“When I pick up the fiddle I play it from the heart . . . If you study a fiddler up close you can almost read his life, all his sorrows, all his happiness. There’s a lot of things I could’ve been, but I’m not and I’m not going to worry about them.”
—the late Wilson Douglas
The cover art to The Art of Traditional Fiddle looks like the kind of banality one would pick up in a souvenir shop in a mountain tourist trap like Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But this isn’t some polished collection of “traditional” numbers smoothly performed by a Nashville studio ensemble. Rounder has cataloged an amazing amalgam of raw fiddle styles from across the continent in this latest installment of the label’s North American Traditions Series. The serious student of folk music simply cannot pass this up. In addition to a whopping 33 selections (ranging in length from 45 seconds to nearly six minutes), the owner of this fine volume is treated to some of the most informative and readable liner notes available, courtesy of Mark Wilson’s pen. Following a brief but illuminating essay, Wilson provides incisive vignettes of each performer on the album, explaining the distinct fiddle styles he/she represents.
Of immediate surprise is that fact that no examples of the familiar Southeastern fiddling (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or Georgia) are present. The works of giants such as Tommy Jarrell, Charlie Bowman, Gid Tanner, et al., have been sufficiently chronicled elsewhere. Instead, this collection focuses on fiddle pieces from three general domains—Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia and the Northeast, and the Ozark Mountain region of Arkansas and Missouri. Wilson summarizes the spectrum of styles thusly:
“Think of a little Ozark farmhouse on a moonlit night with its furniture completely moved outside, so there would be room for two square dance sets within . . . Or a skilled black violinist in the 1870s, decked out in tails, practicing the latest cotillion from Europe so that his orchestra might play them for the white upperclass at a forthcoming Lexington ball. Think of a country sharecropper living in the hills ninety years later studiously practicing these same pieces, now evocatively altered through a long train of aural transmission, simply because he admires their delicacy and difficulty. Imagine a prim cottage in the middle of industrial Sydney, Nova Scotia, where devoted amateur students of Scottish music congregate each month for tea and biscuits and critically dissect the placement of grace notes within a favorite strathspey from the 1780s . . .”
Indeed, irrespective of the chronological order in which the pieces are presented on this recording, they move in a continuum that begins remarkably close to “classical” music then orbits to an apogee that is as dangerous as the frontier. When one hears Cape Breton master Theresa Morrison on “Inganess Medley”, or Joe MacLean’s stately “Nancy”, one is much closer to the good manners of Avonlea than the romp of Hee Haw. A little farther down the road, Kentuckian George Hawkins displays his commonwealth’s complex style on “Rat’s Gone to Rest”, a surprisingly refined tune with prim piano accompaniment.
Brothers Larry (fiddle) and Henry (guitar) Riendeau serve up the haute flavor of Quebec on “Le Pied du Mouton”, a song on which the fiddler clogs out the rhythm with his feet. Containing rapid-fire eighth notes, one can easily discern the roots of Cajun music on this track. Taking a detour through the countryside, we come to several songs directly inspired by blues and nearly extinct African American fiddle playing: “Lay Your Good Money Down” (Art Galbraith), “Midnight” (Jim Woodward), and a startling rendition of Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” performed by Alton Jones.
Moving into the high country, listeners will delight to Arkansas’ Violet Hensley as she saws away on “Uncle Henry”, playing her own hand-made instrument and accompanied by her daughter striking a mule’s jaw. More primitive percussion is heard on “Hunky Dory” (Alva Greene) which features the “beating of the straws”, where another musician taps out the rhythm on the unfretted strings of the fiddle with knitting needles (hence the expression, “fiddle sticks”).
But at last we reach the high, lonely summit where we encounter the late Wilson Douglas on his brief but powerful “Old Christmas Morning”. In the tradition of West Virginia fiddle music, Douglas has his instrument cross-tuned to A-E-A-E to achieve a chillingly dissonant sound. As Gail Gillespie has written, “. . . Wilson Douglas’ music, with its smooth rolling style, heart-wrenchingly bittersweet tone and indefinable little nuances transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Somehow Wilson manages to create a sound that is at once joyous and the most lonesome tone I have ever heard come out of a fiddle” (Old Time Magazine, November 1989).
As Mark Wilson points out in his essay, “. . . the folk fiddler has developed an entire arsenal of idiosyncratic techniques, often involving very short bow strokes against an unchinned instrument held sharply tilted towards the floor. Since the tonal and rhythmic qualities that result from these venerable patterns of attack violate the tonal norms sought within formalized violin instruction, ‘educated’ musicians often dismiss folk playing as ‘jerky’ and ‘rough,’ when, in fact, these dance techniques predate our modern ‘classical’ style and obey a musical logic all their own.”
For the listener willing to enter into the wild regions of fiddle music, this album will prove an enriching experience. Rounder is to be commended on taking the enormous risk of compiling a collection that refuses to bow to popular music demands.
// Notes from the Road
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