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Missouri Fiddler Charlie “Possum” Walden
By Rob Roberts
Appeared in Fiddler Magazine (Fall 1996) – By permission of Fiddler Magazine
Charlie Walden has for many years been a tireless advocate for the preservation of old-time fiddling in Missouri as co-founder of the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association; organizer of fiddle contests and conventions; producer of records, radio shows, and fiddle programs; and author of numerous articles on fiddling. Active as both a dance and contest fiddler, Charlie has been state champion in Missouri and Illinois, won the West Virginia State Folk Festival fiddle contest in 1994, and was a featured performer on the 1994/95 Masters of the Folk Violin West Coast tour.
Charlie began playing the violin at age fourteen in Hallsville, Missouri, near Columbia. Coming from a non-musical family, he played the tuba in the school band and started learning the violin when an unwanted fiddle ended up in his possession. Living close to the University of Missouri in Columbia, with its active music community, Charlie was soon a part of the old-time music scene. Before long, he was learning from some of Missouri’s greatest fiddlers, Taylor McBaine, Pete McMahan, and Cyril Stinnett among others. Another major influence was the tune historian R. P. Christeson, who instilled in Charlie an enduring interest and respect for the varied fiddle styles in the region, particularly the older styles of playing. This interview took place in May 1996.
FM: Why don’t we start at the beginning.
CW: That’s always the best place.
FM: Everyone will wonder when and how you started playing.
CW: Okay. My dad always listened to a lot of country music, but nobody in my family played the fiddle. So I probably heard a little fiddle. Hank Williams fiddle, or something like that, because my dad always listened to him a lot. But when I was just starting in high school, I had a guitar that I was kind of thumping around on, nothing in particular, and when I started into high school, my English teacher’s husband had an old fiddle that he was wanting to sell. I didn’t know anything about playing fiddle. So I bought this fiddle from her, and just started to noodle around on it. Again, nothing in particular. I went down to the county fair one night and they were having a fiddle contest. There were all these old men up there playing the fiddle. There weren’t any young people playing the fiddle at that time around where I lived at all. And I got to know this one old boy, his name was Taylor McBaine. He was probably in his sixties or so, about ready for retirement. He was an electrician at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I lived in a little town called Hallsville, which was about fifteen miles north of Columbia. I started to go visit him and he got me interested in playing fiddle tunes. He was a really outstanding player, and I just started learning some tunes from him, and met some other fiddlers, and learned tunes from them, and that’s how I got started.
FM: So you learned by ear.
CW: Yeah, I learned it all by ear. I could read music because I was playing tuba as a junior high school student in the Hallsville High School band. I was trying to play tuba, so I could read a little music or knew a little bit about what it was, but I didn’t ever have any lessons on the violin per se. A lot of the fiddlers around Columbia. I always suspected that they could read a little music because a lot of them had sheet music laying around their house, but
they never would admit to being a music reader.
FM: What about your style? Who influenced you besides Taylor?
CW: Initially it was him. He played like all those Missouri fiddlers. They played a kind of an in-your-face style of hoedown fiddle. All of them I ever met play real loud with a lot of bow. They use alternating or saw-stroke bow to play probably eighty percent of any given tune, and they just use a few connecting slurs to get their bow turned around the way they want it to go.
The next guy I met was Pete McMahan, who was a pretty nationally prominent fiddler at the time. He lived in Harrisburg, which was about twenty miles due west of where I was living. So it was pretty easy to go over and see him, particularly when I turned sixteen and had a car I could drive around. So he was probably my next biggest influence, and he was a really great fiddler. He’s still living, and he still plays real well. He’s kind of become like my second father in a way. I really have a deep respect for Pete and I feel very close to him. But he got around a lot. He was kind of the first guy who introduced me to music outside of Missouri. In the early ’60s he had played at Weiser and had gotten invited to judge a lot of contests, and so he knew a lot of tunes that weren’t necessarily indigenous to Missouri, and he was the kind of guy who. you know, if Texas Shorty drove through the middle of Missouri, Texas Shorty would stop and see Pete, that kind of thing. He was kind of in the circle of big contest fiddlers in the early ’60s. The contests were starting to get big and fiddlers were starting to drive all over Hell’s half-acre to play in all these different contests. So he knew a lot of tunes that really weren’t played around Missouri, like “Tom and Jerry” and some of these big contest tunes that were starting to become real popular in the early
’60s. This is all pre-O’Connor, when there was still old-time Texas fiddling, too.
