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A new (old) instrument on 27th Street


Sixty plus years ago, when my brother Joe (who I often refer to on this blog as my brother the trout, Salvelinus fontinalis) was a young boy and years before I was born, our grandpa – that’s our dad’s dad – gave my brother a fiddle, or perhaps I should say a violin. Grandpa played the violin. My dad used to say he played for theatre in what my dad called the “pit bands” in Chicago, before our grandparents migrated up to Canada. He also made and repaired violins, and taught his son Gene, after whom I was named, to do the same. Gene went on to become a well known maker of violins and violas in the Chicago area. The violin Grandpa gave my brother was not one of his making, but a German knock-off of an Italian instrument from centuries earlier.

Mom signed up my brother for lessons, but it turned out the teacher was bad news. There was no fun at violin lessons and the teacher would actually strike Joey with a belt as punishment for mistakes. At first opportunity, my brother closed the case on that violin and it remained closed for over 60 years. This teacher was so terrible that my brother didn’t even enjoy listening to music on the radio for much of his adult life. Playing music is one of the most joyful activities I can imagine. How could anyone who played make it miserable for somebody else?

Many many years later, my brother took a serious liking to old time music and bought himself a banjo and began to teach himself clawhammer. Meanwhile I was also playing music. At about age 40, I took up the button accordion. We were living in so-called “Little Portugal” here in Toronto where I heard some Portuguese folk music played on button accordion – Viras and Corridinhos – beautiful vibrant dance music. At some point I decided I wanted to learn to play some of those tunes on button accordion, so I bought a used Hohner Corona II and found a teacher.

John is an Italian guy from Argentina who had a storefront music school on College St, teaching young Portuguese kids their folk music on piano accordion. He didn’t play button accordion, but he told me he understood the instrument and had ideas about how to teach it. We had a curious teacher-student relationship since I was learning an instrument he didn’t play. I had to work out some things for myself along the way, but most importantly John would teach me the feeling of the music. “That sounds very nice Eugene, but actually the tune should be played more like this,” and he’d play it for me on piano accordion, and I would chase the feeling. He must have thought it very curious that this Canadian adult wanted to learn the Portuguese tunes, but I wanted to learn and he was willing to teach me.

By the time I was in my mid-teens I had begun to explore folk music, mostly via a love for the blues. I didn’t much like what I was hearing on the radio by the mid-70s. I didn’t like the popular bands of the day, like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles at all. All that pop music sounded to me as if all the life had been choked out of the music in the studio. I was looking for something else. By then, I was listening to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters and The James Cotton Band and I had discovered the music of Bob Dylan. I remember reading things about how Dylan was such a great song writer and his lyrics were so wonderful but he wasn’t much of a singer. Curiously, what excited me about his music was the way he delivered a song as much as the songwriting. Sure he had a limited vocal range, but by the time I came to his music he had already reinvented himself a few times as a singer and I became a fan of all that material.

I re-engaged with pop music for a while in the late 70s. Elvis and the Attractions. Nick Lowe. Ian Dury. Willy DeVille. At York University, I fell back into listening to blues. The York Library had a great collection of obscure blues on vinyl and I spent hours in the listening room taking it all in. And with friends I would regularly go to Albert’s Hall, upstairs at Ye Olde Bruswick House to hear Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim, The Son Seals Band, Eddy Clearwater, Mighty Joe Young and many more acts in from Chicago. Later if would be the Horseshoe or the Bamboo to hear Zydeco: Queen Ida or Fernest and the Thunders, my first exposure to button accordion. I wasn’t playing any music, outside of strumming a few chords on guitar but I sure was digging it.

Fast forward. My brother Joe started to seriously listen to Old Time music, bought himself a banjo and started to play. I knew a lot of old time music by that time but I think his interest in the banjo was contagious and I soon made myself an oil can banjo and began to learn to play. By that point I was playing all kinds of music on button accordion and thoroughly enjoying myself. One year I spent a lot of time busking with my squeeze box. You learn a lot busking by the way. Performance is not entirely about the music. It’s also about finding ways to engage your audience, and when you’re busking your audience can be indifferent and you have to get their attention and keep it, at least for a few moments.

I guess I was about 50 when I started playing clawhammer. It quickly became my main instrument. As much as I loved button accordion, I fell hard for the banjo, and the more old time music I listened to the more I loved it. There were worlds of music there. I was familiar with some bluegrass music but I wasn’t so interested in the Scruggs style banjo. It was old time clawhammer banjo which captured my imagination. I liked that it was an old tradition and that there was a large and more or less standard repertoire that varied some from area to area. I liked that it was dance music on one hand and on the other there were people out there playing this music like it was the highest of high arts, the most important thing in the world.

The fiddle scares me some. I’ve sat a few feet away from seriously good fiddle players at banjo camp pretty much in awe. Humans can’t do that (can they?). Maybe these guys are aliens. Not from Saturn – that’s where Sun Ra came from. Perhaps Jupiter or Mars.  If humans could play fiddle, it was only if they started as infants. I picked up clawhammer in my 50s, but surely it isn’t possible to do the same with fiddle.

I might have been convinced that I could never play fiddle but it didn’t stop me from listening to it. As I learned clawhammer, I listened to a lot of fiddle music. Not just in the Appalachian tradition and the Midwest tradition (and let’s not forget Cajun fiddle). I’ve also been listening to Canadian fiddlers from Don Messer to Ward Allen and Reg Hill to Patti Kusturok and Calvin Vollrath.

Fast forward again. Salvelinus mentioned he was thinking of getting that old fiddle checked out. Maybe it was worth a few Canadianos and he could sell it. Just a minute, I said. I was thinking of learning to play the fiddle. I knew I was out of my mind when I said that, but I said it and I guess I meant it. One thing led to another and my brother got the fiddle checked out. It turns out it was a very playable instrument which would benefit from a clean-up job, some new strings, a new tailpiece, and a new bow – a modest investment of a couple hundred bucks.

My brother dropped by today with the fiddle. Now what? How should I go about learning to fiddle. Should I take lessons or should I start out on my own? There is a ton of materials on YouTube. That helped as I started to learn clawhammer, although I will say that the three times I attended Midwest Banjo Camp accelerated my banjo learning immeasurably. I suppose I’ll mess around with the fiddle for a while, trying to get a decent tone, trying to find some scales. Maybe I can learn a simple tune or two on my own. One advantage I have is that I have many fiddle tunes in my head because I play them on banjo already, and surely getting the tune in your head is a big part of the battle.

I have no idea if I will have any affinity for fiddle. It could be that clawhammer is my instrument and I should stick to it. On the other hand, I like the idea of always learning new things, so whether or not I succeed I’m going to give it a shot.  Wish me luck.


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