The Multicultural Roots of Bluegrass Fiddling

The history of fiddling in the Southern United States is a story of creolization and musical exchange, primarily between European immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans. Although the fiddle is often associated with rural, white musicians, many diverse American musical styles fed into the canon of bluegrass fiddling, including early dance music, minstrel tunes, ragtime, blues, jazz, and Western swing. These genres were greatly influenced, in particular, by African American musicians, and many of the characteristics of bluegrass fiddling can be linked to this complex musical heritage. It is also important to note the understudied, but highly likely, role of Native American musicians in this cultural exchange in the South. Western North Carolina fiddlers such as Marcus Martin, Manco Sneed, and Osey Helton, shared tunes and repertoire, regardless of race and ethnicity, illustrating the cross-pollination of sounds and styles.

Researchers such as ethnomusicologist Jacqueline Dje Dje, banjo authorities Cecelia Conway and Bob Carlin, dance historian Phil Jamison, musician John Harrod, and the late Alan Jabbour, have explored the connection between Southern old-time fiddle styles and African American roots, although there hasn’t been as much scholarship on how those influences reached bluegrass fiddling. By using both studio and rare live sound recordings from the early 1940s, as well as historical research on American musical styles, I will argue that many of the characteristics found in bluegrass fiddling, such as slides, syncopation, and improvisational solos, were directly related to African American musical styles such as ragtime, blues, and jazz.