Missouri Old-Time Fiddling Traditions – Article

Missouri Old-Time Fiddling Traditions

by Charlie Walden

Article Contents

Preface | Back to Top

I started playing fiddle while a young teen in about 1970 or so.  I feel fortunate that I was able to experience the tail-end of an era of fiddle playing and old-time dancing which, as of this writing, is fading fast. Many of the great players I knew and learned from as a young man have either passed on or become too feeble to play.   While radio and then television took their toll on traditional self-generated entertainment like fiddling and square dancing, I am sorry to say that the now ubiquitous satellite dish offering hundreds of channels may deal the final blow to community life in rural Missouri (and the rest of rural America, for that matter).  Likewise, the emphasis of younger players on learning rote renditions of contest tunes from books, CDs and fiddle camps could result in the ultimate decimation of Missouri’s once richly diverse fiddle tradition. I want to commend and thank those fiddlers, callers and dancers in Missouri who, with little recognition or reward, are doing their part to preserve the musical heritage of Missouri.  This piece is dedicated to them.

Missouri’s First Fiddlers | Back to Top

With the exception of some Spaniards who came to gawk at the Mississippi River, the first Europeans in what is now Missouri were French. Unlike the Spanish who came up the Mississippi, the French expedition led by Marquette and Joliet came down to the Missouri area out of Canada. Following other explorations, the French decided to colonize the vast region called Louisiana, of which Missouri was a part.  The first permanent settlement in Missouri by many accounts was founded in 1735 as Ste. Genevieve, right on the Mississippi River and about eighty or so miles south of present day St. Louis.

French settlement extended into the interior of the state and is still evident in the abundance of French surnames in the Ozark counties of St. Francois, Dent, Crawford, and especially Washington.  They must have been packing fiddles with them because until very recently there was an abundance of old-time fiddlers and dance callers who carried on a very old French tradition that had not mingled significantly with the larger Scotch-Irish fiddling tradition in Missouri.  I was talking by phone recently with Ray Thebeau, an old-time square dance caller who lives in Washington County, and he told me his family was in the area as early as 1720.

Another caller from the same county, Betsy Boyer, could call in French.  Fiddlers such as Joe Politte, Charlie Pasha, Ethel Goff and Roy Boyer played tunes that could not be heard in any other region of the state. And although I can’t articulate it in this article, the performance of these tunes and other more commonly heard pieces had a distinctively different rhythmic accent reminiscent of French Canadian playing from the music of the rest of Missouri’s fiddlers.

Geoff Seitz, a fine fiddler and violinmaker of my generation from St. Louis, can play a few of these pieces. I’ve recorded a couple myself.  Otherwise, this tradition which had survived from the 1700’s into the mid-20th century is largely lost.

Just What is Missouri Style Fiddling? | Back to Top

There are numerous features of Missouri playing that make it unique from other regional styles of fiddling.  Missouri fiddlers bow a lot when they play.  There is a lot of alternate bowing or saw stroke employed, which makes the notes sound separated and makes the music sound lively and energetic.  Phrasing is accomplished by stopping the bow or by slurring two notes and then forging ahead with separate bows.    This bowing method also makes the rhythmic accent of Missouri fiddlers sound very much “on-the-beat” or square.  There is not much of the backbeat pulse one hears when listening to modern, urbanized renditions of Appalachian music or the swing felt in Texas-style fiddling. Instead, Missouri fiddlers tend to play a little ahead of the beat, creating the elusive and yet essential quality of “drive.”

This tendency to play ahead of the beat can lead an uninitiated accompanist to think the fiddler is trying to speed up and unintentionally push the beat.  A good tempo for a Missouri hoedown, by the way, is about 112-120 beats per minute.  The bowing description above is a gross under simplification. I’ve intentionally avoided analyzing my own or other people’s bowing for fear of messing up my playing.  In all cases you should “go for the sound.”

