Fiddling Away ~ A Texas Legend
In the middle of Nacogdoches, Texas, on one of the coldest, blusteriest days of the year, 30 of some of the most recognized fiddlers from Texas gathered to compete for the top money awards inside a wind-whipped tent. Their ages ranged from 5 to 95. Their "day jobs" were as varied as their personalities, including students, construction workers, doctors, computer wizards, and retirees. The most memorable that day might have been the family of five children that competed against one another in good-natured fun. Or maybe it was the 65-year-old legend that seems to appear like smoke, says few words, and then knocks the audience off their seats with his spectacular performance. But every musician that day made their own statement when they took center stage and dazzled the audience with the personalized style.
Of all the musical genres that have formed America's history, few have held a stronger claim to singularity than the timeless tunes that are the hallmark of Texas style fiddling.
An aura of legend, tinctured with improbability surrounds the fiddling contests where members of the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association (TOTFA) share nurtured melodies. Some have been traced back centuries ago to Europe. These contests provide the only forum for Texas style fiddlers to gather and share techniques, tunes, and talent.
With the old Texas style, fiddles are stroked with rapid-fire bows, releasing the distinctive tunes that conjure up images of blowing tumbleweeds and west Texas sunsets, with more than a hint of the European dance and folk forms from which they originate. With names like Sally Goodin, Leather Britches, Done Gone, and Dusty Miller, these classics have been influenced by the rhythms and harmonies of Swing and Big Band music. From there they have evolved into something alive and unique to the folk music of Texas Style Old Time Fiddling.
The Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association can be described as a "close-knit" family of diverse artists who share the same commitment to cultural preservation. This community of fiddlers is small and is enriched and dominated by a handful of highly accomplished individuals and families who have passed tunes from generation to generation.
In the traditional family of fiddlers, the art of fiddling is often introduced to the children as early as age four. They seem to take to it naturally. With hours invested in lessons, some formal, some as simple as "Grandpa did it this way," and numerous hours of practice these children capture the hearts of even the toughest critics. While some are trained in the classical style in school, others are never exposed to formal musical training and must rely on their parents or other relatives to acquire the necessary instruction. Because they rarely have opportunities through the education system to play this style of music, the TOTFA competitions are typically the only avenue of public performing that is available to them.
In the early years, the nature of the contests was raucous and unpredictable. Today's contests are venues for families and individuals to spend weekends together playing bodacious music that inspires a lot of foot-tapping, head bobbing, and spontaneous applause. Of the competitions are schedule in conjunction with local fairs, livestock shows, cook-offs, or local and national holidays. This often gives the general public an introduction to a treasure of historic compositions. During performances it is not unusual for passers-by to experience a serendipitous moment as they first hear the rich aural folk tradition soaring across the state. Many are drawn into the audience and soon join in tapping to the rhythm. They will witness many performers who become so wrapped up in music-making that their bodies seem to be extensions of the fiddle.
The Texas style of old-time fiddling has been developed over the years by a handful of legendary musicians and is traced to a heavy Irish influence as well as Scottish and Bavarian elements. The distinct flavor of the tunes is created by the generous use of the bow in a down stroke movement. The result can be the rich, articulate, clean sound of a waltz that makes the listener thank of dark blue velvet, or the embellished polkas and breakdowns that inspire a more whimsical mood.
The TOTFA was formed originally in 1973 and has accomplished several key objectives. The organization has helped to serve as a network for fiddlers to improve skills, it has helped to promote the awareness of an American tradition, and above all it fosters the preservation of a rich tapestry of melodies with historical significance. Members of the Texas Association are in contact with various other fiddle organizations throughout the country. Playing styles vary, but each organization's goals remain the same.
Every fiddling tune carries with it its own history. Some have roots that have been documented and others offer a story that is limited only by the listener's imagination. But every one of these rhythmic melodies is like a river that makes a journey twisting and turning through time. They have traveled down weathered canyons and across fertile meadows. These rivers of the past eventually empty into a sea where they become part of a bigger picture, one that inspires comfort and joy.
Terry Swenson (freelance writer)