The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling

Overview

A unique and illuminating overview of the traditions of Southern fiddling, covering the key performers and compositions that defined that genre during its golden age—from the 1920s to the 1950s—and that continue to influence popular music today.

It was called "the devil's box" because the instrument was thought to be sinful to play. Yet in spite of (or perhaps partially because of) that stigma, the fiddle has long been one of America's favorite...

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Overview

A unique and illuminating overview of the traditions of Southern fiddling, covering the key performers and compositions that defined that genre during its golden age—from the 1920s to the 1950s—and that continue to influence popular music today.

It was called "the devil's box" because the instrument was thought to be sinful to play. Yet in spite of (or perhaps partially because of) that stigma, the fiddle has long been one of America's favorite instruments.

Easily portable, stylistically versatile, and possessing an enchanting timbre, it accompanied the European settlers across America. In the 1800s, the fiddle entertained on the battlefield and on the campaign trail. When country music made its first appearance on records in the 1920s, fiddlers called the tune. To this day, the fiddle remains a distinctive element of country music, and fiddlers like Alison Krauss and Mark O'Connor are among the music's biggest stars and most innovative artists.

The key players and favorite tunes in the commercial emergence of Southern fiddling in the first half of the twentieth century are the focus of this lucid and engaging study. Among the lively portraits that emerge in The Devil's Box are those of:

Eck Robertson, the audacious Texas fiddler who jump-started the country music recording industry in 1922 by showing up unannounced at the studios of Victor Records and demanding to be recorded;
Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the feisty, white-bearded, rural fiddler whose appearance on radio station WSM in Nashville inaugurated the Grand Ole Opry;
Clayton McMichen, the dazzlingly talented but disgruntled fiddler's fiddler who preferred jazz to country music and who could never live down his early years in country music's first supergroup, the Skillet Lickers; and
Bob Wills, who popularized western swing by combining fiddle music with the sounds of big band swing and who never abandoned the fiddle music of his youth, even after dance music became far more lucrative.

Elsewhere, Wolfe discusses the background of such famous fiddle tunes as "Black Mountain Rag" and "Over the Waves," tracing their meandering and curious paths to widespread popularity, and explains how Stephen Vincent Benet's 1925 classic poem "The Mountain Whippoorwill" was inspired by country fiddler Lowe Stokes winning an Atlanta fiddle contest in 1924.

Drawing on such seldom-tapped resources as small regional newspapers, personal correspondence, and rare interviews with the fiddlers themselves as well as their families, Wolfe conjures up vivid portraits of the individuals who fashioned this distinctly American music. Along the way, he places the fiddlers and their music in a rich historical context, illuminating the threads that connect country music to blues, jazz, folk, and classical music—and, indeed, to the history of America itself.

Co-published with the Country Music Foundation Press

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A marvelous overview of this impish instrument's journey from 19th-century folk traditions to modern country music, told through the stories of individual fiddlers. . . . Wolfe tells these stories in a lively style that never overacademizes his subjects.
Nashville Banner

There is a wealth of new information between these covers. Wolfe lays the groundwork for understanding the fiddlers in a very human context. He provides a sense of their world. This in turn provides insights into how their works and times have shaped the current scene.
Fiddler Magazine

A valuable storehouse of fiddling history.
Kirkus Reviews

Each chapter includes not only information on the musicians but fascinating detail on the record companies, music festivals, radio shows, other performers, geographical variations, and the general context of country music.
Choice

Wolfe's well-documented research compels the reader to salute the study of country music as a valid endeavor for scholarly contributions. Recommended for collections on American music in public and academic libraries.
Library Journal

Library Journal
In this example of the bounty of country music history stemming from the Country Music Foundation/Vanderbilt University alliance, Wolfe The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, LJ 11/15/92 concentrates on Southern fiddling in the years 1925-55, paying particular attention to early recordings by fabled old-timers. After a sparkling foreword by Mark O'Connor, the Texan fiddler whose playing strikes chills down the spine, Wolfe sets the stage with brief discussions on why the fiddle was called "the devil's box" in the South, the kinds of fiddles one found among the folk, and the popularity of fiddling contests. Wolfe's well-documented research compels the reader to salute the study of country music as a valid endeavor for scholarly contributions. Recommended for collections on American music in public and academic libraries.Kathleen Sparkman, Baylor Univ., Waco, Tex.
Kirkus Reviews
Knowledgeable but occasionally arcane collection of essays celebrating the Golden Age of "old-time" southern fiddling (192555).