So he knew a lot of those tunes, and he was the first guy I ever heard play multiple parts to tunes. Most of the guys around Missouri, take a tune like “Grey Eagle,” they just play two parts. Well Pete could play five parts. He had a lot of neat variations. He still played them in a style that was like Central Missouri there, kind of real rough and ready, and he didn’t slow them down and put a lot of extra stuff in, so they were still like dance tunes, but the melodies had more interest than just the straight renditions. I learned a lot of tunes from him. I learned a lot of great waltzes from him. He and Taylor both. They play a lot of the formula waltzes that have the kind of circle of fifths ending to them, not just two-chord waltzes, they play a lot of fancy waltzes. A lot of them were songs from the ’20s, like “One Rose” and “Girl of My Dreams,” a lot of waltzes like that that were actually pop songs but they converted them to waltzes and played them in the contests.
FM: Did you listen to recordings much? Vintage recordings?
CW: No, and there wasn’t much of that around that I could see that these other old boys had listened to. Like I didn’t go to anybody’s house and they’d have a stack of 78s of the Skillet Lickers or something like that. So I never listened to much of that stuff. I had a few of those County reissues, but it really wasn’t what I was interested in playing and it wasn’t much like what I was hearing locally. And the local musical tradition was just so rich. I mean, there were two hundred fiddlers to learn tunes from, literally. So I didn’t really feel any need, or have much interest. The only guy I listened to on records much was Kenny Baker. I really liked Kenny Baker and I still do. The reason I got into him, was that all the old time fiddlers gave the nod that Baker was okay, which I found really interesting. He was like an honorary old time fiddler to those guys. And that was interesting, because there in Missouri when I was growing up there was a real line of demarcation between Bluegrassers, as they called them, and the old time fiddle players. They didn’t mix much at all. If you went to a bluegrass festival, you might hear fiddlers playing in the parking lot, but they wouldn’t go anywhere near the stage, and they generally didn’t like bluegrass banjo playing and that kind of thing. And then Howdy Forrester was a guy they all really liked a lot, and I listened to him some on records, and Tommy Jackson. So I guess those are three people on records I listened to when I was learning.
FM: At this point, do you still practice, or do you just practice as you’re playing?
CW: Actually, in the last few years, I’ve taken to practicing deliberately. Before, probably until four or five years ago, I didn’t practice much because I was working. But now I’m a homemaker, that’s my current employment, and I play a lot at home during the day when my wife’s working. And so I practice quite a bit. I’ve gotten interested in playing other kinds of music only recently. I’m kind of interested in playing swing. I like to listen to Johnny Gimble and Claude Williams an awful lot. Those are two guys that I listen to quite a bit now just because I’m interested in their music. And I’ve started playing guitar a lot, so I like to try to play chords on the guitar that go with that kind of music.
FM: You’re very active on the contest circuit. Do you have any comments on contest fiddling, maybe relating to the traditional fiddling you grew up with?
CW: I guess the only comment I’d make is that I like playing contests. I just think they’re a lot of fun, and in Missouri that’s like the main place left to play fiddle in public, at a contest where fiddlers will congregate, because there aren’t many dances left other than the kind of urban contra dance scene, there isn’t much of a dance scene left in the rural hinterlands. Yeah, I like contests. The only thing I see that’s bad about contests, and it seems to be even getting worse, is the whole creation of this national contest style that’s just choking out any regional difference in the way people play. And it seems to be even getting worse now ?? the threat on any kind of local styles is even more
FM: Is that a function of the judging, too? What happens when somebody plays in a real old time style at one of these contests? Does that basically mean they’re not going to do well?
