The Fiddle in Missouri
by Greg Bailey
I didn't start playing fiddle until I was about 20. Part of it was because of my heritage and I had my great grandfather's fiddle. Playing the fiddle and living in this area I got to know a guy named Bob Walsh, who was recognized by the University of Missouri as a one of the masters of old-time fiddle and it had been handed down in his family. The Walshes — well, there are parts of Ireland where that name is real prevalent and we ran into it when we were over there and found people who were running for office who were named Walsh.
Bob had moved down to this area from Eminence, Missouri, and Bob's dad was named Otha Walsh and he ran the store in Eminence for years and years and years. And of course, Otha was a fiddle player and his dad was a fiddle player. I don't know how far back the family came from over there but Bob was like my second dad. And he taught me lots of tunes and we played ever week and did some recording together.
But the thing about Bob, Bob was also the head of conservation around here — the conservation district. He was the boss of all the game wardens so he had political connections in Jeff City. And Bob was instrumental in getting the fiddle made — and he considered it — this area — the State of the Ozarks. Not Arkansas and Missouri, but this was an independent State of the Ozarks.
And Bob got the fiddle put in as the state instrument of Arkansas and the state instrument of Missouri. And Bob's father's fiddle, Otha's fiddle, is on display at the capital building in a wooden case. So if you ever get to Jeff City, you ought to go check it out. It's there in the rotunda and it's on display and it's the state instrument of Missouri and that's how that came about to be.
For the ceremony at Jeff City, we all took turns playing on a stage there in the capital rotunda and I got up and was trying to think what to play and I decided to play an old song named Redwing, but I introduced it as Rightwing since it was a political event.
Bob died in, I think it was '91, if I remember right. He was quite a guy.
October 20, 2007
plate 2. Greg Bailey, of the Homestead Pickers, plays guitar, fiddle/violin, mandolin, bass, and pretty much any other stringed instrument. He also owns Stone County Recording Studio near Branson.
plate 1. Fiddles and mandolin face boards detail in John Wynn’s Ozark, Missouri workshop, September 12, 2007. Photo credit, J. Heston. Location: Ozark, Missouri.
plate 2. Gordon McCann.
The Fiddle’s History
by Gordon McCann
No one knows exactly when the fiddle (or violin) was invented or when it first became known in Europe though some of the earliest examples were being made in Italy by the mid-1500s.
The violin’s popularity spread rapidly throughout Europe (including the British Isles) and by the mid-1600s, references prove the instrument had been introduced to the New World.
The fiddle was the musical instrument of the frontier and by the late 1700s had been brought to the Ozarks.
Since that time, the fiddle has been the most important instrument — with the exception of the human voice — in traditional Ozark music.
There are a number of reasons for this popularity. In the early days, the fiddle could easily adopt the music of the bagpipe, the harp and the flute. The instrument is light (and thus easily carried).
The fiddle has considerable volume and is able to express a variety of musical emotions which, along with different tunings and methods of bowing, carry over into stylistic matters.
Even in the relatively small area of the Ozarks, ther eare several diffrerent styles to be found.
The fiddle’s ease of playing allowed the music to be passed aurally from generation to generation (few traditional fiddlers read music).
A rich folk tradition and heritage unequaled by any other musical instrument in Western civilization was allowed to develop.
The main purpose of the fiddle was to create dance music, a fact reflected in the repertory of most old-time fiddlers.
For many generations of Ozarkians, the local fiddler was the sole source of musical entertainment in often-isolated communities.
He, along with the preacher, the doctor, and the granny-woman occupied a position of great importance.
Because of this closeness to the lives of the people, the fiddle (and its associated music) flourished as well as suffered.
To some, the music was a welcome escape from the rigors of pioneer life. To others — usually from religious convictions — it was the personification of the Prince of Darkness.
Is it? As one old fiddler once told us, “This is happy music!” Perhaps that says it all.
Dr. Gordon McCann is one of the Ozarks’ top old-time fiddle music authorities, collectors and accompanists. Photo at top courtesy of Gordon McCann.
Excerpt from Bittersweet country—
Group followed group, singing and picking music for people who enjoy living. They sang the songs their grandparents used to sing on Sunday afternoon or played at a square dance on Saturday night. They sang gospel music and more recent songs adapted to bluegrass styles. The songs were about real live happenings, based on religioun, love, joy, sadness, special events and occasions, with most of them telling a story or legend. “It’s simple down to earth music,” said 17 year old performer Randi Calton. — page 424