October 11, 2016: The Gospel Fiddler

It’s a lot easier to be a church member than it used to be. Besides all the obvious luxuries—electric light and heat, indoor restrooms rather than spider-infested privies, thermos jugs or water fountains instead of wooden buckets and gourd dippers everybody had to share, and what not—there’s a lot less anxiety to it. Back in the early days of settled eastern Kentucky there were only two denominations, Methodist and Baptist, and both could give their members a hard way to go. The idea of privacy was almost nonexistent. If you were a Methodist, the circuit rider expected to see you in “class” meeting, confessing your own particular sins before all your neighbors, outlining how you’d combated them, and promising to be a better person next time he visited. And Baptist churches used to have so-called Ruling Elders, whose job it was to examine yours and your family’s conduct and report you to the church for “walking disorderly”as he saw fit. I’m not sure why the Baptists quit ordaining Ruling Elders. The office didn’t inspire any affection, so maybe after Ruling Elders had torn up enough churches people recognized they were more harmful than beneficial. But whichever sect you attended, you better never get caught humming or singing any other tune than a hymn. And to dance to fiddle music—oh, Lord! The early central Kentucky Baptist preacher John Taylor wrote in 1822 that a good fiddler was the devil’s right-hand man, and whenever any neighbors started hosting reels and square dances at their homes he just knew that Satan had set up camp right at his front door. After all, the devil himself was a fiddle player too; Charlie Daniels said so, and wrote a hit song about the old mountain tale in 1979.

No doubt many eastern Kentucky churches of old agreed completely with John Taylor, but strangely, that wasn’t always the case in the territory that became Johnson and Martin Counties. One of the best known and best-loved frontier preachers between Tug River and the head of Paint Creek was the Paintsville pioneer Henry Dixon, who was not only a skilled fiddler but used his violin to gather crowds together for worship. According to the tales handed down locally, he’d attract listeners with several sprightly fiddle airs, then pray and preach, and finish up by sawing out a few more tunes—perhaps inducing his flock to sit through what could be a lengthy sermon for the sake of the music. At one time or another the old exhorter’s pastorates included a place of worship on Rockcastle Creek in present Martin County, the churches now known as Old Union and Concord in Johnson, and another on the Open Fork of Paint Creek across the Morgan County line. And Dixon fiddled and preached between them all, and under his leadership the Rockcastle Church even acquired an old-fashioned bellowed pipe organ and had it transported up Tug River by flatboat. Agree with him or not, he was truly a man ahead of his time musically.

This isn’t to say that Henry Dixon didn’t endure his share of troubles. About 1826 an Ohio revivalist named Cleland came up the Big Sandy to Old Union to preach, boarding with Henry, his wife Joyce, and their family, and this visiting man of God wound up leaving three so-called “ruined girls” behind him, one of whom was Henry’s daughter. Henry traveled north to confront the girls’ seducer but wound up having to preach on Sunday at the 1826 session of the Ohio Baptist Association instead. For some reason he never caught up with Cleland, for which the revivalist probably should have been very thankful. But in any case, the good old preacher never held his grandson’s parentage against him, raising the boy with his own children and letting him wear the Dixon name with pride.

Dixon died in 1854 at the age of eighty, and it’s said that on his deathbed he called for his fiddle one last time and slowly played a hymn before passing on to a place of sweeter music. With all due respect to John Taylor, Henry Dixon was in no sense the devil’s right-hand man. He was good to his parishioners and neighbors, and in that sense I’d like to think of him as the right-hand man to the angels instead. And who knows? Maybe Taylor’s arguing about music with the old Gospel fiddler somewhere in eternity yet, as he reels off a lively tune—perhaps in duet with King David on the harp, and as the angels dance on the head of a pin.

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