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Davy Crockett's Fiddle

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but Davy Crockett surely had no time for one last tune when Mexican soldiers made their final assault on the Alamo. While Crockett did not survive , his fiddle apparently did.

As Texas observed its centennial of independence from Mexico in the spring of 1836, an 80-year-old East Texas man claimed a vintage violin he owned had once belonged to the Tennessean who died in the old mission at San Antonio de Bexar on the morning of March 6, 1836.

Described as a “Texas rover,” John Houston Thurman of Longview told his story to a reporter for the old Dallas Journal. The afternoon newspaper, long since defunct, published the story on March 20, 1936.

After the battle, Thurman began his tale, Mexican troops collected as war trophies many of the arms and personal possessions of the slain defenders. Among those items was “the cherished fiddle of David Crockett,” a well-used instrument he is believed to have used to entertain the Texans during the 13-day siege.

A decade later, U.S. soldiers under Gen. Winfield Scott captured Mexico City during the Mexican-American War. According to the Dallas newspaper story, “A soldier in Scott’s command found Crockett’s fiddle in the wild confusion that attended the general’s victory. Probably needing funds, he sold it, no doubt for a ‘song.’”

At some point after that Thurman’s father – also a soldier in the U.S. Army -- purchased the fiddle from a secondhand store in Mexico City. When he returned to the U.S. in 1848, he had the violin with him.

Thirteen years later, when the Civil War started the elder Thurman again signed up to fight, this time for the Confederacy. When he marched off, he left his fiddle behind. In 1864, while he was still in the field, someone broke into his house and stole the instrument.

Whether he learned to saw a bow from his father or elsewhere, John Houston Thurman grew up to become a traveling musician. In need of some more instruments while on the road in 1892, Thurman found an old fiddle for sale in Parsons, KS. Thurman said he recognized the fiddle as the one his dad had owned. Doubtless trying hard to hide his excitement, he bought the instrument.

So how do you know it was your father’s, and before that, David Crockett’s fiddle, the Dallas newsman must have asked the old man.

Thurman said he’d heard that Crockett had the habit of carving his name into just about everything he owned. Indeed, carved on one side of the fiddle’s head was “D. Crockett.” On the other side it said “…Tenn. 1835, D.C. Texas, 1836.”

Of course, anyone with a pocket knife could have left those marks on the old fiddle, even its then-owner. How long Thurman continued to carry a tune – and the old fiddle he claimed to have been Crockett’s – is not known.

And whether Thurman’s fiddle had really belonged to Crockett remains to be learned, but by the summer of 1955, San Antonio’s Witte Museum had in its collection a Crockett fiddle of apparently undisputed provenance. Possibly the museum got the fiddle from Thurman or his estate, but more digging needs to be done to say for sure.

However the Crockett fiddle came to the Witte, later that year, an Alamo City country western singing named Red River Dave used the old instrument to record his latest song, “When Davy Crockett Met San Antonio Rose.” The performer later played the song on his WOAI radio show, “Red River Dave’s Barn Dance.”

According to a December 1955 newspaper report, Dave recorded the song at San Antonio’s T.N.T. Studios “while armed guards stood by to act as custodians.” The article continued, “The song is based on historical fact – the dance held in front of the Alamo prior to the arrival of Gen. Santa Anna’s troops.”

More recently, in 2002 Dean Shostak used the Witte-Crockett fiddle to record a CD of some of the music Crockett is known to have played. Six years later, K.R. Wood also used the instrument to record the album, “Davy Crockett’s Fiddle Plays On: Live at the Alamo.”


© Mike Cox - August 11, 2011 column
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