On the Springfield Plain:
The northern Ozarks around Springfield, Missouri, is a haven of fiddling, and this volume of Mark Wilson's North American Traditions series gathers thirty-nine tunes from a dozen fiddlers to make that point. A few of the fiddlers-Fred Stoneking, Dean Johnston, Art Galbraith, Lacey Hartje-are already relatively well-known to fiddle afficianados, but this release on a label as substantial as Rounder makes their music much more accessible. |
Although the compilation covers only a small part of one corner of one state, a surprising range of styles are represented. In this respect, Traditional Fiddle Music of the Ozarks resembles Wilson's earlier projects from Kentucky. The music divides into two broad categories. First, some of the fiddlers represent a body of square dance music firmly rooted in Anglo-American tradition. Dean Johnston's Waldo is one of these. It uses primarily single-note bowing with a steady rhythm and lots of double stops. Others, though, play music from right around Springfield that came out of a period in the late nineteenth century when whites and African Americans were playing together more than they did before or since. The best example here is Whiskers by Lacey Hartje. It uses a chord progression that goes around the circle of fifths, considerable left-hand ornamentation, and a definitely ragged rhythm. As Wilson points out in the booklet, this is one of the areas where ragtime was being formulated around the turn of the century, and several of the tunes here represent a stratum of pre-ragtime folk fiddling. Another striking thing about the selection of tunes is the number of excellent waltzes.
Two final tunes deserve mention. Raymond Thomas plays a remarkable version of Soldier's Joy in the unusual key of E that breathes new life into this warhorse. Steamboat Blues is not a particularly exceptional tune in itself, except that the fiddler, Leonard Smith, has only one arm and holds the bow between his crossed legs to play.
All the technical aspects of this production are superb. The recording is first-rate. Most of the fiddlers play with guitar back-up, although a few have banjo or are solo. One nice feature is the inclusion of several snippets of interview along with the tunes. Best of all, though, is Wilson's thirty-three page booklet which has a long essay on the musicological context of the collection and detailed notes on each track.