TAGHS Hears About Fiddlin' Jim Pate at November Meeting

November 17, 2017 - An ad appeared in the January 17, 1930 edition of The Timpson Times announcing that Bussey's Drug Store had received the new Fiddlin' Jim Pate record. The ad went on to say that “Jim Pate is an old-time fiddler, lives in the Arcadia Community, just south of Timpson.”  Though few in Shelby County remember Mr. Pate's recording career, his records are prized by collectors of early country music and digital recordings are available on the internet. In a effort to learn more about Fiddlin' Jim Pate, the Timpson Area Genealogical and Heritage Society viewed old photographs and newspaper clipping, heard from his grand and great-grandson, and listened to some of his recordings at their November 15 monthly meeting.

Throughout human history, the only way to hear music was to be in the presence of the musician until Thomas A. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Just as language was learned from hearing others speak, music was learned by hearing others play, and that created local dialects and accents in language and styles of music. For example, even though the “Cajuns” of South Louisiana live only a relatively short distance from Texas, their accents and music are very different. “Texas-style Fiddling”, of which Fiddlin' Jim Pate was a master, developed in the same way.

Though musical performances had been recorded since the earliest days of the phonograph, record companies considered country music too unsophisticated to be commercially viable.  Music historians generally cite the recordings done by then 35 year old Texan Eck Robertson and partner Henry C. Gilliland for Victor records on June 30, 1922 as the first country music ever recorded. Though their recordings of “Sallie Gooden” and “Arkansas Traveller” were released in September of 1922, they were not in wide circulation until April of 1923. The person responsible for boosting their popularity in 1923 was Fiddlin' John Carson.

Born in Georgia in 1869, Fiddlin' John Carson had long been a fixture at old-time fiddling contests in the South when, in 1923, he recorded “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “ The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Gonna Crow” for Okeh Records. Doubting that the record would be successful, Okeh pressed only 500 copies, but it was an immediate hit and the first pressing sold out in days.  Record companies now realized their error in avoiding country music and began scouring the South for country musicians. One of those discovered was East Texan Jim Pate.

Born August 8, 1867, James Rankin Pate was, like Eck Robertson, the son of a Confederate veteran. A resident of Shelby and Nacogdoches Counties, Jim Pate was a master of old-time Texas style fiddling and a frequent winner of the old-time fiddling contest at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport. A clipping from the October 29, 1922 Shrevport Times, supplied by Jim Pate III, features a photograph of the contestants and the first place winner, Jim Pate of Timpson. According to James Pate of Chireno, Texas,  his grandfather won the contest so many times the organizers told him not to come back.

The article erroneously states that Jim Pate was 80 at the time, though he would have actually been 55. It is noteworthy that Mr. J. F. Gary, also of Timpson, placed fourth.

Jim Pate III shared that his great-grandfather, Jim Pate, and his grandfather, Tom Pate, boarded a train in Nacogdoches bound for Dallas in October of 1929, where, at the invitation of Captain James Bonner, himself a renowned Texas fiddler and Victor recording artist, they made a record. Accompanied by his son Tom on guitar, Fiddlin' Jim Pate recorded “Texas Farewell” and “Prisoner Boy”. Jim Pate III revealed that he has been in contact with Tony Russell, a historian of American country music in London, England who knows of  Fiddlin' Jim Pate and owns a copy of the record. Mr. Russell says “I own a copy of his record, which is a treasure. I know other collectors of old-time 78's also have a high regard for your great-grandfather's fiddling. It's a great pity he was not asked to make further recordings”.  Mr. Russell has researched the Victor record files, establishing that the record sold 3591 copies, which was about average for a new artist but not enough to merit a second record. Fiddlin' Jim continued to play for the rest of his life but never recorded again. He died in 1935 at the age of 68 and is buried in Chireno.

Though his recordings were not big hits and his name is hardly a household word today, Fiddlin' Jim Pate was a contemporary and the artistic equal of others who are better known. He worked in the first decade of recorded country music and, as evidenced by Tony Russell's comments, historians and collectors in other parts of the world know of and prize his records.