By Wayne Erbsen
Eck Robertson was a true fiddle master. Fortunately, he was unafraid to step up to the plate and say so.
The story begins shortly after the turn of the twentieth century when Amarillo, Texas, fiddler Eck Robertson honed his fiddle chops enough to start winning fiddler’s conventions. Competition at Texas fiddle contests was notoriously fierce, and winning any of them was no mean trick. One story has Robertson in a showdown playoff with the father of legendary fiddler Bob Wills. In a last-ditch effort to give himself an edge, legend has it that he broke off a piece of a wooden match and stuck it under one of his strings so that he could bow three strings at once. The trick worked and Robertson was victorious.
Many years before, Robertson’s father had fought for the Confederacy, and by 1919, Eck Robertson started attending reunions of Confederate veterans. In June 1922, Robertson traveled to a Confederate reunion in Richmond, Virginia. It was perhaps there that he met, or was reacquainted with, Henry Gilliland, who had fought in the Civil War and was later an Indian fighter and Justice of the Peace. Somehow, the pair decided to travel to New York to try to convince RCA Victor to let them make records. They were apparently undaunted by the fact that up to that point, no record company had shown the slightest interest in recording old-time music. To them, it wasn’t even a blip on the screen.
The staff at Victor must have been flabbergasted when Robertson and Gilliland showed up unannounced at their office, with Robertson dressed head-to-toe as a Confederate soldier and Gilliland wearing the authentic dress of a western Indian fighter, which he was. Trying to dispatch the pair with impunity, one of the Victor officials bustled into the waiting room and said to Robertson, “Young man, get your fiddle out and start off a tune.” Robertson responded by breaking into a rousing version of Sallie Gooden, a tune he had used to win many a fiddle contest in Texas. Robertson later recalled that, “I didn’t get to play half of Sallie Gooden, he just threw up his hands and stopped me. He said, ‘By Ned, that’s fine! Come back in the morning at 9 o’clock and we’ll make a test record.’”
The next day, June 30, 1922, Robertson and Gilliland returned and recorded Arkansas Traveler, Turkey in the Straw, Forked Deer, and Apple Blossom. Robertson alone returned the next day and recorded Sallie Gooden. With the September 1, 1922, release of Sallie Gooden, the fiddlers had truly broken new ground. The release marked the initial foray into recorded country music, albeit by a reluctant record company.
In retrospect, Robertson’s performance of Sallie Gooden justly deserves credit for being not only the first recording in country music, but also one of the very best. Even today, some 80 years later, few fiddlers have come up to the level of Robertson’s fiddling. Bill Monroe himself paid homage to Robertson’s skill when he rushed ace Oklahoma fiddler Byron Berline into the studio in 1967 and recorded Sally Goodin. Himself a renowned contest fiddler, Berline showed his own debt to Robertson by basically playing a slightly souped-up rendition of the original 1922 version of the tune.
Even today, virtually every fiddler who plays this standard fiddle piece in some way owes a debt to Eck Robertson. But even more than his influence on the tune itself, Robertson set an extremely high standard that fiddlers ever since have tried to follow.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.