than in the southeast. Thus fiddlers rarely play together, and back-up is simpler and more subordinate - though also more important as the fiddle style is inherently less rhythmic. Vamped piano is the clear favourite, though harmonium, cello, electric guitar and raggy plectrum banjo all appear on The ... Repertory, and nowadays the standard southern stringband of guitar, bass, frailed banjo seems to be spreading fast.
Much of the impact of The ... Repertory comes from the playing of two men, Uncle Bob Walters of Nebraska3 and Cyril Stinnett of north-west Missouri - Uncle Bob alone has 30 out of 41 tracks. Walters is an absolutely seminal figure in recent Midwestern fiddling and a major influence on both Cyril Stinnett and Lonnie Robertson - during the 1930s and 40s only the brilliant Missouri fiddler Casey Jones rivalled Uncle Bob's regional popularity as a contest and radio fiddler. But whilst the classic midwestern sound of Walters and Stinnett dominates the album, it does contain other somewhat different material. The playing of central/south Missourians Bill Driver and Tony Gilmore represents a kind of midwest/southeast hybrid and the solitary track by Ozark fiddler George Helton is pure Auld Scots via Appalachia. In all this, Missouri fiddling reflects the state's geographical position as the borderland between the midwest and the south, and the pattern is repeated in the three albums of Missouri fiddle music up for review here. Thus Cyril Stinnett's Grey Eagle in C is archetypal Midwestern fiddling, Lonnie Robertson's Lonnie's Breakdown represents a kind of midwest/southern blend, and Fred Stoneking's Saddle Old Spike is basically straight southeastern.
Of the three albums Grey Eagle is ultimately the most interesting, though musically all are equally enjoyable. Cyril Winfield Stinnett (1912-86) hailed from the northwest corner of Missouri near the Nebraska and Iowa state lines. He came from a long line of highly regarded fiddlers and, with the passing of his friends and rivals Bob Walters and Casey Jones, became the undisputed king of the Midwestern style - a title that has passed in turn to his disciple Charlie Walden. In later years his impeccable technique, built in metronome, and vast store of tunes earned him the nickname 'the fiddling computer'. He was recorded playing over 300 tunes and legend has it he knew as many again. He picked them up at dances and contests, off records and radio, out of books, and from friends like Walters and Jones. His technique was seriously impressive - evident here from the first few dramatic notes of Grey Eagle (sound clip). He played an ordinary strung fiddle left-handed ('over the bar') yet there's not a hint of awkwardness in his frequent excursions into third position. He was as happy in Bb or F as G or D, could pick up an out of tune fiddle and play in perfect pitch by finger compensation, and could turn in an immaculate performance when the accompanist was drunk, out of tune, out of time, or in the wrong key. He was an impressive contest fiddler with a string of prizes but never went professional and was always willing to share tunes, fiddling tricks and advice with whoever asked. Cyril's 'edge' came from total dedication to the instrument. "Play as much as you can" he said "you can't get too much practice". Though he managed the family farm up to his death and looked after his parents into old age, Charlie Walden recalls "he never worked particularly hard at anything other than playing the fiddle" and he never married, so avoiding the major distraction of raising a family. Let's leave the last word to Bluegrass maestro Kenny Baker - when asked the ultimate leading question 'who's the best fiddler' he allegedly replied "I don't know, but I don't know anybody can beat that old man up in northwest Missouri".
Compiled from private tapes made in the 1960s, Grey Eagle is both a fitting tribute to this great fiddler and an excellent introduction to the whole Midwestern style. Inevitably most of the tunes are hornpipes, hornpipey reels, fine square dance tunes made to sound like hornpipes. There are also a couple of Polkas and a nice Schottische - the tune Americans usually call Rustic Dance but which (I think) the English concertina player Alexander Prince recorded as Evening Pleasures (this was also in the repertoire of Bob Walters and - surprisingly - Tommy Farrell). Several other tunes will be familiar including such southern standards as Forked Deer and Sally Johnson, though you won't have heard them played quite like this before. (sound clip - Rosebud Hornpipe) And unless you've worked through Cole's or Kerr's I predict most of the hornpipes will be new to you - though he does play a cracking version of the College Hornpipe (Sailor's/Jack the Lad). The first part of his St. Joe Hornpipe is the second part of the popular English polka The Girl with the Blue Dress On, and no less than three tunes (Gypsy Hornpipe, Five Miles out of Town, and Done Gone) bear a marked resemblance to the well known Portsmouth Hornpipe/Off to California.
