- Marcus Martin: When I Get My New House Done, Western North Carolina Fiddle Tunes and Songs by Wayne Martin, Beverly Patterson, and Steven Weiss
Marcus Martin (1881-1974) was a marvelous Western North Carolina traditional fiddler with a vigorous and appealing performance technique. When I Get My New House Done: Western North Carolina Fiddle Tunes and Songs, a new CD of his music, reflects the collaboration of workers from the North Carolina Folklife Institute and those from the Southern Folklife Collection of the University of North Carolina. The disc's liner notes are excellent, especially the tune annotations, which cite Martin's sources, specify alternative titles, and narrate tune histories. The melodies, all recorded during the 1940s, are delightful and well-chosen, both in terms of their quality and balance within the regional repertoire. The collection could serve a variety of pedagogical purposes.
The twenty-six cuts (nearly an hour of music) fall into four groups, which are based on the individual who made the original field recordings. The first dozen tunes were recorded by Jan Philip Schinhan, a musicologist and musician on the faculty of the University of North Carolina; these include "Daddy Bowback," "Sally Goodin," "When I Get My New House Done," "Wounded Hoosier," "Gray Eagle," "Sandy River," "Cumberland Gap," "Lady Hamilton," "Snowbird," "Possum Up a Gum Stump," "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and "Polly Put the Kettle On." Alan Lomax and associates recorded the next five: "Calico," "Booth," "Sally Goodin," "Old Joe Clark," and "Cripple Creek." The next six were collected by educator and western North Carolina specialist Artus Moser: "Jenny Run Away in the Mud in the Night," "Citico," "John Henry" (on which Martin sings and accompanies himself on clawhammer-style banjo), "Cousin Sally Brown," "Boatsman," and "Walking the Water." The last three cuts were collected by Margot Mayo and three other members of the American Square Dance Group of New York City: "Bed of Primroses," "Kiss Me Sweet," and "How the Squire Courted Nancy." Both the latter and "Bed of Primroses" are broadside ballads sung a cappella by Martin.
Martin grew up on a mountain farm and then sampled other occupations as an adult. Like most fiddlers, he treated music as an avocation rather than substantial source of income, and like most, he was broadly based as a musician, singing and also playing harmonica and banjo. He said he learned to fiddle through observation; his father played, and Martin also learned from other fiddlers in nearby counties. He performed on radio, at political conventions, at plenty of fiddle contests, and, especially, for dances. In the liner notes, Martin is quoted as telling Lomax that "fiddle and five-string banjo was the two musical instruments we used in those days" (p. 4). There lies the only real problem with this collection. Due to the artifact orientation of much fieldwork in the mid-twentieth century, collectors almost always recorded solo fiddle performances, rather than string bands playing at dances or contests. But typical, high-quality old-time performances reach past what the fiddler does. Tunes are realized on the fiddle, with the banjo, played claw-hammer style, delivering the same melody, not quite in unison. (In clawhammer style banjo, a finger beats down percussively in alternation with the thumb, which itself produces melody notes and drones; this performance style descends directly from blackface minstrelsy). The essence of musical expression lies in the flavor of the heterophony, that is, how the banjoist's [End Page 211] idiomatic and personal form of the melody matches and departs from the fiddler's performance. Martin will have fiddled alone sometimes, but in public performance settings, he was probably more often in duos or bands.
When playing for dances but lacking amplification, fiddlers needed to be loud, especially if playing alone. One factor enhancing volume was (and remains) the use of cross-tunings (alternatives to the standard...