What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin? The instrument is the same, but violin playing and fiddlin’ belong to two different traditions. Classical violin music is written down by a composer and usually played at formal events. Fiddle music, however, was traditionally played by common people at informal dances—for example, in the book A Christmas Carol, Fezziwig has a fiddler play songs at his Christmas party. In order to play danceable music, fiddlers use different techniques than classical violinists. They tune their instruments differently than violins in order to make it easier to “drone” and to play double-stops (two notes at once); they do not use vibrato like classical violinists, but they often play loudly in order to be heard at dances and parties. Although most fiddlers still learn by ear rather than by taking lessons, fiddle music is no less challenging than classical violin music.
Almost every European country and region of America has its own fiddle tradition and unique style. The South, however, has a unique claim to the fiddle, due to its use in country and bluegrass music. Although these styles are the most recognizable, the fiddle has been an important instrument in many genres, and fiddle music continues to evolve today. Here’s the fiddle’s history through seven songs which show the fiddle’s different facets.
- The Arkansas Traveler The song and story of the Arkansas Traveler became a piece of Arkansas history but was often associated with negative “hillbilly” stereotypes.The “Arkansas Traveler” was written by Colonel Sanford C. “Sandy” Faulkner, a Confederate soldier, politician, and storyteller. The lyrics are based on a real encounter that Faulkner had with a country fellow while he was out politicking. In Faulkner’s retelling, the native gave humorous answers to the traveler’s questions; in some later versions, the dialogue between the traveler and the local was sandwiched between musical sections. (“Still Trying to Get to Little Rock” by The Stanley Brothers is an updated version of this, though with a different tune.) It is unclear whether Faulkner wrote the tune or simply added a traditional tune to his lyrics, but in any event, the combination worked. “The Arkansas Traveler” became Arkansas’s state song in 1947, with an “official” set of lyrics written by committee. The song is usually played, however, as an instrumental. There is no definitive recorded version of this song, but like most old-time fiddle tunes, the melody is usually played without embellishment, and there are no improvised solos.
- Port Arthur Blues The combination of fiddle and accordion became a staple of dances and parties in Cajun country (photo by Michael Miceli)Although the fiddle traditions of Texas and the Appalachian regions were probably the most influential on today’s music, the unique Cajun culture of South Louisiana developed its own fiddle tradition. After accordions were introduced to the area in the late 1800’s, fiddle and accordion combos became popular. Fiddle players playing with accordions faced new sets of problems: the accordions were so loud they would drown out the fiddles, and fiddle players often re-tuned their instruments to fit in with the accordions. Nevertheless, fiddle and accordion combos were popular entertainment at dances and house parties. As societal changes in the mid-twentieth century opened Southern Louisiana to other influences, Cajun fiddlers expanded their vocabulary to add in elements of Western swing, country, and rock and roll. This recording of “Port Arthur Blues” by legendary Cajun fiddler Wade Frugé is an example of the older style of Cajun fiddle and accordion music: the fiddle and accordion trade off playing the melody, with a guitar providing a simple rhythm. Although the tune includes more embellishments than “The Arkansas Traveler,” both instruments stick closely to the melody, and the musicians focus more on providing a backdrop for dancing than showing off their skills.
- Sittin’ on Top of the World The mysterious Mississippi Sheiks never became household names like Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, yet they left an undeniable influence on blues musicThe blues are primarily associated with the guitar, but a tradition of blues fiddle existed in the pre-World-War-II era. Much of “blues” and “old-time” music was very similar, and the distinction between “black” blues and “white” old-time/country music was artificially created by record companies in the early twentieth century. Both genres had similar roots, and a surprising number of blues musicians played the fiddle. After World War II, however, many black Americans migrated from the American South to the North, taking blues music with them. As blues went electric and became more distinct from country and folk, the fiddle was abandoned in favor of amplified instruments that could be heard in loud nightclubs. As a consequence, the fiddle is rarely played as a blues instrument today. “Sittin’ on Top of the World” is a standard originally written by members of the Mississippi Sheiks, who play it here. Here the fiddle player roughly mirrors the vocals during the verses and plays a solo over a different chord progression—another innovation from the folk tradition.
