Liner Notes


VRCD 366 Disks 1 & 2

Pete McMahan was well known nationally, both as a champion Missouri-style fiddler and as a respected judge at major contests. He made his mark on the world of old-time fiddling with a style all his own that firmly echoes the Missouri fiddle tradition. With approval and help from Sarah McMahan, this Voyager project brings Pete's out-of-print Lp records to new audiences of fans and fiddlers. And it offers a tribute to his achievements and influence.

Pete's branch of McMahans came from County Cork, Ireland, to North Carolina in 1734, and members of the family eventually moved across the mountains to central Kentucky. Around 1820, three McMahan brothers came to the north bank of the Missouri River in central Missouri, among the first Scotch-Irish pioneers here. Pete was born November 18, 1918. His parents were Homer and Dorothy Whitlock McMahan and Pete was one of eight children born on the family farm near Bluffton in the hills of southwestern Montgomery County and southeastern Callaway County. Pete's mother and several sisters played the violin, and his mother specialized in the reed organ, playing backup for fiddlers at local dances.

Pete started playing fiddle at age six with legendary dance fiddler Clark Atterberry, learning many tunes in chorded A or D. His first tunes were "Rye Whiskey" and "Ta-ra-ra-boom-teay." Pete remembered "That old man, Clark, could play a fiddle. He had the best ‘Leather Britches' I ever heard". Pete's mother was Clark's favorite accompanist. According to Clark's nephew, Harvie Atterberry of Fulton, "Uncle Clark said he never played with nobody who could keep time like Pete's mother could." Clark Atterberry was a farmer near Readsville in southeastern Callaway County, a mile south of the McMahan farm. To make cash money, from time to time Clark and his brothers hewed oak railroad ties with broad axes, and ran a "tie crew" hauling ties with wagons to the KATY Railroad at Portland, an old town on the Missouri River.

On his deathbed in 1970, Atterberry asked Pete to play, and, after he played, said: "Pete you play just like I do." Pete said "I should. You gave me the inspiration."

As he grew into his teenage years, Pete played guitar for fiddlers and tried his hand at fiddling at countless Saturday night barn dances. He often backed up Herman Boone at dances at a store in Williamsburg, north of the McMahan farm. On occasion, Pete played tenor banjo, which he tuned like a violin (G-D-A-E). He also learned to call square dances, and remembered Jack Drollinger, a nephew of Clark Atterberry, to be the best caller in their area. Pete loved playing for square dancers, despite the rigors for the musicians. "It was something to watch, they jig-danced to every step of it. ... It's hard work to play for a square dance ... one set might last fifteen minutes. You made a dollar or dollar and a half a night, playing from dark till daylight."

At fifteen, while working as a laborer in a stone quarry, Pete won his first contest in St. Charles. The prize was a sack of groceries, typical of contest winnings during the Great Depression. McMahan was a natural musician with a quick mind and enjoyed the company of musicians no matter what their styles. He used to say that he learned something from every fiddler he met.

In 1937 Pete moved to nearby Columbia (a regional hub and college town), and a new world of fiddling opened up to him. He began playing complex hornpipes and reels in F and B-flat under the influence of central Missouri greats like George and Dave Morris, Nolan Boone, Cleo Persinger, Jim Gilmore, Ed Tharp, Doc Hill, Jim Gilpin, Bill Katon, Aaron Oliver, Jones Cuno, and other "B-flat fiddlers." Pete used to say, "George was the best. That old man could play hornpipes running out his ears in B-flat."

Like other fiddlers, Pete also listened to nationally known fiddlers on radio and records. Pete's favorite national fiddlers were Howard (Howdy) Forrester and Georgia Slim (Robert Rutland), both of whom Pete knew and traded tunes with.

In late 1941, at the time of Pearl Harbor, Pete was working at the Sheffield Steel plant in Kansas City. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served throughout the Second World War in the 10th Mountain Division, fighting across North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He used to say he walked the entire length of Italy, south to north, carrying a rifle and pack. He earned several battlefield commendations. One of his intriguing narratives described his unit's taking an Italian village held by the Germans, where some buddies in his platoon found several "old, old fiddles" hidden away in "a castle" (July 1988). Pete saved one of the Italian violins and played it in music shows he and his friends put on for the troops, but it was confiscated by an officer.

