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
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
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
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