TOTFA Stories

Major Lee Franklin

In the spring of 1912, two covered wagons moved in a westerly direction across Northeast Texas. The two wagons carried the family and belongings of William Martin Franklin and Melia Etheridge Franklin. Frequently the family would spend the night in small towns or settlements. For recreation and entertainment at these stops, there would sometimes be music, dancing and singing and the fiddle was always part of the music. On those evenings when there was music, one member of the Franklin family, eight-year-old Major, paid close attention to the fiddler. His eyes watched every movement of the fiddler's bow arm and fingers as the notes were played. Perhaps young Major was then learning and prearranging in his mind the tunes that would be heard; copied and spoken of across the United States over half a century later. Yes, that eight-year-old was Major Lee Franklin who was to become a legacy to Texas fiddling.

Major Lee Franklin was born in August of 1904 in Amity, Arkansas, the son of William and Melia Franklin. On September 10,1927 he married Inez Davis of West Texas, near Shamrock. Major and Inez had four children, Verlin, who died as a child; Royce of Roanoke, Texas; Ray of Marion, Texas, near San Antonio; and William of Greenville, Texas. Major died January 2, 1981, and his wife Inez followed him in death after only a few months on June 18, 1981. Both are buried in Denison, Texas.

Major received a small metal fiddle from his father when he was four. He practiced on the little fiddle, but as he grew older, when his father was away, he would get out his father's fiddle and practice. As Major grew into his teenage years, he practiced more on the fiddle. And practice he did, because he believed a tune should be played right. His nephew Louis Franklin, also a noted Texas fiddler, says that when Major was working on a tune, he might wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the tune and get up and start practicing it.

Sometimes to the aggravation of other family members Major did not believe in stunt fiddling nor cross-tuning. Byron Berllne, well known Texas-style and Bluegrass fiddler tells of a jam session in the late 1960's at Omega Burden's home: (Omega Burden was a popular guitar player who was Major's close friend, and favorite guitar player). During the jam session, Byron began to cross-tune his fiddle, preparing to play some tune, maybe "Black Mountain Blues" or "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." Major had some comments about cross-tuning the fiddle and fiddlers who took the easy way out to play certain tunes.

Major enjoyed recording under appropriate circumstances, but he did not like to be recorded by just anyone who might walk up and start recording during a warm-up session prior to a contest or some other practice. His son, Royce, says the reason for that was very likely because the recorder picks all the conversation within a six to ten feet radius and all types of remarks can be heard at practice sessions.

Major Franklin was a perfectionist when it came to fiddle playing, His mother-in-law referred to him with a sometimes-humorous comment about being "the most fiddle-minded man she ever met." That he was a perfectionist is evident to anyone who has ever heard Major play the tunes Durang's Hornpipe, Apple Blossom or Fischer's Hornpipe. Major's style of fiddling is very evident in these three tunes and avid-fiddle listeners can recognize who is playing them. Every note is clear and distinct, every double-stop perfectly executed. The bow action is somewhat fast but smooth and rhythm that flows on and on with no inappropriate turnarounds or catch-ups. Randy Howard, a fiddler from Georgia who is a winner of the Grand Masters in Nashville commented in 1986 that while he had never met Major Franklin, or even been to Texas, Major was his favorite breakdown fiddler. Throughout his life, Major played many fiddle contests. His very appearance at a contest raised the level of excitement among the listeners and the level of apprehension among those with whom he would compete. He won the 1949 World's Champion of Fiddling Contest at Crockett, Texas.

Major was a man of many trades. He had to work hard throughout his life to make a living for his wife and children. One summer when he was young, he went to Missouri to pick cotton. He worked as a carpenter and as a farmer. He also worked six years, for Kraft foods in Denison and later worked 22 years for an oil company and a railroad company. The picture of Major on last month's issue was made when Major was at the age of between 35 and 45 years. The picture on this month's issue was made in 1978 when he was 74.

Major also played in various bands during his lifetime, in the 40's he and nephew Louis Franklin played together with a group Known as the "Night Hawks" over radio station KKRV in Sherman. While he was a great breakdown fiddler, let there be no doubt as to his ability to play dance music. During the period he worked for Kraft Foods, he and son Royce played in a band known as the "Kraft Swingers."

Major recorded on several records but the most popular was "Texas Fiddle Favorites," recorded in 1966 by County Records. Also recorded on that record were Texas Fiddlers Norman Solomon and Louis Franklin. This record and another record that had music by Benny Thomasson, Vernon Solomon and Bartow Riley (all Texas fiddlers) were distributed nationwide and probably were the mainstays in the Texas Fiddle Style becoming so popular throughout the country. On the Fiddle Favorites record Major played the tunes, Tom and Jerry, Fischer's Hornpipe, Forked Deer and Durang's Hornpipe.

Major competed against the great Texas fiddlers of yesteryear, namely Eck Robertson, Red Steeley, Irvin Solomon (father of Vernon and Norman), Oscar Harper, and Bryant Houston. His greatest competitor in the last 75 years of his life was probably the famous Benny Thomasson and depending on the contest, sometimes both Major and Benny would often be pushed to the very limit of their abilities (and sometimes bettered) by such Texas fiddlers as Vernon and Norman Solomon, Louis Franklin, and Dick Barrett. While the contests of Major's day served to keep everyone keen on their noting and bow work, the love, friendship, and camaraderie of the fiddlers for each other was truly born out of the jam sessions prior to and after the contests or at other gatherings. There would be jokes told, one fiddler on another, old funny stories retold and just a general attitude of fun and merriment. Major, being a great fiddler and popular fellow that he was, often was in the center of these stories, jokes, and fun times. Of Major, Norman Solomon says today, "Major was a long time fiddlin' friend of mine, Benny Thomasson, Orville Burns, and a multitude of others. He was quite unique in some of his arrangements and execution. I always loved to play with him, in private or contests, and the few dances I was able to play. He was quite a good fella and I miss him sorely."

Jim Day