Benny Thomasson and the Texas Fiddling Tradition: Part One
by Michael Mendelson
Reprinted from: JEMF Quarterly Volume 10, Part 3 (Autumn 1974) #35
In June, 1922, two men, one in full cowboy regalia, the other in Civil War uniform, came into the Victor Talking Machine recording studios in New York City seeking an audition. Probably, as the story goes, just to get rid of them, the Victor people agreed to record Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland. The resulting recording, “Arkansaw Traveler” backed with “Sally Gooden” (Victor 18956), is generally accepted to be the first commercial “hillbilly” release. 2 Of particular interest here is the fact that the solo performance of “Sally Gooden” by Eck Robertson is also the first known example of the Texas style of fiddling on a sound recording. 3
Because Robertson’s recording was the first of its kind, it would seem safe to assume that his rendition was not learned from a media-oriented tradition. To be sure we cannot dismiss the possibility of influence from radio and records on his playing: the record industry had reached a peak in 1922 with sales nearing one hundred million. 4 In addition, Robertson and Gilliland sought out the record company, not vice versa. But although both radio and the phonograph were widespread by this time, WSB Atlanta, possibly the first radio station in the South to feature country music, began operation only three months before the famous recording session in New York. 5 Thus, although Robertson could have been influenced by records and radio in a general way, his first recordings must have been largely uninfluenced by the media in his specific genre, country fiddling.
A comparison of Eck Robertson’s performance (and those of other early Texas fiddlers) with present-day Texas fiddling shows that many of the distinct stylistic elements now used were already in existence before 1930. Robertson’s “Sally Gooden”, for example, incorporated no fewer than thirteen distinct strains, a device that seems fairly unusual in the Anglo-American instrumental tradition, where a tune usually consists of only two parts; a “coarse” or “A” part, and a “fine”, or “B” part, with perhaps an octave repetition. 6 Whether or not he originated the idea of conscious and deliberate variation in the fiddle tune, it has proven to be one of the most distinctive elements of the Texas style. In fact, Robertson’s version of “Sally Gooden, ” with many of the original strains fairly intact, is still played today by Texas fiddlers. 7 Another example of early Texas fiddling, Ervin Solomon and Joe Hughes’ somewhat “slow,” double fiddle rendition of “Sally Johnson,” recorded in Dallas in 1929, also seems generally in accord with Texas fiddling today. Similarly, the repertoire and manner of performance of the East Texas Serenaders, a string band from Lindale, demonstrated the influence of popular music on the musicians of that area, thus foreshadowing the development of Western Swing. 8
As Charles Faurot states in the liner notes to Benny Thomasson: Country Fiddling From the Big State, the Texas fiddling tradition consists of three main categories: “old-time,” Western Swing, and contest fiddling. 9 These categories are, in fact, closely interrelated. The roots of the first category, “old-time” fiddling, are probably very similar to those of fiddling traditions in the rest of the South. Derived primarily from the Irish and Scottish traditions, the repertoire and manner of performance was carried down the Appalachian chain and into the Southwest with the settlers. Of course as the music spread it underwent changes, and local and regional styles emerged. Many of the tunes found in Texas, for instance “Ragtime Annie, ” “Sally Gooden, ” and others, are found throughout the South, and even in the North. Yet Faurot states that very early the Texans had developed their own style. He mentions (referring in this case specifically to Benny Thomasson’s father and uncle) that they played differently from fiddlers in Georgia or even near-by Arkansas. They used longer bow strokes and performed expanded versions of tunes, using additional, distinct strains. 10
A tradition of jazz and popular dance music played by fiddle bands existed before the development of the Western Swing band. 11 In an article on the history of the East Texas Serenaders, a semiprofessional group from Lindale, Texas, Fred G. Heppner tells how during the mid 1920s to early ’30s the “house party” was a favorite type of get-together in rural Texas. 12 At these functions, round dancing, done to tunes such as “Five Foot Two” and “Down Yonder” was more popular than square dancing, done to hoedown music. Since the first Serenaders recordings, some of which have a definite popular and blues feeling, pre-date the formation of Bob Wills’ first recognizable band (approximately 1929) by at least a year, and his first recordings by nearly four years (1932 with the Fort Worth Doughboys), it is apparent that already established forces were in play during Wills’ formative years. 13 Western Swing grew out of that tradition, and the most popular Western Swing groups, such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, in turn influenced the fiddling tradition.
