Missouri Fiddle Traditions Began In Mid-18th Century

Dec 28, 2017

“There are traditions all around us, in everything we do.” says Howard Wright Marshall.  “Generally speaking, a Tradition is some sort of craft, or story, song, fiddle tune or even recipe that has been transmitted largely by aural tradition from one person to another. Over several generations, these things become embedded in the community, and help tell us a lot about the personality of the place, and the kind of people who live there.”

Howard Wright Marshall is a retired professor of Art History and Anthropology, at the University of Missouri, Columbia. As a fiddler himself, Marshall has a keen interest in Missouri Fiddle Traditions, and has authored 2 books on the subject, published by the University of Missouri Press:  Play Me Something Quick and Devilish-Old Time Fiddlers in Missouri, (2012) and Fiddlers Dream-Old Time, Swing, and Bluegrass Fiddling in 20th Century Missouri. (2017)

The Fiddle is Missouri’s Official Musical Instrument, but its Traditions were first brought to Southeast Missouri and St. Louis, in the mid-eighteenth century, by French explorers and settlers.  In the early 1800’s, Scotts-Irish immigrants spread west across the State, followed by German speaking immigrants who mainly settled in North-Central Missouri.

Howard Wright Marshall At A February 2013 Session In Columbia Mo., For the Jero Nisa Film, Driver
Credit Shane Epping

“I’m learning that Missouri Fiddling is like the Nation’s Motto:  E Pluribus Unum; Out of Many, One.” says KSMU’s Mike Smith.

Howard Marshall replies with a chuckle:  “Yes, that’s exactly right.  When we look at what the first fiddle and dance music in Missouri was like, we look at the French Settlements and working towns along the Mississippi River which were established before the first Anglo-Americans came in from the East, and later the Germans. If we listen to fiddlers today, who are descendants of the French settlers of St. Louis and Southeast Missouri, who talk about how their fathers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles played the music throughout the years, we can still record the music, and get an idea of what it was like.”  (French Style Fiddle Tune Fade Up: Valle Winters’ Waltz, played by Lloyd Lalumondier, of St. Genevieve, Mo.)    

Howard Marshall continues:  “The next big group to come in to Missouri would be the stereo-typical Scotch-Irish Kentuckians, Tennesseans, and people from North Carolina and Virginia, principally.  They’re the folks who we credit with providing most Fiddle Traditions we have in Missouri.”

Gordon McCann at Home in Springfield For a December 6th Music Party
Credit Mike Smith / KSMU-FM

“In this area around here, Springfield-Greene County, the folks who settled in with their fiddle traditions were mostly Ulster Scots, from North Ireland.” says lifelong Ozarker, Gordon McCann.

Gordon McCann is a Missouri Traditional Music musician, Historian, and Documentarian, whose collection of over 2000 field recordings has been digitized, and is available through Missouri State University’s Meyer Library. This is mostly a British-Isles area in the Ozarks.  I’ve always said, you never saw a portrayal of a Pioneer with a piano slung over his saddlebag, but they sure could take a fiddle, you know.  And then when State-Hood came, then the fiddle really came in.  Well, what few fiddlers there were?  If a community had just one fiddler and he knew 2 tunes, as the most even, it didn’t matter, because the dancers just wanted that beat.”  (Scots-Irish Fiddle Tune Fades Up:  Dance Around Molly, played by Pete McMahan, of Central Missouri.)

“Probably just as important as any of the strands we’ve talked about so far,” says author, Howard Wright Marshall, “is the music German speaking people brought with them to north-central and north Missouri.  We can thank them for bringing music and dances to Missouri, particularly dances like the Schottische, the Waltz, and the Polka, depending on what part of German speaking Europe they were from.”  (German Style Fiddle Tune Fades Up:  Lauterbach, played by Billy Lee, of Wright City Mo.)

Across Missouri, the State’s Fiddle Traditions are passed on, many times, through family generations, but always in places where its flame keepers gather. Like the regular Monday evening pot-luck Music party in McClurg Missouri, or impromptu music sessions at someone’s house. 

Steve Scott With His German Violin Made In The 1750's
Credit Mike Smith / KSMU-FM

Traditional Missouri Music musician Steve Scott, was one of 2 fiddlers who recently joined with 2 guitarists and 2 banjo players, for a Music Party in the Springfield home of Gordon and Mona McCann. Scott, who brought a German Violin made in the 1750’s to the gathering, says he learned to play and appreciate Missouri’s Fiddle and Music Traditions, from family members:  “I grew up in Stone County, down by Cape Fair. My dad, and aunts and uncles and a whole bunch of people played music down there.  My dad and an aunt taught me how to play guitar about 3-4 o’clock in the morning” he said with a laugh. “My brothers and sisters and I had jams going on at the house all the time and eventually it got to be big enough to bring in more aunts and uncles and cousins from all around the country, and turned into big family reunions.”  (Fiddle Tune Cincinnati Sally Ann, Fades Up.  Played by Steve Scott, Luke Cormier, Gordon McCann, Roger Grable, Karl Eggers, and Lynn Scott, in the home of Gordon McCann)

“Customs can die if they’re not nourished in the community” says Howard Marshall.  “If you’re lucky and live with a family that really cares, or in a community that really cares, and understands their cultural heritage and desires to keep it alive, then you’re in great shape.”