Joseph Won a Coated Fiddle and other Fiddle and Accordion tunes from the Great Plains
Rounder CD 0429
Dwight Lamb is a fiddle and accordeon player from Onawa in Iowa, not far from the Nebraska border, now in his mid-sixties. His father was a respected local fiddler and his Danish maternal grandfather played both fiddle and button-accordeon. As a boy in the 1940s he eagerly absorbed their music and that of other local musicians, but his biggest influence was the music of the great mid-western Radio and contest fiddlers like Casey Jones and Bob Walters, especially the latter who he describes as "the biggest single influence on my playing". In the fascinating autobiography that accompanies these recordings he vividly describes rising with his father every morning just so he could hear Walters' fifteen minute 6 a.m. broadcast, and how he would send in requests and learn the tunes directly from the radio. Sometime in the early 1950s, when in his late teens, he obtained a car and drove over to Nebraska in search of his hero, beginning a friendship that lasted until Bob's death in 1960 and leading him directly into the close inner circle of the mid-western greats. This is a man who knew Casey Jones, Lonnie Robertson and Ed Mahoney, who was recorded by Bob Christesen, and who was good friends with both Bob Walters and Cyril Stinnett (whom he cites as his second biggest influence after Walters). 1 There is probably no one else alive who can claim to be as direct an heir to this great tradition as Dwight Lamb. Indeed, the music on this disc is actually played on Bob Walters' old fiddle which Dwight inherited via Bob Christesen.
Not surprisingly Dwight's name and fame have gone before him! Though I have never knowingly heard him play before, friends have regularly enthused about his playing - in particular about some tapes made in the 1950s of Dwight and Bob Walters playing accordeon and fiddle duets - so I received this disc with greater than usual expectations. I have to confess to some extent it was an anti-climax , because I probably anticipated more than anyone could reasonably deliver - Dwight isn't in the same league as Walters and Stinnet - but then, who is? Toning down my expectations and trying to be more objective, what we have here is an energetic and tasteful player of well-above-average technical facility, playing an interesting and entertaining selection of great mid-western fiddle music with a maturity that comes from decades of deep immersion in the tradition. Which has to be pretty good! The bowing and fingering show occasional flashes of stiffness and awkwardness, which is probably more to do with the presence of the tape recorder than to his age or the difficulty of the material, but ultimately this is impressive fiddling - you have to be pretty good to even attempt playing the mid-western repertoire. If I had never heard of Dwight and knew nothing of the background to this music I would have been knocked out by this record.
Anyone familiar with mid-western fiddling will know roughly what to expect, and the bulk of his repertoire consists of the usual complex hornpipes, notey reels, Victorian polkas, schottisches and waltzes, with the ocassional 6/8 quadrille. 2 He does however play some very interesting and archaic sounding material from older, purely local fiddlers and from the fathers of Walters and Stinnett - of which more anon. Moreover, I was quite surprised by certain aspects of Dwight's style. Whilst he plays several hornpipes, and the hornpipe influence can be heard in his other material, it is not as overwhelming as in the playing of his mentors. Indeed, only one tune here is actually referred to as a hornpipe. He also appears to make more use of double-stopping than the previous generation - not to the degree that it features in Southern fiddling, but the contrast with his mentors is quite noticeable and probably reflects his greater exposure to other regional traditions. Even more remarkable is his distinctly Southernish preference for the key of 'A' - the single most common key on the disc - and the total abscence of the 'unnatural' keys of Bb and F so favoured by other midwestern players (he does do one number in the 'almost-unnatural' key of C). However, for me the most interesting feature of Dwight's technique is something that was fundamental to the playing style of his mentors - his use of '32nd notes', a rather clumsy term invented by Christesen to describe a fast movement of the bow similar to the Scots 'birl' and the Irish 'roll' 3 - not that he does it a lot, what's important is that we actually get to hear it. Christesen on the classic Old Time Fiddlers Repertory makes much of Bob Walters' use of this device and apparently it was common among the older players, but the technique simply isn't audible on the majority of older recordings. Here it's crystal clear, and for someone used to Irish and Scots music it is striking how subtly different it is - not only is it used much more sparingly, it doesn't always come quite where you'd expect it.
