Way Down in Alabam: Finding Old-Time Fiddlers and their Tunes

- Cauthen, Joyce
In the early 1980’s Joyce Cauthen began seeking old-time fiddlers in Alabama. She wanted to find fiddlers who had learned to play by ear from their kinfolks and neighbors, those who knew archaic tunes and had not had the opportunity or felt the need to become polished and improvisational as many did after World War II. But this was the 1980’s and such fiddlers were rare.

Osey Kersey, an old-time fiddler in Andalusia, described how it had been in the 1930’s: “There was music every two or three miles. You could start off on Sunday morning and go, and you’d see folks out on the porch playing music. There’d be a couple of guitars and a fiddle a’going. Every community, just about, had a bunch of musicians.”

In the 1980’s finding old-time fiddlers was more than a walk down the road on Sunday. For Cauthen it involved reading published histories of towns and counties in Alabama, flipping through vintage newspapers in archives and libraries across the state, and asking contemporary fiddlers if they knew of any older fiddlers who would fit the bill. When she got a lead she would either take off on her own to find that fiddler or wait until her husband, a fiddler himself, could make the trip with her. Very few lived near Birmingham, or any other large city, for that matter, and the Cauthens spent hours on country roads with baffling twists and turns and few helpful road signs. Whenever they found a “bonafide” old-time fiddler, they were rewarded with good tunes and wonderful stories told by a person who was delighted to share them. If this didn’t happen, the trip itself could be the reward. As anyone who travels much knows, the back roads of Alabama can be beautiful, mysterious, quaint, and quirky, and likely give you the feeling of stepping back in time.

In this talk, Joyce Cauthen will introduce their audiences to fiddlers from across the state, share their stories and describe the communities in which they played. She and Jim will perform a tune they learned from each one, and display a simple Power Point program that shows photos of the fiddlers discussed and their location in the state.

This program is rooted in the disciplines of folklore, musicology, history and geography. It shows the effort that goes into historical research and folklore fieldwork and how it is ultimately satisfying and beneficial to others. It will also introduce audiences to parts of Alabama they’ve likely never heard of.

The talk will end with a Q&A session which will give the audience the opportunity to share their insights and experiences and have their questions answered.

Please discuss presentation needs with the scholar.