Old Fiddlers Make Their Last Stand

Houston Post-Dispatch Sunday Magazine
Sunday, April 4, 1926

Old Fiddlers Make Their Last Stand
Music of Another Generation Will Die With Them

By Ed Kilman

Fifty years hence the public may be entertained occasionally by old jazz players’ programs, and listen with pleased amusement to the then antiquated cacophony of the saxophone, the clarinet and the trap drums in that weird form of orchestration which has caused one era of American civilization to be known as the jazz age.

Just now, in the heyday of that age, we are hearing, in “old fiddlers’ contests,” the dying strains of a music which half a century ago was as popular as the jazz is today.

Old fashioned jig-time music is making its last stand; and as the fast-thinning ranks of old fiddlers disappear, no others are taking their place; no others are carrying on their peculiar kind of music.

With the passing of “Turkey in the Straw,” “The Arkansas Traveler,” “Jenny Is a Pretty Girl,” and other “breakdown” airs, the last vestige of a most interesting and picturesque social epoch is fading away into the shadows of forgotten things. The old-time tobacco chewing and foot-patting violinists and their rollicking riddy-diddy-diddle form the last fraying strand that binds the age of bobbed hair, rolled stockings, jellybeans, automobiles, the foxtrot, the Charleston and the shimmy to the age of the “waterfall,” the hoop skirt, the dude, the horse and buggy, the quadrille, the minuet, the hornpipe and the Virginia reel.

But the old fiddler is singing a grand finale. Just as the dark curtain is about to descend upon the last survivors of the art, his music is coming into a little last flurry of popularity—albeit without the glamorous square dances that it was meant for.

A group of accomplished old fiddlers from Angleton have been winning applause from numerous states for recent performances broadcast from the radio station of The Post Dispatch. They have enabled thousands of young people throughout the country who perhaps never heard [jig] time music before to enjoy it before it ceases for all time.

T. J. McLain and B. J. [Clayton?] two [veteran] Houston artists of the singing strings entertained KPRC listeners in a few nights ago with a quaint fiddle and straws performance. Some oldtimers in Detroit, Mich. held a square dance and danced to their long distance music.

Mellie Dunston, [sic] venerable kinsman of President Coolidge, [sic] and a fiddler of renown, was given countrywide publicity several weeks ago when he was invited to soothe the breast of the world’s most prolific automobile producer with the lilting breakdown melodies of yore. Dunston attracted such great attention that he landed a vaudeville contract.

One of the most eventful gatherings held in Montgomery county in recent years was an old fiddlers’ contest, held in the spacious high school auditorium of Conroe last week. A large part of the population of the town and county turned out to hear the nine contestants, seven of them over 70 years of age, tune up their beloved instruments and play the old airs in competition for the championship of the county.

And how those old fellows played! No one who heard them will soon forget that night, particularly the 63 men and women of 70 years or more who occupied the stage with them. One fact that makes it memorable is that Montgomery county had not enjoyed such an occasion for a long time before, and probably never will again.

At first the fiddlers were a bit reticent. They twisted on the tuning pegs, sawed out discordant preliminary chords, shifted in their seats, glanced apprehensively over the sea of expectant faces out front, and began playing with uncertainty, as if they found it difficult to recall and execute the old tunes.

But as their gnarled old fingers warmed to the strings, they seemed to forget that they were aged men playing the music of a bygone day. It was as though the present faded out, and a [cut back?] of the past faded in; the vast audience became a merry crowd of square dancers, and they became chipper young bloods, playing the lively jigs and reels for the crowd to dance by.

“And he came to the cabin of an old gray man,
And says he, ‘Where am I going? Now tell me if you can,’”

squeaked the hurrying resined bow, and every other septuagenarian foot on the stage was soon beating a tattoo of accompaniment.

“Swing your partners!” shouted one of the old timers, letting his feelings overflow as the catchy music crept stronger and stronger into their blood.

“All balance!” presently cried another enchanted listener; and when the audience had recovered from these delightful interruptions and all sounds had subsided into the sense-tickling ripple of the violin, another hoarse voice boomed out: “Corners swing and promenade around!”

Jig-time tunes were not the only ones played, although they dominated the program. Some of the players revived favorite Southern heart songs, such as “Darling Nellie Gray,” “Old Black Joe,” “Swanee River,” and others of long ago.

