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A Brief History of Fiddle Music (Satire)
Paul Squyres
1999-09-01

There is little agreement among ethnomusicologists as to the exact origins of fiddle music, but nearly all agree that it didn't start in Palo Alto, California. (Fiddler Magazine Music Editor Jack Tuttle still advocates this theory to anyone who will listen, but his views are generally dismissed by serious scholars, who believe Tuttle to be dangerously unbalanced.)

The fact is that the earliest form of fiddle music, which is to say, folk tunes played on bowed instruments, was developed by ancient Roman archers who discovered that their bow strings made a pleasing, musical sound when plucked. Later, it was discovered that by drawing an adjacent bow across the string, the archer could produce an even, sustained musical note. More strings were added to produce different pitches, and soon, armies all over Europe were forming impromptu "string bands." Unfortunately, these earliest "fiddlers" were slaughtered by the invading Huns, a humorless bunch who had no use for fiddle music.

The fiddle, and fiddle music, saw no real advancement for several hundred years until a 16th century inventor in Cremona, Italy, was experimenting with different uses for cat guts. He discovered, quite by accident, that when stretched across a violin-shaped wooden box and bowed with horse-hair, the cat-gut strings produced a sound that was uniquely annoying. He immediately saw in his creation the potential for what was to become the first air-raid siren. Unfortunately, initial demand for the device was sluggish, as military attack by air was still centuries away. However, the inventor happened to retain the services of a young apprentice who was searching for a new instrument to compliment the new "three-finger style" of lute playing that was all the rage during the "folk-boom" of the early Renaissance. The apprentice was none other than Antonius Stradavarius. Stradavari began marketing the new instrument, which he dubbed the "violin" (from the Latin for "vile sounding"). Many Stradavarius are still in circulation today, though they are not the preferred instrument of serious fiddlers. Many improvements in design and tone have been achieved through modern manufacturing techniques, and today's discriminating fiddler chooses one of the many high-end fiddles that are mass-produced in state-of-the-art factories in China.

The fiddle continued to flourish in the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, it is widely known that Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished fiddler. What is less known, however, is the fact that one of Jefferson's early drafts of the Declaration of Independence listed Life, Liberty and Kick-Ass Fiddlin' as the three inalienable rights of Man. Jefferson's colleagues argued that the inclusion of fiddle music might not have universal appeal, and could jeopardize unity among the colonies. Jefferson reluctantly agreed, and thereby got his first lesson in the politics of compromise.

The 19th century is sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age of the Fiddle," a clear reference to the fact that most fiddles from this era were made entirely of gold.

Today, fiddle music is more popular than ever, preceded only by Rock, Pop, Jazz, Classical, Country, Salsa, Marching Band and Polka music in terms of its universal popularity.

[Paul Squyres is a guitarist and fiddler living in Scotts Valley, California. He performs in The Tall Timber Boys, along with his friend and Fiddler Magazine Music Editor, Jack Tuttle.]