CW: I think it does in a lot of places. In Missouri, we’ve really made a big effort to, I won’t say discriminate against people who play that way [in the national contest style], but we try to favor the traditional way of playing, our local traditional way of playing. And it’s worked pretty well until recently. It seems like anything, you can only do it
so long. as a lot of the older fiddlers die off or become too feeble to play, this more modern style starts to creep in. But it’s still not as bad as it is in some parts of the country, where basically all you’ll hear is kind of “hot” fiddle you won’t hear any local styles at all. Although they’ve done a good job out East, like in West Virginia and some places like that I think they’re keeping their local tradition alive. So it’s not like it’s totally taken over the whole country, but it’s just kind of sad to see all the older ways of playing go completely by the board, and all the tunes with them. With that style [the national contest style] of playing, there’s a very limited repertoire of tunes. I mean you could count them on a couple of people’s fingers, the tunes you’ll hear at a contest where that style of playing is preeminent.
FM: Do you use open tunings at all?
CW: Very little. I’ve got a couple of tunes I play where I retune the E string down to D, and I can play a handful of stock tunes, like “Black Mountain Rag” and that kind of thing. I don’t use them a lot, and the guys I learned from didn’t use them a lot for some reason. They knew a few, but I think maybe it was partially, again, that when you’re playing in contests, when that’s your main outlet, you’ve got your tunes you play at the contest, and you kind of lose sight of all those tunes you may have known earlier that you used to retune for. So as a result, I don’t know too many. I think most players in Missouri, unlike, say, in Appalachia, where a guy might know a hundred tunes retuned, I think even the average old traditional Missouri fiddler might be able to dredge half a dozen or ten tunes out of him, but that would be about it.
FM: Do you play much out of the first position?
CW: That’s something else I’ve started doing only recently. I try to play some waltzes now that get out of first position, but not too much. Mostly I play in first position.
FM: Would the swing music be more out of first position?
CW: Not necessarily. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched somebody like Claude [Williams] play. I was pretty amazed when I saw him play. He can play these great tunes in E flat, like “There Will Never Be Another You” or something like that, and he’s moving all around in first position, and when you listen to it it sounds like he’s all up and down the neck, when actually he’ll only sneak up and grab a few notes.
FM: Do you have a favorite fiddle? Do you have a lot of fiddles?
CW: No, I’ve only got about three fiddles. Probably the one I cherish the most is one R. P. Christeson, the guy who wrote those tune books there in Missouri, he gave me a fiddle one time to play. I’d been playing on this kind of junky fiddle, and he decided I needed a better fiddle so he just gave me a fiddle, so I kind of cherish that one. That’s not the one I play now. Actually, I’m playing a brand new fiddle I got from Christoper Germain, a maker here in Chicago. In fact, he’s from St. Louis and somebody I’d known for years. And he moved up here and started making violins, and when I moved up here about three years ago I managed to get one of his violins from him. It’s awful nice. It’s a brand new fiddle by all accounts. It sounds really good, he really knows how to make them.
FM: What about bows? Do you pay much attention to your bow?
CW: No, until recently I had a motto that if the stick cost more than a rehair job, I wasn’t interested. Now, actually, I have a decent bow for the first time in my life. I like it. I realize what I was missing by being such an ignorant hillbilly before.
FM: Do you have a preference on type of strings?
CW: I always use steel strings, for one thing. I’ve used everything from Super-Sensitive in the red pouch to those Dr. Thomastiks, I think it’s called Superflexible. But now I’m using these Prim steel strings, which are awfully nice. They’re good. I like those Jargars, too. Both of those have the nice quality that as soon as you put them on your fiddle they sound dead. I don’t like a real bright-sounding string, I like to have a darker sound. After I started using these, I realized those Thomastiks were taking me about a month to break in, and I’d rather be horse-whipped than have to change strings on my fiddle. A lot of people like to change them, but I’d just as soon leave them on there until they rust and corrode through.