“Nearer, My God, to Thee” was the selection with which Major L. Burns, aged 91, the dean of them all, chose to open the fiddlers’ program. His feeling rendition of the hymn brought an insistent applause, and he obliged with a livelier encore.

Rev. A. McGary, 89, the next oldest of the nine, played “Wagner,” and he, too, had to fiddle again. One of the outstanding hits of the entertainment was “The Mocking Bird,” played by Rev. McGary and whistled by Jack Major, a visiting member of the Rice Institute Glee club.

The other numbers of the formal program followed in the order of ages, as follows:

Hyman Tucker, 78, “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”

Joe Wiggins, 77, “Big Sweet Tater From Sandy Land.”

Tom J. Hicks, 75, “Turkey in the Straw.”

I. G. Gore, 72, “Fox and Hounds.”

Barnum Matthews, 70, “Cattle in the Cane Brake.”

T. F. Harris, [65?], “Fisher’s Hornpipe.”

J. M. Cooksey, 47, “Arkansaw Traveler.”

To add variety and atmosphere to the fiddling entertainment, Mr. Harris called some old-time dance figures, and even danced a series of square dance steps. This was highly amusing to the youngsters, and those of the older generations, who had known those things before, were so strongly moved that they probably would have got out and danced themselves had there been room in the crowded auditorium.

After each fiddler had played his scheduled number, they all played in contest, for about an hour. As they played, Lee H. Frazer, who sponsored the contest, would hold his hand over the head of one fiddler, for the audience to applaud, and then over the head of another, until everyone had received his share of applause. It had been announced that the one who received the greatest ovation was to be awarded the fiddling championship of Montgomery county, along with a nominal cash prize.

But the audience clapped and stamped and shouted and whistled so heartily for each one that it proved extremely difficult to determine the winner. By a process of elimination, however, the contestants were dwindled down to two, and between those two it was impossible to get a decisive preference. So, by popular demand, it was agreed finally to divide the honors between them, and give them both a prize.

The adjudged champion fiddlers of Montgomery county, therefore, were Major Burns and Rev. McGary, the two oldest musicians in the contest.

The quaintness of the old fiddlers’ entertainment was thrown in more graphic relief by a bright program presented by the “kids”—students of the Conroe High school—preceding the old timer attraction. A three-act comedy drama, “Cupid and Calories,” directed by Mrs. R. J. Finney, was played by members of the Conroe Order of Rainbow Girls as follows: Evelyn Sterett, Mabel Madeley, Mary Anna Miller, Evelyn Grogan, Kathleen Madeley, Ruth Cochran, Syble Jones, Bessie Morris, Cassel Grisham, Eleanor Hailey, Maureen Hicks and Annie Lee Crooke.

A between acts chorus number, “Roll ‘em, Girls,” with appropriate costumes, lent an added modern touch. This was sung by Bessie Morris, Evelyn Grogan, Evelyn Tipton, Dorothy Tipton, Ruth Cochran, Eleanor Hailey, Annie Lee Crooke, Mary Anna Miller, Syble Jones, Kathleen Madeley, Maurine Hicks, Mabel Madeley, Cassel Grisham, Evelyn Sterett and Ralph Baker.

Then a quarter of the very young generation—ages 7 to 10—matched the old fiddlers’ square dancing with a bit of Charlestoning. They were Eddie Hughes, Aline Wagers, Juanita Grogan and Johnnie Allen..

They were followed by Ralph McFarland and Harold Flowers in a song, “Down by the Vinegar Works.”

The results of the entire program were expressed by Mr. Frazer thus: “Personally, I never saw anything pass so pleasantly and so many old people made happy at one time. They were given a taste of both modern and old fashioned amusement, and many of the youngsters were treated to a kind of entertainment which they never had enjoyed before and may never again.”

Major Burns entered the fiddling contest as the popular favorite—perhaps partly because of his 91 years, though he is an expert fiddler. He ought to be, for he says he’s been at it for 85 years! He is getting rather feeble, and he’s partially deaf and almost blind, but he still draws a mean bow.

Major Burns was born near Lexington, Tenn., just a year before Texas independence was declared and won. He has lived in Montgomery county 47 years, and in Conroe 34 years. He commanded a regiment in the civil war. For 40 years he was surveyor of Montgomery county, and retired only abut seven years ago.

“How long have you had your present violin,” he was asked.

“Haven’t got any violin—never had one,” he retorted. “If you’re referring to this FIDDLE, I’ve had it about 15 years.”

