Old Time Music History: The Fiddle
Old time fiddle music has a long association with the Appalachian Mountains, but the genre’s roots run deep to Europe and Africa. The music travelled with settlers so well because fiddles are easy to carry, loud enough to be heard clearly in a crowd, and an absolute joy to hear. The bouncy rhythms of old time fiddle music are perfect for dancing! Long before the invention of recorded sound, fiddle music was played at dances and other community gatherings.
For those of you who are curious about the difference between the fiddle and the violin, they are essentially the same instrument. The phrase old time fiddle generally refers to a specific genre of music, so most of what makes fiddles and violins different is usually the style of music played rather than the instruments. Many modern fiddlers have studied classical violin and many violin players also love to learn traditional old time music and play songs that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Fiddling and Traditional Mountain Music
Old time fiddle music may also feature the banjo, mandolin, stand up bass, and guitar. These instruments are the primary sounds heard in traditional mountain music, which includes the genres of old time music and bluegrass. Today, contemporary musicians continue to compose new fiddle music and may even incorporate different types of sounds and instruments. The resurgence of old time music over the last four decades has also created a variety of fusion styles that merge old time fiddle with modern music.
North Carolina’s Old Time Fiddlers
Today, Western North Carolina is continues to be home to many old time fiddle players. Old time, mountain, and bluegrass music have all been influenced by the traditions of Native Americans, European settlers, and enslaved African Americans who lived in the mountains and foothills of North Carolina. The rich history of old time fiddle music lives on in the masterful music made by today’s fiddlers.
Some of the region’s master fiddles are:
Roger Howell – Mars Hill, NC
Roger Howell has always lived in Madison County, and for the past half-century has resided on Banjo Branch. He took up the fiddle when a teenager and was mentored first by Madison County fiddler Tommy Hunter and Woodrow Boone, and later learned from John Hartford and Fletcher Bright. Howell has since won a great many awards, including first place in fiddle (many times) at festivals such as Fiddlers Grove, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, and the North Carolina Mountain State Fair. His playing was also heard by moviegoers worldwide when he played fiddle for Iris Dement’s rendition of “Pretty Saro” in Songcatcher. In the fall of 2007, Howell finished recording his massive “Memory Collection” of fiddle tunes for Mars Hill College’s Lunsford Collection Archives, totaling over 350 tunes.
Ernest Johnson – North Wilkesboro, NC
Ernest Johnson was raised with music and played the old time fiddle at the age of 12. He has performed with both old time and bluegrass bands for more than 60 years. He has also played at MerleFest every year for more than 20 years. Johnson loves playing music and also teaches fiddling workshops and classes.
Arvil Freeman – Weaverville, NC
At the age of 15, Arvil Freeman had his first radio appearance and became an old time fiddle player. In his 20’s and 30’s he toured and performed, and eventually he began teaching. Freeman’s brother Gordon Freeman was also an old time fiddler. Freeman is known mostly for his long-bow smoothness style and many musicians seek his guidance. Freeman has won the old time fiddle contest at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, appeared on UNC-TV’s Folkways series, and appeared on more than 40 albums. Freeman now offers old time fiddle lessons, performs with the Stoney Creek Boys, and plays in the house band at the Shindig on the Green in Asheville.
Martin Fox – Fairview, NC
Martin Fox has lived in the North Carolina mountains most of his life. As a child he played guitar and in his 20’s learned banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. He has been a featured musician in Asheville for more than 30 years. He won first-place as a Championship Fiddler at the Asheville Folk Festival and later his band the Rough Riders won first-place band, first-place banjo, first-place guitar, and Best All-Around Performers. Fox and his music have been featured in films, recordings, and albums through the years.
Read about many more Western North Carolina old time fiddle players in the Traditional Artist Directory of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
Live Fiddle Music – The Way Old Time Music Should be Heard
The best way to experience the old time fiddle is to see a live concert or attend a dance, festival, or jam session. The old time fiddle was meant to be played in the community, at dances, weddings, and parties. There are many events to choose from throughout the foothills and mountains of North Carolina. Here are some of the highlights:
- Mount Airy Bluegrass & Oldtime Fiddlers Convention
- Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention
- Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention
- Mountain Dance and Folk Festival
- Shindig on the Green
- Smoky Mountain Folk Festival
The Blue Ridge Music Trails calendar features all kinds of bluegrass, old time, and mountain music for every season. Make the most out of your vacation time in the mountains and let the sound of the old time fiddle bring the history of the region to life.