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The Long Path to the Devil's Instrument - Part 7

Posted by Phoeniceus on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

2008 - The Breakthrough

Four years after moving to Alaska, we moved to Vermont.

Four years of Alaska had washed all the New England music out of me. I was an Old Time player through and through. I still loved all kinds of fiddle music, almost without exception, but I now I rarely played backup guitar for anything but Old Time music.

However, Vermont is not a mecca of Old Time music, and I wanted to find a fiddler who needed a guitarist. It took a long time. In the end, I had to go to New York state, to a fiddler's reunion, to find the Vermont Old Time fiddlers (or "Old Timey" fiddlers as they say, because in New England, "Old Time" means New England contra music).

I found them, all six of them. I introduced myself, and because I knew what Old Time music was, and because I lived in Vermont, I was instantly one of tribe.

Unfortunately none of them lived in my new town of Montpelier, however one of them worked there, a man who happened to be a state attorney general. He invited to come down during lunch time and play on the pavillion porch with him. We made a date.

The first time we sat down to play, he played a tune I had never heard of. I was used to this and quickly figured out the chords. When we finished, he said, "You picked that up quick!"

"Thanks. What was that?"

"June Apple."

"No, I mean, what tune did you just play?"

"June Apple."

I was confused. It wasn't like any other version of June Apple I had heard. We played another tune. again I didn't know it, but I figured it out, and he claimed it was some tune that I had played a million times before. On the third time, I caught something familiar. "Was that Cold Frosty Morning?"

"Some folks call it that name."

It took me a little while, but I soon had a quick geography lesson. The music I had played in Alaska was mostly Mt Airy tunes from North Carolina, with additions from Virginia and Georgia. But this man was a Kentucky/West Virginia fiddler.

How different could that be?

Very different. He played so many crooked tunes that I don't think he had a straight bone in his body. For four years we played on that porch. If I had thought I was good at finding chords before, I now became an expert. I also learned something interesting about Old Time guitar. There are tons of really good Old Time fiddlers out there, but there aren't so many good Old Time guitar players. No matter where I went, I found that I was also welcome to come sit with the big dogs.

And then, after four years of trying to survive in a battering economy, once again, we had to pull up our stakes and move to Indiana.

Before we left I inquired about Old Time music in the area we were moving too and discovered that there was almost none. There's plenty in Indiana, just not where we were moving. I searched far and wide, and soon it became clear that if I wanted to have an Old Time fiddler in Indiana, I would have to bring one with me.

I looked at my fiddle case. I had flirted with it on and off for years, mostly neglecting it, never forgetting it, and often feeling guilty. It was now or never. I took it out and began to play every day, whether I wanted to or not. I stopped complaining about my intonation. I stopped whining about the drudgery of playing a tune, badly, over and over.  I let go of all my expectations and ambitions and I just did the work. And an amazing thing happened.

I started to get good.

Not great mind you. But good. Good enough. Good enough for me, and even good enough for other people to want to play with me.

When we landed in Indiana, I found a banjo player in Fort Wayne who was starting up an Old Time jam at his home. Although it was an hour away, I showed up. I was the only fiddler, and I didn't know any of the tunes they were playing. But I brought out Sal's Got Mud Between Her Toes, and a smile crept over the banjo player's face. I believe he was the only one there really steeped in the Old Time tradition, and he said to me, "One day, you are going to be a fine Old Time fiddler."



5 comments on “The Long Path to the Devil's Instrument - Part 7”

JohnS Says:
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 @8:41:21 AM

Phoeniceus - That's a compelling story. I can relate to the idea that living in an area that is a musical melting-pot exposes you to a lot of styles, but tends to blur the lines. I'm new to fiddling and I'm trying to figure out my stylistic options. I'm not convinced I need to limit myself to one style, but it would be nice to know the difference. On the other hand a lot depends on who's available in your area and what they play.

brya31 Says:
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 @8:56:23 AM

Very good story Phoen, you have seen a lot for someone so young. Thanks for sharing.

Phoeniceus Says:
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 @9:17:48 AM

Thank you both for reading.

Yes, John, I agree that one need not stick to a single style, and I have aspirations to learn Scandanavian fiddling. For the time being, though, I'll focus on the Old Time until it feels solid.

robinja Says:
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 @2:47:37 PM

I enjoyed your blog! And I'm glad you met Dean. Great banjo player, great guy! My husband and I met him at the Bear on the Square Festival in Dahlonega, GA, via a mutual friend, and our jam that day was one of those magical musical moments.

Tell him "Hi" from Judy!

FiddlerFaddler Says:
Monday, November 10, 2008 @10:37:23 AM

You are in good hands with Dean. I think that he could draw fiddle strains out of a rock if he concentrated hard enough!

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