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Rural Missouri Magazine
Doorway to the past
For Gordon McCann
the fiddle opens door to Ozarks history

by Jeff Joiner

When he’s 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. “There’s our fiddle player,” Gordon says.

It’s Thursday night in the small south-central Missouri town which means it’s 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. He’s 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. He’s 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 Galbraith’s 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 country’s most knowledgeable experts on traditional American fiddle tunes.

“Nothing has the tradition behind it like the fiddle,” says Gordon. “It’s 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, Gordon’s 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 mother’s side fought for the Confederacy while those on his father’s side were Union. His mother’s family have lived in the Ozarks since the 1820s.

Gordon McCann has spent 30 years recording and studying Ozarks fiddle tunes and the musicians behind them.

Gordon’s 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 Gordon’s son and has been in business for 71 years.

Gordon’s mother taught him as a child to appreciate family history and to read voraciously. That’s resulted in Gordon amassing a huge library of books about Ozarks history, folk life and music. The basement of Gordon’s 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.

It’s in his basement that Gordon has spent countless hours transcribing tape-recorded conversations with fiddlers. He’s also entering information about tunes into a database, now containing more than 50,000 entries.

“I’ve gone back through nearly all the tapes now and listened to them again and put them on computer,” says Gordon. “It’s amazing. I can listen and I’m 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 lifestyle.”

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 I’ll always remember the plate glass was cracked and had been duct taped and I was afraid it was going to come down. It didn’t.”

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. That’s 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. They’ve held their identity because few musicians read music. It’s come ear to ear,” Gordon says.

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 music jams.

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 wasn’t 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.

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