Fiddle-L Anthology 1999

A Tour 'Round The World Of Fiddling

Performer Bio


Betse Ellis, Kansas City, Missouri, (

Betse was born January 28, 1969, in Hamilton, Ohio; her family moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1971. She holds two degrees: BA Music/BA English, 1990 from University of Missouri, Kansas City. Currently, Betse does office work in a museum to support her musical habits. She is a member of Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association, Missouri Folklore Society, and North American Fiddlers Association, and non-musical memberships include the Nature Conservancy and Choose Environmental Excellence (a Kansas City waste reduction effort).


Betse's heritage is Scottish, Irish, and Western European. Her father was born and raised in Jefferson City, Missouri. Her mother was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and was raised there and in other east coast states. No family members previously played fiddle, to her knowledge, but her great uncle played piano in silent movie houses. Betse and her brother began taking violin lessons in 1975 in Fayetteville. (Her brother stopped playing when he went to college.) "Classical lessons helped me gain command of the instrument; by watching and learning from traditional fiddlers, I have become more aware of the intricate and exciting bowing techniques present in old time fiddling. I have sat and played with some traditional fiddlers but only in the last year or so. I believe the best way to learn a tune is from another fiddler." She attended Augusta Old Time Week in 1997, which was an intense inspiration for her. "One of the first tunes I remember working on was Arkansas Traveler, in honor of the state I grew up in. I learned it originally from sheet music. Today one of my favorite tunes is Kansas City Railroad Blues. I learned it from a Benton Flippen recording, an Appalachian fiddler with a strong blues feel. Tomorrow I may have a new favorite, since I am still busy discovering!" Some of her favorite fiddlers are Flippen, Tommy Jarrell, Nile Wilson, Bill Hicks, and Lonnie Chatmon (of the Mississippi Sheiks).


"I love to play rags and blues. Sometimes a march, and I always enjoy a pretty waltz. I'm really into old time fiddle dance tunes nowadays. I'm just starting to work on [cross tuning]. It's fun to play fiddle behind singing, coming forward for solo breaks." Betse also enjoys singing and plays tenor guitar ("just the basics"), mandolin, and is beginning to learn clawhammer banjo and guitar. Favorite backup instrument: "Depends on the tune -- either guitar or a good clawhammer banjo player. I also love playing fiddle tunes with a band - guitar, banjo (or mandolin, or dobro), & bass. Recently, my band, The Wilders, has been playing more festivals, mostly local one-day events. We used to play mostly at bars and coffeehouses, and I'm glad that's changing. The folks at festivals seem to be a better audience for us." The band plays old time fiddle tunes and songs, and a large number of vintage country songs from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams. They have also played frequently on live radio shows, at parties, children's concerts, and nursing homes. "Our lead singer, Ike, sings regularly in some local nursing homes, and I feel drawn to play there too, especially since my grandmother spent her last few years in one. I feel like maybe the music makes things a little brighter for them." Betse does not play in church currently (used to play in a church orchestra during college) but plays and sings spirituals, hymns, and gospel in her band. She has played at many weddings and a funeral, and she frequently plays with friends at jam parties. She plays in two bands, The Wilders, and Santa Rosa String Band; she used to play in a few others, and has been a guest with a few more. She has recorded over a dozen albums either with her bands (past and present) or as a guest; most of these recordings are available only privately.


Betse sometimes likes to attend fiddle contests: "Haven't been to that many yet. I enjoy watching good old time fiddlers and meeting other fiddlers." She has played in a couple of fiddle contests. Her first (and biggest) contest was at Winfield, Kansas, in 1996; she played Drunken Billy Goat, Midnight on the Water, and Hawkins Rag. Her bandmate Ike played guitar for backup. She doesn't remember who the winners were, except that 1st place went to a professional fiddler from Nashville. She has not judged a contest before, but believes that a good contest judge is one who "understands the tunes, appropriate styles, and techniques. Also authenticity can be a factor, depending on the contest." She believes that a competent contest judge should play the fiddle, "or at least they should be very familiar with fiddle tunes - maybe someone who has played with fiddlers for a long time could do it".


"It's too early to tell what my style is, since I'm still learning how to fiddle... but I could easily call my fiddling influenced by early country blues styles, with overtones from many other American styles. Arthur Smith was perhaps one of the more famous early fiddlers with blues overtones, and of course Lonnie Chatmon from Mississippi Sheiks. I hope someday to be a good old time dance fiddler, and I'll always keep plenty of rags and blues in my repertoire. There are [more fiddling styles] than any of us could count! But overriding styles... in the States I know of maybe about 10 styles. Then there's British Isles, French-Canadian, Prince Edward Island, etc. It's one thing to talk about a general style. But once you look closely at a region you find there are multiple subsets of styles. In my area, within 150 miles or so, I've heard different variants of Missouri styles. Bluegrass is always popular in Kansas City, but none of the music I like to play is real "popular" here. Kansas City will always be a big jazz and blues town (more R&B than country blues, though)."


Betse plays a French factory violin from the 1870's. "During high school, my parents hired a piano tuner. He saw my old half size case in the corner of the music room and told my parents he had a few fiddles at his house, but he also had an instrument that was "more of a violin than a fiddle". Well, I started out playing it as a violin and ended up playing the fiddle!" The instrument has two labels inside: "Compagnon" and "J.B.F." Betse thinks it is a Stradivarius model; it has an outgoing personality and a loud, rich tone. She uses a Willy Wolf shoulder rest and likes D'Addario Fiddle Strings, though she recently switched to Prims, and she plays with a German exhibition bow from the 1880's. "I bought it because it was pretty - it has beautiful engraving in the silver at the frog. I recently discovered that it turned out to be quite a good investment. Lucky!"


"I can't imagine not playing it! It gives me such joy. Playing the instrument has always been cathartic for me - when nothing else is going right, I can give myself a bit of comfort by playing fiddle tunes. Since my 'discovery' of old time fiddle tunes, I am more compelled than I've ever been to learn. Not just the music itself, but the history of the tunes, the players... 'where did you come from, where did you go?'"


Betse learned Kansas City Railroad Blues from a Benton Flippen recording ("Old Time, New Times", Rounder); a couple of months ago, she saw Benton Flippen perform at Augusta in 1997 and was inspired to learn tunes from him then. Pig Ankle Rag is a favorite tune because it reminds her of Arkansas. Her backup musicians happen to be the rest of her band, The Wilders. "Ike Sheldon is our guitarist and lead singer. What a singer... you oughta hear him yodel. Phil Wade is a multi-instrumentalist --he plays dobro, banjo, and mandolin. He used to mostly play dobro but has gotten excited about old time banjo styles, which of course makes me very happy. Matt Kesler is an excellent doghouse bass player who also co-owns a musical store in the area. We called ourselves The Wilders partly in tribute to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the "Little House" books. Ike & I both grew up in the Ozarks, not too far from Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura settled with her family. Of course, we're also a bit wilder than your average string band."