The new Hillmusic space was right in the heart of downtown Chapel Hill. Franklin Street marked the northern boundary of the University of North Carolina campus, and was packed with stores and places to eat, and where it crossed Columbia Street was the functional crossroads of town and gown. And our space was a half block downhill at 113 North Columbia Street, upstairs above a high-end stereo store. We shared the garret with a leather craftsman named Stu Martell, and I noted that all three businesses had European style one-word names – Soundhaus, Leatherworks and HIllmusic.
Nowell and I picked out an old timey-looking color like old parchment and were painting the long brick wall when I stepped off the ladder right into the tray of paint! We laughed, and knew that the commercial-grade carpet we already bought would cover up my footprints. Small pieces of that carpet were later glued to the walls so instruments hanging from nails would be cushioned. Since we carried fretted instruments also, he taught me just enough so I could demo guitar, banjo, mandolin, lap dulcimer and hammered dulcimer. I never did get the hang of harmonica! Thank goodness we had a “Wheez-o-tron,” a bellows device a player could use to test all the notes of a harmonica without putting it to the mouth – health department approved! “Wheez-o-tron” was named by Michael Platt, an awesome fiddler who had a way with words. He had stage names for different types of gigs – Barney Pilgrim for Irish music, Martin Bridgepins for bluegrass and Neal Scallopini for classical.
Nowell was most comfortable with the traditional players, and had won several Old Time fiddle and banjo contests up in the mountains. I, on the other hand, was the classical violinist who had long wanted to learn fiddle, but had no clue how to start. Nowell had me sit in on his old time class at the Arts School (still flourishing these days as the Arts Center) in Carrboro. It was on Main Street upstairs above a bar and some retail shops. It was hard for me to learn by ear – I was addicted to having notes on paper. These days, crossover players refer to folks like me as “paper trained.” Memorization was never emphasized in all my years of study. Only once did a teacher insist I play from memory, my clarinet teacher at Wake Forest (no violin teacher ever asked). At a student recital, I got about halfway through my piece and blanked. My accompanist went back a few bars and tried to play me in, twice, but I just stared at his face, as if the notes were hidden there. I finally had to look over his shoulder at the music to jog my memory, and was able to then finish without another lapse.
With the old-timey tunes I got to the point where I could play the A part easily, but then would get the B parts mixed up. To my brain, they seemed like interchangeable connective tissue to send you back to the beginning. Not so! In the late 1970’s most old time players were purists, trying to keep a fading tradition alive. My “creative” fumblings were met with frowns – and here I was running a music store and couldn’t play the standard tunes! Most parties I went to had jams, and, as someone just starting out, I’d play with anybody. I was fussed at by an old time fiddler for playing with the bluegrass musicians, as if I polluted myself somehow, and later by other players when I was “messing with” the melody. Even on tunes I knew, my attempts at harmony or accompanying figures were not welcome in those days.
As I look back on these moments, I realize they were a hint of my later focus on spontaneous music making. Even earlier, in the late 1960’s, I had been fascinated by the freedom of Baroque performance practice, introduced by the eccentric Sol Babbitz at the summer string music camp at West Chester. When I later attended that same college, I played violin in a trio sonata group with cello and harpsichord, and was given liberty to ornament melodic lines in ways not notated. True improvisation mostly fell to the keyboard player. I had often wondered why Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 had only two chords for the second movement. It had never sounded right to me, surrounded by these two long intricate fast movements. Turns out, the keyboardist was supposed to improvise at length, beginning with the first chord, and ending with the second! At this point I could only dream of playing without a net.
The only high school musical ensemble I did not join was our chorus, although I had to sing in the chorus at a high school band camp at Penn State. I kind of enjoyed my week of singing bass – it gave me a different perspective on how music was constructed. The violin typically plays the featured melody in an orchestra, at the top of the orchestral sound, leading the way. And the clarinet played that same role in concert band arrangements. Singing the bass notes, often the root of the chords, felt foundational, as if the whole structure above me was dependent on my notes. And it truly was – the bass is always the foundation of any music style, and anchors the groove, whether it be jazz, traditional or classical.
