Archive for the ‘Bruce Greene’ Category

Bruce Greene on Kentucky Fiddling, pt. 2

May 24, 2014


edited from Bruce Greene (

There was one man I learned a lot from out in western Kentucky, who really played more like what people think of as an eastern Kentucky style. It’s hard for me to generalize a style… Eastern Kentucky is known for having that dark, modal sounding stuff, a lot of solo playing, a lot of cross-tuning, things like that. And western Kentucky, at least when I was around there, didn’t have too much of that… It was close enough to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry and all that, I think it was influenced a lot by radio. One thing I would say is that there wasn’t the kind of isolation in western Kentucky that there was in eastern Kentucky, so I think they had more influences passing through. Whereas in eastern Kentucky, there were a lot of people that really just were there and were never really affected by much outside their own region.

When I was learning to play, when I was living around there, as a tradition, it was really on the decline. The people that got together and played really did more kind of newer music –– bluegrass, and stuff they got on the radio. There were very few people that got together and just played the old tunes. As far as a living tradition, I think it had pretty much evolved into bluegrass and more modern music. So with a lot of the fiddlers I’d get together with, they always said they hardly played at all except when I’d come around, and then we’d play the old tunes.

Kentucky’s funny, because it had an incredibly strong music tradition, and it kind of has this mystique, and yet it never really got discovered much. A lot of bluegrass and country musicians came out of Kentucky, but as far as their old traditional music, so little of it really got any attention paid to it until it was almost gone. If you compare it to places like Missouri, and Texas maybe, places where there’s a real active fiddling community, Kentucky, when I was living there –– that was mostly the ’70s –– there was nothing like that, really. There were just little isolated pockets of people that got together. There were lots of fiddlers, but they were all scattered around, and most of them wanted to play newer music. So you really had to beat the bushes to find the old people who knew the old-fashioned stuff, which was what I was after.

One thing I’ve thought a lot about, if you talk about Kentucky style, is I think, especially with eastern Kentucky, a lot of the style is not so much to do with that region as it is to do with being an older style. Recordings I’ve heard of real old fiddlers from other parts of the country seem to me very much like the eastern Kentucky style fiddlers, and that made me think that it’s more something to do with how far back in time the style goes, more than what regions they’re from.

So what you think of as a classic eastern Kentucky style, to me is just really more of an older style that was probably a lot more widespread in the old days, and it just kind of hung on in eastern Kentucky longer. People like Marcus Martin and Bill Hensley, the old fiddlers down here in North Carolina, they could just as well have been from Kentucky, the way I knew Kentucky music. Some of the Mississippi fiddlers that people listen to, it’s the same way. It’s pretty vague stuff, because we have so few examples of the older players, from back in the 1800s. There are really just isolated little examples of playing from that time. So it’s awful risky to make too many generalizations….


Bruce Greene on Kentucky Fiddling, pt. 1

April 24, 2014


The Romance of the Kentucky Fiddler by Bruce Greene, 1997 (excerpt from

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.


Stranger on a Mule

January 4, 2013


“Stranger on a Mule – 31 Traditional Fiddle Tunes from the Southern Appalachians” by Bruce Greene (fiddle) with Don Pedi (mountain dulcimer)


Born in New York City in 1951 and raised in New Jersey, Bruce Greene would seem an unlikely person to become one of the finest old time southern Appalachian fiddlers of his generation. As did many of his peers, he began to learn folk music as a teenager during the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, mastering the guitar and banjo. His interest drifted into the fiddle music he began to hear, and by the time he was twenty years old, he was “hooked” thoroughly enough to move to Kentucky in search of the source of the music he had come to love and identify with.

Bruce attended Western Kentucky University, intending to become a folklorist, but his interest in fiddling was stronger than his scholarly ambitions, and he soon made the transition from learning about traditional fiddling to learning fiddle music in a traditional way. His travels around Kentucky led him to a number of old time fiddlers, and the next several years were taken up with informal apprenticeships with these old timers. In the process of learning from them, Bruce also recorded a great deal of their music, preserving a rich, often previously unknown part of our pioneer musical heritage.

