The Victor Record Co. session in New York in June 1922 at which Eck Robertson made his landmark recording of “Sally Goodin” has become a legendary part of country music history. Robertson may claim some responsibility for getting oldtime fiddling in the record company catalogs and helping foster today’s country music industry, but he was just a youngster at the time compared to his fiddling partner Henry Gilliland, a Confederate veteran and ex-Indian fighter from the Texas frontier. Today, most people who have heard of Gilliland know of him because his name appeared on the record label for two tunes recorded with Eck Robertson, “Arkansas Traveller,” and “Turkey in the Straw.” But regionally, in his native Texas and in his adopted state of Oklahoma, Henry Gilliland was a renowned fiddler even in the 19th century.
Born March 11, 1845 near Granby in Newton County, Missouri, Henry Clay Gilliland was only eight years old when his family began the long westward trek bound for the California gold fields. The family reached Sherman, Texas and spent the winter, continuing to Weatherford in Parker County in the fall of 1854. Henry’s father died in 1855 which left his mother to cope alone with the hardships and perils of life on the unsettled frontier. The communities around the small settlement of Weatherford at that time were situated in hostile Comanche territory (Parker County was not officially incorporated until 1856), and Indian raids were a continual threat facing the white settlers in the area. In protecting his family and friends the young Henry Gilliland found himself involved in a number of skirmishes and narrow escapes that he later recounted in writing. He educated himself by studying books by firelight after cutting brush all day.
During the Civil War, Gilliland enlisted in the 2nd Texas Cavalry and later transferred to the 21st Infantry. The exact term of his service is unclear since he gave conflicting reports in two different pension applications. Most of his duties probably were related to guarding strategic posts along the Gulf Coast of Texas. During this time he suffered considerable exposure to the elements and hard conditions that left him crippled for the rest of his life. Before enlisting however, Gilliland took advantage of having charge of his brother’s fiddle while the younger Gilliland was away serving the Confederacy, and thus began his lifelong association with oldtime music.
In June, 1922, Gilliland and the much younger Eck Robertson, who were probably already well-acquainted, were both in attendance at the Confederate Reunion in Richmond, Virginia. The story of their legendary visit to the Victor Recording studios and their pioneering first recording is recounted elsewhere. It has been surmised by some historians that Gilliland played second fiddle to Eck’s lead on “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw,” but given Gilliland’s role in enabling the pair to visit New York (he had an acquaintance who hosted them during their stay), his seniority, his expertise on those tunes in particular, and the fact that his name appears first on the record labels all suggest that he was probably the lead fiddler.
While Eck Robertson began to actively pursue a career as a stage fiddler and recording artist, aging and crippled Henry Gilliland returned to his quiet life in Altus, Oklahoma. He died there in April, 1924 at the age of 79, and his funeral at the Altus Baptist church was reportedly one of the largest ever held in that community.
Henry Gilliland ranks as one of the very earliest-born fiddle players to have left any sound recordings for posterity. It is a real pity that he was not able to record any solo numbers, for by all accounts Gilliland was one of the western South’s foremost oldtime fiddlers and he would have helped us better understand the transition from a dance-oriented frontier tradition to the more stage-oriented tradition that has evolved into today’s “Texas Style” contest fiddling.