Friday, May 20, 2022

Some of my favorite musicians

I play and teach mandolin and fiddle.  The styles I play (and teach) are Celtic and Bluegrass, Classical and Balkan.  

Some of my most favorite musicians per style are:


  • Frankie Gavin - fiddler, De Dannan
  • Seán Smyth - fiddler, Lunasa
  • Winifred Horan - fiddler, Solas
  • Claudine Langille - mandolin, tenor banjo
  • Billy Oskay - fiddler, recording engineer, Night NOise
  • Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh - bodhran, De Dannan
  • Tommy Peoples - fiddler
  • Alisdair Frasier - fiddler
  • Stuart Duncan - Nashville session player
  • Jason Carter - fiddler, Travelin' McCoury's
  • Scotty Stoneman - fiddler, The Kentucky Colonels
  • Vassar Clemens - fiddler, Old and In The Way
  • Richard Greene - fiddler, Mule Skinner
  • Darol Anger - fiddler, the David Grisman Quintet
  • Isaac Stern - concert violinist
  • Yehudi Menuhin - concert violinist
  • Pablo Casals - cellist and conductor
  • Jacqueline du Pré - concert cellist
  • Isaac Perlman - concert violinist
  • Michael Tree - violist, Guarneri Quartet
  • Alicia Svigals - fiddler, Klezmatics
  • Jascha Heifetz - violinist
  • Baron Menuhin
  • Kenny Kosek
  • Daniel Hoffman - fiddler, Klez-X

Monday, May 9, 2022

America Fiddles – The Early Days by Jim Guinn

Written by Jim Guinn

This is the first article in a series called America Fiddles, a collection of articles exploring the history and culture of the fiddle in America. These articles are not intended to be scholarly or comprehensive, but more of an outline to give beginning fiddlers of all ages an appreciation of the richness of the fiddle in our American heritage.


Long a popular European musical instrument and because it was small and easily portable, the fiddle found its way to America packed away in the meager possessions of the first explorers, traders, and settlers to our shores. For years, the fiddle was virtually the only instrument found on the frontier. Records show that among the first settlers in Jamestown in 1607 was a fiddler by the name of John Utie, a planter by trade. The first recorded fiddle contest was held in 1736 as part of a St. Andrew’s Day celebration in Williamsburg, Hanover County, Virginia with the grand prize being an Italian-made Cremona fiddle. The oldest American made fiddle still with us today was made in 1759 by John Antes. And, in the journals of the Lewis and Clarke expedition it is recorded there were two fiddlers, and they contributed much to maintaining the morale of the men and establishing good relations with the Indians.



Most of the early immigrants came from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Germany. They brought with them their musical traditions primarily played on the fiddle. Fiddle music played an essential role in the cultural life of 18th-century Americans as it was commonly played at home and in public. Before the age of mass commercial entertainment, these hard-working people would often gather in houses, pubs and dance halls to escape life’s weary labors and hardships, and the fiddle was usually at the center of the entertainment that held them together as they heard, made and danced to music transcending life’s ever-present toils, troubles and tribulations.



The first fiddle tunes and techniques were the ones they brought from their respective homelands that had been passed from one generation to the next. As the settlers began to spread out and mix with other immigrant cultures, their different fiddle tunes and techniques began to mingle. The African culture brought by the slave trade as well as the Native American culture also had an important influence on fiddle music in America. Over time, many original tunes became Americanized. The Colonists adapted new titles, lyrics and playing styles to many of the old familiar tunes, and regional styles and preferences began to develop in the southern, middle, and northern colonies.

Many tunes and songs attributed to the early days of our nation had their origins on the European continent. One of the most popular tunes from the Old-Time, Bluegrass tune genre which many tout as an “American classic” from the Civil War era, Soldiers Joy, has roots it’s in Scottish and Irish music traditions and can be traced back as far as the mid-1700s. In fact, even Robert Burns used it as the tune for the first song in his cantata The Jolly Beggars in 1785. Despite its upbeat tempo and catchy melody, the term “soldier’s joy” took on a much darker meaning than is portrayed by the tune around the time of the Civil War. Opinion has it that this term eventually came to refer to the combination of whiskey, beer, and morphine used by Civil War soldiers, presumably for pain relief.

The American Revolution period saw the cultural influences of the people of our emerging new nation blended into a sound of its own. Many patriotic fiddle tunes were coined during this period including Washington’s ReelBennington Assembly and Jefferson and Liberty. As a reflection of anti-British sentiment, many old tune titles and lyrics were changed. The Revolutionary War not only brought fiddlers together from all over, but it also created numerous occasions to be celebrated and remembered in music, and the fiddle played a major role.

