Texas Swing Fiddle
If you gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band; so said the number 1 US single by the country music band Alabama.
But what is it that’s so special about fiddle playing in Texas? As a style it lies somewhere between old-time Appalachian style fiddling, with its roots in the tunes brought over by English, Irish and Scottish settlers, and Western Swing, the country/jazz fusion that was all the rage for a brief period in America in the 30’s and 40’s.
Here are some of the characteristics which make the style distinctive:
1. Much of the repertoire is shared with old-time fiddling, but the tunes are usually played slower; the average speed for breakdowns is 100-115 beats per minute.
2. In addition to the English/Irish/Scottish influence which it shares with Appalachian fiddling, Texas fiddle also draws on the German Polka tradition and the Mexican ranchero and mariachi traditions.
3. Texas fiddlers slur lots of notes together in long, smooth bows- the “Texas Long Bow” method, and quavers are often swung rather than played straight.
4. Phrases are much longer than normal- up to 8 bars are phrased together instead of the more normal 2 bars.
5. Whereas Appalachian fiddlers will often play the same A and B parts of a tune many times round, Texas fiddlers will play many sets of variations
6. Variations and embellishments include often complex double stops, triplets, slides, syncopation, blue notes, and frequent position changes
7. Texas fiddling does not, however, consist of soloing in the jazz sense; throughout the variations, the tune is always discernable.
8. Fiddlers aim for a rich tone and clear articulation
9. Accompaniment is usually provided by up to three guitars, all playing a distinctive vamping style where the chords or voicings change every bar. The more elaborate chords are often reflected in the melody lines, for example arpeggiating diminished chords when they occur.
10. Instead of being primarily for dancing, Texas fiddle is more for listening, and is most often heard at fiddle contests.
The history of Texas fiddling
The earliest recordings of Texas fiddlers are from the 1920’s and so it is difficult to say in much detail how the style had evolved before that point. Certainly there is plenty of evidence of the popularity of the fiddle in the 19thC; among the fiddlers named in newspaper stories is none other than the King of the Wild Frontier, Davey Crockett. He is reported to have played in the Alamo during the Mexican siege in 1836.
A defining moment for country fiddling as a whole came in 1922 when Amarillo-born Eck Robertson became the first fiddler to make a commercial recording. Among the tunes recorded at the Victor Talking Machine Company studios in New York was an unaccompanied version of Sally Goodin, in which he demonstrates the long bow method, and plays no less than 13 variations on the basic melody. These features, along with various other elaborations marked it out from old fashioned Appalachian fiddling and pointed strongly towards the modern Texas style. Other tunes laid down at the same session, including Ragtime Annie, Sally Johnson and Billy in the Lowground, use a more conventional sawstroke bowing. What this suggests is that by the 1920’s various elements of a differentiated Texas style were in use by some players, though it would certainly be an exaggeration to say that Robertson invented the style single handed.
By the mid to late 30’s, artists like Bob Wills and Milton Brown were bringing western swing to Texas and beyond; a style of music that played modern swing arrangements but using country instruments and repertoire. It was probably around this time that the modern style of guitar accompaniment evolved, with simple two or three chord tunes given spicy new and much more elaborate backing. With such a hot rhythm, and the example of guitar/violin pairings like Venuti and Lang, or Grappelli and Reinhardt on the airwaves, it’s little wonder that Texas fiddlers also started to swing their breakdowns. The double shuffle, pioneered by Joe Venuti on recordings such as Four String Joe and Kickin’ the Cat, was brought into the Texas swing armoury by Musical Brownies fiddler Cecil Brower, where it is now firmly ensconced in songs such as the Orange Blossom Special and Black Mountain Rag.
Howdy Forrester, one of Bill Monroe's fiddlers in the early 1940's, though originally from Tennessee, spent time in Texas in 1939.
"We played a certain style and played right on the tune, the style that Georgia Slim and I played, but when we went into Texas...those fellows actually scared the dickens out of me because they were reaching up into the second position and getting notes I'd never seen before. I looked at Slim and he looked at me and we said we'd better go to work here and do something- and we did. If you're in somebody's backyard, you'd better get a hoe just like he's got!"
The most significant of the new generation of Texas fiddlers was Benny Thomasson, (1909-1984) for whom the jazz music on early radio was a huge influence. His father Luke was also a well respected fiddler, and wrote the famous waltz Midnight on the Water. Luke was a friend of Eck Robertson, and would often visit the house, proving a major inspiration for Benny as a child. Benny’s repertoire ranged from traditional reels, hornpipes, polkas and waltzes to jazz numbers such as Sweet Georgia Brown. In the late 20’s Thomasson began entering fiddle contests. Initially he was unsuccessful, and he deliberately began creating his own variations and elaborations in order to stand out from the rest of the competitors. It was a successful strategy; he brought home 15 Texas State championships, and took the World championship three times in a row. These contests were the best possible showcase for Thomasson’s talents, and soon everyone wanted to play like him.
