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The Romance of the Kentucky Fiddler
Bruce Greene
1997-06-01

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. A three volume set of commercial reissues called Old Time Fiddle Band Music from Kentucky, and a collection of home recordings of legendary fiddler Ed Haley were released. Recently, the Berea College series of recordings of Kentucky fiddlers, and two volumes of field recordings called Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky were also released, adding immensely to the wider awareness of the great depth and variety of fiddle music from the state, as well as to the myths and romance that have always been part of the public perception of Kentucky.

The images have been present for a long time. 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. We’ll begin where I began.

Luther Strong

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."

Charlie Kessinger

There was a fiddler I only spent one evening with in 1974, but who left me with an unforgettable memory of a man from another age, living as a stranger in modern times.

Early in the spring of 1974, I would sit out on the porch of our house in Bowling Green, Kentucky, playing fiddle and guitar with my brother. Every couple of days, an elderly man would walk by and stop to listen a while. Finally, he introduced himself as Leonard Kessinger, and we stopped to visit with him. It turned out his father was a fiddler and he played guitar with him when he was a young man. So I arranged to go visit them at their homeplace in nearby Morgantown.

Charlie Kessinger was born in 1883, in Butler County. He learned to play fiddle and banjo from his father, who was born in 1857, when that part of Kentucky was still barely settled. Charlie talked with great emotion about learning to play as a boy, and about the fiddlers he grew up around, all of whom he had long outlived:

"I learned first one tune, then another. And I used to be awful bad to whistle. All I had to do was hear them play. I’d get the tune and go to whistling it, and I learned it from my whistling. I was a wonderful whistler, but now I’ve got these old false teeth, I can’t whistle at all with ’em.

"I played a tune for a long time before I knowed any name for it. My daddy caught it from an old cross-eyed man whistling it. And we always called it ‘Jud Dougherty’s Tune.’ That was the old man’s name. One of my neighbors wanted us to bring my violin one night and play somewhere. I began to play that, and he began singing right after me, ‘Down in New Orleans.’ That was the name of it.

"I learnt ‘McKinley March’ and ‘Whistling Rufus’ from Jim Wallace James. Taken all around, he was the best musician I ever seen. He couldn’t use a bow, though, like my daddy could. My daddy could handle a bow the best of any fiddler I ever played with.

"‘Old Tennessee’ –– Lord, I wish I had a good fiddler to play after that tune. I did love to pick that on a banjer…. That’s been a long time ago. Been a lot of change in things since then. I used to have some of the finest fiddlers to play with when I was a young man. Five or six different ones, and they’re every one dead."

At this point, he broke down and began to cry.

Jim Bowles

Jim Bowles was born in 1903 in Monroe County, Kentucky. He grew up in a very musical area, and he was influenced by a number of local fiddlers. His mother told him of the musicians from the past, such as Gilbert Maxey:

"He was an old colored man, and they had him playing for those old dances. ‘What’s that, Uncle Gilbert?’ ‘Christmas Eve," he’d say. ‘Well, by God, can’t you play nothing but ‘Christmas Eve’?’ So he’d start on the same tune. And she said he’d play the same tune every time. It was the only one he knew. ‘Christmas Eve’ was the best dancing tune in the world, and he could play it, she said. That’s been ninety years ago.

"I guess I was about ten years old. I’d always play –– you have those little sticks of stovewood, you know, and I’d get ’em up and saw on ’em, like I was a-fiddling –– when I was a little bitty feller. And my father, times was hard and he had to go to Indiana and make money. Back in them days, there wasn’t no money to be got hardly. And he came through Louisville, and he came to a pawn shop. He bought me a fiddle. And of course I learnt several tunes."

One of the first fiddlers Jim learned from was a traveling photographer named Homer Botts:

"He used to come here. He made pictures. Just run around over the country. I don’t guess he ever worked any. And he’d come here, and Mother’d say, ‘Well, Homer, you been to dinner? We’ll give you your dinner and you can take some of our pictures.’ And he had a camera. It’s set up on things like tobacco sticks. And he’d play them tunes, now. And he’d stay here sometimes all night with us. He was an awful good fiddler –– real smooth."

