Fiddling Tradition

Fiddling is playing traditional folk music on the violin, generally without the aid of written music (although many fiddlers are musically literate to at least some degree). No clear line existed between violin performance and fiddling in eighteenth-century America, since plenty of what were already traditional dance tunes—as well as tunes that would become traditional—were fashionable in both Britain and the United States. But during the first half of the nineteenth century, American fiddling took on an identity of its own, partly as a consequence of rural fiddlers who still drew on repertoires that had fallen out of favor and partly as a result of the widespread popularization of blackface minstrelsy, which incorporated white performers’ interpretations and caricatures of slave fiddling.

Fiddlers usually play in styles specific to the regions where they live, though those regions are now more broadly defined than was the case in the past: “old-timey” fiddlers in the Southeast perform rustic “breakdowns” in heterophony with banjos, a style that evokes blackface minstrelsy, while Texas fiddlers using “contest” style systematically vary their breakdowns, waltzes, polkas, and rags. Today, most fiddlers’ repertoires still focus on genres of bipartite dance tunes and songs that date back to the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, although the contest stage and bluegrass venues have become the focus for most fiddle traditions over the past half century.

Widespread immigration to Mississippi from the southeastern United States included fiddlers playing in a variety of old-timey styles. When fiddling again briefly became part of popular music as part of so-called hillbilly music during the 1920s and 1930s, Mississippi string bands such as the Leake County Revelers, Narmour and Smith, Freeny’s Barn Dance Band, the Mississippi Possum Hunters, and Hoyt Ming’s Pep Steppers (mistakenly recorded as Floyd Ming’s Pep Steppers) became widely known through radio broadcasts and 78 rpm records. These string bands, which included a fiddler, a guitarist, and often a mandolinist and/or banjoist, often included family members. Many of their recordings have been reissued, and revivalist ensembles such as the Old Hat String Band from near Vicksburg still play such music. However, many contemporary fiddlers play in contests at the Mississippi State Fair, in rural locations in the northern part of the state and surrounding areas, or most frequently in bluegrass bands. The vigorous Magnolia State Bluegrass Association, whose approximately fifteen hundred members include several hundred fiddlers, sponsors dozens of bluegrass festivals, gospel sings, and jam sessions each year.

Further Reading

  • David Freeman, Mississippi String Bands, vols. 1–2 (1998), liner notes
  • Chris Goertzen, American Music (Fall 2004)
  • Tony Russell, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost (2007)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Fiddling Tradition
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 25, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018