Old-time fiddling has an honored place in American culture and history: The industrialist Henry Ford recognized this and marshaled his resources to spark a revival of the art and to promote traditional values. Wolfe (coauthor, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, 1992) originally published most of these essays in The Devil's Box, a magazine about old-time fiddling. (The fiddle was sometimes called the devil's box, Wolfe notes, "because some thought it was sinful to play one.") Like the magazine, this book caters to those with a substantial interest and knowledge in the field. Most of the essays take a scholarly approach to such things as discographies of unreleased "sides" by classic fiddlers or resolving the composition credit for "The Black Mountain Rag." Those already familiar with fiddling giants such as Eck Robertson, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Fiddlin' Powers, Doc Roberts, Clayton McMichen, Bob Wills, and Arthur Smith will find the level of detail satisfying; others, especially nonfiddlers, may feel awash in facts. However, there are revealing anecdotes throughout: Arthur Smith, for instance, once showed up for a photo session for the Grand Ole Opry in a suit and was forced to change into rural clothes (a more appropriate look, it was thought, for a country musician) and pose in a pigpen. The idiosyncratic Smith also once dynamited a fishing hole to guarantee himself a good catch. The great Clark Kessinger learned a few chops from the classical violinist Szigeti. Fiddling contests, the history of the Opry, and the early days of recorded country music are well covered.

The collection provides a valuable storehouse of fiddling history, but copious research is generally undistilled. Not for the layperson.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Charles Wolfe, former professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, was one of the world's most respected and prolific writers on traditional folk and popular American musical genres. Author of more than a dozen books on American music, including The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (with Kip Lornell), The Grand Ole Opry: The Early Years, 1925-35; Kentucky Country; and Tennessee Strings; he has annotated over one hundred record albums and has been nominated three times for Grammy awards.

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Table of Contents

Foreword
Acknowledgments
Introduction: The Commercial Fiddling Tradition
1 The Oldest Recorded Fiddling Styles 3
2 The Recordings of Eck Robertson 12
3 Across the Amerikee: The Story of Uncle Jimmy Thompson 30
4 Fiddlin' Powers and His Family 50
5 Mr. Grayson's Train 61
6 Doc Roberts: Behind the Masks 66
7 Clayton McMichen: The Reluctant Hillbilly 81
8 Kessinger 99
9 Fiddlers' Dream: The Legend of Arthur Smith 113
10 Bob Wills, Fiddler 151
11 Slim Miller of Renfro Valley 163
12 The Mystery of "The Black Mountain Rag" 171
13 "Over the Waves": Notes toward a History 183
14 Tommy Jackson: Portrait of a Nashville Session Fiddler 186
15 Ernie Hodges: From Coal Creek to Bach 197
Discography 217
Index 219
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2002

    It's so easy to play on the fiddle...

    As someone interested in old time fiddle, I devoured this book. The author presents profiles of fiddlers popular from the 1920s to the 1960s and shows how they innovated their craft and influenced modern fiddling. I highly recommend it. One thing bothered me though. Each biography reads the same: There's a guy, usually with family members who play fiddle well. The guy gets a fiddle, within a year he's beating star fiddlers at competition. A week later he's on the Opry. He struggles with alcoholism. He dies in obscurity. Kind of like a fiddler's 'Behind the Music.' Didn't anybody ever have to practice a lot? Didn't anybody play poorly for the first few years? Maybe not. Good book if you like old fiddle music.

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