to the past
For Gordon McCann
the fiddle opens door to Ozarks history
hes not recording music, Gordon is often playing at music parties
and musician jams.
A half dozen men sit just outside
the large open doors of the Mansfield Auto Auction as Gordon McCann walks
up to the group, sets his guitar case down and warmly shakes hands. The
conversation centers mostly on the continuing warm, dry Ozarks fall.
Soon a teenage girl walks by
and flashes a grin at the men who jump up, grab musical instrument cases
and follow her inside. Theres our fiddle player, Gordon
Its Thursday night in
the small south-central Missouri town which means its time for the
Mansfield Jamboree which brings together local musicians of all styles
and talents to jam together. Also gathered are square dancers who take
advantage of the good live music.
McCann is a familiar figure
among the musicians. Hes played guitar here many times and assumes
his usual role as the second, or accompanist, to the fiddle
player who this night is 13-year-old Rachel Hoagland from nearby Seymour.
Gordon, 71, has sat in this
seat, figuratively, for more than 30 years. Hes probably best known
for traveling the country accompanying well-known Ozarks traditional fiddler
Art Galbraith. The pair, long a fixture of folk festivals, fairs and traditional
American music concerts, began playing together in the late 70s
and continued until Galbraiths death in 1993.
But even more than his love
of playing guitar, Gordon collects the history of the fiddle in the Ozarks
and has become one of the countrys most knowledgeable experts on
traditional American fiddle tunes.
Nothing has the tradition
behind it like the fiddle, says Gordon. Its a very versatile
instrument. You can express just about any kind of emotion with the thing.
For three decades Gordon has
traveled the Ozarks recording fiddlers and playing alongside them. He
estimates he has more than 3,000 hours of recorded music and conversation
with better than 500 musicians. Dating back to 1974, Gordons recordings
are irreplaceable links to a past that every year becomes more rare as
the old-time fiddle players pass away.
For Gordon, fiddle music is
a doorway into the history of the Ozarks that he knows intimately and
in which his ancestors participated for generations. Family members on
his mothers side fought for the Confederacy while those on his fathers
side were Union. His mothers family have lived in the Ozarks since
McCann has spent 30 years recording and studying Ozarks fiddle tunes
and the musicians behind them.
Gordons father, Charles,
founded Springfield Blue Print and Photocopy Company in the depths of
the Depression in 1930. Gordon took over the company from his dad and
managed it until his retirement in 1995. Today the company is managed
by Gordons son and has been in business for 71 years.
Gordons mother taught
him as a child to appreciate family history and to read voraciously. Thats
resulted in Gordon amassing a huge library of books about Ozarks history,
folk life and music. The basement of Gordons Springfield home is
stacked floor to ceiling with shelves loaded with books while gray metal
cabinets are filled to capacity with cassette and video tapes and a large
cartographic cabinet is filled with his collection of historic Missouri
and Arkansas maps.
Its in his basement that
Gordon has spent countless hours transcribing tape-recorded conversations
with fiddlers. Hes also entering information about tunes into a
database, now containing more than 50,000 entries.
Ive gone back through
nearly all the tapes now and listened to them again and put them on computer,
says Gordon. Its amazing. I can listen and Im right
back there again.
Gordon records not only fiddle
tunes but also conversations among musicians as well as interviews. The
tapes are a time capsule of life in the Ozarks.
A lot of these people
have been gone since the 70s and they were talking about things
back in the 1890s and the turn of the century people, dances and
This year the Missouri Arts
Council recognized Gordon with a Missouri Arts Leadership Award, one of
four such awards this year. Gordon is only the second folklorist to be
recognized by the Arts Council with the award.
Gordon says the downfall
of his life began in 1974 when, out of curiosity, he went to the Emmanuel
Woods Ozark Opry on the square in Ozark, south of Springfield. The Opry
was a gathering of musicians who played in an empty storefront.
It had a light bulb hanging
from the ceiling, an old pot-bellied stove in the back and a mixture of
all sorts of couches and chairs. The musicians sat in a circle up in front
and Ill always remember the plate glass was cracked and had been
duct taped and I was afraid it was going to come down. It didnt.
It was at the Opry in Ozark
that Gordon first recorded tunes, not as a way to preserve history, but
to learn. He listened to the tapes at home to learn the tunes. Soon, he
says, he became brave enough to play with the musicians. Thats where
he met Art Galbraith and their partnership began.
With Gordon on guitar and Art
on the fiddle, the two played at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in
Washington, D.C., as well as at the world-renowned Wolf Trap National
Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia. They also played for many years
at the Frontier Folklife Festival in St. Louis and toured the Midwest
together performing for the MidAmerica Arts Alliance.
Art, a Green County native,
played the fiddle from age 10 and entertained at music parties and barn
dances throughout his life. Gordon is fascinated by how the music passed
from generation to generation and from musician to musician, just as Art
learned to play not by lessons but by watching.
Fiddlers play tunes that
are 400 and 500 years old. The same melody. Theyve held their identity
because few musicians read music. Its come ear to ear, Gordon
Although many of the Ozarks
great fiddle players like Lonnie Robertson of Long Run, Raymond Campbell
from Ozark and Galbraith are no longer with us, there is an amazing revival
of sorts underway. There have always been music
parties in homes for as long as people have lived in the Ozarks, but
now there are dozens of new gatherings of musicians along with long-established
The Mansfield Jamboree is one
such new gathering. Gordon says all these opportunities to play have encouraged
older musicians to pull the fiddle out from beneath the bed.
And visitors to a music jam, like the one in Mansfield, will likely find
Gordon with his tape recorder rolling and his guitar in hand.
You know, the fiddler
wasnt always looked on very well. To some he was their savior as
far as entertainment was concerned. To others he was the devil in disguise.
But for so many isolated people living between these mountains, you were
awful lucky if you had a fiddler in your community, says Gordon.