Howard Marshall on Keep It Old-Time: Fiddle Music in Missouri from the 1960s Folk Music Revival to the Present: 'Because without the history behind the music, I'm not that interested.'
Howard Marshall is an author, a fiddler and a writer - and he said for almost 200 years, there’s been a fiddler in his family in mid-Missouri. He’s carrying on the tradition - his latest book is Keep it Old-Time: Fiddle Music from the 1960s Folk Music Revival to the Present.
It completes a trilogy on the history of fiddling and old-time music in mid-Missouri going back to the 1700s.
Howard Marshall will appear this weekend at the Unbound Book festival. He spoke with KBIA’s Noah Zahn. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:
Noah Zahn: I'm curious how you first got started into fiddling because you said that it's been in generations for your family for a while?
Howard Marshall: Yeah, since about 1830 or 40. Here in Missouri. They came from Virginia.
Zahn: That's about as old as the state.
Marshall: Yeah. Well as old as the state. Yeah. And there's just always been an interest in fiddling and violin music at the same time in my family. So we had classical music we'd listen to on Sunday afternoons and maybe Saturday night we listened to somebody play the fiddle at the square dance.
So, you know, you had it kind of lucky in that regard, because the source music, you know what the experts call the 'source music,' were right there really in my own family. I bet many KBIA listeners will recognize something in that book that they say, 'Hey, I didn't know that. My Aunt Maude used to play the piano and she played for fiddlers at country dances in Neosho' or something. People have that reaction to the book. They think it's going to be a book of musical theory or full of notes, but it's really a book about people. And I find that readers kind of get drawn into it.
This is a book about Missouri history, and really about Midwestern history, and really about European American history going back to the 1700s. That's what this book is about. Because without the history behind the music, I'm not that interested. Sometimes the stories about the tunes are more fun than the tunes.
Zahn: How would you describe the themes of this book? You know, when someone reads it, what are the main ideas you want them to take away from it?
Marshall: I'm never satisfied with what I know about how we learn to do things as human beings. So there's a chapter on how we learn and how we don't learn. In this case, music. That's one of the unanswered questions, is it nature or nurture? That's a question I don't think anybody answer that, Noah?
Zahn: No, nobody can answer that.
Marshall: We still talk about it.
Zahn: You sound like a professor.
Marshall: Well, I am a professor, but not of music as is obvious from my books. But I wrote the books, you know, in a way that my mother asked me to many years ago when I was a young scholar and starting to write complicated theoretical hogwash. And she said, 'You know, imagine that somebody like your Uncle Bill, or the preacher, the milkman wants to read your book. Write it so that they can enjoy it. Don't preach to us, don't try to explain nuclear physics to us. Make it so that we can enjoy reading it.' And I've taken that to heart. And so in these books, there's very little scholarly theory.
My goal in these books is not to pack them with big words and theoretical, you know, swamp water, because I want people to read them and enjoy them in the local library. To have it to check out for the kids in the local band or whatever. So that's kind of my approach to writing. I've often told this to people, you know, who have asked me about the book. Let's say you have an uncle or a cousin in Arizona who know knows nothing about Missouri history. This is a book about Missouri history, and really about Midwestern history, and really about European American history going back to the 1700s. That's what this book is about. Because without the history behind the music, I'm not that interested. Sometimes the stories about the tunes are more fun than the tunes.
Marshall: And so that makes it you know, folk music.