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The Long Path to the Devil's Instrument - Part 6

Posted by Phoeniceus on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

2000 - The Fiddle Returns

When I was 35 years old, my new wife and I pulled up stakes in Seattle and moved to Alaska. One of the first things I did when I arrived was seek out the music community, and discovered that there were only two - Irish and Old Time.

By this time, I was playing Old Time music, but I still thought of myself as a New England player. I first visited the Celtic jam in Anchorage, and as is often the case, the Irish musicians maintained a noble and guarded protection about their music. I was not invited to play with them, though I was welcome to listen to their music and buy them a beer.

The Old Time players, as I expected, were harder to find. Later that summer I tracked them to a dance camp outside Anchorage. There were all sorts of dancers dressed in colorful swirly dresses and hippie tie dyes, practicing their moves and showing off, and then there was a small clique off to the side, dressed in blue jeans, T-shirts, and seed caps, quietly chatting. My quarry. I approached them warily, like I might approach a cogery of coots on the lake, obliquely, silently, without direct eye contact, less they disperse in a frightened frenzy.

I need not have bothered. They were quite friendly, and after I introduced myself, they invited me to their weekly jam, and gave me directions. They seemed plain and ordinary in contrast to the dancers who generally eschewed ordinariness. These Old Timers did not attract attention to themselves, and their smiles were soft and genuine at all times. I liked them instantly, but felt intrusive and quickly made my excuses.

That week I followed their directions, which led me to an industrial district in south Anchorage. I crossed a train track and turned right into a poorly lit maze of warehouses. I turned at the third parking lot and found a glass front warehouse with the sign "Jan's Upholstery Shop" on top. I knocked and stepped inside.

This was no retail store. The room was a small, cluttered workshop. A large table with a sewing machine held scraps of wood and fabric, glue and nails, and odd tools. Against a wall stood a large rack with bolts of fabric on ten foot wide rolls. The carpet was littered with stray tacks and staples. There were tall, half-dead, potted plants in odd corners, unframed photos of people skiing in the Alaska wilderness, and plastic parachute toys suspended from the ceiling. Books of fabric samples lay in a stack on the floor, and against the back wall was an old computer and a stereo system.

I wasn't sure I was in the right place, except that there was a motley assortment of chairs in various states of repair formed into a tight circle around a bottle of Jim Bean, a six pack of yuppy bear, and a bag of potato chips. Two musicians were there, tuning up and chatting. They did not look up from their instruments as I entered, but when I sat down and they leaned over and shook my hand as we exchanged introductions. More people came in until there were about eight of us, and I shook hands with each one and passed idle chit chat about Seattle, Anchorage, and music. No one said a word about performing or gigs. Not one person ask me a personal or intrusive question. Everyone was just as friendly and funny and relaxed as could be. And then someone said, "Are we gonna yammer all night, or are we gonna play some tunes?"

And so we did.

We must have played a hundred tunes that night. I maybe knew half of them, but they were all glorious. There was one bass player, a couple of banjos, me on guitar, and the rest playing fiddle - just perfect. I did not sit out a single tune, and if I occasionally did not know the chords to a tune, no one ever corrected me, unless I asked for help. About half way through the night, I heard an explosion of gunfire about five feet behind and I nearly leaped out of my chair. No one stopped playing, though I thought I saw a few discreet smiles. I turned around and found a gas powered machine with an engine like a supersized lawn mower chugging away in the corner. In about twenty seconds, it let out a sigh like a disgruntled grizzly bear turning over in its hibernating sleep, and then it shut off.

After the tune was done, someone said, "Yeah, I guess we should have warned you about that air compressor."

When we were done playing, and it was time to pack up, several people said they hoped to see me again, and I echoed the sentiment loudly. I came week after week, recording songs and learning the chords I did not know. After a few months, I found I could pick out the chords to about any song without any help, even if I had never heard it before.

I lived in Alaska for four years, and played with those folks every chance I could. They were the nicest musicians I ever met, and I never expect to have more fun playing tunes.

And then one mid winter evening, I was rooting in the closet and came across my fiddle. I pulled it out of the case, and found it covered in five-year-old rosin dust. I began to try out one of the tunes we played at the jam. But I couldn't find it at all. It didn't sound right. I had owned this fiddle for ten years, and every time I got to this point, I had put it back in its case, but this time, there was no performance ambition, no plan, and for the first time in my life, no time. I was a father now.

So naturally, I decided to bring my fiddle along and ask one of the musicians if he could show me how to play. And so he did.

I worked on that tune for a few weeks, and then asked for another. And then I stopped for a few months. And then I tried again. And then stopped. It was like a drawn out labor and delivery that progressed but never climaxed. And then summer came, and with it, the Alaska fiddle camp.

Beverly Smith came and taught the beginner's class. For three days, I worked on Candy Girl and learned about Old Time bowing. I went home and practiced that tune over and over until I'm sure my wife would go crazy (though she never said so, bless her heart). I began to try other tunes and I figured out Sandy Boys. It was slow. It was torturous. I understood what I was doing now, but I also understood how much work it would take. I needed a break. Parenting was intensive, and life was stressful for other reasons. I put the fiddle aside for a few days, intending to come back to it, and did not pick it up again for years.



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