The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 25, 2011

A history of fiddling: Discovery, Archaeology and Fiddling

Jim Holland
Guest Writer

Editor’s note: The first 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

Music enthusiasts of The Tennessee Valley are well aware of the astoundingly rich musical heritage of the region, stretching back to the early 1800’s.

Richer still is the concentration of traditional music sprung from our own Limestone County. Among the many types of music, song and crafts, perhaps the art and mystery of the fiddle may be the most endearing.

The annual Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention held each fall is one of our surviving celebrations of that heritage.

It’s no happenstance that Fiddlers’ builds over two days of intense competition, to culminate in the ultimate showdown between the conventions two best, two most respected, and two most heralded musicians of the entire event —  the fiddle off.

Thousands watch as two master fiddlers display all the essence they can muster to win the crown and title as The Fiddle King.  More than a talent contest, it’s also a match of study, knowledge, heritage, tradition, and culture as well as tenacity, will, passion and faith. In fact, it’s this demonstration that spawns new would-be master fiddlers for the future, and assures us of the rightful high honor of those fiddlers in the past.

As mentioned, an important element of modern old-time fiddling (a legitimate oxymoron), is knowing where fiddling came from, and preserving a significant element of that knowledge in the selection and performance of fiddle tunes.

Fiddle tunes date back nearly four centuries, and span cultures on all seven continents. More importantly to the tradition, is knowing the older fiddlers and learning from them. Much about old-time fiddling can only be transmitted in person between fiddlers, as has been done for centuries. Having that experience locally within your own community is unequalled. There can be no greater privilege and tribute for the aspiring old-time fiddler.

So an important element of old-time fiddling is the retention of this knowledge from fiddler to fiddler.  In addition to style, tone, and technique, another important, and more tangible component is a fiddler’s repertoire, or his “pieces.” Some tunes became favorites of many fiddlers, and thus we might hear certain tunes repeated at Fiddlers’ —tunes like “Leather Breeches,” “Sally Goodin,” or “Billy In The Low Ground.”

Finding lesser known tunes, or undiscovered tunes is a prize for the old-time fiddler and collector.  Often times field recordings reveal an older fiddler who may be a bit rusty.  But that is no matter for the veteran collector, because he or she will be versed in the forms of tunes and will be able to de-code any embellishments or omissions, like an archeologist studying the faint outline or foundation of a worn and weathered structure.

Precious gemstones are often enveloped in crust and corrosion, only to be restored to a glorious state by the keen prospector. Many old-time fiddlers find that this discovering, restoring, and preserving of fiddle tunes is their calling.

I certainly enjoy this hobby myself. Being able to share a local and unique tune from my hometown gains great interest from other likeminded fiddlers around the country.  With a growing collection gathered from family, fiddlers, and friends over the years, I enjoy working on many of these interesting tunes.  To remain faithful to the fiddler’s style and preference, much work and study of the tunes, and the fiddler’s techniques go into learning the tunes.  Much like linguistics, it’s more than difficult to exactly replicate a fiddler’s accent, but it’s felt that the structure, notes, and musical values intended by each fiddler should be retained and faithful to his style

I would like to continue supporting the collecting of old tunes and recordings of local fiddlers, but also other instrumentalists as well, especially from those that may have learned as or learned from pre-World War II musicians. One difficulty is the conversion of old formats such as reel-to-reels or cassettes for families who have recordings, but no working device.  I can help with that. Contact information is available at the article’s end.  It’s a special treat to discover someone’s grandfather’s fiddling, an aunt’s old-time banjo or ballad on an old recording. It’s also very rewarding to return a clean copy to the family.

New artists and tunes continue to be discovered on old recordings usually held by families, but increasingly fewer and fewer remain. Also, recordings unfortunately reach a shelf life and may deteriorate beyond salvage. Like archeology, it’s a race against time to preserve what we can, while we can.

It’s a bit like sleuthing, but rewarding to pursue this Southern, and American art form of old-time fiddling.

As much as the fiddling, it’s the stories and recollections too that help imprint the memories of the fiddler, his tunes, and his life.  Fond tales of those preceding us are shared amongst musicians at local picking parties, jams, concerts and of course each fall at Fiddlers’. In the following articles, we will look at five Limestone County fiddlers who have come and gone, but who left memories and the gift of music and fiddling for others to enjoy and share.

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