Howard Wight Marshall knows his way around a fiddle. As a musician, folk historian and MU professor emeritus, he has put together enough research material for a trilogy of the instrument and those that played it well
Howard Wight Marshall knows his way around a fiddle. As a musician, folk historian and MU professor emeritus, he has put together enough research material for a trilogy of the instrument and those that played it well. His first was Play Me Something Quick and Devilish (University of Missouri Press, 2013).
The second, Fiddler’s Dream: Old-Time, Swing and Bluegrass Fiddling in Twentieth-Century Missouri (University of Missouri Press, ISBN9780826221216) has now been published. Marshall uses an oral history, archival photographs and transcriptions of selected tunes to trace the evolution of traditional fiddle music in Missouri from the early 1920’s, through the abrupt changes in American society and traditional music in the 1960’s. It focuses on fiddle music in everyday life at parties, dances and pie suppers.
What kind of person decides to write a book about a folk instrument and regional tunes? In many ways, for Marshall, it was just a progression, as natural as breathing.
“There are fiddlers in my family going back to VA and NC, as early settlers, and later in Boone, Randolph and Howard counties,” said Marshall.
So he just picked it up, starting out with the tune “Soldiers Joy,” learning “by ear.”
“I’m a product of the folk song revival,” he said. “I wanted to be Peter, Paul and Mary when I was a teenager, but then the fiddle bug caught me when I was in graduate school in Indiana.”
He played in bluegrass bands around Indiana and he was all-in.
“Once the fiddle bug gets you, it keeps you from playing anything else,” he explains.
“Since about 1970, I’ve been trying to figure out how to play the fiddle, but I’m still working on it.”
Marshall says the hardest part of playing the fiddle is how to use the bow.
“John Hartford (of “Gentle on My Mind” fame) used to say the fiddler’s handwriting is in the bow,” he said.
“That’s where the real individual expression comes out. It took a long time to get the bow to do what I wanted it to do.”
He has the musician chops to write what he knows about the fiddle. He got his research skills in other places.
Earlier in his life, he worked at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and did a five-year stint at the Library of Congress at the American Folk Life Center, in Washington, D.C. His specialty was architecture. From there, he did folk projects with the Smithsonian and that led to work around the country. He wrote a book here and there and eventually found his way back to Missouri.
He taught in the Department of Art History and Archeology, but his courses were on folk art—how to build log cabins and—how to play the fiddle.
“I came to the university to start and run The Missouri Cultural Heritage Center back in 1982,’ he said. “I’m the guy they would call if someone brought a quilt in and asked,”what is this?”” He also identified lots of old tools found in barns.
He wrote a couple more books and finally landed on the fiddle trilogy. Fiddler’s Dream includes transcriptions of 24 songs. He views these as “snapshots of how the tune was played in one moment in time.” The book is also illustrated with 111 photos that show the diverse and rich musical traditions of fiddle players.
Also included in the book is a music CD of 30 archival recordings from 1939 to 2015, produced with Voyager Records.He has featured Missouri’s best known fiddlers such as Pete McMahan, who did some of his best work in the 1970’s. Marshall personally knew some of the musicians he writes about and has had many conversations about the instrument and the music.
“There’s a chapter in the book about early bluegrass music, which really developed in the upper Ozarks,” he said.
“Down the road from Rolla, in St. James, is Cecil Goforth, one of the players back in the day who helped develop bluegrass. He’s featured in the book, as are a couple of tunes that I recorded of him playing a couple years ago. Another one down in Salem is Gerald Jones, currently one of the top fiddlers in Missouri.”
“There’s lots of interesting threads to follow,” said Marshall, “which is why it takes a lot of years to get a book like this, finished.”
Visit upress.missouri.edu for more information.