may have fiddled while Rome burned, but Davy Crockett surely had no
time for one last tune when Mexican soldiers made their final assault
on the Alamo. While
Crockett did not survive , his fiddle apparently did.
As Texas observed its centennial
of independence from Mexico in the spring of 1836, an 80-year-old
East Texas man claimed
a vintage violin he owned had once belonged to the Tennessean who
died in the old mission
at San Antonio de Bexar
on the morning of March 6, 1836.
Described as a “Texas rover,” John Houston Thurman of Longview
told his story to a reporter for the old Dallas Journal. The afternoon
newspaper, long since defunct, published the story on March 20, 1936.
the battle, Thurman
began his tale, Mexican troops collected as war trophies many of the
arms and personal possessions of the slain defenders. Among those
items was “the cherished fiddle of David Crockett,” a well-used instrument
he is believed to have used to entertain the Texans during the 13-day
A decade later, U.S. soldiers under Gen. Winfield Scott captured Mexico
City during the Mexican-American War. According to the Dallas
newspaper story, “A soldier in Scott’s command found Crockett’s fiddle
in the wild confusion that attended the general’s victory. Probably
needing funds, he sold it, no doubt for a ‘song.’”
At some point after that Thurman’s father – also a soldier in the
U.S. Army -- purchased the fiddle from a secondhand store in Mexico
City. When he returned to the U.S. in 1848, he had the violin with
Thirteen years later, when the Civil War started the elder Thurman
again signed up to fight, this time for the Confederacy. When he marched
off, he left his fiddle behind. In 1864, while he was still in the
field, someone broke into his house and stole the instrument.
Whether he learned to saw a bow from his father or elsewhere, John
Houston Thurman grew up to become a traveling musician. In need of
some more instruments while on the road in 1892, Thurman found an
old fiddle for sale in Parsons, KS. Thurman said he recognized the
fiddle as the one his dad had owned. Doubtless trying hard to hide
his excitement, he bought the instrument.
how do you know it was your father’s, and before that, David Crockett’s
fiddle, the Dallas newsman must have asked the old man.
Thurman said he’d heard that Crockett had the habit of carving his
name into just about everything he owned. Indeed, carved on one side
of the fiddle’s head was “D. Crockett.” On the other side it said
“…Tenn. 1835, D.C. Texas, 1836.”
Of course, anyone with a pocket knife could have left those marks
on the old fiddle, even its then-owner. How long Thurman continued
to carry a tune – and the old fiddle he claimed to have been Crockett’s
– is not known.
And whether Thurman’s fiddle had really belonged to Crockett remains
to be learned, but by the summer of 1955, San
Antonio’s Witte Museum had in its collection a Crockett fiddle
of apparently undisputed provenance. Possibly the museum got the fiddle
from Thurman or his estate, but more digging needs to be done to say
the Crockett fiddle came to the Witte, later that year, an Alamo City
country western singing named Red River Dave used the old instrument
to record his latest song, “When Davy Crockett Met San Antonio Rose.”
The performer later played the song on his WOAI radio show, “Red River
Dave’s Barn Dance.”
According to a December 1955 newspaper report, Dave recorded the song
at San Antonio’s T.N.T.
Studios “while armed guards stood by to act as custodians.” The article
continued, “The song is based on historical fact – the dance held
in front of the Alamo
prior to the arrival of Gen. Santa Anna’s troops.”
More recently, in 2002 Dean Shostak used the Witte-Crockett fiddle
to record a CD of some of the music Crockett is known to have played.
Six years later, K.R. Wood also used the instrument to record the
album, “Davy Crockett’s Fiddle Plays On: Live at the Alamo.”
© Mike Cox
11, 2011 column
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