But during this time the third, and perhaps most important factor was continuing to influence the Texas fiddling tradition. Perhaps more than in any other part of the country, the fiddling contest has had a pronounced effect on both the manner of performance and the conception of performance. To be sure, other parts of the country have a contest tradition. But in the Southeast this tradition seems to have been secondary to the string band, and more recently the Bluegrass band tradition. In the Northeast and Canada, a strong contest tradition exists, although the rules tend to favor a more “Old World” favor to the tunes. In all cases, the contest tradition tends to reinforce already existing concepts of performance. In Texas this has meant the incorporation of repertoire and techniques from a variety of sources.
1) A slightly different version of this paper was read at the Southern California Academy of Sciences meeting, California State University, Fullerton, 1974.
I would like to thank the following people for their comments and criticisms in preparing this paper: Norm Cohen, Nancy Dols, Frank Ferrel, James Porter, Benny Thomasson and D.K. Wilgus.
2) John Cohen, “Fiddlin’ Eck Robertson,” Sing Out! 14:2 (1964) pp. 55-59.
3) Bill C. Malone, Country Music USA. (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1968), pp. 33-78, discusses the early recording of hillbilly music in more detail.
As Malone (p. 39) and others have noted [for example, Thomas A. Ekkens "Earliest?? Folders? On Disc," in Record Research #92 (1968), pp. 4 & 10] there were earlier recordings of fiddlers and other folk performers on disc and cylinder. As early as 1894 Columbia had issued recordings of banjo pieces supposedly based on folk melodies, and in 1914 Victor introduced recordings featuring Charles Ross Taggart as “Uncle Zed” playing the fiddle [Ekkens, pp. 4 & 10]. None of these, however, can be considered to be part of the direct evolution of the hillbilly industry.
4) Malone, p. 37.
5) Ibid p. 35.
6) In the liner notes to Texas Hoedown (County 703), Charles Faurot credits the following anecdote to Eck Robertson. “Seems that Sally was being courted by two men, both fiddlers. Well she couldn’t make up her mind so she told them to start fiddling and she would marry the winner. That old boy named Goodin won, and true to her word she married him. Since then there have been thirteen generations of ‘Goodins’ and so I’m going to play ‘Sally Goodlin’ thirteen different ways.
7) For example, Bartow Riley’s rendition on Texas Hoedown, (County 703).
8) Both groups are represented on Texas Farewell: Texas Fiddlers Recorded 1922-1930 (County 517).
9) Benny Thomasson: Country Fiddling From the Big State (County 724).
11) For an insight into other musical traditions relating directly to Western Swing, the reader is referred to John Solomon Otto and Augustus M. Burns’, “John ‘Knocky’ Parker – A Case Study of White and Black Musical Interraction, ” JEMF Quarterly #33 (1974), pp. 23-26.
12) Fred G. Heppner, “The Story of an Early Fiddle Band: East Texas Seranaders” in Disc Collector #17 (1961), pp. 8-11.
13) Bob Healy, et. al., “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: A Bio-Discography,” Record Research #79 (1966) pp. 3-5; #80 (1966) pp. 3-5; #81 (1967) p. 10; #82 (1967) pp. 3-7.
Update from the author: “This article was originally published in the Autumn 1974 issue of the JEMF Quarterly. Benny passed on in January of 1984, leaving a legacy of wonderful music and influencing a generation (and more) of Texas and contest-style fiddlers. Perhaps Benny’s most well-known protégé is Mark O’Connor, but there are many fiddlers (myself included) who were not only enthralled by his music, but were fortunate to have been encouraged by his positive outlook. No matter your proficiency on the fiddle – from rank beginner to contest finalist – Benny was always eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm.”
About the Author
After many years as a bluegrass guitarist and singer, Michael Mendelson switched to the fiddle because it was louder and easier to carry. Over the years he has played a variety of styles, from old-timey and bluegrass to Texas-style and swing to New England and Cape Breton to whatever catches his ear. He has had the distinct honor to work with, and write about such great fiddlers as Benny Thomasson, Hugh Farr, and Tiny Moore.
He regularly plays contradances with the bands “Chopped Liver” and the “Fiddle Tunas”, folk-rock with “Granite Tapestry” and was a member of the infamous (and now defunct) old-timey band “The Gap Tooth Mountain Ramblers”.
His latest CD “Fiddle Pieces” is a collection of original tunes ranging from western swing to contradance, waltzes, jigs, reels and a tango! (www.SlidingScaleMusic.com)