What the Reviewers Say

VRCD 344, HOWARD MARSHALL AND JOHN WILLIAMS - FIDDLING MISSOURI

Voyager is the Seattle-based independent headed by Vivian Williams, who is a fine fiddler herself, so it is no surprise that fiddle recordings on this label are consistently excellent. Fiddling Missouri is no exception, featuring vigorous performances of 34 tunes by two fine players from the "Little Dixie" region of Northeast Missouri. There is a wide variety of tunes, including jigs and blues tunes, as well as reels, hornpipes, and waltzes. A lot are familiar pieces, from "Haste to the Wedding" and "Fisher's Hornpipe" to "Red Wing," but many of the versions are different enough to be of interest, and there is an infectious enthusiasm to the proceedings. About half the tunes are less known, including a couple of beauties. Arkansas Red provides top notch accompaniment (mostly guitar) on a record that's bound to please fiddle buffs. (Dirty Linen)

*****

Fiddling Missouri displays the talents of two Missouri fiddlers, Howard Marshall, in his mid-fifties and John Williams, a teenager. Both are solid traditional fiddlers in the Little Dixie style, one of the many styles that make up Missouri fiddling. Howard Marshall is a university professor who has had a life-long love affair with fiddling. John Williams is a teenager who has only been playing a couple of years. The two of them team up with some help from their friends to play nearly three dozen fiddle tunes in various configurations. There are some ingenious accompaniments and some nice twin fiddling and there is solo playing as well. John Williams does a "Carroll County Blues" that eludes any inferred boundaries as he takes sweeping liberties with the melody. It's great, but not the way I remember it. The performances here are solid and traditional, with lots of strong tunes and some dandy arrangements. (Fiddler Magazine)

*****

In nearly an hour's worth of music, "Rusty" Marshall and "Dougie" Williams dole out a snapshot of current fiddling favorites from "Little Dixie" in Northeastern Missouri. Playing each tune rather briefly, they manage to get in 35 numbers, some well known, both inside and outside "Little Dixie," and some lesser-known, but every bit as good as the chestnuts. Howard's extensive notes provide a fine commentary on the region, their mentors, and the environment in which fiddling has survived, nay, flourished, in their community. Most cuts feature their double fiddling, some with seconding, some harmony, a few tracks are solo fiddle (though most have either guitar, melodeon, or banjo backup as well). They conceived of this project as a bit of informal "Kitchen" fiddling, so don't come expecting a "studio perfect" performance - though they maintain a high standard of quality throughout, with some minor aberrations, but none enough to annoy (unless you are a Charlie Walden). It's a pleasant fiddling excursion. (Victory Review)

*****

Imagine this; an old time fiddle CD (cassette) has been nominated for two Grammy Awards. Your first reaction probably would be, "never in a million years." If this dream turned out to be reality, how quickly would you make arrangements to obtain that CD (cassette)? Well, you'd better get your check book out and prepare to send off an order!! This new Voyager release by Howard Marshall and John Williams is the real deal.

Howard's introductory comments in the informative booklet that accompanies this set really sum up the entire project. He says, "As my old chum and fiddling mentor Taylor McBaine (1910-1994) used to say, 'Fiddling - that's my pan of berries!' So it is, and this sampler reflects my lifelong love of fiddle people and the music they make. Here are tunes played in the historic Little Dixie region of northeast Missouri where young Williams and I hail from. Though some can be found in books, all these tunes are essentially kitchen music and circulate in oral tradition, going their awkward path from one fiddler to another."

Howard's last comment will please both tune collectors and musicians; here are a number of obscure tunes ready to add to your collection and repertoire. The Little Dixie region of northeast Missouri has spawned an unprecedented number of excellent fiddlers; among their number we count Pete McMahan, Johnny Bruce, Jake Hockemeyer, Art Galbraith, Cleo Persinger, Taylor McBaine, and Nile Wilson to name just a few. To this prestigious list we must add Howard Marshall and John Williams.

Howard's musical legacy dates back to his grandfather Wiley D. Marshall. Listen to Bonaparte's Retreat and you will hear Howard playing Wiley Marshall's fiddle. I'm sure that he would approve of Howard's performance on that and all the other tunes in this album.

Despite his youth, John Williams (born March 31, 1982) already has an extensive background and enviable fiddling pedigree. His first inspiration came from his maternal grandmother, Charlotte Winfree Utterback. Subsequently he attended the fiddle camps at Bethel, Missouri and received instruction from several master fiddlers. His big breakthrough came when he had a "once in a lifetime chance" to study with Pete McMahan in Missouri's Traditional Arts Apprentice Program. His numerous contest victories indicate that he learned his lessons from Pete McMahan quite well.

It is often said that fiddlers are only as good as their backup musicians. In Arkansas Red, Howard and John have selected one of the best musicians around to provide backup on guitar, banjo, and melodeon.

