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  • Fiddles of Fayetteville: Jamming and Dancing with the Ozark Highballers

    Four musicians perform seated on an outdoor stage: a banjo player, harmonica player, fiddle player, and acoustic guitarist.

    The Ozark Highballers on the Pickin’ Parlor stage (left to right): Clarke Buehling, Seth Shumate, Roy Pilgrim, and Aviva Pilgrim.

    Photo by Daniel Zhang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    On the first day of the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Ozark Highballers sat in a semicircle on the Pickin’ Parlor stage, their hands hovering over the instruments as they waited for the cue to begin. When Roy Pilgrim played the first resounding note of the fiddle and smiled, motioning to his three fellow band members, the audience immediately perked up. The Highballers then captured the audience in a trance with the fast-paced swing of their string-band music.

    After several songs, suddenly an older couple in the audience broke up the mesmerizing rhythm of the strings and the lilt of the harmonica as they hopped onto the dance floor directly in front of the band. The Highballers laughed with excitement at the dancers, who transformed the performance into a square dance. A few moments later, two other women from the audience walked up to the stage and linked arms with the couple. All four dancers began to skip together as the tempo of the banjo guided them. The rest of the audience members danced in their own way from their seats, tapping their feet and clapping their hands. It was almost impossible not to.

    “There’s always a good lilt to the Ozark fiddle tune that makes you want to start dancing,” Aviva Pilgrim, the band’s guitarist, told me later with a smile. 

    “This is dance music, first and foremost,” harmonica player Seth Shumate added. “I really feel sorry for an audience that has to sit there and listen to repetitive music without something to do.”

    “George Washington Was a Nice Young Man”
    Cameras: Nadya Ellerhorst, Albert Tong, Charlie Weber
    Editing: Onyx Joseph

    The Ozark Highballers are a four-person string band based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who perform at square dances, farmer markets, and on street corners in the Ozarks region. This year, they brought their talents to the Folklife Festival as part of a celebration of Ozarks culture. The band consists of Roy Pilgrim on fiddle, his wife Aviva Pilgrim on guitar, Clarke Buehling on banjo, and Seth on harmonica. The band came together in 2014 when Roy and Aviva were busking on the street and ran into another pair of buskers: Clarke and Seth.

    “We joined forces and it just fit together really well,” Aviva said of this chance meeting. “Each instrument had its own place. It was pretty easy. We started playing regularly after that.”

    All four members feel a passion for old-time music from the region, and their sound is steeped in the rich Ozark musical tradition of the 1920s and ’30s. Their commitment to playing old-time tunes is rooted in a want and a need to preserve and share the musical past of the Ozarks, which traces back to fiddle tunes carried to the United States by settlers from the British Isles. As the harmonica gained in popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was added to the fiddle music to create a unique sound of the Ozarks that we now recognize today.

    “By the 1920s, there were twenty million harmonicas coming into the country every year, and it was the most popular instrument at the time,” Seth explained. “Pretty much everyone was playing harmonica, but it was only the cream of the crop that got to record it. The stuff they recorded was pretty amazing.”

    Before each song at their Pickin’ Parlor performances, Roy would explain the background of the song and how the musicians encountered it. Some came from studying Ozark folktales, others from stumbling across old recordings.

    “It’s not that you can’t create great new music today,” Aviva exclaimed. “There’s plenty of people doing that, but it just feels like we shouldn’t forget what great music we already have.”

    From above, a four-piece band plus a dance caller perform on an indoor stage, as a huge crowd of people dance on the tiled floor in front of them.
    The Ozark Highballers and caller Bob Zuehlig host the Community Square Dance in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building.
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    But the band seeks inspiration beyond their favorite artists and recordings. Many of the songs they play have circulated among Ozark musicians for generations, without any known author or recording attached to it. “As much as I love the Beatles and their recorded songs, sometimes it’s nice when a song is just around,” Roy quipped at one of their performances, as he motioned for the band to start a new song.

    Because so many recordings of American old-time music exist on LP, CD, and the internet, and because the instruments are so ubiquitous, people around the world are able to learn old-time classics. 

    “One of my favorite aspects of playing this old-time fiddle music is that I can visit pretty much any city in the world and find people who play this old American music,” Seth told me. “It’s a great way to be social. There’s quite an international contingent.”

    Of course, the Highballers are also part of a rich and vibrant musical culture at home in Fayetteville, where music is inextricably entwined with square dancing. A cultural landmark of the Ozarks, square dancing engages the community through a fusion of upbeat fiddle songs and partner dances.

    “For five years, we hosted open-to-all potluck dances,” Aviva explained. “It really embodied the spirit of the music we liked.”

    In keeping with this tradition, every Highballers performance at the Folklife Festival included impromptu dancing from the audience—just like on opening day. The dancing spirit pervaded the Pickin’ Parlor every time the band played.

    In front of the four-piece band playing on stage, adults and small children dance on a wooden dance floor.
    Photo by Daniel Zhang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Through their performances, the Ozark Highballers hope to draw more people into this lively musical culture and broaden the community of old-time musicians and listeners.

    “There are a lot of great tunes that we perform that we haven’t heard in other places in the country,” Avivadeclared with wide eyes. “It just seems important that we keep playing those songs and spreading them.”

    Isabel Hohenlohe is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies English literature.

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