Rosin in the Blood: The Rutland Family Tradition of Old Time Fiddlers "Georgia Slim"
The Roots of Traditional Fiddling
Is musical talent inherited? I cannot say for sure, but it often seems to be the case in some families. My Mother’s side of the family seems to have been especially gifted in the musical talent department. I feel so lucky in that some of the Rutland musical DNA was passed on to me.
For over 160 years (and perhaps much longer) the Rutland descendants have filled the south with music. You would be hard-pressed to find a male Rutland descendant (and some females also) who has not tried his hand at some musical instrument or another. But the instrument which has given the Rutland name the most honor and fame has been the fiddle.
From our English and Irish roots, we inherited a love for this wonderful object. It speaks to us of our ancestors and the music of our homeland in the same voice it spoke to them. As you will see, the fiddle tunes represent the history and the deep family ties which reverberate in a Rutland’s soul.
Meeting A Legend
I come from a long line of fiddlers. It seemed as if almost every one of my uncles and older cousins owned a fiddle on the Rutland side of the family. As a child in the fifties I remember visiting my Rutland grandparents with my mom because “cousin” Robert was visiting.
Robert had brought his nephew with him on this visit from Valdosta. His nephew was about nine years old and dressed in the style of the day for boys his age. Cowboy hat, boots, shirt, and double six-shooters of course, were worn with complete abandon.
Cousin Robert carried a small guitar case in his hand as he stepped up on the veranda. The latticework around the porch was covered in Heavenly Blue morning glory vines whose blossoms reflected a wonderful blue color against the shaded white walls. They created a backdrop for my memories of this day. It’s funny how bright colors seem to stick in a child’s mind.
But it would only be much later in my life before I realized what a wonderful musician Robert Rutland was. And it was at an even later time that I would discover this inherited musical ability possessed by so many of the Rutland descendants in this area.
"Rutland's Reel" named for Robert Rutland
The Story of Rutland's Reel
Robert "Georgia Slim" Rutland is said to have found the music for Rutland's Reel in his Grandfather's fiddle music book. He and "Howdy" Forrester, who played with Slim in Texas, added parts to the old fiddle song and Howdy is said to have named it Rutland's Reel in honor of his twin fiddling partner.
A wonderful rendition which echoes the sounds from the old country, it evokes tradition and honor for these wonderful old time fiddlers. It is a favorite among the purists of traditional fiddle music aficionados.
The Rutlands Came Down To Georgia
I didn’t know it back then, but Robert Rutland was a renowned musician. “Georgia Slim” was his stage name as he toured around the country. A wonderful piece of fiddle music was named for him. “Rutland’s Reel” seems to resound with both sadness and joy. It is reminiscent of the Irish and English influence on early southern fiddle music which came down from the Carolinas with my great grandfather.
Our first Rutland ancestors were here in America before the beginning of the 18th century. Did they bring a fiddle with them on the boat? I would wager they were impelled to by the same longings their descendants experience today. Timeless vibrations? Could be, perhaps this is the answer to the puzzling enigma.
But when my Great Grandfather came down to Southern Georgia, he bequeathed his musical talent to his progeny. He could have given us nothing more valuable than the need for music in our lives. Not something we can lose if times are bad, but something to help soothe us if they do.
Learn To Play The Fiddle!
Robert "Georgia Slim" Rutland Fiddle Music
Fiddle Music In the Swamps And Countryside
My great grandfather apparently passed on the musical genes to many of his scions because the South Georgia swamps and countryside rang with reels and waltzes at the turn of the 20th century. My cousin Henry Rutland still plays great granddad’s fiddle which survived The Civil War, or as we refer to it down here, “The War of Northern Aggression.”
Music, especially fiddle music, was the main source of entertainment at the many “cane grindin’s” and “corn shuckin’s” which passed for social events in the rural countryside of Southern Georgia. These autumn “frolics” were looked forward to by the young folk as well as the old and having a good fiddler on hand guaranteed attendance by both.