At the end of the war, he was in the Alps serving guard duty on the Austrian-Italian border, trying to prevent Nazis from fleeing south. He became close to an impoverished, displaced Italian family and, at the request of the mother, he tried to adopt one of the children, but his request was denied. As he boarded the train to leave the Alps, the child's mother presented Pete with a baked chicken for his trip home -- the family's only laying hen. In November 1945, he was discharged at Camp Carson, Colorado, where he served as a cook while waiting for his papers.

Pete entered and won his first big fiddle contest in Columbia in 1945 while home on leave. He played "Zig Zag Hornpipe" (B-flat) and "Money Musk" with Eileen Thornton on piano and her husband Herb playing plectrum banjo. Fifty years later, Pete remembered hearing Eileen telling a bystander while they were playing, "Damn, he's good, ain't he!"

In the early post-War years, Pete played in a local dance band that carried two guitars, electric bass, piano, and saxophone. Like most local bands, the group didn't have a name; it was just "Pete's band." That honky-tonk dance band experience, playing everything from country songs to swing and big band hits in clubs like the Brite Lights, Jug Head's, and Breezy Hill, increased Pete's ability to play anything in the flat keys.

It is interesting to notice that B-flat and F had become familiar keys for fiddling in central and north Missouri. This was due not only to the deep influence of ragtime, piano music, and Big Bands, but also the importance of immigrant German-speaking music teachers who settled here from the post Civil War era into the early 20th century. Before World War II, piano, five-string and tenor banjo, and cello were familiar fiddle backup in this part of Missouri.

Pete married Sarah Ronimous in 1952, and they had four children, Dennis, Nina, Sue, and Kay. When Pete and Sarah moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where Pete worked as a house carpenter, he nearly stopped playing music in order to concentrate on making a living for his family. He once told me, "You can't make any money playing the fiddle." While living in Phoenix and Williams, Arizona, Pete did find time to make an appearance playing fiddle on a local television show.

Pete and Sarah moved back to Columbia in 1965, and Pete began a long career as a heavy equipment and truck tire repairman. Hearing he was back in Boone County, Pete's old friends Cleo Persinger and Taylor McBaine talked him into taking up the violin again. Pete's job at a tire store proved a blessing. After an all night jam session in Columbia, Kansas City fiddler and fiddle jockey John Journagin traded Pete a French violin made in 1820 for a set of automobile tires (which Pete obtained wholesale) and $12.50 cash. It took Pete several months to pay off the tires. Pete knew Journagin did him a favor, and he played this exceptional violin the rest of his life.

At this point, Pete chose to focus on the contest scene instead of returning to the role of dance fiddler, or the growing bluegrass music landscape. This was while Persinger, with Jake and Lena Hughes, and others such as Steve and Vesta Johnson, were organizing Missouri fiddlers' associations and reviving contests, thanks in part to the emergence of the National Oldtime Fiddler's Association and the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, Idaho (where Persinger, Lena Hughes, and others had competed). Persinger's untimely death in 1969 ended the promising Midwest Fiddlers' Association, but the Johnsons' Missouri Fiddlers and Country Music Association (based in St. Louis) continues to thrive. Always a state where contesting was important, several different Missouri's fiddlers' associations with their own contest rules became influential. Among the early statewide contests were those sponsored by MFA Oil in 1960 and 1961, with regional play-off winners competing in the finals at the Missouri Theater in Columbia.

McMahan, an intense and powerful player, succeeded on the contest platform and went on to compete at the Weiser, Idaho, national contests in the late 1960s and then judged there for several years. Several Missourians had been successful at Weiser in the middle 1960s, and Pete took fourth place in 1968. At Weiser and other contests, Pete met up with major players from distant regions, such as Al Cerny, Vernon Solomon, Dick Barrett, Benny Thomasson, Junior Daugherty, and J.T. Perkins. Pete started getting even more serious about "butting heads" in major fiddle contests.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Pete won major competitions in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, and virtually everywhere a contest was held across Missouri. For many years, Pete was a board member for District 8 of the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Association. The long-running Great Plains Fiddle Championships in Yankton, South Dakota, started in 1972, was conceived by Wilbur and Elizabeth Foss who had driven down to Missouri to consult with Pete and several other Missouri fiddlers and judges.

