A passionate old-time fiddler, Jack Magee draws on family tradition and also modern conveniences such as CDs to form his repertoire and style. There have been Magees in his hometown of Magee since before it was settled, when a Phil Magee arrived around 1820. But the family musical tradition comes through Jack’s father’s mother, born Ruby Kennedy.
Magee’s grandmother used to sit in on piano with her father’s group, the Six Town Band (named for the local Six Town Indians). Ruby’s brother Claude fiddled, and some of his playing was preserved on tapes. Music skipped a generation then: Magee’s father, a pharmacist, did not play. He first learned guitar, then started fiddling in his teens. When Magee got started on the fiddle, his approach was eclectic. He puzzled out hymns and listened to tapes of “Uncle” Claude. He also took violin lessons at Hinds Junior College, lessons that quickly shifted from formal violin to fiddle. He later began studying with the versatile Jackson-based fiddler, Tim Avalon. They still meet on Friday mornings and figure out old tunes from recordings.
Jack’s fascination with old-time fiddling, his return to focusing on what Uncle Claude and other early Mississippi fiddlers did, and his love for community music-making led to his devotion to old-time music. Jack often hosts music parties in his home. When it’s time to play, the tunes are grouped by key, since in old-time fiddling, you retune the fiddle for a key so that it will ring really well in that key and allow easy double-stops. Jack picks up his fiddle, the guitarists and bassists get ready, and they’re off to the races. Nearly all of the tunes are exuberant breakdowns, in which you play a short section, repeat it, play the other section, repeat it, and go back and forth in an intoxicating celebration. Every once in a while, Jack will sing one of the cryptic verses loosely linked with many a tune, for instance:
Oh yes, Mama, look at Sam,
Eatin’ them biscuits from that pan.
Hadn’t had a lot since I been born;
The old folks shucked and shelled their corn.