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"Make New Friends, But Keep the Old..."

Posted by fiddlepogo on Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Now what, you might be asking, does THAT have to do with fiddling?  I heard that as a song I was growing up since my sisters were Brownie scouts, and had this Brownie record album with Brownie songs on it they would play.  The rest of it goes " is silver and the other gold".

To me, (in addition to the social wisdom it definitely contains), this expression makes me think of tunes I have known for years, even decades, as "old friends", and tunes I have learned recently as "new friends".  It has occurred to me that in this attitude towards tunes, most modern fiddlers are much different from the way fiddlers used to be.  I was reading an article about Tommy Jarrell today:

And part of the article includes the lengths Tommy went to to learn a couple of fiddle tunes!  And it's been sinking in the last couple of hours what some of that difference might be: even in Old Time fiddling's heyday, when it was a living tradition, (in the full organic sense that would please a folklorist or an ethnomusicologist) it wasn't always easy to learn new tunes and expand your repertoire... because you couldn't learn them from books, CDs, LPs, or even 78 rpms... you had to learn them from real live people- who might or might not want to teach them to you!   And so you treasured whatever tunes you had, and it was obvious from the interview that Tommy Jarrell really treasured the two tunes he learned that day.  Of course, he also learned tunes from his dad, but he had been hearing those tunes all his life... and you know how young people are- they want to hear something new!

Contrast that with us: We are absolutely inundated with tunes!  I was out of touch with the Old Time fiddling "scene" for many years, and was completely unaware of the results of ongoing collecting and publishing of tunes by people like Bruce Greene, and actually, even back in the day, I hadn't had the money to afford to buy the recordings to plumb the depths of the Library of Congress collection. Now my desktop is continually cluttering up with new mp3s that I need to listen to and file: this site is a considerable resource, especially when you add frfiddles contribution (Thanks!)- but there is also the Juneberry site, Sugar in the Gourd,,, and who knows what all else that might be found just by googling it... and dozens, probably hundreds of albums... and Walt Koken is working on a fiddle tunebook project that is supposed to have 1,500 fiddle tunes!

So now we have the opposite problem that Tommy and the other old timers had- the problem is not finding tunes to learn-it's deciding which ones to learn.  And I think one result of this is that we are really open to a kind of fiddle "faddism" where we only play the tunes that are hot at the festivals and jams right now.  I'm not saying it's bad to learn those tunes... remember the proverb I quoted: that's silver.

But the tunes you already know are gold.  Why? Because you already know them very well.  And while in a way this could lead to boredom with them, it gives you advantages in working them over, applying new bowings you learn to them, maybe adding a note here or there to make the version more yours- all of this can be done better with a tune you've known for a long time.  For nearly 30 years I was out of touch with the modern fiddling scene, and didn't learn any new tunes... and the tunes I already knew were valuable, and I worked them over, and made them mine.  One of the things that really strikes me about a lot of the old timers was that they really approached fiddling as a craft to be perfected, and I think the relative scarcity of tune resources may have actually been a help rather than a<

4 comments on “"Make New Friends, But Keep the Old..."”

FiddlerFaddler Says:
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 @11:00:21 PM

Having so many tunes to choose from - that is what I would call a "high-grade" problem.  I know the feeling.  I also have a lesser grade problem: I could use more time to practice.

OTJunky Says:
Thursday, December 13, 2007 @12:43:50 PM

Well that's right...

The old fiddlers knew fewer tunes and worked hard to put their personal stamp on'em - meaning play them in the way they thought they should be played.  So, they all - at least the good ones- had their own "styles".

Tommy Jarrell doesn't sound anything like Marcus Martin, who doesn't sound anything like Ed Haley, who doesn't sound anything like Norm Edmonds, who doesn't sound anything like Eddon Hammons, and so on.

It's the seeming lack of a need to play tunes in a "personal way" that bothers me most about much of the modern fiddling scene.  Any one of these tunes is a bottomless pit and can be played a nearly infinite number of ways - many of them interesting.

When almost any Bluegrass fiddler plays Soldier's Joy it's abundantly clear that they don't care much about the tune.  They have plenty of technique to play it and they know fiddlers are supposed to play fiddle tunes - but that's about the extent of their commitment to the tune.  And I have trouble staying awake 'till they finish.  There are some exceptions, of course, both Kenny Baker and Vassar Clements played with a strong personal style and both of'em clearly were "friends" with the tunes they played.

In many ways the Texas Style Contest fiddlers are most involved in carrying on this tradition of working on a tune until it has a "unique" sound - though I guess their goal in doing this is often less around playing it the way they think it should be played personally and more about playing it in a way that might win some contests.  So, it's different in a fundamental way.

And, a common affliction among many OT fiddlers is the desire to know and some how "render" three or four hundred  tunes withough paying much attention to the individual personality of any individual tune - and how it could be played if you wanted to spend the time to really think about it.  I guess the current OT "Jam" and "Festival" formats contribute to this.  If you know three or four hundred tunes, then I guess you can find something in common to play with any group of OT players you run across.

I guess in the old days - when transportation was an issue - you probably played with a much smaller group of people most of whom would probably be happy "perfecting" fifty or sixty tunes.

It's because of this that I like the "Missouri" OT Jam tradition.  Instead everyone playing the same thing at once, the fiddlers take turns playing the tune - so you get to demonstrate how you think a tune should be played and you get to hear how somebody else thinks it should be played.