Voyager Recordings & Publications

Fiddler Histories

On this page can be found, in alphabetical order, additional information about some of the fiddlers in the mp3 list. We encourage anyone with more information about any of the fiddlers to send it to us. We will put on this page information about the fiddler that is too long for the main mp3 access page. The history of a fiddler and the tunes they played we consider important to an understanding of traditional fiddling, where it came from, and how it developed.

Persinger, Cleo - The following information was furnished us by Dr. Howard Marshall of Fulton, Missouri, a major fiddle historian, specializing in the fiddling history of Missouri. He is the author of Now That's a Good Tune, containing the biographies of thirteen Missouri fiddlers, accompanied by recordings of their playing. This is available from Voyager. Here is what Dr. Marshall wrote us about Mr. Persinger:

You asked about Cleo Persinger, the great Little Dixie style fiddler from Boone County who traveled to fiddlers’ contests in the West back in the 1960s (Truth or Consequences NM; Missoula MT; Weiser ID).

There are several places in the manuscript I’m working on -- documenting the history of fiddle and dance in Missouri but with far wider application -- where Cleo Persinger makes an appearance, with photos and tune transcriptions. Here are a few bits pulled from here and there in the manuscript, which I hope will serve your needs.

Among published information on Cleo Persinger are Spencer Galloway, Cleo Persinger, 1909-1971, The Old-Time Herald 4:5 (fall 1994), 25, and Howard Marshall, Going Across the Prairie: A Missouri Fiddle Tune, Missouri Prairie Journal 22:3 (summer 2000), 10-13. Several of Persinger’s tunes were transcribed by John Hartford in The Devil’s Box (John Hartford Tune Transcriptions: Coming Down from Denver on a Trip to Galway Here and There, … The Devil's Box 29:1, spring 1995, 14; John Hartford Tune Transcriptions: Darkie's Curly Hair…, The Devil's Box 29:4, winter 1995, 17-19). Persinger was one of the dominant fiddlers of the 1950s and 1960s and one of the handful that John Hartford visited and tape-recorded. The only known commercial recording of Persinger is one of the LPs produced by the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Association, a sampler from one of his years at that contest; he passed away before the 1970s golden age of Missouri fiddle LPs.

Cleo Persinger (1909-1971) grew up on a farm in the Blackfoot (Black Foot) community of Boone County and became a fine dance and contest fiddler. A master of the flowing, hornpipey Little Dixie style, he learned to play fiddle from his foster father, Edgar Thurston and Dr. William Dow Hatten. His mentors included eminent central Missouri players Daniel Boone Jones, Ed Tharp, and Bill Katon, and his peers in Boone County and environs included Aaron Oliver, Tony Gilmore, George Morris, Charlie Jackson, Luther Caldwell, Junior Perkins, Gene and Henry Wells, Taylor McBaine, and Pete McMahan, among others. Older fiddlers still remember his special versions of well-known contest pieces as well as obscure local tunes.
In 1947, The Kansas City Star reporter Harold Hopkins wrote an article about Persinger and his encounter with classical violin virtuoso Albert Spalding. I think it is worth quoting at length.

He Has Fiddled His Way to Eighty-Four Prizes by Harold C. Hopkins:

“Leather Britches” and “The Devil's Dream” Are Among Favorite Tunes of Cleo Persinger, a Boone County Farmer by Day and Dance Musician at Night.

Columbia, Mo., Nov. 13 -- The crowd of several thousand in the large auditorium became quiet. At the edge of the footlights on the front row, looking strangely out of place in a throng dressed in evening clothes, sat a man of 38 in a plain blue suit. He gripped the edge of his seat tightly as the soft strains of a violin began to pour out over the heads of the poised, expectant audience.

As the silvery notes increased in tempo, the man became more tense. Then as he slowly relaxed, a smile played about his face. It was a smile that said more than words -- a smile that bespoke utter satisfaction. He had realized his dreams at last. He had heard the great violinist play.

Three weeks before, when he had heard that the artist was to appear, he had put in a request for a front row seat. The tickets had not been ready, and, being a farmer, he had returned home several miles without them. But today he had arrived early, leaving his ailing wife at home, and he had been lucky enough to get a seat right in front of the stage.

Recognition From the Master.

