The following article is excerpted and condensed from Southern Fiddlers and Fiddle Contests, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi.
Although fiddling as both music and as social practice changed dramatically during the twentieth century, the changes were gradual. The oldest fiddlers active both in the middle of the twentieth century and today have lived through these transformations, sometimes helping change come about, at other times resenting and resisting it. I will illustrate how fiddlers’ lives and activities have changed in the last half-century through a case study of a fiddler who started fiddling in an environment firmly set in the past. He is George Cecil McLeod, a farmer and former Mississippi state senator.
. . . McLeod was born in 1927, just outside of Leakesville, in the piney woods of Southeast Mississippi. But any romantic equating of “rural” with “isolated” would be hasty and simplistic, even for the time when McLeod was a child. Workers in lumber camps moved regularly from logged-out areas to newer opportunities; one local logger and fiddler brought tunes from Canada home with him. Camp Shelby, southeast of Hattiesburg, housed military professionals and draftees from throughout the nation; a violin repairman of German extraction trained there during World War II; and the nearby Gulf Coast has always been cosmopolitan.
McLeod’s father didn’t fiddle, but fiddlers were far from hard to find. McLeod recalls that “a high percentage of the folks, either their daddy, or their granddaddy, or their uncle, or their neighbor, played the fiddle. In their younger days, they would have gone visiting [to a fiddler’s home], or they knew that their daddy had, or their parents had . . . very few people hadn’t been exposed to fiddling.” This echoes another broad factor in the history of music in the rural South: fiddling remained more central in musical life here longer than elsewhere in the United States, for a mix of demographic and financial reasons.
Young George Cecil regularly sought out the company of the two most skilled fiddlers in the area, his uncle and especially a distant neighbor named Jode Denmark, who was born in 1891 into a family in which many of the men fiddled. I found this to be a common pattern among older fiddlers: they had more than one mentor close to home and knew fiddlers both within and outside of their family.
McLeod’s main teacher, Denmark, “had a little farm . . . maybe worked some turpentine and logged wood some. He repaired instruments a good bit.” Even before he made many treks to hear Denmark play, McLeod was regularly exposed to fiddling: “Uncle M. L. Griffin, who married my daddy’s sister, they had eight children, all of them older than I was. They were all talented musically, and my uncle played the fiddle. And that’s where the young folks up in Leakesville would gather up on Saturday night to dance. They’d clear the furniture out of one room and the hall, and Uncle M. L. would play, with some of the children accompanying him, some on guitar, and some of the girls would sometimes play piano [or] accordion. They danced in the bedroom and in the hall connecting.”
Fiddlers back then typically started playing later in life than the best fiddlers of today. By the time McLeod finally owned a fiddle, his head was full of fiddle tunes. He was in the tenth grade. His school band director, a violinist, gave McLeod lessons for about six months until the director was drafted. When McLeod finished high school, he attended Mississippi State University for a year, then went into the Navy for sixteen months. He returned in the fall of 1946 and soon had a semester of violin lessons from the head of the music department at Mississippi State College for Women, about twenty miles east of Mississippi State University, where he was enrolled. He summarizes that he has “had a few violin lessons, but not enough to hurt [my] fiddling.”