Bill Kearns died February 14, 2010, in Slater, Missouri. Bill had been battling cancer for several years, and his death was not unexpected. He was 86.
One of twelve children, all of them musicians, Bill Kearns (his real name was Bobby H. Kearns) was born on the family farm east of Slater, Saline County. His people were German and Scotch-Irish. Bill was a survivor of the Normandy Invasion in France during World War II and he served with distinction in the Army throughout the war. After the war, he returned to Slater, decided on a career as a railroad brakemen, settled down, and raised a family.
In recent years, Kearns was sought out by researchers interested in his vivid recollections of the Allied invasion of Normandy on “D Day” in June 1944.
Bill was an excellent old-time fiddler in the Little Dixie style, having begun playing dances in Saline County as a child. He was an avid historian of the history of fiddling and fiddlers in Missouri. He was an active supporter of fiddler’s contests and organizations. He was also a skilled electric rhythm guitarist and played countless dances in the Slater area in the 1950s and 1960s. As fiddler’s contests and sessions became more numerous in the 1960s and 1970s, he began do concentrate on playing fiddle music and playing backup guitar for other fiddlers. He also became a respected fiddle contest judge, and was known as a tough but fair judge. He had very high standards for what he considered to be authentic old-time Missouri fiddling. In addition, Bill developed skills as a violin repairperson and trader.
During the past year, Kearns was in and out of a Columbia hospital and had undergone all available cancer treatments. I visited him for the last time there in December 2009. I took with me a violin that I had obtained from Bill, upon which he immediately began playing tunes he remembered from many years ago, such as “Saline Waltz” (a tune he often played in fiddler’s contests) and “Saline County Breakdown” (a tune I had never heard before). His focus gravitated to tunes from his youth that he had learned to play as a child from local fiddle players, such as his father George Kearns, Bill’s older brother Buster Kearns, and Harry Berger (a powerful hornpipe player in the old style), in his area of central Missouri (Saline County, Chariton County, Howard County). Among other rare tunes he recalled was “Muddy Road to Frankfort,” a hoedown he played as a child at square dances in the Missouri River village of Frankfort, some seven miles from the Kearns’ family farm in Saline County (the tune is widely known as “Five Miles Out of Town,” having been published in R.P. Christeson’s 1973 volume of fiddle tunes).
One of the thoughtful things Bill did in his last year, knowing that his days were numbered by his cancer, was to see to it that some of his life-long collection of materials pertaining to his life as an old-time fiddle player, collector, and contest judge were made part of the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection at the University of Missouri in Columbia for the benefit of future generations. At Bill’s request, and with the help of his daughter, Dr. Donna Kearns, I was delighted to be able to take care of getting his collection donated to the WHMC in the summer of 2009.
A number of interesting materials are part of the Bill Kearns Collection at that celebrated archive (WHMC). Among the items Bill donated were his c. 1940 Philco home recording machine, with which he made 6 1/2″ 33 rpm records of local fiddlers several years before others began doing that, along with several discs made on that machine c. 1943. He also donated numerous tape recordings and videotapes of fiddlers’ contests and jam sessions. Among print materials in the Kearns Collection are program booklets from the Minnesota State Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest, which Bill Kearns and several other Missourians helped establish at Cotton, Minnesota in 1981. Other items include several hundred 78-, 45-, and 33-rpm records of fiddling. The Western Historical Manuscript Collection is located in Ellis Library on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Funeral services for Bill Kearns will be held at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 325 W. Emma, in Slater at 11 a.m. Wednesday, February 17. The funeral home is Weiker Funeral Home, 202 W. Emma St., Slater MO 65349.