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Kentucky Old-Time Fiddlers

Hiram Stamper

Hiram Stamper (1893-1991) is one of the many older generation Kentucky fiddlers documented in Hutchins Library's sound recordings collections.

Library of Congress recordings of older associates such as Bev Baker and Luther Strong, make clear that Stamper was the last known living representative of what might be called a "classic" eastern Kentucky style of fiddling.  Other 19th century fiddlers that were particularly influential in the development of Stamper's style include his uncle, Daniel Triplett, Shade Slone, a Civil War veteran from the Pippa Passes area (Knott County), "Black" Hiram Begley (Leslie County), and Si Terry.

This style, with local and regional variations, was probably the dominant fiddling style throughout the southern Appalachians. It developed as it did because at the time, the fiddle was mostly played without accompaniment.  This allowed the fiddler a great deal of freedom in timing and self-expression through idiosyncrasies of tune structure and variations in the melodies.

The instruments commonly associated with the fiddle - the banjo and guitar - did not appear much in eastern Kentucky before the Civil War, and the early 1900's, respectively. The fiddle music of areas such as southwestern Virginia is closely entwined with the rhythms of the banjo and guitar. In contrast, Stamper's playing requires an accompanist to adapt to his sense of timing and tune structure. Many of his tunes are not well suited to accompaniment at all.

Stamper's bowing was very vigorous and energetic. There was strong emphasis on the push, or up stroke, giving a strong pulsing beat, especially when beginning and ending phrases of tunes and between parts in tunes. Phrases are ended with an abrupt upward motion of the bow, drawing out the last note as long as possible, then returning to the tune with a long downward stroke that again would draw out the melody in a way that gave the rhythm of the tune a pronounced pulsing, or wavelike feel. He also used long sweeping motions of the bow interspersed with more explosive bursts of quick back and forth sawing patterns that often gave a rather syncopated feel. He wielded the bow with his elbow held fairly high, allowing most of the bow work to be achieved by his elbow, wrist, and finger movement.

He tuned his fiddle about a full step below standard pitch, and the bridge was cut with a very shallow curve. Both of these practices allowed him to play two and sometimes three strings simultaneously, and gave his playing a very full, deep sound. This, and his sense of timing, gave many of his tunes a very dark, mysterious quality which has always been closely associated with older Appalachian fiddling.

Stamper's repertoire of tunes is characteristic of eastern Kentucky traditional music of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. He played very little music from later radio or recorded sources.  There are marked similarities to his music found in other regional collections as is illustrated by the presence in Jean Ritchie's repertoire of such tunes as Betty Martin, Boston, God Bless Those Moonshiners, etc.

Selected Hiram Stamper Tune Recordings

These recordings are mostly the work of musician-researcher, Bruce Greene, who has documented the repertoire, technique, and lore of several dozen traditional musicians from 38 southern and southeastern Kentucky counties.  The three 1986 tunes came to Greene from the collection of Bob Butler.  The keys and tunings are described as if the fiddle was tuned to standard A440 pitch. In reality, Stamper's fiddle was tuned a good step below that pitch, so when he played a tune that is listed as key of A, for instance, his pitch was more like the key of G. A similar consideration applies for the one banjo tune included. Tuning is to Stamper's preferred pitch. The given tuning describes the relationship between the strings.

117-01  Indian Nation: Key of G, Fiddle tuned gdad.  Recorded 01-06-77.   Because of the implications of the title, Stamper considered this "the oldest tune ever made." This tune is also known in eastern Kentucky as Betty Baker. John Salyer of Magoffin Co, KY played a version and called it by both names. His son Grover recalled a verse, "Went over the hill to see Betty Baker, She was asleep and I could not wake her."

117-03  Brushy Fork of John's Creek: Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 01-06-77.  Stamper learned this from fiddler Shade Slone, a Civil War veteran. Slone and others said that the tune was made by Morgan's soldiers while camped on Johns Creek in Pike County during the raiding days in the Civil War. This tune was played with some variation all over eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia. See recordings by John Salyer, Manon Campbell, Ferdinand Lusk, and the Hammonds family of West Virginia.

117-04  Betty Martin: Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 01-06-77. A member of a tune family including Fire on the Mountain and Granny Will Your Dog Bite. Known all over Kentucky and the southern mountains in general with much variation. This version is quite similar to Jean Ritchie's song Pretty Betty Martin, which she probably learned in Stamper's native Knott Co. They both sang "Pretty Betty Martin, tip toe, tip toe."

117-12  Betty Baker: Key of A. Fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 1-6-77. This is a different tune than the one that is a version of Indian Nation. It is related to a tune known in other areas of the south as Wolves A'Howling. It is a fine example of Hiram's use of the typical southeastern Kentucky fiddlle technique of jumping from the open bass string to the open e string to add a nice rhythmical bounce to the tune.

121-06  Last of Sizemore: Key of D, fiddle tuned adae. Recorded 02-11-77. Stamper said this was a Civil War tune about a soldier who was "taken up a holler and shot". He often confused its name with another tune, Last of Callahan, which he played in the key of A. It was also played by Santford Kelly of Morgan Co, Ky.

