Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fiddling Around

On the Fourth of July, I attended The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes at Port Townsend, WA. This festival has been going on annually since 1977, to celebrate traditional fiddle music. In the week of workshops and two days of concerts (I only attended the first day), there were performances of traditional music from New England, Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Alabama, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

The venue was Fort Worden State Park, an Army artillery installation guarding the entrance to Puget sound since the beginning of the 20th century. The beautiful 430 acres on a high coastal bluff became a Washington state park in 1953. Performances were in a huge, modern-looking balloon hangar built in the 1920’s, converted to a performance hall. Counting rows and seats, I estimate about 1,000 people were in attendance on Independence Day.

Wendy MacIsaac is a fiddler from Inverness County, now residing in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She played fiddle, piano, and performed Celtic step dancing in a lively opening performance. Sample her work at . The traditional Celtic dance reels were compulsive toe-tappers, but as is the case with nearly all folk music, it was really quite narrow in its variety. To keep things moving, the 4/4 rhythms are often doubled and sometimes redoubled; small key changes relieve the monotony of the cadence-oriented, restricted tonal range. There are lots of gingerbread notes disguising a simple repetitive harmonic pattern of tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic. However, MacIsaac’s show had variety and energy. For example, she was joined by David Mac Isaac on fiddle, and Paul MacDonald, also from Cape Breton, on guitar, who had a magnificent touch with subtle overtone management. He was quickly sucked into the foot-stomping dance music so we got only a hint of his sophisticated guitar talent. When MacIsaac took to piano accompaniment, she put a backbeat against the guitar and the other fiddle, again staving off boredom. So overall it was an enjoyable show.

An off-program duo appeared next, Beverly Smith and Carl Jones. Smith is a well-known singer, fiddler, guitarist, and dance caller, while Jones, also well-travelled, plays mandolin, banjo and fiddle along with his vocals. They treated the audience to some fine harmony singing with gospel numbers, mountain songs, and traditional country tunes. Get their recordings at

Harold Luce and Adam Boyce play old style New England dance music. They are members of a traditional dance music band that has been performing since 1934. I think Harold must be 90 years old but his fiddling was impeccable. Boyce, on piano, did all the talking, and he introduced the various traditional American dance forms, such as reels, hornpipes, quadrilles, and square dance tunes. They even played Stars and Stripes Forever. Luce’s fiddle seemed to be a particularly fine instrument with a real “fiddley” tone, hard to describe. It might have been higher pitched than others, and not scratchy, but maybe with a bit of fuzz at the top and the bottom of the range. It was a very nice country sound. The New England music seemed so controlled, spare, even algorithmic, after the other acts. Comparing them, I thought Luce and Boyce could be saying, “We’re from Vermont and this is as happy as we get.” The high precision was enjoyable, but it did seem a little methodical for dance music. I guess that’s the New England style, not overly demonstrative.

The final act blew the doors off restraint. De Temps Antan is a French-Canadian group playing regional and Arcadian Quebecois music, with so much energy you could hardly remain sitting in your chair. This 5-year old group consists of three young men, André Brunet, Pierre-Luc Dupuis, and Éric Beaudry, who play violin, accordion, and bouzouki, respectively, and all three sing, and play foot percussion, a sort of sounding board they stomp on while playing, often in complicated syncopated patterns, a technique called podorythmie in French. Dupuis does most of the talking, is the lead singer, and also plays Jew’s harp, harmonica, and concertina. The music was loud, upbeat, fast tempo, and energizing, with lyrics in French. In one charming moment, Dupuis explained that they enjoyed traditional call and response songs, so the audience should join right in! Of course, since the song was in French, few people could. The slower traditional ballads were in a less interesting stentorian mode. On the other hand, the high energy, high percussion music occasionally verged on rowdy noise threatening to overwhelm the sound system, which was not well adapted to their style in any case. The accordion was chronically undermiked, as was the mysterious sound of the bouzouki and the haunting Jew’s harp. Nevertheless, it was a fiddle festival, so one can’t complain about hearing too much fiddle work. You can sample their more articulate, Arcadian style at .

I would have liked to hear some Cajun music and also some down home bluegrass, but from the small segment of the overall Fiddle Festival that I did experience, it was a richly varied and satisfying event.

Below: Wendy MacIsaac dancing (18 sec).

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