Now That's A Good Tune - What the Reviews Say

Voyager Recordings & Publications

What the Reviewers Say - Now That's a Good Tune

The number of family bands playing old-fashioned fiddle music is higher than it was 20 years ago. And by-gone anniversaries including the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the beginning of the Civil War have caused an increased curiosity about the music of those eras. "Old-time fiddling is not dead," said Howard Marshall, a fiddle player and retired professor from the University of Missouri. "We wanted to show what's out there in the communities."

Marshall will sign a recently released revision of "Now That's A Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling" from 11:30 am - 1 p.m. Tuesday at Downtown Book and Toy. "Now That's A Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling" was published with long-play records in 1989 by the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Missouri, Columbia. It was a finalist for two Grammy Awards that same year. "It sold out almost immediately upon its release," Marshall said. "My bosses couldn't believe it. They were thunderstruck it was that good."

This revision included a 97-page book with two compact discs for $30. The book features stories of 13 of the most influential Missouri fiddlers. Most of the master fiddlers in this book played in the old-time dance tradition, primarily used for social occasions. But some were represented well in fiddle contests. "We weren't looking for hot, show fiddlers," Marshall clarified. "There were important to their communities. The mission of a fiddle player is not to be a wildcat but to provide music so people can dance."

This book is a "must have" for scholars of traditional fiddling in Missouri, one of the most influential regions for the development of fiddling in North America, promotional material said. The stories of the fiddlers, their philosophies of what fiddling means to them, and the importance of their fiddling to their communities should be read by every fiddler, the literature continued. Marshall said he hopes this revision will reach a broader audience this time. "It's not a musicological study," Marshall said. "We tried to write it user-friendly. And with the Civil War sesquicentennial around the corner, he expects interest for the music and the entertainment of the era will pick up too. "The fiddle was 'the' instrument, it was how the soldiers unwound at night," Marshall said.

Many copies of the first release of "Now That's a Good Tune" were sent to local libraries and historical societies. Marshall said he hopes that copies of this revision also will reach school music department libraries.

The type of fiddling depicted in this book and CDs still can be heard in Missouri today. Visit www.fiddlesong.com to find out where. Marshall has been collecting information about Missouri fiddling history for more than 35 years and intends to publish another book in the future. "It's not just an academic pursuit; it's a big part of my family heritage too," Marshall said. (Michelle Brooks, News Tribune, Jefferson City, MO, 11/30/2008)

*****

The first edition of this set (Gray Eagle Records. 101) was a two-record, long-playing album released in 1988 that included extensive notes in a 64-page booklet. It sold out fairly quickly and has been unavailable for several years. Fortunately, Howard Marshall, with the assistance of Vivian and Phil Williams of Voyager Records, has put together and published a new, revised edition. Although the musical content is the same as the old one, this new edition was published and formatted as a book with two accompanying CDS. That said, this is a must-have for anyone and everyone with an interest in Missouri fiddling. The book and CDs are not quite the be-all and end-all of Missouri fiddling, but this collection does go a long way in presenting a detailed picture of traditional fiddle music in the Show-Me State.

In his preface to the revised addition, Marshall discusses how the original project came about and how it was nominated for a Grammy award. He touches on the roles that various individuals played in producing it, and some of the technical difficulties that he and the Williams encountered in trying to reproduce this new edition. Also interesting is Marshall's description of the changes in the fiddle community in Missouri since the initial release of Now That's a Good Tune. Fiddling remains a vital means of cultural expression in the state, despite the dramatically reduced number of fiddle contests - once the primary outlet for fiddling in Missouri - and the disappearance of many community dances. As he notes, new technology has made available new means of learning to play, swapping tunes, etc. There continues to be an active interest in fiddling among scholars in the state and folk festivals, fiddlers' gatherings, and small community events continue to provide venues for old-time fiddling throughout the state.

