NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

Fiddles and Fiddlers

A Fiddler's Notes
A personal look at the instrument and its music by Duncan Wood.

Growing up as I did in the North East, it astonishes me now to think how little traditional music I was exposed to as a youngster in an area of Scotland supposedly steeped in it. All I can remember is a constant barrage of religious and American country music, with only an occasional sighting of a fiddler on television programmes such as the White Heather Club and Bothy Nichts. I was always strangely fascinated by the fiddle and the bow and the sounds that these two objects could produce. Whilst my brothers were imitating Hank Marvin and Duane Eddy with the aid of their tennis racquets, I was copying the antics of Hebbie Gray with a fish slice and a school ruler. I remember when I was about twelve, helping out at the jumble sale of the local football club. A number of fiddles came in from a local house in varying states of disrepair. Using my prerogative as an in situ helper, I bought one for a shilling. As far as I could make out, it was all properly strung-up, and it had a bow and a case and a chunk of rosin - all ready to go - but my mother refused to let it into the house and it ended up in the garden shed and eventually on the living room fire. Suffice it to say, I received absolutely no encouragement, either at home or at school, to further any musical interests that I might have had.

Swarbrick photoAfter moving away from home at the age of sixteen, a friend of mine introduced me to Fairport Convention's sensational L.P. Full House, and the impact was immediate. Dave Swarbrick's incomparable fiddle playing spoke a strangely familiar language to me that went straight to my soul. (Actually, in spite having heard thousands of musicians since then, I would still have to say that Dave Swarbrick is the most naturally gifted of all the folk fiddlers. Whilst he may not be the most technically accomplished and might break every rule in the book as far as correct bowing and posture is concerned, his inherent ability to make the instrument swing and his sensitive accompaniment to singing is without equal in my opinion.)

Dave Swarbrick

At that point I went out and bought myself another fiddle. It cost £12 from an antique shop in Elgin. From then onwards I implemented a regime of self-discipline hitherto completely unknown to me. I literally practiced from dawn to dusk every day, even abandoning my art school studies in favour of a new career as a musician, playing on an instrument which nothing but a vague sense of optimism and self-belief enabled me to grasp.

When I moved to the south of England in 1974 it was like stepping into another world. Whilst the folk music scene was, ironically, almost completely barren in the North East of Scotland, this was certainly not the case in Sussex. Literally within days I was in contact with several like-minded fiddlers who, at the time, were aspiring towards the heights achieved by players such as Dave Swarbrick, Aly Bain and a whole host of fiddle players then coming out of Ireland. For hours we'd sit around our little cassette recorders, playing and replaying tunes, over and over again, trying to figure-out the intricate passages, phrasing and ornamentation that so eluded us for a while but which, through mutual assistance and perseverance, we were eventually able to pick-up and use in our own playing. Irish music was certainly all the rage in the seventies, and still is, to a great extent.

Late one night (three o'clock in the morning, to be precise), I was listening to the Jimmy McGregor Show on the BBC World Service. He introduced a fiddle player whose music had as great an impact on me as had Dave Swarbrick's three years earlier. It was Ron Gonella. Some people would say there couldn't be a greater contrast between two players stylistically, but both spoke to me the language of honesty and directness that I had been seeking so desperately in my own playing. On the one hand, Swarbrick's style was fluid and organic, like a natural extension of his own exuberant character, deriving possibly from the exotic Eastern European ancestry implied by his unusual surname. In contrast, Ron Gonella's style was elegantly classical, yet unstuffy, with an inimitable precision and discipline that helped to create a warmth and breadth of tone that few could match. I have often heard fiddle players scorning the styles of both Swarbrick and Gonella, but I merely attribute this to envy and the fact that their natural skills and abilities are generally inaccessible to all but the best players. When I finally met-up with Ron Gonella in the early 1980s, I remarked to him that his playing epitomised to me the very essence of Scottish music as created by early composers such as Gow, Marshall and Mackintosh. I imagined that if by some miracle these composers were able to hear their music played today they would approve wholeheartedly of that strange evolutionary process that had culminated in Gonella's sensitive interpretations. Ron said that my comments bore out completely his artistic aims. Like me, he didn't care too much for the somewhat bombastic style of fiddle playing championed by devotees of the Scott Skinner style, preferring instead to imbue Skinner's music itself with a less dramatic kind of sensitivity.

