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The Kentucky Mountain Fiddler


By Charles G. Mutzenbergh, June 1903


The strains of the rustic fiddler stir the native as no foreign air can do. The most difficult performance on the violin falls flat before an audience of mountaineers accustomed to the wild, untrained strains of the rustic fiddler. And to be a good fiddler is a distinction of much more consequence than you might imagine. If I were to run for Congress, instead of troubling my brain with statistics and platform and injuring my throat with speeches, I should fiddle my way through; that is in some sections of the mountains I know of. A few tunes like "Calahan," "Sourwood Mountain," "Give the Fiddler's Dram," and others would secure me more votes than pockets full of money and two speeches a day at every crossroad.

To the genuine mountaineer the possession of a fiddle is a badge of high social standing, and if he attains to the rank of "the best fiddler on the creek," it enlarges his sphere, for he is called out on all occasions, without him a log-rolling, a corn-shucking, a quilting, or an "infare" would meet with poor success.

There is no end of fiddlers, but the genuine article is a scarcity, and this fact contributes to his importance if he is recognized as an uncommonly good fiddler. There are plenty of big, double-fisted fellows who learn to scrape the semblance of a tune. They scrape with a will, and with wonderful exertion of muscle. They keep time with the foot and the thump, thump, thump of the heavily shod feet upon the puncheon floor often drowns the music.

Talent Transmitted

The good fiddler inherits his talent, "It runs in the family," as the saying goes. There is hardly an instance where the old man used to be a fiddler, but what one or more of his boys strive, with might and main, to become worthy of the reputation of the sire.

The mountaineer fiddler thoroughly enjoys the music he plays. He holds the fiddle and the bow in his own peculiar style, and often invents tunes, which, if they happen to make a hit, are named after him. A good fiddler needs no tombstone to perpetuate his memory. His music preserves it. There is "Calahan," for instance. That is a tune which no mountain fiddler can afford to be without. Besides being pretty and peculiar, it has a history. Joe Calahan (I believe it was Joe) composed it, and played it the last time while sitting on his coffin on the cart under the gallows. He was hanged for a murder committed in Clay County, that happened long before the Civil War. Calahan, the murderer, has long since been forgotten, but Calahan, the fiddler, is still remembered.

Let us watch the fiddler at a gathering. He takes his place with evident self-satisfaction, plainly conscious of his importance. He tunes with much deliberation, almost exhausting the patience of the young folks whose toes are twitching and tickling for the dance.

Untrammeled and unrestrained by any rules of music, he indulges in eccentricities, which, amusing as they are to a stranger, are none the less essential. To stop his foot from beating time on the floor means to stop his fiddling. His mouth, half open, twitches and works, but it belongs to his performance, and if you wish to hear his music you must take along the contortions in good grace.

What the Music Tells

This homespun music is by no means a meaningless jingle, but it is full of sound of fury and of life, surprisingly descriptive, inexpressibly weird, sometimes gentle and pathetic, even in its coarseness. His tunes carry with them all the wildness and solitary associations of the mountains. As the strain rises and falls, the imagination pictures the rushing mountain torrents, rugged cliffs, and the silent dark glades. It carries one back to the time when we romped about the old log cabin schoolhouse, with its stick and clay chimney, a barefooted, dirty lad. It brings back the tender recollections of the school days, when we carved the rickety, split-log benches with jack knives, or cast longing, bashful glances at the rosy-cheeked, hazel-eyed, laughing lassies; our first love, perhaps. When the fiddle stops, we return to the reality of the present.

He tunes again after a breathing spell and a drink of "mountain dew." He grasps his fiddle and holds it closer under his bearded chin. His countenance changes from smiling serenity to severity and anger. He seems seized with some strange whim and as the bow dances over the strings, he becomes oblivious to his surroundings. Wild and weird are the strains. They tell of the many bloody battles fought among the natives in the days of the feud. You almost hear the derisive shouts of the combatants as they pour their deadly fire upon each other. There are blood, hatred, anger, revenge, courage, and defiance, all mixed up in that tune that appeals strongly to the passions. Many a hardy, young mountaineer feels for his belt to assure himself that the weapons he can use, with such deadly effect, are still in their accustomed places, and ready for use when needed.

There is no end of beauty or no end of realism, in these wild melodies, and it is so because they are natural. Nature speaks in these tunes. Nothing but the wild, rugged mountains and romantic woods and glens, nothing but the untamed, unrestrained, yet sympathetic, natures of the Kentucky mountaineer could have produced them.

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