Moses J. Bonner (1847–1939), fiddle player, recording artist, and Confederate veterans’ advocate, was one of the earliest Texas country musicians to record and one of the first to play a radio “barn dance.” He was born on March 1, 1847, in Franklin County, Alabama, to M. M. and Mary (Nelson) Bonner. His family moved to Texas in 1854 and settled in the Dallas area. As a boy, Bonner reportedly learned to play the fiddle from an old black man. After the death of M. M. Bonner, the family moved farther west to what would be present-day Parker County.
Bonner joined Company E of the Twelfth Texas Cavalry in May 1864 and served as a courier under Gen. William Henry Parsons. After the Civil War, he established the Crowdus Hide and Wool Company in Weatherford. He married Susan Pounders, and in 1878 they moved to Fort Worth. In the late nineteenth century he became active in the United Confederate Veterans and was a member of the Robert E. Lee Camp in Fort Worth. There in 1901, nineteen fiddlers, including Bonner, Henry Gilliland, James K. P. Harris, Tom Lee, and others, participated in a fiddling contest; Gilliland won. At this event, the group formed the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.
Bonner participated in local and regional fiddle contests during the early twentieth century. In 1911 he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts for the world’s championship in Midland. In 1916 he won the championship in Midland and beat out Jesse Roberts and J. K. P. Harris. In addition to his reputation as one of the top fiddlers, he was also known as an excellent jig dancer. On January 4, 1923, he broadcast a program of old-time fiddle music over WBAP in Fort Worth, thus becoming one of the earliest radio fiddle players.
His radio popularity led to a recording session with Victor on March 17, 1925, in Houston. Accompanied by Fred Wagoner on harp guitar, Bonner waxed medleys of “Yearlings in the Canebrake”/”The Gal on the Log” and “Dusty Miller”/”Ma Ferguson.” “Ma Ferguson” was a song about Miriam Ferguson, Texas’s first female governor. Bonner’s rendition of “Dusty Miller” has become a classic of old-time fiddling.
Bonner remained active in Confederate veterans’ affairs. He attended many reunions and other events throughout the country and lobbied for pensions for Confederate veterans. The pension bill was eventually approved in 1911. In 1930 he was made Commander of the Texas Division of the United Confederate Veterans and thereby received the rank of major general (though Victor identified him as “Capt. M. J. Bonner” on their records). In 1938 Bonner, at the age of ninety-one, led a Texas delegation to attend the seventy-fifth veterans reunion at Gettysburg. He died in Fort Worth on September 2, 1939.