When the last notes of the concert died away, he impulsively, hurriedly, rushed to the back of the stage. Buffeted back and forth by autograph fans, he was about to turn away when the violinist saw him and beckoned with a broad smile. The artist was Albert Spalding. The farmer was Cleo Persinger of near Columbia, in Boone County, Missouri. Shyly shaking hands with Spalding, Mr. Persinger, tall, and prematurely gray, said that he had confession to make.

"Go right ahead," said the smiling Mr. Spalding.

"At last I've heard the two greatest violinists play," said the farmer.

"And who was the other?" asked Spalding.

"You and Fritz Kreisler.”

As Spalding laughed, the farmer's eyes fastened intently on the violin case, his fingers twitching almost unnoticeably.

"It's a Guarnerius. Would you like to look at it?" said Spalding, taking the violin out with careful hands. The rare instrument with its fine old wood shimmered in the dim light of the backstage. He proffered it to the farmer, who took it with equally careful hands. At a nod from the master violinist he ran a tentative bow over the strings. Then he returned it quickly, as if he were afraid of harming its finish.

"I'm a violinist of sorts, myself," he said with a quiet dignity. "My father paid $2.50 for my violin more than fifty years ago."

Mr. Persinger stands high among a group of men who have refused to vanish from the American scene, the old-time fiddlers. In eighty-seven fiddlers' contests throughout Missouri, he has won eighty-four prizes, fifty-four of them first prizes. Some of the contests have had as many as seventy-two contestants.

He began fiddling at 15, and at 19 entered his first contest. The first contest was one of the three in which he has won no prize. In his second contest, he won sixth, and first place in his third.
Like most country fiddlers, Mr. Persinger cannot read music, but learns his tunes by listening to others and to the radio and phonograph. He recalls his only music lessons, given to him when he was 18, by an old itinerant music teacher.

"During those days I chewed tobacco," recalls, "and when the old man saw my jaw wagging and moving the fiddle with it, he threw up his hands."

"I can never teach you country fiddlers anything because you are always chewing tobacco," muttered the old fellow in disgust. That ended the music lessons.

Long Line of Fiddlers.

He need not have worried. Persinger is from a fiddling family. Both his father and his great-grandfather were fiddlers, and his great-great-grandfather once played the violin at concerts. Persinger will never forget one fiddle contest. That was in August, 1936, during the drought, when his entire crop was ruined by the scorching sun.

"Things were going pretty tough for me then," he recalls. "I heard about a fiddlers' contest to be held at Mexico, Mo. I had to borrow a dollar from my mother to pay for my own and my wife's admission to the gate. There were twenty-two fiddlers playing. The first prize was $25, and there was a special prize of $10 for the best rendition of "Arkansas Traveler." I had read somewhere that the famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler, read a newspaper before his performances to quieten his nerves. I picked up a newspaper, my wife and I put it between us, and we read right up to the time my name was called. Then I went out and played for all I was worth."

Mr. Persinger carried off both prizes for a total of $35 -- big money in those days. The winnings carried him and his family through to Christmas, and for a year after that, he won first prize in every contest in which he participated.

He remembers another contest, in Lupus, Mo., in which he was not so lucky. Just before the event his friend, Forrest Parker, of Syracuse, Mo., said he had forgotten to bring his fiddle, and asked if he might borrow Persinger's.

"That was in December, 1934," Persinger recalls. "Well, Parker borrowed my fiddle and won first prize. I got second that time."

Besides playing in contests, Mr. Persinger plays for three to five country square dances a week during the winter months. Sometimes the dances last all night. He remembers once, in the winter of 1928, when he traveled ten miles by horseback to play at a dance. When he got there, he found he was the only fiddler present, and had to play along from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.

In addition to Mr. Persinger, Boone County boasts a one-armed fiddler, a deaf fiddler, a fiddling deputy sheriff, and a fiddling violin maker. Every year, as far back as anyone can remember, there have been county contests, and anyone who pretends to be Boone Countian puts off everything else when these home-grown champions get audiences rocking with tunes that never saw a music sheet.

Perhaps they brought their talent over from Virginia or Kentucky, where most of their forbearers came from, but they will put their ability to fiddle right alongside their champion horse and sire, Stonewall King, or their famous Boone County country ham.