The book contains an extensive and detailed essay by Marshall in which he discusses regional stylistic characteristics and variances as applied to fiddling in Missouri. This material provides much insightful information, and may be very useful in dispelling some misconceptions of fiddling in Missouri, such as the notion that there is a singular Missouri style. In his essay Marshall describes three distinct regional styles represented in the state - Ozark style, Little Dixie style, and northern Missouri style. (Others have argued that these can be broken down even further, but that's a subject for another day.) To generalize somewhat, Ozark fiddling emphasizes hard-driving hoedowns intended for the vigorous square and jig dancing indigenous to the region, which comprises much of the state situated south of the Missouri River, excluding the Bootheel in the extreme southeast corner. Much of the Ozarks was originally settled by people from the mountain regions of Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, etc., which one could argue is reflected in the music. The Little Dixie region was settled by Anglo-Americans from the lowland and Piedmont regions of the Upper South who brought their culture and agricultural practices with them. Little Dixie fiddling also tends towards driving dance music, but the tunes tend to be somewhat more intricate in melodic structure. Tunes in flat keys such as B-flat, F, and E-flat are far more common in the region, too. (There are exceptions, of course.) Because of its historical ties to the South, Little Dixie was also the home to several renowned African American fiddlers, among the, Bill Driver, Walt Dougherty, and Bill Katon. These gentlemen have left their mark on the repertoire of Little Dixie fiddlers. The third style discussed by Marshall is North Missouri style. He notes that this style is more complex and the tunes are often played at a much slower pace than in other areas of the state. The area's original settlers tended to come from the Northeast and eastern Midwest, and this may have had an impact on the playing styles and repertoire found in this part of the state. Marshall carefully notes that these are very broad categories at best and a lot more listening and study needs to be done before any final pronouncements are made. In the essay, he also discusses the various contexts in which fiddling continues to thrive in the state, i.e. dances, contest, religious services, etc., and includes some discussion of repertoire and accompaniment.

The book includes updated biographies of all the musicians (unfortunately, over half of them have died since 1988), tune annotations, which a few transcriptions, and a detailed bibliography and discography. The latter are both sadly out of date. However, and major plus is the numerous photographs, some recent and others perhaps 100 years old, of musicians scattered throughout the book. They are worth the price of the set all by themselves.

The recordings are revelatory in some ways. They present mostly older fiddlers from all across the state playing in several different styles. For some of these folks, this may have been the first time they had appeared on a recording of any kind. Some, on the other hand, were well represented on recordings, though most were of the privately recorded and sold variety. Almost as interesting as who appeared on these records was who was not included here. However, a completely accurate and representative sampling would have taken several albums such as this one, ad at any rate, the issue has become less critical as a series of CD releases by fiddlers from all over the state have become available in the intervening years thanks to Rounder Records, Voyager Records, County Records, and the Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association, among others.

This brings us to the music itself. The first CD displays the talents of six very different sounding fiddlers - Carol Haschall, Vesta Johnson, Gene Goforth, Dean Johnston, R. P. Christeson, and Nile Wilson - each playing four tunes, every one a keeper. The second CD follows a similar pattern and features Cyril Stinnett, Lyman Enloe, Pete McMahan, Bob Walsh, Howe Teague, Bill Eddy, and Charlie Walden. Again the selections are very diverse and include some pieces not often heard outside of a very small area ( i.e. Enloe's "Call Your Dogs and Let's Go Hunting," Teague's "White River," and all of Nile Wilson's tunes). I found Gene Goforth's selections, along with Cyril Stinnett's, to be quite interesting and found myself listening to them often. However, I was particularly taken with the playing of the two women fiddlers here. Both have very distinctive styles, play nice tunes, and demonstrate their abilities as good dance fiddlers here. As their biographies reveal, both also had some illuminating stories to tell about growing up playing fiddle in an era when prevailing attitudes about women fiddlers was not positive, to say the lease. This collection of recordings stand up well twenty years after its initial release, and, along with the book, makes and important contribution, once again, to the rich and diverse heritage of American fiddle music. It also makes for some fine listening. Hats off to Howard Marshall and Voyager Records. (Jim Nelson, The Old-Time Herald)

*****

Now That's A Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling. (Revised Edition), produced and edited by Howard Marshall, Vivian Williams, and Phil Williams. Voyager Recordings, Seattle, Wash., 2008. Available from www.voyagerrecords.com; Voyager Recordings & Publications, 424 35th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122; 206-323-1112; email: info@voyager records. com.

Now That s A Good Tune: Masters of Missouri Fiddling, originally released in 1989 on two LPs and published by the University of Missouri, was, at that time, one of the first collections of field recordings featuring traditional Missouri fiddlers that I had ever heard. Twenty years later, after coming across the second edition of Now That s A Good Tune, and subsequently reviewing the list of musicians included in the project (Carol Hascall, Vesta Johnson, Gene Goforth, Dean Johnston, R.P. Christeson, Nile Wilson, Cyril Stinnet, Lyman Enloe, Pete McMahan, Bob Walsh, Howe Teague, Bill Eddy, Charlie Walden), it seemed to me that several important Missouri fiddlers had not been included in this collection. After this realization that in 2009, of the 13 fiddlers recorded, sadly, nine of them were no longer living. I then realized how significant the document actually is. Howard Marshall, director of the original project and the one responsible for making the original recordings available now in the double CD version of Now That s A Good Tune rightly deserves high praise.

Included with the CDs is a 97-page book containing notes on the tunes, biographical notes on the players, an extensive bibliography and discography, photographs of the musicians, and photographs pertinent to Missouri fiddling in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Reproductions of two works from the Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton are also included. Benton's 1931 sketch of Homer Leverett, a fiddler from Galena, Mo., provides a tasteful and fitting cover for the entire package.

