few guitar players came to Texas in
the early days of Anglo settlement. Guitars were too big to carry.
Pianos were out of the question. Fiddles, however, didn’t take up
much space, nor did banjos, and those were the instruments – along
with harmonicas, of course – that early settlers brought with them.
The song says you can’t play in Texas
if you don’t have a fiddle in the band but in the very early days
the fiddle often was the band.
Frontier fiddlers knew where all the parties were because they were
the party. But there was a catch. Fiddlers were held in low esteem
by the pious. Christian folk tradition told of the fiddle as the
devil’s instrument and opined that the only way one could learn
to play it was to make a deal with the devil. Whether or not this
tradition applied if the instrument was called a violin we do not
Pat Airhart, originally from Tennessee, was a fiddler in Lee
County in the late 1870s. This was a lawless time in the region.
Ongoing blood feuds and a deadly game of chance involving cattle
rustlers on one side and ranchers on the other were common. Airhart,
whose full name was Daniel Patterson Airhart, was married to his
second of his three wives. His house near the community of Blue
was the scene of many a party, with Airhart providing the entertainment
In that time and place were people whose idea of a good time was
killing other people. Five such ne’er do wells showed up at Airhart’s
house for a party one night with the express purpose of killing
Airhart because, we suppose, they had never killed a fiddler before.
The law, in
the form of vigilantes, was closing in on them. The murder of Horace
Alsup had alerted the boys that their time was coming, too. Alsup,
the father of one of the men and father-in-law to three more, had
provided safe haven for the young outlaws. That was enough to get
him killed. Unspoken but understood was that the rustlers and roughs
he had given refuge to would be next.
In order to leave the people of the area something to remember them
by, they decided to stop by Airhart’s place, raise some hell and
kill the host. They were in the midst of the hell-raising part of
the plan when the festivities were interrupted by a posse that,
like the outlaws, came to the party with killing on their minds.
The vigilantes called out the name of six people they wanted, including
the five who were there to kill Airhart. One of them escaped through
a window. The other four were hustled outside. Airhart was told
to keep fiddling, to fiddle all night until sunrise. The rest of
the people were likewise instructed to keep the party going until
the sun came up.
“Another trip to Giddings,”
one of the boys remarked as they were being taken away, a reference
to the jail where he naively assumed they would be sent.
“We will never
see Giddings,” one
of the others informed him, and he was right.
The next morning, when the fiddling and dancing was done, the four
party crashers were found hanging from a tree near a creek about
a mile from Airhart’s place.
One of the posse members told Airhart how close he had come to being
killed the night before. It made an impression on Airhart. He traded
in his fiddle for a Bible and became a preacher. One source has
him listed as having been a pastor for 22 Baptist churches in the
state and responsible for the construction of nine of them. He lived
to be 77 years old and died in Kleberg
County. He was said to be quite a character. His views on the
fiddle as an instrument of the devil are not known.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
March 1, 2013 Column