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.
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
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.”
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.
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. |
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.
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
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.
"Letters from Central Texas"
May 19, 2010 Column