Not long after meeting Burl Hammons, at Pioneer Days, 1970, I went to his home with Dwight Diller. What I remember about this first visit was my own consternation when Burl asked me, “What kind of music do you want to hear?” I didn’t know that he played anything but old-time music, and I didn’t know what to answer. What he was offering, though, was a choice of fiddle, banjo, guitar, or harmonica music, all of which he played well. All I could say was, “I like them all.” But Burl chose the fiddle for me, and things turned out fine.
He could play those other instruments, but the fiddle was Burl’s specialty. Like so many other fiddlers, including his brother Sherman, he learned to play by “sneaking” his father’s fiddle. Forbidden to touch the instrument, Burl and his younger sister, Dasie, would take it out anyway. They were both too small to hold it alone, but one of them would note it while the other used the bow. When their dad, who would only play the fiddle once in a while, finally did start tuning up one day, Burl asked, “Why don’t you let me see if I can play it?” By this time he could use the bow and note it himself, so he really did play it. His daddy said, “You’ve had it out! I knew somebody’d had it out!” But he didn’t mind him playing it after that.
Although he got started on his dad’s fiddle, Burl did not learn much of his music from him. Two of his Hammons uncles were noted fiddlers, Uncle Pete and Uncle Edden, and Burl played quite a few of Edden’s tunes. Maggie said that Edden had learned from his Uncle Pete, great-uncle to her and Burl, whom she called “Old Uncle Pete.” He moved out to Montana as an adult and lived to be over a hundred years old. Old Uncle Pete, again according to Maggie, was the one who made “Forked Deer.” Probably this means that he added something to the family version of the tune, which is as pretty a version as any I have heard. Anyway, following in his and Edden’s footsteps, Burl represented at least the third generation of notable fiddlers in his family. I said earlier, in speaking of Sherman Hammons, that I thought the family had a remarkable ear—a knack for remaking tunes in beautiful ways—but they also must have had really good models for their tunes. Burl had this family ability and this family heritage. His whole general idea of what the music should sound like was shaped by what he heard from fine musicians close at hand, and the high quality of the versions he heard gave him a head start on superior versions of his own. It seems to me that there is remarkably little “fill” in the tunes he played. The second strain, say, of a two-part tune is usually not just there to keep the first part from getting monotonous; it is fleshed out and has a beauty of its own.