CHAPEL HILL — Though there were no mountains to set a proper backdrop for a traditional fiddlers’ convention, common in small towns in the western part of the state, there was no shortage of fiddlers at UNC-Chapel Hill on Saturday.
Musicians, fans, and professors gathered at Wilson Library on campus for a fiddle symposium as part of the Southern Folklife Collection’s Instrument Series. About 75 attendees tapped their feet and bobbed their heads, and beards, to the beat of the folk music as they were guided through a narrated history lesson of the fiddle’s roots.
“The origins of the fiddle are often shrouded in mystery,” said Ray Lucas, a UNC alumnus who works on the Hubble Space Telescope and is also a fiddle player.
Lucas, who grew up north of Hillsborough, was introduced to the instrument like many people are, through a grandparent. He picked it up in the 1970s and has been playing ever since.
Much of the history of the fiddle is based on oral traditions, and there is little evidence for where certain styles of playing originated or who influenced them, Lucas said. But Saturday’s lecturers provided research that helped track the trail and debunk myths of how certain fiddle music came to be.
Mark Wilson, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, researched fiddle music across the country that had been recorded in the early 19th century. While talking with different folk musicians, he was able to find some of the quirks of passing down a tradition.
He said one African-American folk tune called “Rock Candy” became “Rock Andy” over time, and the meaning of it changed at some point to be about “people throwing rocks at a guy named Andy.” Another folk song, “Yellow Barber,” Wilson said, could be about a bird or it could be a corruption of the words, “yellow pauper.”
Many folk musicians learned by ear and did not take lessons. Sometimes, musicians would learn by playing along to radio tunes, and they would have to wait each week until the radio program came on again so they could pick up where they left off.
Another speaker, Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State, explained the Irish connection in the fiddle repertoire. According to Wells, the Irish connection in “backbone tunes” of folk music in the South has been over-emphasized.
“It’s easy to find tunes that are recognizably Scottish in the Southern repertoire,” Wells said. “Irish? Not so much. Most of the songs that are played in America grew up here.”
Jack Devereux, a fiddler and a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, talked about fiddlers specifically in North Carolina. Devereux played three versions of “Polly Put the Kettle On,” each played by a North Carolina fiddler in a span of six years in the 1930s and 1940s.
“These guys were playing in the same part of the country at the same time but each had very different sounds,” said Devereux. “They were playing to satisfy their own artistic inclinations in their own space.”
A native of Western North Carolina near Asheville, Devereux said of his home state, “I think we have one of the most developed and diverse styles of folk music.” But he lamented that there is what he calls a “homogenous sound” among younger players.
To Devereux, the youngest speaker at the symposium, the influence of the Internet and modern technology on folk music has been negative.
“You can go on the Internet and access all the folk you want, but it almost devalues the music,” he said.
He said he sees people now trying to perfect a specific sound of folk that is a very general one, and not being as creative as the old-time players.
Emily Schaad, another speaker, a fiddler who studied Appalachian studies at Appalachian State University, said the Internet has had a positive impact on folk.
“It’s amazing and totally overwhelming,” Schaad said. “Looking up music on YouTube is an incredible resource to have.”
All of the speakers agreed on one fact, though: the need for continuing research to trace the roots of folk.
“The more we can assemble data there will be some source where scholars can start trying to do the painful but very rewarding work of telling us how all this worked and it would tell us a lot about the roots of American music,” Wilson said.