Best fiddler in the county

Here’s an observation from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.”

This is something I’ve thought about a lot, and occasionally raised in my own words by pointing out that we no longer have the concept of “best in the county,” whereas not so long ago it was a common way of describing a musician. When we played music around Adair County, older folks would often ask if I knew of Casey Jones, the best fiddler in the county in the 30s and 40s.

Now we might talk about the best fiddler in Nashville, or the country, or of all time, because we can experience those fiddlers through easily obtained recordings. And fiddlers at that level are astonishing.

But we still give up something when we do all our listening in that way, namely the first-hand experience of good playing. For the most part, the fiddling an average person is likely to hear first-hand (by which I mean completely unmediated, even by a sound system) is not very good—because the good fiddlers have left the county in search of national fame.

I’ve been fortunate enough to sit very close to good fiddlers—not world-class, merely good—and the experience is qualitatively different than the one you get from listening to a CD or a performance at a festival, even when that fiddling is the best of the best. That experience used to be a common one, being that the only way to hear music was unmediated by technology, and consequently the player had to be in close proximity to the listener.

Chris and I are doing what we can to bring this back for the folks we encounter. Do yourself a favor and seek out opportunities to hear skilled acoustic musicians up close and personal. They may not be as good as the ones who have earned national or global fame—but they are often good enough to give you a direct experience of music that can’t be obtained by a CD, video, or even a live performance to a large crowd.

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2 thoughts on “Best fiddler in the county

  1. The organist-choir mistress of the local Episcopal church has a program called Masterworks that’s open to the community — singers and instrumentalists from our county who come together twice a year to perform the great works of Church music for free. Every year I thank her for doing this here in this little community instead of over in the city, where she could charge for the performances. It’s good quality music but the most important thing to me is that it’s live and that my own children can participate in it.

    Really, the dynamics of live performances are so different that I think even a mediocre live performance is better than the best recorded music.

  2. Kelly,

    The Episcopal church we’re attending right now is old and has excellent acoustics, a great place to sing. They have a late Tuesday afternoon hour which is mostly silence, broken up by three bits of music. Chris and I have helped out with this several times, and even two voices can fill the room with sound if they know how. And the sound is like nothing you’ll ever hear through a speaker system.

    Really, it’s a shame that more effort isn’t spent on teaching decent singers a few things about how to sing, and then giving them a chance to sing for others. These days folks think if you’re not destined to be a star it isn’t worth putting in the effort. But a reasonable amount of effort could make most people not just better singers, but help them cross the threshold to where their singing would be a wonderful experience for listeners.

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