- San Antonio Rose Bob Wills cultivated a sophisticated, cosmopolitan image, bringing fiddle music into the 20th centuryIn Texas, Bob Wills is still the king, and he gained his throne by popularizing Western swing, a mix of jazz-influenced swing and country and western music. Wills didn’t invent Western swing, nor was he even the best fiddler in his band, The Texas Playboys. What he did do, though, was popularize a genre that took fiddle-playing to new heights. Unlike the older string bands, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had an image that was more sophisticated than hillbilly stereotypes. Their music fit this image, using jazz chords and extended solos instead of the simpler song structures of string-band music. The blending of jazz with country opened up new ranges of expression for the fiddle, which were later co-opted by bluegrass players. The Texas Playboys recorded many versions of “San Antonio Rose”; this one, from the Rhino Records release Classic Western Swing, best shows Bob Wills’ fusion of multiple genres.
- Orange Blossom Special You can hear the Orange Blossom Special (depicted here in a 1939 postcard) coming down the tracks in this fiddle tune by the same name Fiddling is not just a musical style; sometimes it is a competitive sport. Fiddle contests have been held in America since the 1700’s. These contests are sometimes judged on musical ability and sometimes on showmanship, with fiddlers dancing or playing their instruments in unusual ways. “The Orange Blossom Special” was written in the 1930’s, but it quickly became a staple of fiddlers and fiddle contests, due to its difficulty. Written by Ernest Rouse, the song emulates the sound of the train, as described in its title. It has become an iconic fiddle tune; some contemporary fiddle contests even ban the song because it is over-performed. There are as many different versions of this song as the day is long, but few reach the intensity of the live rendition by Charlie Daniels on his collection The Roots Remain.
- Uncle PenBill Monroe had many great fiddle players, but Chubby Wise stands out as one of the best (photo courtesy of the International Bluegrass Music Museum)Bluegrass is often described as the invention of one man: Bill Monroe. While it is true that the fast and technical sound of bluegrass would have never existed without Monroe and his mandolin playing, credit has to go to the members of his band, the Blue Grass Boys. Monroe’s fiddlers helped add elements of jazz, blues, and Western swing to string music, creating the mixture of genres that came to be known as bluegrass. The Blue Grass band had a number of excellent fiddlers, including Chubby Wise (who erroneously claimed to have written “Orange Blossom Special”) and the legendary Vassar Clements. The fiddler with the most influence on bluegrass, however, was not a member of the band, but Monroe’s uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, whom Monroe immortalized in the song “Uncle Pen.” The song showcases the blend of the modern and traditional that characterizes bluegrass music.
- The Devil Went Down to GeorgiaCharlie Daniels doesn’t hold back when he plays the fiddle (photo courtesy charliedaniels.com)In day’s past, the fiddle was often referred to as “the Devil’s box.” Church leaders condemned fiddle music because it was associated with dances and partying. Traveling fiddle players themselves often preferred to fiddle their lives away on wine, women, and song rather than settle down. From this sprang legends associating the Devil with fiddling, which often involved a fiddler selling his soul in return for expert knowledge of the fiddle. There are versions of this story from all across the world, but the most familiar one to Americans is probably “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band. Inspired by the Stephen Vincent Benet poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” the song tells the story of a country boy named Johnny who puts his soul on the line in a fiddle contest against the Devil. In classic folktale fashion, Johnny beats the Devil, but the real winner in the song is Charlie Daniels’ fiddle playing, which imitates the different fiddling styles of the two contestants.
Although these songs provide an excellent introduction to the fiddle tradition of the American South, they barely scratch the surface of the fiddle’s history. And as music continues to evolve, fiddle players are reviving older styles and innovating the art form even further. So what songs would you put on the list? Let us know in the comments.