On Sundays I start my day by pulling up an archived Shirley Donnelly column, transcribing it and then reading about the subject through sources outside of his column. Sometimes I use genealogy sites, sometimes Google books will offer me a local history book associated with the topic and sometimes I languish over YouTube videos, old photo archives from WVU or the Library of Congress (such is the case today).
On “this” Sunday morning, Shirley’s topic was a Stradivarius which had been found. A quick search revealed he wrote about the instrument multiple times. Those articles are below. Because my eyes are not being friendly this snowy Sunday, I will ask that you just enlarge the article on your device for easier reading and beg forgiveness of these old eyes.
My brain works in the style of a domino train (i.e. one falls, knocking another, knocking another, knocking another…), after reading the Yesterday and Today columns, I ended up on a trail of “What is the oldest reference to fiddle I can find?” And from those readings, I learned of the widespread use of the term fiddle in cultures other than our own sweet Appalachia and I was somewhat surprised by my finds. I was distracted away from finding the oldest reference and fell into a digital globe trotting experience.
And I offer you this for people who wish to compare a fiddle to a violin:
Add’l links on the subject of one versus the other by people smarter than I:
Strings Magazine: Learn the Difference Between Violin and Fiddle
Johnson String Instrument: Fiddle vs. Violin: Are Violins and Fiddles Different?
Classical MPR: Violin vs. fiddle: How to tell the difference?
Fly In Fiddler: Is it a Fiddle or Violin?
I hope you enjoy this compendium on fiddles and the violin wisdom of Shirley Donnelly. Side note: my fiddle music of preference hails from Scotland and Ireland, however, I was raised on good old Appalachian bluegrass. There are ties between the two.
NOTE: this needs to be said because there is always that one person out there (professional historian) who feels the need to “educate” me in a manly, I mean harsh way (clears throat, ahem ahem) I am, by no means, an expert on fiddles, violins, Stradivarius, time dating instruments, Shirley Donnelly or, really, anything. I just like to read articles and combine information in a way that allows me to have a conversation with you, dear reader. Nothing more, nothing less. THis is not a professional music blog and is for entertainment purposes to enlighten you to some interesting facts and photos. Steps off soapbox and says: Now, I have a hankerin for some fiddlin’…
Doing a quick 1956, WV search of Stradivarius, I see what drew out all of Mr. Donnelly’s curiosity in the instrument. David Rubinoff performed at Woodrow Wilson High School some weeks before and it appears that several people were pulling their own fiddles (aka violins) outta storage to see if they could fetch the same shiny penny.
I will insert that my love of all things fiddle must be woven into me through my gypsy ancestors. Hearing a fiddle makes me feel at home wherever I might be.
Below are the columns from Shirley Donnelly on the Violin from April 1956.
PBS: The Fiddle
The oldest and most basic instrument of roots music, however, is not the guitar but the fiddle. For years the fiddle was virtually the only instrument found on the frontier, and in the South is was used widely enough that as early as 1736 we find written accounts of fiddle contests. Though often thought of today as primarily a white instrument – and indeed many tunes and styles came over from Ireland and Scotland – there arose in the 19th century a strong fiddle tradition among blacks. Some of it started out as slave fiddling, in which talented slaves were sent to places like New Orleans to learn how to fiddle standard dance tunes. Blues composer W.C Handy remembered his own grandfather in northern Alabama playing fiddle tunes in the late 1800s, and a strong style of blues fiddle developed and persisted well into the 1930s. Native Americans and Mexican Americans also developed important fiddle styles in the Southwest.
Fiddling has been associated with classic American heroes. George Washington had his favorite fiddle tune (“Jaybird Sittin’ on a Hickory Limb”), as did Thomas Jefferson (“Grey Eagle”). Davy Crockett was a “ferocious” fiddler (the tune “Crockett’s Reel” is still played today), and Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in the War of 1812 is still celebrated with the popular “Eighth of January.” A governor of Tennessee, fiddler Bob Taylor, liked to refer to the old fiddle classics in his speeches: “Every one of them breathes the spirit of liberty; every jig is an echo from flinklock rifles and shrill fifes of Bunker Hill.” In more modern times, Henry Ford started a series of fiddling contests in the 1920s to help preserve the old American values.
Though the fiddle was the main instrument in early country music in the 1920s, it was gradually replaced by the steel guitar and electric guitar. It re-emerged in popularity in the 1940s as Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt developed bluegrass. Innovators like Chubby Wise, Scotty Stoneman, Kenny Baker, and Benny Martin turned the fiddle into a driving vehicle for improvisation.
Various Fiddle References Over The Centuries:
According to wiki on fiddle:
A fiddle is a bowed string musical instrument, most often a violin. It is a colloquial term for the violin, used by players in all genres including classical music. Although violins and fiddles are essentially synonymous, the style of the music played may determine specific construction differences between fiddles and classical violins. For example, fiddles may optionally be set up with a bridge with a flatter arch to reduce the range of bow-arm motion needed for techniques such as the double shuffle, a form of bariolage involving rapid alternation between pairs of adjacent strings. To produce a “brighter” tone, compared to the deeper tones of gut or synthetic core strings, fiddlers often use steel strings. The fiddle is part of many traditional (folk) styles, which are typically aural traditions—taught ‘by ear’ rather than via written music.
Fiddling is the act of playing the fiddle, and fiddlers are musicians that play it. Among musical styles, fiddling tends to produce rhythms that focus on dancing, with associated quick note changes, whereas classical music tends to contain more vibrato and sustained notes. Fiddling is also open to improvisation and embellishment with ornamentation at the player’s discretion—in contrast to orchestral performances, which adhere to the composer’s notes to reproduce a work faithfully. It is less common for a classically trained violinist to play folk music, but today, many fiddlers (e.g., Alasdair Fraser, Brittany Haas, Alison Krauss, etc.) have classical training.