Sarah accompanied Pete to a number of fiddle contests and festivals. They had a motor home and enjoyed the out-of-state trips to big contests in places like Cotton, Minnesota, Yankton, South Dakota, Weiser, Idaho, and Athens, Alabama. At the annual Tennessee Valley contests in Athens, Alabama (Pete's favorite contests), Sarah served as a judge for the buckdancing contest. An expert judge and good dancer, she had learned to buck dance (also known as "jig dancing" in Missouri) as a child, dancing to the fiddling of her father, Cecil Ronimous, in the Harrisburg and Rucker communities of northern Boone County.

As McMahan became a devotee of contest fiddling, he "dressed up" various tunes for the competition arena. This is an important skill for the contest fiddler and Pete was a master at making familiar tunes stand out under his personal touch. In his later years, Pete told me he played contest tunes like "Tom and Jerry" ("That tune's won me more money than any other tune"), "Grey Eagle," "Flowers from Heaven," and "Bitter Creek" in a style he called "semi-progressive." Pete's settings offer young fiddlers a robust alternative to the widespread repetition of the same group of Texas-style based contest settings of such tunes.

As a working man on wages, with no company retirement plan, the contest circuit became a part-time job for Pete, bringing in "grocery money." A top contest fiddler could earn more at long summer weekends of fiddler's contests than by playing in dance halls and beer joints. And, as he grew older, the rather more sober atmosphere and society of the fiddle contest circuit suited him more than that of the dance hall. By the time he retired from contest fiddling, Pete had amassed over four hundred trophies, pairs of fancy cowboy boots, and countless plaques, ribbons, certificates, and other prizes. He was Missouri State Champion four times.

Sorting out what fiddlers mean by "old-time" is difficult. Like many others, Pete McMahan studied fiddling intently and had well-thought-out ideas and strong opinions. Although clearly an old-time fiddler, Pete was careful to explain that his way of playing contest tunes is "not really old-time" style. At one time Pete went so far as to say he played his version of "Texas style" in major regional contests – as he pointed out, an older Texas / Missouri style and not the Texas-based "national contest style."

On other occasions, Pete said his brand of contest fiddling was "semi-progressive." He thought "progressive" fiddling, his term for the extremes of contest style, depended too much on a lot of extra stuff that didn't belong in the tune, and he called those excessive ornaments, slides, extra notes, etc., "whinkerdinks." Pete's playing reflected both the emerging National Contest style (a.k.a. "Weiser style") and the more regionally-rooted central Missouri style he learned from fiddlers like Ed Tharp, George Morris, and Cleo Persinger, and then perfected in the 1970s.

Among the hallmarks of Pete's style are tasteful, powerful, and perfected double stops in waltzes, and clear, hard-driving, beautifully bowed hoedowns. As teacher and mentor, Pete used to say, "Make every note clean and clear, and practice your bowing. Make your double stops exact." Sarah McMahan says that "Nobody on earth could handle the bow the way Pete did it."

Whatever we may call it, and despite his description of himself as "Just an old hoedown fiddler," Pete McMahan's style is readily identifiable as "Missouri style." He is probably the best known Missouri fiddler of the past fifty years. In his last years, Pete became a master teacher in Missouri's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program (a program of the Missouri Arts Council and University of Missouri-Columbia), and he was able to hand down tunes and techniques to several younger fiddlers. He also taught at summer fiddle camps, such as the annual camp at Bethel, Missouri.

In talking about differences between classically trained violinists and old-time fiddlers, Pete said that, "See, the only reason I know I'm making the right note is by the sound of it. ... A note musician, he knows just exactly where to put his fingers. And just an old hoedown fiddler, when he goes up there, he's looking for it and hopes he hit it! It's just a simple as that."

In 1975 Pete wrote me a letter on the subject of style, saying "The Missouri style of fiddling is quite different from styles over the United States. It is referred to as long bow style. By long bow I mean that the bow is used in long strokes instead of the short choppy strokes. It makes the notes a lot more clear and distinct and the tone smooth and rolling. In fiddling, timing of tunes is very essential. They should be played in a danceable time. If a tune is not played so it can be danced to it isn't played right. That is what the original fiddle was used for here in Missouri. Square dances was about the only dance around here when I was young and a square dance done by some of the older people around Missouri is something worth watching. It is beautiful."

