November-December 2007

Marcus Martin: North Carolina Fiddle Mage

By David Bragger

Marcus Martin was born August 2, 1881 in Macon County, North Carolina. He was a farmer, logger, postmaster, woodworker, and watchman. In my world he's a legendary North Carolina fiddler. My first introduction to him was through two tracks found on the classic American Fiddle Tunes LP. His Cotton-Eyed Joe and Sugar in the Gourd are mesmerizing renditions. By the way, if you don't have American Fiddle Tunes you're missing out on another wonderful fiddle collection. Soon after hearing these two tracks I started hearing some of his other well-known tunes surface at jam sessions, as well as on tenth-generation cassette copies of jam sessions. Happy Hollow Booth and Shove the Pig's Foot a Little Farther in the Fire top that list.

 In 2004 at the Clifftop Appalachian Stringband Festival I came across field collector/musician Peter Hoover who was celebrating the release of his Marcus Martin field recording CD. He encouraged me to play Marcus Martin's fiddle, which he was displaying during the release party. Who was I to argue? I remember playing Mel Durham's Jingle at the Window, Tidy-O on Mr. Martin's fiddle. It was just days earlier that I played Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport's fiddle. Gripping old wood layered with years of fiddler mojo is always a satisfying thing. So anyways, I purchased this CD available from the Field Recorder's Collective ( It was the first time I ever heard the actual source of some of these magical tunes.

A few weeks ago, one of my students brought back a surprise from an old-time music camp she had just attended.  A new CD was just released entitled Marcus Martin: When I Get My New House Done-Western North Carolina Fiddle Tunes and Songs. The Southern Folklife Collection has produced a CD jam-packed with the tunes and the unmistakable stylings of this master fiddler. Most of the tracks are unaccompanied fiddle with the exception of solo banjo on John Henry and vocals on  Bed of Primroses and How the Squire Courted Nancy. Otherwise, the CD is an old-time fiddle player's dream. I knew I was in for something special when I heard Wounded Hoosier. It is a beautiful ancient-sounding melody played in DDAD on the violin. It is the same melody as Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies played by my favorite fiddler, Edden Hammons. Incidentally, it's the tune that my wife and I selected for our wedding processional. So I guess I'm biased. He also plays the tune closely associated with historical banjo figure Dan Emmett called Boatsman out of DDAD. One defining characteristic of these DDAD tunes is the pitch of the low string. It is a full octave lower than its neighboring D-string. The effect is a low bagpipe-like drone. It's an utterly hypnotic sound.

In addition to DDAD, Marcus Martin played heavily in non-standard cross tunings. This is always a mysterious beautiful sound to behold, especially in a modern fiddle culture dominated by bluegrass violin. There is no better example of Martin's rhythmic artistry within one of these tunings than the title track itself. When I Get My New House Done is played in the Calico tuning of GDGB and sounds like a cyclical, surreal vacuum of sonic wizard work that's fiddling a reel with my very sanity. How can you not love a tune that's capable of that? Two more tunes in the Calico tuning on this recording are Sandy River and Calico.  When Alan Lomax recorded this version of Calico, Martin noted "there's a piece of music called ‘Calico' that's as old as the hills...That's one of the first tunes I ever learned to play when I started playing the violin. I learned that from my father...He used to play it in this key." Listening to this recording will take you through a time tunnel and leave you at the very edge of awe and wonder.

David Bragger is a Los Angeles-based instructor and player of old time fiddle and banjo music. He also photographs, films, and collects the lore of traditional artists, from puppeteers in Myanmar to fiddlers of Appalachia


All Columns by David Bragger