Throughout my career I've heard a lot spoken about distinct regional styles. In my experience, this exists only in a general sense. Ron Gonella, for example, will play a Strathspey in his own particular way, quite distinctly from Hector McAndrew and those fiddlers that he inspired. At the end of the day, it simply boils down to individual interpretation. In seeking to develop their own styles, all good players will inevitably borrow from that great indeterminate melting pot of techniques in the hope of eventually acquiring a style of their own that will become instantly recognisable to the discerning listener. One will approach a tune according to one's capabilities and preferences of technique, particularly with regard to ornamentation, vibrato, tempo and bowing. (Take again, for example, Dave Swarbrick, with his highly idiosyncratic approach, who appears to pay not the slightest regard to the ordinary strictures of conventional playing techniques.) In truth, it would appear that it is a particular individual's style that is being imitated, and whether he comes from Perthshire, Strathspey or the Western Highlands is to a large extent coincidental. A case in point is the influence exerted by Hector McAndrew of Fyvie, Aberdeenshire upon a whole generation of fiddle players. In admiring him as a great exponent, they appear to extol every aspect of his technique (without necessarily imitating him), yet I personally, and maybe to my loss, have never discovered any staggering virtue in his playing and actually find it turgid and overly sentimental. In contrast, I admire the playing of the late Willy Hunter of Shetland, who was obviously influenced by McAndrew, although Hunter's playing achieves a greater level of excitement in my estimation. Aly Bain's recordings, too, are peppered with selections from Hector McAndrew's repertoire, but their styles of playing actually have very little in common. In fact, both Willy Hunter and Aly Bain appear to have relied more on the technical influence of the great Irishman, Sean McGuire. Alastair Fraser, however, adheres more closely to the style of Hector McAndrew, as do players like Douglas Lawrence and Paul Anderson.

Increasingly I have veered further and further away from Irish music. Whilst at one time, like so many other Scottish and English players, I was totally immersed in it, I soon came to realise that the Scottish tradition was just as rich and worthy of deeper exploration. Besides, I felt a greater affinity with my own native music. In this respect, I should make mention of my favourite composers, and top of the list would have to be Nathaniel Gow. His grasp of the Scottish idiom, like that of his father Neil Gow, was consummate. He possessed a seemingly inexhaustible fund of melody; and whilst Neil Gow produced many excellent and memorable tunes, Nathaniel, as a trained musician, clearly understood the wider capabilities of the fiddle as an instrument and the finer subtleties of composition. I must say that my preference tends more towards the music of the Gows than that of William Marshall, although I am aware that the latter is generally regarded as a greater composer. Like Scott Skinner a generation later, Marshall's tunes relied rather heavily on technique and are therefore often eschewed by less accomplished musicians. I believe that there is an inherent simplicity in the Scottish idiom that is in danger of becoming lost in excessive technical posturing and over-embellishment. I find bow-bouncing gimmickry fiercely tiresome and unattractive. Almost every fiddle music album that is produced today contains a trite rendition of the ghastly Banks Hornpipe, (and if the representation of the soulful Scottish air finds its finest expression in Margaret's Waltz then give me the spontaneous gaiety of Ladysmith Black Mombassa any day!)

Among the lesser-known composers, the work of J. Murdoch Henderson is worthy of note. It is clearly modelled on the Scott Skinner style but is sufficiently different and idiosyncratic to credit the author with a degree of originality. The Strathspeys George L. Taylor and The Scottish "Snap" have a completeness and elegance that are instantly appealing, whilst the air dedicated to Gavin Greig has a pathos and grandeur equal to the very best of Marshall and Skinner. J. F. Dickie's Delight is another wonderful tune - an integral showpiece within the Scottish Fiddle repertoire, as are the reels J. Scott Skinner and Charles Sutherland.

The art of composing tunes in the traditional idiom has certainly not died, but there are only a few truly great new melodies manifesting themselves in the repertoire today. I find many modern compositions poorly constructed and basically quite tuneless, with either too many or too few notes than is good for them.

The fiddle tradition, however, is still very much alive, and long may it continue. Speaking from a personal point of view, I am profoundly grateful for it. It has been such an integral and enriching feature of my existence for so long and I would have been a totally different person without it.

I'm sorry but I must stop here; I feel a slow air coming on. . . . .


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