First of all, what is a fiddle? Is it the same thing as a violin? Is it a completely different instrument? Does it depend on the person who’s playing it? Here are a few answers. Take your pick.

  1. A fiddle and a violin are the same, except the violin has a case and the fiddle is carried in a burlap bag.
  2. A violin is a stuck up fiddle. Everything on it is just exactly right so the violinist can play exactly what’s written. A violinist does NOT improvise or add personal touches. A violinist follows the written music – always.
  3. A fiddle has a lower, flatter bridge so it’s easier to do double stops. (By the way, this is nonsense, even though it’s not uncommon to hear this explanation. Double stops are not dependant on the height or curvature of the bridge.)
  4. It’s the type of music you play on it. To borrow a line from the 2001 Barrage show, “a violin sings, a fiddle dances.” Violins are for listening to. Fiddles are for dancing to.
  5. Fiddlers don’t read music. They PLAY music.
  6. A violin has strings. A fiddle has “strangs.” (This from an Oregon boy who moved to Tennessee and learned it from the natives there!)
  7. A fiddle is a violin with an attitude! And here is Vi Wickam’s take on the subject:

With all this in mind …

With all this in mind (loosely in mind) the following information will probably help define Old-Time Fiddling.

Some of the people who immigrated to this country in earlier years brought with them the tunes they knew in the old country and instruments upon which to play them. These have been handed down and gradually modified in the folk tradition. Many of the tunes played deep in the Appalachian Mountains closely resemble the ones still played in England, Ireland or Scotland. Similarly, many French Canadian and Cajun tunes obviously had their origins in the Brittany Coast of France. Cape Breton music is closely tied to the Scottish in both style and repertoire. But all these styles have evolved over time – and are still changing today.

While much fiddle music is notated today to make it accessible to a wider learning audience, traditionally this music was handed down to the younger generation by parents, grandparents or neighbors. Tunes were learned by just trying to play along slowly, until eventually the learner would have it.

Quite often a new fiddler was not instructed much in “proper” technique for holding and playing the instrument, so many fiddlers played with less than perfect (violin-perfect) position. Some even played left handed – a thing NEVER done by a violinist!

So why weren’t old time fiddle tunes written down? Well, for one thing, many of the people who played the tunes wouldn’t have known how to write them down. And many of the subtleties of the music can’t be notated, anyway. There’s just no way to write some things down.

Some folks, however, did write down bare bones versions of the tunes they knew. Some even researched – scouted out more and more tunes from other traditional players – and wrote them in collections. Francis O’Neill, Chicago Police Chief in the first decade of the 1900’s published two volumes of Irish tunes collected from his many friends in 1903 and 1907. Another example is Edward Bunting, who took down many of the tunes played by the last of Ireland’s traditional harpers during a harp festival in Belfast in 1792. These collectors of the old tunes (in the days before electronic recordings) recognized that unless someone did something, the tunes might be lost forever. Hats off to these people for a job well done!

So fiddle music comes in many styles. Most were originally intended for dancing.

Some of the most common types of dances were the polka, reel, jig, two-step, waltz, and schottische (to name a few), each geographic area having its own favorites. The old time barn dances were often called hoedowns (as in putting your hoe down at the end of a long day of work), and the reels played and danced at these community events became known as hoedowns or breakdowns. Then of course, there’s the square dance – a more modern form of the quadrille. The Germans are well known for their polkas and quick waltzes. In the Sliabh Luachra region of Ireland, a “set dance” might consist of several polkas, a slide and a hornpipe (played one after another without stopping) … after which time, both the musicians and the dancers were quite exhausted! The list goes on and on.

Here are some links to interesting sites that you might enjoy as you learn more about fiddling and the dancing it was designed to accompany.

Some Links to Fiddle and Dance Organizations:

Oregon Old Time Fiddlers Association
Web: http://oregonoldtimefiddling.org/
National Old Time Fiddlers Association
Web: www.fiddlecontest.com
Blue Mountain Old Time Fiddlers Association
Contact: Denny Langford, Email: grams_garden@hotmail.com
New England Dancing Masters Productions
Web: www.dancingmasters.com

Also be sure to check out all the great links on the Music Resources page.