Breathing new life into Missouri fiddling: John P. Williams

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Introduction

John P. Williams is an oldtime fiddler from Madison, Missouri who grew up deeply entrenched in the tradition of Missouri fiddling. John was a regular attendee of the Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp and apprenticed under Pete McMahan in the late 90’s as part of the Missouri Folk Arts Program. He studied under Missouri fiddlers Bob Holt, Vesta Johnson, Dwight Lamb, Taylor McBaine, Fred Stoneking, Johnny Bruce, Herman Johnson, and Charlie Walden. John is the youngest master artist in the Missouri Folk Arts Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and has been a master-artist four times. 

John and Kenny Applebee are lifelong friends. Kenny, who lives in Mexico, Missouri, played back-up guitar for an eight year old John, who was competing in his first fiddle contest. Kenny Applebee has played back-up with some of the region’s top fiddlers, including Pete McMahan, Nile Wilson, Vesta Johnson, Charlie Walden, and John White. He is a two-time master-artist with the Missouri Folk Arts apprenticeship program, and both Kenny and John have taught fiddle at the Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp, which is one of the oldest fiddle camps in the country and the only camp dedicated to the Missouri fiddling tradition. 

Contributor Rachel Krause visited with John and Kenny at John’s farm in mid-Missouri late last summer and learned a bit about their lives playing music together.

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I am John P. Williams, an old-time fiddler from the “Little Dixie” region of North Central Missouri. I’ve lived the majority of my life in rural Monroe County on the family farm and am a third-generation caretaker of beautiful pastures, woods, and creeks. Tradition, craftsmanship, and community have all been at the core of how I was raised. I spent many summers helping my paternal grandfather build wooden wheels, carriages, wagons, buggies, and carts from the ground up with raw materials. We would fell white oak trees in the woods on our property for my mother to build white oak baskets. I spent many evenings watching my Dad forge pieces of metal into useful tools. This may not have been a typical childhood experience for someone born in the 1980’s, but I wouldn’t trade a second of those experiences now.

One recurring theme, no matter if it was blacksmithing, basket weaving, or carriage building, is that we always had company. Sometimes it was a neighbor stopping by to check the progress on whatever project we were working on. Other times, it was grabbing a cup of coffee and talking about world affairs. More often than not, it was someone that was interested in what my family was doing and was there to help and either pick up or share some knowledge along the way. This has always stuck with me.

I might not have learned a hobby with a tangible end-product, but the eagerness to learn and share is just the same as that of my family and friends.

Growing up in North Central Missouri afforded me the opportunity of attending tons of fiddle contests and festivals at a very young age. The 1980’s was a big time for fiddling in Missouri. My maternal grandmother and mom would take me to every nearby fiddle contest or event as a kid. My first memories of fiddle music are from the contests in Paris (home of the first Missouri Championship) and the “Fiddle Fest” in Bethel. I’ve been told that I first asked for a fiddle around the age of four. I was persistent until my grandmother gave in and bought me my very first one when I was 7. Without having any ties to the fiddling community, my parents started me off with classical lessons and then formal Suzuki lessons. I hated it. I wanted to be a fiddler like all of those “old guys” stomping their feet and playing their hearts out on stage at the contests. Luckily, my violin instructor at the time was also a fan of fiddle music. So after I’d finish working on my classical piece for the day, we would go through a Mel Bay fiddle book and finally play something fun!

Because fiddling was really all that I was interested in, I worked up all of my “contest tunes” from my Mel Bay book and signed up for my first fiddle contest at the age of 8 at Bethel, Missouri. When I signed up for the junior division, they asked me who my accompanist was. My mother and I hadn’t thought of that and didn’t know any guitar players, so we asked around to find out who the best guitar player was. Without hesitation, everyone we asked answered, “Kenny Applebee.” I barely remember the contest and probably didn’t even place, but I remember Kenny being as patient and as kind as anyone could be to an 8-year-old kid who had no idea what he had gotten himself into. Kenny and I have been dear friends since and have played music together all across the Midwest.

John P. Williams and Kenny Applebee

In 1991, I attended the long-running Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp. It was the first time I was away from home that wasn’t with family. Heaven. I was able to study under all of my heroes I’d watched play on stage and spend the week with children my own age with the same hobby. What wasn’t there to like? I didn’t miss a year until I graduated from high school. I can’t possibly put into words how much the camp has shaped my fiddling, outlook, and circle of lifelong friends.

