Moses J. Bonner


©2000 by Steve Green

On January 4, 1923 radio station WBAP in Fort Worth set the stage for broadcasting authentic rural music in America by presenting a live program featuring oldtime fiddling and square dance calling. The fiddler was Moses J. Bonner, a 76 year-old Confederate veteran who was accompanied on the air by a string band calling themselves the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra that included mandolin, mandolin banjo, guitar, bass guitar, and a steel guitar played by the group's leader, Fred Wagoner. Charles Rutledge, a local dance prompter,  called square dance figures to tunes like "Sallie Goodin" and "Yearlings in the Canebrake." The program generated hundreds of enthusiastic telegrams and letters from people throughout the United States who were able to pick up the show from as far away as Kentucky, North Dakota, and California. One Tennesseean wired saying "Stop that music or my daddy will wreck our home!" Station managers were so pleased with the response, they engaged Bonner to do a repeat one hour program two months later (March 7) with a half-hour warm-up program beforehand by Peacock's Fiddle Band from Cleburne. Bonner's segment included "Texas," "Dusty Miller," "George Tucker" (probably "George Booker"), "Rearing Up and Stepping On It" (a Bonner original), "Tom and Jerry," "Kiss Waltz" and others. Again, listeners responded with an outpouring of favorable cards and telegrams.

Moses Junior Bonner was born March 1, 1847 in Franklin Co., Alabama, the son of M. M. and Mary Nelson Bonner. He had at least three older siblings and around 1854 the entire family migrated west to Texas, settling first in the Dallas area. Bonner recalled much later in life his jockeying exploits as a boy of nine or ten years old, winning horse races for money around Dallas and McKinney. Also as a boy, Bonner reportedly learned to play the fiddle from "an old negro in the quarters" (possibly the area of Dallas that evolved into what is now "Deep Elem"). M. J. Bonner's father died shortly after the family's arrival in Texas and his mother took the children to live in what soon became Parker County just to the west of modern day Fort Worth. That section of Texas at the time was Comanche territory and the threat of Indian attacks and livestock raids was a day to day reality for settlers like the Bonner family.

In 1864, the seventeen year old M. J. Bonner enlisted in Company E, 12th Texas Cavalry, where he served fourteen months as a courier under General William Henry Parsons. It 's possible that Bonner saw combat in the Red River campaign but this has not been confirmed. After the Civil War, Bonner lived for a time in Weatherford (Parker Co.) establishing the Crowdus Hide and Wool Company. He married Susan Pounders and in 1878 they settled in Fort Worth where Bonner remained until his death.

In the late 1890s, various branches of the UCV formed local chapters and Bonner became active with the Robert E. Lee Camp in Fort Worth. At the turn of the 20th century, fiddle contests began to serve a dual function of bringing old veterans together for social diversion and for fund raising purposes. In the spring of 1901, Robert E. Lee Camp sponsored a contest in Fort Worth that included M. J. Bonner, Henry Gilliland, Tom Lee, James K. P. Harris, Jesse Roberts, and fourteen other fiddlers. Gilliland won first prize, but more importantly, he and Bonner became charter members of a newly-formed Old Fiddlers Association of Texas, the earliest known organized fiddle club in the country.

LabelBonner worked ardently to get a legislative measure passed enabling Confederate veterans to receive a pension. He travelled widely throughout Texas attending and planning reunions, inspecting conditions at Old Soldiers' homes, visiting friends from his war days, and garnering support for the pension bill which was passed in 1911. That same year, Bonner won a state fiddling championship in Midland and this remained an important event for him throughout his life.  He also won the "world championship" in Midland in 1916 beating two formidable opponents, Jesse Roberts and J. K. Polk Harriss (a mentor of the younger Eck Robertson). Bonner and his fiddle were inseparable, his prowess on the instrument being reflected by the fact that one year he won nine out of the thirteen contests he entered. In addition to his reputation as a fiddler, Bonner was well known as an excellent jig dancer. His comrades during the Civil War had even carried around a special wooden platform for him to dance on that they called "Bonner's Puncheon." 

In March, 1925, two years after his success broadcasting over WBAP, M. J. Bonner went to Houston and recorded two sides for Victor with Fred Wagoner accompanying Bonner's fiddle tunes on guitar. Not much is known about Wagoner but he was a popular performer on Hawaiian steel guitar and was for many years Bonner's accompanist for musical entertainments given at the weekly meetings of the Robert E. Lee Camp. At the Houston session, they recorded two medleys; "Yearlings in the Canebrake" / "Gal on the Log" and "Dusty Miller" / "Ma Ferguson." The latter title commemorates Texas' first woman Governor, Miriam Amanda Ferguson who was elected in November, 1924.

Bonner was a loyal attendee at all the annual Confederate reunions around the country and he often led the delegation from Fort Worth. At age 91, though virtually blind, Bonner was the only veteran from Fort Worth able to attend the 75th reunion at Gettysburg in 1938. During his later years, Bonner received recognition from his comrades and friends in the form of honorary rank in the UCV. In 1930, he was made Commander of the Texas Division (giving him the rank of Major General) and in 1938, he was elected Commander of the Trans-Mississippi Division. The Victor record label identified him as "Capt. M. J. Bonner" a UCV rank he held during the 1920s. In the summer of 1939, Moses Bonner hoped to attend a Confederate reunion in Trinidad, Colorado, but he became ill with pneumonia and was unable to go. He died at home in Fort Worth on September 2, 1939 at the age of 92.

M. J. Bonner carried himself through life proudly wearing the uniform of a veteran and an officer, but seems to have regarded himself first and foremost as a Texas oldtime fiddler.