Blues fiddle

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"Fiddle" [1] is a generic term for bowed, stringed instruments played on the arm or shoulder. Because no bluesmen played violas, the term is synonymous with violin, and blues players referred to their instruments as "fiddle" and "violin". Blues violin comprises a part of the larger repertoire of African American stringband music, first recorded in the 1920s. While unequivocally an African-American creation, with the rising popularity of the blues violinists in the Anglo American dance fiddling traditions and white country fiddlers adopted blues stylistic elements and added blues songs to their repertoire.

Some of the earliest documented blues fiddling is Bessie Smith's recording with Robert Robbins in 1924. Records provide a variety of approaches firmly rooted in stringband traditions. Typically a single fiddle with other instruments (most often a guitar) accompanied a vocalist. In contrast to many Anglo-American rural fiddlers, most blues fiddlers adopted a semi-classical posture, holding the instrument high on the shoulder and gripping the bow at the frog rather than over the hair. Right-hand technique employed heavy on-string bowing, limited string crossings, and bowed tremolo. Left-hand technique emphasized simple fingerings, slides into third and fifth positions, and few or no fingered ornaments such as trills and turns.[2]

Blues violin features most prominently in rural blues, stringband, jug band, and jazz, all of which are represented on Old Hat Records' blues violin compilation, Violin, Sing The Blues For Me, released in 2000, which won Best Historic Blues Album of the year. The liner notes from this compilation have this to say about the nature of the violin generally, and which can be heard in the approach of many of the musicians listed in this article: "The violin is by nature a lead instrument that can replicate vocal expressions through the use of vibrato and sliding notes."[3]


In the 19th c., before the blues existed as a genre, the violin featured prominently in black stringbands.[4] As a result of the social climate in the early 20th century, especially in the rural Southern United States, black fiddlers were largely under-represented in the music industry. The surviving recorded music from this era presents a particularly skewed portrait of the full history of blues violin. Dixon, Goderich, and Rye's discography of pre-1943 blues and gospel recordings identifies sixty eight fiddlers as principal artists and accompanists.[5] As Marshall Wyatt points out, “the violin once held center stage in the rich pageant of vernacular music that evolved in the American South… and the fiddle held sway as the dominant folk instrument of both races until the dawn of the 20th century.” As the practice demands of the fiddle conflicted with the work life of most bluesmen during the Depression, fiddlers found little opportunities for recordings. When the record business began to rebound in the mid 1930s, increasing demand for guitarists and a change in style resulted in even fewer chances for frontline fiddlers to participate in the music industry. Today, African-American music has mostly abandoned the violin to white country fiddlers.[6]

Many blues guitar greats, like Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, made some of their earliest recordings on the violin. And these are among most represented artists that exist in the canon of blues violin. The connection between guitar and violin is often highlighted by these players' respective melodic sensibility. The violin's history, in the context of the overarching blues' history, is reflected by the career trajectories of these two artists. The violin fell out of use among blues players beginning in the 1930s.

Blues Fiddling Characteristics[edit]

A Note on Tuning[edit]

For the majority of blues fiddle recordings, the strings of the violin are tuned a fifth apart, usually to some approximation of standard violin tuning: (from lowest to highest note) G,D,A,E. However, 440 Hz for A was a far less commonly used concert pitch during the height of blues violin recordings. It seems that concert pitch varied from ensemble to ensemble, from one recording session to the next, and quite likely from day to day, or from one climate to the next. Some groups, like Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band and the Mississippi Sheiks, tuned as much as a minor third, or three semi-tones low for various recordings. Only speculative answers exist as to why. This presents an obstacle for the modern aspiring blues violinist attempting to learn this art from recordings alone. Deciphering melodies can be arduous, often involving speculation, guess work, and deduction relying on listening for occasional open strings as tells, or even knowledge of the other instruments included in the recording. A passage that seems nearly impossible to play at pitch with the recording can become instantly playable by retuning all the strings incrementally.

Key Signatures[edit]

Although the keys of C, G, and D appear frequently, blues fiddle, is very often played in keys more commonly associated with jazz, and more often heard on horns: Bb, Eb, Ab, and F.

Playing Position[edit]

Higher position playing is very common.


Blues, jazz, jug band, country dances, rags, stomps, folk songs, hokum, western swing. [7]

List of notable Blues fiddlers[edit]

Blues fiddle discography[edit]


Violin, Sing the Blues for Me African-American Fiddlers 1926-1949 Old Hat CD-1002


Vintage Fiddle Music, 1927-1935 Blues, Jazz, Stomps, Shuffles & Rags OLD HAT CD 1003


  1. ^ a b "Fiddle - Definition". Thefreedictionary. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  2. ^ Komara, Edward (2006). Encyclopedia of the Blues (1st ed.). 270 Madison Avenue, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92699-8. 
  3. ^ Old Hat Records |url= missing title (help). 
  4. ^ Old Hat Records |url= missing title (help). 
  5. ^ Komara, Edward (2006). Encyclopedia of the Blues (1st ed.). 270 Madison Avenue, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92699-8. 
  6. ^ Big Road Blues Show |url= missing title (help). 
  7. ^ Violin Sing the Blues
  8. ^ Allmusic biography

Additional resources[edit]

b Glenn, Eddie.Fiddlin' Folk. Talequah Daily Press, June 25, 2007. Retrieved January 8, 2009.

^ a b c Wright, Leif M. Greatness wears a big beard: World's best rock fiddle player also inspires. OK July 20, 2007. Retrieved January 8, 2009.

^ Tryggestad, Erik and Colberg, Chris. Weekend Look: In town and around. The Oklahoman, November 3, 2006. Retrieved January 8, 2009.

^ a b c An Interview with Randy Crouch. Formerly published on the now defunct Texas Troubadours website. September 5, 2007. Retrieved January 12, 2009.

^ a b Critter, Chris B. The 'green' beginnings of red dirt. The Current, December, 2008, p. 68-9. Retrieved January 9, 2009.

^ Critter, Chris B. The farm that grew the red dirt. The Current, October, 2008, p. 14-5. Retrieved January 9, 2009.

^ Conner, Thomas. Guthrie folk festival "matures". Tulsa World, July 15, 2002. Retrieved January 9, 2009.

^ Woody Guthrie Folk Festival website. Sneak Preview of 2007 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival Entertainers. Retrieved January 8, 2009.

^ Randy Crouch. Retrieved January 12, 2009.

External links[edit]