FM: Tell me about your involvement with MSOTFA [the Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association]. How did that get going?
CW: A friend of mine, Bill Shull down in Missouri—he’s a real fiddle fanatic in almost a worse way than I am. It was his idea to start it, actually. He asked me to be the president, and I have been ever since we started, in about 1979. Basically, our goal was to provide information to people who wanted to run contests, because as you go around to contests, you find that people will pick the local Pork Queen and local music store owner and the high school principal to be the judges, and you get a less than desirable result from their judging. Plus, they can be run kind of squirrelly, if you’ve never runa fiddle contest and you don’t have a clue. It makes it so that fiddlers won’t come back and it won’t encourage them to perform. We wanted to encourage the fiddlers we knew to perform, as one of the means of maintaining the tradition ?? you’ve got to get people out so they play and meet other local fiddlers and that sort of thing.
So that’s why we started it, to kind of help people run contests. And it just kind of blossomed. We didn’t realize there would be such a big interest in it among the local fiddlers. And then we started putting out recordings, again as another means of encouraging people to play the older music. So we picked a handful of fiddlers initially, I think Pete and Taylor, and we put out a few recordings of Cyril Stinnett after his death, unfortunately. Again, to get people to hear more than one style of fiddle music, but we wanted to encourage our regional style, and our regional repertoire. That was the most important thing to us.
FM: I have those Cyril Stinnett recordings. He plays in that very sort of clean, notey style. That’s one of the three Missouri styles, right?
CW: Yeah, I’d say there are probably three ways you hear the fiddle played. The first one I was exposed to, as I was telling you, like with Taylor and Pete. That’s kind of the central Missouri, or Little Dixie style of playing. It’s notey, and a lot of alternate bows, and real loud. You know, they make a cloud of rosin dust when they play. It’s good dance music. Cyril, on the other hand, he was probably the third big influence on my playing after Taylor and Pete. When I heard him play, I was just enthralled. I think my dad took me up to some contest, I was probably about seventeen, up in northwest Missouri, and Cyril was there. He was this little unassuming-looking guy with striped overalls on and real kind of piercing eyes, real small stature, and when he put the fiddle under his chin backwards, you know left-handed, it was just incredible what the guy could do. He was so smooth and so clean. His playing was really unbelievable. And it was so straight-ahead, too.
The amazing thing about him was he could take a melody, like say “Cumberland Gap.” I don’t consider it to be a particularly complex tune. It’s good rhythmically most of the time when you hear it, but not melodically interesting. He could take a tune like that and just fill in all the gaps in a way that you just think, “Man, that’s how that tune goes.” He could take any tune and make it his, and you wouldn’t want to hear it any other way once you’d hear him play it. Any other way of playing it sounded sick after you heard him do it. He and Pete both, I guess, are the ones, by hearing them, encouraged me to learn so many tunes. Cyril probably knew 400 tunes that he could just whip off
?? and they were hard tunes, you know, they weren’t just there so he’d have quantity. They were great tunes, he had worked them out and he could play them all real well.
FM: How many tunes do you know at this point that you play?
CW: Oh, I could probably play three hundred tunes, actively, by somebody calling them out. But I might know another hundred and fifty if I dug around. So I can probably play close to five hundred tunes.
FM: Do you consciously rearrange the tunes over time as you play them, working them out?
CW: I’ve probably got twelve or fifteen tunes that I’ve done that with a lot, just so I can play them in contests. But the vast majority of my tunes actually I probably either try to play as I would guess Cyril would have played them, or I try to play them as Pete would play them—my two biggest influences, and the styles are somewhat different. I like a tune where you haven’t left a lot of gaps. You’ve filled it all in. That’s the kind of sound I like.
