A fiddler’s redemption
August 7, 2023
Very few guitar players came to Texas in the early days of Anglo settlement. Guitars were too big to carry. Pianos were out of the question. Fiddles, however, didn’t take up much space, nor did banjos, and those were the instruments – along with harmonicas, of course – that early settlers brought with them.
The song says you can’t play in Texas if you don’t have a fiddle in the band but in the very early days the fiddle often was the band. Frontier fiddlers knew where all the parties were because they were the party. But there was a catch. Fiddlers were held in low esteem by the pious. Christian folk tradition told of the fiddle as the devil’s instrument and opined that the only way one could learn to play it was to make a deal with the devil. Whether or not this tradition applied if the instrument was called a violin we do not know.
Pat Airhart, originally from Tennessee, was a fiddler in Lee County in the late 1870s, a lawless time and place. Ongoing blood feuds and a deadly game of chance involving cattle rustlers on one side and ranchers on the other were common. Airhart, whose full name was Daniel Patterson Airhart, was married to the second of his three wives. His house near the community of Blue was the scene of many a party, with Airhart providing the entertainment on fiddle.
In that time and place were people whose idea of a good time was killing other people. Five such psychopaths showed up at Airhart’s house for a party one night with the express purpose of killing Airhart because, we suppose, they had never killed a fiddler before.
The law of the land, in the form of vigilantes, was closing in on them. The murder of Horace Alsup had alerted the boys that their time was coming, too. Alsup, the father of one of the men and father-in-law to three more, had provided safe haven for the young outlaws. That was enough to get him killed. Unspoken but understood was that the rustlers and roughs he had given refuge to would be next. They decided to leave while they still could.
In order to leave the people of the area something to remember them by, the would-be killer decided to stop by Airhart’s place, raise some hell, and murder the host. They were in the midst of the hell-raising part of the plan when the festivities were interrupted by a posse that, like the outlaws, came to the party with killing on their minds.
The vigilantes called out the name of six people they wanted, including the five who were there to kill Airhart. One of them escaped through a window. The other four were hustled outside. Airhart was told to keep fiddling, to fiddle all night until sunrise. The rest of the people were likewise instructed to keep the party going until the sun came up.
“Another trip to Giddings,” one of the boys remarked as they were being taken away, a reference to the jail where he naively assumed they were headed.
“We will never see Giddings,” one of the others informed him, and he was right.
The next morning, when the fiddling and dancing was done, the four party crashers were found hanging from a tree near a creek about a mile from Airhart’s place.
One of the posse members told Airhart how close he had come to being killed the night before. It made an impression on Airhart. He traded in his fiddle for a Bible and became a preacher. One source has him listed as having been a pastor for 22 Baptist churches in the state and responsible for the construction of nine of them. He lived to be 77-years-old and died in Kleberg County. He was said to be quite a character. We would love to know his views on the fiddle as an instrument of the devil.