My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Harmony in Early Montana

This account was written in 1994 and published in the March-April 1995 issue of The Montana Journal. Uncle Bill Mackie was the typical "old-time" fiddler who played for the fun of it.


The human soul yearns for music, and the violin was the top-rated instrument of early Montana. People traveled miles on horseback, in buggies, sleighs, and yes, even on skis, to congregate for an evening's entertainment where the musician took priority. But in those days, the object wasn't called a violin, and the performer was a "fiddler." There were many of them, mostly men in those early days. My uncle, Bill Mackie, was the one I first knew.

His beloved violin, excuse me, fiddle, came with him in the pre-nineteen hundreds when he followed the logging companies as a young lumberjack to cut out the virgin timber from the north woods across the United States to the west coast of Washington. It was protected by a yellowed and dusty flour sack tied around the neck and hung on a wall by a string, and we kids had better not handle it nor put a grimy finger to the bow! As small children, my cousins and I learned to waltz to the strains of "My Wild Irish Rose" and "Over The Waves Waltz" but the rambunctious tempo of "Leather Britches," "The Devil's Dream," or "Turkey In The Straw," was better suited to our pent up energy. Fiddle and bow in hand, Uncle Bill would demonstrate the steps, then sit down and play while we entertained the family through the long Evaro winter evenings, be it polkas, schottisches, the two-step, or a more sedate Rye waltz.

Uncle Bill's first instrument was made from a cigar box when he was twelve years old in Ontario, Canada, he told us. Ranking high among his prized possessions, his violin seemed to come alive under his work worn fingers. And so did we. Occasionally he would grant us a special favor and play "The Tune Behind The Bridge." We would stick our fingers in our ears and wrinkle up our faces while he sawed back and forth across the strings behind the fiddle bridge. Two battling tom cats couldn't have made a worse noise, but it gave us all a laugh to end the evening. Later I decided to master the fiddle, but my efforts brought forth such remarks as, "That must have been the tune the cow died on!" And the dogs crawled under the porch and howled.

Charlie Stevenson was a well-remembered fiddler who lived in the Arlee area. He seemed to have no family, but he had a horse and buggy and willingly drove about the country to play solo for the neighborhood dances. He asked only hay for his horse, a couple dollars if available, and midnight lunch. Someone was sure to provide a nip or two from a bottle of "spirits," after which Charlie would go to sleep and play the same old waltz over and over until somebody woke him up and started him off on a new one.

Mildred played the accordion on her twenty-fifth birthday, she preferred to play the fiddle.There were musical instruments from pocket size to baby grand pianos, but the latter were few and far between. Some families who owned a pump organ would wrap the thing in quilts and haul it to the party in a horse-drawn sleigh. Mouth harps could be had from a foot-long, double reed article for accomplished and windy performers to the ten-cent, tuneless variety that small fry delighted in and drove their mothers crazy. "Squeeze box" music (accordion) was an occasional treat, but few people had money enough to buy one. I've danced miles to these objects and lacking one of them, the twang of a Jews harp or even humming through a tissue paper on a comb could bring forth rhythm. Some people may bring forth notes from a hand saw and a violin bow that amount to torture or sounds from Heaven.

Music is communication whether by Indian drummers, yodelers, bird song, or bells. With the advent of radio and television, the old-time instruments were laid aside and for a while, all but forgotten. And some generations past missed something not to be captured, not to be contained, except in our memories.