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American Antebellum Fiddling

American Antebellum Fiddling

By Chris Goertzen
Series: American Made Music Series

Hardcover : 9781496827272, 250 pages, 14 b&w illustrations; 272 music sheets; 2 maps; 4 tables, February 2020
Paperback : 9781496827289, 250 pages, 14 b&w illustrations; 272 music sheets; 2 maps; 4 tables, February 2020

The only book solely about antebellum American fiddling


This unique volume is the only book solely about antebellum American fiddling. It includes more than 250 easy-to-read and clearly notated fiddle tunes alongside biographies of fiddlers and careful analysis of their personal tune collections. The reader learns what the tunes of the day were, what the fiddlers’ lives were like, and as much as can be discovered about how fiddling sounded then. Personal histories and tunes’ biographies offer an accessible window on a fascinating period, on decades of growth and change, and on rich cultural history made audible.

In the decades before the Civil War, American fiddling thrived mostly in oral tradition, but some fiddlers also wrote down versions of their tunes. This overlap between oral and written traditions reveals much about the sounds and social contexts of fiddling at that time. In the early 1800s, aspiring young violinists maintained manuscript collections of tunes they intended to learn. These books contained notations of oral-tradition dance tunes—many of them melodies that predated and would survive this era—plus plenty of song melodies and marches. Chris Goertzen takes us into the lives and repertoires of two such young men, Arthur McArthur and Philander Seward. Later, in the 1830s to 1850s, music publications grew in size and shrunk in cost, so fewer musicians kept personal manuscript collections. But a pair of energetic musicians did. Goertzen tells the stories of two remarkable violinist/fiddlers who wrote down many hundreds of tunes and whose notations of those tunes are wonderfully detailed, Charles M. Cobb and William Sidney Mount. Goertzen closes by examining particularly problematic collections. He takes a fresh look at George Knauff’s Virginia Reels and presents and analyzes an amateur musician’s own questionable but valuable transcriptions of his grandfather’s fiddling, which reaches back to antebellum western Virginia.


"American Antebellum Fiddling is an excellent contribution to our understanding of American music. Goertzen provides an outstanding resource for further scholarship that connects fiddling in Arkansas to its Antebellum influences. "

- Gregory Hansen, Arkansas Review 51.1 (April 2020)

"There is a wealth of information within the pages for any scholar wishing to know more about where old-time fiddling in the young US nation received its influences. "

- Matt Merta, Fiddler Magazine

"Overall, the book is meticulously researched and a mass of information. . . . a fascinating insight into the fiddlers, repertoires, instruments, techniques, and environment to help us learn more about this period of American fiddling. "

- Folk Music Journal

"Goertzen has crowned his scholarly achievements with this broad and masterful analysis of the development of American vernacular fiddling in that rather mysterious musical period prior to the Civil War. His cogent insights and clear writing mark American Antebellum Fiddling as a lasting achievement of interest to musicians and scholars alike."

- Andrew Kuntz, Tune History columnist for Fiddler Magazine

"This latest book by Chris Goertzen is your best portal into the roots and early development of American fiddling. His lucid and well-researched history greatly enhances one’s understanding of the abundant tune notations in this beautifully designed book. It will be on my music stand for quite a while."

- Harry Bolick, coauthor of Mississippi Fiddle Tunes and Songs from the 1930s

"There is strong, and growing, interest in the history of American fiddling, not only on the part of scholars, but among players and fans as well. Accurate, well-researched, and well-considered information is difficult to come by. Chris Goertzen likens our current understanding of antebellum American fiddling to ‘a jigsaw puzzle with only a fraction of the pieces available.’ In this book, he fills in more than a few pieces of that puzzle quite admirably, through a combination of meticulous research and impressive insights into matters that are often confusing. This is another valuable addition to the (happily) ever-growing body of fiddle scholarship, a corpus to which Goertzen, perhaps more than any other scholar, has made significant contributions."

- Paul F. Wells, director emeritus, the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

"Chris Goertzen’s American Antebellum Fiddling is at once a small collection of tunes for performance, and also one of the first musicological forays into this strange and frustrating historical soundscape."

- Journal of Folklore Research