The style of one's accompaniment is a vital ingredient in one's fiddle style and how it is perceived. Skilled and appropriate accompaniment makes a fiddler want to play, and it is essential. Pete played "on the front edge of the note," and this stylistic feature, important in Missouri fiddling's "drive," could cause an inexperienced guitarist to think Pete was rushing the tune; not so.

McMahan was exceptionally picky about his "rhythm" (accompaniment). "I know what I want," Pete used to say. And what he wanted changed in the later 1960s, when he concentrated on the contest scene. In the 1940s, Pete's favorite accompaniment had been piano and tenor banjo. By the 1970s, he preferred guitar and bass, perhaps as a reflection of national contest backup preferences. Boy, times have changed!

What he wanted in a guitarist was accompaniment in which every note and bass run was clear and distinct – a guitar backup style that today generally has been eclipsed in contests in the Midwest and West by jazz and swing-influenced closed chord guitar backup styles. McMahan was himself an excellent backup guitar player. He even had a favorite type of guitar for backup, the Martin D18.

Pete told me "I don't like people playing choke chords with me. I like to hear all the strings ring." We must point out here, for the historical record, that closed chord guitar backup has, for more than fifty years, existed right alongside open chord backup in Missouri. Many old-time fiddlers prefer closed chord guitar accompaniment.

At contests and events in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, from local fish frys to big fiddle contests, fiddle camps, the National Folk Festival (Lowell MA) and the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, McMahan's colleagues included his friends, guitarists Fred Stoneking (Springfield) and Truman Sorenson (North Dakota), banjoist Jack Deck (Marshall), and, later, guitarist Kenny Applebee (Rush Hill), as well as fiddlers Charlie Walden (Evanston IL, formerly of Columbia) and John Griffin (Fulton). Walden and Griffin were among the few fiddlers who Pete enjoyed playing "second fiddle" with, and who were able to play a good deal of Pete's bowing style and accent. In his later years, Kenny Applebee became Pete's loyal and valued guitarist.

Pete's presence on the contest circuit never erased his conviction that fiddling begins and ends with dancing. He used to tell me, "You're not playing the fiddle unless you make people want to dance." What increases the importance of McMahan's fiddling for younger players today is that pulsing connection between a well-oiled old-time square dance and the rarefied air of the contest performance venue.

Pete often spoke of the differences between playing for dances and playing in contests. "Playing for dances will ruin your old-time fiddling." "Playing for dances will wear you down ... you've got to learn to relax a little bit as you go along, or you won't last." "Sometimes they'll get on a square dance and they'll just run you in the weeds." In other words, to play successfully for square dancers who may dance for ten minutes or more without stopping, it is best to pick a fairly simple and straight tune and not try to play your dressed-up contest tunes. One tends to round off complex tunes when scraping away for a long sweaty square dance. Pete commented that such playing had a tendency to take the sharp edges off of your carefully honed contest pieces.

Pete used to say, "They'd dance to ‘Nearer My God to Thee' if you put enough drive in it." What he meant by that is that most dancers really don't care what a fiddler plays as long it's a danceable tune at the right pace for an old-time dance. "Drive – it's the feeling you put behind what you're doing when you play."

For fiddlers like Pete, the proof of the pudding is in the waltzes. A good sweet waltz is, for many old-time fiddlers, harder to provide than a hell-bent-for-leather hoedown. As Sarah McMahan said, "He was my favorite fiddler with his waltzes. I loved those waltzes he played. Make the hair stand up on your head."

Pete McMahan received countless awards and honors and has been the subject of many articles. He was a featured fiddler on the 1989 University of Missouri Cultural Heritage Center project, Now That's A Good Tune: Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling, which was a Finalist for two Grammy Awards. He died February 11, 2000

Pete recorded fifty tunes on four private-label Lp records in the 1970s, contained in this set of two CDs. McMahan recorded a fifth LP, but the master tape was misplaced by the record company. The later 1960s and 1970s was a time of new enthusiasm for fiddling, and many fiddlers produced their own Lp records (and later cassettes), which they sold at local businesses, from furniture stores and western wear shops to gas stations and bargain barns, and from the trunks of their cars.

For years, we've hoped to see Pete's classic albums become available again. It is important for younger generations of fiddle players, and new audiences of fiddlers and fans, to have a chance to know Pete McMahan. His settings of tunes continue to be emulated and they deserve new life in the playing of fiddlers of the future.

