Black and white photo of man in suit playing violin
John Baltzell: Knox County fiddler John Baltzell became nationally known in the 1920s, making extensive radio broadcasts and records. He learned much about fiddling directly from Dan Emmett.

MOUNT VERNON — Though not always looked at as a proper member of society, the fiddler was once central to rural American social life.

Fiddle players provided the music and calling that fueled the dances which were places of entertainment, blowing off steam, and very often, places for young couples to meet and begin relationships.

As we’ve talked about previously in History Knox, such figures as musicians Dan Emmett and Orrin Pharris were important in the life of central Ohio and beyond.

Music mattered.

It is thus with great delight that I can report a fiddler from Knox County of whom I was previously unaware. Dr. Howard Sacks from Kenyon College contacted me to let me know about fiddler John Baltzell, and an important milestone:

This week marks 100 years since Baltzell made his first record!

I am indebted to Howard for information about Baltzell, who was new to me, but who has been thoroughly researched by Dr. Sacks.

As many people know, my main musical arena is classical music, where I have written for years as a music critic covering such ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, and more.

I also give music appreciation talks for the Knox County Symphony, the Mansfield Symphony, and others. But I do have an interest in the folk music of Appalachia, due to my own family roots.

My father has developed arthritis in his hands, but back in the day, he was a fine Bluegrass fiddler, banjo player, and guitarist. My uncle Leo Hall was a fiddler. My great-grandfather, Willie Snipes, was an Eastern Kentucky clawhammer banjo player.

I am a cousin to Loretta Lynn and Art Stamper. I am probably also a cousin to Appalachian guitarist and singer Dock Boggs, though the Boggs family tree is such a tangled mess, it’s hard to say for sure.

So this kind of music means a lot to me.

Early folk music recordings are fascinating, for you’re catching a glimpse of surviving history through the dim technology of primitive recordings.

When you hear a fiddler like John Carson singing “The Farmer is the Man that Feeds Them All” or playing “The Arkansas Traveler,” you are hearing a voice from a different, lost age.

When I heard an early record of Kentucky fiddler Ed Morrison playing the traditional version of “Blackberry Blossom,” I knew it was the same song my distant cousin John Jay Jordan heard General James A. Garfield whistle when Jordan was a scout for Garfield’s expedition up the Big Sandy river valley in eastern Kentucky during the Civil War.

The reason? Morrison’s father learned the tune on that march from Garfield himself.

Such music has a way of erasing the walls of time.

Thomas Edison: Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, invited Baltzell to make his first record in 1923.

The occasion this week for just such a magical moment is the one hundredth anniversary of John Baltzell making his first recording, for Edison Records.

Baltzell recorded a medley of square dance reels leading off with the tune “Money Musk” in the Edison Records studio in New York City on Sept. 7, 1923.

It was the culmination of a growing reputation for Baltzell, who came from Knox County.

Working with Edison Records may actually have held back Baltzell’s popularity. And the reason is the same old curse of competing technologies (Betamax vs VHS, for those of us of a certain age, or Mac vs Windows for you young ‘uns.).

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he did so with a recording diaphragm balanced against a recording stylus. The vibration of soundwaves against the stylus caused the stylus to jab up and down into a beeswax cylinder.

The playback device worked in the same way. In time, flat shellac records replaced wax cylinders, and proved both cheaper to make and more reliable.

Edison was an aggressive, some would say unscrupulous, businessman, and he resisted the change to flat records.

Records were so obviously superior to cylinders Edison had to yield and start putting out records with his own company.

But Edison insisted on keeping his original recording process, with the up-and-down cutting needle, which became known as the “diamond disc” method.

Victor records — his main competitor — used a new technology which transferred the soundwaves obliquely, making the record grooves move side-to-side instead of up-and-down.

The result quickly gained market dominance. Not only were Victor’s records better sounding than Edison’s, they were cut at a slightly slower speed — 78 revolutions per minute — then Edison’s 80 rpm.

The Victor phonograph replaced the Edison system as the dominant technology.

Edison diamond discs didn’t play correctly on Victor machines, but the Victor machines got the upper hand in the market. Edison Records eventually went out of business in 1929.

While John Baltzell made numerous records for Edison, he also made some for other labels.

In total, he recorded over 40 sides, over 30 of which were released commercially, making him one of the most-recorded country fiddlers of the 1920s. They helped Baltzell become nationally famous.

The unpleasant side of this story is that Baltzell and other white folk fiddlers came to some of their prominence because of a rich, racist industrialist.

None other than automobile maven Henry Ford stood behind the folk music resurgence of the 1920s.

Ford was not an open-minded individual, and he was horrified by the spread of Jazz across the U.S. during the decade that has been called “The Jazz Age.”

Henry Ford: Though his reasons were racist, Henry Ford did much to promote country fiddlers in the 1920s,
including funding fiddle contests.

Jazz, a creative meeting of African and European musical roots, was becoming the quintessential American music, and Ford hated it. He wanted to support a popular music that was “more traditional” (meaning “more white”) and, having lots of money, bankrolled fiddle competitions and events all over the country to promote musicians like Baltzell.

