Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Hello, fellow fiddle enthusiasts,

I was wondering if any of you have read any enlightening books or articles (preferably scholarly sources – or sources with bibliographies) pertaining to the integration of specifically the word “fiddle” into the American-English lexicon.

A bit of background: I am currently in the process of researching texts to reference in my upcoming senior honors thesis, the topic of which pertains to the language associated with “fiddles” in North America and how the term “fiddle” has transcended early forms of bowed lute to encompass the modern violin. I read somewhere that the terminology might have been something that was lost in translation sometime during the journey from Ireland to America, but I can’t find where I read that, and most of the texts I’m able to get my hands on discuss more the music rather than the language itself. Any sources that delve into fiddling culture and practices rather than just the music are brilliant. For reference, I am currently reading and very pleased with “Couldn’t Have a Wedding Without the Fiddler: The Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island” by Ken Perlman. I’m also very interested in the class associations with regards to fiddles versus violins (for example, a musician sitting in the first violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would, to audience members, be playing a violin. When that same person dons a pair of jeans and a flannel and takes the same instrument out onto the street outside Symphony Center and plays a reel, onlookers would consider the same instrument to be a “fiddle”).

Any and all references/input is appreciated! Thanks!

Sam

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

In Northern European languages (German, Dutch, English), fiddles have been called fiddles for centuries, at least since medieval times, so it’s not surprising it’s the same in Norrh America. Vitula/vidula in Latin.

https://www.etymonline.com/word/fiddle
fiddle (n.)
“stringed musical instrument, violin,” late 14c., fedele, fydyll, fidel, earlier fithele, from Old English fiðele “fiddle,” which is related to Old Norse fiðla, Middle Dutch vedele, Dutch vedel, Old High German fidula, German Fiedel “a fiddle;” all of uncertain origin.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

“(for example, a musician sitting in the first violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would, to audience members, be playing a violin. When that same person dons a pair of jeans and a flannel and takes the same instrument out onto the street outside Symphony Center and plays a reel, onlookers would consider the same instrument to be a “fiddle”).”

Don’t be so prescriptive. To me a violin is a fiddle and a fiddle is a violin, whether in an orchestra or in a session. Fiddle tends to be more casual and less formal, but it dates back centuries. As to class distinction in usage, that is bogus. The Dean of classical violin making Heron Allen says, from the OED II:

1884 E. Heron-Allen Violin-making ii. vi. 129 The wood used in fiddle-making should be thoroughly dry.

You can’t get a more upper class gentleman than Mr Heron-Allen.

As for something lost in translation between Ireland and America, I don’t buy it. It’s such an old word, fiddle, used everywhere.

It’s like a car - it’s also an automobile.

Many of my colleagues are violin makers. They are also happy to describe themselves are fiddle makers.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

For background I’m from Appalachia (like “latch” not “H”) and my grandfather was a traditional fiddler.

Some things to be aware of, at least with West Virginia fiddling:

1) West Virginia was settled in the late 18th century and beginnning of the 19th century by British and British-Americans. A review of family names in most regions will reveal them to be nearly 100% English or Scottish.

The Famine Irish immigration beginning around 1840 occurred after West Virginia was already settled. The Famine Irish didn’t go to Appalachia but rather to the big northern cities.

2) West Virginia borders the Pennsylvania German settlements, and northern WV has a German component. It’s been established that the dulcimer was brought into Appalachia through German contact.

What follows from 1 and 2 is that looking for Irish origins for West Virginia fiddling isn’t going to go very far.

3) In the case of my Grandfather a fiddle was definately NOT a violin. I have his fiddle. The fingerboard, bridge, and nut have been re-shaped to be flatter, have a more gentle curvature, making playing the middle strings individually difficult. Presumably this was done to allow playing three strings at once.

Also his fiddle has the rattle from a rattlesnake tied with a string to the soundpost. When I asked my Grandmother about it (my Grandfather having passed away) she said “Why don’t you know that all fiddles have rattles in them?” (BTW my Grandparents were born in log cabins, in the hollers, in the 1890s.)

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

If you have any interest in Appalachian West Virginia fiddling you should read the book

Play Of A Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia
by Gerald Milnes

The title comes from the quote
“If anybody couldn’t play of a fiddle, or dance of a jig, or shoot of a gun, he wasn’t worth a damn.”

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

‘West Virginia was settled in the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th century by British and British-Americans.’

Remarkable. Was there no-one there before that? Perhaps there was, but they failed to build a wall.

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Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Thanks so much to everyone for the feedback thus far; I’ve bookmarked reading suggestions to check out later.

In direct response to Andrew Bernard: I don’t know where I read the whole “lost in translation” thing; I think it’s also bogus. Just wondering where terminology originated. As for the class distinction, I merely referenced my own experience as a classical violinist who also performs at Irish cultural festivals regularly. Indeed there are ample instances of people in both realms of music (folk vs “classical”) who use the terms violin and fiddle interchangeably. My own violin instructor, who is a member of the CSO, calls his violin a fiddle. Just exploring the possibilities of potential cultural and class-based divides! Thanks so much for your response.

Richard Cook: I am so glad to read about your experience with your grandfather and the “fiddle vs violin” debate. Construction differences are also something I’m interested in.

Thanks again, all!

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

While historically the terms may be interchangeable, in general parlance nowadays, they certainly have connotations of class, at least in (most of) North America. If you tell a random person that you play fiddle, they will assume that you play the folk-dance music associated with the common folk; if you tell them you play violin, they will assume that you play the ‘high-art’ music associated with the upper crust. You will never read old newspaper or magazine articles in which the writer laments the decline of the old, bewhiskered village “violinist”.