Among the many young fiddlers inspired by, and indeed taught by Thomasson was the 11-year old Mark O’Connor, living at the time in Seattle. Recognising O’Connor’s phenomenal natural talent, Thomasson began giving regular weekend-long lessons, concentrating not on technique but on creativity, developing the ability to come up with new variations on old tunes. The two had originally met at the Weiser fiddle contest, in 1973, and very soon O’Connor was winning the contests himself. In the early 70’s most contests around the US favoured their own regional styles, traditional old- time or bluegrass players would often win. However, this was soon to change. Quoted in Fiddler Magazine, O’Connor explained: “You have to remember that Texas fiddling did not become popular for contests until I eventually won every contest at least once around the country playing in the Texas style by the time I was twenty- I sort of proved it could be done, I suppose”
Contests had been an important forum for fiddle performance since the 18thC; some fiddlers travelled far and wide to compete, so that well before the introduction of radio, aspiring fiddlers would get to hear and meet top class musicians from well outside their own area. This helped to develop and maintain a high standard of fiddle technique throughout the country- well beyond what was required for the routine and perhaps humdrum task of playing at dances. In the old days pure technique was not always sufficient to guarantee success at contests. Playing up to the audience, hollerin’, trick fiddling, and hokum bowing (the double shuffle) were all fair game. From around the 1950’s a new crop of contests was established with a new and stricter set of rules; at a contest in New Mexico in 1953 the old-timer Eck Robertson (still going strong!) was hauled off the stage halfway through his legendary multi-variation rendering of Sally Goodin, because he had exceeded the time limit. Surely the equivalent of stopping Moses halfway through delivering the Ten Commandments (though to be fair, this was hardly the first time these particular commandments had been laid down!)
That same year the Weiser (Idaho) contest was started, soon to establish itself as the “national” to which others looked as an example of both playing and judging. In this new era when technique, clarity and tone were all that really counted, and where furthermore players from the whole nation could compete together, different regional styles were pitted against one another. As the most elaborate, flashy and refined of all the fiddle styles, Texas style, by a process almost of Darwinian evolution, came out on top. (though I’m not sure that particular metaphor would go down well in Texas!). Texas fiddle has become widely equated with contest fiddling as a whole, sometimes simply referred to as contest style.
I asked Bryan Jimmerson, president of the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association, about the recent history of Texas fiddling. He told me that Texas contest fiddling probably reached its peak in the 70’s and early 80’s:
During this time you still had the older generation who helped create and develop the style coming around and competing. Folks like Benny Thomasson, Major Franklin, Louis Franklin, Orville Burns, Norman and Vernon Soloman were the people that everyone looked forward to hearing and if they were lucky, perhaps pick up a cool lick or two. During this time you also had a generation of players like Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, Dick Barrett, Mark O'Connor, Dale Morris Sr., and his brother Terry Morris. These were the guys who took what they learned from the other group and expanded on it even more.
I asked Bryan about the nature of the car park and campfire jam sessions which are an important feature of fiddle contests and conventions. In Britain we are used to the Irish trad session where a circle of players will do tune after tune in as near perfect unison as possible. In a tradition where improvisation and variation are valued, this surely could not be the same? I have rarely been around a jam session where folks play tunes at the same time. I have heard several young players do this from time to time but it's because they all take from the same teacher and have the exact same version of the tune so they are all playing the exact same notes. Generally at our jams the more seasoned fiddlers will play a tune and pass it to the next person to let them show what they can do with it. It's fun to watch them show off and try to out-do each other especially on swing tunes. Another jam scenario would be that one fiddler sits with the guitar players and plays until he is ready to let someone else play and then he gives up the "hot seat" to someone else and on it goes.
Texas Fiddle Repertoire
As well as the style for contest fiddling becoming somewhat standardised, there is also a core repertoire which most fiddlers on the circuit will soon come to know. For each round of a contest, a player has to perform three tunes; a breakdown (the equivalent of a reel), a waltz, and a “tune of choice”- often a rag or hornpipe.
Among the most commonly played breakdowns are Ragtime Annie, Billy in the Lowground and Done Gone (all recorded by Robertson in 1922), Blackberry Blossom (written by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith), Limerock, and Grey Eagle (both of which feature third position arpeggios and high E harmonics), Tom and Jerry, Dusty Miller, Sally Johnson, Cattle in the Cane, Brilliancy and Jack of Dimonds.
Waltzes provide the opportunity for the fiddler to demonstrate tone and a slow, rich vibrato, as well as often elaborate double stopped harmonies. The Shannon waltz was first recorded by the East Texas Serenaders in 1927. Over the Waves was written in 1891 by the Mexican composer Juventino Rosas, while the Westphalia Waltz was originally a Polish tune. Other favourites include Margaret’s Waltz, Shannon Waltz, Roxanne Waltz and Gardenia. Wednesday Night Waltz and Festival Waltz are both attributed to Bluegrass Boy Kenny Baker. One of the finest waltz players, and the originator of some of the most exquisite double stop arrangements is fiddler Johnny Gimble. Gardenia Waltz is one of his best known.
Among the tunes played as “tune of choice” include Black and White Rag, Beaumont Rag. Cincinatti Rag, CottonPatch Rag, Allentown Polka and I Don’t Love Nobody.
Most of above text first appeared in an article I wrote for Fiddle On magazine.
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Chris Haigh is a freelance fiddle player based in London. He is a member of the barn-dance band Quicksilver, and has worked with the Coal Porters, Leon Hunt, and Orange Blossom Sound. He teaches and gives workshops on bluegrass, country, swing and western swing fiddle.