The Art of Traditional Fiddle

Various performers

Rounder Heritage Series 11592

Alva Greene: Hunky Dory; Theresa MacLellan: Captain Carswell; Jerry Holland: New Market Reel; Snake Chapman: Rock Andy; Buddy Thomas: Yellow Barber; Jim Woodward: Midnight; Gerry Robichaud: Bouctouche Reel / St. Anneís Reel; Theresa Morrison: Inganess Medley; Jim Herd: Dance All Night With a Gal with a Hole in Her Stocking; Roger Cooper: Bostony; Fred Stoneking: Blackberry Waltz; Art Galbraith: Lay Your Good Money Down; Joe Robichaud: Moccasin Two-Step; Ray Hilt: Portsmouth Winder; Howe Teague: Wabash Foxtrot; Joe Cormier: Clay Pipe Medley; Darley Fulks: Snowstorm; Joe MacLean: Nancy; Graham Townsend: Lucy Campbell / Walker Street; Violet Hensley: Uncle Henry; Billy Stamper: Martha Campbell; Lonnie Robertson: Lonnieís Breakdown; Larry Riendeau: Le Pied du Mouton; Harold Zimmerman: Crow Call; Dwight Lamb: The Hiram Allen Tune; J P Fraley: Annadeeneís Waltz; Carl MacKenzie: Robert Cormack / Aberdeen Medley; Wilson Douglas: Old Christmas Morning; George Hawkins: Rats Gone to Rest; Ray Curbow: Pig Ankle Blues; Alton Jones: Milk Cow Blues; Paul Smith: Deal Eat the Groundhog; Bob Holt: Rattlesnake.
For around 30 years now, Mark Wilson has done some of the most important collecting work in the field of traditional fiddling, recording the music and documenting the lives of countless fiddlers across North America.  Cover pictureThis present offering, The Art of Traditional Fiddle, is a survey and a reflection of the breadth of his work during this span of time.  It was released in 1998 under the umbrella of both the North American Traditions and the Rounder Heritage Essential Folk series.

The Art of Traditional Fiddle celebrates the diversity of the fiddle tradition across various regions of the North American continent.  Herein is to be found music from Kentucky, New Hampshire, the Ozarks, Cape Breton, West Virginia, Missouri, New Brunswick, and the Ottawa Valley among other places.  Of the music itself, there are blues, waltzes, hoedowns, oddball listening tunes, hornpipes, remnants of ballroom music, strathspeys, haunting modal pieces, winders and more.  If that werenít enough, all manner of accompaniment is to be heard; banjos, guitars, pianos, bones on two tracks, and simply the lone voice of the unaccompanied fiddle.

Not every North American locality can possibly be represented on one CD, so for example, there is no music from Texas, North Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee, ground which has been well trod by both early record companies and more recently, other collectors.  In all, the music presented on this disc reflects long standing communities in North America.  Mr Wilson has concentrated his efforts on three loosely defined regions Cape Breton/Nova Scotia, the Midwest Ozarks, and perhaps the most celebrated (for myself, anyway), Kentucky and the Upper South.  Not all of this work was done alone, as Mark has often chosen recording partners who were well-placed experts in the music of each region, among them Gus Meade, Gordon McCann, John Harrod, Frank Ferrell, and Morgan MacQuarrie.

The recording makes a strong statement for the case of the predominance of the fiddle as the North Americaís favored folk instrument.  Is his always informative notes, Wilson argues that fiddling is a legitimate artistic form of personal expressiveness, as much so as Western art music.  To quote:

The men and women who developed our native fiddle music carried within themselves the same range of natural musical talent as did the more celebrated musicians who have bequeathed us our popular and classical masterpieces and who have staffed our great bands and orchestras.  True, if you work all day in the garden or the mines, you are unlikely to develop the same range of technique and refinement required of a great classical violinist.  But you still may have time to develop an heirloom fiddle tune, sisteen bars long, into a model of pungent personal expressiveness.  And therein lies the charm of the music sampled here.
The main difference is to be found in the techniques, and over the generations fiddlers have devised countless ways to find the sound heard in their heads, and these sounds have been passed on largely from person to person.  This is true even within the Cape Breton community, where there has been a long standing parallel transmission of tunes learned from the printed page.  This collection makes a convincing argument both aurally and in the notes for the validity of fiddle music as an art (hence the title) unto itself, and not just a lesser form of violin playing, an attitude once quite common.  Again, to quote Wilsonís notes:
To view fiddle technique as if it merely represents a way station along the road to classical craft is to misunderstand its proper nature; the good traditional fiddler has another destination in view.  On this CD one will hear a wide range of fiddle techniques ranging from the roughly expressive (Alva Greene) to the most polished (Graham Townsend).  But it all grows out of the old social fabric in which North American fiddle music once thrived.
Were this a classroom, a recording of poorly orchestrated fiddle music (there are plenty Ė see Country Fiddle Band, New England Conservatory conducted by Gunther Schuller, Columbia Masterworks, 1976), could be placed alongside Art of Traditional Fiddle as an example of 'how NOT to do it'.

In addition, Art of Traditional Fiddle reflects Wilsonís dogged search for what can only be termed as the 'authentic' in fiddling.  Without wading too deeply into that can of worms, itís enough to say that every fiddler in this collection is well grounded their own community of fiddling, each of with old roots which have been based on the North American continent for a long time.  Again, it must be stressed that this project is not meant to be a comprehensive survey, but just a reflection of Mark Wilsonís fieldwork (and personal tastes, no doubt).  Thus not all, but the majority of the fiddlers are from an Anglo-American background (people having ancestral roots in the British Isles), so there are no African-American fiddlers, no Native American fiddlers, and no music of recent immigrants from Latin America, Asia, or other parts of the world.

