Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXVII, no. 1 (Spring 2001)

Reviews of Books



Edited by Petra-Meyer-Frazier, Metropolitan State College of Denver



THE DEVIL'S BOX: MASTERS OF SOUTHERN FIDDLING
By Charles Wolfe. Forward by Mark O'Connor. Nashville: The Country Music Foundation Press & Vanderbilt University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8265-1283-6 (cloth). Pp. xxiv, 232. 18 illustrations, discography, index. $27.95.

In The Devil's Box, Charles Wolfe paints a vivid picture of a golden age of fiddling, spanning from 1925 to 1955 in the southern United States. During this era developments in mass media and transportation introduced musical performers, including fiddlers, to the American poeple by way of records, radio, and sophisticated touring and promotion methods. Many fiddlers who were recorded became "stars" and each of their innovative musical styles inspired and influenced other musicians nationwide. Wolfe chronicles the lives of twelve such "stars," offering evidence of each one's contribution to anemerging national style while at the same time pointing out the contributions of less famous fiddlers. The context of which this golden age of fiddling grew is described in Wolfe's introduction, "The Commercial Fiddling Tradition," and the first chapter, "The Oldest Recorded Fiddling Styles." These opening components synthesize Wolfe's earlier writings (including Tennessee Strings and numerous articles published in The Devil's Box, the quarterly publication that has lent its name to the book) with observations based on more recent archival and ethnographic research. The result is a colorful description of what nineteenth-century fiddling might have sounded like. This in turn sets the stage for a discussion of how nineteenth-century stylistic practices worked against most fiddlers wishing to immortalize their repertoires in commercial recording sessions. Innovation was necessary if a fiddler wanted to attract the attention of the recording enginner and, more importantly, the paying public. Wolfe shows how ithis was accomplished on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps their greatest challenge was the recording industry's insistence that fiddlers innovate musically (for example, by learning show tunes, singing, or playing backup instruments), while maintaining the hillbilly image in their clothing and actions.

Wolfe's careful historic and ethnographic research sheds light on the various ways fiddlers dealt with such frustrations. Especially moving is the photograph of Fiddlin' Arthur Smith with Sam and Kirk McGee taken in the 1930s at a session for which Smith reportedly showed up in his best suit. Smith was furious when the photographers insisted he don old clothes and pose in a pig pen; and though the photo became popular, one can't help but notice the angry look on this star fiddlers face.

The Devil's Box would be beneficial reading for anyone interested in American fiddling. Wolfe effectively conveys the emotions each fiddler must have experienced, giving the book a human dimension to which readers can relate, especially if they are fiddlers themselves.

--Sharon S. Graf
University of Illinois, Springfield






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