Memories Of Vermont, And a Famed Fiddler
(The Man from Vermont. Adam R. Boyce. The History Press. 158 pp.)
Not often does an author produce a biography of a person whose life contains elements quite similar to the writer’s own, but such is the case with The Man from Vermont: Charles Ross Taggart, the Old Country Fiddler by Adam R. Boyce of West Windsor, published recently by The History Press.
Taggart, who grew up in Topsham, began a career as a musician, impersonator, ventriloquist and humorist at age 24 with a self-promoted one-man show in the East Topsham Town Hall and spent much of his life traveling all over the United States performing an ever-evolving array of what he called “entertainments.” Taggart’s life’s work on the stage began in 1895 and would last half a century, during which he achieved a measure of fame and modest fortune on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits and vaudeville stages before declining into hard times as talking movies and radio radically changed the American entertainment landscape.
While Taggart was a man of many talents — he even was a master of trick photography — his skill with the fiddle, both as artist and composer, was his greatest strength and would bring him the most acclaim, to the point that throughout the latter half of his career he was commonly billed as simply “The Old Country Fiddler.”
Author Boyce is a fiddler, too, and he is a fixture in the contra- and square-dance world of Vermont and New Hampshire, simultaneously playing his instrument and calling the steps Saturday nights in town hall venues from Cornish and Wentworth, N.H., to West Newbury, Vt.
Back in 2001 Boyce was nosing around the Internet looking for oldtime fiddle music references and stumbled across some tinny recordings made by Charles Ross Taggart sometime in the early 1900s.
A few months later he was given a stack of old Vermont magazines that included a 1927 issue with a gag photo of Taggart on the cover and immediately Boyce was off on a years-long inquiry into the life of this fascinating Vermont character.
Boyce began giving lectures on the life of Taggart for the Vermont Humanities Council’s community outreach program and later joined the New Hampshire Humanities Council’s stable of program presenters. He continues doing these gigs, which are a mix of Taggart lore and the fiddle music for which he was famous.
The Man from Vermont draws heavily from a trove of Taggart letters, newspaper articles and additional papers held by family members, the Vermont and Newbury, Vt., Historical Societies and other archives. The extensive correspondence between Taggart with his booking agents, relatives back home in Vermont’s Orange County, the editor of the Bradford, Vt., United Opinion and others follows his almost constant traveling from show to show all across the country. His life wasn’t easy, even in the good times when the money was decent and the crowds were good, in the years before talkies and the radio changed amusement preferences.
Taggart traveled by railroad and stayed in the better hotels. He often played in major theaters in cities, although there were also appearances in places like Rib Lake, Wisc., and Rolling Prairie, Ind. Later, though, when bookings became harder to get and the money less and less, he often had to drive himself from show to show in a Model T Ford and stay in unheated rooming houses.
Taggart was continually anguished by his long absences from his wife and family back home at “Elmbank” in Newbury, Vt., and once wrote, “For 10 weeks I never saw a soul that I had ever seen before. Lonesome! I resolved over and over again that when this trip was finished I would go into some business that would keep me home. I even did some dreaming about a chicken farm.”
But he would continue his grueling travels for many more years until a stroke suffered while performing at a Rotary Club show in Florida in 1937 forced him to retire. From then until he died in 1952 he is believed to have played before an audience no more than a dozen times.
In his early years his shows often included numerous piano selections (he had studied the instrument at the New England Conservatory of Music for a time) in addition to “dialect readings, ventriloquial dialogues and impersonations.” The fiddle became the mainstay of his shows later in his career, with playlists typically including traditional dance tunes of rural Vermont, Taggart’s own compositions and a sprinkling of novelty or trick numbers. He had fiddle bands under various names, including one that included Dan Ross of Boston, a famed Scottish-style fiddler, and Perley Klark of Woodsville, a renowned fiddler, pianist and orchestra leader in his own right.
Boyce deserves a lot of credit for digging up so much material on Taggart and building a sense of continuity out of a diverse and scattered trove of writings, photographs, posters, clippings and memorabilia. His book devotes more than a third of its pages to appendices offering Taggart letters, commentaries, poems, transcribed monologues and a bibliography.
The Man from Vermont finally gives some recognition to a distinctive Vermont original who otherwise could have been essentially washed away from the state’s memory. Largely as a result of Adam Boyce’s efforts, historic markers have recently been placed on the Topsham hall where Taggart performed his first show 117 years ago and at Elmbank, Taggart’s beloved home on U.S. Rt. 5 north of Newbury Village.
It’s now possible to listen to remastered cuts of some of Taggart’s fiddling recorded by Victor, Columbia and other companies back in the 1920s. And, of course, Boyce will be happy to tune up his fiddle and recreate some of those magical Taggart tunes.
Steve Taylor is a resident of Plainfield.