My first fiddle tune


I have many interests…er, passions… besides only running. Because running provides inspiration about which I enjoy writing about, I spend most of my personal blogging time writing about it.

A friend once asked me, "why don't you blog about the other things you do?" Quite honestly, if I wrote about all of my other passions as I do about my experiences running.. I'd have no time left to do any of them.

My recent injury and following series of upper respiratory illness allowed me to rediscover some of my other interests, including music. We recently went to a friend's barn dance/jam session where I got to play with a variety of other musicians. It was inspiring.

The music I play is very unique (what a surprise: me being unique, huh?). I play old time folk music of the western frontier from about 1840 through 1920. I play many songs that do not exactly fit this definition but are in the spirit of this genre'.

It is definitely not country-western music nor is it bluegrass. I have nothing against either of those types of music. Indeed, I enjoy listening to them on occasion- they are just not what I play.

My music is the music that would've been played across the American South and West during the time from just before the Civil War through the westward expansion and into the time of the first and second generations of settlement. It includes the music that was sung and played by the cowboys before there was even such a thing as "cowboy" music.

Although I try to be authentic, I play to keep the music alive and that is all. I am not trying to be an accurate living history re-enactor. I have nothing against folks who do living history, who are buckskinners trying to re-live the mountain man days or cowboy action shooters who enjoy playing cowboy- what they do is important and even a lot of fun- but again, it is just not what I do.

So why do I play this little-known and obscure form of traditional music?

That is a hard question to answer. The reasons are personal. This music is as much part of me as it is part of this land. Music can speak not only to one's soul but also to a sense of place. And there is no place that speaks to me more than the wild open spaces of the West. Over the years, I have ridden my horses and pack strings over the mountain ranges and through the deserts; now I run where I used to ride. I have lived and traveled to many places but there is no place like home. It is part of me as much as I am part of the land.  

I enjoy listening to a variety of music styles. However, unlike many other forms of music, the music I play is the kind best listened to while sitting around a campfire with friends and family. It is best accompanied by the crack of the fire  and the wind in the trees and sage. If there are crickets chirping or the bells of the pack string ringing- so much the better… 

Although you'll almost never hear this music on the radio, it is still being played by folks such as myself out here on the prairies and in mountain valleys of the West. We are keeping the spirit and traditions of the past alive, even if we are not trying to re-live history.  As much as we might like to romanticize our past, we live in the year 2009, not 1909.

Some years ago, when I was first exposed to this music, I realized that many of the musicians were older and not going to be around much longer. Often I'd sit around a campfire and wish that so-and-so was around to play and sing a song. I then realized that if such music was going to be played, it would have to be by me.

So I taught myself to sing and play. With time, I learned how to read music and play the guitar. I learned how to sing and yodel. Yodeling is not authentic to the western frontier. It was not introduced into this type of music until the days of cattle droving had been long gone for several decades. Nevertheless, yodeling is what many people think of when they think of "cowboy music."  

I also have been playing the Native American flute for 20+ years and even have a small flute which I play sometimes while running. It's like an I-pod that never needs batteries. Sometimes, it even attracts wildlife such as coyotes. I'm hoping to get a new low D flute in the future from a local flute-maker just down the road.

Maybe Santa (ie my wife Jeanne) will get it for me if I'm good?

I taught myself to play claw-hammer banjo. "Claw hammer" is so named because of the way the hand is held during playing. Also known as "frailing," claw hammer was original style of banjo playing for three hundred years before Earl Scruggs introduced three-finger bluegrass style in the 1940s. It is not as obnoxious as bluegrass (is it ever really possible for a banjo to not be obnoxious?) and allows one to sing along with it.

I got a harmonica and harmonica holder so I can play my guitar or banjo at the same time I play the mouth harp. Playing the harmonica while strumming on another instrument seems easy now but was very hard to learn at first. Much harder than walking and chewing gum at the same time…

During this entire time, I longed to play the fiddle. The songs played on the fiddle can be haunting, beautiful, stirring, mournful, exuberant, and/or joyful. The fiddle is more expressive than any other instrument I know.

Despite the scenes portrayed in movies, most cowboys during the time of the cattle drives and settlers traveling west did not play a guitar. If any instrument were brought along in the wagon, more than likely it would be a fiddle. Cowboys and former Confederate soldiers from the south looking to start over post-Civil war, might bring a banjo. However, until the 1890s and later, the guitar was primarily a parlor instrument. It was much too large and bulky to bring along on the cattle drives or during the overland migration. It wasn't until the 1920-30s that the guitar became a cowboy instrument.  

Last week, my nurse's mom (By the way, I have the best office nurse) lent me her violin to see if I might be interested in acquiring a fiddle of my own.

I've been playing for only a week and of course I'm already hooked!

Long ago, I promised myself that if I ever learned to play the fiddle and I only learned one song it would be "Wild Ripplin' Waters" also known as "The Cowboy and the Lady." The melody itself has been around for a couple of hundred years at least. Only the words have been changed over time from a soldier to a sailor to a rake to a cowboy.

The following video was recorded on the cliff edge right outside our cabin this afternoon. I try to practice outside when I can to avoid irritating my family too much. We live in a rural area in the Black Hills where there are few neighbors. The neighbors we do have, live some distance away from us. Lucky for them! 

My playing is a little scratchy and hesitant. I need to work more on how to bow properly. However, considering I've been playing for only a week and this is my very first fiddle tune, I don't think I'm doing too poorly!   

The words of one version are as follows:

Wild Ripplin' Waters


One mornin', one mornin', one mornin' in May,

I spied a young couple a-comin' my way,

One was a lady and a fair one was she,

And the other a cowboy and a brave one was he.


Oh where are you goin' my pretty fine maid 

Just down by the river, just down by the shade

Just down by the river, just down by the spring

To hear the wild ripplin' water and the meadowlark sing


Oh they had not been gone but an hour or so

'Til the cowboy from his satchel drew a fiddle and bow

He tuned his ol' fiddle all on the high string

And he played her a tune caused the valleys to ring..


"Oh ho," said the cowboy, "I should have been gone,"

"Oh no!" said the pretty maid, "just play one tune more,

For I'd rather hear the fiddle all played on one string

And hear the wild ripplin' waters and the meadowlark sing…"


Music like this is timeless. Although you won't hear it on the radio, it is still very much alive. I'm grateful to be playing one small part in keeping up the tradition.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend


6 responses

  1. Not bad! I look forward to those campfires…

    November 8, 2009 at 8:56 pm

  2. Hey Tom,Got to see Steve Martin play the banjo while in Denver at the Paramount. He had a killer bluegrass band with him and he was VERY outstanding on the banjo. It was way cool. Did you get to play with Maynard at the barn dance? He would be a good resource to help with fiddle playing and I am SURE he knows many of the old-timey songs you like to play.Cheers,Lisa down the hill 🙂

    November 11, 2009 at 10:59 pm

  3. Excellent topic.

    November 13, 2009 at 4:30 pm

  4. I look forward to singin', yodelin', strummin', and now…. fiddlin' too!

    November 14, 2009 at 10:13 am

  5. Thanks! Whenever you come visit, maybe I can play you a few tunes?

    November 14, 2009 at 10:22 am

  6. I heard that Steve Martin is good; sounds like fun!
    I did get to play with Maynard one-on-one a bit before everyone else arrived.
    You need to come up here sometime so we can jam!

    November 14, 2009 at 10:38 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s