My Life as a Fiddler
It was music with serrated edges, coming out of our living room radio, that opened the door for me. Crotchety, deep, scary, humorous—who knew a violin could sound like that? My brother went out and bought the records for me from his sandwich-shop earnings—The Holy Modal Rounders was the name of the duo we heard that summer afternoon—and I started woodshedding.
I had heard gypsy violinists on tv at an early age and, wanting to soar as they did, had taken up violin in a strong school music program (this was Seattle in the 1960s). But at fifteen, I wasn’t soaring yet or even feeling close. Now I began to find the route. It may not be a coincidence that I started going on backpacking trips around the same time. Hard steps with the joys of new-found muscle, views opening along the way. The journey of music began in earnest for me then.
At twenty, I put formal schooling on hold and got busy following sounds. I went South, in the best sense. I harbored in western North Carolina the first winter in a small community of young musicians and artists. We had house concerts and potluck dinners and great music parties. Played all night and hiked up Mt. Mitchell from our front door the next morning. Drew Beisswenger, Don Jackson, and I worked in the dishroom at Montreat College and sang in harmony throughout our shift, Watersons tunes and Everly Brothers and Drew’s originals. One day our boss asked us to stop singing because the trustees were meeting in the dining room. “But Jim,” we informed him, “we are members of the Loud Workers Union, Local 17.” “Yeah? Well I’m a member of the Garbage Can Over Head Union, so keep it down.” We liked Jim.
David Holt had recently started the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College up the road. Jams, concerts, and Sunday afternoon shape-note singing with Quay Smathers laid the ground where my musical sensibility began to grow. I went up to Berea, Kentucky for a festival, which led to spending the summer of 1978 in Berea College’s Appalachian Studies program and staying on to manage the music section of Council of the Southern Mountains’ Appalachian Bookstore. With an NEH grant, we started the Appalachian Mobile Bookstore and traveled throughout the Southern Mountains bringing books and records to fairs, festivals, and conferences. I began playing for square and contra dances around Kentucky with A Parcel of Rogues. I visited with Lily Mae Ledford, Darley Fulks, and others, and spent happy hours in the archives of the Appalachian Music Center. I gave up a trip to Canada to see the total solar eclipse in favor of a dance musicians’ workshop; I was hooked.
Somehow I got the bug for Irish fiddling, and the natural course of action was to go to southeast Alaska and earn a grubstake so I could spend a year in Ireland (this also involved a brief detour to Denmark, but never mind). In Alaska I played as much fiddle music as I could, and joined a country rock band that went through many names before settling on King Crab Over Tokyo. Working at public radio station KFSK, I had access to all kinds of recordings, and produced concerts and interviews with visiting musicians. I did eventually spend a summer studying fiddle in Scotland and Ireland. But through chance meetings that summer, Swedish fiddle music grabbed me firmly. I was completely fascinated with its combination of edge and grace and its depth of rhythmic subtleties. When I heard about a year-long course that combined Swedish fiddling with pedagogy, I felt I had to go—what better way to really learn something than to think about how to hand it on? So it was back to Seattle to save up money again and learn to speak Swedish.
As it happened, the teacher of that very course, Jonny Soling, came to Seattle that winter with elder fiddler Påhl Olle. Olle was practicing a few English phrases: “Oh yes,” you could hear him say quietly in the odd moment. And oh yes, that course at Malungs Folkhögskola was for me. “I have to come to your course!” I said. “Calm down,” said Jonny. “Can’t,” I said. With a fellowship from Skandia Music Foundation, I went to Sweden in the fall. The course was everything I hoped for and more: learning Swedish fiddle tradition in depth, studying technique and pedagogy, getting to work with many elders and jam with many youngsters. I stayed on in Sweden for intensive study with Bingsjö legends Nils Agenmark and Pekkos Gustaf and a summer of music festivals, and learned to make hässja hay at Pekkosgård.
In Seattle again, no one seemed to mind when I gave the Swedish word for a musical concept, and gradually I remembered how to speak music in English. For several years, my life was busy with recordings (Three Way Street, Norrsken), concerts and dances, teaching; studying jazz, going to all the Southern and Irish sessions I could find, breathing Swedish music; leading the Skandia Spelmanslag, including a performing tour in Sweden; practicing scales a hundred ways. I taught over 500 students to Fiddle From Scratch at the Free University, sometimes over 20 in one class (Dave Trop, who served manfully as Tuning Assistant, has my eternal thanks); played for a Scandinavian MidsommarFest on Albuquerque’s hot central square and at halftime for the Norwegian national basketball team; and once had a dish, Norrsken Chicken, named for our band. I was not bored for a minute.
