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Benny Thomasson and the Texas Fiddling Tradition: Part Three

June 2011 No Comment

Reprinted from: JEMF Quarterly Volume 10, Part 3 (Autumn 1974) #35

by Michael Mendelson

To get an idea of some of the general features of Texas fiddling, and Benny’s fiddling in particular, I have included a transcription of his playing. 1 “Cripple Creek” was chosen as it is a well known tune, and can thus be used to point out certain features common to the Texas style of performance. Obviously a written transcription cannot adequately represent an aural event, so the reader is encouraged to listen to the sound recording. The actual performance took place in a jam session in Weiser, Idaho in June 1972 at the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest.

To make the transcription easier to read, I have notated the 16th note patterns as four equal 16th notes. Actually the first and third notes of each figure are usually longer than the second and fourth, approximating an 8th note-16th note triplet figure. In addition, some of the double stops have been omitted in order not to obscure the melodic line.

One characteristic common to much of Texas fiddling is the tendency to play in long phrases, as demonstrated by the (A) strains in the transcription. Whereas a Southeastern fiddler might phrase in 2-bar sections, for instance placing an 8th note “e” instead of the 16th note “e-a” figure in the second beat of measure 2-strain (Al), the Texas fiddler is just as likely to run the entire 8 bars together in one phrase. This device is quite common, and one of the most distinctive features of the Texas style.

Parallel to this type of phrasing is the tendency to complement rather than contrast the rhythmic background. Severe syncopation, so common in Bluegrass fiddling, for example, is largely absent in Texas fiddling. Rather, there is a tendency toward a smooth “flow” of the melodic line.

As melodic invention is stressed, the tunes tend to be played a bit slower than in other parts of the country. Long, single-note bow strokes, and intricate left hand work are very common. The triplet and sextuplet patterns are not unusual.

It is interesting to note that the variations are often built on chord changes rather than the melodic line, following in the jazz tradition, an example being the strains marked (C) on the transcription of “Cripple Creek.” Whereas the (A) and (B) strains follow the commonly known melodic line, the (C) strains do not. Rather, they arpeggiate and ornament the chordal structure of the tune.

As a final note, Jerry Thornasson’s backup guitar work (in this case, tenor guitar) should be mentioned. Whereas the guitarist in the Southeast might be expected to use only the A, D, and E chords in backing the first half of the (A) strain of “Cripple Creek”:

A/A // D/ A // A/ A // E / A //

The Texas guitarist would be expected to use the A, D, and E chords and also use the D#dim7 and B7 chords:

A/A // D/D#dim7 // A/A // B7/ D //

in conjunction with a well defined bass line of:

It should be apparent that the Texas style of fiddle playing incorporates many innovative elements. Its competitive nature has promoted an extended repertoire, a fairly advanced body of popular and jazz techniques and philosophy.

In Benny Thomasson’s case, the musicianship has been matched by a genuine warmth and human-ness, sometimes lacking in innovative musicians. Perhaps a glimpse of this can be seen in his willingness to share what he knows, and learn from others. In his own words:

You know, young people coming up, learning to fiddle, they want to do everything they can… in more modern ways, you know. Times changes. And I think… that as time changes, music should change to fit the playing now and 30-40 years from then, I couldn’t even touch ‘em, see. Well, I like that, I mean that’d be fine.


Printable Version




1) From A Jam Session With Benny & Jerry Thomasson (Voyager VRLP 309).

— University of California, Los Angeles



County 703: Texas Hoedown (ca. 1965)

Billy in the Low Ground
Black Mountain Rag
Ace of Spades
Laughing Boy
Bonaparte’s Retreat
Lady’s Fancy

County 724: Country Fiddling From the Big State (ca. 1970)

Dry and Dusty
Jack of Diamonds
Bumblebee in the Gourdvine
Drunkard’s Hiccups
Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down
Black and White Rag
Bitter Creek
Tug Boat
Midnight On the Water
Dusty Miller
Nigger in the Woodpile
Lost Indian
Tom and Jerry

Voyager VRLP 309: A Jam Session With Benny and Jerry Thomasson (ca. 1973)

Cripple Creek
Billy in the Low Ground
Salt River
Don’t Let the Deal Go Down
Apple Blossom
That’s A-Plenty
Liverpool Hornpipe
Kansas City Kitty
Paddy On the Turnpike / Snowbird in the Ashes
Jack of Diamonds
Grey Eagle
Sally Johnson
Soppin the Gravy
Draggin’ the Bow
Cotton Patch Rag
Leather Britches
Durang’s Hornpipe
Twinkle Little Star

Oldtime Fiddling and Other Folk Music, Weiser, Idaho, 1972 (Weiser, Idaho, Chamber of Commerce)

Black and White Rag

Oldtime Fiddling and other Folk Music, Weiser, Idaho, 1973

Prairie Schottische

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)

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