Scots-Irish settlement of the Appalachian Chain
was not confined to its Southern links, but extended from Maryland through
Pennsylvania to New York, and from Massachusetts up through Maine. This being
the case, one might expect that the distinctive cultural heritage of the Scots-Irish
might not be confined to the Southern Mountains, but might also be found in
the Northern Appalachians.
But Jan Brunvald’s standard introduction to
folklore, The Study of American Folklore (Norton,
1968) identifies seven clear and distinct folklore areas of the United States,
among which is Southern Appalachia, with an East-West axis dividing the North
across New England (p.23), and this neatly-drawn map has been picked up by
researchers in other fields; for example, Getis, Getis and Fellman’s Human
Geography’: Culture and Environment cites “folk cultural
maps” from the early works of Glassie, Loman and Garney (Pp. 182-85) which
purport to break off the “Southern Backwoods” or “Appalachian Song Family”
at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, with a consequent disjunct Northern and
Southern folk heritage.
However, when one finds himself collecting fiddle
tunes like “Arkansas Traveler” and “Black Mountain Rag,” “Mississipi Waltz”
and “Turkey in the Straw” from elderly square dance fiddlers in Northeastern
Pennsylvania, he must at least begin to suspect that these early folk cultural
maps are in need of some redrawing, along a North-South rather than East-West
axis, perhaps. Maybe there is more to Pennsylvania than the notorious Dutchies,
We begin, then, with the question of whether
or not the ScotsIrish fiddle traditions of the Pocono Mountains of Northeast
attested to by 93-year-old Papa Jake
Miller and 77-year-old Julian Teeple (Interviews, 2/22/86) -- has in fact survived two World Wars, the coming of the
interstate roads and satellite TV. Or has it merely been given some kind of
artificial respiration by outsiders fascinated by the quaint backwoodsmen
(analogous to what Burt Feintuch found in Northumbrian small-pipes revivals
--AFS paper, Oct. 1985), or by nostalgia buffs seeking to save the children
from rockand-roll (Dick Blaustein, discussion of Missouri Old-Time Fiddlers
Associations, AFS paper, Oct. 1985)?
If the latter, have some of the well-meaning efforts
to restore the fiddler to a place of honor led to unforeseen, even ironic
displacements in social function for the fiddling itself, as contests have
replaced square-dances as performance venues? When “hot” fiddling wins the
prizes, what happens to the fiddler who has spent his performing life providing
back-up to a caller? (Interview with Ray Cortwright, 70 year old fiddler for
Doc Runsey’s Mountain Dewers, with his distaste for “that bluegrass stuff
-- they play too darn fast!” - 2/20/86)
The. question of origin of repertoire is an interesting
if vexed issue, as the preceding anecdote attests. In fact, the tunes played
by Papa Jake and Ray Cortwright and Julian Teeple -- of whom more later -- are standard
tunes, to be found in almost any collection of fiddle music, although they may
well have been learnt, as Papa Jake’s Daddy learnt them, by ear rather than
from the printed page, since nnne of the fiddlers mentioned so far can read
a note of music -- “Nary a one,” says Papa Jake
In fact, Ray Cortwright has never won a fiddle contest
in the last twenty years - - they go back no further than
that in this area of Pennsylvania - - and he knows
no other old-time square dance fiddler who has won such a contest. I asked
him if it were possible that some fiddlers might become discouraged and hang
up the fiddle after enough times of that happening, and he answered, “Oh,
yeah -- if I hadn’t had the band to play in, I might have done
the same thing myself! I mean, I know I’m an alright fiddler --no star or anything like that, y’know -- but I know I can fiddle, and I’ve been playing nigh on
forty years like that. So it’s not that I can’t play. But the judges, y’know,
they’re influenced by the crowds, the applause, so they don’t pay attention
to whether the tune’s played in the right time or nothing like that. But there’s
fellas I know who have just give it all up in disgust --‘Hell, I guess I ain’t no good after all, bud!’ “ (Interview, 2/20/86).
