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GILLILAND, HENRY C. (1845-1924)

Henry C. Gilliland, a traditional fiddler, is considered the first person to make a country music recording. He was born in Jasper County, Missouri, on March 11, 1845, to Joseph C. Gilliland, of Irish descent, and Lucretia K. Gilliland, of English descent. In 1853 the family left Missouri via the Texas Road to north Texas, eventually settling in Parker County. In 1863 Gilliland joined the Confederate Army, enlisting in Company H, Second Texas Cavalry. While in the military, he made many lifelong friends and learned to play his brother's fiddle. Eventually, Gilliland made the acquaintance of many Oklahoma and Texas fiddlers, including the legendary Mat Brown, his favorite. In 1901 the Gilliland family moved to Martha, Oklahoma Territory, and in 1910 Gilliland moved to Altus, where he served as city clerk and justice of the peace.

In the 1880s he began entering fiddling contests in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. By 1910 he began to enter competitions outside the Southwest, winning many and placing high in the rest. Contest fiddlers played without accompaniment at that time, and showmanship and a military record helped Gilliland win many competitions. His humor was a satirical literary style, always based on nostalgia. His fiddling was fast, precise, loud, and flawless.

"Uncle Henry," as locals in Altus called him, was the town's special elder. The local newspaper celebrated his accomplishments as a contest fiddler. In 1922 Gilliland attended the Confederate Veterans Reunion in Richmond, Virginia, accompanied by Eck Robertson, a young fiddler from Texas. The two had been curious about making a phonograph record, and after the reunion they traveled to New York to audition for the Victor Talking Machine Company. They recorded "Arkansas Traveler" and "Turkey in the Straw," with Gilliland playing the lead and Robertson playing a second part. Many historians have claimed this to be the United States' first recording of traditional music played by traditional musicians. Because the traditional music recorded in the early 1920s became the basis for the country music industry, the Gilliland/Robertson recording has been regarded as the first country music record. Robertson went on to become a legendary fiddler who made many records. In one of his last public appearances Gilliland played at Gov. John Walton's 1923 inaugural party. Henry Gilliland died on April 21, 1924.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Henry Gilliland," Vertical File, Archives, Museum of the Western Prairie, Altus, Oklahoma. Henry C. Gilliland, "The Life and Battles of Henry Gilliland for Seventy Years" (N.p.: Henry Gilliland, ca. 1915), Archives, Museum of the Western Prairie. "Col. Henry C. Gilliland," Confederate Veteran 33 (April 1925). St. Louis (Missouri) Republic, 2 April 1911. Jill S. Seeber, "Alexander Robertson," The New Handbook of Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1995).

Rodger Harris

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