discarded lies: wednesday, september 27, 2017 12:46 am zst
Forty acres and a mou
daily archive: 11/01/2006
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Fiddle music
I've been putting off writing a series of music posts, focusing mainly on fiddle music and various traditional styles. Actually, I've been putting off recording the samples that I wanted to use to accompany the posts. But then, thanks to Ed & others here, I discovered the vast suppos--er, repository of music videos on YouTube. Here, then, is the first installment, complete with illustrative YouTube links. This post introduces some of the music styles I know (and love) best. It's a very brief overview, by no means exhaustive. Though writing it did make me kind of tired.

When I started learning the fiddle, I wanted to play Irish music. However, I ended up in contact with an Old Time fiddler named Ken Kolodner. It seemed like a good fit, and I figured any style at that point would be fine--learn Old Time now, and switch to Irish later. I soon figured out a couple of things that would change my plan: Ken is an excellent teacher, and I had no desire to change; and I love to play Old Time. So, what's the difference?

Old Time, also called Appalachian music, is the (mostly) fiddle and banjo music that comes from the mountains of the Appalachians. It evolved from the various musical cultures of the immigrants who settled in the mountains, primarily English, Irish, Scottish, and African. The bulk of the style consists of very rhythm-driven square dance type music. Think lots of people packed in a barn, playing music and dancing all night. But it's also an elderly couple strumming a banjo & singing a ballad on their porch, a family jamming together in the kitchen, or a bunch of strangers jumping into & out of a jam session.

Old Time music:
Sugar Foot Rag
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Ashokan Farewell

The atmosphere of typical Irish and Old Time jam sessions is one of the factors that for me really illustrates the difference between the two styles. In an Old Time session (not counting the occassional strict traditionalist ones), the only real 'rules' are to keep on time and generally stick with the chord progression of the tune. Otherwise, feel free to try a harmony, an alternate melody, or, if you're not familiar with the tune, some basic back-up sounds. An Irish session will usually be much tighter, with the musicians playing the same melody, accented and filled out with various ornamentations (sort of the tricks of the trade). If you don't know a lot of tunes and you're not up to the task of picking them up quickly, you'll likely spend a good bit of time with the fiddle in your lap. They are generally very friendly, though, and while your fiddle may be in your lap, you'll probably have a beer in your hand, and the other players will ask around for tunes people know.

Some Irish sessions:
Fiddle tunes in pub session Derbyshire
Irish Traditional Music Session

Scottish fiddle music is another favorite of mine. Personally, I see at as closest to the Old Time style of any of the others. It is also very rythmic. It's often powerful, anthemic type stuff, probably due to its origins in martial bagpipe music, meant to get the troops pumped up for battle (and frighten the enemies). One interesting subset of Scottish music comes from the Shetland Islands. It's a terrific example of how geography influences music. Shetland gets a pretty severe wind coming off of the sea, and trees don't grow above a few feet (which is why a Shetland fiddler friend of mine is intimidated by tall trees), making timber scarce. As a result, houses were built of stone (and small), and the fiddle became a popular instrument, since it doesn't need a lot of wood, and it's easily portable. Because music gatherings required travel by small boat between islands, the fiddle was much more convenient than say a piano or drum kit. Shetland music therefore often consisted of two fiddlers - a master providing the melody, and a second fiddler playing back-up. Tom Anderson is probably the most well-known Shetland fiddler and composer. His songs are played by fiddlers of many styles.

Scottish music:
Mairi Campbell
Alasdair White
Filska (Shetland)
Jenna Reid
Another descendant of Scottish music is found in Nova Scotia, especially the island of Cape Breton which seems to have more musicians per capita than anywhere in the world. With no shortage of timber, drums and piano are often a big part of modern Cape Breton dance music. Step dancing is also a popular accompaniment, with many of their fiddlers known for dancing and playing at the same time.

Cape Breton music:
Natalie MacMaster and her husband Donnell Leahy, two of the best in the world
Natalie at the Black Sheep Inn -
Boston Kiltics Nova Scotia Celtic Fiddle Dance Story & Song

As for what my band plays...well, it's mainly Celtic influenced punk with the one, and Irish pub music with the acoustic band (though we work in some Old Time tunes, and eventually Cape Breton tunes, too). Two of the most popular Irish punk bands are the Pogues (pretty much the originators of the melding of Irish traditional music and punk rock) and Flogging Molly:

Flogging Molly - Drunken Lullabies
The Pogues - Sally MacLennane

While they tend to take Irish trad music and punk it up, we tend to take punk rock and give it a dose of Celtic flavor. Here are a few of the major influences of my acoustic band:

The Dubliners - The Auld Triangle
The Dubliners - Rocky Road To Dublin
The Clancy Brothers - Real Old Mountain Dew
Great Big Sea - Lukey
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