Asked what the judges should be looking for, Ray answers,
“Well, first of all they don’t want none of that bluegrass music. I mean,
I like it all right myself, like to listen to it and all, but it doesn’t-shouldn’t—
have any place in an old-time fiddle contest. They should be looking for the
old tunes, for a start--none of that ‘Orange Blossom Special.’ They should
be looking to make sure they can play a waltz, not just a fast breakdown.
And this music is dancing music, like I say -- they have got to play it in time, or it’s not being done
right. At least, as far as I’m concerned.” (Interview, 2/2186).
Papa Jake Miller, who lives in a 12’ by 12’ foot shack
with an outhouse in back, about fifty feet from the edge of a spreading development
outside Portland Village, concurs with his younger colleague. “Now, I recall
back when there was dancing six nights a week all around here -- a body couldn’t get to all the dances there was around
here! And some of them old guys --boy, they could sure make that
fiddle ring it out --
you could hear it half a valley away!
And wasn’t none of them contests like you have now - some
kid who’s learnt maybe six tunes in his life gets up there and them judges,
some of them don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground when it comes
to old-time fiddling!” He is quick to assert that he personally has done all
right in his day --.
“But you can see some of these kids got prizes in the
contests, and be damned if they could fiddle all night long f or a square
dance like I done all my young years.” (Interview, 2/22/86).Papa Jake at one time played six-nights a week for dancing,
8 pm to 2 am, at the Eagle Valley Corners Inn, near East Stroudsburg, with
sets in three different rooms and people waiting to take the dancers places
immediately there was a pause between tunes, just him and a caller, all night
long, for ten dollars a night, seventeen years in a row, “And I’d get up in
the morning and go to work in the quarry as a blacksmith, and all them farmers
had to get home and milk their cows.” (Interview, 2/22/86) While those glory
days may be gone now, he still plays host to young fiddlers who come around
to learn tunes and swap stories with him in his shack, which he shares with
two lapdogs and his trophies from fiddle contests. On the day of our interview,
he had to set straight a visitor who called one of his tunes “The Oil City
Quickstep.” “Naw it ain’t no ‘Oil City Quickstep,’” he said. “That there tune
was learned by my daddy off this nigger who come up from the South. Didn’t
have no place to stay, and he was just passing through. So he played us this
tune, and my daddy played it after him. And his name was Jimmy the Nigger,
so we called that tune its name, and it’s “Jimmy the Nigger’s Tune,’ Yes it
is. Come from North Carolina, he did. Jimmy the Nigger.” (Interview, 2/20/86)
Julian Teeple, for example, presents an interesting case.
A lifelong bachelor, this old man lives alone in a small house a little off
a main highway some thirty miles north of Stroudsburg. He has never played for
square dancing, although he has fiddled all his life. Too. shy to play “out
in company,” as he puts it, he’s a classic example of the “parlor fiddler,”
who plays for family, friends and fellow-fiddlers, but very rarely in public.
“Oh, I might go to the occasional dance, just to hear the fiddler, don’t you
know, but then if he Wanted to take a break and maybe dance, I’d sit in for
a tune or two. But I’ve never played for a whole dance. It’s just not my nature.
“ (Interview, 2/22/86).