All in all, this is classic Midwestern fiddling by a master and almost unreservedly recommended. The 'almost' reflects two minor reservations: firstly, the southeast style back-up of open chord guitar and frailed banjo, though perfectly competent, blends uneasily with Stinnett's elegant northern music; secondly, I detect a certain lowering of energy and emotion levels when compared to the Christesen recordings. This is an excellent album by any criteria but I would recommend anyone seriously interested in discovering this great regional tradition to also get a copy of The ... Repertory, where they can bend their ears around Cyril Stinnett in his prime playing to a red hot vamped piano.
Lonnie Robertson (1908-81) was from the same state and the same generation as Cyril Stinnett, and the two men knew each other well, but the music on Lonnie's Breakdown is of a very different character. Lonnie came from the far south of Missouri deep in the Ozarks, from a population of old southern origin. His father and brothers were all fiddlers and like many older southeastern players rarely played in standard tuning, a characteristic noted by Cecil Sharp in 1916 and by many others before and since. These 'cross-tunings' go back to 17th and 18th century Britain and the reverberation of the sympathetically tuned strings creates as full and exciting a sound as you can squeeze out of a violin. Unfortunately they also largely restrict the player to the key of A and occasionally D. For young Lonnie the discovery of standard tuning was a revelation - a revolution even:
"You'd take both bass strings ... and run them up and make them blend with the A string. Or then you'd drop the E down and you'd get a weary blend. Father played a lot of tunes that way, tunes I don't even remember today ... many of those old-time fiddlers played only in cross-tune, not just because it's easier to play some tunes, but because, in those days before amplification, a cross-tuned fiddle has more volume and can be heard above the sound of the dancers. Anyway, I was playing fiddle in the store at Hammond the way my dad had played it, in dischord. Another fellow came in and picked up the fiddle and he tuned it up the other way. At that time I didn't know how to tune it the right way, in standard. Boy, I was a-listening close and when he tuned it that stayed in my ear until I got back home. So I tuned it up and went to learning to play that other way. It lets you play all sorts of different tunes."This opened up a whole new world of music for Lonnie. He found himself able to copy the latest tunes and styles from records and radio and before long graduated from local barn dances to his own radio show. This began a lifetime career as a professional radio and concert fiddler, a career which took him from Missouri to Virginia from Texas to Dakota, and all stops in between. Not surprisingly, the music presented here - recorded in the 1960s and 70s at the end of a lifetime's playing represents a complex blend of regional and chronological styles.
Not that his Missouri roots aren't evident throughout. From his Ozark background he retained an old-fashioned southern taste for drones and double stops, from friends like Bob Walters, Casey Jones and Cyril Stinnett he acquired the north Missouri taste for complex hornpipes and hornpipey breakdowns, and the editors confess to showing a bias towards his more local material. Even so, ultimately it is the variety which most impresses on this album. There are classic cross-tuned 'A screamers' from family tradition, like Johnny Bring the Jug Around the Hill (a nice version of the tune Bill Stepp and John Salyer called Old Hen Cackle) and Lonesome Polly Ann (sound clip - for me, any version of this is overshadowed by Jesse Ashlock's knockout late 1940s Western Swing version Little Betty Ann, complete with hot electric mandolin solo). There are finger busting Midwestern hornpipes like Rosebud Hornpipe (sound clip - a killer in Bb and an interesting comparison to Cyril Stinnett's version) and Cincinnati Hornpipe (yet another variant of Harvest Home/Cliffe Hornpipe). There are purely local breakdowns like Saddle Old Kate (Fred Stoneking calls this Saddle Old Spike: to find out why, go to Fred's article) and popular radio favourites like Katy Hill (almost certainly learned from the stunning Tommy Magness/Bill Monroe version). There are Rags, Blues, Waltzes (Rock the Babies to Sleep is a nice version of the tune known in the Yorkshire Dales as Fire Burning Bright) and a large number of driving hornpipes and other tunes composed by Lonnie himself (I particularly like his Hazy Hills Waltz which owes a lot to the Leake County Revellers' Green Valley and Wednesday Night Waltz - most of his compositions owe more than a passing nod to tradition).
