Earl Collins (pt.1)

by

video excerpt and notes from “The Films of Bess Lomax”:

Earl Collins: Hoedown Fiddler Takes The Lead by Barbara LaPan Rahm

 
Earl Collins was born in Douglass County, Missouri in 1911. In 1917 his family moved to Oklahoma, where they sharecropped and Earl augmented their income by playing fiddle at square dances through the bitter early years of the depression. He married 1931 and he and his wife moved to Los Angeles, California in 1935 where Earl turned his hand to any lob he could get: hod carrier, truck driver, trash hauler, machinist, welder mechanic. He retired in 1969 because of his always fragile health.

For years he tried to convert his skill as a fiddler into a money-making occupation. He never made it, and in 1949, he put his fiddle away and did not play again until 1965, when his sons persuaded him to take it up again. Earl’s extraordinary technique and musicianship made him a star on the old time fiddlers circuit in California, almost every weekend until his death in 1975 he played at one or another local contest or jam session. In the following, Earl tells his story in his own words, which have been excerpted from a series of taped interviews conducted by Barbara LaPan Rahm.

“My grandfather fiddled, and his father fiddled. There’s been fiddling through the Collins’s since… I don t know how far the generation goes back. In the summertime my father always went out on the front porch and sat in a chair. I’ve heard people tell him “We heard you play fiddle last night, and we could tell just exactly what you was playing.” And they lived two miles away. That’s how far a fiddle would carry. Nice clear climate, you know.

Those springs in Missouri that come out of the hills are colder than the ice cubes you get out of that box. That water is so cold that can’t walk in it: Clean pure. You know the waters so clear down there that it can be 25 feet deep, you can throw a nickel in and tell which is up, heads or tails. But it is mostly just hills and rocks. Just rolling hills just up one hill and down, up another and down. You know, Missouri is made put of rocks. I don’t care what kind of rock you want what size, you can find it. Rocks seemed to grow up out of the ground. We’d load them in the wagon and haul them off so that we could farm the land next year and next year there’s the rocks back up there again. It you could find five acres that you could put a little corn on or a little wheat or something, why, you were doing pretty good. They don t farm any more down there.

When was seven, like I said, we moved to Wynnewood Oklahoma, stayed there a year and went to Shawnee. Shawnee’s an awful poor country. If it wasn’t for that Tinker Air Base up there, Shawnee would fold up the sidewalks and quit. See, they just farmed Oklahoma to death. Cotton and corn, cotton and corn, cotton and corn. The first thing you knew there was no fertile ground and you couldn’t make cotton or corn either. I picked cotton, hon. I would drag a sack 20 foot before I could find a boll of cotton: we’d be lucky if we got 1⁄4 of a bale an acre. That was before Roosevelt– ’32. You know how much I got? I got one day a month– $2.40. And that’s all the money I could make outside of this old fiddle. I’d play a square dance- play six or eight hours– and make 50 cents. I’d give Dad every bit of it but a dime and I’d go get me a soda pop and a candy bar.

I started trying to play when I was about three or four. But l couldn’t reach the fiddle you know; my arm was too short. So Dad glued up this little old cigar box fiddle and made the little cut-outs, you know. And I played that for four or five years. I guess I was about seven when I got big enough to reach, make a true note. I was making them sharp all the time. And l had a good ear and I could tell I wasn’t reaching high enough: my arm wasn’t long enough. See, I was a two-pound baby. Clark4 was telling you the other day that you could turn a teacup over my head and put me in a shoebox. That‘s the truth. When I was five years old I only weighed 15 pounds.

Anyway, going back to this fiddle, I had a full sized bow, but I had this little bitty old fiddle. Then I started stealing my father’s fiddle. He kept it under his bed. Boy, he’d spank my butt with a razor strop when he’d catch me playing his fiddle. (It didn’t hurt but it popped, you know, it was double: It had the leather finish on one side and fiber on the other. They always rough it up on one side and strop it the other way.)

Mother always watched for him. She’d say, “I see Daddy coming, and you can put the fiddle up.” So one day I looked up, and Dad’s standing in the door. I was about seven. Oh. I was just fiddling the hell out of Eighth of January or something; I don’t know what it was. Oh boy, sure going to get it now. He said, “You’re playing pretty good: well, come on to dinner.” So I was so scared and shaky I could hardly eat, but he started talking to me at the table said, “You really like the fiddle, don’t you?” I said “Oh I really love that fiddle.” He said, “Well, I’II tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it to you if you won’t fool it away.” And he said, ‘Why I been spanking you with that razor strop is to get you to play. Usually if you try to make a kid play, he won’t. Just like a hog, if he thinks you want him in the pen he won’t go in.” And that just the way he put it to me. And that’s the way I started playing the fiddle.

TO BE CONTINUED

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