Earl Collins (1911-1975), possibly the most well-known musician in the Collins family, was born in Douglass County in the Missouri Ozarks. In 1917 the Collins family moved to Oklahoma, eventually settling in Shawnee County, where many of them stayed.
Most members of the Collins family played music. Remembering his siblings, Earl said, “We could have had a family like the Carter Family. There was four girls and five boys, and every one of them musicians. The girls could have played anything they would have tried. They had guitars and sang. […] But Max and I is the only two that really teamed up. I set him on an apple box when he was six and showed him G chord, and he never made a bobble. He was my guitar man, and right today, I’ll take him above anybody.”
Earl himself was irresistibly drawn to the fiddle from an early age. Some of his earliest memories were of watching his father play and trying to imitate him. Earl described how he learned to fiddle in an interview with Barbara LaPan Rahm:
“I used to hold my Daddy’s arm while he fiddled when I was two or three years old. I just kept it loose and tried not to bother him. Oh, he had some of the awfullest bowing you ever heard, he could do licks that no one else could. […] I’ll put him up at the top of the world.
I started trying to play when I was about three or four. But l couldn’t reach the fiddle you know; my arm was too short. So Dad glued up this little old cigar box fiddle and made the little cut-outs, you know. And I played that for four or five years. I guess I was about seven when I got big enough to reach, make a true note. I was making them sharp all the time. And l had a good ear and I could tell I wasn’t reaching high enough: my arm wasn’t long enough.”
When Earl was a little older, he got tired of playing his tiny cigar-box fiddle and started playing his father’s larger fiddle on the sly, though he knew he’d be in trouble if he got caught. In the end, W.S. was pleased by his enthusiasm; he admitted that he’d been hoping all along that his son would want to play the fiddle and gave the fiddle to Earl. Earl recalled their conversation years later:
“You’re playing pretty good[…] You really like the fiddle, don’t you?” I said “Oh I really love that fiddle.” He said, “Well, I’II tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it to you if you won’t fool it away.” […] And that’s the way I started playing the fiddle.
Living in rural Oklahoma during the Great Depression, many people in the Shawnee community struggled to make a living as farmers or sharecroppers cultivating worn-out soil. The Collins family benefited from Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, which sought to address widespread unemployment by providing paid jobs that would benefit the general public as well as the workers. Many WPA jobs focused on road-building and other construction projects, but there was also provision for musicians and other artists, allowing W.S. to be paid to play for dances. Young Earl also began working as a fiddle performer to supplement his family’s income.
“See, they just farmed Oklahoma to death. Cotton and corn, cotton and corn, cotton and corn. The first thing you knew there was no fertile ground and you couldn’t make cotton or corn either. […] [Dad] had quit playing for about 25 or 30 years till that WPA project came along and he needed the money. You know, they paid those fellas, they got a check regular. Roosevelt give them a check. They just played, dances or anything that come up. […] I’d play a square dance—play six or eight hours—and make 50 cents. I’d give Dad every bit of it but a dime and I’d go get me a soda pop and a candy bar.”
Earl married in 1931 and moved to Los Angeles in 1935. He held a variety of jobs there and continued trying to make extra money by playing music, but people often took advantage of him or cheated him out of his pay. In 1950, discouraged, he gave it up and barely played for years.
Despite his own disillusionment with being a professional musician, Earl gave fiddles to his sons, hoping that one or both of them would want to follow in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Neither of them were interested in fiddling. Eventually, though, they found another way to enter the world of old-time music and to entice their father to pick up his fiddle again:
“In 1965 they come in to me one afternoon when I got home from work, said, “Dad we’re going to learn to play rhythm on the banjo and the guitar: I said, “Aw no you don’t.” They said, “Yes, we do.” So that’s how it come that I take the fiddle back. I got the banjo and the guitar and the fiddle out, tuned them all up and then I’d play a tune. I’d show them the chords on the banjo and then show them the chords on the guitar. Then we’d pick up all three and we’d try. You know, I love old jam sessions better than I do anything.”
After his return to performing, Earl became an active part of the Southern California folk music scene, and he and his music finally began to get the recognition and respect that he’d hoped for in his earlier performing days. Eventually, Earl’s music was recorded on an LP (“That’s Earl”) that became a source of musical inspiration to later generations of old-time musicians, including fiddler Bob Holt. The LP was released in 1975, the year Earl died.
Earl on being a fiddler:
“Sheet music looks like puppy tracks to me. Scales won’t mean nothing to you in hoedowns, won’t mean a doggone thing. You just pick up the fiddle, get a tune in your mind, and you work on that tune and you play it. You’ve got it in your mind and you know just exactly how it goes. That’s memory. But if you go to school and they teach you notes you’re not going to play hoedown, you’re going to play violin. It’s hard to get an old hoedown fiddler’s tone. There’s not too many around that has the old fiddler’s tone to me. It’s a touch on the strings and smooth bowing that makes a fiddler. It’s the beauty that you get out of a fiddle. As long as you’re in the chord, making your true notes, running your smooth bow—you’re playing the fiddle.”