I had never been much for making up harmony to the folk songs that Sarah would play on guitar in the living room, or around a camp fire. Somehow she talked me into going to hear Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall in 1975, and he got the whole audience, including the musicologist me, to sing along at the top of our lungs. It was fun, and connected us all together in a musical community. My other memorable Carnegie Hall concert during this period was Virgil Fox inaugurating their new electronic organ, since the amazing and delicate acoustics of that hall prevented the installation of an organ with pipes. Yes, Fox played a classical repertoire, but there were hints of his “Heavy Organ” show, which he did at rock and roll volume, and with a psychedelic light show. His impromptu flourishes sparked excitement in a way not written by the composers, but certainly in line with what I had learned about Bach’s improvisations. That Carnegie Hall audience was definitely louder and less restrained than a typical classical concert.
In an old wooden house a couple blocks downhill from Hillmusic, I attended a party hosted by Ron Raxter of the Apple Chill Cloggers. On the front porch, I learned that there were indeed proper times for harmonizing – specifically in slow, twin-fiddle tunes. As I held down the tune, Laughlin Shaw, a prominent older local fiddler, spun a gorgeous counter around the melody. He made my simple playing sound like magic – he was the wizard and his bow was the magic wand!
Then, at this same party, furniture was cleared out of the front rooms and carpets rolled up for dancing. Not many musicians had arrived yet, so I was one of maybe four players – and folks wanted to dance! Thank goodness somebody called a tune I knew – I played as loud as I could to be heard over the dancing feet. The foot rhythm of Appalachian clogging is distinctive – something like duh-duhl-luh-duh STOMP, duh-duhl-luh-duh STOMP. The big accent is a full-weight stomp on one leg (which is hell on the knee for those who have danced for years). In that old house, the stomps shook the old wooden floor so that you could feel the floorboards bend and release. The insistent rhythm vibrated my feet, and traveled up my legs to my torso, which began to rock involuntarily to the pulse. When the rhythm hit my brain, it was like a rocket went off! This was dance music, not a melody on a page, and the secret of fiddling was all about the accents, not the notes. In that instant, my classical smoothness was vanquished, replaced by strong bow strokes with crisp accents that were more like percussion.
There is no drum kit in an old time band. Folks would make fun of the banjo, calling it a drum with strings. Banjo heads were even made by Remo, whose heads were used on all drums, from snare to tom-tom to the bass kick drum. But the truth was that an open-back old time banjo was quiet, unlike the bluegrass banjo with its closed-back resonator to project the sound. And if an old time banjo player was really old school, they would use a goatskin head instead of Remo’s mylar, netting a warmer but softer tone. The clawhammer style of playing did not use the louder metal fingerpicks of the bluegrass banjo, but brushed and rolled the fingers and thumb across the strings in a manner called frailing. Very pretty, but not loud enough to be heard above a bunch of cloggers.
If there was an upright bass, it anchored the downbeats as well as the harmony. The guitarist used a flatpick to strum chords – perfect to accent the beats to maintain the rhythm. But only the fiddle player was equipped to drive the dancers. A standing fiddler projects his sound at the same level as the dancers’ ears, unlike the midbody placement of all the other instruments. The bow allows a wide dynamic range – stronger accents than even the loudest guitar strum. And if you really crunched it, your note would start with an unpitched attack, something like a snare drum hit.
I didn’t realize this role then, I just knew I had to keep sawing away, my right arm working harder than ever. Since the guitar and bass were holding the rhythm so well, I discovered I was free to push the offbeats. Those were the accents that drove the dancers, whose feet also stomped out the downbeats. As I sprinkled accents onto the melody at critical points, I was pleased to see and hear that the dancers responded to what I was doing by getting wilder on the dancefloor. The other players also seemed to ratchet up their excitement. This was cool! As more musicians arrived, my playing was less crucial to the effect, but the lesson was learned, and I knew that I was finally a fiddler.
So, in one evening, this violinist could claim to being a fiddler too. I learned that making up a harmony was okay in the context of a slow tune for twin fiddling, and that staying faithful to the melody gave you the freedom to enliven it with well-placed rhythmic accents. Oh, and that dancers were completely dependent on the musicians!