The Fiddler's Dream : Old-Time, Swing, and Blue-grass Fiddling in Twentieth-Century Missouri.

The Fiddler's Dream : Old-Time, Swing, and Blue-grass Fiddling in Twentieth-Century Missouri.

May 8th 2018

Fiddler's Dream contains a cornucopia of information on Missouri fiddlers and fiddling, roughly from the start of this music's appearance on radio and records in the early twentieth century until the present day.  With this book. and Marshall's earlier volume (Play Me Something quick and Devilish, on old-time fiddling in Missouri prior to 1920), the state is well served with detailed historical biographical, and stylistic accounts of the music and the most popular musical instrument that was at the center of popular dance, and then radio and state entertainment, for more than two centuries. 

It is remarkable how over the decades a network of chiefly amateur players, researchers, and historians painstakingly unearthed the materials that make up this book, which include newspaper accounts, family and oral histories, scrapbooks and photos, radio logs, dance programs, radio and television program memorabilia, advertising posters and flyers, recordings, contest results, and so on.  Sometimes this material was published in ephemeral fan magazines and record liner notes, tune books and instruction booklets, memoirs and other outlets, even websites.  This is not to suggest that Marshall merely sifted over documentation gathered by others; he acknowledges some help, but is clear he has also ferreted out materials himself from some of the same sources, along with conducting a number of interviews with fiddlers, their families, and with other authors.  It is quite a feat that he was able to compile so much of it in a single, or rather double (if one counts his previous publication) book.  Moreover, the University of Missouri Press is to be doubly commended on publishing such a popular, rather than academic, book.  After all, state university presses, like the universities that house them, are mandated to serve the public, not just the professors who increasingly write for each other in a language few outside (and not everyone inside) the academic world have the patience to study.

Everywhere in this volume, Marshall mingles biographical information with stylistic descriptions, twenty-four musical transcriptions, and nuggets of fiddle wisdom distilled from several decades holding a fiddle bow himself.  This is foremost a book that celebrates Missouri fiddlers and fiddling, not just old-time but also the more moderns swing and bluegrass styles of performance. Additionally, the reader will learn a great deal about fiddling in general, for what occurred in Missouri fiddling was in many ways similar to what happened in other states, which each regions nevertheless put its own stamp on style and repertoire within the larger whole. The book's purpose is not broadly comparative; that is, Marshall does not intend to compare in details the differences between Missouri fiddling and that of the Upper South, or New England, or elsewhere, yet his observations are informed by much of this literature as well as personal experience.  Nor, wisely, does he engage in polemic over authenticity and commercialism, amateur versus professional, this style or that, or whether virtuosity has in the long run been good for fiddling because  it elevates the quality of performance, or bad because it tends to homogenize style, standardize repertoire, and endanger or cause the extinction of worthy and interesting departures from the norm. Marshall finds a way to say something good and something interesting about nearly every fiddler, because there is indeed something good and interesting to say about nearly all of them.

As a bonus, bound into the back of the book is a CD with thirty representative Missouri fiddle gems recorded from 1939 to 2015.  I can well imagine a young fiddler asking to listen to it on grandma and grandpa's CD player, and then getting into a lively intergenerational conversation about fiddlers and fiddling.  There is more than enough in this book and companion CD to satisfy the most ardent fan of Missouri fiddling.  Fans and players will be more than pleased with the documentation and sound judgement that Marshall offers throughout.

Book Review by Jeff Todd Titon from Brown University