Alabama Folkways Articles

November, 1996


By Joyce Cauthen

Henry Lee Hudson, an old-time fiddler of Clarke County, died last month at the age of 89. He was a long, lanky man who seemed mostly knees and elbows as he played at home, at church, and at community functions like Fulton's "Sawmill Days."

I first met Mr. Hudson, a retired sawmill worker, in 1986 when my husband and I were doing research for my book on old-time fiddling in Alabama. I had read wonderful descriptions in the Clarke County Democrat of fiddlers' conventions in the 1930s with their huge crowds, good fiddlers, hog-calling and liar's contests ,and personable Masters of Ceremony such as Probate Judge Coma Garrett, Jr. When a friend told me about an old fiddler in Clarke County named Henry Lee Hudson, I checked my notes and there he was, a winner at New Prospect in 1936. Upon visiting him, I found his style and knowledge reached much further back than the '30s. To me he became a living link to nineteenth-century fiddling.

For one thing, he retuned his fiddle to play in particular keys. This was a common practice among Alabama's early fiddlers. Doing so not only made the fingerings the same in each key, but it also changed the tone of the instrument, adding a drone and making it sound louder, a vital quality for dance fiddlers prior to the advent of electric amplifiers. "Cross tuning" had died out among most fiddlers by the 1930s, but Mr. Hudson continued to play tunes just as he learned them from his father, Joseph W. Hudson, born in 1860.

He said tunes like "Natchez Under the Hill," "Forked Deer," and "Leather Breeches" were old when his father played them and were "double old" now. My favorite of these tunes is "Messenger," an archaic sounding tune his father played at dances long before guitar became the standard accompaniment to fiddles. Joseph Hudson's brother played a second fiddle part with its own rhythmic patterns, making it a resounding piece that surely pleased the crowds at the dances held in homes around Bassett Creek, Fulton, and Thomasville. Henry Lee knew both parts and taught them to my husband so that the tune could be played as a duet once more.

From his father he also learned to fiddle "Murillo's Lesson" and other "fa-so-la" hymns from The Sacred Harp, published in 1844. Mr. Hudson loved to sing hymns and though old age took that ability from him, he continued to play them on the fiddle, often performing for his church, Basset Creek Baptist, the second oldest Baptist church in the state.

Mr. Hudson's long memory provided me a piece of information that thrilled me. I had read in 19th century Clarke County newspapers of one Gus Rhodes, Thomasville's "master violinist" who played at all the fancy balls in the area. When I asked if he had heard of Gus Rhodes, Mr. Hudson recalled him vividly and told me he was a black fiddler, a fact I later verified in the 1900 census. He said that Gus Rhodes was a trained musician who could read notes and play any sort of music, gavotte or hoe-down. He was a contemporary of Mr. Hudson's father and they had played together often. Here at last was a link to the rich tradition of black fiddlers that had flourished throughout 19th century Alabama, but had died out by the 1930s. Today, few people know or remember any black fiddlers, but fiddle scholars give them credit for adding elements to Irish and Anglo fiddle styles that created a southern style of fiddling distinctive from that of other regions of the nation. Mr. Hudson definitely played in that style, with its emphasis on strong, rhythmic bowing instead of fine and fancy noting.

So, Mr. Hudson has left us now and those who knew him feel the loss. Yet, the loss would have been much greater had he not been so willing to share his music and memories with those who came seeking them.