TOTFA Stories

Over the Waves and Other Waltzes in Texas Fiddling

Charles Wolfe in his book, The Devil's Box, writes that, "No one really listens to waltzes but fiddlers." There may be a grain of truth to this because most audiences at a contest would rather listen to a breakdown. Nevertheless, at almost every contest, the judges call for a breakdown, waltz and a tune of choice. Also, most fiddlers are aware of the fact that many waltzes can be a real test of fiddling skill and technique and may be the very reason why waltzes have been an integral part of the fiddling contest. Unfortunately though, very little has been written about the waltz as a part of contest fiddling or country music in general. This seems strange in view of the fact that there are an astounding number of waltzes in circulation, many having been composed by the fiddlers themselves and some having originated beyond the pale of old time fiddling. Very few record albums are devoted to waltzes. Vassar Clements and Chubby Wise each recorded an album of waltzes; and Dick Barrett is the only Texas fiddler with an album entirely of waltzes.

Wolfe also writes that, "perhaps the most popular waltz performed by Southern fiddlers is, "Over the Waves." But this is not the case for contest fiddling in Texas. The tune is still relatively popular here but is not the favored waltz for most Texas fiddlers. But due to the tune's rather unique origin, does merit some elaboration. Many think it was a product of the famous Austrian waltz composer, Johann Strauss. However, it came to Texas by way of Mexico and was composed by a native Mexican, Juventino Rosas, in 1891 as a set of six waltzes entitled, "Sobre las Olas". How it ever got to Texas is unclear, but early recordings may have been the ultimate source such as the one by Jimmy Wilson's Catfish Band, recorded in Dallas in 1925. This group was an important influence upon a number of Texas musicians including Bob Wills.

Another waltz, frequently mentioned as a contest favorite, is the Westphalia Waltz. Though the tune may have been a favorite early on, it has been displaced by others deemed more popular or acceptable by contest standards. The tune is interesting in view of the fact that its authorship has been claimed by a number of different musicians. In reality, the basic melody of the tune can be traced back to an early Polish wedding song. Some who claim the tune as their own include Cotton Collins, Vincent Icadena, and Vaughn Horton. Collins was a western swing dance hall fiddler who had attained a measure of popularity, in part, because of this claim and there were those who attempted to immortalize him as the "Mister Bojangles" of Texas fiddling. Icadena was also a honky tonk fiddler who performed during the late 1930s at the Crystal Springs dance hall near Weatherford. Horton was responsible for an arrangement called the Southwestern Waltz for a Bob Wills recording session in Nashville during the 1960s that was almost a carbon copy of the tune. It is also interesting to note that a chorus or two of the melody was incorporated into the recent honky tonk favorite entitled, Last Cheater's Waltz.

Another waltz that is not frequently performed at contests but is yet popular at dance halls and by western swing fiddlers is La Golondrina, (the Swallow, like bird). It has a rather convoluted and protracted chord structure that can intimidate the average accompanist and was composed in 1883 by Narcisco Serradell (lyrics were added to the tune later by L. Wolfe Gilbert). Texas fiddlers learned of the tune through the early recordings of Milton Brown, Cliff Bruner, and Bob Wills. It was also featured in a late 1940s Gene Autry movie and more, recently in a movie, "Places in the Heart" that featured Sally Fields and was performed by Cliff Bruner. (Some Texas fiddling does get around.)

It is the point of view of the writer that the waltzes that are most frequently performed in contests are two: Festival Waltz and Wednesday Night Waltz. There is not much to write about on the former other than to say that the tune is reported to be a creation of Kenny Baker and that it is most exceptional when performed by Jimmie Don Bates. The latter tune however, is a bit unique in that it originated during the jazz era of the early 1920s. Charles Wolfe, at Middle Tennessee State University writes that the waltz was one of the more popular tunes recorded in the late 1920s by a Mississippi string band, the Leake County Revelers. The fiddler for this group claims that he learned it from "some fiddler off down in Texas sommers," which may suggest that this may have been how and where the tune originated. The waltz however, was a composition of a fairly well known song-writer, Spencer Williams, who was in a league with the likes of Hoagy Charmichael and Duke Ellington, and the sheet music for the tune made its appearance about 1922. The tune was recorded by the Revellers in 1927, and by the Kessinger Brothers a bit later.

There are a whole litany of other waltzes that time and space will not allow for an in depth elaboration. These include, Brown's Kelly Waltz, Canadian Waltz, Martin's Waltz, Gardenia, Junior's Waltz, Memories Waltz, Roxanne Waltz, Margaret's Waltz, Dubre Waltz, Shannon Waltz, Fifty Year Ago Waltz, Forty Year Ago Waltz, Nancy's Waltz, and the list continues, ad infinitum. The writer even admits to being the creator of a waltz that was included in the recording session of Regina Matthews. The title is, The Cushing Y Waltz. Isn't that about the most charming, sentimental and romantic song title that you have ever heard?

Charles Gardner