Jim’s main teacher, however, was his uncle Wash Carter:

"He had a good education, Uncle Wash did. He taught school, was a lawyer. And he learnt me a lot about fiddling. I’ve heard my mother say she used to hear him fiddle when she was a young girl. See, we was raised right here by him, and he’d come up here. When I was a young boy, why, he got crippled –– he took the rheumatiz, something –– and I’d play ‘Cumberland Gap,’ and I didn’t come down on the fine part like he wanted to, and he’d just quarrel at me, and he says, ‘I know you can do that.’

"I got to going to contests. I guess I was twenty years old. They used to have them at Tompkinsville. They’d have ’em at schoolhouses, at high schools, and places like that. I’ve played in contests with an old fiddler Cooney Perdue, but boy I couldn’t do nothing with him. Henry Ford took him way up there, you know, years ago, and played in a contest. He like to have won it."

Jim played semi-professionally in his younger years. In the early days of radio, he played fiddle for Finley "Red" Belcher, who went on to become a well known performer around Kentucky before his death in an automobile accident.

Around 1972, when Jim was in his late sixties, a neighbor of his told me that he was not looking too good, and didn’t look like he was going to be around much longer. Jim Bowles lived to be ninety years old, and finally passed away in 1993.

Gusty Wallace

Gustace "Gusty" Wallace was born in Hart County, Kentucky, on November 24, 1890. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to neighboring Sulphur Well, where he lived for the rest of his life. His father was one of the most renowned old time fiddlers in that part of Kentucky, and Gusty was inspired by him to learn to play.

"My dad, his name was Addison. They called him Ad, you know. Ad’s father went to kind of a musical one time. They was playing all these pieces… He says, ‘I wish Ad was here.’ –– That was my daddy, you know –– And they said, ‘Why, Mr. Wallace, there’s a lot of people here can play these pieces.’ He said, ‘I know it, but there ain’t none of ’em can give it that little whiff of the bow that Ad’s got.’

"I started playing at seven. My dad would go to work and left the fiddle on the bed. I played it while he was at work. I played two or three little pieces before he knew it… ‘Shortening Bread,’ ‘Bound To Have a Little Fun’…"

Gusty began to play for dances by the time he was twelve or thirteen and continued to do so all his life. In the 1930s, he fiddled professionally with the Bob Atcher band in Louisville, and later on with the Prairie Ramblers in Des Moines, Iowa, hobnobbing with Clayton McMichen and Sleepy Marlin along the way. As a result, his repertoire and playing style ranged from the old local tunes to more modern rags and popular songs. However, Gusty spent most of his life in Sulphur Well, where aspiring fiddlers for miles around came to him for inspiration. I was told that Charlie Bush brought his young son Sam to learn from Gusty.

Gusty had a little shack out behind his house –– his "music room" –– where he could go and play for hours without disturbing his wife, Ella. We had many a long session there, interrupted only by the hour when the Lawrence Welk show came on. We would go in and sit with Ella, and Gusty would say, "Now that’s real music."

I learned a lot about fiddling from Gusty, and being only twenty years old, I also learned a lot about life. We were getting together regularly to play and record for some time, working out intricate arrangements of fiddle tunes with the banjo, but then I got into a busy time at school and didn’t see him for several weeks. One day I received a letter from him which said, "We were doing so good together, and now you’ve quit me." Suddenly I realized that this old man was not just a fiddler, but a friend who counted on my company.

Gusty must have decided it was time for me to grow up, because not long after that we had another little run-in. The Wallaces were Mormons, members of a Mormon Church settlement that had been in the area for a long time and endured no little friction with the other competing Christian denominations locally. Toward the end of one visit, Gusty went in the back room and came out with a Mormon Bible. He proceeded to begin my religious education for me, according to his point of view. I found the first excuse I could to tell him it was time for me to be heading home now, but he followed me to the car and continued his testimonial while I sat there with the engine running, too embarrassed to just cut him off and leave. Finally, enjoying himself immensely, he stopped and said, "Bruce, do you think all I ever do is just sit around here and play the fiddle?"