There’s no question that the folk music boom of the 1920s benefitted Baltzell. He ended up playing frequently throughout the lower Midwest, and sometimes beyond. He regularly played a radio show out of Columbus, Ohio, that was followed by listeners in many states.

His records were distributed even further.

So, who was John Baltzell? According to Dr. Sacks’ research, Baltzell was born in Harrison Township on Sept. 23, 1860.

He grew up in a log cabin, the son of shoemaker Archibald Baltzell, originally from Pennsylvania, and his wife Amanda (nee Scoles) of Bladensburg. John was the fourth of nine children.

John showed an interest in music early, playing with cheaply-made cornstalk fiddles, until he could trade for a used real fiddle he found being used as a toy by neighbor children.

He repaired the instrument and began learning properly. Soon he was an adult, struggling to find work in the stagnant economy of the 1870s.

Instead, he found a wife, Mary Amanda Whitney of Danville, and they moved into Mount Vernon, where John got a job as a boilermaker in the Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse.

When Dan Emmett retired to Mount Vernon in 1888, he became friends and musical partner with John Baltzell. (Image source: Wikipedia.)

After Dan Emmett retired from his minstrel career in 1888, he returned home to Mount Vernon, and it was during this period that he and Baltzell became friends, regularly getting together to play music, a great learning experience for Baltzell.

It was said that old Uncle Dan would show up with a pocketful of lemons for lemonade, and Mary Amanda would cook fried chicken, Emmett’s favorite dish. As Baltzell became more experienced, he became a popular fixture at dances in the old city hall on the square or at the Oak Hill School House on Gambier Street.

For many years, Baltzell’s activity was mainly local.

As Ford-funded fiddle contests popped up all over the country in the 1920s, Baltzell’s career expanded when he won both Ohio and Kentucky state fiddling competitions.

He became in demand all over the region, especially once he also began playing on the radio and making records. The connection between Baltzell and Edison Records likely came about because of Henry Ford himself, a good friend of Thomas Edison.

“We have often talked about your kind and courteous treatment of us while there and for which we are very thankful,” Baltzell wrote to Edison and his staff after the recording session.

“Over the next few years, he recorded sides for a number of labels, including some test recordings (never released) for Victor.

It was with just such a handmade toy instrument as this cornstalk fiddle that John Baltzell got his
start as a child.

His most lucrative sessions came in 1928, when he received $50 for travel expenses for each of two multiple-day trips to New York City, then $50 per record side for eight sides in the first session and 14 sides in the second.

That’s a payout of $1,200, which as Dr. Sacks points out was good money for a country fiddler of the period. It would amount to a paycheck of over $20,000 in today’s money.

But Baltzell’s national career was soon to disappear, for two big reasons.

One was that as modern fiddle styles began to incorporate more of the influence of jazz and blues (which would soon lead to Bill Monroe’s creation of the style known as Bluegrass), old-time players like Baltzell fell out of fashion.

Regardless, though, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 nearly ended the recording industry, and it was years before Americans could afford records, thanks to the following Great Depression.

Baltzell’s run was over by then, and he passed away in 1940.

Several of Baltzell’s records can be heard on You Tube. His first, “Money Musk,” can be heard here.

YouTube video

It is a little bogged down, though, by his studio accompanist, John Burckhardt, an
employee of the Edison studio who often accompanied fiddlers.

His plodding presence and unfamiliarity with Baltzell seems to inhibit the fiddler. Better are later solo recordings such as the “Sailor’s Hornpipe,” which shows how lively his style could be.

YouTube video

The irony is that Baltzell clearly had a great feel for suddenly accented offbeats, known in music theory as “syncopations.”

He may have learned those rollicking touches from Dan Emmett and other early fiddlers, but they are a stylistic element that traces back to the African influence on American music.

The characteristic American fiddle style was created by using African syncopations to create accents and offbeats by emphasizing and/or dropping notes in the continuous reels of the British fiddle music brought to the Appalachians by early white settlers.

Take that, Henry Ford!

One of Baltzell’s late recordings, “The Starlight Waltz,” shows how intricate and sophisticated his style was, making use of chords, decorative roulades, pizzicato notes, and trills.

YouTube video

He was clearly an accomplished musician, one who deserves to be better known.

As Sacks points out in his excellent article “John Baltzell, a Country Fiddler from the Heartland,” which he wrote for The Journal of Country Music, scholars of early fiddle recordings have favored Southern players, while the only Northern player among the early practitioners, Baltzell, has been largely ignored.

We can all help change that by going and listening to some of his music, and celebrating it.

When we listen to Baltzell’s records in the 21st century, we are hearing a musician of the 19th century, one who may well have remembered growing up during the Civil War, a man who regularly played music with the retired Dan Emmett.

These records are time machines to another era, a time when farmers and town folk gathered at a local barn or school house on Saturday nights to relieve the stress of life with music and dancing.

Thanks to Howard Sacks, we can all take a trip in those time machines this week, and discover how close the past can sometimes feel, as we salute Knox County musician John Baltzell.