From my vantage point, it is easy to see why this excellent set has received two grammy nominations. Now, it's up to you to find out for yourselves. You will be musically wealthy if you obtain this new release; you will be missing out on one of the outstanding releases in the past several years if you don't. OUR HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION. (Devil's Box)

*****

This is a fine fiddle album (old time styles mainly). They pay tribute to several old time Missouri fiddlers that have passed down the tunes to this generation of fiddlers. You might notice there is no shortage of tunes on the project (34 in all). Great notes on the tunes and the fiddlers of old. If you are a fiddle fan, don't miss this one. (Disc Collector)

*****

As long as people have played their ancestors' music they have passed songs from one generation to the next. Like Grandmother's cameo or Granddad's pocketknife, songs change hands with the greatest of care.

Howard Marshall, who earns his living as a college professor and art historian, has made the passage of treasured tunes easier with the release of "Fiddling Missouri," a compact disc of 35 traditional north Missouri fiddle tunes.

"I did it in some ways as a documentary," Howard says. "It represents, chronologically, the whole history of fiddling in Missouri. It contains tunes from the 19th century and the late 18th century as well as a few more modern tunes."

More specifically, Howard's album records the music of Little Dixie, a section of central and northern Missouri originally inhabited by the likes of Daniel Boone's descendants and other tobacco farmers from Virginia and Kentucky.

The songs on "Fiddling Missouri" are a bit slower than the mountain music typical of the Ozarks or Appalachia. These tunes, played at house dances throughout the ages, are based on waltzes and jigs and even hornpipes, an all-but-lost form of music and dance from the 17th- and 18th-century British Isles. Other tunes reveal the influence of Canadian fiddling.

Some of the selections on the album - "Soldier's Joy," "Haste to the Wedding," "Bonaparte's Retreat" and others - immortalize classic tunes which have crossed the oceans. Songs like "Middle Grove" or "Carroll County Blues"" reflect local lore. A few, such as "Art Galbraith's Peekaboo Waltz" and "Hal Scott's Special," pay homage to fiddling's past masters.

Howard learned some of these songs first from his grandfather who played Sunday afternoons at the ancestral farm near Moberly. A banjo and guitar player as a child, Howard didn't pick up the fiddle until later in life. By that time, his grandfather had died. He was reintroduced to the old fiddle tunes while sitting outside the circle at jam sessions where the tradition's elders played.

"When you're just beginning to play you sit in the corner and noodle along fairly quietly, hoping not to be heard," says Howard, who is known as Rusty among his friends. "Eventually, the old man or old woman says, 'Rusty, pull your chair up here a little bit closer.' If you get lucky again, if you have some native skill at this thing, you wind up sitting up at the front there with the real musicians."

Something along those lines occurred when Howard asked 17-year-old John "Doogie" Williams to sit in on the album. John, who's been winning fiddle contests since he was barely out of short pants, was already an accomplished fiddler, having studied under fiddling legend Pete McMahan as part of Missouri's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Howard found a kindred spirit in John, someone who reminded him of his own musical beginnings.

"I discovered in John Williams the next generation. He's 17. I'm 55. He's going to be playing "Middle Grove" when I'm dead, I hope," says Howard, who lives on a farm near Millersburg.

For John's part, he's just happy to be a part of the process. "They're giving me a piece of their fiddling, a piece of who they are," John says. "There's something so interesting and neat about the way they play and the different stories behind the fiddle tunes. I'd like to carry on the tradition."

Carrying on the tradition means more than just playing the tunes, though. Although there are few lyrics to the music played on Howard's collection, there is a story to each song. "Fiddle tunes reflect history," says Howard, who chairs the Art History and Archeology Department at the University of Missouri and worked for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution before coming to the university. As an example, he cites "Oak Ridge Stomp," a tune on the album.

"What's that about?" he asks. "It has to do with 19th-century railroad building across north Missouri and gangs of itinerant Irish and Scottish laborers, fiddle playing fools, playing fiddle all night in these camps and local farm boys who'd hang out with them and soak up the tunes.

"There is no school teacher, no book of Missouri history that says anything about the music of itinerant Irish laborers. Nothing," says Howard, who describes each song's origins in the booklet that comes with the CD. "I'm filling in the gaps in the history books with the liner notes."

Howard's liner notes and accompanying photographs of fiddling masters are so informative they've been nominated for a Grammy award. The CD itself has also been nominated, among hundreds of others, for Best Traditional Folk Album. These nominations are actually the second time Howard has been included among music's greats. "Now That's A Good Tune," his 1989 documentary album of traditional fiddle masters, actually made it to the Grammy finals, in the same categories.

But whether the album receives awards or not isn't really the point. What's important is that the CD preserves music so carefully passed through the generations.