121-07  Sourwood Mountain: Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 02-11-77. A well known tune all over the southern mountains. This is a good example of the way Stamper takes a commonly known tune and adds very individualistic touches by holding on to notes and phrases, varying the tune each time through it.

121-09  Wild Goose: Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 02-11-77. Similar to a version by the same name played by Manon Campbell of nearby Magoffin County. This name is attached to different tunes throughout the South, the unifying feature being the imitation of the cry of the goose by the fiddle, often using harmonics on the low string, as Stamper does on this version.

121-13  Hog Eyed Man: Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 02-11-77.Stamper learned this from Shade Slone. It is a different tune than one by the same name as played by Luther Strong for the Library of Congress. Strong was a contemporary of Stamper, and they played against each other in contests. Stamper sang this verse, " How you getting long with your hog eye, hog eye, how you getting long with your hog eyed man? Sally in the garden sifting sand, Sukey upstairs with the hog eyed man."

131-05  Fun's All Over:  Key of C, fiddle tuned gdae. Recorded 1980. This tune has been found more frequently in West Virginia. Stamper may have  learned it later in life, possibly from the radio. It was, however, traditional in eastern Kentuckyy. Stamper sang,"Hey, hey, the fun's all over, Hey, hey, the fun's all over, Jumped in the bed and the bed turned over."

131-07  Wild Horse: Key of G, fiddler tuned gdae. Recorded 1980. A common tune throughout the South. In eastern Kentucky it has also been played as Buck Creek Girls.

132-23  Roll On John: Key of D, banjo tuned gDGBD. This banjo song was well known in eastern Kentucky. It was recorded by banjo player Buell Kazee of Magoffin Co, Ky, and there is a recording of John Salyer playing it on the banjo. The tune more recently has evolved into the popular bluegrass number, Roll On Buddy.

137-01  Young Edward: Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 03-20-77. This is an old song, The Drunkard's Dream, turned into a fiddle tune. Stamper sang bits of the song but could not remember it all. It is a version of Lonesome John, a very popular tune in the Magoffin / Morgan County area.

137-03  Yellow Gal:  Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 03-20-77.  This is possibly the only time Stamper ever played this tune on the fiddle. He normally played it on the banjo, but was asked to try it out on the fiddle for this occasion. He sang a verse, "Went to see my yellow gal, went last Saturday night, I asked her to marry me, She fell and broke her pipe. Fell and broke her pipe, oh Lord, fell and broke her pipe." It was also played on the banjo by Sanford Kelly.

137-06  Glory in the Meeting House:  Key of E, fiddle tuned edae, the low string an octave low. Recorded 03-20-77. Stamper considered this his showpiece, and said he had won contests with it over the years, It was a popular tune in southeastern Kentucky, and there are recordings of it by Luther Strong, Bev Baker, and Boyd Asher.

137-07  Sally Ann: Key of G, fiddle tuned gdae. Recorded 03-20-77. A well known tune throughout the South, with a great deal of variation.

155-02  Cumberland Gap: Key of G, fiddle tuned gdae. Recorded 01-21-89.  A well known tune throughout the South

257-02  Kiss Me Quick>: Key of A fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 06-18-86. The full name is Kiss Me Quick My Papa's Coming. The name is found throughout the South and, as in this version, a kiss is imitated by plucking a string or sliding on a string. Stamper's version is more commonly known in Kentucky as Cluck Old Hen. A similar version by that name is played by Jim Bowles of Monroe County. Buell Kazee and others in Magoffin County played a similar version on the banjo.

257-03  Chinquipin Hunting:  Key of A, fiddle tuned aeae. Recorded 06-18-86. Stamper knew this as a Civil War tune, saying that during starvation times during the war, people gathered these wild nuts and ate them to survive. It is a rare tune in eastern Kentucky, although it seems to be related to Huldy in the Sinkhole, as played by Birch Patrick of Magoffin County. Other tunes by this name have been found in Virginia and West Virginia.

257-04  Two Little Indians and One Old Squaw:  Key of G, fiddle tuned gdad. Recorded 06-18-86. Known more often in eastern Kentucky as The Indian Squaw. It was played by Alva Greene of Elliot County and Ed Haley. Stamper sang, "Way down yonder in the Arkansas, Two little Indians and one old squaw, Sitting on the banks of the Arkansas." He said the remainder of the verse was then whistled.

117-05  Sally Goodin:  Key of A, tuned aeae. Recorded 01-06-77.  Stamper was quite proud of his arrangement of this tune, playing it often in contests. He said it was originally named Boating Up Sandy  but renamed to honor a woman who during the Civil War  lived along the Sandy River. Her husband had been killed in the war, and she opened up her home to soldiers passing through and "took care of them."

Written inquiries may be addressed to Harry S. Rice, Sound Archivist, Hutchins Library, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Berea College, Berea, KY 40404.  Phone: 859-985-3249. E-mail: harry_rice@berea.edu.

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