Basically there seem to be three layers of influence in Dwight's music - the local, the regional , and the national - reflecting key 20th century technological developments. Local tunes are represented by the beautiful and unusual Hirem Allen Tune and the equally striking Shag Poke, which have a distinctly archaic feel, and are probably classifiable as 'proto' or 'quasi' hornpipes. But this is not the main influence on his music. Indeed, he has surprisingly little to say about his father's playing or that of other local fiddlers like Hiram Allen and Bill Gray, whereas he talks at great and fascinating length about Bob Walters and Cyril Stinnett and their milieux. Perhaps the most significant comment on his father's playing is that he played a lot of tunes "note for note" like Casey Jones - it seems his father was almost as influenced by the radio fiddlers as himself. The big influence on Dwight is the regional - radio and the automobile expanded his horizons beyond the local barn dance and house party, but his main interest remained those musicians operating within his own regional tradition. Thus the initial role of radio and the automobile seems to have been in speeding up the kind of transmission and interplay that already existed within the regional tradition rather than radically changing the tradition. In this Dwight and his mentors appear to have set their own parameters because they were well exposed to, and perfectly receptive towards, related music from beyond the region, but clearly chose not to copy it.
Which brings us to the final layer of influence, the national (or rather continental) via radio and gramophone, and Dwight describes the popularity of the Grand Old Opry, carefully tuned in on battery powered radios every winter (in summer the static was too great). This way much Southern music entered the region and fiddlers like Arthur Smith and Big Howdy Forrester became local favourites. Indeed, people could pick up Canadian and even Texan stations, and on his trips to Sioux City Dwight would buy Ned Landry 78s from which he and Bob learned Canadian standards like Big John MacNeill and St Anne's Reel. Casey Jones, too, had a big collection of Canadian records, and Cyril Stinnett picked up many Canadian tunes from the radio. What is interesting about all this is the way these players - deeply rooted in a local repertoire and style - were clearly able to appreciate the music of related traditions with the discrimination of the expert and the enthusiast, but only incorporated what was useful to their own tradition. Musicians of the calibre of Walters and Stinnett were perfectly capable of imitating these 'foreign' styles - but they chose to make their Southern and Canadian tunes sound mid-western rather than the other way round. This is all the more remarkable given that both Walters and Stinnett almost certainly came of Southern immigrant stock and their immediate fiddle heritage was apparently Southern. Dwight believes that Stinnet's father came from the Ozarks, and his rendering of the distinctly Appalachian sounding A-modal tune Jenny Comb Your Hair which he attributes to Stinnet Senior makes this seem quite likely. In the case of Walters it's not clear whether it was his father or grandfather who migrated from Kentucky, but there seems little doubt that his father played in an old Kentucky style and Dwight's version of The Scolding Wife, learned from Bob and attributed to Walters Senior, is a beautiful piece of east-Kentucky style cross-tuned fiddling The contrast between these two tunes and the other music on this disc is positively startling. It seems Bob recorded a few of these cross-tuned Kentucky pieces for Bob Christesen out of interest's sake, but didn't normally bother with them, though his repertoire did include a number of mid-westernized Southern tunes, some at least of which came from his father. 4
What is interesting is that both Walters and Stinnett were clearly well able to imitate Southern style when they wanted. The fact that Walters was able to play his father's archaic cross-tuned pieces for Christesen, and was able to demonstrate the difference between his own and his father's way of playing Granny Will Your Dog Bite to Dwight, seems sufficient confirmation. 5 And consider this great Cyril Stinnet story - Dwight recalls "Jake Elifrits … was talking to Cyril one time about a certain fiddler and how he played Orange Blossom Special. So Cyril answered 'he plays it like this' and demonstrated how it went. Then somebody mentions another fiddler and Cyril says 'he plays it like this' and demonstrated that. Finally Jake asks, 'well, how do you play it Cyril?' and he replied 'I don't' ......" There are many layers of deep significance in this tale! But the reason I quote the story here (I'd have got it in somewhere anyway!) is because Orange Blossom Special is not merely a Southern standard but a Bluegrass/Country-Western party-piece, invariably played as a premier display or contest number, so Cyril must have been perfectly capable of playing Bluegrass style to a high standard if he'd actually wanted to.