The book also contains Marshall's instructive essay "An Introduction to Traditional Violin Playing in Missouri." After reading that regional distribution and stylistic considerations had formed the basis for selecting fiddlers for the project, and feeling somewhat appeased over the matter of who was not represented in the collection, I read on. I found the descriptions of the three distinctive styles of Missouri fiddling (Ozark, Little Dixie, and North Missouri) with each style corresponding generally to a particular geographic region of the state, to be quite clear and well stated.

These days of course, most musicians function within a far wider cultural purview than that of musicians of a generation or two ago; players who remain able to carry on a pure strain of a particular regional style have become increasingly rare. In terms of Missouri fiddling however, Marshall's useful system that broadly delineates three Missouri fiddle styles serves several purposes. To acknowledge Ozark, Little Dixie, and North Missouri styles in both the playing and vernacular related to Missouri fiddling goes a long way toward preserving these three traditional ways of playing fiddle that originated in Missouri. And, as the genre of Missouri fiddling has become more and more prominent at festivals throughout the country, such a system provides listeners with a useful context to more clearly define and appreciate the music.

Geographically and for the sake of discussion of the fiddling included in Now That s A Good Tune, the Ozarks is defined as the broad region roughly south of the Missouri River; Little Dixie, the area above and along the Missouri River eastward, and joining the Mississippi River north of St. Louis; and North Missouri includes the upper north part of the state into Iowa. The Ozark Style of fiddling is characterized by short bow strokes, heavy rhythm, and a sawing effect in the bowing that is significant in providing the right sort of beat for dancing, and the tunes themselves tend to have fairly simple straight-forward melodies. Little Dixie Style includes a mixture of both short and long bow strokes, the tunes tend to be more melodically intricate, and they are played more slowly (as compared with the Ozark style). North Missouri Style could be described as a hornpipe style (hornpipes are tunes with intricate melodies containing many notes). Long bow strokes are used on tunes that are generally played relatively slowly.

Since it had been years and years ' since I had listened to the first edition of Now That s A Good Tune, I found with the second edition, that I was listening to the old recordings with new ears, so to speak. Hearing these old tunes conjured up many fond memories, but I made a few new discoveries too, A few highlights:

Nile Wilson from Linn County in north central Missouri plays an interesting selection of tunes, namely "Tiehacker Rag" and "Little Whiskey," I always associate both of these seemingly obscure tunes with him, Apparently "Tiehacker Rag" came from Nile's father, W. R.Wilson, a fiddler himself, who learned the tune from a group of itinerant workers who hewed ties for the railroad (called tiehackers) in the vicinity of Wilson's home, To my mind, "Little Whiskey" seemed like Nile's "signature" tune, It is a cross-tuned piece (called dischord among Missouri fiddlers) where the fiddle is re-tuned to AEAE, Nile Wilson's fiddling is considered to be representative of the Little Dixie style.

An additional practitioner of Little Dixie style fiddling was Pete McMahan, who earned numerous prizes and awards in fiddle contests throughout the state of Missouri and across the country. Indeed, hearing him play Grey Eagle and taking first prize at the Missouri State Fiddle Contest in Sedalia in the 1980's was unforgettable. On Now That's A Good Tune (NTAGT), McMahan played one of his own compositions for which he is well known: "The Ozark Mountain Waltz." The waltz is a challenging tune set in the keys of F and B flat and containing many double stops. "Ozark Mountain Waltz" is typical of the waltzes played by older fiddlers in contests throughout the state of Missouri. It is important to acknowledge the significance of the contest as it relates to traditional fiddling in Missouri. In fact, in the commentary included with NTAGT, Howard Marshall notes that some scholars believe that of the three traditional Missouri fiddle styles, the Ozark style is probably the one most vulnerable to dying out-partly because of the influence of fiddle contests and the preference for smoother, more technically demanding styles of playing within the contest setting.

Epitomizing the North Missouri style on NTAGT was the legendary Cyril Stinnet, who played left-handed, "over the bass." Truly a master player, one hears a large Canadian influence in his playing, due to the proximity in northern Missouri to the strong radio signals that enabled him to tune in to the broadcasts of Canadian fiddlers on the radio. Clearly, the great Nebraska fiddler, Bob Walter, was an additional inspiration to Stinnet. Of the four marvelous tunes Stinnet plays on the collection, two of them come from the repertoire of Bob Walter: "Johnny Don't Come Home Drunk" and "Wake Up Susie" and two are Canadian tunes: "Big John McNeil", and "Jack Danielson's Reel."