"It is a kind of a salute to the graveyard of people who came before me who treasured this music and took the trouble to pass it on to me," he says. "I feel a lovely, sort of thrilling responsibility to keep it going." (Rural Missouri)

*****

Folks in Missouri may be among the most fortunate in the country, especially if they are fans of old-time fiddling. There is quite an active scene there, and it is populated by fiddlers of all ages. Take this recording. Howard Marshall has been involved with fiddling for most of his 50-some years. He has fiddlers in his family and even uses one of his grandfather's fiddles on "Bonaparte's Retreat." Then there is John Williams, his fiddling partner. He was in high school at the time this was recorded. Both of them are strong traditional fiddlers with a Southern bent to their bow.

The 34 tunes cover a good cross section of the Missouri repertory. There are three waltzes, some show pieces and the balance are reels and hornpipes (also played like reels). They play in a two fiddle format, solo fiddle with banjo and guitar, and in some fairly innovative but still wholly traditional configurations. In his liner notes, which are extensive, Howard Marshall calls for more innovation in fiddle band configurations, citing bands from the past as his model. These settings and the interplay of the fiddles adds interest to the project.

This CD will appeal to fans of fiddle music and those with an interest in Missouri fiddling in particular. While this area of endeavor has received a great deal of attention, there is always something new to be found in another player's interpretation. Hailing from the "Little Dixie" region of Missouri, there is a distinct Southern flavor to Marshall and Williams' music. Additionally, there are some less often heard tunes here. (Bluegrass Unlimited)

*****

Finely played old-time fiddle by John Williams & Howard Marshall of Missouri. Backed by solid guitar with many nice tunes. (County Sales Newsletter)

*****

Howard Marshall, a folklorist and art history professor, and John Williams, a high school student, hail from the Little Dixie region of central Missouri, and their fiddling reflects that fact in both style and repertoire. Together they have produced a recording that displays their able playing and pays tribute to some of the great masters of Missouri fiddling, Frank Reed, Pete McMahan, Taylor McBaine, Casey Jones, and Art Galbraith among them. Of the 35 tunes - count'em - on this album, 11 are played on twin fiddles. The rest of the numbers feature either Marshall or Williams by themselves on fiddle. Most of the backup is provided by Michael Breid, a.k.a. "Arkansas Red," who plays guitar, banjo, and on one cut, melodeon. Marshall also plays banjo on a couple of numbers behind Williams' fiddling. It was a pleasant surprise to hear a banjo present as the instrument seems to have been all but written out of the history of modern day Missouri fiddling. A quick review of the tunes reveals the wide range - several hoedowns, waltzes, a couple of hornpipes, a two-step, a jig, and a schottische - that makes up the repertoire of mid-Missouri fiddlers. Mixed in among some commonly-played tunes are numbers rarely played outside the region like Frank Reed's "Middle Grove" and "Evansville Missouri." On some of the twin fiddle pieces, Marshall and Williams demonstrate an older practice where one fiddle plays the melody and the other "seconds," playing a chordal harmony.

Marshall comes from a long line of fiddlers dating back to the 1830s, when his ancestors from Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, settled in Missouri. Williams, whose inspiration to play comes from his fiddling grandmother and great-grandfather, took up the instrument about 10 years ago and has been at it ever since. He had the opportunity to do an apprenticeship with Pete McMahan a couple of years back and it shows in his playing. His playing is especially strong on the hoedowns like "Grey Eagle," while Marshall shines on the waltzes, playing clearly and simply, without a trace of the schmaltz that sometimes characterizes the playing of waltzes in Missouri fiddling contests.

While many of the hoedowns on this album might be considered dance tunes, they aren't played as such here. The overall feeling I get listening to this CD is that of a relaxed, informal jam session. This is a pleasant, laid back album with many unusual tunes in amongst the familiar ones that makes for enjoyable listening. (Old Time Herald)

*****

The last decade of the century has seen the release of a large body of recordings that highlight the history, variety, idiosyncrasies and sheer virtuosity of the fiddle music of the North American continent, and Seattle-based Voyager Records has been among the more active labels in this regard. Fiddling Missouri, their latest release, actually focuses on the particular area of that state known as "Little Dixie," a roughly funnel-shaped region that begins near Kansas City in the west and tapers outward to encompass the bank of the Mississippi from Hannibal in the north to St. Charles in the south. Howard Marshall is a fifty-something native of Randolph County, and an art history professor at the University of Missouri who was introduced to traditional music by his grandparents, particularly his fiddling grandfather, Wiley Marshall. John Williams, born in 1982, hails from neighboring Monroe County, and like Marshall was influenced at an early age by his grandparents. As they both become more and more immersed in the music, they were exposed to the work and teaching of many of the same great Missouri fiddlers, notably Pete McMahan. Backed up on guitar by Michael "Arkansas Red" Breid, Marshall and Williams perform 34 tunes on Fiddling Missouri that serve to highlight not only their own regional music, but a great many things about American fiddle music in general.