I discuss this issue at some length because there is a presumption that a local tradition will inevitably be fundamantally altered or 'corrupted' by exposure to outside influences, whereas in reality a healthy tradition will always be receptive to outside influences, and indeed thrives on the incorporation of new elements. The crucial factor in whether a tradition survives or dies, is transformed or retains its essence, is whether people are happy with it. If they are then outside influences merely encourage the tradition by showing people that what they have is something special, and by introducing new and invigorating elements. Problems only arise when people are not happy with what they've got - perhaps because of perceptions that it is old fashioned, or despised by those whom they consider superior, or because of its association with poverty - then they either abandon their culture or mould it to the perceived superior forms from outside. 6
We can add another dimension to Dwight's music beyond the local, regional, and national - the international! Dwight plays several archetypal Euro-polkas and waltzes on the button-accordeon that he learned directly from Chris Jerup, his Danish grandfather. Though he also plays "Anglo" music on the instrument - as a boy he initially learnt many of his Bob Walters tunes on the accordeon, and he gives us a nice rendition of Ricketts Hornpipe 7 - he clearly associates the instrument with his grandfather's Danish music and it seems the instrument was something of a rarity in the area, typically associated with European immigrants, as elsewhere in the rural USA. Incidentally, I was struck by his comment that Polkas were rare in the area. In my experience mid-western fiddlers actually play lots of polkas and Dwight is no exception - indeed Jakes Best Reel, the very first tune on this disc, is structurally a Polka. It seems that like most traditional musicians he tends to define tunes by their dance function rather than their technical structure. Thus a polka isn't a polka if its not played for the Polka. 8
If I have gone on at some length, blame it on Dwight's wonderfully informative sleeve notes - they are so rich it's impossible not to be drawn into discussing the music's context and history. Indeed, excellent notes based on the musicians' own recollections are such a strong feature of all Mark Wilson's Rounder compilations that I usually find myself sitting and reading the notes before I even play the discs. What a contrast to the sort of stuff we had to put up with not so long ago in which traditional musicians appeared as disembodied, voiceless, impersonal 'sources' for the Great Folk Revival. Still, the serious reviewer must always carp about something so here goes - whilst the track listing on the outer cover seem correct, several tune titles are seriously scrambled in the inner booklet. Oh, and the photos should be bigger. And it should be available on vinyl as well. And there should be a free Pokemon for the kids with every copy!
Paul Roberts - 11.2.00
1 Dwight, like Stinnett, also plays a normal-strung fiddle left handed or 'over the bar'. Do these mid-western players actually set out to make things difficult for themselves?! ("Tell me Paul, what's so special about midwestern fiddling?" … "Well Terry, they really like awkward tunes, playing in flat keys, and using third position … oh, and playing their instruments backwards.")
2 6/8 tunes are now rare but in Bob Walters' day were very common in the region. In this case it seems Dwight categorizes by tune type rather than the dance. He comments that he thought of 'quadrille' as meaning a 6/8 tune and was surprised to find some were in 2/4. The quadrille is of course a type of dance - in the mid-west usually done to 6/8, but in most parts of the world done to both common-time and 6/8. This kind of confusion between tune and dance classifications is nothing new. In Britain people automatically class 6/8 tunes as 'jigs', but originally the jig was a type of dance, so often done to 6/8 that the name attached to the tune type and remained there long after the dance was forgotten. This ambiguity exists with all our basic tune and dance forms - the reel, hornpipe, polka etc. In general traditional musicians who play for dancing tend to categorize by dance rather than tune structure - as with Dwight's reference to Polkas, discussed elsewhere.
3 Actually, as far as I can tell it is the same as the Scots birl. The Irish 'roll' uses a rapid movement of the noting fingers rather than the bow to achieve a similar effect. Although all traditions use grace notes, there does seem to be a particular delight in rapid, multiple, staccato gracings in British Isles tradition. Though English fiddlers no longer use birl/roll effects, I've little doubt that pre-Victorian English fiddlers did - early English mechanical organs designed to imitate fiddlers often incorporate heavy 'birling'. This love of rapid stacatto can be heard in Highland pipe gracings like the 'A birl' (a complex flick of the pinkie that also appears in the only known 18th century English bagpipe tutor) and in the Irish pipers 'cranning'. Closely related is the use of long trilling runs utilizing the intervening notes to join two melody notes (as opposed to rapid repetition of the same note), a particularly strong feature of the 'variation sets' which English and Scots fiddlers and pipers used to delight in and which still remain popular in the Northumbrian pipe tradition. Similar runs can be heard in the playing of Johhny Doran and some Irish pipers … ee, how I do go on! My head is crammed with this sort of anoraky rubbish - I guess it's got to come out somewhere …
4 Of course, to a great extent successful assimilation depends on the material - Dwight's version of Arthur Smith's Dickson County Blues, learned from Bob, couldn't really pretend to be anything but a Southern tune. But some of the older Southern breakdowns seem to adapt well to mid-western style, perhaps because many of them are either the early simpler style of hornpipe or what Mark Wilson calls 'quasi hornpipes'.
