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Pauline Lerner

Playing music from Virginia (USA), Northern Ireland, and Countries along the Mekong River: Part I

July 21, 2007 at 7:54 PM


What a combination! Music from Northern Ireland, Virginia (USA), and countries along the Mekong River (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and China [Tibet]) is quite an eclectic mix. These areas were featured in this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Besides music, there were demonstrations of other crafts and people explaining what they do and how they do it. You can hear webcasts of performances and read about the Festival. I did volunteer work at night time parties for the Festival participants. Instead of money, I was rewarded with interactions with the participants and opportunities to play my fiddle with them when they jammed. It was very interesting and lots of fun.

Old time music is traditional American music indigenous to Appalachia. Its roots go back to settlers from the British Isles, Germany, and African slaves, but in its present form, it is strictly traditional American music. None of the players use written music. It is string band music, played on fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass, but it is strongly fiddle driven. This makes it both fun and easy to play. The melodies are not terribly complex, and fiddlers who play rhythm and/or harmony are appreciated because most people play melody. It is sometimes played for dances, such as square, contra, clogging, flat footing, and free form, and always played for fun. The band at the Festival was very, very good. The leader was a young woman who did many things – singing; playing fiddle, guitar, and bass; and clogging – extremely well. I really enjoyed playing with them and held my own quite well, partly because the music is fiddle-centric and partly because I’ve been jamming on old time music a lot lately. In keeping with the cross traditional nature of the Festival, some Virginians taught some Mekong River people how to do square and contra dancing, and lots of them danced while we played. While we were playing, someone came over to us, told us that he was from the BBC, and asked whether we minded being videotaped. Of course, we all said no. We picked a very well known tune, “Turkey in the Straw,” so lots of people could participate. The BBC man had a most unusual looking mike. It was wrapped in a thick layer of furry looking material, the kind you might see on cushy stuffed animals. I asked him whether I could touch it, and he said “OK.” It really felt like a stuffed animal, and I enjoyed stroking it. I asked him why the furry material was used, and he answered, “To keep the mike warm.” He zeroed in on two people – the band leader and a fiddler from Northern Ireland – and asked them to go out into the hall so he could videotape just the two of them. I had great fun playing that music with that group.

Bluegrass music, also indigenous to the Appalachian area, is quite different from old time music. Bluegrass music was popularized, not invented, by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. (Their band was named after a strain of grass that grows well in Kentucky.) Bill Monroe and the musicians who played with him were virtuosos. The bluegrass style is highly technical, sometimes virtuosic, and showoffy. Sometimes the music is so highly ornamented that the melody is lost. Nothing is played slowly. I am attracted to it, in part, because its technical aspects go well with my classical training. I’m surprised that more classically trained musicians aren’t attracted to bluegrass music. The reason may be that bluegrass music is associated with know-nothing rednecks. Each tune is played repeatedly, sometimes with the whole group playing, and sometimes with breaks (solos) by individual players. While the group or another soloist is playing, the fiddler may either play boom-chik (double stops played with short bowstrokes on the offbeats) or play melody softly. When I’m playing with a group and someone calls out “fiddle break,” I usually react with either terror or enthusiasm. The bluegrass group at the Festival was completely out of my league. They were young and played fast and hot. I tried doing a little boom-chik or melody playing with them for a short time and then gave up and just listened. They rocked, and so did the crowds they drew. Just listening to them was exciting.

To be continued

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