Archive for the ‘Curly’s Wide World of Fiddle Tunes’ Category

h1

Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

Advertisements
h1

Bobby Britt & Town Mountain: Four Miles

10 May 2013

Fiddle tunes are musical DNA. Like our genetic code, they recombine the same twelve notes in nearly endless permutations and they’re passed down to us through the ages, weaving together far-flung ancestral strands. While they are potent vessels for conveying our heritage, fiddle tunes are by no means an historical or archaic musical form. Great fiddle tunes are still being written all the time. To kick off our new video series, Curly’s Wide Word of Fiddle Tunes, here’s a prime example of a contemporary composition that extends the tradition:

Catchy as all get out, isn’t it? That’s the exciting young band, Town Mountain, featuring an original fiddle tune penned by their fiddler, Bobby Britt. The performance is from this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

Bluegrass was built on a foundation of fiddle tunes. The father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, always said as much. Monroe could be parsimonious when it came to sharing credit, but he was always fulsome in acknowledging the debt his music owed to two fiddling forbearers, his uncle Pen Vandiver and Arnold Schultz. Vandiver was a relative and a neighbor of Monroe’s; Schultz was an itinerant African-American musician. Each in his turn helped introduce young Bill to the vast canon of fiddle tunes. These traditional melodies, some locally produced, many imported from the British Isles and Europe, were the popular dance music of the day in Appalachia. Many of the songs that Monroe subsequently wrote borrowed phrases from these tunes, and of course Monroe always interspersed vocal numbers with plenty of original and traditional fiddle tunes. Town Mountain and most contemporary bluegrass acts carry on this practice of leavening their set lists with fiddle tunes.

Britt relayed a poignant story behind the writing of “Four Miles.” About three years ago, he was recovering from surgery and had a couple of weeks of time on his hands, so he decided to make use of it by writing his first-ever fiddle tune. The title is a play on the phrase “For Miles.” Britt’s girlfriend had a brother named Miles who passed away. Miles loved bluegrass, so Britt penned the tune in his honor.

As Britt’s composition demonstrates, fiddle tunes have an elemental quality that makes them timeless. “Four Miles” fits right into the tradition, taking its place on the shelf between “Fire on the Mountain” and “Frosty Morning.” *

Britt hails from North Carolina, but he is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he works with master fiddler/teacher/arranger Darol Anger, among others. Britt recently received The Fletcher Bright Award at Berklee, the largest award in the school’s American Roots Music Program. “I am extremely honored and grateful for this award,” reports Britt, adding that it “will help make it possible for me to finish my degree at Berklee.” This is a neat detail, because while Bright made his money in real estate development, he is known in musical circles for his unfathomable repertoire of…fiddle tunes! By supporting Britt’s studies, Bright is insuring that the wellspring of good tunes will never run dry.

“Four Miles” is on Town Mountain’s latest release on Pinecastle Records, “Leave The Bottle.” We’ll be offering up some further selections from Town Mountain in the weeks ahead, as well as many more fiddle tunes from far and wide.

Yer Pal— Curly

* Before the Fiddle Police write, I know that I’m cheating with my alphabetization: the full title is “Cold Frosty Morning.”

%d bloggers like this: