Editor’s note: The second of a six-part series, remembering five old-time fiddlers important to Limestone County’s fiddling tradition by Jim Holland, guest writer. Look for future stories on fiddling in the Lifestyles sections on Wednesdays or Sundays and at enewscourier.com.
Jerry and Louis Todd host a wonderful group, The Athens Dulcimers club, with their bi-monthly open performances at the Athens Recreation Center. These “jams” include tunes performed on a dozen or more dulcimers, a bass and a guitar or two by enthusiastic musicians who play for the simple pleasure of playing. Most of the groups tunes are by and by, fiddle tunes. I didn’t tary long before adding my fiddle to their ensemble. It was nice to discover how compatible old-time fiddling and dulcimers can be. They share many things — rhythm and shuffling, dance-oriented tempos and structure, the key of D, and an insatiable desire to learn old fiddle tunes.
It was a chance meeting at one of the dulcimer clubs that resulted in a real find. It wasn’t long before Willie Mae Elderidge of Cherry Grove approached me after hearing my son Cole and I perform some duets on banjo and fiddle. She was struck with our “old” sound, and recalled a similar sound from her uncles. In fact her fiddle and banjo playing uncles names were Edd and Nick Chambers. My grandfather and others in the county raved about the great fiddler John Chambers. John Chambers was singled out by Dr. W. H. Johnson in the 1920s, after winning one of the first fiddlers’ conventions held at Athens College. The elder John Chambers had several sons and grandsons, who played, including Ellis “Bud” Chambers of the Dizzy Ramblers, said to be a classmate of the Delmore Brothers. Willie Mae mentioned she had some tape recordings on reel-to-reel of her uncles’ music, but no working device to hear them again. I offered to “digitize” them onto CD format, anxious to hear them. After working thru three tapes, a good bit of wonderful, rare local fiddling was recovered with Nick’s outstanding two-finger style old-time banjo making this a prize find for a collector.
After returning CD copies to Willie Mae with extras for other family members, musician Billy Craig suggested a visit to Edd’s son James Edward Chambers was in order to learn more about Edd and John Chambers. James and his wife are known area singers and musicians. James Edwards plays guitar on some of these recordings that completed the family trio. James Edward reports the brothers played together at area events and as regulars on a radio show in Decatur. An old News Courier column titled, “Souvenirs of Yesterday” indicated John Chambers was born in 1856, and died in 1937. Joyce Cauthen writes in her book on Alabama fiddle history, “With Fiddle and Well Rosined Bow” that colleagues stated he could play anything in any key, and got paid at events as far away as Nashville, Tenn. James still has Edd’s fiddle, one of the fiddles John Chambers constructed with a pocket knife it is said. His unusual fiddles feature solid sides, and special tuners. Some old-timers call these style fiddles a “mulie” or a Russian style fiddle.
James Edward was able to recall some of the tune titles. Listening to the Chambers’ tunes, reveals a flowing style of music with interesting tunes and wonderful turn of the century style rags. No doubt, Edd exemplifies some of his ancestor’s sound, revealing some of the long lost fiddling of the great John Chambers.
Jim Holland is a regular at regional and national conventions and competitions as well as recent instructional opportunities at the Alabama Folk School, the Chattanooga Folk School and other regional workshops. Jim invites those interested in old-time music to contact him at his Athens home at 256-771-0242 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.