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The Merry Fiddler: 1937

The Merry Fiddler: 1937

1937. "Mrs. Mary McLean, Skyline Farms, Alabama." 35mm nitrate negative by Ben Shahn for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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A Wonderful Smile

While many superficial people would pass her by but that smile would have me captivated. I would make myself known to her and ask her for a spirited rendition of Alabama Jubilee on her fiddle and a dance later on.

Ben Shahn's work

Fans of Ben Shahn's photography and fine art might consider a visit to the Facebook page dedicated to his work:

I will share this Shorpy post with fans there.

Chin Rest

This photo is one of a series:

Some of the photos make me wonder whether she might be blind, which was a common motivation to take up music as a source of income or to relieve boredom. It's unfortunate that Ben Shahn's field notes don't appear to be with the photos.

This photo: ...shows why she doesn't need a chin rest. This is one of several non-chin positions used by traditional fiddlers. It is less tiring when playing lengthy square dances or play parties, which typically lasted many hours. The position is more relaxed, and allows changing strings by rocking the fiddle instead of the bow. It normally doesn't allow fingering higher positions, which aren't usually played in these styles.

Also note the unconventional bow hold, which you see with many traditional fiddlers:

Even more from Skyline Farms:

Another source:

I messed with the fiddle many years ago, including similar relaxed holds, but life got in the way.

Beyond folk

The bridge is not standard and all the tuning pegs are different like they were hand whittled. I wonder if the lower strings are wound gut?

Your basic violin

No chin rest, no fine tuner on the E-string, probably no shoulder rest, either, and who knows what the poor soul uses for rosin?

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