I think I have intepreted the information and evidence on Walters and Stinnett Senior correctly but there is possibly another way of looking at it. Dwight only says he 'thinks' the Stinnet family came from the Ozarks, and in Bill Shull's previous (albeit less intimate) account of Cyril's life, in the notes to the Grey Eagle tape, he makes no mention of any Ozark origins but does say the family moved to south-west Missouri for a while in Cyril's childhood, which could be the source of confusion on the issue. Similarly, while there is no doubt that the Walters family originally came from Kentucky, and Kentucky is technically 'the South', in reality north-west Kentucky is border country, as much midwestern as southern, and the implications are very different if the Walters family came from, say, Louisville rather than Pikeville. I don't believe this alternative scenario is correct, but if it were then the only explanation of this archaic music from the repertoire of the two fathers would be that it represents an older, pre-Victorian layer in midwestern music. Now, that would be interesting!
5 I was particularly interested to read Dwight's comments on Granny Will Your Dog Bite because it is the first number on the classic double album The Old Time Fiddlers Repertory and thus my personal introduction to mid-western fiddling. I was instantly bowled over by Bob Walters stunning rendition - I recognized it as a Southern tune (a relative of Fire on the Mountain) and was fascinated by the totally different way he approached it - in particular the way he made it sound like a hornpipe. It seems Bob was very conscious that his father played it differently, and was able to play it in his father's style for Dwight.
6 This issue is usually discussed in terms of 'folk' cultures feeling inferior towards mainstream 'pop' or middle/upper class 'art' culture, but this kind of interplay takes place between 'folk' cultures too. For example, within the British Isles there is a widespread - and basically quite unwarranted - deference towards modern Irish music even in areas where local traditions remain strong, like Northumbria and the Shetland Islands. It particularly affects revivalists - for example, in England there is little revivalist interest in authentic English musical traditions, whereas there is a major sub-culture devoted to Irish music. These kind of issues struck me very forcefully when on a walking holiday in Shetland in 1976. For example, one younger fiddler I met in Cullivoe had hung up his bow after a tour by the Irish concert virtuoso Sean Maguire - he literally felt that his old Shetland reels were worthless in comparison to Maguire's flashy pyrotechnics and it took a lot of persuasion to make him play even a little bit. I'm sure he didn't believe me when I said I preferred his playing to Maguire. Similarly, Tom Anderson and some of his generation dropped the old Shetland music for Scots Violin music under the influence of Scott-Skinner's recordings.
However, around Cullivoe and in the northern islands the fiddlers generally seemed quite happy about their own music. They were very dismissive of Anderson and the Lerwick based '40 Fiddlers' (that's putting it politely) and were impressed but not distressed by Sean Maguire. This confidence didn't spring from ignorance and isolation - I was surprised to find that these older fiddlers were often as conversant with the various styles of North American regional music as I was. It seemed the smaller the croft and the more archaic the fiddle style the bigger the record collection. They were particularly fond of 1940s and '50s Country-Western music, Bluegrass fiddling, and Canadian music, and frequently had good knowledge of any fiddle tradition documented on disc - Scots, Scandinavian, Irish, Cajun etc. - but there was no trace of these 'foreign' influences when playing their own music because they clearly still held their own music in great esteem. The point is that people who are at ease with and who value their own music not only take a keen interest in music generally, they take a particular interest in related musics and as individuals are almost certainly encouraged and invigorated by this contact. The problems arise when people feel their owm music/culture is in someway inferior. In the specific case in hand, it's clear that mid-western tradition has been influenced but not drastically amended by its long and thorough exposure to Canadian and Southern music. Aspects of Dwight's playing noted earlier may possibly reflect Southern influence, but his music remains distinctively and unmistakeably midwestern, the integrity of his tradition remains intact.
7 English music fans will love this track, because Ricketts (alias Manchester Hornpipe, Bampton Fools Jig, Gower Reel, Pigeon on the Gate etc) is probably the single most popular dance tune among traditional players in England. Any devotee of English music has an instant and special rapport with the sound of this tune stomped-out on an old button-accordeon! Many years ago Keith Summers decided it was to be the National Anthem 'come the Revolution' - you have been warned!
One of Bob Walters' tunes Dwight learned on the accordeon as a teenager was Pacific Slope. I was seriously impressed by his claim that he learned it off the radio in one hearing. Anyone who can play Pacific Slope on one hearing has to be good, but to do it on the accordeon shows real class!
8 On the subject of Polkas, Dwight's Bob Walters Tune in D & A is a classic Victorian ballroom polka which appears to be the original of the tune used for the song The Curley Headed Ploughboy. Who now remembers Peter Pears and Benny Britten's ghastly rendering of this ghastly song? It was the the particular favourite of my primary school headmistress ..........
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