The Bob Walter influence looms large in the world of Missouri fiddling. Walter was a major source for tunes in his two-volume collection The Old- Time Fiddler's Repertory arguably the "Bible" of Missouri fiddle music, collected by RP. Christeson. A fiddler himself, originally from Pulaski County in the Ozarks, Christeson contributed some wonderful tunes to NTAGT. Having been very familiar with Christeson's work through his great tune collection and hearing his voice and piano back-up on the recording that went with his books, I hadn't remembered that his fiddling was included on NTAGT. What a pleasant surprise to hear him playing some great Missouri tunes included in his own collection, such as "Whoa Mule" from the Missouri fiddler, Vee Latty, and also a tune from the African-American fiddler, Bill Driver, from Iberia, Mo. Emily Buckhannon accompanied Christeson on the piano for each of the four tunes that he contributes to this collection. Since the guitar generally is the instrument of choice as a back-up to the fiddle these days, it was another pleasant surprise for me to find piano back-up included in NTAGT. Many older fiddlers throughout the state have commented on the predominance of piano accompaniment (and pump organ to a lesser extent) to the fiddle in the old days. To my mind, the inclusion of piano on this recording lends a great deal of authenticity and credibility to the entire project.

I would very much like to continue writing about each of the fiddlers on NTAGT; particularly about Dean Johnston, an old friend, and as far as I know, his playing was never recorded, except for on this record. I would also like to comment on the wonderful repertoire Of tunes that Lyman Enlow played so beautifully, and to mention what a kind and humble soul he was. Finally, it is hardly possible to write about Missouri fiddling without acknowledging the superb playing of Charlie Walden, and to discuss his many efforts on behalf of Missouri fiddling, but space does not permit. To conclude, I highly recommend NTAGT to anyone who is interested in Missouri fiddling. Read the book, too. I know of no better commentary on the subject. (Kim Lansford , The Ozarks Mountaineer, July/August 2009)

*****

Twenty years ago, Mizzou was under a national spotlight of sorts at, of all places, the Grammy Awards. In 1989, the university's now-defunct Cultural Heritage Center had put together a collection of 52 field recordings called Now That's a Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling.

The album was a finalist in two categories but didn't win a Grammy. Nevertheless, the collection highlighting Missouri's finest fiddle players sold out quickly. It was out of print until 2008, when Voyager Recordings and Publications reissued both the recordings and the accompanying 97-page book by Howard Marshall, professor emeritus of art history. Other contributors to the book were Amy Skillman, Charlie Walden and Julie Youmans. (On the same topic, MU graduate Jeronimo Nisa did his master's project on traditional music in Missouri.)

Marshall had (and still has) the academic chops to write the book and help pick the tunes, but his ability on the fiddle is remarkable as well. "Ever since my family moved to Randolph County in 1830, there's been a fiddler in every generation," says Marshall, BA '70. Now he is keeper of the flame. Just as it does in Marshall's family, traditional fiddling goes way back in Missouri. The instrument was common to countless settlers from Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas and other eastern states who flowed into the state during the pioneer era.

Over the past two centuries in Missouri, Marshall says, traditional fiddlers have played in four main venues: jam sessions, religious services, contests and dances. Jam sessions are informal gatherings during which musicians play together and swap tunes. These sessions are critical to passing along traditional music because inexperienced fiddlers can join in with the masters to learn tunes and techniques.

"Sacred tunes are as much a part of the fiddler's repertoire as hoedowns and waltzes," despite the fact that some religions consider it "the devil's instrument," Marshall says. Contest participants can gain attention for flashy renditions of hot tunes, but the pressures of this venue favor sizzle more than substantial songs that capture regional identity. Although contests claim press attention, old-time dances take place in Missouri most every weekend of the year. "Few house dances or ‘kitchen sweats' are held these days, but dances remain important in the social and musical life of many communities in Missouri," Marshall says.

All in all, the violin is a versatile and occasionally volatile instrument. "It is a musical instrument welcome in the orchestra pit, the juke joint, the dance hall, parlor, kitchen and chapel," Marshall writes. "The violin is, perhaps more than any other instrument, able to fire the emotions and to inculcate solemn repose." What's more, fiddling remains an important thread in Missouri life. "It's still there, if we just scratch the surface. Ninety percent of fiddlers are just people having fun around the kitchen table, and they don't care if anybody knows that they play."

Alan Jabbour, founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., wrote the foreword to the first edition of Marshall's book. He described Missouri as an essence of America when it comes to fiddling. "As for me," he wrote, "having spent some happy days and nights in the midst of Missouri fiddlers, I rest easy knowing that, if fiddling ever ebbs in other parts of America, Missouri will hold fast till the tide turns again." (Mizzou - University of Missouri online Alumni Magazine, by Dale Smith)

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