Missouri Fiddle Tune Collections

Missouri Fiddle Tune Collections

When I was first learning to fiddle down in Missouri I ran into an old timer named Jimmy Gilmore. Jimmy lived in Jefferson City. He actually introduced himself to me at a local fiddle contest. After hearing me play he came up to me behind the flatbed truck that served as a stage. He pulled real close and in low tones said, “You can read, can’t you. Don’t ever let ’em know you can read.”

Among the “real” old-time fiddlers in Central Missouri being a music reader was tantamount to being a violinista and consequently an outcast. Gilmore, himself a music reader and a sometimes player of jazz pimp favorites such as Sweet Georgia Brown and New Kinda Love, was clearly not fully enfranchised in the fiddling community. Jimmy himself admitted that his penchant for playing Wohlfahrt etudes didn’t serve him too well on the fiddle contest circuit.

Nonetheless, much of the music I learned there in Boone County and also a good deal of the music played in the Missouri Valley Region in Northwest Missouri came from music reading fiddlers such as George Morris and Bob Walters. Also, a method commonly employed by non-reading fiddlers to get the music off the page was to ask a wife, daughter or neighbor who played the piano to perform it so they could pick it up by ear.

The most popular collection going back through the 1950’s and earlier was Cole’s 1000 Fiddle Tunes which was published earlier in the 19th Century as Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (reprinted in it’s original form in recent years by Mel Bay Publishing). The collection is undoubtedly the source of many of the notey hornpipes and reels which are abundant in the repertoire of Missouri fiddlers.

Oddly enough, with such a clear prejudice against reading music among the Show-Me State’s fiddlers Missouri is the birthplace of numerous collections of fiddle tunes going back to the 1920s and into the present-day. There are eight such volumes. The first two were published in the 1920s. One was compiled by an apparently eccentric physician, W. H. Morris, from St. Joseph. Entitled Old-Time Violin Melodies, it contains numerous 6/8 tunes, the form of which is typical to northeast Missouri. Some of the tunes are poorly set but the volume has historical interest. It has been reissued by Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association.

In the same decade, E. F. Adam, a St. Louis violin maker and music dealer, published The Old-Time Fiddlers Favorite Barn Dance Tunes. This is a solid collection of good dance tunes that are widely played today in the Midwest. To my knowledge it is not available.

A third Missouri tune book was compiled by Ira Ford and is entitled Traditional Music of America (1940). It is a handsome hardbound volume with almost 500 pages. Da Capo Press did a reprint in 1978. R. P. Christeson of Auxvasse had an original. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen outside a library. The book contains more than just tunes. It also lists square dance calls, provides lyrics to many old songs, and gives detailed descriptions of dances

The most significant work on Missouri fiddling (or any fiddling for that matter) was based on the collecting activities of the late Robert Perry “R.P.” Christeson. I had the good fortune to become acquainted with R. P. in my formative years and he is no doubt responsible for my somewhat hard-nosed and contrary views on fiddle playing and also my preference for solid piano accompaniment. As a lad in Pulaski County in the Ozarks, R. P. was immersed in old time fiddling and square dancing.

As a lad in Pulaski County in the Ozarks, R. P. was immersed in old time fiddling and square dancing. Later in life, as an employee of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, he had occasion to travel the country and observe fiddle and dance traditions in other parts of the United States. He became inspired to collect and thereby preserve old-time fiddle tunes. To accomplish this, R. P. purchased a wire recorder and a surplus folding chaplain’s organ and set out to record old-time fiddlers.

He hit the mother lode while living in Nebraska when he ran across Uncle Bob Walters. His recordings of Walters, Cyril Stinnett, Bill Driver and many others led to the publication by the University of Missouri Press of two volumes (one in 1973, the other in 1984) of over 400 tunes. Entitled the The Old-Time Fiddlers Repertory and The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory 2, the books are the absolute best collections of fiddle music ever compiled for a number of reasons. The tunes are all drawn from performances by real old-time players. There was no borrowing from other collections, which is so commonly done. With a few exceptions, the transcriptions are very reliable. Each tune includes a brief text description crediting the source of the tune. The two volumes represent a real body of music that was and is still played in a particular region of the country.

Christeson also provided serviceable examples of piano accompaniment. Coupled with the companion recordings one could make reasonable stab at becoming a Missouri/Midwestern fiddler of the old school. Even the format of the book was taken into consideration. In long form with two tunes per page it lays out perfectly on a music stand. Now you’re probably asking yourself where to get these books. Alas, they are out of print! You’re local used bookseller may help but I have seldom seen them offered. The first volume was released in paperback and may be found on occasion.

More recently, Bill Shull has compiled a book of transcriptions of the playing of old-time fiddler Lyman Enloe. The book is nicely done, the transcriptions are meticulously accurate, and the tunes are all good ones. Entitled Uncle Pink, the book is available from Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association. This is a very useful collection, especially when used in conjunction with Enloe’s recordings, also available from MSOTFA and County Sales.

Bill Shull has also written the definite book on cross-tuning entitled, Mel Bay presents Cross-tuning your fiddle history, techniques, & transcriptions (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1994). The book, which includes a compact disc of musical examples, features a considerable amount of Missouri material and thus fits into this list of Missouri tune collections.

An interesting aside is that Missouri was visited by another famous collector, Captain Francis O’Neill, the Chicago Police Chief responsible for O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. He served for a time as schoolteacher in Edina, Missouri, and in his book Irish Folk Music (Chicago, 1910), O’Neill provides one of the best early descriptions of music in Missouri. It’s a stretch, but conceivable that there might be some Missouri music in O’Neill’s book.

Charlie Walden

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