Another effect of separate bowing is that Missouri fiddlers want to hear every note come out clearly and in tune.  There is little use of shuffle bowing which can obscure the melody.  Good left hand technique is highly prized.  On hoedowns, Missouri fiddlers play mostly in first position, almost never in second, and frequently in third, especially on tunes in the key of A.  When faced with playing a D, A, or E string, especially at the beginning or end of a phrase, most Missouri fiddlers will play a unison note on the string below to avoid the thin sound of a held open string. Using the case of the A string, often the bow is allowed to play first the noted A on the D string and then the open A, giving the illusion of two separate notes being played. It’s a neat effect.

The harmonics of Missouri fiddle music are another distinguishing feature.   There are very few of the sort of modal tunes heard in the eastern United States and there is very little interest in such music.  Even when the melody suggests otherwise, Missouri fiddlers prefer the dominant (V7 chord) over the modal (VII chord) when ending a phrase or tune.  They’ll even alter the melody to achieve such harmony. Consider the coarse part1 of “Old Joe Clark” in A which usually involves a hard G note and G chord in the 4th bar. Most Missouri fiddlers will play a G# and the guitarist an E chord.

Another important harmonic consideration is that the “Missouri Rules of Harmony” require a certain chord progression for most hoe-downs.  Consider the coarse part of “Soldier’s Joy.”  I’ve heard many folks back East accompany as follows:

D /  |  D /  |  D /  |  A /  |  D /  |  D /  |  A /  |  D

Missourians want it this way:

D /  |  D /  |  D /  |  A /  |  D  D7/F#  |  G  G/B  |  A  A/C#  | D

The melody of the tune in no way suggests this pattern of chords.  However, the insertion of the IV chord (or G) in the 6th bar serves a couple of purposes.  The structure of most fiddle tunes is such that on any given eight bar part there isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between the first four bars and the second four bars.  The presence of this chord gives a clear signal as to where you are in the tune.  Also, this harmonic progression from I to IV to V chord provides a forward momentum to the music which is lacking if such a progression is not used.  Frankly, I can’t get right with my playing if I don’t hear the accompaniment in this way. This pattern is also widely used in Canadian old-time and Texas fiddling.  It is also the underlying pattern for most modern contest fiddling accompaniment.  They’ve just added the passing chords between the I-IV-V to give a more complete moving base line, as shown below:

D6  D7/F#  |  G  G#dim  |  D6  E9  |  A7  A9/C#

        D  D7/F#  |  G  G#dim  |  A7  A9/C#  |  D

Missourians play lots of waltzes.  At any given jam session, depending on where you are and who is present, every other tune played could be a waltz.  These waltzes can be the simple two chord type, but most fiddlers prefer prettier waltzes that require the guitar player to know lots of changes.  Many are old songs.  On waltzes fiddlers may use techniques that wouldn’t apply to hoedowns.  These could include second and third position play, use of double stops, slides and vibrato.  They are not played as syrupy as modern contest waltzes, though.  As with hoe-downs, dance-ability in both tempo and rhythm is a critical factor.

Styles of Missouri Fiddling | Back to Top

A lot of hay has been made about styles of fiddling in within Missouri.  I once got a call at 6:00 AM from a friend of mine, Forrest Rose (bassist supreme and journalist extraordinaire), on deadline for the Columbia Daily Tribune to do a story on an upcoming fiddlers contest.  In a state of semi-consciousness I told him there were twelve styles of Missouri fiddling.  Boy, did I live to regret that.  I’m going to play it relatively safe and say there are three “styles.”

The word “style” as I’m using it refers to regional differences and similarities in performance and repertoire.  The styles of fiddling in Missouri correspond to three large cultural-geographic regions of the state: the Ozarks, Little Dixie and the Missouri Valley region.

Ozarks Fiddling | Back to Top

The Ozarks region takes up most of the southern part of Missouri.  It has a lot of vertical real estate (i.e. it’s quite hilly), lots of forested areas and lots of pasture for raising cattle.  The largest city is Springfield in the southwest.  Just south of Springfield is Branson, tourism bonanza and cultural nightmare all rolled into one. They’ve got more Elvis impersonators per acre than Graceland.

