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Books about American Fiddlers

January 2010 11 Comments

Stacy Phillipsby Stacy Phillips

The past few years have seen a relative bonanza in fiddle-oriented nonfiction in print. Check out the previous review article I wrote for the October 2004 edition of Fiddle Sessions. Here is a rundown of nine of my favorites that are not mainly music transcriptions or instruction.

“Fiddler of the Opry – The Howdy Forrester Story” by Gayel Pitchford (Viewpoint Press – 2007) is a biography of the most important Nashville fiddler in the 1950’s and `60’s.  He composed many now standard tunes as well as variations of pieces that are also now standard.

“The Music of Bill Monroe” by Neil Rosenberg and Charles Wolfe  (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2007)  is a musical biography of Bill Monroe from the viewpoint of his myriad recording sessions, beginning with those with his brother Charlie in 1936.  Almost every Bill Monroe session had a different lineup of musicians, so there is a ton of information that had to be ferreted out from session notes and interviews with the participants.  Monroe always centered his music around fiddle, and his recordings employed many of the greatest.  There’s a lot of info about the history of bluegrass fiddling here.

Though not focused on fiddlers, “Classic Country” by Charles Wolfe (Rutledge Press, 2001) contains valuable essays about Fiddling John Carson, Tommy Magness, Curly Fox and nuggets of information about many other fiddlers embedded in biographies of early country stars.

“Country Music Originals” (Oxford University Press – 2007) is similar in that it ranges beyond only fiddlers.   Here old time music expert Tony Russell delivers about 150 vignettes about tradition based country performers from the 1920’s to `40’s.  There is some fascinating information about folks like Eck Robertson, Hoyt Ming, Leake County Revelers, Cliff Bruner, and many others, both well known and undeservedly obscure.

“With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: A History of Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama”  (University Alabama Press – 2001) by Joyce Cauthen discusses the history of the music along with the important disseminators of the style like Yzee Hamilton, Charlie Stripling, Tom Freeman, Dix Hollings and other important fiddlers of this relatively obscure fiddle tradition.

“Fiddler’s Curse” by Randy Noles (Centerstream Publishing – 2007) is a revised edition of the story of Orange Blossom Special and the amazing biographies of Edwin Rouse, the composer of this tune, and Chubby Wise, one of the most influential bluegrass fiddlers.

Gene Lowinger was a Blue Grass Boy in the early 1960’s.  “I Hear a Voice Calling” is a memoir of his artistic life’s journey from fiddler to violinist to photographer.  He’s having a very interesting life, full of challenges and his responses to them.  There are some great photos here, especially of an off-stage Bill Monroe.

Quote a bit older, but worthy of your attention is “Cowboy Fiddler in Bob Wills’ Band” by Frankie McWhorter (Univ. of North Texas Press – 1997) who played with Bob Wills in the latter days of the Texas Playboys.

Finally there is “Shame, Shame!” by Robert Jolting, “a saga of Spade Cooley, King of Western Swing – The most brutal murder to ever occur in Hollywood!” (www.booksurge.com – 2009).  Sometimes prose is so audaciously poor that its very egregiousness provokes interest.  There is almost nothing about Spade’s fiddling here, only lurid anecdotes. I admit that I read the whole thing.

Stacy Phillips

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