Keeping the Dream Alive

Professor Emeritus Howard Marshall releases a new book on twentieth-century Missouri fiddling.

man with fiddle

Author and Professor Emeritus Howard Marshall is one in a long line of fiddlers associated with Mizzou. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

In 1830, nine years before the University of Missouri was founded, folklorist Howard Marshall’s ancestors settled in mid-Missouri. Ever since, at least one fiddler has come along in every generation. Marshall, BA ’70, is one such musician. The professor emeritus of art history and archaeology not only performs hundreds of tunes by heart, he recently published a second volume of musical history, Fiddler’s Dream: Old-Time, Swing and Bluegrass Fiddling in Twentieth-Century Missouri (University of Missouri Press, 2017).

As the title implies, traditional fiddling isn’t static but rather evolves as fiddlers pick up ideas from other styles. Even Mizzou played its part in the cross pollination, Marshall says. “Fiddlers around Columbia had a unique opportunity to hang out with faculty from the music school, as well as jazz and swing musicians.” Since the 1920s, those influences have manifested themselves in the playing of local old-time fiddlers, including some great ones who labored with their hands on campus.

“Mizzou had probably the most famous custodian of the 1940s and ’50s, Cleo Persinger,” Marshall says. In 1964, he became Missouri’s first national champion fiddler. “Cleo was a handsome man and a magnetic character.” He was the sort of person who attended concerts of classical violinists such as Albert Spalding and met them to pay his respects. “A lot of people remembered Cleo as a custodian,” Marshall says, “and never knew he played the fiddle.”

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