If I hear a concert violinist refer to his instrument as a ‘fiddle’, I assume he is being playfully modest. But that’s a world I don’t know well, so perhaps I’m wrong about that.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

In Cape Breton, the older Gaelic-speakers tended to use the term ‘violin’ when speaking in English, simply because that is the English name they had learned for the instrument, to my understanding. There would be, however, the odd fiddler/violinist who seemed to feel that the term ‘fiddle’ belittled the instrument and the tradition, and insisted on the term ‘violin’ for that reason. Winnie Chafe is one such (not a Gaelic-speaker, to my knowledge, and still with us).

As far as I know, French-Canadians have only the one term ‘violon’.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

For what it’s worth, regarding the lost in translation thing, the Irish language term for fiddle is “fidil” (pronounced something like “fijil”), and the Welsh is “ffidil”, and to my knowledge both terms were borrowed from Middle English. In Ireland at least, this would make sense since the fiddle was brought there by the English and Scottish planters. As for me, I’m very interested in the term “fiddle” as a general reference term for “bowed lute”, including violins. My interest doesn’t really involve how “fiddle” came to refer to a violin (that just follows linguistically, in a sense), but more on the proliferation of other folk and classical fiddles around the world, and the very rapid spread of the bowing technique from its invention by Mongol or Central Asian nomadic peoples.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Not that it’s proof of one thing vs. another, but I’ve heard Itzak Perlman on various PBS shows refer to his “fiddle”.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

My violin teacher, Noel Gilbert in Memphis, was a music professor at Memphis State and served as the concertmaster of the Memphis Symphony. He almost always referred to my instrument as a fiddle.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

To meself’s comment regarding Winnie Chafe, I have also heard traditional Newfoundland musicians, whose style clearly fits better within the scope of “fiddling,” consciously refer to their fiddle as a violin. Couldn’t say whether this has anything to do with demeaning the instrument or the tradition, but interesting nonetheless.

On the subject of the language of fiddling, I’ve also heard it said that, in days gone by, Newfoundlanders conventionally referred to all players of dance music as “fiddlers.” That is, a fiddler could equally be a violinist, or an accordion player, or whatever else. I’ve heard people mention this point casually several times, and I’m sure I’ve seen it referenced in academic papers. This web page mentions the convention: https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/traditional-instrumental-music.php

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Just thinking of a Strad being held together with a rusty nail puts it into perspective
Also fiddles are usually set up differently. But then I suppose there are many ways of setting up instruments to suit the sound and the playability

I was doomed to be a fiddle player with teachers telling me not to “fiddle about”

All fiddles rattle ……

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Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

I don’t know how relevant it is, but if you’re interested in going down the rabbit hole of bowed instrument history, the book ‘The Violin: Its History and Making" by Karl Roy covers the evolution of the instrument pretty thoroughly, from the rebec, through the instrument he terms a fidel, through to viols and violins. It includes references to old texts containing the word ’fidel,’ or some variation, as well as very old works of art with fidels and violins in them. I can’t remember how much he goes into the linguistic changes, which is why it may not be quite what you’re looking for, but if you can get your hands on a copy it is an informative read.

(side note: it is mainly a book on violin making, and only the first quarter of the book is taken up with the ‘history’ section. If you can find a copy to borrow it would save you a few hundred dollars.)

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Yes Bazza there were people there, but the discussion is about a European instrument in North America. If you have light to shed on the topic of the influence of Native American music on Appalachian fiddle music let’s hear it, otherwise let’s keep current politics out of the discussion.

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Richard, you’re quite right to pick me up on my comment: it was one of those times when one is struck by a thought and the speed and ease of posting on the internet means that it goes out there before much consideration has gone in into its merits or relevance (if any). I, too, am exasperated by the amount of such stuff that finds its way into the public domain, and should have known better.

On the subject in hand, my understanding is that ‘fiddle’ and ‘violin’ are two words for the same instrument and, apart from an interest in etymology, or in whether their usage just reflects different cultural settings in which the thing is played, I don’t find that there’s a lot to be gained from worrying away at the topic.

If, however, there were another, quite separate, thread about the impact of colonialism on the facilitation and/or suppression of indigenous cultural practices, it might be be a place to look at the distinction between ‘settlement’ - suggesting benign migration - and ‘take-over’ - suggesting forcible exploitation. I’m not a historian, but isn’t it the case that much traditional music was prohibited at times in Ireland because it was seen as adverse to British (English) domination. It seems to me that the impact on the survival and transmission of traditional music of migration, colonialism, and associated commercial/political/military interests has been massive. Because it has been largely concerned with the dispossessed or unrecorded strata of society, I doubt that it has had the attention accorded to the history and development of ‘Art music’. That is to say, perhaps it’s not simply a matter of an inappropriate reference to current politics.

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Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Actually, awhile back I heard a radio talk on somebody’s thesis on and research into the idea that there was a significant Native American influence on the fiddling of … Missouri? don’t remember exactly. I was rather skeptical initially - but by the end, I was pretty well convinced.

“isn’t it the case that much traditional music was prohibited at times in Ireland because it was seen as adverse to British (English) domination.”

Is it the case? I’ve never heard of that, other than in relation to specific melodies related to ‘rebel’ lyrics. Anyone?

Re: Regarding the Language and Culture Surrounding the “Fiddle” in North America…

Sam, I don’t mean to sound discouraging to you, but I think you might’ve asked an unanswerable question. I did hear a good joke about it one time that goes as follows : “If I’m selling it to you, it’s a violin….if I’m buying it from you, it’s a fiddle.”