Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman: traveling vaudeville and fiddler

Becky Campbell • Jun 5, 2019 at 8:26 PM

When Johnson City native Bob Cox — the heritage columnist for the Johnson City Press — published his first book 10 years ago about a renowned local fiddler who was also his great uncle, he never imagined how the doors would open to a treasure trove of new information on the man.

“Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman, An East Tennessee Old-Time Music Pioneer and His Musical Family” was an account of Bowman growing up in East Tennessee, how he came to play the fiddle and where that talent took him throughout his life.

The book “Forever a Hillbilly, A Pictorial Old-Time Music Journey of Appalachian Fiddler Charlie Bowman” gives Cox’s reader the literal pictures of all the people in Bowman's life and the music touring he did.

“The first thing people want to know is why I wrote another book about Fiddlin’ Charlie,” Cox said recently.

“This (new) book has so much new material," he said, referring to Bowman’s personal collection of photographs, recordings, diaries and other memorabilia that had been stored away in a suitcase and all but forgotten.

The information came to Cox after his first book was published and he started a family newsletter. Cox asked the relatives who received the newsletter to share their own memories of Bowman.

“I started sending a six-page family newsletter with text and photos from his collection to about 50 members at no charge,” Cox said. He asked relatives to share their own memories about the family, “especially around fiddling and playing music, going to vaudeville,” he said. “I said in there if they had any stories, photographs, anything, to loan it to me.”

And boy, did it come. Most of the items were given to Cox, although some was just loaned out so he could include it in his new book.

“All of a sudden, people were sending me things left and right,” Cox said, which included the entire musical history collection of Charlie Bowman’s sister, Jennie.

Cox also found out about a so-called “lost suitcase collection,” which was a suitcase Bowman left behind in Georgia when he returned to East Tennessee. It eventually made its way back into the Bowman family, and Cox decided the information was so rich in the history of fiddle music in the region that he wanted to share it.

Cox returned the items to the owner, Bowman’s youngest daughter Mary Lou Weibel, but many of the artifacts were lost in a house fire.

Fortunately, Cox had made copies of the material prior to that, and it’s now preserved in his new book. The publication includes more than 600 photographs depicting Bowman’s life and people he encountered and played music with, including many of his relatives.

It took Cox six years to bring the material into book form, which is an 8-inch-by-10-inch format with more than 300 pages of Bowman’s pictorial history.

“The reader will find Chapter 14 chocked full of honors and awards for Charlie, all of which occurred years after his passing,” Cox said.

Of the 14 listed, Cox said two prominently stand out. First, Bowman was inducted into the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Osceola, New York, located in the Adirondack Mountains, on July 28, 2001.

Second was the approval and installation of a Tennessee Historical Marker located near where the family’s old log house once stood in Gray Station.

But there’s a bit of a shocker in the book as well, Cox said.

“Without question, Chapter 13 is the most bizarre chapter in this book,” Cox said. “Charlie's remains, which were buried near Atlanta in 1962, were repatriated to Monte Vista Cemetery (in Johnson City) in October 2014. The reason for this unusual turn of events will amaze and dumbfound the reader, but it shows the love that family members had for their Uncle Charlie.”

The book is only available at Amazon, Cox said. For more information about it, go to https://goo.gl/jhn8Sn or search “Forever a Hillbilly” on Amazon.

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