Conserving history

Folklorist and historian Howard Marshall studies Missouri’s past through
architecture and fiddling
Sunday, October 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

When he was a boy, Howard Marshall would sit in Latin class and draw pictures of buildings rather than listen to the lecture. After school, he’d play in his grandfather’s barn in Randolph County and listen to his grandparents play fiddle and piano in the parlor of their farmhouse.

Today, Marshall, a professor emeritus of art history and archaeology at MU, is still more interested in studying the vernacular of Missouri than learning a dead language.

A folklorist and historian, Marshall doesn’t study traditions at his desk — he farms, plays the fiddle and collects stories. His new book, “Barns of Missouri: Storehouses of History,” uses buildings to tell stories about life and culture in Missouri.

For Marshall, studying architecture is a way to learn about the past and the evolution of culture. He studies the historical use of old buildings and how they are reused in contemporary times. Buildings can tell the story of changing economic and cultural forces, he says, and barns offer physical evidence of how our lives are wrapped up in time.

“You can summarize it all through hay technology,” Marshall says.

The mid-19th-century switch from loose hay to square bales parallels the movement from a culture of family farms to bank loans and agribusiness. Barn structures changed to accommodate square bales and machinery. Older barns were adapted to new uses as farming technology changed.

In a sense, Marshall’s book — the result of nearly 40 years of research — isn’t so much a record of buildings as a document about political, economic and familial contexts. Because barns are constructed according to the needs of everyday life and community ideals, their physical form reveals something about people’s lives.

“That’s really the important part of our cultural memory,” Marshall says. “Otherwise, why save a building?”

To produce his book, Marshall traveled around Missouri photographing barns and visiting with barn owners and community members. He researched archives and collected photos. His book focuses mainly on three cultural regions: Little Dixie (which includes Boone County), the French-American Old Mines community in the eastern Ozarks and the Rhineland, where German-speakers settled.

Barn-building traditions were brought to these regions by French, Anglo-American — those with British ancestry who came from Virginia, Kentucky and other upland Southern states — and German immigrants. As a result of these cultural traditions and economic developments, the types of barns found in Missouri include the single-crib, English, double-crib, bank and transverse-crib barn.

“Missouri is old enough to inherit ancient traditions,” Marshall says. “It’s a place where you can see the collision between ancient and modern ways of doing things.”

Missouri also has a history of clashing political forces. Marshall tells a little-known story of slaves who built barns before emancipation. Missouri never recovered from being on the wrong side of the political coin in the Civil War, Marshall says, and this cultural memory has something to do with the state’s strong oral tradition.

A musical tradition

Marshall, also an expert on fiddling traditions, says the history of fiddle music in Missouri is the result of cultures colliding at the “gateway”— the intersection of East and West. In addition to European influences, Missouri fiddling has acquired elements of ragtime music and Cherokee fiddle styles, the latter a result of the Trail of Tears through Missouri. Fiddle music continues to serve a social function in communities, often as an accompaniment to dancing.

“We’re the great funnel, or channel, for all the influences coming across the country from pioneer times to now,” Marshall says. “So we’ve got towns in Missouri where on a Saturday night a whole pile of Germans are doing the schottisch up and down the hall. Across the river, there’s some descendents of Kentucky pioneers, and all they want to do is jig dance. Across the street from that’s a place where fiddle players are playing in a black community, and they’re dancing the two-step or the one-step.”

Marshall plays Little Dixie fiddle style, a hybrid from the same groups that built barns in the Little Dixie region. He was inspired to play fiddle by his grandfather, who played at barn dances. Today, he says, he can play from memory about 250 fiddle tunes — waltzes, schottisches and polkas that date from 1750 to 1950.

Marshall says a fiddle tune is like a building — each has a context. The stories that accompany fiddle tunes are why Marshall prefers to learn from people instead of from printed music. He has learned tunes from mentors such as the late Columbia-area fiddle player Taylor McBaine and plays them at dances, in contests and at jam sessions. He also teaches fiddle.

Marshall has been documenting Missouri’s fiddle history. While at MU, he directed the now-obsolete Missouri Cultural Heritage Center. At the center, in 1989, he produced “ ‘Now That’s a Good Tune:’ Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling,” a documentary consisting of an LP set and 64-page book that was a finalist for two Grammy awards. The book introduces the styles and contexts of Missouri fiddling and details common tunes such as the state fiddle song, “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe.” The documentary also includes biographies of Missouri master fiddlers.

Marshall is working on a book that explores Missouri fiddling in greater detail and includes biographies of fiddlers who have died. He is researching less-talked-about aspects of fiddling, including the impact of recording and mass media on the tradition and the influence of black fiddlers in the region. It’s a project, he says, that will never be completed.

Although the Missouri fiddle tradition unites many styles and cultures, Marshall is quick to note that it is not a melting pot.

“It’s like piecing a quilt together,” Marshall says. “There are all these odd-shaped pieces and colors that have to come together to make something.”

This year in the Missouri Folklore Society Journal, Marshall published an article about “Jenny Lind Polka,” a traditional song that has been played almost exactly the same for 150 years. Marshall is researching similar compositions that are immediately recognized by most listeners, tunes he calls “ironclad” or “evergreen.”

Marshall’s other books include “Folk Architecture in Little Dixie: A Regional Culture in Missouri” and “Vernacular Architecture in Rural and Small Town Missouri.” His latest compact disc is “Fiddle Tunes of the Lewis and Clark Era.” Marshall’s fiddle albums can be found at Voyager Recordings, including his 1999 recording with the young fiddler John Williams, “Fiddling Missouri.”

Marshall approaches history as living heritage, inviting people to document the past through stories and physical records. He views himself as the conduit for keeping cultural memory alive and says he’s simply the person who has taken the time to write it all down.

Marshall sees his work as cultural conservation rather than preservation.

“I don’t like the term preservation,” he says, “because preservation to me says, put it under glass and put a little label on it that says ‘history.’ ”

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