There are literally thousands of fiddle tunes that have come out of the British Isles-North American tradition, but as this disc points out, not all the popular tunes are hundreds of years old. For example, "Red Wing" (according to the extensive liner notes) dates from the Tin Pan Alley era, while "Over the Waves" is a long-time American favorite from the Gay Nineties (presumably we have to qualify that as the 1890s now) that Marshall and Williams actually credit to a Mexican composer, Juventino Rosas by name. Another interesting inclusion is "Thunderbolt Hornpipe," a nifty little number whose performance in B-flat echoes its German brass band origin. For fiddlers with a passion to collect and learn more and more tunes that borders on obsession - that would cover about 99% of them - there are several other tunes on Fiddling Missouri that will likely be unfamiliar, but there are plenty of venerable old standbys as well: "Grey Eagle," "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Carroll County Blues," "Soldier's Joy," "Ragtime Annie," and "Hell Among the Yearlings," to name just a few. Even with these old chestnuts, though, Marshall and Williams do a good job of conveying some of the differences in style, mood and phrasing that have characterized the tunes in "Little Dixie." "Bonaparte's Retreat," for example, is often done as an up-tempo piece, but the version done here by Marshall and Williams is stately, almost dirge-like, and far removed from the version that Aaron Copland borrowed for "Rodeo."

Although both Howard Marshall and John Williams are regulars at fiddle contests, their playing on this disc is neither particularly flashy, nor do they wander far away from the basic line of each tune - and this is one of the real strengths of Fiddling Missouri. It's not only a primer in the music that has kept communities together for hundreds of years, it's an invitation to the listener to play along. (Sing Out)

*****

Matthew Guntharp wrote in Learning the Fiddler's Ways that fiddlers' repertories reflect their life histories. Fiddling Missouri shows the richness of Guntharp's observation, as this recording is not simply a sampler of thirty-four tunes from the state. It is also a portrait of the fiddle tunes and life experiences of Howard Marshall and John Williams. Through well-written liner notes, Marshall documents the people with whom he has played, as well as some of the places where he has learned tunes. The reader and listener thus gain a snapshot of the place of the fiddling tradition within the fiddler's life. Marshall recorded the CD to fill in a page of the local fiddlers' family album by presenting a portrait of fiddling in Missouri at the close of the twentieth-century.

He explains that the tunes are all part of the repertoire of fiddlers from the "Little Dixie" region, located in the east-central part of the state. The recording primarily consists of tunes that continue to be commonly played in the area. Marshall writes that the recording captures the mood more of a house party than a performance. This roughness shows up in an occasional rhythmic glitch and a few slight problems with intonation. But the lack of polish is forgivable and well-compensated by powerful and spirited playing as well as by how the musicians occasionally call out key changes, sing jig couplets to a couple of tunes, and chant the call of an imaginary square dance to "Marmaduke's Hornpipe." In a sense, the CD sounds like an ideal version of the music created in an informal song circle. Throughout the entire recording the listener hears strong back-up playing and excellent production values that bring out a terrific blending of instruments.

The CD features a variety of types of tunes including reels, jigs, hornpipes, and waltzes, as well as a schottische and one blues tune. It includes fine versions of old stand-bys such as "Ragtime Annie," "Soldier's Joy," "Red Wing," "Fisher's Hornpipe," and "Over the Waves." I enjoyed listening to Marshall's and Williams's versions of all of these tunes, and it was important for them to include these pieces in their documentation of popular local music. But I found their versions of popular local tunes such as "Hal Scott's Special," "Evansville, Missouri," "Old Dubuque," and "Talk to Dinah7' to be especially pleasing, and the double stops on the last tune reveal a real mastery of the local fiddling tradition.

Marshall is backed by and occasionally backs John Williams, a high school student who lives on his family farm near Madison. Williams began with violin lessons but has picked up fiddle tunes from local musicians, fiddle camps, and an apprenticeship through Missouri's traditional arts program. Upon listening to the recording, it is clear why Williams has won numerous contests and why Marshall included him on the recording. On numerous tracks, Marshall and Williams are also backed by Arkansas Red (a.k.a. Michael Breid) on guitar, banjo, and melodeon.

Fiddling Missouri is an excellent addition to the documentation of oldtime fiddle tunes. It is fortunate that Marshall decided not to simply study and research the tunes but learned to perform the music as well. Fiddling Missouri provides a lasting resource for future players, and Marshall is right when he notes that this recording places himself, Williams, and Arkansas Red back into their own community's fiddling tradition. (Folklore Forum, Gregory Hansen)

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