However, he has been a keen radio listener all his life
--at least, as far back as there was radio -- and he was out of these mountains during World War Two,
when he was called “Pop” by his outfit, with whom he shared a prisoner-of-war
experience he can still remember vividly; along the way, he has befriended a
couple of well-intentioned fiddle enthusiasts, who have kept him supplied with
records and, now, cassette tapes of fiddle music. As a result, Julian can play
you Graham Townsend and Eugene O’Donnell tunes, along with some of the half-remembered
English tunes his grandfather brought over from the North of England over a
hundred years ago. “Well, you see, whenever I’d get with a fiddler, I’d pick
up his tunes, then the next guy I’d pick up his, and so on and so on. So that
means I remember the last ones better than the earlier ones, like you do, so
I sometimes can’t remember some of the great old tunes. More’s the pity.” (Interview,
Among the up-and-coming young fiddlers Julian is in touch
with, there is a 29 year old dairy farmer by the name of Steve Jacoby, who is
perhaps somewhat more representative-talent
aside--- of the mainstream fiddling than “Uncle Julian.” Steve
is a member of the revivalist organization referred to earlier, the Fred Williams Friends of Old Time Music,
which was founded about ten years ago to "preserve and perpetuate’’ old-time
fiddling and Appalachian music. Never mind that the members wear cowboy hats
and boots to play, or that the small band within the group -- County Cooking -- has a singer
whose repertoire is drawn straight from the country-and-western charts. In the
words of Andy Cavage, one of the founders, “Fred saw that the old music was
dying out --
maybe because of rock-and-roll, I don’t
know -- and he determined to keep it alive, to keep it going,
and so that’s how we got set up in the first place. To have the old music, and
to see if maybe we could get the young folks interested in it something for them to do with their time” (Interview,
Among the things that they’ve done with their time is
bring Graham Townsend -- one of Steve Jacoby’s idols -- down to the Poconos for concerts at a local high school.
I was asked by Steve if I would like to videotape the concert, and, although
it was at the time a bit off my taste, I agreed, hoping that serendipity would
strike as it so often does when you give it half a chance. The concert was a
success. Graham Townsend had no objection to the taping -- “for educational purposes” -- although he was quick to make it clear to the audience
that he had records and cassettes out in the hall to be autographed at intermission,
etc. I made the promised copy for the Friends (9/7/85), and thought no more
of it until this past April, when I asked if I could travel to a grange social,
where the Friends would be playing.
In the middle of the concert, Steve stepped up to the
microphone, and-announced he was going to do “The Mockingbird.” It is the tune,
of course, with which Graham Townsend won the World Championships at Sherbourne,
in 1962, and with which he had brought his Honesdale audience to their feet
the preceding September. With my video camera rolling, Steve then proceeded
to produce a near note-perfect copy of Townesend’a performance, right down to
“patter” and fiddle-taps (“That’s a woodpecker!”). As far as I know, Steve Jacoby
had never seen Graham Townsend in performance before that September show. On
the other hand, he had had the videotape available for study during the following
winter months.... If I am correct, then, we have a demonstration of how videotaping
can enter into the oral processes of tradition, no different in kind than phonograph
records or audio-cassettes, but with the added dimension of the visual image
for the apprentice fiddler to learn the master’s bowing and fingering -- and tapping
In this case, then, it could be argued that I am in no
different case than the enthusiasts referred to earlier, who had loaned Julian
Teeple cassettes of Irish music and thereby interfered with his memory of English
tunes. I stand guilty as charged, I suppose; both cases, in fact, might stand
a bit closer scrutiny, since it seems to me that they are perfectly natural
processes, no more to be rolled back than the waves for Canute. Indeed, the
only caution I would make in situations like this is for the collector to be
aware of these and other “interferences” from “outside the tradition.” Otherwise,
he might collect an item from a fiddler and misidentify its sources, through
ignorance of these intervening possibilities.
A case in point might be a tune with a French-Canadian-sounding
name, “The Joys of Quebec,” which I collected in a session of the Fred Williams
Friends of Old Time Music, in their weekly practices. Especially since Andy
Cavage had cited French-Canadian as one of the three major ethnic influences
in Pocono Mountain fiddling (the others being Scots-Irish and German), I might
have been tempted to look further North- let us say to Graham Townsend? for the source of this tune. But it so happens that it
has also been recorded on the June Appal label (out of Kentucky) by the Dutch
Cove String Band, among others; could it not also belong among the tunes passed
along to Papa Jake by Jimmy the Nigger...?
