“FIDDLE STICKS,” YOU SAY!
By Norris Chambers
Most people have heard the expression, “Aw, fiddle sticks!” without really thinking about what it means. I guess many think that a fiddle stick is the fiddle bow. But why would you refer to more than one? I’ve known about fiddle sticks as long as I can remember. When I hear someone say “fiddle sticks!” I think about the old country dances.
Preparing for a country dance in the old days required a lot of work. The first thing that the family preparing to host a community shin dig had to do was remove all of the furniture from the main dance room. This was usually the “front room” or parlor. Most houses didn’t have enough room in the house to store all of it so larger items were removed and placed in the barn or in the yard, depending on the weather. The music and dancing was usually confined to one room but there was always overflow into adjoining rooms and the kitchen. Straight back chairs and benches were placed along the walls for those who were not dancing. A few chairs were provided in one corner for the musicians.
Usually the host provided home baked cookies and lemonade or some sort of punch. Although it was frowned upon, there were those who brought alcoholic drinks and also those who drank too much. These drinkers often became rowdy and engaged in bad language and fighting.
In the early and middle thirties the music was usually a fiddle and a guitar. Sometimes there was a banjo or mandolin and occasionally an accordion. There seemed to be more fiddle players in some areas and no guitars or other stringed instruments. When this occurred the rhythm of the music was enhanced by the use of fiddle sticks or straw beaters.
The straw beater used two small sticks about eight or ten inches long. As the fiddle player moved his bow across the strings and produced the melody the beater held the straws, or sticks, and with one in each hand tapped the beat on the strings between the bow and the fingering area.
This gave a sound similar to a stringed instrument playing with the fiddle and produced a better grade of music for the dancers.
The sticks, as they were called, varied from one beater to another. Many of them used knitting needles either wooden or metal. Some used straight pieces of wire. When small welding rods became available they made excellent fiddle sticks. Some old timers referred to the sticks as straws. Perhaps at one time certain types of straws were used for that purpose.
When no other instrument was present and a beater was to perform the fiddle was sometimes tuned differently for better sound. With the straw tuning only one musical key was practical and was played mostly on the high side of the fiddle. The two strings on the other side were tuned to the selected key. This produced the effect of the sound produced by the sticks sounding like an instrument playing in the same key.
The straws or fiddle sticks gave the dancers excellent music for dancing the old breakdowns and waltzes.
Almost every week there was a dance, especially in the Summer. People who liked to dance came great distances by wagon, buggy, horseback or in later years in automobiles. Ordinarily the dance ended about midnight. Some of the dancers brought a few quilts with them and slept in the yard or in the buggy, wagon or old automobile that they used for transportation. The next morning there was a community breakfast. Everyone enjoyed the dancing, music and fellowship.
After we learned to play a little music Elbert Hall and I often played for some of these country dances. Just before the last dance was played the hat was passed around for a donation to the musicians. The change that was collected was small, but it usually added up to two or three dollars and we considered that good pay. We enjoyed the playing and would have been glad to do it for nothing.
Everybody had fun at those country dances whether someone beat straws with fiddle sticks or someone like Elbert played a guitar!