Clarence (Curly) Herdman, one of the finest fiddlers of the 1960s, came from West Virginia, being born near Ripley, Jackson County, on November 12, 1918. Several members of the family played the fiddle with accomplished skill, including a grandfather, Abige Turner Herdman; his father, Wally Herdman; and his uncle Earl Herdman. Even his mother performed a couple of tunes “pretty well.” Curly himself took up the instrument in early childhood and is said to have worked square dances from the age of nine.
Curly left home at eleven and did various types of work, including farm labor and railroading. He also continued fiddling, and in the early 1930s he and his cousin, Ira Sayre, met the famous radio violinist David Rubinoff in Columbus, Ohio. After that meeting, Herdman struck out to play professionally, and he found work on such radio stations as WHO in Des Moines and WSM and WSIX in Nashville. Some of this playing was with a Western-style band called the Bar X Cowboys.
Curly then went to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance—at that time in its infancy—where he played with Red Foley, Mel Steele, and fellow fiddler Slim Miller, among others. After leaving Renfro Valley, Curly joined the Georgia Crackers at WHKC in Columbus, Ohio, a group that had shows on the nationwide Mutual Network. This group was built around the Newman Brothers—Hank, Slim, and Bob—and it played a style of music similar to that of the Sons of the Pioneers. The Georgia Crackers attained widespread popularity in the Midwest. Another musician in the group, Winnie Waters, became one of Curly’s favorite fiddlers.
In later years, Curly Herdman lived and performed in eastern Pennsylvania, where he did radio work as a disc jockey and headed a band known as the West Virginia Boys. Although he often played a brand of music on stage that was more in line with modern country music, he never lost his ability to play in traditional styles. Good friend Tracy Whaley of Pomeroy, Ohio, recalls that some of Curly’s most enjoyable moments came during visits back to his native Ohio Valley, where he would gather together a few local old-time musicians and play tunes for hours.
Curly participated in many fiddling contests during the 1960s and emerged victorious eighteen times. Perhaps his proudest achievement was when he won the Ohio State Championship in August, 1967. In that contest he defeated the legendary Clark Kessinger as well as several other great fiddlers of the Ohio Valley, including Glen Smith and Mike Humphries. Curly Herman died the following year, 1968, before he had a chance to defend his championship.
Curly Herdman was one of the finest fiddlers of his day. His first influence was his grandfather, Abige Turner Herdman. Other fiddlers whom Curly would mention as favorites and influences on his style included Clark Kessinger, Otto Williams, Russ Gray, and Winnie Waters, as well as those two Grand Ole Opry pioneers, Sid Harkreader and Arthur Smith. One of Curly’s notable talents was his ability to compose new fiddle tunes within a traditional context. He recorded only two albums and a few single records, but those recordings contain a remarkable number of original tunes. His album on the Arcade Label contained eight of his own compositions.
This album was recorded in September, 1967, at Philadelphia. Troy Herdman, Curly’s younger brother, did the guitar work. Curly also had the assistance of brothers Bob Tanner on mandolin and Joe Tanner on banjo. The album includes a variety of traditional tunes and a number of Herdman originals.
The traditional tunes include “Billy in the Lowground,” one of the most widespread old-time instrumentals. It was recorded by such old timers as Fiddlin’ John Carson, Doc Roberts, and Burnett and Rutherford. “Turkey in the Straw” was derived from an eighteenth century British tune entitled “The Rose Tree.” Recorded versions in the 1920s were made by the Skillet Lickers and also by Carson. Another traditional number is “Old Joe Clark,” recorded by many old timers, including Carson in 1927. “Under the Double Eagle” is an old march tune that has become traditional among fiddlers. “Dixie Hoedown” is probably a traditional tune. “Rachel” has been attributed to fiddler Tommy Jackson.
“Big Tracy,” one of Curly’s own tunes, was named for his friend Tracy Whaley. Curly made up “Meigs County Reel” following his Ohio championship victory, and it was named after the location of the contest, just across the Ohio River from Curly’s Jackson County, West Virginia, birthplace. Herdman originals also include “Moonlight Waltz,” “Run Rabbit Run,” “Running Bear,” and “Rocus’s Reel.”
Ivan M. Tribe
Rio Grande College
Rio Grande, Ohio
The assistance of Tracy Whaley and Ken Davidson is gratefully acknowledged in the preparation of these notes.
Bee Balm 309