Benny Thomasson and the Texas Fiddling Tradition: Part Two
by Michael Mendelson
Reprinted from: JEMF Quarterly Volume 10, Part 3 (Autumn 1974) #35
As Charles Faurot notes, in Texas, “Almost any reason will serve as an excuse for a fiddle contest…” whether it be a rodeo, anniversary of a town founding, St. Patrick’s Day or a “Yamboree”— a yam harvest festival .14 As these contests were (are) quite common and occasionally lucrative (Ervin Solomon is said to have supported his family on the winnings from such contests during the depression 15), there naturally evolved a keen sense of competition. This in turn led to the deliberate practice of developing more and more elaborate versions of tunes to present as show pieces at the contest. The contest also stressed the importance of the fiddle as a solo instrument, as opposed to the band concept so prevalent in the Southeast.
One of the most influential of the Texas fiddlers, and a man still active today is Benny Thomasson. He was born in Runnels County, Texas on 22 April 1909, and raised around Gatesville. In his early childhood he came under the direct influence of many fiddlers: both his father Luke and his uncle Ed were well known in the area as excellent fiddlers, and in addition, many other fiddlers such as Eck Robertson and Lefty Franklin would often come to visit the Thomasson household and stay a few days to fiddle. At a very early age Benny took up the instrument and was soon playing in contests and on the radio. At the contests he would often be competing against such fiddlers as Ervin Solomon and Major Franklin and it was here that he picked up many of the ideas he incorporated into his own style. In addition, he would also sit in with dance bands in the area. He says he knew Bob Wills and would sometimes sit in with the band when they were in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He never played professionally, however, although he did cut two sides for Okeh in San Antonio in 1929. Unfortunately they were never released: possibly the wax masters were lost or broken in transit.
A few years ago Benny retired from the auto repair business and moved to Washington State to be with his son, Dale. While in the area he was “re-discovered” by John Burke who arranged for him to play at the Northwest Regional Folklife Festival in Seattle. A month later, in June 1972, Benny made his first trip to Weiser, Idaho, and the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest. At that time a recording was made which was subsequently released as Voyager VRLP 309, A Jam Session With Benny & Jerry Thomasson. A transcription “Cripple Creek” from that recording accompanies this article.
That year Benny took third place in the open competition, placing behind only J. C. Broughton and Dick Barret (one of Benny’s protégés from Texas), who won the title for the second consecutive year. In 1973 Benny again placed third at Weiser, behind Barret, and Herman Johnson, who took his third title in six years.
In 1974 however, Benny swept the competition, winning not only the National title, but also the Senior’s title, the Northwest Area title, and the award for the best-liked fiddler as voted by the competing fiddlers.
As evidenced by his album on County Records, Benny Thomasson: Country Fiddling From the Big State, 17 Benny Thomasson has strong roots in “old time” fiddling, but perhaps the strongest influence on his playing has been the contest tradition. In his own words, from an interview conducted last June at Weiser: 18
Now I’ll tell you a little story about that. There was a fiddle contest in Dallas. I guess I was about 18, 17-18 years old. And I thought, boy, I was just a good fiddler, you know when you’re that age, and you do play … pretty well, you think, by doggies its going to take somebody pretty hard to beat you, you know, I got up there, there’s 250 fiddlers. Howdy Forrester, Georgia Slim, all these guys. And the top fiddlers in the nation you might say. And I got up there, and boy, I laid that “Grey Eagle” on there goin’ and a-coming’. I come to find out that nobody even recognized me’. The judges didn’t even scratch me. So from that time on, I went to work on that thing.
I said, “Well” to myself, “self, you got to do something now.” And I just made it a point to keep to continue to work, working, working on those tunes.
As evidenced by his playing today it seems he did just that. Benny seldom limits his renditions of tunes to just two strains. Often using higher positions on the fiddle, intricate double-stop slides and other devices; he is continually varying the basic tune. Again in his own words (in response to the question “Do you play similar to the way your dad played?”):
Well, no. I’ll tell you what. See those old tunes, back in those days was just little two-part tunes and they never had any variation to ‘em. Now I play the same old tunes, but then I have arranged variations of the same parts in different positions on the fiddle, see.
And like you’d be playing an old tune like “Dusty Miller” or something, and the low part there, and then you get up there on your higher positions and make it sound… get a little bit different variation, and get a good sound out of it. And it don’t make it come back to the same old monotonous. two-part deals there…
Thus we find that he is working with a kind of instrumental analog of an “oral formulaic” process. Working from a conception of the basic tune he expands and improvises on it. From a comparison of many of Benny’s performances of the same tune, it is apparent that he holds a basic idea of what he is going to do before he plays, for the variant strains are usually similar from performance to performance, but the details are added during the actual playing.
The jazz tradition has also had an impact on Benny’s playing. During the interview he indicated a familiarity with the music of Django Reinhardt, and the jazz violinists Stephaney Grapple and Florian ZaBach, as well as his involvement with Western Swing. With respect to the latter he mentioned that:
…used to, before I d play in a fiddle contest, I d play a swing tune, that’s bring me down to my perfect timing, you see, on those hoedowns…
TO BE CONTINUED
1) 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.
2) Texas Fiddle Favorites (County 707).
3) Texas Farewell: Texas Fiddlers Recorded 1922-1930 (County 517).
4) Information found in this paragraph is taken from the following sources: The liner notes to County 724, Benny Thomasson: Country Fiddling From the Big State; An interview with Benny Thomasson conducted at the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest, June, 1973, by Michael Mendelson and David Garelick; Correspondence to the author from Frank Ferrel, August, 1974; Okeh: files. The titles cut for Okeh on 27 June 1929, by the Thomasson Brothers, were “Scolding Wife” (W402756) and “Star Waltz” (W402757).
5) Benny Thomasson: Country Fiddling From the Big State, (County 724).
6) This quote and those that follow were taken from the interview that accompanies this article. The actual interview was conducted at the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho, June, 1973, by Michael Mendelson and David Garelick. Portions of the interview appear in The Devil’s Box 24 (1974) pp. 19-26 under the title “An Interview With Benny Thomasson,” by David Garelick. The transcription accompanying the present article is by the author.
About the author
After many years as a bluegrass guitarist and singer, I switched to the fiddle because it was louder and easier to carry. Over the years I have played a variety of styles, from old-timey and bluegrass to Texas-style and swing to New England and Cape Breton to whatever catches my ear. I have had the distinct honor to work with, and write about such great fiddlers as Benny Thomasson, Hugh Farr, and Tiny Moore.
I regularly play 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”.
My 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)