I am curious if anyone has any information about the role of the fiddle (not classical "violin") in popular music during the 19th century/minstrel period, particularly in relation to the banjo. For example, was the fiddle played in minstrel shows or other forms of popular music or "folk" music? Was it paired with the banjo, as is common in Old Time music (or later with Bluegrass)? Are there tutors, like for the banjo (or any such historical record/ historical teaching materials)? What songs were played and what tunings were used? Would a modern fiddle be historically accurate or is there a "period" fiddle? Any information would be appreciated.
To briefly respond to your question, the violin/fiddle is well-documented in minstrelsy during this early period. It was played with the banjo, percussion, and other melody instruments. In terms of minstrelsy, take a look at Bob Winans article on the topic of instrumentation. Also, just as we like to collect and go through a variety of banjo instruction and tune books, a wide variety of violin instruction and tune books were also being published and disseminated that would have included a variety of popular tunes from European art music and minstrel tunes to more vernacular pieces that made it into print. Back then, people were generally learning music with a mixed method approach, from learning by ear as well as learning to read music as a way of collecting and retaining melodies (e.g., William Sidney Mount and Dan Emmett).
Regarding making your fiddle/violin more historically accurate, a couple things you might do would be to experiment with gut strings and consider a period chin rest.
I'm sure you'll get some really good additional responses from folks on this site!
I have wondered about this issue as well. Playing both banjo and fiddle, I am struck by the impressive evidence we have for pretty specific banjo performance practice on the minstrel stage, but the absence of information on how the fiddle was played. This is because fiddle playing was much more widely practiced, and learning how to do it was something one could do locally. There are tune books, as Greg and Dan'l mention, but written notation is a poor indicator of actual performance practice, as listening to a "violinist" read notated fiddle music makes abundantly clear. The vast majority (really, all of the good ones) of fiddle players would have learned their style by ear, even if they looked at tune books to expand their repertoire, and that unfortunately puts the specifics of what they did out of our reach. There really is no alternative to taking surviving styles and making your best guess. This of course would be the same thing as taking surviving so-called "clawhammer" banjo styles and back-engineering minstrel banjo from them, which doesn't yield an authentic result on the banjo, as near as anyone can tell. But I suspect that this method works better for fiddle than banjo. In any case, it's all we have, and there seems to be no effort whatsoever on the part of minstrels for "authenticity" in their fiddle-playing. It seems that whatever style was handy was OK. I would be one vote for using whatever chin rest you like, and skip the gut strings. They are a pain.
As for the fiddle itself, by the 1840's, the transition from the shorter neck and all had taken place decades before, though my fiddle, made by C. F. Hartmann in 1820 in Germany and brought here when he worked with C. F. Martin in Nazareth, PA, was sold in 1840 with a "baroque" neck and I bought it at auction in that condition (the neck eventually had to be grafted, etc...long story). So, at least some fiddles in the old style were kept that way through the 19th century... Anyway, best of luck to you!
I haven't looked at any of the period fiddle tutors but I have noticed that the period accordeon tutors also contain nothing but simple melody lines, no use of double notes or the drones is mentioned at all. This seems odd to me because the very nature of the diatonic keyboard layout makes playing harmonies very easy. The drones, though not useful for every tune, really fill out the sound. It would be like a banjo tutor that omitted the fifth string. The period banjo tutors I've worked with do a much better job of bringing out the essence of the instrument. I'm skeptical that anyone used the accordeon tutors for more than learning the basic keyboard layout and then playing the tunes that might appeal to them as they skimmed through the rest of the book. So this goes back to the question we've discussed before: did the tutors capture the way the instruments were played? Banjo - I think so. Accordeon - no. Fiddle - from what Mike said above, maybe - at least they included bowing information. Dave Culgan
Wow! Those were some very awesome and informative responses, gentlemen. I am about to take up the fiddle (mainly old time, maybe some bluegrass), and I was wondering if I might also be able to incorporate Minstrel songs into the repertoire. This provides me with a great starting off point and enough resources to keep me busy for a long while. Thanks again, so much!
I wonder if most banjo players from that period also learned to play by ear. I think the tutors were just a way for a few to make money using their versions of commonly played tunes.
I still they provided a great service....if all they wanted to do was make money, I don't think they would have put so much detail into the work. They would look more like the Gumbo Chaff Book. There was some mission of integrety there.
The other aspect of 19th C fiddle is the range of variations on how it's held. Looking at paintings and photos from the time, you'll notice that the fiddle is sometimes held against the neck (on the left or right of the tailpiece) or held against the chest, usually just in from the left shoulder. The choice seems individual, though I've noticed a slight preference amongst Scots reference pictures for holding the fiddle against the neck to the right of the tailpiece.
The left wrist is sometimes bent inwards against the neck of the fiddle.
The bow was sometimes held higher on the stick than is taught now, sometimes with the index finger about where the balance point is. This leads to playing mostly with the top half of the bow, which is fine for jigs & reels.
I've found these variations quite comfortable, though as a classically-trained violinist it took some getting used to at first.
Enjoy learning the fiddle!
Genford, I don't think there was likely only one official way of holding the fiddle back then. It can be a very personal thing. My husband is a great old-time fiddler, and he sometimes hold the fiddle under chin, sometimes at the shoulder, sometimes against the chest with left elbow resting on left leg. He says it's just comfortable to change position now and then....likes it's no biggie. :) I sometimes change my banjo and arm positions too, for the same reason- variety equals comfort when playing for several hours.
Learning to play fiddle is a lifelong joy and challenge I hear. Have fun!
I have been playing around with Google books, but not much luck. I found, of course, the Ryan Collection, but none of my searches have been successful for finding any other tutors. Can you still list up some of those titles for me?