West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature

The Fiddle

Listen to a fiddle tune.

The folk violin or fiddle became popular in the early days of West Virginia. The fiddle had the advantage of being portable and could be tucked under the arm of the player. Early fiddlers played for their own amusement but were most noted for playing dance music at social gatherings. The fiddle was the only instrument used for dancing before the banjo and guitar became popular.

The first tunes fiddlers played were brought over from Europe. They played reels, such as the Virginia reel. A reel is a dance performed by two or more couples facing each other and performing figure eights. The music of a reel consists of four or eight measures in duple meter, repeated over and over again. Fiddlers also played jigs, lively dances from Ireland and England. Some popular reels and square dances found in West Virginia include "Devil's Dream," "Soldier's Joy," and "Durang's Hornpipe."

Fiddlers soon began composing new tunes or making new arrangements of old tunes. Gradually, words were added. Many of these verses were made up on the spot and sometimes forgotten. Others, called "floating verses," drifted from tune to tune.

Many times it was the men who played the fiddles and passed the tradition down to their sons. Women passed the singing of ballads down to their daughters.

In order to make the instrument sound louder, steel strings were used instead of the usual gut strings. Many of the early fiddlers were self-taught, so their style of playing was different from that of the classically trained violinists. They often held the instrument on their chests instead of under their chins. They sometimes changed the tuning of their strings to fit a particular piece. They often played two strings at once to produce drones.The fiddle is played by drawing a bow across the strings.

Listen to the dance tune "Cindy" and try to do the dance movements.


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West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature is a self-contained teaching unit by Avis Caynor and Reneé Wyatt (1997), reprinted with permission in 2003 in the larger web site AppLit.

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