“I was born a-dancing” Ora Watson used to say, and indeed when she was barely old enough to stand she would try dancing on her mother’s lap at church when the music started. Watson’s father, an expert old-time musician, was also a great buck dancer, and she recalled picking up steps from him.
A farmer, mother of four, and veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, Watson could raise the energy on any stage by playing fiddle and dancing at the same time, often to her favorite fiddle tune, “Ragtime Annie”. In her youth she won several dance competitions, including at least one Charleston competition, and old-time buck dancing aficionados could spot the Charleston’s influence on her footwork.
While Henry Ford’s mind looked toward the mechanized, industrialized future, his heart was in the past—a world where life was simple, and entertainment meant old-time music and dance with one’s family and neighbors. An amateur fiddler himself, Ford enthusiastically encouraged participation in these pursuits, and was always on the lookout for contacts with outstanding old-time fiddlers.
One such contact was Mellie Dunham, a snowshoe maker, farmer, and fiddler in rural Maine. Thinking that a letter from Ford was just another order for snowshoes, he put it aside until he had time for it. When he finally opened it, he replied to Ford that he was too busy with farm work to accept the auto maker’s invitation to visit him in Detroit.
Local newspapers caught wind of the story, and eventually it took the state’s governor to persuade Dunham to make the visit. The fiddler departed Maine in December 1925 to great fanfare, in a Pullman railroad car provided by Ford. After the trip, Dunham formed a band that toured the vaudeville circuit making as much as $1500 a week, until he eventually went back to his snowshoe business in Maine.
This according to “Henry Ford: A penchant for fiddling” by Matt Merta (Fiddler magazine XXV/1 [spring 2018] pp. 13–16).
Compiled and narrated by the fiddler Matt Combs, John’s daughter Katie Harford Hogue, and the musicologist Greg Reish, the book illuminates Hartford’s creative process through original tune compositions, his own reflections on the fiddle, and interviews with family and fellow musicians.
The volume includes more than 60 of Hartford’s personal drawings—ranging in theme from steamboats and the river, to fellow musicians, home and everyday life—as well as several never-before-seen photographs.
Above, a page from the book: Hartford’s Annual waltz as part of a holiday card and invitation to his 1980 wedding; below, the composer performs the song and tune.
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Since the fall of 1987, when Alice Gerrard created, laid out, and hand-mailed the first issue, the magazine’s articles and interviews, news and reviews, festival guides, and discussions have become part of the glue that holds the old-time music community together.
Above, a cover from 1990; below, Ms. Gerrard performs in 2014.
When David Holt asked Doc Watson to write an autobiography, he declined. Holt then said “What if you just tell your stories? I can ask you questions and we can record it and you can tell your stories yourself.”
Jane Keefer’s Folk music index is a database of U.S. old-time recordings that can be searched by title, recording, keyword, or publisher.
Cross references to alternate titles, related pieces, and similar melodies constitute around 18% of the nearly 39,000 titles in the title index. The recordings indexed generally have a major emphasis on tradition-based material from both commercial and non-commercial performers, including a considerable amount of old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.
Although most of the recordings included are LPs, many have been reissued as cassettes and CDs.
Produced by the Appalachian College Association, the Digital Library of Appalachia provides online access to archival and historical materials related to the culture of the southern and central Appalachian region. The database’s contents are drawn from special collections of Appalachian College Association member libraries.
Above, the Bog Trotters Band in Galax, Virginia, in 1937. Below, the legendary Roscoe Holcomb at home in Kentucky.
Byrd learned traditional fiddling and singing when he was growing up in the mountains of Appalachia. He deployed his talents strategically in his early political campaigns, when he was known as “Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd”. He also performed for the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded an album that has recently been re-released by County Records.
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