Howard Marshall passes on the past through traditional Missouri fiddling

Friday, October 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:02 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 11, 2013
Howard Marshall plays "You Are My Sunshine" on the fiddle Thursday at the Columbia Senior Activity Center.

COLUMBIA — Howard Marshall draws the bow across his fiddle, and the wiry sound of an old waltz fills the cafeteria of the Columbia Senior Activity Center on the Business Loop.


What: "Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Documenting and Conserving Missouri's Traditional Fiddle Music" by Howard Marshall

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Annual meeting of the State Historical Society, Reynolds Alumni Center, MU

Details: Marshall will discuss themes in his new book and play some of the music discussed. He will be accompanied by Missouri musicians Kenny Applebee of Mexico and John Williams of Madison.

Eyes look up from plates of turkey and green beans, feet begin to tap along with the melody, and a few brave souls stand and sway.

“I always start dancing when they begin to play,” said Sue Morris, who volunteers at the center every Wednesday. “It’s hard for me to stay sitting down.”

As she punches lunch tickets at a table, Morris bounces in her seat to the music, occasionally resting the hole-punch so she can slap both hands on her knees. She puts down the last ticket and jumps to her feet, clapping and twirling. As the song ends, she leads the applause.

"I won't let them play any day but Wednesday," Morris said with a laugh, "when I'm volunteering here."

Each month, Marshall plays at the senior center during a set billed as “Old-time Fiddling with Howard Marshall and Friends.” Booking regular performances is just one way he indulges his passion for conserving and sharing fiddle music.

His book about traditional Missouri fiddle music, "Play Me Something Quick and Devlish," will be featured Oct. 12 at the State Historical Society’s annual meeting.

An accompanying CD includes 33 different fiddlers on recordings dating back to 1995. During the presentation, Marshall will discuss the research included in the book and fiddle a few tunes.

It is the latest of 40 years of fiddling pieces the respected historian and musician has written, including the books “Now That’s A Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling” and "Play me Something Quick and Devilish," articles on fiddling for The Old Time Herald and Fiddler Magazine, and works on folk architecture and Missouri barns.

“That’s what I’m all about,” Marshall said. “Understanding history and who I am and where I fit and my people fit and where my music fits and my writing fits and where architecture fits. I’m trying to get the mosaic pieced together."

Long history of strings

The fiddle is the colloquial term for the violin, and fiddling is a style of music that depends on oral tradition, improvisation and rhythmic bow strokes. It is a companion to bluegrass and old-time tunes, which evolved primarily as dance music.

Fiddle traditions are often taught by ear rather than by following written sheet music and formal lessons.

There are many styles of fiddling. Marshall fiddles in the central-Missouri style, characterized by melody-driven tunes with less "sawing" on the strings.

While serving as a guest scholar at the National Museum of Scotland in the early 1990s, Marshall played his fiddle in bars and clubs for Scottish miners. There, just as in the United States, he was forced to confront the “devil-went-down-to-Georgia problem” and overcome preconceived notions about fiddling.

Essentially, he said, those unfamiliar with fiddling associated the instrument with hillbilly country, spitting tobacco and moonshine. He  said his audiences were surprised by his fiddling style, which sounds similar to Scottish fiddling.

That similarity is no coincidence. Missouri-style fiddling ultimately originated in the British Isles and is related to Scotch-Irish fiddling. It traveled from the British Isles to the southeastern United States and then to Missouri.

Marshall has dedicated decades to researching this musical migration.

"He's very well respected and knowledgeable way beyond almost anyone in the country," said Phil Williams, owner of Voyager Records & Publications.

A musical childhood in Moberly

Growing up, Marshall admired his grandfather, who was an avid fiddler. He remembers listening to his grandfather — with his grandmother on piano — play "Red Wing," an early-20th-century love song about an Indian maid. But Marshall's grandfather, Wiley Marshall, died before he could teach his grandson to play.

