During these days of pandemic uncertainty, many Americans have taken up all sorts of new hobbies to get through this moment. For those still looking for a pastime to explore, the American tradition of fiddling could provide much needed stress relief. One can fiddle on an ordinary violin, an instrument capable of an extraordinary variety of sounds. Since Colonial times, regular, everyday people across America have been adding joy to their lives by playing and listening to fiddle music, and the instrument’s good nature could be the key to beating back the overwhelming elements of the COVID-19 quarantine.
Playing the fiddle connects one to a robust history of music making that dates to the Middle Ages in Europe and even earlier in the Middle East and Asia. Many might be surprised to learn that “violin” and “fiddle” are variants of the same word, pronounced differently in different areas in Europe. To give an idea of the many variations of the Latin root variants “viella” and “vidula” is the medieval French version of the instrument, the “vielle,”pronounced “fee-ell,” which also resembles closely the Old English name for the instrument “fithele.”
Just as the word “fiddle” has many variations, so does the way people learn to play it. Since colonial times, American fiddlers have been teaching themselves how to make the instrument sing for the amusement of its player and everyone close enough to hear its bright, cheery voice. While our fiddling ancestors had to learn and remember as much as they could from live meetings with other fiddlers, today not only can we consult a range of “how to” books, but learning from other fiddlers by watching them play is only a YouTube click away.
American fiddle tunes are just waiting for fiddlers new and old to make them their own, offering an important outlet for personal creativity. This tune repertory is a rich one that includes melodies first published in John Playford’s 1651 English publication The Dancing Master, which contained the tune we know now as “Greensleeves” or “What Child is This?” Since they first crossed the Atlantic Ocean carrying Playford’s volume, American fiddlers have been adding to this repertory to reflect their own experience. “Durang’s Hornpipe” was composed in 1785 for a famous hornpipe dancer in New York City and Philadelphia named John Durang. People who fiddle have adapted the tune to suit themselves, creating their own “Missouri version,” “Texas version,” and others, in addition to the original.
Not only is there a variety of tunes and tune versions to choose from, there are rich regional repertories that have developed over the years in both oral tradition (learning “by ear”) and in written notation. The 2007 publication Dear Old Illinois contains 750 tunes, including numerous originals that had never been notated before. Yet the collection still emphasizes that these written versions are not authoritative, and that individual creativity and ingenuity is welcomed and encouraged when it comes to fiddling.
Historically, the fiddle functioned much as the ITunes playlist does today. Since the first documented fiddler John Utie arrived on American soil from England in 1620, the instrument has been producing old tunes as well as the popular melodies of the day. For example, the poem “Jefferson and Liberty” was set to the old fiddle tune “Gobby O” and performed as a campaign song for Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 run for the presidency. Incidentally, Jefferson was an accomplished fiddler, whose library contains numerous popular dance tunes and songs in addition to classical compositions.
Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of “Louisiana” precipitated the Lewis and Clark Exploration (1804-1806), which travelled into the wilderness west of the Mississippi to chart a course to the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of Discovery included two fiddlers, one of whom, Pierre Cruzatte, was nearly blind. As the Lewis and Clark journals show, fiddling aided this epic journey by not only keeping the travelers’ spirits up, but also facilitating communication with the Native American tribes the Corps met along the way.
As Jefferson and Cruzatte knew, once a person starts fiddling, they will discover a way to express thoughts and feelings that lie deeply hidden in a protected place where no smartphone could ever reach. It can also be an antidote to our overreliance on electronic technology to do things for us and remind us that we are capable of meaningful communication and personal growth by creating our own music. There is something physically comforting about wrapping one’s arms around the figure-eight-shaped wooden resonating box and drawing the bow to bring forth music from the strings. Playing the fiddle connects one’s creative spirit with the past, present, and future.
In sum, fiddling is good medicine for the soul in these uncertain times. For parents looking for a creative outlet for quarantined children, the fiddle is a good choice. It has been serving up wholesome entertainment for Americans since Colonial times, offering a musical pathway to creative expression fitting for the times. Adults are also perfect candidates for taking up the fiddle as a productive and satisfying hobby. To be sure, those wanting to pursue classical violin training will want to look to professional instruction. For those looking for a constructive way to develop individual and community joy through music, American fiddling has been providing such opportunities for over three hundred years to those lucky enough to discover what it has to offer.
Sharon Graf is a professor of Ethnomusicology at University of Illinois Springfield, and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is the former president of the National Oldtime Fiddlers Association and an Illinois State Fiddle Champion.