In my estimation Ozarks fiddlers play hoedowns with more energy than anyone else on the planet.  The premier performer of this music is Bob Holt in Douglas County.   Bob’s way of playing is the result of a combined esthetic that includes his own tastes and preferences and the demands of a traditional Ozarks square set.  The dancers in Douglas County move at a frenetic pace in tight formation.  Everyone in the square “jig dances” throughout the entire set. Jig dancing is the term for solo dance steps performed in Missouri.  It’s
nothing like clogging, more closely resembling some of what I’ve seen old-timers doing in West Virginia.  The feet are kept close to the floor and the “back-step,” which is a sort of backwoods “moonwalk”, is employed
often.  I dug out a copy of one of Bob’s tapes to see just how fast he’s moving and clocked Rabbit in the Pea Patch at 148 beats per minute.  Whoa!  Try playing at that tempo for a few hours.

True to the form of all great Ozarks dance fiddlers, Bob has achieved an economy of motion in both his bowing and left hand technique.  All the tune is still there but there’s no fancy stuff added.  It’s pure drive with a capital “D”.

Little Dixie Fiddling | Back to Top

Little Dixie is the part of the state where I was raised.  It includes most of the counties in central and west central Missouri, including Boone, Howard, Audrain, Monroe, Shelby, Randolph, Chariton, Callaway,
Saline, and Carroll.  Little Dixie was settled by folks from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia who were interested in continuing and extending the southern plantation existence. They brought with them plenty of
cotton and tobacco seed and of course their slaves.  These folks naturally backed the wrong horse and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War (or what we like to call “the late unpleasantness”).  The area is still largely Democratic and most of the surnames on the mailboxes are Scotch-Irish/English names.
(A standing wisecrack advises those wishing to see a Civil War re-enactment to visit our state legislature when in session.) They know how to make a biscuit in the local diners and you can still get a side of grits most places. You can drive through the countryside and see tobacco barns still in use and many county fairs feature ham curing, mule jumping and of course, fiddling contests. The favorite tune of Little Dixie fiddlers is “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe,” allegedly named for confederate general and governor of Missouri, John S. Marmaduke.

Until World War II, when there was a tremendous migration to the cities, the Little Dixie counties had large populations of blacks engaged in farming and related activities.  Black fiddlers are frequently mentioned
by older players in Little Dixie.  Among those often cited were Bill Katon [also spelled Caton] and Bill Driver (Driver’s music can be heard on the Old Time Fiddlers Repertory two tape set from MSOTFA).

I searched high and low when I was actively collecting in the early ’80s, and I don’t think there are any black fiddlers left in Missouri.  Their influence was significant though. Katon in particular was widely popular due to his many performances at radio station WOS from Jefferson City in the 1920s.  There is even a tune, “Caton’s Hornpipe,” which is named for him.

When I was learning to play in Boone County, the best contest players in the state all lived in central Missouri. Many people held that the Boone County Fair fiddlers contest was a sort of de facto state championship.  The “big five” at the time were all from central Missouri and included Cleo Persinger, Taylor McBaine, Jake Hockemeyer, Gene Wells, and Pete McMahan.  These five great players would go head-to-head in a contest just about every weekend in the summer, and on any given day any one of them could come out the winner.

To my thinking the late Pete McMahan, a Little Dixian, was the quintessential Missouri fiddler and did more to promote the Missouri-style playing both inside and outside the state than anyone.  He plays with great force and lots of volume. He’s got more drive in his little finger than most people have in their whole body.  He’s equally adept at hoe-downs and waltzes (which he plays in flat keys and loads up with double stops and position play).  He’s stood toe-to-toe in competition playing his kind of fiddling with the best modern contest fiddlers and either held his own or bested them.  There was a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s when if Pete showed up at a contest you knew you were competing for second place.

Missouri Valley Fiddling | Back to Top

Also called “North Missouri Hornpipe Style,” the Missouri Valley fiddle style is characterized by exceptionally clean, notey playing of complex hornpipes and reels, many of which can be traced to Cole’s 1000 Fiddle
Tunes (a.k.a Ryan’s Mammoth Collection).  In fact, fiddlers from all over Missouri play a lot of this typically American 19th Century repertoire but it’s most pervasive in northwest Missouri.