During high school in the 1960s, rock 'n' roll ruled the airwaves, rendering traditional fiddle music obsolete and decidedly "uncool" among Marshall’s generation.It wasn’t until Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary helped commercial folk music gain traction among teenagers that Marshall had an excuse to pick up the fiddle and tune back into a genre of music he’d never stopped loving.

During high school, he taught himself the fiddle, guitar, banjo and ukulele. A self-proclaimed "ear musician," he struggled to play orchestral music. Then, he noticed he had a knack for playing tunes he heard on the radio and in records, like jazz songs by Louis Armstrong.

This directed him away from classical orchestra music toward foot-tapping folk music.

Fiddling and folklore

After graduating from high school, Marshall attended MU, where he immersed himself in the Midwest college experience. Still, he felt like he was wasting time.

“I just had to get the gumption to quit,” he said.

Over Thanksgiving break, he threw his books in a trash bin and enlisted in the Marine Corps. The Vietnam War erupted soon after. Marshall said he learned in the military that you need to pay attention to things you might not otherwise notice.

"Like the stories an old person might tell you, or the building about to be torn down, or the part of the world about to be blitzed.

“All of these things matter. Old farm buildings that are about to fall in, and old fiddle tunes," he said.

When he left the military, he returned to MU, then enrolled in Indiana University, where he earned master's and doctoral degrees in folklore.

Fiddling never stopped

Marshall continued to fiddle, playing in bluegrass bands to earn extra money during graduate school. Playing also provided him with a way to cope with the ugliness he observed during the Vietnam era.

“You can’t play the fiddle and be worried about evil,” he said.

After earning his doctorate and working in conservation, Marshall founded the now-closed Missouri Cultural Heritage Center and Office of Research as an extension of the MU graduate program. Since returning to MU, he has produced the majority of his published works on fiddling and recordings of fiddle music, including a Grammy-nominated documentary.

Phil Williams, owner of Voyager Recordings and Publications in Seattle, has worked with Marshall to release numerous fiddle recordings. Williams describes Marshall both as a foremost expert in his field and as an excellent fiddler. He notes Marshall’s knack for noticing what others overlook.

“He is able to find interesting things and bring them to the foreground,” he said.

Williams also points to Marshall’s ability to round up strangers at a fiddling contest or convention for an impromptu jam session.

“I’m lucky I’ve been able to make a living with this,” Marshall said. “I’m very lucky. Otherwise I’d be a lawyer — a really miserable lawyer, probably.”

Passing it on

For Marshall, fiddling, like other traditional skills, must be passed down from a teacher to a worthy student.

“Somebody has to take the time to teach you fiddling, and I love that process,” he said. “You can buy books, you can get on YouTube, and you can take lessons. But the best way to learn fiddle tunes is through one-on-one contact with people who are masters of that craft.”

Bob Cathey, a fiddler of five years, credits Marshall with helping him learn the instrument quickly. Under Marshall’s tutelage, he has learned traditional songs including “Hooker’s Hornpipe” and “Granny, Will Your Dog Bite?”

“The way he embraces people who are interested in learning is incredible,” Cathey said.

For Marshall, passing music on to Cathey is a form of paying forward the tutelage he received as a young man.

Marshall met Taylor McBaine in 1967 at a fiddlers conference, where McBaine invited him to get out his fiddle and play. Known as a Columbia legend among musicians, McBaine won more than 50 competitions during his 60 years of fiddling, before he died in 1994.

“People may sometimes have beaten Taylor in fiddle contests, but they weren’t the teacher, the mentor, that he was,” Marshall said.

He is determined that anyone with an interest in fiddling has access to his work and other histories of old-time fiddling.

After receiving a Grammy nomination, he ensured the Cultural Heritage Center  placed a copy of his book "Now That's a Good Tune" into hundreds of high school libraries.

What matters to Marshall is creating a record that traditional fiddlers lived and played in order to inspire and educate the next generation of fiddlers.

“I’m still trying to preserve and document and record and photograph,” he said. “I’ll never quit. I need to get the music out there to people.”

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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