P.T. Bell Biography
By Dan Foster
Peter Tumlinson Bell was born. February 26, 1869, near Gallinas Creek, Atascosa County, Texas. His grandfather, Jonathan Bell had come to Texas from Mississippi in 1853 and settled 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Jonathon Bell was killed in a gunfight the following year, leaving his young son Marion “Mace” Bell to be raised on the frontier by an older brother Bill. Mace and his brothers had many narrow escapes fighting Indians and struggling to survive in the South Texas wilderness. They were the second generation of frontiersmen, the leading edge of the Anglo migration as it moved from the settled homelands of the southeast into a new, wild and often hostile land west of the Sabine. Among the few comforts they brought with them was the old time music that would remain a part of the Bell family heritage and, incredibly, find its way to us.
I have been playing the fiddle all my life, or I should say, since I was eight years old. I learned lots of tunes that I know from my father who was an old time fiddle player. -P.T. Bell
Recorded by William A. Owens in 1942 at the Bell home in Carrizo Springs, the tunes played by Mr. Bell, taken together, represent one of the very few recorded examples of southern dance music from Texas played in the style that may have been current in the mid to late 19th century. Although Eck Robertson was the first commercially recorded Texas fiddler, he was born in 1887 in Arkansas, moved to the city of San Antonio with his parents as a child and grew up to lead the life of a professional entertainer. Hi style of playing reflected the popular tastes of the early 20th century, innovative and dynamic. Mr. Bell was really of an earlier generation, having been raised in the wilderness of South Texas. He was himself deeply conservative and dedicated to his family heritage and the old time style of music he consciously preserved.
The commercial recordings of Capt. M. J . Bonner, who was born about 1847, and Uncle Jimmy Thompson 1848, in Smith County, Northern Tennessee, are the other echoes of the lost sound of fiddling as it might have been heard in Texas about the time of the Civil War or before. If nothing else, this collection is at least more extensive, but it can be argued that the repertoire, highly developed technique and dissimilarity to the surviving record of his few contemporaries, place these recordings in a distinct position with respect to any assumptions about what dance music might have sounded like in Texas at a very early date. The sound of cotillions, schottisches, old time waltzes and breakdowns are distinctive and one cannot help but wonder if they might have met with general approval at a dance in the brief days of the Republic.
There used to be some might good musicians among the old setters, but that is something like the old setters themselves, they are but few left.
Were it not for his grandson, the late Verner Lee Bell, the music and story of Peter Bell might have been lost forever. Verner Bell’s wonderful biography Memories of Peter Tumlinson Bell, 1869-1956, tells of P.T. Bell’s life, growing up on the wild frontier in south Texas and includes many of his thoughts on music and tradition. Verner’s search for his grandfather’s music resulted in tape-recorder transcripts being made in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the original aluminum disks which William Owens recorded using a second-hand Vibromaster recorder in 1942, have been lost. For years the only other known copy was the one I made with a hand-held cassette recorder from a crumbling 1963 reel-to-reel found at the Center for American History in Austin, Texas. Years of searching for other copies proved fruitless, until the tireless John R. Wheat, Co-ordinator of Sound Archives at UT Folklore Center Archives, contacted me to say that he had located a set of lacquer coated aluminum 78-rpm copies made by Extension Division of the University of Texas sometime in the 1940s. These disks have a life expectancy of about 40 years, so we were very lucky they too had not disintegrated. Through the painstaking efforts of Dr. Karl Miller of Restoration Audio, the sound of P.T. Bell’s wonderful playing has been restored and can now be heard again.
I’m an oldtime fiddle player and I will play any man in Texas tune for tune, provided that he will not use sheet or printed music; only a list of the tunes to be played, and if I can’t beat him I lose. – Peter Tumlinson Bell
Peter Bell passed away February 18, 1956, in Carrizo Springs, Dimmit Co., TX. His was a life of singular accomplishment, having helped forge the community of Carrizo Springs and then worked to see it take its place as a thriving city. He was rightfully proud of the role he played as a devout and steadfast member of his church, community and family. He loved music and fostered a love of music in his children. I am deeply indebted to his grandson, the late Verner Lee Bell of Carrizo Springs. Without Verner’s help we would never have known about the life of Peter Tumlinson Bell and the wonderful old time fiddle music that he played.
John R. Wheat, The Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Karl Miller, Restoration Audio
Charles Shwartz, Cushing Library, Texas A&M University
How the P.T. Bell Recordings were Saved
By Dan Foster
I still have the original cassette recordings I made at the Barker Center (now American History Center) at the Univ. of Texas back in 1988. The copies I sent to Kerry Blech several years ago are the ones now in circulation. As a result they have that additional “generation” of tape-hiss added to the significant noise in the original transcription from the source aluminum disks made sometime in 1961.
The earliest link in the chain is the reel-to-reel tape at the American History Center (AHC), but the Mylar was in very bad shape back when I made the cassette copy in 1988. To get the tracks onto cassette I had to splice the original tape several times during transcription because it kept breaking! If I can find the time (just started a new job here) I’ll check again with the AHC. Maybe with care the tracks could be captured direct from reel to digital. The playback equipment used back then was not the best and the recording to cassette was via microphone.
It was a great disappointment not to have been able to find the original disks at the Cushing Collection. I followed the trail about as well as I was able at the time but never located any first-generation copies anywhere but the AHC.
The discovery of the P.T. Bell recordings came about when I was working on a project at the AHC, going through a record collection donated by the late (and great) Townsend Miller who had written regular country music column for the Austin American Statesman for many years. Keeping my eye out for fiddle references in the index of uncatalogued collections I found my way to reel tapes of the William A. Owens collection and the P.T. Bell recordings. On first hearing it was obvious that his playing was deeply connected to strains of music long lost. Cotillions, marches, and even jigs – from Texas! If it weren’t for Mr. Bell’s thick south Texas accent you might have thought the fiddler was from up north!
Since he was obviously raised, if not born, in Texas, I figured that the tapes might represent a unprecedented example of fiddle styles actually current in the late 19th century Texas. Sure enough, it turned out that Mr. Bell was born in 1869 in Carrizo Springs, Texas. His father, John Bell had come to Texas from Mississippi in 1853. That places him at an earlier point, both in time and fiddle style, than Eck Roberson. His closer contemporary in recorded Texas fiddling is Capt. M.J. Bonner, but their fiddle styles differ markedly, and for good reason.
The fragile condition of the reel tapes led me to put the Townsend Miller project on hold long enough to capture the PT Bell tracks. I believe there were 30 in all. I need to go back and look at my notes. After getting the tracks safely to cassette, I decided I needed to find out more about Mr. Bell than the cursory notes in Owens’ book Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song. I was working at the Texas Public Utilities Commission at the time, so I went to the library there, got the Carrizo Springs residential phone-book, looked up addresses for everyone named Bell, and sent out letters asking about Peter Tumlinson Bell. A week or so later I got a phone call from Verner Lee Bell, PT’s grandson. Verner was very kind, encouraging and helpful. We talked several times on the phone before he passed away in 2002. I always wanted to go down and visit, but with twins in diapers and wolves at the door never managed to make the trip.
Anyway, Verner sent me a copy of the book Memories of Peter Tumlinson Bell and encouraged me to contact Texas A&M about the original disks which were made on a device of William Owens’ own invention. The contraption recorded direct to aluminum disks and Verner said that among his first memories was sitting on the floor while his grandfather fiddled into the recorder as the little curls of aluminum twisted away and fell under the table. Amazing!