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Women's History Month and My Old-Time TOTW Series

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Hello, Friends:

Well, March has come and gone. April is fast coming to its completion, and I find that I have not blogged lately. So many things going on, including learning so many more tunes for future installments of Old-Time TOTW. 

I dedicated my Old-Time TOTW series in the last four weeks of March to Women's History month. We started off with a popular tune, not by a woman source fiddler, but by featuring my fiddling friend Amanda Morrison playing The Eighth of January. Amanda is a great and fun fiddler in Akron, OH. She has been playing since she was a child, and I really enjoy getting together with her as often as I can to share tunes. 

Here is Amanda playing The Eighth of January with us

On March 17, we featured an uncommon tune by Sarah Gray Armstrong (1883-1957) of Westmoreland County, PA. This was especially appropriate because Ms. Armstrong was born on March 18, 1883. The tune is found in Samuel Bayard's Hill Country Tunes published in 1944. It's a wonderful tune, and so much fun to play that I am surprised it is not heard more often. 

Old-Time TOTW #38: Over the Stump and Back Again

On March 24, we featured a tune called Uncle Henry, from Violet Hensley (1922-   ) of Marion County, AR. Violet has made nearly 100 fiddles in her lifetime, and is known as the "Whittlin' Fiddler of Yellville." She will turn 103 on October 21. I really wish I could go to AR and meet her.

Old-Time TOTW #39: Uncle Henry

On March 31, we revisited PA with Sarah Armstrong's Tune

I wish we could have featured more tunes from women source fiddlers, but the sad truth is that there are very few by comparison to male fiddlers. Why might that be? Well, it's no secret that it was very much a man's world in early rural America (and, unfortunately, still can be). Women were constantly doing some sort of work, and that never seemed to end. Yes, men worked as well, but when they came home from work, or came in from working the fields, they likely had more time to themselves than the women did. The women's work was never done taking care of the chores and her family. When would she have had time to fiddle?y By the 19th century, it seems that the violin was deemed suitable for women, but the fiddle still had a different association. The violin was more genteel, and was a sign of good-breeding in a young woman, but this might have been for city women rather than women in rural areas of the country. The violin was a parlor instrument, not one that belonged in a raucous barn dance. Estill Bingham mentioned that his mother, who was quite religious, did not want him to play the fiddle because she thought he might run away with some musicians. The early settlers truly made an association with the fiddle and the devil. Here are some examples: 

From The Afro-American Fiddler by Theresa Jenoure, Hampshire College, September 2008

    “In spite of the valuable status of the fiddle, its association with dancing evoked condemnations among the religiously strict, evangelical sects, both black and white. Among some, fiddling was thought to be a skill of which only Satan was capable, hence its playing implied some level of communication with the Devil. Concerning Clarinda, born in 1730:

               She learned to play on the violin, and, usually, on the first day of the week, sailed forth with her instrument, in order to draw persons of both sexes together, who, not having the fear of God before their eyes, delighted like herself, in sinful and pernicious amusement…"

In her Fiddle Book, Marion Thede made short mention of women fiddlers, but it was not a very flattering description. 

           “It is very unusual to find a woman fiddler; in fact, a woman who plays fiddle is set down as decidedly queer. For this reason Mrs. Coates and her two daughters were well known, as three freaks in the same house were almost unheard of.” [the Coates women lived in OK during the late 19th century]

Freaks! What woman would even want to play the fiddle with that kind of association? Marion, of course, was a woman fiddler, but did she associate herself with those women, seeing that she learned classical violin and crossed over to fiddle music later in life? Thede includes no tunes from women fiddlers in her book, but she does show some photos of women fiddlers. Was this merely because there were none in the areas where she collected tunes? 

Beisswenger and McCann bring up women fiddlers in Violet Hensley's biography in Ozark's Fiddle Music

               “It was unusual for a woman to pay the fiddle at that time [c. 1920s-30s], and [Hensley] knew of no other women fiddlers in her neighborhood. That did not deter her, and she was often seen playing at square dances with her father."

I recently found a copy of Bolick's Mississippi Fiddle Tunes and Songs from the 1930s at my local library, and there appears to be many transcriptions there from women. I need to give it a good go-over.

All I can say is that I'm certainly glad that times have changed where women fiddlers are no longer looked at as being queer or freaks. There are many wonderful present-day women fiddlers who are playing and passing along tunes. To each one of them, I give my sincere appreciation and gratitude. 

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