MOUNTAIN GROWN MUSIC • CELEBRATING THE TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN MUSIC OF HAYWOOD COUNTY NORTH CAROLINA

Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina
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A Heritage of Fiddling
By Michael Beadle

The history of the fiddle is a history of fine craftsmanship, folk traditions and some misconceptions.

Contrary to what some may think, the fiddle and the violin are the same instrument, although some music experts may disagree because it plays very different kinds of music. Both are fretless, four-stringed wooden instruments played with a bow. The violinist mainly performs a written, classical repertoire, while the fiddler generally plays folk tunes not usually written down but passed on by “word of ear” from generation to generation, according to Jim Trantham, a Canton, N.C., music historian and ballad singer.

According to some, people tend to think of the violinist as a sophisticated musician, but the great fiddlers often play equally complicated music. The main distinction is in reading music. It’s not certain who invented the violin — probably many craftsmen working on different styles of the same instrument. The first account of a violin dates back to 1556, according to the book, Great Masters of the Violin. Violin makers emerged throughout Europe, the most famous of them being Antonio Stradivari of Italy. Violin experts agree that Stradivari perfected the style of violins crafted from the finest wood and carved with just the right angles, curves and f-holes to create the best sound possible. Violins are generally made of similar materials — soft wood for the top, hard wood for the back, sides, neck and scroll; and ebony for the fingerboard. The wood is chosen like wine — generally aged is better. The tops and backs of the violin are arched slightly to enhance the tone and support the body.

Today’s fiddle strings can be made from steel while bow strings are made of horse hair, said fiddler Mack Snoderly of Clyde, N.C. The fiddle became a popular instrument among common people in Europe with a wide variety of traditional dance music. In some cases, popularity of the fiddle is rooted in political changes. For example, after the English defeated the Scottish in the mid-1600s, the English outlawed bagpipes, so the fiddle naturally became more popular, Trantham said. When Germans, Scots and English settled in Western North Carolina they brought their instruments and traditions of playing with them. Portable and cheaper than some instruments, the fiddle flourished in mountain music. Because the fiddle can create a sound close to the human voice, Trantham calls it one of man’s highest achievements, the ultimately refined instrument.

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