Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847. The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age. It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area. Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County. At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons. After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth. A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas. He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated. He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing. In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest. On January 4, 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra. Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”. Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin. Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again. He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General. At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.
Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas. Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra. The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.
Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”. Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.
On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January. The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.