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I have found myself wondering lately what kind of music my ancestors liked. There are clues to be found here and there. For instance, my ancestor David Kennedy was renowned for his skillful fiddling. David Kennedy was a gunsmith and owned a gun factory in Mechanics Hill, Moore County, North Carolina. One of my favorite stories (probably apocryphal) is that Kennedy was tired of paying what he considered to be high prices for the gun locks he imported from New York. The problem was, he didn’t know how to make them himself. Supposedly he rode all the way to New York from his North Carolina home on a horse to discover how the locks were made. He charmed the gun lock factory workers with his fiddle playing, and they allowed him to observe the process of making the locks. Of course, after this, he made his own locks (source: My Southern Family by Hiram Kennedy Douglas).

David Kennedy’s own Bible records his family’s country of origin as Scotland. I would like to think he played those famous fiddle tunes brought over from Scotland and Ireland and helped frame what would become bluegrass, but the fact is, I’m not sure. According to a wise man who knows, the difference between a violin and fiddle is that a violin is carried in a case and a fiddle is carried in a flour sack.

I learned from relatives that my great-great grandfather Amos Cunningham, who married David Kennedy’s great-great granddaughter Stella Ophelia Bowling, was also a fiddle player. Stella mentions it in her journal (after her wedding!):

Thursday May 31st 1894

It was muddy but we came any way.

I left my father’s home to go to a new home.

“I part from love that hath still been true,

“I to into love yet untried and new.” – A new trial I never had before.

We had a very pleasant trip if it was muddy.

Reached Aunt Panthea’s after four some.

I fixed up a little & we came on.

The guests were here when we came and I was so embarrassed — more so than when we married.

They had a real good supper and all went off nice.

Had music on violin, banjo, & organ.

The married ones & all staid all night – only 27 and 30 for breakfast.

All seemed to enjoy it.

Of course, they teased Mr. Amos & I some.

Stella played the organ, and she mentions this fact several times in her journal.  She also mentions that her mother (Mary Elizabeth Kennedy Bowling)  played the organ as well.  On a couple of occasions, Stella complained about others playing music as it interfered with her concentration.  Amos and Stella’s daughter Lillie Manila Cunningham also played the fiddle and was given Amos’s fiddle upon his death.  I’m not sure who has it now, but I assume it would be someone among the descendants of her children Luther Clifford Case or Virgil Amos Case.

My grandfather played trombone back in school, and he still listens to big band swing, which was pop music when he was a teenager.  My grandmother loves country music and Elvis.  I remember hearing her hum as she sewed.  I often asked her what she was singing, but she always said she didn’t know.  I’m not sure if she heard them somewhere or made them up, but they sounded like hymns.

I love music, and I have been a musician myself.  Is such an appreciation genetic?  Is there a reason why the music I have the most visceral appreciation for is blues, Celtic, and bluegrass?  It’s something I have long wondered about.  My mother has often expressed her own appreciation for the sound of bagpipes, which is something I enjoy as well.  My daughter, unlike any other teenager I have ever known, prefers Celtic music to popular music.

Time passes, but folk music can perfectly capture a time and place.  Sometimes listening to it makes me feel as if I am connecting in some small way with ancestors I never met.  We can still play or dance to the same music.

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  1. Great post, Dana. I’ve heard many genealogists say that they feel a vague “connection” to their ancestors. I’ve always preferred to seek out connections more concrete—such as sitting in a pew at my great-great-grandparents’ church and singing hymns that they would have sung.

    I have a photograph of one of my great-grandfathers with a fiddle under his chin. I should ask his daughter (now 94) if she remembers his playing. There was a man who lived in the next town over named Mellie Dunham (a distant cousin) who gained some fame as a fiddle player. A few of his recordings can be found on the Web. Mellie and my great-grandfather were contemporaries, and I like to imagine their tastes in tunes were similar.

    February 5, 2007
  2. Peggy C. Morgan
    Peggy C. Morgan

    Dear Dana, I enjoyed reading your story. Actually, David Kennedy is also one of my ancestors. I really would like to learn more about him and his family. I would love for you to e mail me some places to start exploring his life. Thank you. Peggy Morgan

    June 16, 2008
  3. Polly Case Freeman
    Polly Case Freeman

    Dana ,I read your article and we are family.My Great Grandfather was Amos.My dad was Luther.As far as I know the fiddle is with Uncle Virgils family.Polly

    July 30, 2009
    • Hi Polly! I love hearing from family. I’m so glad the fiddle is still in the family. Please look around. I have a lot of things that might interest you, if you’ve not seen them: pictures of Amos and Stella and Stella’s diary.

      July 30, 2009
  4. Emily Bennett
    Emily Bennett

    Hi Dana, I want to comment on the appreciation of music being genetic! I am not sure which David Kennedy you speak of (I have 4x Great Grandfather named David Kennedy and a 6x Great Grandfather David Kennedy on my great grandmother, Beulah Snyder (Kennedy)’s side). Probably my 6th grand grandfather is who you speak of. But, I also have a very deep appreciation for music and grew up around bluegrass and blues. My great grandmother’s son, my grandfather, was in a bluegrass band called Southern Comfort and they even made one record. While I never learned to play an instrument, I’ve been singing to bluegrass since I was a baby (so I’ve been told!). I love coming across things like this!

    April 8, 2012

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