[Episode Summaries] [Oral Histories] [The Songs and the Artists] [Eternal Songs] [Instruments and Innovations] [Behind the Scenes] [Links] [Into the Classroom] [Credits] American Roots Music
B. B. King's famous guitar  
Instruments and Innovations  

The Guitar
The Fiddle
The Accordion
The Banjo
The Harmonica

The Fiddle

The oldest and most basic instrument of roots music, however, is not the guitar but the fiddle. For years the fiddle was virtually the only instrument found on the frontier, and in the South is was used widely enough that as early as 1736 we find written accounts of fiddle contests. Though often thought of today as primarily a white instrument - and indeed many tunes and styles came over from Ireland and Scotland - there arose in the 19th century a strong fiddle tradition among blacks. Some of it started out as slave fiddling, in which talented slaves were sent to places like New Orleans to learn how to fiddle standard dance tunes. Blues composer W.C Handy remembered his own grandfather in northern Alabama playing fiddle tunes in the late 1800s, and a strong style of blues fiddle developed and persisted well into the 1930s. Native Americans and Mexican Americans also developed important fiddle styles in the Southwest.

Fiddling has been associated with classic American heroes. George Washington had his favorite fiddle tune ("Jaybird Sittin' on a Hickory Limb"), as did Thomas Jefferson ("Grey Eagle"). Davy Crockett was a "ferocious" fiddler (the tune "Crockett's Reel" is still played today), and Andrew Jackson's victory over the British in the War of 1812 is still celebrated with the popular "Eighth of January." A governor of Tennessee, fiddler Bob Taylor, liked to refer to the old fiddle classics in his speeches: "Every one of them breathes the spirit of liberty; every jig is an echo from flinklock rifles and shrill fifes of Bunker Hill." In more modern times, Henry Ford started a series of fiddling contests in the 1920s to help preserve the old American values.

Though the fiddle was the main instrument in early country music in the 1920s, it was gradually replaced by the steel guitar and electric guitar. It re-emerged in popularity in the 1940s as Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt developed bluegrass. Innovators like Chubby Wise, Scotty Stoneman, Kenny Baker, and Benny Martin turned the fiddle into a driving vehicle for improvisation.

Back to Instruments & Innovations


Home   |   Episode Summaries   |   Oral Histories   |   Songs & Artists   |   Eternal Songs
Instruments & Innovations   |   Behind the Scenes   |   Links   |   Into the Classroom   |   Credits   |   Reviews
Bring American Roots Music home

© The Ginger Group 2001