Performer Focus

“Fair Lady Fiddlers:” Women Fiddlers in American Roots Music

By Dr. Susan Davis

Mrs. Ben Scott, fiddler [1]
From the Library of Congress

In the 1930s, Mrs. Ben Scott beat out 6 male fiddlers for a $10 prize, “playing ahead of them all the way” and we do not even know her first name. Born in 1863 in Sacramento, she and her brother learned to play fiddle on one string and gathered hair out of a horse’s tail for a bow. Later in life she participated in fiddle contests, but not during her marriage to Mr. Ben Scott. There are several wonderful recordings of her from the 1930s on the library of Congress website, including a recording of the tune Soldier’s Joy.

Mrs. Scott’s tale is just one of the stories featured on the Instagram account Fair Lady Fiddlers (run by Dr. Susan Davis) which aims to curate the music, narratives, and profiles of women fiddlers in American Roots music, one day at a time. To date, Dr. Davis has featured the images and stories of over 240 women fiddlers. These women represent diverse cultures and communities; they have won national and international awards; they perform a wide range of musical styles across the spectrum of folk, fiddle, popular, and classical music traditions; and most significantly, many of these women engage in acts of artistic citizenship, leveraging their musical voices and talents to uplift and better the lives of others in their orbit.

Since the very essence of American Roots music is tied to cultural life, community, personal and communal identities, heritage, and participatory music making, this project reveals a rich collection of women’s stories. What the project has uncovered is that these women are rarely just fiddlers. As a part of their fiddler selves and their voices in the community, they embody other roles that are often inextricably linked to their selves as fiddlers. They are fiddlers, teachers, multi-instrumentalists, entrepreneurs, activists, folklorists, feminists and scholars. Included among them are:

Rhiannon Giddens, African-American singer and multi-instrumentalist who brings to light the tradition of black string band music in the south. Giddens has composed several songs centering the experience of slaves in American history:

Gaelynn Lea, a fiddler and songwriter with brittle bone disease, featured on npr’s Tiny Desk Concert, works for disability awareness as she shares her life experience and world view:

Geneviève Salamone, a Huron-Wendat violinist, who is leading a performance art project to center mental health issues surrounding sexual abuse trauma and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Movement:

Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame, is a fiddler, singer and songwriter who performed in 40 U.S. cities in 2016 on the Use Your Voice Tour, designed to encourage women to go to the polls and vote. Sara’s original fiddle tune Jefferson:

In the tradition of Mrs. Ben Scott, who paved the way for so many other lady fiddlers, these women live their stories and lead us to a rich source of music, culture, activism, enjoyment, and discourse. Although women fiddlers have often been underestimated or marginalized as American Roots instrumentalists, their musical, social, and cultural contributions deserve to be recognized as a part of the rich musical lineage of American Roots music today.

Violin Performers

[1]Cowell, Sidney Robertson, Collector. Mrs. Ben Scott with fiddle, portrait, photograph. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.