“If he played any tune whatsoever, I clean missed it.”


A.A. Gray (2nd from left) and his String Band

excerpt from “The Georgia Old Time Fiddlers’ Conventions Revisited” by Wayne W. Daniel:

Perhaps the most quarrelsome dispute among the old time fiddlers occurred at the 1917
convention. The controversy erupted when a fiddler from Union County allowed that he would
be playing a tune from a copy of sheet music that he had brought to the convention.
According to a newspaper report, “two dozen fiddlers were on their feet in a moment, vigorously
protesting against the introduction of any tune which ever had been printed and the admission
of any fiddler who pretended to be able to look at a lot of black spots on a ladder and play them
on a fiddle.”
There arose considerable debate between two groups –those against the use of printed music
and those who were brave enough to admit that they could convert to meaningful sound such
erudite symbols as key signatures, flats, sharps, eighth notes, quarter notes, and whole notes.
Alec Smart intervened with a compromise. Printed music could be used for exhibition purposes,
but would not be allowed in the auditorium during the contest.


“I had the pleasure of hearing one of these fancy violinists last year,” said Mr. Jackson.
“He came a pesterin’ around through the mountains on the trail of what he called folk music. He
got three or four of us fiddlers together and prevailed on us to play for him, and he put down
little crooked notes in a black book.
Every time I’d get good started on a tune, he’d stop me while he caught up, and then tell me to start over. When he got through I asked him to play us a tune and he took my fiddle and [tinkered] with it a little bit and then sawed the bow up and down and seemed to be huntin’ around for something he never could find, and then he quit.
Uncle Jim Watson asked him why he didn’t go ahead and play something.
“’Why, I’ve just played it,’ this fellow said.  But I don’t know but what he was joking. If he played any tune whatsoever, I clean missed it.”

One Response to ““If he played any tune whatsoever, I clean missed it.””

  1. Ron or Donna Says:

    This historical account represents an all too convenient attitude taken by some modern players that prevail to this very day that fiddle tunes have and always have had a separate life from music that was committed to the printed page and memorized from the notes. This is, of course, complete bunk, and only serves to maintain the mystical oral – aural tradition of tunes that arise from the inspired imagination of gifted idiot-savant anti-intellectual hillbillies.

    Facts point to the once very common skill of reading notes as the source of an enormous percentage of tunes, ballads and parlor songs from the 19th century. It seems that somewhere along the way modern educated revivalists deluded themselves into thinking that ear musicians created a superior form of music that transcended any collection of tunes learned from a book.

    Now, really. Think about it. Earl Johnson. Dick Summers. Buell Kazee. Charlie Poole. These folks all made ample use of their musical training to become truly excellent musicians without sounding as though they were formally trained. Well, maybe Kazee. There is also the extensive printed 19th-century minstrel show rep with music by such dullards as Steve Foster and Dan Emmett. There is also a huge contingent of people who played music at home with their families for themselves by referring to the enormous number of printed tune collections – that includes 19th-century banjo tutors and songbooks from whence came such standards as “Sweet Sunny South.”

    I don’t advocate that paper-trained players represent a higher level of musician, or that reading notes is even necessary for those of us capable of doing both. I’m just saying, tune books are simply another source of rep, along with oral-aural sources. Please just stop with the citified need for romanticizing the stereotyped American ignoramous incapable of dipping into written sources of tunes – it smacks of the dehumanizing antics of the Solemn Old Judge when he insisted that rural musicians stop showing up to play wearing their Sunday best and wear ill-fitting overalls with blackened teeth. What followed from that travesty was Hee-Haw.


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