The fifty tunes on these albums only hints at the depth and diversity of McMahan's repertoire. Pete played everything from the usual breakdowns and waltzes to foxtrots, blues, various couple dances such as the varsouvienne, jigs, schottisches, rags, polkas, religious songs and hymns, and popular songs from Tin Pan Alley.

It has been something of a puzzle why Pete recorded some tunes on his Lp records at a somewhat slower tempo than when he was playing for a dance or jam session. Maybe he wanted it that way because he knew that fiddlers would be cuing up the records and learning tunes. On the other hand, in the 1970s a somewhat slower pace was being heard at major fiddle contests both for hoedowns and waltzes. Perhaps Pete had this in mind, since in this period Pete was concentrating on contest competition and on developing contest tunes in a modified Missouri style that would be competitive anywhere from Alabama to Idaho. Later in his career in the 1980s and 1990s, he played many of these tunes at a little faster tempo than his Lps.

I'm grateful to my friends and colleagues Phil and Vivian Williams of Voyager Records for their support of this project. Phil and Vivian fondly remember McMahan from his trips to the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho, in the late 1960s and 1970s. When I was out at Weiser in June 2005, I was surprised and delighted to meet people who instantly said, "Hey, you're from Missouri? Did you know Pete McMahan?"

The key to bringing out these CDs is Sarah McMahan's generosity in helping us move the project from dream to reality. Like Pete said back in 1992, "Us old-timers, a lot of the tunes we play, nobody plays them but us, and if we don't teach ‘em to someone they'll be lost." Sarah is justly proud of Pete's influence and success, and she hopes these CDs will inspire future generations of fiddlers and old-time fiddling enthusiasts.

-- Howard W. Marshall, Fulton, Missouri, July 2005

Missouri Fiddlin' MLP 534, 1972. Fred Stoneking (Springfield), guitar

1. Grey Eagle. A big tune in Missouri, McMahan plays it here in its contest setting. "Grey Eagle" was a horse that lost to a horse named "Tennessee Wagner" in a Kentucky race in 1839, and the name was attached to a version of the old Scottish tune "Miller of Drone."

2. Leather Britches. Among the oldest tunes we inherit from the British Isles, where the it is usually called "Lord McDonald's Reel."

3. Waltz of Shannon. The sentimental favorite, played slow with Pete's powerful double stops. McMahan was Irish-American but explained, "I'm Irish, but I'm not an Irish fiddler." Pete said he learned this from a 45-rpm record by Texas Shorty (Jim Chancellor), and he thought Shorty learned it from Canadian fiddler Al Cerny.

4. Sarah's Reel. Pete composed this in honor of his wife Sarah. She proudly recalls that "Pete played it all over town" when they went to the National Contests at Weiser.

5. Tom and Jerry. One of Pete's "money tunes" pulled out when a fiddle contest got hot. Here he plays it rather sedately. Pete liked to wear cowboy boots to contests, and when he got a foot stomping on the stage, the crowd (and the judges) just about hollered out loud. "Tom" and "Jerry" are traditional names for mules in Missouri.

6. Clark's Waltz. Pete learned this old central Missouri waltz from his childhood mentor, Clark Atterberry, and honored his mentor in the title. Some people recall that the older title is "Crews' Waltz" ("Kruse Waltz"?).

7. Katy Hill. "Katy Hill" is a first cousin of the better-known (at least in fiddle contests today) younger lass called "Sally Johnson" (on Pete's third album). It always seemed to me that "Sally" got a scholarship to the Indiana University School of Music, while "Katy" had to stay home and milk cows. Popularized by Nashville radio fiddler, Arthur Smith, before the Second World War.

8. Sally Goodin. The golden oldie presented by McMahan pure and brilliant. Old-timers generally called for this tune when they wanted to inspire an audience or dancers. Pete said Howard County fiddler Claude Stearns had the best interpretation of this tune he ever heard. Old-timers agreed that "Sally Goodin" along with "Leather Britches" were in the top five Missouri fiddle tunes.

9. Cook Waltz. This was composed by Columbia fiddler Charlie Cook, a gifted dance fiddler who died in a late night car crash on a winding country road above the Missouri River in 1960. It is usually called "Charlie Cook's G Waltz."