Other accompaniment by guitars or banjos were almost nonexistent until the 20th century, but the fiddle was enough for most gatherings to dance to. Fiddlers were in much demand with the Rutlands doing more than their part of the entertaining in the isolated parts of this country.
Hearing the old fiddle once more!
Robert "Georgia Slim" Rutland
Robert “Georgia Slim” Rutland is only one of our clan who became known as a wonderful fiddle player. He won the National Old Time Fiddling Contest and is firmly ensconced in the Country Music Hall of Fame. During the 1940’s he performed with the top musicians of the day and is remembered fondly by everyone who knew him or had the pleasure of hearing him perform.
Georgia Slim spent time in Texas performing on the radio twice a day during the 1940’s. He and Howdy Forrester played double fiddling tunes along with Slim’s band “The Texas Roundup. Along with Roy Acuff, Ray Price and many other country stars, he gained a reputation of being at the top of the list of those with fiddling expertise.
Even though I was fortunate enough to have known him, it was later in my life before I knew the extent of his fame as a fiddler. He was not the sort to boast about his past or his fame. What I learned about him came from those who knew about his life before I was born. I wish now I had known about his fame so I could have asked him about his experiences.
But “Georgia Slim” died in 1969 at the age of 53. I had no interest in his type of music and preferred to perform “rock and roll” instead of the “country stuff” I had been exposed to as a child. This was my fault of course and I regret it deeply. Often, appreciation comes too late to make much difference. But perhaps I am incorrect in this observation as I am trying to show my honor for him now.
Henry Rutland And George Custer At The Worlds Fair
When I began to look further into the life of “Georgia Slim” I found something very fascinating to me. There were other famous fiddlers in the area who also continued the Rutland fiddling tradition.
Another of my cousins, Henry Rutland, who was the nephew and student of Georgia Slim, had achieved quite a following as someone who could play the old fiddle tunes too.
Henry still plays the old fiddle our Great Grandfather carried with him through the Civil War. A wonderful video of him playing a period piece on the old fiddle is featured on this page. The person playing the bass fiddle with Henry is Burt Rutland, son of “Georgia Slim.”
This song is being played at the foot of the grave of the man who originally owned the fiddle Henry is playing. The tune is one which Great Grandfather played on the old fiddle himself during the war. Did the music drift down to his soul and make him smile at hearing his old fiddle again? I certainly hope so!
But I am not finished with the Rutland music legacy yet. Another cousin descended from Lawrence Green Rutland also shares fame as a fiddler. George Custer has also made his mark on the south by the same fiddling efforts as the others. He and Henry played several daily shows at the 1982 Worlds Fair as the only double fiddlers invited to perform. He also played with Georgia Slim and learned much from “Uncle Bob.”
George Custer is also the recipient of the Florida Heritage Award and has been a judge at the National Old Time Fiddling Championship for many years. There is no getting away from one's roots it seems. Lucky for all of us.
The Legacy Of Sound
There are so many of us Rutland descendants who play some musical instrument or another that it would seem repetitious to even list the names or the instruments played. We cannot help ourselves. We are impelled by our instincts to fulfill our destiny, just as our ancestors were.
After the little boy in the cowboy getup and I played for awhile and the grownups had visited their fill, “Georgia Slim” asked the child to play a song on the guitar for Aunt Tisha. The little boy protested but eventually agreed.
I was dumbfounded at the music coming from the small guitar. “Georgia Slim” had taught his nephew to play at a very early age as he had done for so many of his kin. A timeless lesson for the future generation, one which would bear wonderful fruit, as you have witnessed. Music is one of our rites of passage into manhood in the Rutland clan. Can you think of anything more timeless or beautiful?
Fiddle Related Tales
- Spirit Of Old Savannah
Savannah Georgia has always been a place of mystery and beauty. What better place for a tale of restless spirits and magic. Music is timeless and rife with memories, as you will soon see.