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The Long Path to the Devil's Instrument - Part 4

Posted by Phoeniceus on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

1994 - Seattle

In 1994, just before my thirtiest birthday, I moved to Seattle.

Seattle was large, and I was single and alone. I was still looking for my place in the world and was rather unprepared for the scale of the city. I had thought that Madison, WI was the Big City, but there are neighborhoods in Seattle that dwarf Madison, and they are stacked up right against each other like cordwood. If my place in the world was somewhere in the Seattle, I might end up spending the rest of my life looking for it. 

I soon learned that you can find almost anything you want in Seattle at almost any hour of the day, and that includes fiddle music. You cannot kick a tree in Seattle without three fiddlers falling out. Every style of fiddle music I knew of in the world, and many I didn't know of, has its own group of players and aficionados in Seattle - Appalachian, New England, Scottish, Midwestern, Texas, Irish, English, Scandanavian, Bulgarian, and more.  And unlike in Madison, these separate groups don't necessarily see each other on the street everyday. When I went to play or hear music, I did not hear the melange of styles and cultures I was used to. Each dish was served separately in its own plate, in its own restaurant, on different days of the week. With the dissonance of the melting pot gone, my ears began to tune in to the differences of style, phrasing, rhythm, and culture.

It was annoyingly inspiring. Every six months, I pulled out my fiddle and ran through the handful of tunes I knew, chipping off the rust, polishing them, and generally getting reacquainted with my dissatisfaction. I knew one Irish jig, one New England chestnut, and one Scandanavian hambo, though I couldn't tell you what their names were. It was an eclectic collection, representaitve of my tastes, but it lacked an Old Time component, because I still didn't know what Old Time was. Or rather, I knew about Old Time, and I even could tell it was different than New England and Bluegrass, but it still all sounded alike to me.

In retrospect, my ignorance seems appalling and embarrasing. After years of backing up fiddle players for dances, how could I not recognize and appreciate this major genre in American music?

Probably because I wasn't listening. And I wasn't being exposed to it enough.

In the first place, I had always danced in towns north of the Mason Dixon line, where the dancers preferred New England tunes to southern Old Time. "Oh," I would sometimes hear when a string band showed up on stage. "I guess we're dancing to THAT music tonight." The attendance would be sparser, the enthusiasm subdued a notch or two. As a consequence, the organizers did not hire as many old time bands. They were rare at the dances.

In the second place, I went to lots of dances and jams advertised as Old Time, but which really weren't southern Appalachian Old Time. Tunes such as Angeline the Baker, Over the Waterfall, and Soldier's Joy were played spiritedly and with great diction by all manner of fiddles, flutes, fifes, duclimers, and mandolins. They were played in a New England or Celtic manner with New England and Celtic instruments. They were played well and consistently, and to be fair, these tunes did originally come from the Isles over the water, but they did not sound at all like the string bands I had heard on stage, and I couldn't tell why.

Years later, I would learn about Old Time music. I would come to see a traditional Appalachian tune like twisted chunk of rock, something forged in a volcano in ancient times with the streaks of lava embedded throughout, the surface studded with bits of crystal formed under immense pressure, and the hard edges and contours that made it interesting to comtemplate, and useful for scratching or hammering. But during the great folk revivials, these tunes passed beyond their native homes and fell into valleys and streams of other places and so on down to the ocean. And in the tumbling waters, all the rough edges smoothed away and all the colors blended, until all that remained was a pretty, polished, simple stone, something good for displaying in a cabinet or skipping across a pond never to be seen again, something that people mistake for the original. And if ever they encounter the original, it is so foreign and out of their experience that they often do not recognize it and dismiss it as junk.

At least, that's what I had been doing.

And finally, the third and final reason I did not hear the Old Time music, and this is purely a generalization based of my experience in the places I lived and the circles I inhabited, is because for the most part, the Old Time musicians did not care about performing. Sure they performed, but you were far more likely to find them playing tunes for fun than practicing for a gig. Their jam sessions were not publicly advertised, any more than you would post a flyer for a private dinner party, but a friend of a friend was always welcome along. The Old Time musicians tended to live more underground. If you could find them, you would be welcome in, but you had to find them. 

So my first few years in Seattle were spent insinuating myself in to the New England music scene as a backup guitar player. There are many, many excellent folk musicians in Seattle, so the fact that I could anyone to play is either a testament to how well I played the guitar, or else a sad statement on how few good guitar players there are in the folk music scene. But then I accidently stumbled into a band that wanted to play Old Time music.

There was a banjo player, a fiddler, and a harmonica, and they wanted me to join them on guitar. We quickly became great friends and played weekly. The banjo player and fiddler in particular wanted to perform. I was not unwilling, but frankly, I was in my thirties at this point, coming to accept my musical limitations. At this point, the urge to be noticed and lauded was mellowing with age, and I didn't care one way or the other about performing. I was in it for the comraderie, the music, and the pastry and tea we consumed afterwards. We got to be a solid performing ensemble all the same and had a pleasant run in the Seattle area playing a melodic version of Old Time tunes meant to please the contra dancers.

But our fiddle player was not satisfied. She learned her craft in Georgia and she knew what we were (Seattle) and what we weren't (Southern). And eventually her ambition would pull me along in its wake and teach me a thing or two about music.



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