FM: So you might have some tunes that you play in both styles?
CW: I guess that’s probably true. There might be a handful of tunes that I could play a way I learned from Pete and a way I learned from Cyril. But I try to put my own tag on them too, so maybe I’m like an amalgam of those two guys or something like that.
FM: Do you improvise much while you’re playing?
CW: Yeah, and I kind of got that from Cyril. He would do that. It’s a very limited form of improvisation. In other words, just slight melodic variation. It’s not like you might play a part that’s totally unrelated to the tune, like you might hear a contest fiddler do today. It’s not like a variation, it’s just slight melodic or phrasing variations to add interest, but it’s not going to be something that’s way out there.
FM: Do you have any general advice for people, particularly people interested in the Missouri style?
CW: I would say, generally to anybody who’s wanting to learn to play, I would pick a genre of music, and probably that genre would be represented by some individual player you really like, and I would learn, in great depth, everything they knew. And especially if someone’s wanting to learn to play and there are any fiddlers thereabouts where they live, that’s where I’d go to learn to play. I wouldn’t buy a lot of records at first and that sort of thing. I’d find somebody to learn from and I’d emulate them in the closest way I possibly could, because I think that’s how you can ground yourself in a tradition, no matter where you’re living. Unfortunately, people have such mobility now. I think that’s one of the things that’s undermining the regional styles. And also I think it’s harder to meet people now
than it was at one time. But I’d just go to my local fiddlers association, or find a local contest, a local small contest to go to and just meet people. That’s one of the things I often would get asked by people, especially when I was living in Missouri, you know, “I’d like to learn to play the fiddle,” and I’d say, “Well, I’ve never seen you around. The first step is just to come and hang around, let people know who you are, then you can find somebody to learn from, get yourself an instrument, and start playing.” But I think you’ve got to be part of a scene. because that’s how you can learn a local way of playing, meet people who are playing the way you want to play.
FM: Since you’re a guitar player and your wife [Patt Plunkett] plays the piano, do you have any comments on backing up fiddle, or accompanying fiddle?
CW: Well, I don’t like too much complexity, especially on a hoedown, when I’m playing a square dance tune. I don’t like it to get too complicated. I generally don’t like sock rhythm for hoedowns, unless I’m playing something I want to make intentionally sound swingy. If I’m playing in a contest, for instance, and a guitar player is backing me up, I’d rather hear open chords, I think, than sock-style rhythm. I do like a moving bass line, but it has to be one that moves on the beat. Rather than a quick bass run or something like that, I don’t care for, because I like the on-beat to really keep pumping, and if someone gets too choppy with their bass runs, it kind of detracts from the rhythm. But now on waltzes, that’s a different story. I like lots of chords on waltzes, and I like to get with a guitar player who can play a lot of minor 7th chords and stuff like that on a waltz. I like a waltz that has twenty-five chords in it, and I like to hear all the passing chords. It’s kind of hard to find a guitar player you can convince to play cowboy chords on a hoe-down and play like Joe Pass on a waltz, but that’s the kind of thing I like. Because with a lot of simple waltzes,
it really changes them into real pieces of music when you get all those chords working behind them. And I do like piano. It’s probably my favorite accompaniment instrument. And I’m married to the best piano player around.
FM: Do you have any other comments?
I think I’d just like to tell people, especially who read Fiddler Magazine, who are aspiring to learn to play the fiddle, and who play now, is that you ought to get out and find your local source musician, your local old timer, and learn whatever they can show you, because we’re really at the end of an era, I think, in that a lot of styles of fiddling are just going to go completely by the board. If you’re sitting home learning off records and there’s a guy five miles away who’s been playing for fifty years, you better go learn some tunes from him. Because you’ll get much more enjoyment in years to come from playing the instrument, from playing the music you learned from someone in that way, I think, than you’ll ever get from something you learn off a record. That’s probably enough soap-boxing!