Peter Tumlinson Bell, master texas fiddler, was born on February 26, 1869, near Gallinas Creek, in Atascosa County, Texas. He was the son of Marion “Mace” Bell and Sarah Jane (Tumlinson) Bell and was one of eleven children. His grandfather, Jonathan Bell, had come to Texas from Mississippi in 1853 and settled sixty miles southeast of San Antonio. Jonathan Bell was killed in a gunfight the following year, leaving his young son Marion “Mace” Bell (Peter’s father) to be raised on the frontier by an older brother Bill. In 1862 Mace moved his young family to join several others and settled on land that would one day become Carrizo Springs. Peter Bell grew up in the town of Carrizo Springs in Dimmit County. Besides the role he played as a founder and citizen of standing, Bell was a gifted musician who occupies a significant place in the history of American music.
Peter’s father, Mace Bell, was a musician who played the fiddle, and he brought with him to Texas a store of tunes and the ability to play what the Bell family still recognizes today as the “old mountain music,” some of which was carried on by the playing of his son, Peter Tumlinson Bell. Old-time mountain music is represented by a relatively few field recordings made in the eastern mountains of Appalachia during the 1930s to the 1960s and by certain commercial recordings of professional entertainers during and after the late 1920s. Listeners can form a serviceable opinion about the fiddle music of Georgia in the 1920s based on the commercial recordings of John Carson, Gid Tanner, Clayton McMichen, and others, but the ability to imagine what the music of the same region sounded like a generation before leads to little more than speculation.
Influenced by his father, Peter Bell began playing the fiddle when he was eight years old. The Bell family was at the center of the music and dance tradition that helped to sustain the settlers through the early years in the Carrizo Springs area. Along with the Frasier Family, also renowned musicians in the area, the Bells performed at house dances, holiday celebrations, and homecomings—all occasions for music and dance that often lasted well into the night and sometimes the following day! The families continued these musical traditions well into the twentieth century.
Peter Tumlinson Bell married Mary Louisa “Molly” Hilburn on July 12, 1888. They had seven children, several of whom were distinguished by their own musical abilities. The reputation of Carrizo Springs for this music drew the attention of a university professor from Texas A&M who was travelling the country and making field recordings of the vanishing traditions of his home state. In 1941 William A. Owens journeyed down to the Nueces Strip with his second-hand Vibromaster to record P. T. Bell who was then seventy-four years old.
Verner Lee Bell remembered the day the professor came to record his grandfather and recalled how the shiny, curled metal tailings fell on the floor as the Vibromaster recorded the masterful playing, cutting the signal into a set of aluminum disks. Bell played thirty-one tunes that day which were preserved on the disks that Owens took with him when he left. The memory of the event remained strong for Verner who, years later, would compile the recollections of his grandfather with his extensive research and publish the story of this remarkable man in the book, Memories of Peter T. Bell. It is also largely due to the efforts of Verner and his son Bert Lee Bell, that the important recordings of P. T. Bell have been preserved. Verner Bell, historian for the Dimmit County Historical Commission, passed away on March 11, 2002. Bert Lee Bell continued to serve as chairman of the Dimmit County Historical Commission in 2010.
Owens’s recordings of Peter Tumlinson Bell have been restored and are available from the Field Recorders Collective. Although a renowned fiddler in his day, Bell never made nor sought to make commercial recordings. And though he played continuously throughout his life, as a devout member of the Church of Christ, he did not approve of many entertainments associated with music. He was an old-time fiddler of a bygone era. He once commented, “I used to play the fiddle for some of the old-time dances, but have quit since many more people misbehave now than ever before.”
Though the first commercial recording of southern country music is customarily attributed to Amarillo fiddler, Alexander “Eck” Robertson, who, along with Henry C. Gilliland, recorded in 1922, Robertson’s style of playing reflected the popular tastes of early twentieth century Texas. Bell was of an earlier time, having been raised in the wilderness of South Texas where the blessing of music served a different purpose. He was not a professional entertainer but deeply dedicated to his family heritage and the old-time style of music he both loved and consciously preserved. While the playing of musicians like Eck Robertson, Col. M. J. Bonner, and “Uncle” Jimmy Thompson opens a portal to the sensibilities of Texas fiddling in the 1920s, the sound of Bell’s music is that of an earlier era, heard perhaps nowhere else with the depth and range expressed in these thirty-one recordings. The sound of his cotillions, schottisches, old-time waltzes, and breakdowns are distinctive.
References are often made to the Scots-Irish origins of Texas fiddling. In these recordings is perhaps the first evidence of what that music actually sounded like. The distinctly Scottish affectations of bowing and phrasing can be heard in his version of the tune “Ladies Fancy,” played with the G-string tuned down to E. Similarly, the presence of distinctly hard bowed triplets in the tune “Morg Williams Cotillion” and the languid left-hand rolls in an unnamed march learned from his father “during the War” set his recordings apart from any other. Along with distinct but obviously related tunes found in the Eastern mountains like “Sugar in My Coffee,” are others perhaps older which somehow survived through many generations of the Bell family. The tune “Killie Ma Crankey” appears to be related to the Scottish tune “Braes of Killiekranke” commemorating the battle of Killiekrankie which took place on July 27, 1689. Remarkably, such playing with its distinctive and recognizably Celtic styling survived over many generations and thousands of miles.
The aluminum disks of Bell’s playing were originally stored at Texas A&M University but have since been lost. The currently available recordings were made from lacquer coated aluminum 78 rpm copies made by the Extension Division of the University of Texas sometime in the 1940s. The recordings were made available for reproduction by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Restoration of the recordings was undertaken by Karl Miller of Restoration Audio in Austin.
Peter Tumlinson Bell died on February 18, 1956, in Carrizo Springs. His was a life of singular accomplishment, having helped forge the community of Carrizo Springs. He was proud of the role he played as a steadfast member of his church, community, and family. He fostered his love of music in his children and summed up his musical abilities in straightforward terms, "I'm an old-time fiddle player and I will play any man in Texas tune for tune, provided that he will not use sheet or printed music; only a list of the tunes to be played, and if I can't beat him I lose."