Gusty died in 1985 at the age of ninety-five, when his house burned down. He was trapped upstairs. One of the last of the old generation of south-central Kentucky fiddlers, he was a living example of the importance that the old timers placed on being faithful to one’s cultural as well as family traditions:

"My father died when I was seventeen years old, and I never will forget what he said. He called me to the bed, and he said, ‘Well, it’s left up to you to do the playing now.’"

Pat Kingery

Pat Kingery was born in 1912. He lived most of his life in the little community of Nobob, in Barren County, Kentucky. As a boy he learned tunes from his mother’s whistling, and from his uncle Jodie Matthews who came to visit occasionally from Wayne County farther east. As Pat grew older, he was influenced by many excellent local fiddlers, including the well-known Carver family, and Page Ellis, who represented Barren County in the regional contest sponsored by Henry Ford in the 1920s. Pat eventually played semi-professionally and was to be influenced by Tommy Jackson and other fiddlers around Nashville in the ’40s and ’50s. He played for years around the southern part of Kentucky in a band called "Pat Kingery and His Kentuckians." As a result, Pat had a large and varied repertoire, ranging from the rare local tunes to more modern radio music. He was one of the many fiddlers of his generation caught between the romance of the old traditions and the allure of professionalism. But he remembered vividly what it was that kept him attached to his roots:

"I had a hard way to go to get started. My daddy died when I was real little. There was nobody left but me and my mother and my brother. Back then, you made a quarter any way you could, and you could sell possum hides and stuff like that, you know. My dad used to trap, and we had some traps back here, so I set them traps out, caught some possums and stuff, two or three skunks one time. There was an old feller lived down across the way, bought furs. So one day I went to see the old man and take my furs to sell a few. I walked up on the front porch, and I heard something and I stopped. And I had never heard anything that sounded as pretty. Well, I forgot about being cold. I forgot about everything. I just stood there. By and by, he quit, and I knocked on the door, and he said, ‘Come in.’ And I went in. And he was sitting over in a chair in front of the fireplace, and he had this thing in his hands. And I never said, ‘I got some furs,’ nor nothing. Said, ‘What is that you got?’ He said, ‘That’s a fiddle.’ And I said, ‘Is that what I heard a while ago?’ He said, ‘Yep. Did you like it?’ I said, ‘I sure did.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll play you another one, then. Then we’ll look at your hides.’ So he set there and played ‘When You and I were Young, Maggie.’ That was the first time I ever seen a fiddle or ever heard one. But it done something to me that I never could get rid of. It created a desire that some way, some how, I knew I had to play a fiddle.

"I was about nine years old then. So you know how they used to send out in the mail these Sears and Roebuck catalogs. My mother had one of them. And she had it spread on her lap. And turning the pages of that catalog, I seen a picture of a fiddle. And it drove me crazy. I wanted one, said I’m gonna get me one. Well, it must have been about this time of year (January), this magazine came out. It had an advertisement in it that said, ‘Sell thirty packages of garden seed to get this violin.’ I begged my mother to let me do that. And she finally agreed to it, sent off and got the seed. And of course the neighbors felt sorry for me. They bought ’em right off. And I sent it in, and I waited and waited and waited ’til it come. And it finally got here, the whole thing wasn’t but about that long [twelve inches]. Just a little bitty toy. And that’s what I started to learn to play the fiddle on.

"When I was about eleven years old, they let me have a few rows of tobacco across the tobacco patch. And I sold that tobacco. It brought twenty-eight dollars. And I got the Sears and Roebuck catalog and bought my first fiddle."

Pat’s health was very poor. When I went to his house, he would drag himself up out of the bed and stand in the middle of the room, swaying back and forth, and play until he gave out. He knew I was interested in the older tunes and would think about them between times that I saw him, and try to play them for me when we got together. I guess he understood that this was his last opportunity to pass his music on. The last time I saw him was in 1976. His brother Edgar told me he had been put into the hospital in nearby Glasgow, so I went to see him there. I was leaving for the summer to work up north, and I pretty well knew I’d never see him again. As we parted, I told him, "I’ll play one for you." He said, "I’d like that."

[This article is from the Summer 1997 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]