After six years of weekly Suzuki, with the emphasis shifting more towards fiddling, I took off on my own (with tons of help from my mother who is an accomplished piano player and musician herself). Many evenings were spent learning tunes from The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory books by R.P. Christeson, in front of a cassette player trying to learn tunes by ear from recordings, or destroying our old turntable with jars of pennies to slow down the platter (be sure to tune down when destroying vintage stereo equipment).

Many weekends, my parents drove me all over Missouri to contests, jams, and square dances. One particular get-together sticks with me. In 1994, there was an all-day jam and square dance in Wien, Missouri. All of the big Missouri fiddlers were there, and I was finally getting to a point to where I could sit in on a few tunes and play. My hard work was starting to pay off! Up until this weekend, I really didn’t have any connections with the inner sanctum of the music I so loved, and I had only really jammed with kids my own age. The “old guys” (or so I thought, as I’m that age now) started to take this punk kid seriously and a few patient ones took me under their wing. I had finally made my connections into the group that I had so admired for the entirety of my childhood.

Dr. Howard Marshall, Bill Shull, and Charlie Walden are the three individuals that stand out the most. Their eagerness to share their advice, knowledge, and resources was similar to what I encountered in my Dad’s blacksmith shop. I was constantly getting new cassettes and sheet music in the mail from those three and still do to this day. Howard and I have put tens of thousands of miles on his vehicles over the years traveling around the country, including driving the Lewis and Clark Trail to Seattle all the way to Voyager Records two days after my high school graduation.

In 1998, I was awarded an apprenticeship through the Missouri Folk Arts Program to study under Missouri fiddling legend, Pete McMahan. This is, without doubt, the most pivotal and influential part of my childhood that shaped my path as a fiddler. Pete was known all over the country for his inimitable drive, phrasing of a tune, personal touches, and beautiful, but abrasive double stops. He was the guy to try to beat at a contest, though it was doubtful you’d ever succeed. If you were competing against Pete, you were better off just playing your heart out and hoping for second place, at best.

After I graduated from high school, started college, got a full-time job, and learned all about the joys of adulthood, I didn’t have the same freedom and time to diligently practice as I once did. I was able to still hit most of all of the same events I had before, but life got busy. By the time I was 22, I had all but quit playing, save a contest here and there. During the next seven years I’d moved off the family farm, moved to a new state, learned some valuable life lessons and didn’t have a fiddle or bow in my hands more than a handful of times. At 29, that all changed. Big-city life, fast-paced lifestyle, and an overall state of unnecessary busyness just wasn’t my thing. So I went back – back to the family farm, back to simplicity, and back to the music I loved so much. I jumped in with both feet, reconnected with all of my friends, and worked on getting back into “fiddler shape.” I was living and breathing fiddle music again, just as I had as a kid, and it was amazing.

In 2014, I started to repay the gifts that the Missouri Folk Arts Program had given me as a teenager. I took on my first student through the very program that helped become the fiddler I am today. Since then, I’ve had three more students and find a lot of comfort in knowing the folk tradition is continuing into the next generation.

In 2020, here I am on the family farm in the home my paternal grandparents built with my music-loving and supportive bride. Together we’re raising the fourth generation of Williams. I love a lot of things about life here: the fiddle contests during the summer months, community jam sessions, informal music parties here at the farm, indoctrinating my students with the “culture” that Missouri fiddling and old-time music brings with it, and obsessively collecting all of the rare old-time fiddle recordings I can find. There aren’t many of us carrying the traditional Missouri fiddling torch nowadays and true regional Missouri fiddling is but a shadow of its former self. I’m hoping that this eagerness to share continues from others within this community, and most of all, I’m hoping to instill the same sense of tradition, community, inclusivity, and willingness-to-share in my daughter. 

I’m so thankful that I’ve been afforded so many opportunities as a fiddler living in Missouri at the time that I was growing up. I’ve travelled with local hero Leroy Canaday to contests (and enjoyed many a delicious slice of pie his wife Betty would have waiting for us when we would return.) I spent time with North Central Missouri fiddler Nile Wilson at his home in Bucklin, Missouri, learning regionally specific tunes and soaking up all of his stories and wisdom. I’ve loved every afternoon, evening, and late night at the Kenny Applebee farm playing music until our fingers hurt. My years at the Bethel Fiddle Camp getting one-on-one lessons from Bob Holt, Vesta Johnson, Dwight Lamb, Taylor McBaine, Fred Stoneking, Johnny Bruce, Herman Johnson, and a whole host of others are some of my favorite memories. 

I was and am so fortunate to grow up and live in such a traditionally rich region.

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