Fiddling with Clip Art

Never one to admit defeat without a battle (or two) we will yet again take a stab at the challenge of Clip Art.

Since this is a blog that stands alone, being temporarily used in conjunction with a work-related educational program, part of the challenge has been inspiration: what would I want to say that could be enhanced by clip art?  By now, my friend Peter Wimsey would have come up with a hundred or more clever posts enhanced by the perfect bits of imagery; I lack his creativity.

Instead, I have allowed Reality to suggest something.  Since tonight is the weekly downtown acoustic jam session, I decided to see if Microsoft offers clip art images of the instruments we usually feature and create

a little “virtual jam”, but, unfortunately the only instrument that made the trip from the internet to my computer was this one fiddle.

SoundtrackLonesome Fiddle Blues.

*sigh*

Red-Haired Boys

One of the “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks” challenges was to learn to embed videos in our blogs. The truth of the matter is, I had an easier time figuring out the mechanics of that process than I did coming up with a reason for embedding a video in my blog. I finally decided that the best I could do was use this as an opportunity to explore regional variations and stylistic interpretations on fiddle tunes, and I randomly selected the Celtic tune Red-Haired Boy.

As a fiddle student, I have always had the option of reacquainting myself with sheet music, which I learned to read more than 30 years ago, in high school, when I played flute. Unfortunately, I stopped playing my flute by the time I left college, and now when I look at a score, I can easily finger my flute keys for the right note, but not translate that same knowledge to the fingerboard of my fiddle. It’s not impossible to overcome this, but considering the difficulty in reading sheet music now that I’ve reached the Age of Bifocals, it’s no longer the easiest route for learning to play the fiddle.

Instead, as I report to my lessons, the first question my teacher, Hope, asks is “What have you been working on?” This is because I sit in on a fiddle jam every week, and whatever song sticks in my head is the one I am most likely to have struggled with afterwards. Hope has taught me a few songs from scratch — such as Bus Stop, which we never play on Tuesdays — but the vast majority of tunes I work on are those I hear often enough to have them memorized. Hope helps me find the missing notes and refines my bowing techniques, but every so-often, we run into the issue of “that’s not how I learned that song.” Hope is quick to agree that there is no “right” way to play the old songs — it’s the regional variations that keep the songs alive. With that in mind, here are three videos I found of fiddlers playing Red-Haired Boy.

This video features the Sierra Swing Conspiracy at the Auburn Bluegrass Fest II; here we have a couple of young men taking some serious detours away from the standard version:

This video has Red-Haired Boy as the second tune in the medley they perform. The fiddler is Qristina Bachand, and the video is from Victoria, B.C. at the 2006 Saanich Fair:

And, for yet another variation, we have the Urban Ramblers on the Bruin Walk at UCLA:

No two versions alike, and none of them the same as the version Hope taught me or the way we play Red-Haired Boy downtown on Tuesdays. A few years ago, I traveled with several other musicians from Binghamton up to the NYS Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Redfield, NY (near Watertown, if you need a larger spot on the map) where we heard fiddlers from the Syracuse area play wildly different versions of familiar tunes, and the same thing happened when I sat in at a jam in Watkins Glen last summer.

The variations never leave the song unrecognizable: the chord pattern the guitar plays to back up the fiddler remains constant, and the gifted fiddlers are free to take flight like kites while the guitar holds the string that ties them to the structure of the song. Other than that, Red-Haired Boy is a lively tune kept alive the best way possible, not by being frozen in place on a piece of sheet music but by springing to life from fiddles, banjos, and guitars everywhere Celtic music is played.

Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.
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We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)
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After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.

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One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

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We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.

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We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.
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We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.

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After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.