10. Tennessee Rag. If memory serves me, I recall Pete saying he learned this from the late great Tennessee fiddler, Bob Douglas.

11. Dance Around Molly. Played by the Nashville radio fiddler Tommy Magness in the 1940s.

12. Sweet Bunch of Daisies. An old sentimental song written around 1908 by Anita Owen, and recorded years ago by Clark Kessinger, Chubby Wise, Benny Martin, and Kenny Baker. A great waltz played strong and tender, full of rich, sonorous double stops, and set in B-flat. This is Sarah McMahan's favorite waltz of Pete's.

Missouri Fiddlin' No. 2 MLP 538, ca.1974. Joe Stevens (Montgomery City), guitar

13. Bill Cheatem. This is, in my biased opinion, the best version of this tune ever recorded. Notice the excellence of the clear, straight chords (open chords), and driving guitar playing of Joe Stevens of Montgomery City.

14. Rachel. A superb square dance tune played superbly. This Missouri tune is often played by fiddlers out in the Northwest, many of whose parents and grandparents emigrated from Missouri.

15. Forked Deer. A favorite across Missouri, played in every imaginable style from the Ozarks borderlands to the Iowa line. Pete plays it in the classic central Missouri ("Little Dixie") style. A version appeared in Knauff's 1839 Virginia Reels.

16. Last Waltz. This is contained in Ira Ford's 1940 book, Traditional Music of America (heavy with Missouri references).

17. Lightning Hornpipe. This is one of a connected batch of B-flat hornpipes traditional in the central and north Missouri fiddle tune compost. Pete probably got this setting from Cleo Persinger or Ed Tharp of Columbia. Several Missouri hornpipes in this family seem to have interchangeable parts and titles.

18. Fiddler's Dream. The Arthur Smith chestnut, also recorded by Benny Martin and Tommy Jackson. This was Pete's signature piece for years. On his Lps, Pete played a number of hoedowns long enough for a short square dance, as Jackson did on his popular "square dances without calls" Lps. McMahan admired Jackson's pure and strong approach to a tune, adding nothing that didn't belong there.

19. Gold Rush. This was a big tune among old-time fiddlers as well as among bluegrass bands and its source was Byron Berline, who composed it in league with Bill Monroe when Berline was playing fiddle with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Like several other notable old-time Missouri fiddlers, Pete was comfortable playing good tunes that bridged the growing gap between old-time and bluegrass fiddling.

20. Woodchopper's Breakdown. Sometimes called "Woodchopper's Reel" or "Woodchopper's Hornpipe." It is one of the tunes brought to Missouri from Canada by Cleo Persinger and Cyril Stinnett, who traveled to big contests there in the 1960s. It's rather demanding to "get right," as Pete would say. The magic is in the bowing!

21. Flowers from Heaven. Another B-flat waltz Pete learned from Charlie Cook. Pete called Cook "One of the best waltz fiddlers I ever heard."

22. Reuben's Ridge. Sounds to me like another cousin of those illustrious lassies, Katy Hill and Sally Johnson. McMahan had several tunes he took responsibility for developing. "I've originated some tunes myself." Among these are "Reuben's Ridge," "Sarah's Reel," and several waltzes, including "Grandmother's Waltz."

23. Fiddler's Hoedown. This is a tune of emotional freight, if we will reflect upon history. It commemorates the lynching of a black man accused of raping a young white girl under the old Stewart Road bridge that crossed the KATY Railroad on the edge of the University of Missouri campus in the late 1920s. The girl's father begged for mercy for the accused man, but the mob of citizens did not relent. Pete learned it from Columbia fiddler Otto Griggs. Its real name was "Dead Nigger," but Bob Christeson printed it in one of his tune books under the misleading title, "The Dead Slave."

24. Adrian's Reel. This was recorded by Missouri fiddler and radio star Lonnie Robertson on his 1975 private label Lp called Old Time Fiddle Tunes. Pete may have learned it from Lonnie or from Cyril Stinnett.


Missouri Fiddlin' No. 3 Graphic 1002, 1977. Fred Stoneking, guitar; Jack Deck (Marshall), banjo

1. Echoes of the Ozarks. Sometimes called "Echoes of the Hills," this is usually played in G or D. Pete learned it from Lee Roy Stoneking of Clinton (Fred's father), a fine old-time fiddler often credited with its composition.

