Fiddlin' Around in Alabama

Tuscaloosa, AL –

MUSIC: Sally Gooden

Narrator: That's Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, on the first country music recording ever made, playing one version of Sally Gooden. Back then, the fiddle was called the Devil's Box, and fiddlers were associated with moonshine, shotguns, and well, fiddling around. Alabama scholar and fan of old time music Joyce Cauthen looks at how fiddlers got a bad rep.

Joyce Cauthen:

MUSIC Sally Gooden variations

Narrator: Though some of Alabama's fiddlers lived up to the stereotype, D.Dix Hollis of Sulligent was a doctor and pillar of the community, as well as being one of Alabama's earliest recording artists. Born in 1861, he was taught to play the fiddle by Ben Guyton, a black man who had been a slave of the Hollis family.

Joyce Cauthen:

MUSIC: Walking in the Parlor

Joyce Cauthen:

MUSIC: The Girl Slipped Down

Narrator: During the 1930s, Alabama's most famous or notorious fiddler was Fiddlin Tom Freeman. In 1938, a Birmingham newspaper noted that Next to Nero, he's the most publicized fiddler Birmingham's seen in many a day. Born in 1883 in a section of Cullman County which was described as being so poor a buzzard would have to carry provisions on his back or starve Tom taught himself to play on a homemade fiddle at age 9. To support himself, he became a moonshiner, and was moderately successful until he was caught in 1925.

Joyce Cauthen:

MUSIC: excerpt from Flop Eared Mule

Narrator: He fiddled for Congressman Carl Elliott, who won, in 1948; his other beneficiaries included Governors James Folsom and Gordon Persons. When he lost his favorite bow, the Cullman newspaper urged citizens to look for it, noting that there is a presidential year coming on. Tom died in 1952 and was buried beneath a marker inscribed Fiddling Tom Freeman.

MUSIC: Flop eared Mule

Narrator: Northeast Alabama's Sand Mountain has a long tradition of fiddling, and for nearly a century the Johnson Family's band supplied music for good times on the mountain. Their radio and public performances reached a big, enthusiastic audience.

Joyce Cauthen:

MUSIC: Bile them Cabbage Down

Narrator: The Johnsons were almost famous. They signed a contract with Okeh Records and recorded five tunes at an Atlanta session in 1928. But for reasons the family never understood, the records were not released and a promised stint on Nashville's radio station WSM, home of the Grand Ol Opry, never happened.

Joyce Cauthen:

MUSIC: Katy Hill

Narrator: A lot of fiddlers didn't care about being famous; they just wanted to play. Fiddlers' Conventions with prizes for the best fiddlers-- helped poor rural Alabama schools stay open during the Depression. They usually reported a profit of $80--$100 dollars enough to pay a teacher's salary for a month with money left over. But as times got better, fiddlers found themselves falling out of style.

Joyce Cauthen:

Narrator: Today one of the biggest Alabama fiddling conventions is held annually in Fyffe, on Sand Mountain. In 2002, the prize for best young fiddler went to Naomi McKinney of Fort Payne. Her father, Eric, accompanied her on guitar.

SOUND and MUSIC from McKinneys

Narrator: The oldest fiddler at the Fyffe convention, Jess Moore, remembered old times on Sand Mountain and the Johnson Family Band

SOUND and MUSIC from Jess Moore:

Narrator: Joyce Cauthen's own band, Flying Jenny, is among the groups entertaining fiddlin' convention crowds with old time music.


MUSIC: from Flying Jenny

Narrator: Alabama's fiddlers are a diverse lot, united by their love of an instrument once called the devil's box. Perhaps what the Tuscaloosa News said back in 1957 still holds true: Old time music on the fiddle is like a fire in a sawdust pile. You can snuff it out in one spot and it breaks out in another.'

MUSIC: from Flying Jenny CD

Outro: Funding Credit: This segment was supported in part by funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.