He said he began practicing on the fiddle at about the age of 5, and has been playing frequently ever since for his own amusement.

Rev. McGary has been a fighter, as well as a fiddler, most of his life. As a boy, he spent four years fighting in the Civil war. For the past 43 years he has been fighting the cause of Christianity; and before that, as sheriff, he fought the law-breakers of Madison county during its wildest days, when it was called “the free state of Madison.”

“I arrested several of the most noted outlaws of those days,” he proudly recalls.

He inherited his fighting qualities from his father, who came to Texas as a colonist and fought in the battle of San Jacinto. Rev. McGary was born in Huntsville, Texas, in 1846.

As a minister of the Church of Christ, he has preached all over Texas, Oklahoma (then Indian territory), Old Virginia, Arkansas, California, Oregon and Washington. His home now is at Willis.

“I learned to fiddle,” he said, “when a boy; learned from a negro slave belonging to my grandfather. I have attended five old fiddlers’ contests, and have taken four prizes; one at Houston (Kirby’s banquet), two at Conroe and one at Huntsville.

“During my first 25 years of preaching, I did not touch a fiddle; not that I thought there was ‘a devil in every fiddle,’ but because of my constant study of the Bible and my devotion to the work of preaching.

“But after I began to feel old and dwelt much in the past, I took to the fiddle again. I derive much pleasure from it, and often drive away the blues with the bow.”

It might be mentioned that the fiddle played by Mr. Tom Hicks in the contest has been in the Hicks family for more than 100 years, and is prized highly as an heirloom.

Mr. McLain is probably the best known old fiddler in Houston. And his radio performances no doubt have extended his fame far and wide. Few of the younger generation will recognize most of the tunes in his repertoire, but those who have danced the square dance probably know them all. Here are some of them that he mentioned off hand:

“Buffalo Girls,” “Snow Bird on the Ice Bank,” “The Lonesome Mocking Bird,” “Possum Up the Simmon Tree,” “Sallie Gooding,” “Sallie Johnson,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “The Prairie Girl,” “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Run, Nigger, Run,” “Ginger Cake and ‘Simmon Beer,” “Tom and Jerry,” “The Prettiest Girl in the Country,” “Cattle in the Cane Brake,” “Ragtime Annie,” “The Lost Child,” “Cacklin’ Chickens,” “The Old Black Hen,” “Eighth of January,” “Tuscumba,” “Step Light, Ladies, Your Cake’s All Dough,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Old Ben Taylor,” “Jenny Is a Pretty Girl,” “Wood Robin Bird,” “Mississippi Sawyer,” “Big [Joe?],” “Sandy Road to [Milledgeville?],” and “The Jim Huggins Special.”

Mr. McClain is also accomplished in the art of the “caller,” that combination of square dance referee and house bouncer, who tells the dancers in a clarion voice what to do and when, and sees that they do it, while the fiddlers play the music. He quoted the principal calls of a square dance as follows:

First, “Honor the Fiddler.” At this command all the dancers must make a bow to the musicians who are, or were, very important functionaries at square dances. Next comes “Honor your partner,” and the men then all must give their partners a salaam.

Then the caller shouts, “Lady on the left, hands up eight, and circle to the left,” and the dance is on. The succeeding calls quoted by Mr. McLain are:

“Round twice, first couple to the right.”

“Swing around four, ladies, doe see doe, and gents you know.”

“Swing around eight, all balance, forward to backward twice.”

“First couple break loose and form the figure eight.”

“All balance, corners swing, and promenade around.”

“Gents to the center with one foot up, and ladies sit down.”

It requires about 25 minutes to execute properly the complete series of calls to the square dance, the old fiddler explained. And their execution requires considerable intricate maneuvering, which the dancers used to learn, much as a modern musical comedy chorus learns its steps and turns on the stage.

But the old-timers knew it all to perfection; and unlike the present day individualistic one-step dancers, they moved in perfect harmony and team work, with each other and with the fiddlers who furnished the music. The square dance was more than just a dance; it was also a merry game, and for that reason the old fiddlers maintain that it is much better and more enjoyable than the slinky, snuggly performances that the twentieth century youth calls dancing.

They also contend that the jig tunes and breakdowns that the fiddlers used to play was better dance music than the shrieks and wails dished out by the jazz orchestras nowadays.

Perhaps the jazz players will be making the same arguments against whatever evolution of the art of [Bach?] may supersede their style of music in the next half century.


—transcribed by Steve Green