One of Bruce’s greatest discoveries was the family of John Salyer of Magoffin County, Kentucky. Salyer was a true giant of a fiddler whose distrust of the commercial music industry had kept his music a secret from the outside world. However, the Salyers had home recordings of their father, which they let Bruce listen to and learn from. For a number of years, the old time music revival community was treated to these tunes through Bruce’s playing without ever getting to hear the true source. But Bruce’s long term friendship with the family has recently paid off for the rest of us, since the family gave permission to the Appalachian Center of Berea College to issue a cassette album of John Salyer himself. The music of the Salyer Family has been Bruce’s greatest inspiration over the years.


This CD is a selection of fiddle tunes, most of which come from fiddlers who were born in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds in Kentucky and Western North Carolina. We have been stubbornly carrying them on for the better part of a lifetime in our rural communities, where we have had the pleasure of playing at local dances, weddings, funerals, birthdays, potlucks, ramp festivals, and sorghum makings – all the places where homemade music has long been a part of everyday life. It is a joy and a privilege to be part of the mule-paced and timeless graciousness of this living memory and to carry it into the twenty-first century.

Tune list
Boogerman – Old Red Rooster – Nancy Dalton – Pretty Little Widow – Roosian Rabbit – Grey Squirrel Eating Up the New Ground Corn – Twine Mid the Ringlets  Little Boy Working on the Road – Ten Steps – Stranger on a Mule – Christmas Eve – Little Lizee Anne – Laurel Lonesome – John Henry – Hog Eyed ManFrolic of the Frogs – Sleeping on a Corn Cob Bed – Run Johnny RunCome Along Terrapin – Three Forks of the Cumberland  – The Old Folks Played and the Young People Danced Say Old Man I Want Your Daughter  – Betty Baker – John Salyer’s Shady Grove – Shady Lane – Lee Sexton’s Shady Grove – Old Aunt Jenny with Her Night Cap OnMcKinley Waltz – Old Beech Leaves – Hello John D
Old Tobacco Hills

Available here.

Scott’s Return

May 18, 2012

by Jim Taylor, from “The Civil War Collection”:

Scott’s Return

Solo fiddle playing is a tradition that was well established at the time of the Civil War. Contests were often held to determine the best fiddler in a brigade, regiment, or even down to the company level. Old issues of Confederate Veteran magazine are filled with stories of fiddle contests and the exploits of fiddle players. For example, an article appearing in an 1894 edition speaks of treasure trove of entertainment granted to the boys of General A.P. Hill’s signal corps while stationed on Clark’s Mountain in Orange County, VA. “Down by the river,” an old veteran of the corps recalled, “was the regiment of Barksdale’s Mississippians. In one company of ninety men, ‘seventy-five were good fiddlers.’ We cultivated these fellows and they cultivated us. We had a dance three nights out of the week, and went courting two out of the other four.” Years after the war, fiddle contests were held at veterans’ reunions.

At the 1916 United Confedertate Veterans’ reunion in Birmingham, Dr. Lauriston H. Hill, former surgeon for the 53rd North Carolina Regiment, organized such an event where “old vets and their children can contest.” He urged them to come prepared “to do your best” for “the championship of old-time fiddlers.” And, after they’d done their best, Dr. Hill added, “if you don’t mind, these old Tarheels will show you how they play and put ‘the tar on you.’” These contests were fierce and serious affairs with bragging rights awarded to the winner. Thus, Dr. Hill closed his announcement with a bit of bragging of his own: “I will say, lastly, that when allowed to play, I have won the first prize.”

Scott’s Return on this recording is a good example of a contest tune played by a master fiddler in the Old-time tradition. And, Bruce Greene is one of the finest there is. Bruce learned this version from Milo Biggers (born around 1890) of Glasgow, KY. Bruce adds: “Mr. Biggers got it from Henry Carver, a legendary fiddler of that area and patriarch of a musical family that included the Carver Boys (recorded in the 1920’s), Cousin Emmy, and Noble (Uncle Bozo) Carver. Milo said it was a Civil War piece, but all he knew about it was something about an old soldier coming back from the war.”