The point is, of course, that both are clear “possibilities,”neither is the exclusive “correct answer,” and
the collector who insists upon tracking down the sources will have a long and
dusty road to travel to get there. Another caution might also be in order, for
the unwary collector in Pennsylvania. There are a number of fiddle contests
in this area each year, run as part of local fairs and, more recently, by resort
hotels as part of their tourist attractions. At one such - - this one run as part of the Greene-Dreher-Sterling fair
in Newfoundland last August -- I videotaped
a dazzling, intricate display of Irish fiddling, by a young man with forearms
like hams and thick, short fingers, a swarthy chap wearing a cowboy shirt and
the inevitable boots. In fact, he won the contest, with a comlination of “Tennessee
Waltz,” “The Irish Washerwoman,” and “Katy Hill.” To the neophyte collector
-- and we have been forewarned that the Governor’s Heritage
Commission is soon going to be hiring a fresh young Ph.D. to come up into the
Northeast and begin fieldworking his way around the mountains - - this might have been captured as a prime example of the
revival of fiddling in the Poconos and all that. As it happens, I knew this
chap from elsewhere. He is Tony De Marco, who was once the fiddler in “Flying
Cloud,” the house band at the Eagle Tavern in New York City, and a veteran fiddler
with two albums of fiddle music - - one a twin-fiddling
album with Brian Milner -- on the market.
Tony owns a house in the vicinity, and is a friend of Steve Jacoby, through
whom he heard about this new contest, with its prize money waiting for the best
in show -- which
he clearly deserved (Contest videotaped, 8/28/85).
Now, this is not to say that Tony or anyone else should
have been “flagged off the track” - - although
I did hear some mumbling from other young fiddlers about “damned ringers” - - it is just to caution the unwary to watch where they
are putting their feet before they make too-quick pronouncements concerning
the state of the art in fiddling among the Pocono Mountains.
It is with these contests that I would like to close
this quick survey of what I have found to be the case so far in my research.
Their motives are obviously mixed -- to preserve
the old-time fiddling, to entertain the tourists until casino gambling
is legalised, to enrich the local fair programs-- but it is clear that they
have taken over from the square dances as public venues for fiddle music in
this area. Doc Rumsey’s Mountain Dewers may play the local YMCA, and Fred Williams
Friends of Old Time Music may play the grange or the local high school; but
the prize money, the crowds, in short, “the action,” is at the fiddle contests.
In theory they are judged by old-timers who know the music; but in fact, as
Ray Cortwright somewhat bitterly attests, they are also crowd-pleasers, and
the young fiddler who steps right up to the mike and fires off some trick-and-fancy
fiddling stands to gain not only an ovation but also the prize money. As noted
earlier, this may be having the ironic and unintended effect of discouraging
the very fiddlers whom they were set up to honor and preserve in the first place;
for the ego-strokes that we all need, performers especially perhaps, the old-timers
have to turn to young enthusiasts, not necessarily well-informed about their
music, unless they are fortunate enough to have a Steve Jacoby, who respects
their music and will sit in with them at home and play the old tunes with them
(thfortunately bad videotape, with less than minimal lighting, at Julian Teeple’s
Ignorant crowds are no way to treat old-time square dance
music; but if we are not to retreat into the dusty museums, we have to recognize
that it is among those ignorant, beer-swilling crowds that we will find our
young fiddlers these days. Some, like the aptly-named Johhny Ace, can win in
the more traditional settings such as the old-established West End Fair contest
(now in its 15th year), with such tunes as “Old Joe Clark” or “Mississipi Waltz,”
then turn around and walk away with prizes by playing Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem
Ridge,” at a newer contest the following night (Videotapes, West End Fair, 8/27/85,
and Greene-DreherSterling Fair, 8/28/85); Johnny also plays in a hot country
band, “Penn Station,” which plays at the local resort hotels.
Some, like Steve Jacoby, a member of 4-H and devoted
to the farm he lives on, are as at home playing for the grange halls (4/22/86
videotape) as they are running off with the Trick-And-Fancy Division at the
West End (8/27/85) or sitting in with their friends in a farmhouse basement
for a weekly practice session, where the tunes go around the room and nobody
insists on being the star (Videotape at John Wargo’s house, Honesdale, PA, 1/28/86).
