Texas Fiddle Tunes and Square Dance Calls

See Texas Fiddle Bands (FRC409) and P.T. Bell (FRC410)

By Dan Foster

Here is some stuff about old time fiddling in my native state, any time. Have tried to find out much as I can about the early days and do enjoy the current contest fiddling as well.

As for Parker County, T.U. Taylor in the June 1937 article mentioned tunes favored at dances in the 1870s in North and Central Texas. Sally Gooden, Cotton-Eyed Joe, Billy in the Low Ground, Drunkards Hiccoughs, Rare Back Sallie Gal, Curly Headed Negro, Black Jack Grove. The last three are names I am not familiar with — anyone out there have an idea? Jim Heffington left Parker County about 1870 “on account of the fact that it was too crowded. A family had settled two miles above him on South Bear Creeks.” He left for Travis County at age 18 and fiddled there for the remaining 32 years of his life. Mr. Taylor called Heffington “the only circuit-rider fiddler” he ever met – being called upon to play for dances and barbeques from the little town of Bee Caves out to Loyal Valley in Mason County. Other fiddlers mentioned by Mr. Taylor as playing just after the Civil War include John Lane, who Heffington allowed was the only man to play Devils Dream better than himself. Another was Isaac Newton Hawkins, well educated man with a fine fiddle, played “by note”. He favored Bonaparte’s Retreat. Mr. Taylor also wrote of square dances in the late 1800s. He includes basic calls for a 10 dances of the time. The calls are sparse and to the point “First couple to the right; Hands all round.” But he includes a few lines he calls “Side Remarks,” such as “Elbow clutch, right arm cling; left hand grab, away you swing.” It’s interesting, if I understand correctly, that these cute rhyming side-remarks, the kind I’d assumed central to the caller’s art may have a different place in tradition than has been widely imputed. Mr. Taylor writes:

I have talked to many old fiddlers, and each and every one states that the side remarks were not used at the close of the Civil War, but was an innovation of Smart Alecs, minstrel shows, and magazine writers who wanted to show off. Dave Dillingham says they were a nuisance. These remarks were largely foisted on the public by feature writers fifty years after the old dance had gone the way of the world. If the reader wants to see the old square dance in its pristine glory and purity, let him go to Elgin some night when Frank Lee calls the figures.

Somehow, there’s the ring of truth to it. Looking at the set Presbyterian countenance on photos of some of my Mom’s people who settled Comanche County in the 1840s I just can’t see them capering to “Toes to the center, backs to the wall, take-a-chaw tobacker and promenade all.” But who knows…