Bruce Greene plays “Scott’s Return”:

John Durang’s Hornpipe

January 20, 2012

John Durang (1768–1822) was the first U.S.-born professional dancer of note, best known for his hornpipe dance.  The son of Jacob and Catherine Durang, he was born on January 6, 1768, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but grew up mostly in York, Pennsylvania.  He went on to spend much of the rest of his life as a dancer, acrobat, actor, mime, rope dancer, and blackface comic. He was a part of a group called Ricketts’s Circus, which traveled throughout the northeastern United States and into Canada.

For much of his career his hornpipe dancing was both his and his audience’s favorite.  He boasted in his memoirs that, around 1790, he danced “a Hornpipe on thirteen eggs blindfolded without breaking one.” Durang is also credited with popularizing the nautical-style hornpipe dance that is still thought of as the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’.  It is the hornpipe that bears his name for which fiddlers remember him, however, and, according to his memoirs it was composed specifically for him by one “Mr. Hoffmaster, a German Dwarf, in New York, 1785.”

Durang had taken violin lessons from Hoffmaster, who was all of three feet in height and who was married to a wife of similar stature.  Hoffmaster had “a large head, hands and feet,” yet must have been an accomplished musician. The hornpipe became famous in his own time, for Durang noted (again, in his memoirs) that it was written “expressly for me, which is become well known in America, for I have since heard it play’d the other side of (Pennsylvania’s) Blue Mountains as well as in the cities.”

Bruce Greene and Don Pedi play “Durang’s Hornpipe”:

Luther Strong

October 21, 2011

Bruce Greene on Luther Strong, from Fiddler Magazine, June, 1997:

When I was first becoming aware of old time fiddle music, I heard some recordings of William “Billie” Stepp and Luther Strong, two of the finest eastern Kentucky fiddlers ever to be recorded. Their haunting and exciting renditions of classic pieces like “Ways of the World,” “The Hog Eyed Man,” and “The Last of Callahan” captivated me and surely were the beginning of my own romance with Kentucky fiddling. So of course I tried to find out more about them.

One evening I was visiting with Donald Goodman in Booneville, and he began to reminisce about Luther Strong. Donald had gone to school with Strong’s son and knew that family quite well. It seems that there had been a legendary Owsley County fiddler named Moab “Dude” Freeman, who was something of a vagabond. He wandered around eastern Kentucky like a hobo, even traveled out west and back, and was considered one of the finest fiddlers to ever live in that region.

Donald said Strong played more like Freeman than anyone he ever heard, and he was sure that was where Strong learned to play. He said Strong had an extra long bow “and used every bit of it.” Rumor had it that he put pennies under the feet of his bridge to get a keener sound, but Donald said he was there when Strong began that practice. He said they were at some local fiddlers’ contest, and Strong said he couldn’t compete because the bridge was too low on his fiddle and the strings rubbed on the fingerboard. So Donald suggested placing pennies under the bridge to raise it up. It worked well, Strong went on to play “Sally Goodin’” and win the contest, and he liked the pennies so much, that he just kept them there, saying, “It’s just like Baby Bear, it’s just right.” But who knows? They say he was bad to drink from time to time, and a tale went around that when the Library of Congress came around in 1937 to record him, he had no fiddle at all, and they had to haul him out of jail and have him play on a borrowed fiddle.

Luther Strong died in 1963. Twelve years later, I asked an elderly Knott County fiddler who had known Strong if he could play the “Hog Eyed Man.” He said, “I can play it, but if you want to hear it played right, you should go hear Luther Strong play it.” I said, “But I thought Luther Strong was dead.” “No, he lives down here on the river in Hazard,” he assured me. “Well, how long has it been since you’ve seen him?” He thought a moment and said, “It’s been about twenty years, I guess.”