To love Kentucky fiddling is to have a romance with the past. It is music that is intimately tied to the land and a rural way of life that has now mostly disappeared, but lives on in the colorfully named tunes and equally colorful characters who have passed them down to us. For most people in the 1990s, however, the days when rural fiddling was still passed down through the generations as a living tradition seem very remote and long ago.
The few fiddlers who survived into the late twentieth century and grew up in that tradition are looked upon with reverence, for they are survivors of a simple, unhurried world that has long ago been left behind by our fast-paced technological society, and they have left us with our only clues into the mystery of where this music came from and what shaped it into its present form. There is much to be learned from their lives, because with their presence gone from the world, old time fiddling as a traditional art has passed some invisible point of no return.
Now we can learn from recordings, books, at camps, and at festivals. We can learn to play old time, Cajun, Irish, contest style. It is still traditional music, but it is no longer rooted in traditional culture. Fiddle music will never again be learned the way the old timers learned it –– by absorbing it in the course of everyday life.
There is currently a great revival of interest in traditional Kentucky fiddling, and for good reason. Nowhere has a greater body of fine tunes, lore, and legend been retained and preserved for our inspiration. This interest was first fueled by Library of Congress recordings made in the 1930s by Alan Lomax of Luther Strong, William Stepp, and other eastern Kentucky fiddlers. Their extraordinarily skilled, archaic playing led others to speculate on the potential musical treasures in that area.
Folklorists and collectors began to comb the hills for still living fiddlers, and field recordings by D. K. Wilgus, Lynwood Montell, John Cohen, Peter Hoover, and others proved that they were still there. In the 1970s, independent collectors, led by Guthrie Meade, Bruce Greene, and John Harrod began systematically documenting the fiddle traditions of large parts of the state.
In colonial times, the Kentucky country was looked on as the remote and mysterious frontier, the Cumberland Gap as the gateway to independence and unbelievably fertile land. In literature, the legendary hunters and explorers and adventurers more often than not claimed Kentucky as their land of origin, as if that somehow gave more credibility to their larger than life achievements.
In the first part of the 1900s, when ballad collecting was in great vogue, Kentucky was looked upon in its isolation as the last stronghold of our Elizabethan forebears from the old world, and therefore the most fertile ground for finding the ancient ballads still intact. Local color stories and magazine articles depicted Kentucky in the same way –– a land where the past nostalgically lived on, unaffected by the rest of the world. Even in the 1970s, people would tell me, “Oh, yes, I’ve always heard that all the best fiddlers came out of Kentucky.” Kentucky has been pervaded by a deeply romanticized sense of reverence for the past.
Kentucky author Harriette Simpson Arnow once wrote, “My people loved the past more than their present lives, I think, but it cannot be said we lived in the past.” And nowhere is this statement more true than when applied to the Kentucky fiddler. I have had the privilege of knowing a number of fiddlers from around the state who were born before or shortly after the turn of the last century, and they surely had one foot in the past and one in the present. They remembered in great detail growing up in the days before automobiles, televisions, telephones –– electricity at all, for that matter –– yet they seemed quite at ease living in the modern world.
Still, the past was never far away. They seemed to have endless tales and reminiscences concerning the music and where it came from and who were the great players of olden times. Their reverence for the antiquity of the music and the fiddlers from past generations was always fresh in their minds. I remember many conversations about some old timer who had been dead for thirty years or more that ended with, “You remember him, don’t you?” As if I had been back there with him, or it had just happened last week.
Much of Kentucky in the 1970s and ’80s was just such a mix of the past and the present, and by that time most of the traditional music had slipped quietly into the background of people’s lives. As an Allen County fiddler, James Hood said, “A lot of them has quit. I know a lot of fiddlers I thought was better than anything you hear now. But they said that so many of ’em got to playing different kinds of music, playing different styles, that they just quit. I’ve had lots of ’em to tell me that.”
And so, many times I strayed off the main roads as I roamed the state, to stumble onto a piece of the past that should no longer be there, yet somehow was. That was how in 1991, I met the eccentric ballad singer Pleaz Mobley, who had some brief notoriety in the 1960s performing at festivals with fiddler Clester Hounchel, before disappearing into obscurity. I had assumed him dead long ago. And that was how I met fiddler Sid Hudnall, who lived with his ancient mother in an isolated farmstead, called Happy Valley because there they had escaped the curse of civilization all their lives. And that was how in 1971 I met the sister of legendary fiddler Henry Bandy. Bandy was born in 1876 and died in 1952, but she insisted that if I wanted to know so much about him, I should just go ask him in person.
There is a great deal more to traditional Kentucky fiddling than just the tunes themselves. They are romantic expressions of a world and a kind of people we will never know again. So let them tell you their stories about what it was like to know old time fiddling in a time gone by, and why the old Kentucky fiddle music was inseparable from the players’ lives and the lives of those who came before them.