John Baltzell

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John Baltzell was one of the earliest old-time fiddlers to be captured by the newly developing recording technology of the early '20s. The first sessions he recorded for Edison in the fall of 1923 came…
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John Baltzell was one of the earliest old-time fiddlers to be captured by the newly developing recording technology of the early '20s. The first sessions he recorded for Edison in the fall of 1923 came only three months after the recording debut of Fiddlin' John Carson, perhaps the first historic American old-time fiddler to be documented for posterity. Baltzell's work was obviously valued highly by the Edison company, as the payment he received for one series of recordings would have still been considered decent session pay some 75 years later. His first recordings were cylinders, and then came the flat wedges known as "diamond discs." He recorded as well for labels such as Okeh and Plaza. The pieces recorded for the latter label were particularly successful, despite the fact that by 1927 this type of unaccompanied fiddle recording was starting to go out of style. Baltzell's records on the other hand were in such demand that labels released them under several names rather than compete with themselves. Thus his rendition of "Arkansas Traveler," for example, came out on one label under the name of John Barton and on another as Hiram Jones.

The son of a shoemaker, Baltzell was both born and raised in a log cabin. He began playing fiddle as a youngster, but not a real instrument. He built his own fiddles out of corn stalks, not only for himself but for many other interested friends. Despite the lust in his heart he felt for owning a real instrument, he never was able to afford such a thing. Then one day he went to a nearby farmer's home where he happened to notice some children dragging an old violin case around by a string. The case was full of sand. The detective in him made him wonder if the instrument itself was around somewhere, and it was indeed found, although it was hardly in top condition any longer. He arranged a barter for it and took it home for much needed repairs. Soon it was a real fiddle again and he was playing real tunes on it. Needless to say, it had much less of a corny sound than the instruments he had been building himself. One of his main musical influences was Daniel Emmett. the composer of the song "Dixie" and a resident of the same county. The fiddler learned a number of this man's tunes while collaborating with him, and also learned how to compose music on his own. Much of Baltzell's repertoire began to consist of his own material, although he never learned to read or write notated music, both composing and performing strictly by ear. Following the first recording sessions he was in demand for radio broadcasts around Ohio, even winning an over-the-air fiddle contest during which listeners phoned in their vote for Best Fiddler. The prize was a 200 dollar violin, complete with a case that no farm brats had dragged around.

The Knox County Historical Society Museum features an exhibit of material relating to Baltzell's career, putting him in the company of other local history including his old collaborator Emmett as well as the comedian Paul Lynde, steam engines developed in the area, and Johnny Appleseed. Despite various peaks in interest in old-time music during certain decades since his death, by the year 2001 the music of Baltzell was still only available on 78s auctioned by collectors.