The county-wide fiddling contest, which was held this year in Columbia, was a long-awaited event. Entry was restricted to players of 50 or more, so Mr. Persinger was too young to be eligible. Some of the contestants were so old they had to be helped to the stage. John Ravenscraft, 78, was deaf, and had to play by "feel," and deputy sheriff Frank Steckdaub put down his gun and badge long enough to play "Mississippi Sawyer." Granville Watson, Columbia, was acclaimed champion after playing "Wildcat," and "Old Kansas City Rag."

When the fair was held in September, it was decided to hold another contest. Mr. Persinger declined to enter, preferring to give others a chance at the honor. Nolan Boone, of Mexico, Mo. won first prize with a fast number called "Comin' Down from Denver."

Rivaling the proverbial "one-armed paperhanger," is Luther Caldwell, Columbia, whose son, Bobby Joe, 15, "bows" the fiddle for him. Mr. Caldwell's right arm was amputated after an accident eight years ago, and after trying various methods, he hit upon the scheme of "fingering" the fiddle while Bobby Joe, then 7, "bowed" it. Now the Caldwell household, neighboring dances, and fiddling contests resound with both plaintive and gay tunes, with the father and son combination seldom missing a note.

J.C. Ashlock, Columbia, is one of the few violin-makers still making instruments by hand. He has enough orders from all over the United States to keep him busy two years.
As top fiddler of Boone County, Mr. Persinger names three tunes as his favorites – "'Leather Britches,' 'Sally Goodin,' and 'The Devil's Dream'."

(Harold C. Hopkins, He Has Fiddled His Way to Eighty-Four Prizes (Kansas City Star November 16, 1947, 14E)

Persinger also met Fritz Kreisler, and he declared Spalding and Kreisler “good old boys.” In June 1964, Cleo and his wife, Liddian (Lillian), along with several other Missouri fiddlers, drove 1700 miles west to the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho, a prestigious event that draws hundreds of fiddlers from across the U.S. and Canada. During this period of time, Persinger helped form one of the first Missouri fiddlers associations and was performing over local radio stations as well as KOMU-TV in Columbia as well as fiddling for dances in the area. The caravan’s first stop was a national contest in Missoula, Montana (documented by Phil and Vivian Williams), and the next week they landed in Weiser. Cleo won first place at Weiser in 1964, and returned the following year to defend his title; he lost first place to a young fiddler from Kansas named Byron Berline.

After Persinger's death in 1971, the Boone County Fair fiddlers’ contest initiated a traveling trophy ("loving cup") in his memory. The trophy was awarded to each year's champion and then passed on the winner the following year. The names engraved on the Cleo Persinger Challenge Trophy, sponsored by the Sunrise Optimist Club, are: 1971, Taylor McBaine; 1972, Taylor McBaine; 1973, Gene Wells; 1974; Pete McMahan; 1975, Pete McMahan. The trophy was retired after the 1975 contest.

I remember Persinger from the late 1960s contests held each March in Boonville. A striking presence on stage, Cleo had great charisma. He was tall and handsome, and his wife Liddian was his favorite and very hardworking guitar accompanist. Persinger always wore a white dress shirt, and he was very tough to beat in a fiddling contest. A neighbor, Bob Peacher, remembered: "He'd walk out like a young stallion and draw the bow across his fiddle and some of them would just wilt then and there. The ones that didn't, he'd have to try to out-fiddle, and he usually did." (Galloway, "Cleo Persinger")

As Spencer Galloway writes, Persinger's repertory “consisted mainly of hoedowns and waltzes common to the region. Like most of the better Central Missouri fiddlers, he played with confidence in the difficult ‘flat’ keys of F and B-flat.” Typical of the top fiddle players in our state, Persinger not only played complex hornpipes in F and B-flat, but played a number of tunes he brought back from his forays to major fiddlers contests in Canada and Idaho. Persinger played many unusual tunes.

