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Pauline Lerner

Three Great Fiddlers

January 28, 2008 at 8:37 AM


I attended a superb concert of three of the world’s greatest fiddlers: Bruce Molsky (American old time), Martin Hayes (Irish), and Alasdair Fraser (Scottish). These three genres are related historically. When the Scots, Irish, and Scots-Irish came to North America, often against their will, many of them settled in the Appalachian region of what is now the U.S. Isolated from their native lands, their music evolved in its own way. Since many communities in the Appalachians were isolated from each other until modern means of transportation, the music evolved in many different ways. As a result, there are lots of good tunes that are claimed as “ours” by Irish, Scottish, and Appalachian fiddlers. In some cases, the melodies are clearly related but not identical. A good example is Miss McLeod’s Reel from The Gow Collection of Scottish Music, first printed in 1784. A nearly identical Appalachian tune is called “Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?” Those words fit the rhythm of the main theme of the tune. A somewhat less closely related Appalachian tune is “Hop High Ladies.”

At the start of the concert, each fiddler and partner/accompanist played solos with pyrotechniques galore. I have a CD with Alasdair Fraser on fiddle and Natalie Haas on cello, in which the two musicians play duets as musical equals, not as fiddler with accompanist, as they did at this concert. I also have CDs, and have even heard a concert with Martin Hayes on fiddle and Dennis Cahill on guitar. With this duo, the guitarist serves as accompanist. Bruce Molsky didn’t have another player with him, but he sang.

For the last part of the concert, all the musicians played together. I’m sure they practiced some of the songs before the show, but this part of the performance certainly looked and sounded like a jam. Alasdair Fraser started one tune and Martin Hayes obviously knew it, so he jumped in right away. Bruce Molsky simply listened to the others play the tune once, and then he played it along with them, not missing a single note. The Irish and Scottish have strong traditions of fiddle competitions, and each fiddler at this concert seemed to compete with the others. One aspect of competing is playing faster (and correctly) than the others. I’m sure I knew some of the tunes they played, but I couldn’t identify them because they were played so fast.

I went to this concert with a friend who is not a musician, and I think she loved it as much as I did. It was the kind of concert that gave listeners feeling energized and high for a long time after the concert.

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