However, as an example of the extent to which musical communities have cross pollinated and influenced each other on this continent in the past several hundred years, it is worth noting the instances where the influence of sub-cultures can be heard on this CD.  For example, the echoes of African-American fiddling are heard from Jim Woodward, who learned his piece Midnight directly from noted African-American fiddler Jim Booker.  Likewise, George Hawkins and Alton Jones play pieces with strong links to African-American tradition.

One potential drawback to this recording, which I heard from a number of listeners, is with regard to the mixing of fiddle styles on one disk.  While this isnít a problem for me, not everyone wants to hear an Ozarks hoedown followed by an Irish jig followed by a blues drag followed by a waltz, etc.  This complaint was heard even from those who were fans of all the disparate traditions represented here.  Itís noteworthy that all who made this comment were from the 'baby boomer' generation.  Itís possible that those of my own age group (under 30) are more accustomed to having potentially disparate pieces of music next to each other, given the explosion of reissues and easy access to music from all periods of recorded sound available to us in the last fifteen years.  In any case, this is an issue that each listener will need to resolve on their own.  All of the music is excellent, though collectively perhaps not to everyoneís tastes.  Through the sampler format, one may hear an unfamiliar yet appealing piece of fiddling and be led to purchase the recording from which it came.

Given that there are a generous 33 tracks and that many fiddlers on this recording, it is impossible to comment on each.  However, while attempting to not play favorites, standout cuts for me include Jerry Hollandís New Market Reel set, tunes from his fatherís native New Brunswick.  These are from his out of print (but soon to be reissued) first LP.  Curiously, another standout track for me also featured a fiddler playing a body of tunes not usually associated with him; Graham Townsendís rendition of the Irish tunes Lucy Campbell / Walker Street.  Townsend was a remarkably gifted musician who influenced fiddlers across traditions, and itís nice to hear him use his considerable technical skills within the service of straightforward traditional music.

Also fine is Roger Cooperís Bostony, an unusually elegant tune which Mark Wilson hypothesizes couldíve been descended from ballroom music.  play Sound ClipThis piece is an example of how, the deeper one digs into fiddle music, the more remarkable is its diversity, and that is the point of this project.  Elegant in a completely different way is Wilson Douglasís Old Christmas Morning (sound clip), a fine rendition of this central West Virginia classic from his long out of print first recording on Rounder (Rounder LP 0047, The Right Hand Fork of Rushís Creek).  While I often heard Wilson play in his later years, his skills had slightly deteriorated, and so it is always good to hear earlier recordings of him.  As Mark Wilson notes, the band arranged for the recording wasnít an ideal one for Wilson Douglasís music, and so the solo cuts really are the best of that lot.

Another personal favorite is George Hawkins of Bath Co, Kentucky, who along with his daughter Mary Curry, shows on Rats Gone to Rest that piano backing in traditional music isnít exclusive to 'celtic' style players or to those from the American mid-west.  Hawkins had an ability to decorate each tune in a manner unique to him, and this raucous tune shows off his unique rhythmic abilities.

play Sound ClipWhile there are few female fiddlers on this disk (which reflects the situation in the tradition at the times of collecting), one of the sweetest players Iíve ever heard in any tradition has to be Theresa Morrison of Cape Breton.  Her reflective and deep fiddling as heard on the Inganess Medley (sound clip) is, to quote Wilson, capable of carrying listeners 'back to an older musical world that was framed by an entirely different sensibility than animates the modern playing'.  More than most living fiddlers I am aware of, her music opens a window to a different time, and a different way of life.  Perhaps this is only apparent to me because of all the music on this disk, the Cape Breton music is that which I have the least first hand experience of.

However, I believe that all of the fiddle music here can, as Wilson notes, 'communicate the rhythms and cadences of a vanished time and place'.  play Sound ClipThis music comes from a shared culture and through the music one can discover the something about the history of each region and itís peoples.  For example, to bring in Kentucky fiddler Jim Woodward again; his tune Midnight (sound clip) was learned from African-American fiddler Jim Booker.  In tracing the tune, Mr Wilson notes the musical exchange of across racial lines which took place throughout the 19th century.  To quote, '... by the 1920s, such musical exchanges between subcultures had diminished and blacks laid aside the fiddle and banjo in favor of other instruments' - and musical forms, I should add.  Further, 'sometimes it is the memories of a Jim Woodward, Ray Curbow, or Snake Chapman that provide our best insight into the nature of black music in the nineteenth century'.

To those with an interest in the history of American traditional music, it is this kind of important oral history work, field collecting, and theorizing which is most essential right now.  We are possibly drawing near the end of the last of the 'old masters' that grew up and learned their music without access to the above-mentioned massive selection of sounds from all cultures and ages of recorded sound.  It is important that field collecting such as Mark Wilsonís continues while fiddlers such as those heard on Art of Traditional Fiddle are still with us, though disappearing quickly.  Undoubtedly traditional music will survive in one form or another (its tenacity is remarkable), but the above-discussed subtleties, which distinguish it from art music or commercialized folk music, are endangered.

Scott Prouty - 17.10.02
Washington, DC

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