Hal Martin Sappington, a consummate gentleman, educator, engineer, and beloved fiddler died in his home in Warrensburg, Missouri, on September 6, 2016. He was 85. Hal leaves a legacy of kindness, courtesy, respect, and talent that reaches far beyond his loving family and innumerable friends to music itself. He played for the love of it, yet built a reputation as a Little Dixie-style fiddler who, through reviews and biographies, is now recorded in Missouri history.
Hal was born January 7, 1931, in Ashland, Missouri. to Ethelyn (Martin) and Elson Sappington. The Sappington name is a well-known one in Missouri, going back to 1826. He was related to Dr. John Sappington, who developed quinine as a cure for malaria, and to John Sappington Marmaduke, the Confederate general and Missouri governor for whom “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe” was reputedly named.
The immediate Sappington family was a musical one on both sides. Hal’s father, his aunt Reland, and his uncle Claude had, when young, played for dances near Guthrie. “In those days,” Hal said, “if you had a fiddle and a guitar, you had a band.” The three played by ear, a skill Hal, too, possessed, and at a remarkable level. Hal’s mother, his maternal grandmother, and his sister Alva read music and played piano. His first instrument was a guitar and he learned to second the variety of music played in his home— both the old-time, traditional fiddle tunes of his uncle Claude, such as “Soldier’s Joy,” “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Rickett’s Hornpipe,” and “Wagoner,” and the popular songs favored by his sister and aunts, like “Someday,” “Whispering,” and “Bouquet of Roses.” By his early teens, Hal had acquired a mandolin and fiddle, turning his natural discipline and musical ability to learning tunes on the fiddle, distinguishing subtle differences in renditions, and developing his own technique. He began fiddling at dances in the mid-1940s, forming a band with his cousins, Bill and Bob Sappington, and a friend, George Phillips.
Hal resisted identifying his playing with a particular style or tradition, insisting always that fiddlers had many styles. He was a modest man, praising other fiddlers, acknowledging sources but rarely indicating his association with prominent fiddlers. He credited everyone. He stated that his major influence, other than his uncle Claude, was Tommy Jackson, a session fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry. Jackson was known for a smooth style, and Hal admired it greatly. He felt he never attained that quality to the degree Jackson had. Hal was, however, associated with a tradition and style. In the very area and era of the Little Dixie style of fiddling, Hal was jamming with two of its prominent fiddlers, Cleo Persinger and Jimmy Gilmore. This was in the 1950s, when Hal’s military service in the Navy was over, and he had returned to Ashland and enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia. From 1952-1957, Hal would drive on Sunday afternoons to Hess’s Cafe, a few miles south of Ashland, and jam for four hours with Persinger and Gilmore, their fiddling backed up by Mrs. Persinger on guitar and Mr. Hess on piano.
Although Hal eschewed contests, he was fond of playing publicly in both small and large venues. He had little time to devote to music in the 1960s and early 1970s. He had married Carol Wilson in 1954, was raising a family, and establishing a professional career. He began teaching at the University of Central Missouri in 1969 and completed a PhD in the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1979. During these years, Hal played with his family when possible, and occasionally jammed. Radio and albums were his main sources for new tunes. In the late 1970s, he began performing again, as fiddler with a regionally popular bluegrass band, Johnson Grass, composed of Herb Best on guitar and vocals, Carol Berkland on bass and vocals, and Mark Hayden on banjo. They began informally in Warrensburg, but in 1978 they became the backup band for Herman Smith at his well-known and well-attended Jamboree Park in Knob Noster. They became Johnson Grass in 1980. Most of the band’s instrumentals were old-time tunes, but Hal enjoyed the bluegrass breaks and acquired a good repertoire of them. At the Missouri State Fair in 1982, Johnson Grass was one of the bands opening for Bill Monroe. The band stopped performing in 1993 and a few years later Hal became the fiddler for Picking Friends, taking the place of Alvin Cooper. That group had begun as a jam in 1960, but by the time Hal had joined, it was a true band. They played parties and special events, and they consistently performed at nursing homes, veterans’ homes, senior centers, and local restaurants. Hal had a special sympathy for shut-ins and felt a responsibility to play for them when possible. The Picking Friends had a busy schedule and were very popular with their audiences and with the community. Due to illness and death, that group no longer performs.
