Music at Mansker’s Station

 

By Laura Blankenship

In the 1780’s and 90’s, survival in the Cumberland area of North Carolina’s western territory (today’s Middle Tennessee) depended on fortified log “stations”, or civilian forts. Settlers would reside in these stations or retreat to them when hostile Native Americans came into the area. Although the pioneers enjoyed good relations with some tribes, others were determined to drive the settlers away and worked in alliance with the British, and later, the French and Spanish to do so.

One of these Middle Tennessee forts was Mansker’s Station, built in 1780 near what is now the city of Goodlettsville by a group of men under the leadership of a skilled frontiersman named Kasper Mansker. Like other stations throughout the area, Mansker’s was a center for pioneer social life, and traveling musicians stopped there to rest, play for special events and entertain the settlers. Life was difficult on the American frontier, and music was a welcome relief from the hardships of the time.

 Hear Laura Blankenship and Mike Baugh playing “Jamie Allen”

 

The fiddle was an especially popular instrument, and good fiddlers were in demand throughout the area. From early journals, we know that James Gamble was one of the best fiddlers around. He typically resided at the Bledsoe or Greenfield Station, but he visited the others regularly, carrying his fiddle in a doeskin sack tucked under his arm. He is recalled as a musician who “could make his fiddle laugh and talk. There was such potency in its music, that he often charmed away pains of the body and silenced the groans of the sick. The sweet strains and the thrilling tones of that fiddle filled the air, the ear, the soul. There was a delicious feeling and enjoyment in the soul that always did one good. You could hear it and feel it the next day, and wish to hear it a thousand times.”

Hear Christian Wig playing “Old Christmas Morning”

 

Musicians arriving in this country brought with them musical techniques from distant lands, such as the “arched bow” violin method that dates from medieval Europe. This method, utilizing an arched bow with loose strings controlled by the tension of the fiddler’s thumb, allowed all four strings to be played at one time. There is documentation that this technique was especially popular with early Tennessee fiddlers, and they are credited by many with preserving the method, which has become known as the “Tennessee bow.”

There is also early documentation of singing in this area, including an amusing account of Kasper Mansker, while on a hunt along the Green River, discovering the camp of the Boone brothers, and finding Daniel there by himself, lying on his back and singing loudly; and another concerning Mary Neely, who was “singing one of the songs of Zion’ while preparing supper for her father and some other men from Mansker’s Station. The settlers sang psalms and ballads brought by parents or grandparents from the British Isles; they sang work songs, hunting songs, and songs about past experiences, such as wars and battles. They enjoyed the music of their heritage, but they also wrote “Americanized” words to old English ballads and airs to express their patriotism, freedom and love for their new country.

Hear Susie Coleman singing “Fair Margaret and Sweet William”

 

With the gathering of settlers at frontier stations, a considerable amount of cultural interaction developed. Dress and customs were exchanged, as was music from a wide variety of ethnic cultures. Songs and instruments gradually mixed and blended together, and a unique kind of music came into being. This new, distinctively American style rapidly became the popular music of its day and, ultimately, the foundation for much of the folk, country and Bluegrass music we know today.

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