Friday, July 29, 2016

"Fiddler Jones": The Rest of the Story

Crazy to think that I have been a member of the Illinois State Historical Society for 42 years. I joined when I was 17 and joked with my dad that I should get a life-time membership (about $250, if I remember correctly). Dad balked at that, and I understand. For all he knew, this would be a fleeting interest. But I do anticipate belonging to the society as long as I live, to support and enjoy Illinois history. The society has benefited more from my yearly memberships than that years-ago, innocent idea of a one-time payment.

This week I received my copy of one of the society's publications, Illinois Heritage (the July-August 2016 issue). (I had an article in the magazine in 2000.) One of this new issue's articles is by Peter Ellertsen, "'Why, fiddle you must': Edgar Lee Masters' account of traditional fiddle music in Menard County in 1914" (pp. 42-45).

Back to my teenage years... When I was 15 or 16, I really loved Masters' book Spoon River Anthology. I was already at work transcribing tombstone inscriptions at our rural family cemetery for my genealogical hobby, so I liked the graveyard theme, not at all morbid to me. I also loved the free verse and the many small-town characterizations, some scandalous for the 1910s. My favorite poem in the book was "Fiddler Jones." That poem, now in the public domain, reads:

The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill--only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle--
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

The idea of living life fully--of having plans yet being spontaneous enough to take opportunities, of anticipating regrets, of loving music--appealed to me--and has served me well, these years later.

Ellertsen's article provides for us (as Paul Harvey used to say on his radio programs) the rest of the story of that poem. In about 1914, writer Masters and his friend, the writer Theodore Dreiser, met John Armstrong, whose father Jack Armstrong had been in a legendary wrestling match with young Abraham Lincoln. (Here is an interesting article about Jack.) John was a fiddle player, as was his brother in law John "Fid" Jones, and his father in law "Fiddler Bill" Watkins. Armstrong was an accomplished musician who knew numerous tunes of American and Anglo-Celtc tradition, which he played for his visitors.

Ellertsen uses the term "creolization" to refer to the process of different styles and idioms coming together to create a new form. Armstrong's music, about which Masters later reminisced in his 1942 book The Sangamon, was "thoroughly creolized" music and reflected important developments in American music (p. 43). Also in the 1910s, the writer Vachel Lindsay had a similar experience of meeting fiddlers and recalling the tunes they played (pp. 44-45).

Ellertsen concludes, "I would suggest that in 1914, in the very dawn of sound recording, Masters was able to tap into a vibration in the heart of American culture. It thrummed to the beat of a popular Anglo-Celtic musical tradition that was reflected in the media of the day, chiefly the theatre and printed music, and it was still vibrating in his heart when he came to write The Sangamon some 30 years later" (p. 45).

If the subjects of folk music and American Midwestern history appeal to you, get a copy of this issue of Illinois Heritage and read the author's account, which includes the names numerous tunes and songs popular at that time.


  1. Why thanks so much for your kind words about my article, but the credit for any magic in it really belongs to Lee Masters -- and John Armstrong! I was a volunteer interpreter at New Salem for many years, and I don't know how many times I wished I could have been there that night in 1914, to sit in a corner and hear Armstrong call up the past of the "deserted village," and, of course, to hear one of Menard County's legendary fiddlers. I just Googled into your post, and it's nice to know there's another kindred spirit out there.

    1. Thanks for your comment! And thanks for your wonderful article.