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Gregory Hansen - Review of Howard Wight Marshall, Keep It Old-Time: Fiddle Music in Missouri from the 1960s Folk Music Revival to the Present

Gregory Hansen - Review of Howard Wight Marshall, Keep It Old-Time: Fiddle Music in Missouri from the 1960s Folk Music Revival to the Present

Two older men playing fiddle outside

Over a decade ago, Howard Wight Marshall published Play Me Something Quick and Devilish. This in-depth musical history documented early fiddle tunes and musical history in Missouri and demonstrated the establishment of distinctive regional styles in the state. He followed this volume with Fiddler’s Dream: Old-Time, Swing, and Bluegrass Fiddling in Twentieth-Century Missouri, an equally impressive volume that showed the coalescence of twentieth-century fiddle styles. Keep it Old-Time completes the comprehensive project with a vibrant account of recent history and contemporary culture. These books will likely become known as The Missouri Fiddling Trilogy. They are major components of his life work. In its entirety, the trilogy is a virtuosic culmination of his writing on the state’s influential and vital contemporary fiddling traditions. Each book documents regional fiddle music and the three volumes provide an important resource for understanding how fiddling is integral to America’s musical history.

This latest work is a tour de force of folklore scholarship. Marshall intersperses profiles of fiddlers with excellent treatments of significant eras of musical history. Chapter 1 provides an insightful overview of the place of fiddle music within the folk music revival. A number of revivalist musicians contributed to bringing fiddling into earlier periods of twentieth-century revivals, but Marshall explores how fiddling became part of a named-system revival during the 1960s. Missouri fostered hotbeds for old-time string band music, and Marshall shows how the resurgence of fiddling was sparked by support from folkniks, college students, dilletantes, outsiders, as well as local enthusiasts. After discussing how revivalism is part of Missouri fiddling traditions, he then gives us chapters that show how these musicians have contributed to supporting and developing contemporary music. Along with exploring new configurations of old-time music and other 1960s and 70s string bands, Marshall shows how the revival led to the establishment of fiddle scholarship and scholars who have continued to do research on tunes and fiddlers. Their influence has culminated in academic research and public sector folklore programs that continue this musical heritage into the twenty-first century. Subsequent chapters provide rich profiles of significant fiddlers and set the stage for other developments in the music’s social history.

Other chapters give excellent histories of the establishment of fiddlers’ organizations and other resources that stemmed from the earlier revival. He writes of the varying interests and approaches for advocacy, and it appears that a “fiddlers’ organization” is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Tensions emerge over various dichotomies, namely, old-time vs. bluegrass, classical violin music vs. fiddling, contest style vs. old-time, and other differences. These dichotomies can be contentious, but Marshall also shows how the differences are often accommodated and may kindle new forms of creative expression. Revivalism emerges as a natural process within the music, and Marshall shows how current fiddling is grounded in the legacy of the folk music revival.

Chapters that focus on profiles of musicians often illustrate ideas that emerge in more thematic chapters. A number of these entries record how numerous fiddle contests became established in Missouri and show how the state’s fiddlers used influential contests to initiate their competition in national contests outside of the area. Marshall gives us an insider’s view of the contests since he has served as an organizer and judge for various events. There are long-standing tensions about the legitimacy of judging within these competitions. Marshall’s discussion of problems with evaluating performances is interesting to read, and he often offers practical insights into the range of efforts to resolve the problems with creating authoritative evaluation of a wide range of fiddle styles in these events. One intriguing element that has emerged is the irony that the promotion of competitive fiddling does support the music, though contests can also contribute to a standardized style that can contribute to a graying out of regional fiddle traditions. This long-standing concern has received significant treatment, but it has been increasingly difficult to find distinctive regional styles in Missouri. Nevertheless, fiddle contests are continuing to flourish in the state and surrounding regions. Marshall gives us interesting insights into the dynamics of the conservative and expansive elements of the music, and his research provides excellent resources for subsequent inquiry into major questions about continuity and change in the music.

The hot contest style, often known as “Texas Fiddling,” now is dominating display events and competition. The accompanying CD contains exciting recordings of contemporary fiddlers, including an early recording of the child prodigy, Liesl Schoenberger, who has since gone on to teach violin in higher education while also continuing to perform as a fiddler. There is a fascinating musical hybridity within these dynamics, and Marshall explores how the old-time fiddle revival has contributed to the establishment of Americana music, grassification in acoustic music, jazz grass, and other styles. Southwestern Missouri has become a hotbed for progressive bluegrass styles, and the fiddling within jamgrass has emerged as an exciting contemporary cultural expression that deserves further scholarly inquiry. Marshall displays an openness to these innovative forms of musical expression, and he also develops a nuanced discussion of how twenty-first-century fiddlers are using internet and other cyber resources to further expand their musical abilities. The fiddling traditions within cyberspace have strong continuities with earlier ways of learning to play the music and to document fiddlers, but Marshall clearly shows how the older methods of doing fieldwork have been subject to incredible changes with the adoption of on-line technology.

Public folklore is a major influence on Missouri’s fiddling scenes and shows up throughout the book. Public folklorists working through the University of Missouri, Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, and other public and private-sector organizations support fiddling through a variety of projects, with primary attention to apprenticeship programs. The direct connections between novice and master fiddlers have yielded impressive results, as many of the fiddler’s profiles include descriptions of successful apprenticeships. Other public folklore activities have included support for research projects, workshops, awards, contests, display events, and educational activities. Some of these programs are mentioned, but there is ample opportunity to continue to explore how public folklore has influenced old-time music. Numerous Missouri fiddlers, for example, prefer to play for dances and in jam sessions. These on-going activities are under the surface in Marshall’s descriptions, but they have a larger impact than what emerges through his focus on contest fiddling. There is an interesting tension here that relates to desires for preservation versus the impetus to innovate. Many of the contemporary fiddlers actively work to master older styles, whereas others are quick to move on to bluegrass, swing, country, and jazz styles. The book’s title, Keep It Old-Time, can be read with a bit of ambiguity or even irony, in this respect. The music is fluid and dynamic, but there are also well-established elements of old-time fiddling that distinguish the music from other styles, namely bluegrass, jazz, and classical violin playing.

So, after reading Marshall’s Missouri fiddling trilogy, one might ask if old-time fiddling remains a viable category of culture. Curiously, the systems that preserve the older styles do remain resilient into the twenty-first century. Marshall recognizes how old-time can be a loose and contested term, but he also outlines useful constructions that continue to make it a meaningful and resonant construct. Old-time fiddling generally is now seen as grounded in genres, many of which are codified in rules for fiddle contests. Marshall writes how fiddlers are required to play a hoedown as one of their contest tunes. A hoedown typically will be a breakdown, reel, or hornpipe. The competitor will also be required to play a waltz in the old-time style. The third tune is a tune of choice. More than likely it will be based on the hoedown form and style, but there are aesthetic values that influence how the tune of choice will be evaluated as an expression of old-time fiddling. These genre-based criteria have a long history in fiddle contests, and these regulations have been in print to designate old-time fiddling for well over a century. Considering this preservationist interest in the fiddling found throughout Marshall’s masterful writing, it is clear that these musicians and their supporters have created intriguing systems for balancing continuity and change within this rich musical culture.


[Review length: 1366 words • Review posted on November 19, 2023]