1886-1975 - Amarillo, Texas
Eck Robertson was one of the most noteworthy fiddlers I have run across, because there is so much incredible history surrounding a man whose fiddling almost transcended the Old-Time style. Eck was an accomplished talent, and played many parts of his tunes in second or third position, a convention much more common to Classical style playing than Old-Time. Eck is also credited with being the first recorded country artist (see below).
We are also fortunate that Eck was around and still in fine fiddling form during the folk revival in the 1960s and 70s. The following article came from the LP liner notes of County 202 - Eck Robertson, Famous Cowboy Fiddler:
Eck Robertson's musical career spanned eight decades. He was an accomplished musician by the turn of the century and entered the ranks of the professional entertainer by 1910. He was easy with a joke, quick to tell a funny story and confident of his ability as a fiddler. He was never content to simply play the old tunes repetitiously; he always experimented and expanded the boundaries of his musical tradition, but he never strayed too far from the core.
Eck, as evidenced by his repertoire and fiddling style, was firmly established within the larger tradition of late 19th century southern fiddling. Although he helped establish what is today called the "Texas style" of fiddling, his musical heritage and influence extended well beyond the southwest.
[The sound sample included here exhibits a mere snippet of Eck's phenomenal mastery of the fiddle.]
Eck Robertson was, first and foremost, one of America's great folk fiddlers. And through his music and his history a great deal can be learned about the folk tradition of fiddle playing, and the historic and cultural matrix within which it flourished.
Eck Robertson is famous as the first person to record a commercial country music record. This he did, in company with fellow fiddler Henry C. Gilliland, on June 30 and July 1,1922, for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studios. Eck and Gilliland, a Civil War veteran from Altus, Oklahoma, after entertaining veterans at the 1922 Old Confederate Soldiers' Reunion in Richmond, Virginia, decided to go to New York for the express purpose of making records. Gilliland, a former justice of the peace, knew an influential lawyer there named Martin W. Littleton. After their first night in New York, the two men stayed with Littleton who provided them with grand tours of the city, including a visit to the Steinway piano factory, a visit Eck remembered fondly forty years later. The image of Gilliland and Eck touring New York, attired respectively in full dress Confederate uniform and flashy western "regalia" (satin fuchsia shirt with pearl studs, wide-brimmed black hat, leather cuffs and pants tucked into high-topped boots) and undoubtedly carrying fiddle cases, would be striking even today.
Just how much influence Littleton exerted to get the two fiddlers an audition for Victor is not known, but Littleton did, on occasion, do legal work for the company. Eck recalled that Littleton's "lawyer" first introduced he and Gilliland to the Victor people and that when he first appeared for an audition, the Victor manager insisted he take out his violin right then and there:
And he did.
Eck and Gilliland recorded "Arkansas Traveler"and "Turkey in the Straw''on June 30th,with Gilliland playing the melody and Eck a high harmony. The next day Eck returned alone, this time recording "Sallie Gooden" and "Ragtime Annie" solo, and two additional tunes accompanied by a studio piano player. Two tunes from these sessions, "Sallie Gooden" and "Arkansas Traveler," were released in April, 1923, thus becoming the first commercial record ever released by a country musician. Eck stayed in New York ten days, finally returning home to Vernon, Texas, full of memories and stories.
It was seven years before Eck recorded again, this time in Dallas with his family band. Most historical accounts about Eck Robertson stop after this as if he and his music ceased to exist beyond 1929. However, such was certainly not the case.
Eck promoted himself heavily as the "World's Famous Cowboy Fiddler, Victor Record and Radio Artist" during this time, and advertised the family band as "A Novelty Musical Program Playing Old Time Melodies, Trick and Stunt Fiddling, Singing and Dancing," and promised, "If You Don't Laugh, We Will Call the Doctor!."
Eck had two special tricks he did while fiddling. One was the "normal" trick fiddling; tossing the fiddle or the bow in the air, catching it and not missing a beat, playing behind the back, fiddling while "laying down on the stage and doing somersets" and so forth. He played the tune "Pop Goes the Weasel" for this performance. His other trick was to make his fiddle talk. On many show flyers he asked the question, "Have you ever heard a fiddle talk?" He remembered:
Eck explained this trick to an incredulous Mike Seeger:
Eck apparently learned this trick from a classical violinist he met during his medicine show travels. The family band disbanded around the beginning of World War II and shortly before Dueron [Eck's son], was killed, Eck and Nettie (who was working at the Pantex ordinance plant in Amarillo) separated. Eck never remarried.
The next two decades, through the 1950s and until his rediscovery by old-time music enthusiasts and folklorists in the early-1960s, were fairly dry years musically for Eck and the family. Eck continued to tune pianos for the Tolzien Music Company in Amarillo, and to repair and rebuild fiddles and other stringed instruments in his home shop. He was occasionally featured as a special guest at the fiddle contests that were sprouting throughout Texas. The brochure advertising the "Hale Center 4th of July Homecoming Celebration with All-American Fiddlers Contest" (ca .1963) proclaims: "The best fiddlers come from the country where folks scratch themselves for entertainment and aren't ashamed of it!" and "There's nothing more American than Fiddle Music." The flyer also features a photo of Eck Robertson with the following caption:
By the 1960s, Eck was relegated to the role of elder statesman, special guest and pioneer recording artist. The family was gone and popular venues for either old-time fiddling or vaudeville style entertainment were scarce. When Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz visited Eck in 1963, he was seventy-six years old. The next year he performed at the UCLA Folk Festival, and in 1965 he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. Even then he was still plenty able to charm an audience with his music and talk.
Eck's last few years were hard on both him and his family. After his house and shop in Amarillo nearly burned to the ground, Eck moved into a rest home. While there, his favorite fiddle, a Steiner he rebuilt, was stolen. He apparently received comfort from just holding a fiddle, because he was never without one, even in his last days. But having his fiddle stolen caused him to take precautions. Doyle Davis remembers:
Beulah [Davis] continues:
And Doyle concludes:
Eck Robertson died February 15,1975 at the age of eighty-eight. Inscribed on his tombstone in Fritch, Texas, is the epitaph "World's Champion Fiddler."
This County CD features Eck's commercial recordings from 1922-1929, including Sallie Gooden, Done Gone, Texas Wagoner, Brilliancy Medley, and more. This is Eck in his prime, and the quality of his fiddling will take your breath away! Comprehensive notes and photos included. Now, if only we can talk County Records into re-releasing Eck's later recordings recorded by Mike Seeger (the aforementioned County LP 202).