I started playing fiddle while a young teen in about 1974 or so. I feel fortunate that I was able to experience the tailend of an era of fiddle playing and old-time dancing which, as of this writing, is fading fast. Many of the great players I knew and learned from as a young man have either passed on or become too feeble to play. While radio and then television took their toll on traditional self-generated entertainment like fiddling and square dancing, I am sorry to say that the now ubiquitous satellite dish offering hundreds of channels may deal the final blow to community life in rural Missouri (and the rest of rural America, for that matter). Likewise, the emphasis of younger players on learning rote renditions of contest tunes from books, CDs and fiddle camps could result in the ultimate decimation of Missouri's once richly diverse fiddle tradition. I want to commend those fiddlers, callers and dancers in Missouri who, with little recognition, are doing their part to preserve the musical heritage of Missouri. This piece is dedicated to them.
Missouri's First Fiddlers
With the exception of some Spaniards who came to gawk at the Mississippi River, the first Europeans in what is now Missouri were French. Unlike the Spanish who came up the Mississippi, the French expedition led by Marquette and Joliet came down to the Missouri area out of Canada. Following other explorations, the French decided to colonize the vast region called Louisiana, of which Missouri was a part. The first permanent settlement in Missouri by many accounts was founded in 1735 as Ste. Genevieve, right on the Mississippi River and about eighty or so miles south of present day St. Louis.
French settlement extended into the interior of the state and is still evident in the abundance of French surnames in the Ozark counties of St. Francois, Dent, Crawford, and especially Washington. They must have been packing fiddles with them because until very recently there was an abundance of old-time fiddlers and dance callers who carried on a very old French tradition that had not mingled significantly with the larger Scotch-Irish fiddling tradition in Missouri. I was talking by phone recently with Ray Thebeau, an old-time square dance caller who lives in Washington County, and he told me his family was in the area as early as 1720.
Another caller from the same county, Betsy Boyer, could call in French. Fiddlers such as Joe Politte, Charlie Pasha, Ethel Goff and Roy Boyer played tunes that could not be heard in any other region of the state. And although I can't articulate it in this article, the performance of these tunes and other more commonly heard pieces had a distinctively different rhythmic accent -- reminiscent of French Canadian playing -- from the music of the rest of Missouri's fiddlers. Geoff Seitz, a fiddler of my generation from St. Louis, can play a few of these pieces. I've recorded a couple myself. Otherwise, this tradition which had survived from the 1700's into the mid-20th century is largely lost. If you want to hear some of this traditional French-Ozarks music, the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association (MSOTFA) still has a handful of the double LP sets I'm Old But I'm Awfully Toughproduced in the mid-1970s which contain excellent performances by Politte and Pasha.
Styles of Missouri Fiddling
A lot of hay has been made about styles of fiddling in Missouri. I once got a call at 6:00 AM from a reporter friend of mine on deadline for the local paper to do a story on an upcoming fiddlers contest. In a state of semi-consciousness I told him there were twelve styles of Missouri fiddling. Boy, did I live to regret that. I'm going to play it relatively safe and say there are three "styles."
Before continuing, some general comments about Missouri fiddling are in order. Missouri fiddlers bow a lot when they play. There is a lot of alternate bowing or saw stroke employed, which makes the notes sound separated and makes the music sound lively and energetic. Phrasing is accomplished by stopping the bow or by slurring two notes and then forging ahead with separate bows. This bowing method also makes the rhythmic accent of Missouri fiddlers sound very much "on-the-beat" or square. There is not much of the backbeat pulse one hears when listening to Appalachian music or the swing felt in Texas-style fiddling. Instead, Missouri fiddlers tend to play a little ahead of the beat, creating the elusive and yet essential quality of "drive."
This tendency to play ahead of the beat can lead an uninitiated accompanist to think the fiddler is trying to speed up and unintentionally push the beat. A good tempo for a Missouri hoedown, by the way, is about 112-120 beats per minute. The bowing description above is a gross undersimplification. I've intentionally avoided analyzing my own or other people's bowing for fear of messing up my playing. In all cases you should "go for the sound."
Another effect of separate bowing is that Missouri fiddlers want to hear every note come out clearly and in tune. There is little use of shuffle bowing which can obscure the melody. Good left hand technique is highly prized. On hoedowns, Missouri fiddlers play mostly in first position, almost never in second, and frequently in third, especially on tunes in the key of A. When faced with playing a D, A, or E string, especially at the beginning or end of a phrase, most Missouri fiddlers will play a unison note on the string below to avoid the thin sound of a held open string. Using the case of the A string, often the bow is allowed to play first the noted A on the D string and then the open A, giving the illusion of two separate notes being played. It's a neat effect.