2. Sugar in the Gourd. A barn-burner ready to serve the needs of the most finicky square dancer. This is among the ironclad tunes Pete learned as a child at dances, along with tunes like "Soldiers Joy," "Mississippi Sawyer," "Leather Britches," "Tennessee Wagner," "Cowboy Waltz," "Peekaboo Waltz," "Goodnight Waltz," and local pieces such as "Crystal Stream Waltz" and "Stars and Stripes Waltz."

3. Over the Waves. Here Pete takes the great waltz, penned by Otomi Indian composer Juvenito Rosas as "Sobre las Olas" in 1891, and moved it into the key of A. This is one of many examples of composed music making its way deep into the old-time fiddler's repertoire. Pete liked to play his waltzes more slowly than most Missouri fiddlers, perhaps to more fully achieve his wonderful expression and predilection for double stops. Like most fiddlers, Pete did not play the extra three parts of the original published tune.

4. Morris Hornpipe. Pete learned this tune from the radio fiddler from Boone County, George Morris, who led the Blue Goose String Band in a live music show over KFRU AM radio after the Second World War. Morris, who liked to call himself "The Fiddling Sheriff," was far from it. One newspaper article of the day refers to him as the fiddler who hunts all night and fiddles all day. He was a fierce competitor in fiddle contests.

5. Fiddler's Shuffle. This is the central Missouri title for a widespread two-step and country rag that seems connected a swing tune called "Satisfied." It makes a good "tune of choice" in contests where your third tune can't be another hoedown or waltz.

6. Bitter Creek. Another piece made popular by Nashville fiddler Tommy Jackson. Pete learned it from Texas fiddler Vernon Solomon (a fiddler Pete respected) at a jam session in Nashville, Tennessee, in the early 1970s.

7. Martin's Waltz. From "the big tiger," Nashville fiddler Benny Martin, this is a familiar waltz on the Missouri contest circuit. Here again, Pete plays it a bit slower than most fiddlers. Notice the guitarist's straight E chord, as Benny wanted it (rather than an E minor chord).

8. Jack of Diamonds. Another tune quite familiar both in Missouri and Texas, it sounds like a relative of a big Southern tune, "Wake Up Susie". This was one of Columbia fiddler Taylor McBaine's contest pieces.

9. Sally Johnson. We've heard from Katy. Now for "Sally." This is the hoedown played by numerous competitors in blazing style at the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest in Weiser, Idaho in 2005 just as it was the 1970s.

10. "A" Waltz. A central Missouri favorite of former times that Pete learned from Charlie Cook, who had learned it from Huntsville fiddler Buzz Dailey.

11. Kansas City Rag. A big tune in Missouri, the state more responsible than any other for the development of ragtime music from the end of the 19th century into the 1920s. However, there seems to be nothing structurally in this to make it a rag. To Missouri fiddlers, the word "rag" often meant the same thing as "square dance tune."

12. Whiskey Before Breakfast. Another tune fetched down from Canada. It's played all across the continent, in every style, and is a favorite in the contra dance community.

13. Bradley's Hoedown. From south Callaway County fiddler Seth Bradley, who played for years with Ron Lutz and The Rooster Creek Boys over KFAL AM radio in Fulton. This tune has a swinging, ragtime feel, and is set in B-flat. The Rooster Creek Boys can still be heard in Callaway County every Saturday morning at 11.25 a.m. over KFAL, 900 on your AM radio dial.

14. Fiddler's Waltz. I think Pete got this from Howdy Forrester, the superb Grand Ole Opry radio fiddler who played for many years with Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys. Howdy had additional parts in his setting, parts a bit too far into outer space for most of us Little Dixie fiddlers.

Missouri Fiddlin' No. 4 Graphic GR1005, 1979. Charlie Brattin (Wheaton), guitar and Pete Brattin (Wheaton), bass

15. Talk to Dinah. Pete learned this from the Howard County fiddlers Charlie Jackson and Claude Stearns, and Howard County seems to be its home place.

