How is a collection of fiddle music a key to the past? David Deacon of SUNY Oswego's history faculty explains the importance of Thomas Wilson's 1823 fiddle manuscript.

“What I study is this: I found a manuscript many years ago in the archives at UNC-Chapel Hill, and this is a document of a fiddler’s repertoire from the 1820s,” Deacon said of the 1823 manuscript by Wilson, an Irish-American farmer in Pennsylvania at the time.

“Very interesting just to see what people were playing and dancing to,” Deacon explained. “As I’ve looked at the manuscript, I’ve just sort of been drawn into the material and find it fascinating.”

While the manuscript provided a glimpse into the music local fiddlers of that era were playing, what Deacon would do with it took a while to develop.

“I started the research in 1987 when I was a master’s student at Chapel Hill,” he said with a laugh. “But as with a lot of things, I moved onto other topics and I put it on the shelf. And then this winter, I was going through papers and I got it out and I started to play some tunes.”

Once Deacon started playing the old tunes, he literally could not stop.

“I played the entire manuscript: 143 tunes. And then I started to type it into a music program so I have modern notation and it makes it easier to read and learn.”

Another unique feature of the manuscript is a different notation style. “I’ve never seen an old set of fiddle tunes written out in shape notes. It’s a hymn sort of medium,” Deacon said.

The repertoire has additional meaning because of the important community role fiddlers of the time would play.

“I think at this point because there isn’t other entertainment really -- you don’t go out to a movie or anything -- your entertainment has to be made by yourself," Deacon noted. "It’s not that everybody would play the fiddle, but communities would have fiddlers. There may be a few musicians in an area. Social connection, especially in rural areas at this point, I think is very important because otherwise it’s a pretty lonely life.”