Independence won, the nation began to grow, and in the years to follow the fiddle traveled westward beyond the original 13 colonies with pioneers and settlers. Just like their European ancestors, these first settlers had a back-breaking existence. The fiddle continued to play a vital role in their lives as a primary source of entertainment. Many towns and territories had their own fiddler, and traveling fiddlers often received warm welcomes. Even towns with names like Fiddler’s Green, Fiddlers Grove, Fiddletown, and Fiddle Creek illustrate the importance of the fiddle in the early days of the nation.

The fiddler was in great demand and held in high esteem in the pioneer societies which were starved for recreation. His small, lightweight instrument was easily brought west in the wagons, and its music was a welcome antidote for the lonely days of labor. A pioneer fiddler played for a wide variety of community activities including barn dances, weddings, wakes, and almost every other social function required the presence of the fiddler and his beloved instrument. Perhaps the Friday or Saturday night dance is the best remembered of all rural social events.

Fiddling has long been associated with some classic American heroes, too. George Washington had his favorite fiddle tune, Jaybird Sittin’ on a Hickory Limb. Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished player, and his music was particularly significant in his courtship of his wife, Martha. Patrick Henry, who popularized the rallying slogan Give me Liberty, or give me death, was documented as being rather good at fiddle playing. Davy Crockett was a ferocious fiddler and the tune Crockett’s Reel is still played today. Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in the War of 1812 is still celebrated with the popular Eighth of January. And, a governor of Tennessee, fiddler Bob Taylor, liked to refer to the old fiddle classics in his speeches: “Every one of them breathes the spirit of liberty; every jig is an echo from flintlock rifles and shrill fifes of Bunker Hill.”

As the nation continued to grow through the 19th century, the American population exploded with waves of immigrants from other countries who brought with them the latest trends in fiddling from all over the world. Throughout the United States, from coast to coast, new regional fiddle styles and techniques began to emerge and coalesce. American fiddling as we know it today with such styles as Old-Time, Bluegrass, Cajun, Blues, Western Swing, Country, and others, each with its own unique sound and techniques was born.

But, these are subjects of future articles, so be sure to check back here as America Fiddles! 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Traditional Irish Music Is Not Irish At All

 I've been doing a lot of research about traditional dance music from the celtic nations.  I've learned that most of what we think of as "traditional Irish" music is not Irish at all.  In fact, much of the music came originally to the new world (Virginia, US) by immigrants from Ulster Cty, mostly young men from Scotland unable to make a living there.  They came first to build the new communities and sent for their brides later.  They brought their music, dance and song with them, which largely  was responsible for "country music" at first and later "old timey music", which influenced Bill Monroe and gave him the impetus to start up the Blue Grass boys.

But Scotland didn't create those dance forms, they came from the Normans who sacked England in the 12th century.  The original dance form, the Carole (12/8) came from Crete in 900 BC and settled in what became Gaul, and later France.  All western dance forms evolved from the Carole: 12/8 (the slide), 9/8 (slip jig), 6/8 (single and double jig), 4/4 (reel, strathspay, hornpipe), 2/4, 3/2, etc.  The polka came from eastern Europe originally and only entered the lexicon in the 20th century.

Chief O'Neill, who is credited for collecting a myriad of melodies he called Irish, gave us the first compendium of traditional dance tunes.  But the provenance of those tunes is unclear.  Chances are they are mostly 19th century melodies largely from England and Irish-English cities such as Dublin and Cork, no doubt influenced by the keys, modes and forms from Scotland and England.

The most popular dance form that made it's way to the Americas was the hornpipe.  The dance was largely a solo dance, done by men.  In the south it was known as "buck dancing" and in the north, "clogging".  Here's an example of the style in the south: 

Many of the original "old timey" tunes became "bluegrass" tunes in the 20th century: Red Haired Boy, Hull's Victory, Boys of Bluehill, Fisher's Hornpipe, etc.  

These were all hornpipe forms.  We don't know who wrote them, which is why they can't be nailed down, but if you look closely at the melody form, you notice the 3 quarter not sequence at the end of each 8 bar section, indicating it's a hornpipe.  

Many other tunes, probably written in the 20th century, follow this rule and are included in the Bluegrass lexicon.

Les Poules huppées

CRESTED HENS, THE (Les Poules huppées). French, Bourrée à 3 temps (3/8 time). E Dorian. Standard tuning (fiddle). Composed in 1983 by French...