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A Fiddler Keeps Hope Alive in 1920s Texas

In his 1960 article “My Dad’s Best Crop Was Music,” [PDF download] Lewis Nordyke told how his father, and his fiddle music, revived the flagging spirits of his hard-working family and neighbors.

When dad played his fiddle, the world became a bright and morning star. To him violin was an instrument of faith, hope and charity. Some of his neighbors deep in the heart of rural Texas at the turn of the century had been brought up to believe the fiddle was the devil’s music box.

But dad could tuck his old fiddle to his shoulder, wave his bow almost magically and then bring it down lovingly across the strings, and the agonies of plowing with diabolical mules, the catastrophe of burning drought, the mutilation of buffeting winds and pounding hailstones, the memories of all the ills that flesh is heir to—the harms and hurts of dirt farming—would disappear. It was as if dad in his old blue-billy overalls, but with his hair neatly combed and his hands as clean as homemade soap and well water could make them, had sat down square-dab on Pandora’s box and put the devil to shame.

Dad furnished music for school plays, picnics, Christmas programs and nearly every get-together at the schoolhouse. At home his fiddle never gathered dust. When the chores were done or when he needed to express his joy in life or play away the blues, down came the fiddle. And what dad could do for himself he could do for others. He applied the Golden Rule to music.

In the early years of the century, the boll weevil began devastating the cotton farm in the south. Like everyone else in his stretch of Texas, Charles Thaddeus Nordyke relied on cotton to keep the family farm solvent.

Everything on Nubbin Ridge—and on a majority of the small farms in Texas—was built around cotton as the money crop. A man could mortgage his first bale by the time the seeds that would produce it had sprouted and buy essential supplies at the store on fall credit. The weevil was changing this.

For years the bug had been creeping northward from Central America, devastating cotton in the Old South and in southern Texas. By the time it hit Nubbin Ridge the Government was estimating that the insect was causing an annual loss of $200,000,000 to cotton farmers in the South.

When the day came that Charley Nordyke found weevils in his cotton, he seemed to lose all hope.

Dad wandered around the yard as if lost. After a while he walked into the house and tuned his fiddle. He started playing sad pieces in tones that tore at the heart—Darling Nelly Gray, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, Little Old Cabin in the Lane, When You and I Were Young, Maggie.

Gradually the music quickened. Listen to the Mockingbird sounded a bit cheerful. Then came Little Brown Jug with considerable zip, and the same for Boom-ta-ra. Dad finally ended with a rousing rendition of Turkey in the Straw. When he came out of the house he was whistling the tune…

At least a thousand times, [my mother] said, “Your papa would play his fiddle if the world was about to blow up.”

And once dad came about as close to that as could ever be possible. In May of 1910 the folks at Turkey Creek, and all over the nation, were in a space-age state of turmoil over Halley’s comet. It had been predicted for seventy-five years, and it had appeared on schedule. There were all sorts of frightening stories about the comet, the main one being that the world would pass through its tail, said to be millions of miles long, or else the wavering, fiery plume would switch, like the tail of a milk cow at a fly, and swat the world, sending it winding and everybody with it.

Between the threats of comet and weevils, the farmers were running low on optimism. One night, they gathered at the Nordyke farm to discuss what to do.

When the some thirty neighbors had found seats on the front porch and in the yard, Will Bowen suggested, “Charley, how about getting down your fiddle and bow and giving us a little music?”

“Aw, I don’t think anybody’d want to hear me saw the gourd tonight,” dad replied.

“Come on, Mr. Nordyke,” one of the younger women urged, “why don’t you play for us.”

Dad had a knack for getting people in the mood for his music. Knowing of the scattered prejudice against the fiddle, he eased into a song titled Gloryland. It was a church song with church tones, but it was fairly fast with some good runs. He shifted from Gloryland to The Bonnie Blue Flag, a Confederate war song, which created a big stir — foot stamping, hand clapping and a few Rebel yells.

Dad was ready for his next move — an old familiar heart song, Nelly Gray. He started the tune a bit mournfully and gradually brightened it. Then he shifted to trilling The Mockingbird and went from that to My Old Kentucky Home. Almost before anyone realized what was happening to the music, dad was “eating up” Turkey in the Straw, and every foot was lapping and every body was swaying.

Will Bowen, apparently having forgotten Halley’s comet, shouted, “How about giving us Sally Goodin?” Dad played the old breakdown with vigor. Several men jumped up and jigged around.

The next tune was a novelty number called The Wild Indian, a fast one which raced up to a break — just long enough for a sustained yell, something like “Hooooo-ho!” Dad gave the yells. Pretty soon nearly everyone was joining in. Children gathered around and gazed wide-eyed at the performance.

All our neighbors went home whistling or humming. Very few remembered to look toward the northwest to see whether the comet and its wicked tail were still around…

One evening Will Bowen called dad on the telephone and said, “Charley, I’m downhearted and blue. I was out in the cotton patch today. Got a few little squares showing up. Every time a square forms, there are four boll weevils waiting there to pucncture it with their snouts. Just wondered if you could play a tune or two for me?”

“’I sure could, Will,” Dad said. “Could you come over?”

“No. I mean play on the phone box.”

“The phone box?”

“Sure,” Mr. Bowen said. “I can hear you talk. Why couldn’t I hear the fiddle?”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” dad said, “but I can try anything at least once.”

Dad hurried to the mirror and combed his hair. He took the fiddle to the telephone and thumped the strings. Putting the receiver to his ear, he said, “Hear anything. Will?”

“Sure can,” Mr. Bowen said. “Just as plain as day. Now try a tune.”

“What would you like to hear?”

“Could you try Sally Goodin and play it just like you did the other night?” Dad handed the receiver to me. He stepped up to the mouthpiece on the wall box and cut loose on Sally Goodin. I could bear Mr. Bowen whistling and yelling.

By the time the tune was finished there were half a dozen neighbors on the line, and they talked about how wonderful the music sounded over the telephone. They made numerous requests; I relayed them to dad and he played the numbers.

The central girl at Cottonwood had a call for our line. She asked the caller if he’d like to hear music, and he was willing. Then she cranked a long ring on each of the party lines. That brought down nearly every receiver. With all the lines hooked up with our line, dad was playing for people as far as ten miles away. I don’t know whether this was the nation’s first broadcast of entertainment, but it was certainly one of the pioneers. Moreover, with all the lines linked, we had a network. And it lengthened.

Our party line broadcasts became regular features of community life. On rough-weather days of winter when farm folks were forced to remain in the house, someone would ring us and ask dad to play, and usually it developed into a network affair. At times, though, dad played over the telephone for an individual—someone who was ill or an old person who was shut in. Our phone kept ringing with requests for music until radio came in.

Read “My Dad’s Best Crop Was Music,” [PDF download].

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