Lesson 14: Candy Girl and multiple bowing options
Words on Technique – Coming Soon
Uncle Bunt Stevens, a some-time WSM radio performer, recorded the tune for Columbia in 1926, the same year he defeated the famous Uncle Jimmy Thompson in a regional fiddling contest.
Uncle Bunt Stephens
John L. “Bunt” Stephens (1879-1951) was born in Bedford County, Tennessee. Both of his parents died while he was still a small child, and he was raised by an aunt who lived in the nearby community of Flatcreek.
“Bunt” was a self-taught musician. His first instrument was the harmonica, which he started playing at the age of six. When asked later in life how he began fiddling, he told a story of having bought a fiddle from a tramp for $25 when he was eleven. “He never took a lesson on the fiddle,” his son Haskell said; “he just took it up.” By the time “Bunt” was seventeen, he’d taught himself enough to play music at local square dances.
As an adult, “Uncle Bunt” moved to neighboring Moore County, where he farmed and worked in road construction, married, and raised five children. During this time, he continued to perform at nearby social events as often as his work allowed.
In 1926, when he was “a 47-year-old man who stood only five feet and weighed less than 120 pounds,” “Uncle Bunt” participated in a fiddling competition at the Lynchburg, Tennessee Ford dealership and won. He went on to win third prize in the statewide contest in Nashville and second prize in a regional contest in Kentucky. Finally, “Uncle Bunt” and the other regional champions were brought to Detroit, where they performed for Henry Ford, whose appreciation of old-time music had led him to sponsor this series of contests. Accounts differ as to whether Ford awarded “Uncle Bunt” the first-place blue ribbon or simply enjoyed the performance, praised the success of all the regional champions, and gave them gifts. Either way, “Bunt” became a sought-after performer and was often called the “World Champion Fiddler.”
After this dramatic success, “Uncle Bunt” began touring the eastern U.S. and performing onstage and on radio programs, represented by his former boss from the road construction crew. He traveled to New York with his second wife for a combined honeymoon and recording session, making the only known recordings of his music. Eventually he retired to his hometown and farm, where he lived a quiet life until his death in 1951.
Other tunes associated with this fiddler: Over the years, Stephens’ repertoire grew to include folk tunes such as “Sail Away Lady”, “The Arkansas Traveler“, and “Mississippi Sawyer.” Others included “Candy Girl”, “Left in the Dark Blues”, and “Louisburg Blues”, all of which he later recorded. His favorite tune was probably “Old Hen Cackled,” which is believed to have won him the blue ribbon at the Ford fiddlers’ contest in 1926.
Even after his death, “Uncle Bunt” was recognized as an influential and authentic fiddler. Some of his tunes were later included in the 1952 “Anthology of American Folk Music,” and at least one scholarly paper has analyzed his playing style (published in Ethnomusicology magazine in January 1968). His fiddling has been described as “rough-hewn but virtuosic” with “a rock steady beat,” and “probably similar to much American dance music in the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.”
Bio of “Uncle Bunt,” including various perspectives on the famous 1926 contest – Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame
Re-release of parts of the above bio – Old Time Party
Info about “Uncle Bunt” and his most famous tunes – Anthology of American Folk Music blog; Traditional Tune Archive