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Lesson 19: Seneca Square Dance

Words on Technique – Coming Soon

Seneca Square Dance

About the tune – “Seneca Square Dance” most likely predates the Civil War, though it may have been known by a variety of alternate titles. It was first recorded in 1926 by “Fiddlin’ Sam Long of the Ozarks.”

Its title may relate either to the Seneca people of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy, some of whom live in northeast Oklahoma, or to the nearby town of Seneca in southwest Missouri; Sam Long lived near both of these places when he recorded the tune.

Sam Long

“He’s a fiddlin’ fiend, be it known, and when Sam went into action at that contest staged in Memorial hall recently he knocked ’em for a resined bow. Result: First award, which includes a trip to an eastern city to make phonograph records…” -quote from an unknown newspaper in Commerce, OK

Sam Long (1876-1931), who would eventually become the first commercially recorded fiddler of the Ozark Mountain region, spent much of his life far from the Ozarks; he was born in Kansas to parents who had moved from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Sam’s father was an accomplished fiddler, and Sam and his six siblings enjoyed their father’s music. However, when Sam expressed interest in learning to play fiddle himself, his father, worried about damage to his fine instrument, forbade him to touch it.

Young Sam, undeterred, began using his family’s farm work as a way to fiddle on the sly. Whenever he and his father were working in the fields together, Sam would fabricate excuses to go back to the house for a while. When he got there, his mother would give him his father’s fiddle, and he’d practice playing it, probably imitating the tunes he’d heard his father play. Sam was the only one of his siblings to become a musician—possibly because he was the only one wily and determined enough to make it happen.

When the rest of Sam’s family found out that he’d secretly taught himself to play, they were all proud of his skill, even his father—and especially his grandmother, Mirah Jane, who loved his music so much that she asked him to come play by her grave after she died. After her death, Sam did as she requested, which led to his first taste of musical renown (or notoriety). One night, people who lived near the cemetery heard two hours of fiddle music coming from a gravesite. Some were frightened, some thought the player must be crazy, and some told the story widely enough that an article was written about it in a Sunday school newspaper.

Sam moved to California in his twenties, where he “spent four years playing in bars and any available venues throughout California where he could earn money.” During this time, the rest of his family moved to southwestern Missouri, in the Ozark region. Sam eventually joined his family there, married, and began working in the lead and zinc mines.

Over time, Sam’s work in the mines began to cause him lung problems. He left his mining job in 1912 and spent a few years as a farmer, but farming didn’t work well enough to support his growing family. By the time his fifth child was born in 1916, he had moved his family to Commerce, Oklahoma, and had returned to mining. This time he spent a little less time in the mines and a little more time monetizing his musical skills; he became a sought-after instrument repairman and fiddler for square dances and social events.

In 1926, while still living in Commerce, Sam heard about a two-day fiddle competition in nearby Joplin, Missouri offering substantial monetary prizes. He decided to enter and to bring an accompanist, since he was used to fiddling with piano accompaniment. This part didn’t go exactly as planned. As Sam’s youngest daughter recalls, a hobo named Roy Kastner came to the Longs’ home a few days before the contest, saying that he’d heard about the contest and about Sam’s skill and wanted to accompany him on guitar. Sam accepted his offer, and the two of them went to Joplin together.

At the contest, Sam was one of eighty-eight fiddlers from four states performing for an audience of four thousand—”probably the greatest fiddlers [sic] contest ever held in the region,” the Joplin Globe newspaper said. Sam and his brand-new accompanist won first prize, which included a trip to Pennsylvania to be professionally recorded. The resulting record included four fiddle tunes—”Echoes of the Ozarks,” “Sandy Land,” “Seneca Square Dance,” and “Listen to the Mockingbird”—and sold well throughout the country. All four of those tunes “date back in Ozark tradition to the nineteenth century” and were chosen by Sam based on their popularity with the audiences he usually played for. That record is the first known recording of an old-time musician from the Ozarks.

Sadly, “Fiddlin’ Sam Long of the Ozarks” only lived five years after the recording, and he spent most of that time living in drier climates in an effort to improve his deteriorating lung condition. He entered and won one more fiddle competition in 1928—another large contest in Joplin, in which Roy Kastner again accompanied him on guitar—and died in 1931, at the age of 54, while staying with an uncle in Kansas.

Additional Resources:

An extensive bio of Sam Long based on information given by his daughter Dorothy – Country Music Annual 2000, Google Books excerpt

A shorter bio of Sam Long – Ozarks Fiddle Music, Google books excerpt

Newspaper clippings related to Sam Long’s performance in fiddle contests

More newspaper clippings about Sam Long in the Joplin Globe

Information about the tune “Seneca Square Dance” – Traditional Tune Archive

Seneca Squaredance, by Bruce Molsky, Mark Simos and the Berklee Old-Time Music Ensemble