Most High Thing: Fiddle Music and the Aesthetics of Recording Technology in Appalachia

My presentation will explore the relationship between the fiddle playing of Buncombe County’s Marcus Martin and the recording technology that was used to document it in 1942. Martin was a well-known fiddler in the Swannanoa Valley during the early- to mid-twentieth century, a period of rapid industrialization in the greater Asheville area; Martin played regularly for Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, and was for a time the hired square dance fiddler at the Beacon Textile Mill. He was recorded several times throughout his life, but the recordings of interest to me for this project were made on two separate occasions in 1942, by Alan Lomax and Artus Moser respectively. To me, some of the more intriguing elements of these recordings have only partly to do with Martin’s personal musicianship. My perception of Martin’s fiddling on these 1942 recordings is inseparable from the sounds that the recording technology imposes on the sound of the fiddle. There are hisses, clicks, textural and tonal shifts, and distortions present in the recordings that aren’t anywhere to be found in most contemporary recordings of fiddle players, or even in later recordings of Martin that were captured using more modern technology. Lomax and Moser likely both used the Library of Congress’ 78rpm lacquer disc cutter to make their 1942 recordings of Martin. I set out to find one of these machines, so that I could experiment with recording some of Martin’s tunes in a way that would engage (and mimic, to an extent) the sounds beyond the fiddling that are present in these old recordings. Last winter, I ended up recording my playing of five tunes directly onto 78rpm discs using a restored machine from the 1930s. My presentation will include a paper about the relationship between traditional music and the aesthetics of recording technology as well as supplemental audio selections from Martin’s 1942 recordings and from my own recordings.