But that Pocono Mountain fiddling is alive and well is
beyond question. That it shares repertoire as well as heritage with the fiddle
music of the Southern Appalachians also seems beyond question, although of course
the effect of syndicated programs such as “Hee Haw” (referred to admiringly
by a number of these fiddlers in passing) cannot be ruled out here, either.3
That it will continue to evolve, under pressures to please the crowds and to
satisfy the fiddlers’ own love of novelty and variety, there can be little doubt,
either. The field has not yet been studied in anything approaching the depth
with which, for example, the Southern Appalachians, or even the Central and
Southern Pennsylvania traditions:, have been studied (See the work of Matthew
Guntharp and Bob Doyle, Learning the Fiddler’s Ways, and
Samuel P. Bayard’s Hill Country Tunes). The enticing title of
George Korson’ s early collection of coal-miners’ songs, Coal Dust on the
Fiddle, threatens to distract us westward to the Scranton coal region
before we have fairly begun to evaluate our findings here!
That there is more work ahead, then, goes without
saying. That there is room for more workers should be equally obvious (side-comments
about newly-hatched Ph.Ds to the side). That the chosen recording medium, 1/2
inch VHS, would eventually lend itself to further circulation, possibly through
historical societies’ interests in preserving the record of the old-timers,
is a suggestion which the current author intends to explore in the near future.
Let me say only in closing that I am now in process of exploring the possibility
of a folklife conference at my home institution next year (tentative title:
“Pocono Foxfire”:The Folklife of the Northern Appalachians.”) You are invited.
The videotapes listed din the “Works Cited” were all obtained through
the kind permission of the fiddlers and contest organizers involved, specifically
for educational purposes, and with my offer of a souvenir copy gladly accepted,
for the recipients’ own agendas; one told me quite serenely, in front of her
husband, that this would be a good way to remember Pa, especially for the
grandchildren, “after he’s passed on.” Steve Jacoby’s use of the Graham Townsend
tape is described more fully in the text of this paper. I have oral permission
to share these tapes with other investigators, if they would be of any educational
value. With that restriction, that they not be re-used other than for research
and educational purposes, I will be only too happy to send copies of any of
the videotapes listed within the text and cited at the end of the paper, to
anyone who will send me a blank 1/2 inch T-120 VHS videotape; it may take
some weeks to get your copy back, since it must be copied in “real time” on
facilities used for other purposes.
I am indebted to Bill Lightfoot of Appalachian State University for
the predicate of this title, the emblem of the folk music session within which
the videotapes underlying this paper were originally presented at the Ninth
Annual Appalachian Studies Conference, Boone, NC, March 22, 1985.
I am indebted to Dick Blaustein for a number of things, not least a
lively discussion of the North-South re-orientation of Appalachian folklore
studies which this paper supports.
Recognizing that the name “Foxfire" is of good lineage and is
probably copyrighted, I have applied to the Foxfire Fund for their permission
to incorporate it into the proposed title of this hopedfor conference.
A good title is worth a lot.
Bayard, Samuel P. Hill Country Tunes. AFS Memoirs, 1944. Blaustein,
Richard. “Missouri Old Time Fiddlers’ Associations.” Paper presented at American
Folklore Society Convention, Cincinatti, Ohio, Oct, 1985.
Brunvald, Jan H. The Study of American Folklore:
An Introduction. Norton, 1968.
Burt. “Revivals of Northumbrian Small-Pipes.” Paper presented at AFS Convention,
Arthur, Judith Getis and Jerome Fellmann. Human Geography: Culture and Environment. MacMillan, 1985.
Matthew [and Bob Doyle]. Learning the Fiddler’s Ways.
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
George. Coal Dust on the Fiddle. Folklore Assocs., 1965.
Williams Friends of Old Time Music, at Dreher Grange Hall, So. Sterling, PA.,
Williams Friends of ‘Old Time Music, Practice Session at John Wargo’s Farmhouse,
Honesdale, PA., 1/28/86.
Townsend at Honesdale High School, Honesdale, PA., 9/7/85.
Fair Fiddle Contest, Newfoundland, PA., 8/28/8
Teeple, Lord’s Valley, PA., 2/22/86.
Jake Miller, Portland, PA., 2/22/86.
Marshalls Creek, PA., 2/20/86.
End Fair Fiddle Contest, Gilbert, PA., 8/27/85.