Despite the variety this album only touches on a part of Lonnie's music, for like most professional fiddlers of his generation Lonnie spent much of his career in popular Hillbilly bands performing country swing, sentimental favourites, gospel songs and the like - indeed, his later career was largely spent singing and playing guitar and mandolin in a Hillbilly duo with his wife Thelma ("though he usually threw in a fiddle tune or two"). What we have here is a superb documentation of a 'Golden Age' radio fiddler's instrumental repertoire. It would be nice if Rounder followed up with some of the extant recordings of his bands from the 1930s and 40s - Lonnie and Roy, the Chuck Wagon Gang, and the Down Home Folks - to give a complete picture of this great and influential early Country Music professional.
Fred Stoneking (b.1933) comes from a younger generation than Cyril Stinnett and Lonnie Robertson, but like them from a strong fiddling background grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and now children were/are nearly all fiddlers. "At the last Stoneking reunion ... it was like we had our own Bluegrass Festival". Although from central rather than south Missouri, the family origins, like Lonnie Robertson's, are old southern and Fred has stayed a lot closer to his musical roots than Lonnie. There's at least one Bob Walters tune, a couple of hornpipes, some raggy one-steps, and some modern contest-style tunes, but the backbone of this album consists of old-time southeast style breakdowns, some in crosstuning and several from family tradition. Not that this is archaic isolationist stuff. Fred is a great one for contests and an avid listener, and as many tunes have been picked up from radio, disc, and other fiddlers as from his family. This is a picture of a strong family tradition with deep local roots but wide open ears and minds.
Fred's playing is excellent, particularly evident on the unaccompanied tracks where his highly decorated and deeply rhythmic style shows to best advantage. There is a particularly effortless quality to even the trickiest material (sound clip - Dance Around Molly) which I guess comes from being totally saturated in fiddle music from infancy. His treatment of hornpipes is worth comment, for while Midwestern stylists like Cyril Stinnett make ordinary breakdowns sound like hornpipes, southeastern stylists like Fred make hornpipes sound like ordinary breakdowns. In fact, an awful lot of southeastern breakdowns are hornpipes (in England a 'breakdown' actually means a hornpipe), it's just that southeasterners tend to iron out a lot of the characteristic hornpipe choppiness - Fred's Birdie on a Snowbank, (sound clip) a version of the Beaux of Oakhill/Boys of Bluehill is an excellent example.
For most people Anglo-American fiddling is almost synonymous with southeast style fiddling, and this inevitably makes Saddle old Spike the most 'ordinary' of these three releases, but it's none the worse for that. The proverbial virginal visitor from Mars might well prefer it to the other two albums, and in one respect - that of the accompanying booklet - it is far and away the most impressive of the three. The notes to Lonnie's Breakdown are a pretty good read, but Fred's sleevenotes are in another class altogether. Great family and fiddling anecdotes just pour out of the guy, and he vividly brings to life the sort of close, warm, old-fashioned extended family that is so often the matrix for a strong musical tradition. In fact I was going to finish with some favourite quotes but our esteemed editor is so taken with the booklet that he's going to reproduce Fred's narrative in its entirety - so pour yourself a slug of liquor, roll a spliff, make a cup of cocoa, settle down in your comfiest browser and turn to the Stoneking article. Better check your bank balance whilst you're at it because by the time you've finished reading you'll want to buy a copy of the album.
2 - For example, the census of 1870 found only insignificant numbers of foreign born in the old south - just a handful (under 1%) of Scots and English in the Virginias and Kentucky. In contrast 8% of Missourians had been born in the British Isles (3% English, 3% Irish, 2% Scots) and nearly 7% in Germany, and the figures for the midwest heartland were even greater. Illinois in 1870 was 12% German born, 11% Scottish, 10% English, and 6% Irish, whilst Iowa was 6% German, 4% Scottish, 3% English, and 2% Irish.
Incidentally, Alan Jabbour and others have claimed to detect an important Irish element in Midwestern and Missouri music, so it may surprise some readers that German, Scots and English immigrants all outnumber the Irish in these figures. Indeed, the importance of Irish Catholics in the rural settler population Is less than even these figures suggest because a) they had a particularly strong urban orientation b) contained within the 'Irish' figure will be a large number of Irish Protestants of English and Scots origin and culture - an important group invariably ignored in discussions of the l9th century Irish diaspora. This doesn't mean there isn't an Irish influence but it does suggest we would be better occupied looking for links with the music of England, Scotland, Germany and other regions of America.
3 - The family name was actually 'Walter' but for some reason Uncle Bob added the 's'.
Paul Roberts - 22.9.97
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