The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 4

The Life and Music of Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley
By Bob Carlin

“The only way to live a long life is to enjoy every minute of every hour in every day in every year. To get the most out of life is to put the most into the least time.”
—Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley.
Blackberry Blossom
Grey Eagle
Courtesy of Juneberry 78s

Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley is one of the legends of old-time fiddling. He had it all—a hair-raising sound, an interesting bag of tunes, and charisma. With his lean face and handlebar mustache, Fiddlin’ Bill attracted the eye of photographers such as Ben Shahn, through whose beautiful Depression-era portraits he became the very symbol of the country fiddler. Recordings of Hensley’s music are rare—deposited in archives and hoarded by collectors—yet he was once quite the celebrity in his home area where his annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival fiddle-offs with another beloved Asheville-area fiddler, Osey Helton, attracted huge crowds. In this article, Bob Carlin explores the life and music of Fiddlin’ Bill.—Ed.

The contrast between fiddlers Osey Helton and Bill Hensley could not be more marked. Accounts from yearly contests held at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville illustrate the personalities of the two men. As reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

“One of [Hensley’s] most famous feuds was the musical and bloodless, feud with the late Ozzie [sic] Helton. They were known as ‘co-deans’ of fiddlers of the Appalachian mountain region for decades, both being claimants of the championship of the area. Directly opposite in dispositions and fiddling techniques, the two men on many occasions played to a tie in the applause opinions of thousands in festival audiences. Where Fiddlin’ Bill was always exuding an impish personality, Ozzie was taciturn, serious-minded and more the melancholy type. . . . An example of the techniques of Fiddlin’ Bill and Ozzie emphasizes the character of Bill. When a piece of music has been completed before an audience by Bill, he is likely to kick out his foot, striking his heel on the floor in a half turn. Ozzie just stopped playing, rested his fiddle in the crook of his arm, straightened his walrus mustache and waited until the announcement was over and he could begin again. Ozzie was of even temper and sometimes grinned a bit at Bill’s sallies and carryings-on. He never got mad at Bill.” [“Bill Leads Colorful Life,” 1953]

Alan Lomax described Fiddlin’ Bill as “Hale and red-faced, with beautiful handle bar mustaches, and a way of sitting with crossed legs that reminds you of the corner of a rail fence.” His grandson Clifford Lance adds:

“He was a kind of short man, maybe five feet five inches, skinny, always a skinny feller. . . . He was just an outgoing person. He liked to go out on Friday and Saturday night and play. He never wore a suit and tie; he always wore a wool shirt, more or less, winter and summer, and liked to have his regular overhauls with a pair of suspenders.”

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