The greatest exponent of this way of playing was an unassuming farmer from Holt County named Cyril Stinnett. Cyril was not a complicated individual but his music was incredibly subtle, complex, and
awe-inspiring.  By objective accounts, he could play well over three hundred tunes.  Many were set in Bb and F.  He made little use of double stops.  Where one fiddler might hold a note, Cyril would inject more melody, giving a tune an unrelenting kind of push and drive that was irresistible.  This is interesting in itself, as we generally think of generating rhythm with the bow, not the noting hand. In spite of this he played remarkably fast and with great finesse.  All of this was accomplished while playing left-handed “over the bass.”

Much of his repertoire originated with “Uncle Bob” Walters from Tekameh, Nebraska, a renowned fiddler from the region who performed widely on the radio in the upper Midwest during the ’30s and ’40s.  Many Missouri Valley tunes can be traced to Canada.  Some no doubt were learned from CBC broadcasts of fiddlers like Don Messer.  Cyril and Bob Walters both took advantage of a stack of Ned Landry 78s owned by Dwight Lamb’s father (Dwight, who lives in western Iowa, is without question the best player of this style today).  Unlike the rest of Missouri, fiddlers in this region can play a remarkable number of tunes in 6/8 time which they call quadrilles and which were once used as music for square dancing.

Other Influences | Back to Top

One region I haven’t yet mentioned is the Bootheel in far southeast Missouri.  I lived down there for about eight years, working and going to school.  Despite my actively looking, I never met a single fiddler in
that region.  There were plenty of players in the Ozarks near there but none in that country per se.

Bluegrass is popular in Missouri but bluegrass players and old-time fiddlers seldom mix.  One exception is that you might hear some good old-time fiddling in the campground at an Ozarks bluegrass festival. They won’t go near the stage area, however.  One possible explanation is that most fiddlers I’ve known have little interest in singers or the often too-loud bluegrass banjo players.

Lastly, I’ve got to give a nod to Missouri’s rural German fiddlers, who must have been numerous at some point.  German settlement in Missouri was significant in the 1800s, so much so that a region in the east
central part of the state along the Missouri River has been dubbed the “Missouri Rhineland.” I had occasion to hear the Nadler family band near Augusta.  They played few hoe-downs but were well versed in old-time polkas, waltzes and schottisches.  Of course, many fiddlers of German descent took an active part in the Anglo/Scotch-Irish fiddling tradition.  Among them were left-handed fiddler Jake Hockemeyer (you can hear Jake on the Old But Tough LP mentioned above).

Performance Settings for Missouri Fiddling | Back to Top

There are three important performance contexts for Missouri fiddling: the jam session or “music party” as it is often called in the Ozarks; dances; and contests.  Jam sessions in Missouri are different from what you might find in urban settings where “Round Peak” music is being played.  First, there are no “mega-jams.”  Most of the time each fiddler takes a turn playing a tune through a few times and then another fiddler will play in turn.  Also, you’ll hear lots of waltzes.  Particularly in Little Dixie, every other tune might be a waltz.  There is also ample opportunity for sipping coffee, trying a freshly baked cookie and swapping stories.  Despite all the attention that has been given to ballad singers, especially in the Ozarks, I’ve never been to a jam session yet where someone has stood up and burst into song.

Dance Traditions in Missouri | Back to Top

Traditional dancing in Missouri is an unadvertised, community-based activity.  You won’t see any contra-dancing, except in urban centers where it has been imported as part of the whole folk revival scene. (Also, unlike the urban contra dance, you won’t see any men in dresses or other overt signs of gender confusion.)  At an old-time Missouri dance, the square dance rules.  This isn’t Western-style club dancing though.  It’s done to live music.  Everyone in the community knows the calls and the dances.  Often, the caller is right in the set.  So you might have six sets on the floor and each one doing a different figure.

It is generally agreed that there are two schools of dancing in Missouri: one in the Ozarks and another up north.  I’ve already given a description of an Ozarks dance.  In the north, the music is a little slower and dancers walk through the figures instead of jig dancing. The square is more spread out and there seems to be more emphasis on sweeping motions and it’s a little less intense. Still, on a Missouri summer night when the temperature and the humidity are both hovering around ninety, you can work up a sweat square dancing in north Missouri.

