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Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule On Old-Time, Ozarks Fiddling

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Credit Ri Butov / Pixabay, Used with permission
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In this premiere of our new radio feature, “Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule,” author and historian Kaitlyn McConnell brings us the past, present and future of old-time, Ozarks fiddling.  You can keep up with McConnell's travels and stories by going to www.OzarksAlive.com.  And listen to the radio feature below.

Listen to the audio feature here.

Old-time fiddle music has reverberated through Ozarks hills and hollows longer than anyone alive today can remember. For generations, these tunes – some passed down for centuries and from faraway lands - have brought communities together. Even today, this style of music still exists in some parts of the Ozarks. But long gone are the days when every village had its own fiddler, leading to a new question:  how long will the old music, traditionally part of small local music parties and square dances, be part of the Ozarks’ future? 

“The Ozarks, I would say, used to be a hub of it, and still, in some ways is. But it’s not nearly as common here as it once was. I want it because it is different and it feels real to me," said David Scrivner, a 38-year-old fiddler who grew up near Mansfield, Missouri. 

He tells of the old tunes, some of which are believed to have come over from Europe centuries ago. He also shares about how they evolved— whether in the Ozarks or elsewhere — and reflected the region where it was being played. This was particularly true with regard to dancing, which was often found in parts of the Ozarks in the past. 

While that traditional square dancing has largely disappeared in this area, the music has been preserved by Scrivner, as well as his teacher, Bob Holt, who was considered to be one of the leading experts on Ozarks fiddling during his lifetime.  

“The hard part was doing the bowing and stringing those notes together in the right way, in the right type of phrasing, so it sounded like it was supposed to,” said Scrivner. 

It’s been more than 15 years since Bob Holt died, and the world has changed. While music parties still continue throughout the region, there are fewer ones that concentrate on old-time fiddle music. An exception is McClurg, Missouri, where Scrivner has long played on Monday nights. 

For many years, people have gathered at the community’s former general store, located in rural Taney County, for a potluck dinner that is followed by music. Fiddles, guitars, banjos and those who play them sit in a circle and play tune after tune. Others may chat with friends, or play cards, or wash dishes, or simply enjoy the music. 

“It just happened, because the culture was just that you got together with people and you played music,” said Scrivner. “And that’s still pretty much what it is.”

Old-time music has seen change in recent months, with gatherings and festivals being cancelled and reimagined due to COVID-19. Even at McClurg, the music parties have moved out to a nearby shed and are held without the potluck dinner, and when weather cooperates. 

Long-term, what does the future look like for this type of music? 

“The question of what the future of old-time fiddle music is, I think, is part of a bigger question of what’s going to happen to our traditions in general,” said Scrivner. “So it’s sort of like the whole traditional Ozarks culture – I don’t know if I want to say it’s going away, but it’s changing, and I think everybody can see that. It’s a question of what are you gaining versus what are you losing, and who’s going to have the time to care?” 

Copyright 2021 KSMU. To see more, visit KSMU.

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Kaitlyn McConnell