In the early 90s, I met Jacqueline Schwab while playing in Kentucky, and then Charlie Pilzer at Buffalo Gap Scandinavian Week. “I have an idea,” Charlie said. “Let’s see if Jacqueline wants to form a trio.” She did. On a tour up the East Coast someone mentioned that airfares to Alaska were really cheap right then. “Let’s make some calls!” Charlie said, and we swung into a Wawa parking lot and started booking an Alaska tour from the phone booth. Those were heady days full of delicious music, and eventually I decided that a move to the East Coast would lead to more opportunities, while also getting me out of the rainy Northwest and closer to the South I was still missing. A number of people professed not to understand how I could give up Seattle for Washington, D.C., but feeling the heat surge off the sidewalks and hearing umpteen languages spoken was heaven for me; and years later, being able to invite guests and walk with them from home to Mr. Obama’s inauguration—well, it doesn’t get better than that.
I live in Maryland just north of the District line and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which means it’s a place rich in history and in story, and I’ve accumulated some of both after almost 20 years here. There was the December night playing on the newly-renovated-but-not-yet-weatherproofed stage of the Bumper Car Pavilion at Glen Echo Park, when it was so cold I not only played with gloves on but also hung a glove from my glasses as a nosewarmer. (Good music, though!) And a summer afternoon when Emerald Glen braved tornado warnings, torrential rains, and flying branches to play for a very grateful wedding party. Another December, at Christmas Revels: playing De Day Dawn on a dark stage for the mystery dance of the deer, and then Solskenslåten, the happiest of walking tunes, as the light came up and the company poured onto the stage. Balls in rooms where Thomas Jefferson and George Washington danced; concerts in beautiful old churches; watching my students form bands of their own.
Hardanger-fiddle master Loretta Kelley moved to the D.C. area not long after I did, and with Charlie Pilzer we formed a trio. Later we began to play with the Berntson family band, centered around Eleanor Berntson Lundeberg with her pump organ and Wisconsin-Norwegian tradition. Charlie, Loretta and I represent the “neighbors” and the way fiddlers from different traditions mixed it up in logging camps. The Berntsons were invited to play at the historic Coolidge auditorium at the Library of Congress. I got shivers when I heard the short list of musicians who’d played there (Jelly Roll Morton was the one that really got me). Two of Eleanor’s lifelong friends came to town with their families, all wearing Berntsons Fan Club shirts they’d made for the occasion, and afterwards we shared pizza and heard hilarious and touching stories of when they were young women adventuring in D.C. It was one of my favorite days.
In 2007, I went on sabbatical from teaching and pulled back somewhat from performing. It was time to turn the soil under and let it lie fallow, to prepare for renewal. I fed my love of words by reading and writing, studying French and renewing my grasp of Swedish. I grew captivated by the story of some young men who were getting a second chance at their dreams of becoming professional baseball players, and with photographer Kurt Norton I began documenting their story and researching the world of rookie ball, a world which in many ways parallels the world of music. I’m looking forward to resuming that project very soon. But I was waylaid:
2009 marked my twenty-fifth anniversary as a full-time professional musician. That summer I was back at Warren Wilson College to teach at Swannanoa Gathering’s Fiddle Week—an elder on the very same ground where I’d sprouted as a fiddler in 1977. A strong sense of return and a renewed joy in passing on traditions combined into a creative vortex, and the Old Doors/New Worlds project was born. This project brings together almost everything I love: tradition, adventure, collaboration, listening, dance, writing, teaching, matchmaking, creating opportunities. It’s still in early stages—stay tuned!
Eudora Welty wrote, “I shall save one land unvisited.” Fortunately, with the fiddle there is always a land unvisited, always something more to learn. I love the practice—turning a piece of music this way and that, polishing, honing, shaping, discovering. It’s all about making ready for the moments when music comes alive in a room. When the learner stops thinking and starts singing. When the trio plays as one. When the listener gains courage—another word for heart.
El Burro, my 1985 Armin Barnett violin, is named for a Spanish rhyme I learned as a child:
A E I O U el burro sabe más que tú (the burro knows more than you)