16. 8th of January. This ironclad commemorates the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, when Old Hickory's (Andrew Jackson's) sharpshooters took advantage of the battlefield situation and defeated a large British Army force. Unfortunately, the battle took place after the War officially ended; the ship with the message did not arrive in time. The melody was employed by Arkansas singer Jimmy Driftwood for his 1950s hit ballad, "The Battle of New Orleans" (recorded by Johnny Horton).

17. Salt River. Not to be confused with its bluegrass sibling "Salt Creek." One of the family of tunes including "Paddy on the Turnpike" and "Red-Haired Boy."

18. Missouri Waltz. This a ragtime era song composed by pianist Jelly Settles of New Franklin. An Iowa big band leader named John Valentine Eppel heard the tune played in Missouri, wrote it down, copyrighted it under his own name and in 1915 released it on sheet music as "Hush-a-Bye, Ma Baby; Missouri Waltz." Despite the tune's history, in a moment of weakness the Missouri General Assembly declared this our official State Song. President Harry Truman, that irascible and beloved Missourian, was often nagged into playing it on the piano, but he never liked it. Thankfully nobody sings the words, which were demeaning and desultory about the pre-Civil War slavery days.

19. Pretty Polly. One of the tunes Pete learned to play as a child in the 1930s in "discord" (cross-tuning) in the key of A (A-E-A-C#).

20. Angus Campbell. Likely another tune we borrowed from Canada, this great tune is now a solid title of the Missouri repertory. It was composed by the influential Scottish fiddler and composer, J. Scott Skinner (1842-1927), who called it a "concert reel."

21. Soldier's Joy. Also called "The King's Head" in Britain. This tune goes back as far as 1756, and is an all-time world fiddle favorite.

22. Ragtime Annie. Another global favorite, this was a popular hit on sheet music in 1900. It was among the early commercial 78 rpm fiddle records by Texas legend Eck Robertson in 1922, and a little later Clark Kessinger released an influential version. Most Missouri fiddlers include a third part in G.

23. Virginia Darling. Pete learned this Bill Monroe tune from Lee Roy Stoneking in the 1970s.

24. Capri Waltz. This tune is actually "Cabri Waltz." It was made popular by Washington state fiddler Joe Pancerzewski through one of his Lp records (reissued on CD as Legendary Northwest Fiddler, Voyager 341). Cabri is a town in Saskatchewan, and Joe brought the tune back from there.

25. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Played like a rag in contests today, it was originally a schottische with words, composed by Fred MacEvoy in 1879 and part of the popular stage play "Joshua Whitcomb," about a New Hampshire rube in the big city.

26. Walking in My Sleep. An old song turned into a great fiddle tune.

Cover: Pete McMahan in the green room before a performance at historic Thespian Hall in Boonville in 1994. (Photo by Howard Marshall)
Re-mastered by Phil Williams. Cover design by Vivian Williams. Produced by Howard Marshall. Thanks to Sarah McMahan for her invaluable assistance.

Pete McMahan's fiddling also appeared on two cassettes released by the Missouri State Old-Time Fiddlers Association in the 1990s, as well as on some of Wilbur Foss's sampler cassettes (released for the South Dakota Old-Time Fiddlers Association) of fiddlers who participated in the annual Great Plains Fiddle Championships in Yankton, South Dakota. Mr. Foss included Pete's settings of "Dance Around Molly," "Grey Eagle," "Fiddler's Dream," and "Missouri Waltz," recorded at one the Yankton fiddler's contests, in his CD reissue called, Missouri Old Time Fiddling ("Tape #50"). Bill Shull's Cross-Tuning Your Fiddle (Mel Bay 1994) contains McMahan's rendition of a central Missouri tune, "Black Sally Goodin." Among McMahan's finest recordings are the several rare tunes on the 1989 documentary Lps called "Now That's A Good Tune:" Masters of Traditional Missouri Fiddling (University of Missouri Cultural Heritage Center).
For further reading, see John Griffin, "Pete McMahan," Old-Time Herald (winter 1995-95), and Howard W. Marshall, "Surprise Party for Pete McMahan," National Old-Time Fiddler (Jan. 1997), "Pete McMahan Leaves the Stage," Fiddler Magazine (summer 2000), "Missouri's Pete McMahan Passes Away," National Old-Time Fiddler (May-June 2000), "Marmaduke's Hornpipe: Speculations on the Life and Times of a Historic Missouri Fiddle Tune," Missouri Folklore Society Quarterly (1991-1992).

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