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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Eck Robertson

by Clay Coppedge
While others might think of Texas music as the domain of guitar players, the fiddle is the instrument that has most shaped what we identify as traditional Texas music. The fiddle came to Texas with cowboys and early settlers because it was smaller than a guitar and easier to carry on horseback. The same goes for the harmonica and banjo.

Of the pioneer types who helped establish a standard for Texas fiddle playing, Eck Robertson deserves the most credit. Robertson, who grew up near Amarillo in the late 1800s came from a family of fiddlers, though his father gave up the instrument when he entered the ministry. In certain social and religious societies of the day, the fiddle was considered an instrument of the devil and a talent for playing it could be acquired only through a bargain with the aforementioned Satan.
Contrasting that was a fierce demand for fiddle music, especially in West Texas where it provided one of the few social diversions available so far from civilization. That created a bit of a dilemma for early settlers and especially early fiddlers.

“The fiddler held an unusual position in West Texas society,” Joe Carr and Alan Munde wrote in their book about West Texas music, “Prairie Nights to Neon Lights.” “Fiddle music was prized as one of the few social diversions available. The fiddler however, was often characterized as lazy, hard-drinking, and generally worthless.”
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Eck Robertson made his first fiddle when he was eight years old by stretching the hide of the family cat over a large gourd. He later traded a pig for a genuine Sears and Roebuck fiddle and slipped out of the house at night to play fiddle at local dances because his father didn’t approve of his fiddling around. Eck left home when he was 16 years old and started fiddling full time for traveling medicine shows in Oklahoma.

From what might be considered an inauspicious beginning, Robertson went on to record in 1922 what are generally considered the first ever country music recordings. Robertson and an Oklahoma fiddler named Henry Gilliland decided, for reasons that are unclear, to travel to New York City and see if the Victor Recording Company would let them record a few tunes. The idea of recording music for a rural audience was so radical at the time that we can only guess why the Victor executives let them cut a few tracks, all of which have endured as classics of the genre.
Robertson and Gilliand recorded 10 songs including “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Robertson played “Sallie Gooden” and “Done Gone” along with “Ragtime Annie” and one medley, without accompaniment. His recording of “Sallie Gooden” is generally regarded as the genesis of the modern style of Texas fiddle playing.

“Done Gone” was written by Matt Brown, whose music was never recorded but who was a huge influence on all the early Texas fiddlers. J.B. Cranfil, who knew both Robertson and Brown, related that Brown wrote “Done Gone” on the side of a lonely highway after the only car he saw during an entire afternoon of hitch-hiking not only passed him by but almost ran over him. Who knew that such a lousy afternoon would transform into art and history in just a few years.
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Robertson recorded another set of tunes for Victor in 1928 and later recorded 100 songs for the Sellers Transcription Studios in Dallas, but those recordings have been lost, presumably forever. Robertson kept fiddling after that and worked as a piano tuner and repaired instruments to round out his living for many years but the wider world forgot about him until the folk revival of the 1950s.

He appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he was 78 years old and later showed up on stage at the UCLA Folk Festival in California. There was talk of another Robertson recording but nothing came of it and he drifted back to obscurity in Amarillo. Burglars robbed him of $50, which must have terrified but definitely amazed him. “That’s more money than I’ve ever spent on myself at any one time,” he told a reporter. He moved to a nursing home in Borger and died there in 1975 at the age of 88.

So the next time you hear the song that says “you just can’t play in Texas without a fiddle in the band” take a moment to remember Eck Robertson, who helped make that true.

© Clay Coppedge

"Letters from Central Texas" May 19, 2010 Column

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