Stella Elam was a fiddler from Illinois. I don’t know much about her, other than her recordings on the album, “Green Fields of Illinois.”
Here is her bio from the liner notes. The full notes are available here.
Mrs. Stelle Elam (nee Stipp) was born in Louisville, Illinois in 1902. Her family moved about a good deal, though always staying in Southern Illinois. Her father, on the other hand, had done a bit of traveling in his own day, even journeying as far as Colorado before returning home in a covered wagon.
At the age of ten Stelle first took up the fiddle. Her brother brought his fiddle home one day and took the trouble to show her how to play “Soldier’s Joy.” Little Stelle tried and tried until she got more and more notes to sound right. She very often heard her uncle, Jack Stipp, play the fiddle, too, and she would go home to try to reproduce what she had heard. In fact, since she was around her uncle Jack a lot (or made it a point to be), she learned most of her fiddle tunes from him, even more than she learned from her brother.
Her brother (how much we owe to the generosity of that brother!), seeing that Stelle was indeed serious about taking up music, bought her a fiddle of her own, and the young apprentice set about acquiring a repertoire of tunes. To put it in her own words: “I just staggered around over several of them until finally I got them learned.”
Several years later Stelle took a liking to the five-string banjo — so much of a liking that she traded her fiddle to get one. She learned to chord on it and shortly afterwards was proficient enough to play “Buffalo Nickel.” Soon after, she was married, and when her husband presented her with a new fiddle, her short flirtation with the banjo ended. By the time she had given birth to the fourth of her seven children she was already in demand for dances and parties. Southern Illinois square dances are still remembered with affection by many residents of Champaign and other nearby towns. Usually held in a barn or grange hall, the dances went on till dawn or until people began dropping from exhaustion and/or surplus beer. Wives, children, and babes-in-arms were brought from miles around in buckboards and Model-T’s, bearing box lunches and various liquid refreshments. As is to be expected, the strain on the musicians who had to satisfy all this pent-up enthusiasm was terrific. Lyle Mayfield avers that he heard Mrs. Elam “fiddle for five hours straight, standing up all the time, and never play the same tune twice.”
It is impossible to discuss Stelle Elam’s art without mentioning her uncle Jack, another fiddler still remembered by the old-timers of Southern Illinois. Jack looms as an interesting figure in our study of country fiddlers, for he learned some of his songs not by ear but by note from sheet music which he would buy whenever he needed a new tune. Though Stelle herself never learned to read music, she practiced diligently under her uncle’s guidance; for her father had told her that “Uncle Jack plays ’em by note, so if you learn ’em from him you’ll learn ’em right.” One thing she never could seem to learn, however, was Uncle Jack’s method of bowing: he held the bow at the end, like a classical violinist, but Stelle chokes up, like a batter about to lay down a bunt.
Mrs. Elam’s husband died five years ago in an auto accident, but Stelle’s life since then has hardly been that of a lonely widow. She has a large crew of grandchildren to keep her busy, and she still uses her shiny red Czech-built fiddle to chase the blues out of her white frame house on cold winter nights. She also plays a catchy honky-tonk piano. Though she no longer plays for those all-night parties, she still maintains herself in practice, as we discovered to our pleasure when we asked her to perform for our Club. Her debut on our state, as well as her remarkable performance for this record, prove that she still has the same musical skill that first set Illinois’ feet tapping 40 years ago.