In one instance in the book I’m working on, in pondering some of the mysteries and nuances of tune titles, I mention Cleo's version of the big central Missouri hornpipe-cum-breakdown, "Coming Down from Denver," that Persinger often played in contests, including his appearances at Weiser, Idaho, in the 1960s. Somewhat inexplicably, when he announced the tune, he gave it a title that included two alternate titles for this old melody -- "Coming Down from Denver on a Trip to Galway Here and There." Persinger knew the alternate title "Here and There" from the Nashville session fiddler Tommy Jackson's outstanding commercial recording that made the rounds in the 1950s. Where "Trip to Galway" enters the picture, I do not know. John Hartford learned Persinger's version of "Coming Down from Denver," a staple among contest fiddlers, at a Columbia jam session in 1961 and published it in a Devil's Box article some thirty years later.

… titles of fiddle tunes are sometimes lost or muddled by the wear and tear of time. A tune in Boone County is known as "Fiddler's Hoedown," "Black Foot Rag," and "Boone County Rag." Persinger, Pete McMahan, and Taylor McBaine remembered an older, and thankfully replaced title, "Dead Nigger." Not a comfortable subject to write about, the tune marks the lynching of an African American man in Columbia on April 29, 1923. James T. Scott was accused of attacking and attempting to rape Regina Almstedt, the white teenage daughter of University of Missouri professor B.H. Almstedt. A mob stormed the Boone County Jail and took Scott to the scene of the alleged crime several blocks away, along the KATY Railroad tracks and near the wooden Stewart Road bridge that carried traffic over the KATY railroad tracks and adjacent Providence Road. Professor Almstedt pleaded with the mob to stop, but to no avail.

When Persinger played the fiddle tune at the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, Idaho, in June 1964, he used the innocuous boilerplate titles "Fiddler's Hoedown" and “Boone County Rag.” A few years later, Columbia's Pete McMahan was using the title "Black Foot Rag" as well as "Fiddler's Hoedown" and the only known commercial recording of the tune from the era is McMahan’s "Fiddler's Hoedown" (reissued on Pete McMahan, 50 Old-Time Fiddle Gems, Voyager CD 366). R.P. Christeson decided to publish the tune commemorating the stain on Columbia’s history under the title, "The Dead Slave," in his second volume of transcriptions (The Old-Time Fiddlers Repertory, 1984, #101, p. 64; Christeson’s annotation reads, “An old tune from Boone County, Missouri, which some fiddlers once called ‘The Dead Nigger.' Located and provided by Charley Walden.”)

It should be added that “Black Foot” is a traditional name for the rural community of western Boone County where Cleo Persinger grew up, and is not connected to African American history there. Persinger and others from this area also played a waltz called “Black Foot Waltz.” (The only known commercial recording of “Black Foot Waltz” is by Leroy Canaday on Old Dan Tucker Was a Fine Old Man, Voyager Records CD 353). The name comes from oral tradition, which has it that the community hosted dances outside in the summer. Many of the dancers danced barefoot. By the end of the evening, their feet were "black" from the dark, damp soil. The genesis of the place name seems to be unrelated to Indian tribes or African American people in the area. The place name has other possible origins. During the Civil War, there was a group of Confederate fighters in Boone and Randolph Counties who operated in this area called The Blackfoot Rangers. A ballad called "The Blackfoot Rangers" circulated in Missouri in the nineteenth century and appears in collections such as Belden's; a version appears on a recording by Cathy Barton and Dave Para of Boonville, across the Missouri River from Blackfoot. (Henry M. Belden, ed., Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society, 1940, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1966, 354; Barton and Para, Rebel in the Woods: Civil War Songs from the Western Border, Vol. 2, Boonville, Big Canoe Records, 1995.)

In another chapter, there is some discussion of the prairie and pioneer times. One of the intriguing elements awaiting the nineteenth century pioneer's venture into and across Missouri was the prairie. … Back East, the term for prairie was “meadow,” but in due course the old Mississippi Valley French colonial term prairie took over in daily parlance. On the old-time fiddler's tune lists, the word prairie is scarce -- and perhaps limited to just one or two examples, such as Cleo Persinger’s “Going Across the Prairie.” “Going Across the Prairie” is an interesting local tune. It is played in the typical square dance tune format of two parts, but it has a rather unusual metric hitch in the melody that makes playing piano or guitar accompaniment a challenge for all but the most expert backup players. The tune also has an unusual chordal structure that relates more to rags than to the typical hoedown (reel). It has the feel and sound of local fiddling from the 1920s and 1930s, and we suspect the tune goes back into the nineteenth century. (See Marshall in Missouri Prairie Journal)

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