Recently, I traded e-mails with my friend David Holt of Ashville, NC, who still travels and performs with guitarist Doc Watson and others. David had run across a reference in a book by British music historian and writer Tony Russell to Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, who is known as the person to make the first commercial recording of authentic country / old-time music. David noted that a photograph I had taken in the 1960s was used in the book, and asked for a copy, along with any recollections of Eck when I met him.
Yes, I took that photo of Eck at UCLA in ’64, I believe. He was attending their 1964 folk festival with one of his sons. It was just
amazing to see him in person. He was a true showman, and he loved to talk. He felt no compunction against telling everyone who would listen that he was the greatest fiddler, period. Actually, I still sort of agree with him on that (albeit that the concept “greatest” is a bit absurd to my thinking). I have a mint copy of his Victor recording of “Sallie Gooden”. Every time I listen to it, I get this feeling of listening to a magic section of time; a miracle, if you will. I am always transported to that early afternoon in New York City, July 1st, 1922, the day after he stormed the studio with his partner Henry Gilliland and demanded to be recorded.
Anyways, Eck did talk quite a bit, with great animation, about fiddling — demonstrating his lectures with short pieces of music. He was a bit frail, but when his fingers touched the fiddle, his bowing was still rock solid. He’d slowed down a bit, but the tone was still there. He had fashioned a leather strap that went from the end piece of the fiddle and circled around his neck — I suppose to help him hold it in place while he played. The thing is that, after playing a tune in demonstration, he would suddenly let go of his instrument and the fiddle would swing back and forth in front of his chest like the pendulum of a grandfather clock . . . while he continued his lecture — somewhat disconcerting to his listeners, though remaining oblivious to the impression he was creating for his audience! A real showman, as I mentioned.
My friend Byron Berline, who based his “Sally Goodin” on Eck’s version, met him at various contests that his dad would take him to. He recalled some of Eck’s antics (tossing the fiddle, balancing the bow on his nose, etc.) and mentioned that at one event, when Eck was due to perform on-stage in five minutes, Byron found him behind the stage with the fiddle completely disassembled; Eck was whittling on the bridge with a jackknife, completely unconcerned with the short time due before his performance.
I still consider Eck as one of the finest fiddlers that ever recorded, and still listen to his “Sallie Gooden” with amazement.