We were pleased to have Alan Jabbour teaching at the Folk School last week. We had twelve fiddlers eager and ready to go and thanks to Alan’s instruction we worked our way through fifteen tunes. Most tunes were in standard GDAE, but we did venture into DDAD, and GDAD.
Alan taught us by ear and we followed along mimicking phrasing, following bowing patterns, and attempting the embellishments that make the tunes “Alan” (and before him Henry Reed and Quince Dillion.) The tradition lives on.
By Friday I confessed that I’d lost sleep because the tunes were stuck in my head until the wee hours each night, but — my pinky finger was much stronger than on Sunday when we began. Alan made using the pinky finger look easy, showing that the fourth finger is equally as vital as the other three. So we placed our pinky fingers on the string below and droned with an open string, or tried to slide from the ring finger to the pinky to give it a lonesome sound. Sometimes (with twelve fiddlers trying this at once) it sounded like a cacophonous, very unpleasant, screech, like all of our least favorite elementary school teachers were scratching their fingernails on chalkboards. But, as our pinky fingers grew stronger we felt more confident, and the drones began sounding sweet evoking heartache and joy all at the same time. Now, I think we would all agree that playing an open string is a wasted opportunity to drone (ever-so-beautifully) two As or Ds at once.
As we faithfully fiddled along, the tunes eventually took shape. Then Alan took them up a notch and we tried to hold on to the quicker tempo. “Keep playing even if notes and bowings are discarded on the floor.” he said.
He also put the tunes into context by telling stories, bits of history, origins, and memories. No tune went without a reference point. We first learned “Henry Reed’s Breakdown” which was a tune with no name for many years. The next day “Cabin Creek” led to a discussion about giving directions by rivers and valleys as opposed to how we do it now with streets and signs. Later, we heard about Grover Jones’ children, fifteen or so boys and one girl, as we learned “Grover Jone’s Waltz.” Henry Reed’s version of “Shortnin’ Bread” which Alan taught us held it’s own against the diddy that can sound like a kid’s summer camp song (in my opinion.) The origin of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” revealed the history buffs in the class.
At one point, while Alan air-bowed and sang “doooown, up, down, up, down, up” to indicate patterns for different phrases (a hidden talent to be sure), his fiddle suddenly went POP! We all jumped. Alan lifted his fiddle up and tilted it from side to side. We could hear something lose sliding around inside. “Oh no! It’s your sound post!”
Not exactly…but it was something curious. Alan had rattlesnake rattlers inside his fiddle.
“I’ve asked fiddlers about it,” Alan responded. “They give different reasons like, ‘It helps the sound,’…I doubt it. ‘It gathers the dust inside the fiddle.’ These are kind of pseudoscientific explanations. I’ve heard, ‘It keeps mice away.’ That’s a pretty good idea! They hear that rattle snake rattling and stay away from the fiddle! I think it’s finally kind of a magical thing. But you know most magic isn’t to make things happen, it’s to keep bad things from happening. If it’s magic, I think it’s of that sort, to ward off something or another – Lord knows what. I probably don’t believe in it,” he laughed, “but what the heck, you can’t be too careful so I put one in there. Then somebody put another one in, so now I’ve got two, unless one just exploded…”
See how much we were learning in addition to fiddle tunes? Thank you Alan.