Beginning in the 1990s, Hal occasionally joined a Tuesday-night jam in Columbia, Missouri, held at the home of fiddler Dale Pauley, and regularly attended by fiddlers Bob Caldwell and Bud Wyatt, bassist Kathy Gordon, and guitarist Brad Roby. Other musicians sometimes attended.
There the fiddlers took turns presenting a tune, each appropriately accompanied, while the other fiddlers listened.
In 2002, Hal began participating in a Sunday jam held at the Johnson County Historical Society in Warrensburg. Hal eventually became the center of the jam, not because he wanted to be. He always played in turn. When the Society was called upon to provide music for a dance, for entertainment, or for a historical presentation, Hal accepted the challenge. Hal’s image at such an event is part of a lovely wall mural created by Janet Bonsall in the Warrensburg City Hall. It depicts a historical sweep of Warrensburg features and activities and people. Hal is fiddling. In one of his most moving performances, Hal fiddled seven songs for Civil War in Missouri: We Were Neighbors, a collaboration between UCM’s Lifelong Learning and the Johnson County Historical. Among the songs he played were “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “All Along the Potomac,” and “Lorena.” Hal was accompanied, of course, by fellow musicians, but he was the fiddler and that’s where the power of the songs lay.
All the naming of venues and songs cannot reveal the fiddler Hal was. Kim Lansford, co-editor of The Ozarks Mountaineer (TOM), reviewed a CD of his tunes, and wrote that Hal Sappington is “indeed a product of this very rich fiddling tradition that once thrived in the central region of the state.” (She named the legendary fiddlers of that tradition: Taylor McBaine, Jake Hockemeyer, Tony Gilmore, Jimmy Gilmore, Cleo Persinger, Lyman Enloe.) Lansford was “struck by the smooth fiddling on some of the waltzes,” particularly the “old fashioned ones—‘Starlight Waltz’ and ‘The Last Waltz’,” which she found “appropriately subdued, very smooth and beautiful.” His waltzes, she wrote, “are played much more slowly and with more melodic complexity that the versions played by the Ozark fiddlers.” She remarked on his “lovely version of ‘Red Sunset Waltz,’” a waltz she had not heard. Hal loved the fast tunes and could rip them up, but waltzes were his strength. They were sweet and beautiful.
Dr. Howard Marshall helped bring attention to Hal’s fiddling and to his place in Missouri traditional music. In the Old-Time Herald Vol. 13, No. 3, Marshall reviewed a short biography that included 56 videos of Hal playing, accompanied by Herb Best. Marshall wrote, “All of these tunes are played in Hal Sappington’s admirable, flowing old-time fiddle style that nicely represents both his heritage as a Little Dixie fiddler who grew up in the 1930s and his continuing interest in learning attractive tunes from diverse sources.” He noted that the biography helped “secure [Hal’s] place in the circle of notable Missouri traditional fiddlers.” Marshall also included Hal Sappington in his Play Me Something Quick and Devilish (University of Missouri Press 2012) connecting him to the history of “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe” and to the song’s continuance, both in the family and in the larger community of musicians.
Hal taught respect for the music itself, for different versions, for the particular customs within a jamming group. He repaired instruments, rehaired bows, set bridges. He gave instruments away—to his children and grandchildren of course, but also to other musicians. He was always on the lookout for a fiddle, a mandolin, guitar, banjo. Hal played whenever asked, whenever possible, always modestly, always good. So many events! So much music! He had a dry sense of humor and a quick wit. He could banter, kindly, and come up with memorable one-liners. We never heard him make a pejorative statement about anyone.
Hal was preceded in death by his wife, Carol, in 2007, and is survived by four children and numerous grandchildren. And by countless more, moved by his music, his style, his presence. The first Sunday jam without Hal, September 11, the day after his funeral, someone started the jam with “America the Beautiful.” We played it a number of times and then began the standard round-robin format, choosing Hal’s songs for the first round and then deciding we each had to master “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe”– but not from the sheet music we have. That isn’t Hal’s version. We’ll learn from his recorded version. We sang “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,’” harmonized, accompanied by fiddles, mandolin, guitar, dulcimer. That was his grandmother’s favorite tune. We sang every verse slowly. He was a sweet, sweet guy, a wonderful fiddler, and we miss him already.
A list of some of Hal’s tunes is in Old-Time Fiddling: Hal Sappington, Missouri Fiddler. Others are identified in the reviews mentioned in the above text.
R. M. Kinder