Another important aspect of Missouri tradition is couple dancing.  This is especially true in north Missouri. One dance I have attended frequently is at Tina in Carroll County.   At this dance they might only do two or three squares per night.  The rest is couple dancing. Referred to by one veteran dancer as “belly rubbin’ music,” much of the music used for such dances has popular origin which has been obscured by a generation or more of oral transmission. “Carroll County Blues” (which most locals proudly attributed to hometown fiddler, Johnny Bruce), “When You and I Were Young Maggie,” “Golden Slippers,” and “Down Yonder” are examples.  Or the tunes may be of more recent vintage, as in the case of “San Antonio Rose” and “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.”  Dances you’d see include heel and toe polka, schottisches, two-steps, one-steps and lots
of waltzes.

Missouri Fiddle Contests | Back to Top

In the years since WWII, as old-time dancing has declined, contests have taken over as the predominant context for public performance of fiddle music.  Missouri has over eighty contests per year.  No doubt thousands of Missourians hear the traditional music of the state for the first time at these contests.  The Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association’s Contest Calendar lists most of the contests held in the state and is sent to MSOTFA members each spring.  MSOTFA also maintains a mailing list of active contest fiddlers and provides technical assistance to community groups wishing to start a new contest.

A fiddling contest boom occurred in the mid-1920s with the advent of  radio.  Numerous large, nationally-touted fiddle championships were  held for broadcast with the new medium.  The automobile tycoon Henry Ford sponsored many such competitions.  Under the auspices of the Missouri State Marketing Bureau, several State Fiddling Contests and an  Interstate Fiddling Contest were held in Jefferson City and aired live from the State Capitol Dome over station WOS (which stood for “Watch Our State”). The uncluttered airwaves permitted these programs to be heard from coast to coast.

Men and women (and an increasing number of youngsters) from all walks of life and from diverse regions of the state compete in fiddling.  Few consider themselves professionals.  Most fiddlers seldom win – their reward comes in the form of fellowship  with  other fiddlers, a chance to exchange tunes, the applause of an appreciative audience, and the pride that comes from being a bearer of a generations-old tradition.  Many of us enjoy grousing about the judging over a cold beer afterwards.  Occasional fist fights have been threatened.

Contestants  are  usually required to play three  tunes:   a hoedown  (a piece suitable for square dancing, which includes breakdowns,  reels, and hornpipes), a waltz, and a tune of choice. The standard “trick tunes” such  as “Orange Blossom Special” and “Listen to the Mockingbird,” and modern songs, are barred. This policy is consistent with the desire of many fiddlers to maintain the older tradition.

Depending on the judges, most Missouri fiddling contests emphasize timing and rhythm suitable for dancing, and what could be called “the old-time sound.”  Borrowing techniques or tunes from other types of music (jazz, classical, or blues, for example) is generally frowned upon and will usually result in point penalties from the judges or even outright disqualification. “Hot” fiddle won’t get you far in a Missouri contest.  A solid old time tune played with drive and conservative use of variations will usually carry the day.  The waltz must be played in tune and be pretty, but not too fancy.

Most contests employ a panel of three judges who listen carefully  to each contestant and score the performances on a score sheet  provided by the contest promoter.   The judges are either fiddlers or accompanists themselves or are locally respected aficionados of the art.

Contestants bring their own “second” with them to the contest or “pick up” an accompanist when they arrive.   Today, the guitar is the most popular instrument for accompaniment at contests primarily because of its portability. However, many veteran fiddlers can remember a time when the piano or reed organ was the main back-up instrument, and these are still heard occasionally at contests today.  The once common practice of using a bowed cello to  accompany the old fiddle tunes has virtually disappeared.   As mentioned previously, banjos, mandolins, tenor guitars, and even accordions are sometimes used.

The current State Championship is held at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia every August.  It’s run by the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association.  You must be a Missouri resident to compete. Consistent with the Missourian’s natural affinity for discord and going their own way, there were once three state championships held in the same year (we’ve also had as many as five fiddlers’ associations at one time).

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