Book Review: Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings and 8,000 Miles of Music

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In my never-ending quest for learning more about the fiddle and old-time music, I found Fiddle, by Vivian Wagner. Looking at various fiddle players on youtube, partially in order to figure what I was doing wrong with my bowing, I found a video of Mark O’Connor–something of a personal fiddling god–playing “Bile Em Cabbage Down” with Wynton Marsalis at a jazz festival in France. Check it out here, but how freaking cool is that? If you watch the video, you’ll see Marsalis introduces the tune as an old African-American tune, and also, the first song Mark O’Connor ever learned on the fiddle. It turns out that like almost all American musical forms, old-time music is not at all a white musical form. Early minstrel music was white folks imitating the fiddle and banjo playing style they’d seen among slaves.

I find this stuff fascinating, and hoped to find a lot more of it in Fiddle. Vivian Wagner has taken violin lessons since she was seven years old, though her mother was an “Okie” who was fond of old-time fiddle music. Many years later, Wagner’s mother dies and she finds herself in the middle of something of a mid-life crisis that involves learning to fiddle. She explores the history of the violin and fiddling and visits a fiddle maker in Virginia. On the course of her journey, she explores some Irish fiddling, Scottish fiddling, old-time fiddling, bluegrass fiddling, Klezmer fiddling, Texas swing fiddling and Cajun fiddling. Also, she attends Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp in Tennessee. Wagner’s musical journey is interwoven somewhat with her personal story, which unfortunately involves the dissolution of her marriage.

What I learned:

– It only costs $900 to go to Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp, and you don’t have to be good or anything. You just go online and fill out a form. How crazy is that? I’ll be saving my pennies, let me tell you.

– All the different types of fiddling that she explores have in common that they are really and truly folk music. Many of the styles are meant to be danced to, and that’s the primary purpose of playing. “Can folks dance to it?” is the measure of whether or not you’re a good fiddler.

– In the chapter on Irish fiddle music, Wagner talks about settings of a tune. Say I hear, “Whiskey in the Jar” played at a bar. I go home and try to figure out the tune myself, but my particular version turns out a little different. Maybe it sounds almost nothing like “Whiskey in the Jar.” What I have is a different setting of the tune. I like that there’s a word for this, that it’s okay to not get the tune exactly right. I assume this is because so many fiddlers in these traditions learn by ear, rather than by reading music.

Not to knock classical music or anything, but how liberating is it to be able to play the tune the way you want it to sound rather than having to get the notes exactly right?

What I liked:

– I liked reading about someone else struggling with learning to play the fiddle. In the beginning, Wagner sums it up just by saying that playing the fiddle is hard. You get one part right, say you’re bowing, and then it throws everything else off and you have to start all over again. It’s kind of like learning a golf swing to me, in that respect, only less frustrating.

I liked especially that this was someone who had been playing violin since the age of 7. But she wasn’t that good when it came time to play the fiddle, because playing the fiddle is a whole different animal. When I first took up the fiddle, a friend of mine suggested I should surely learn classical violin first, and that would form a good base from which to learn fiddle. I tried to persuade him that this was kind of crap, and now I have evidence for why it’s kind of crap. They’re two very different ways of playing what’s basically the same instrument, and I have no real desire to play the violin. I want to play music that makes me want to dance while I’m playing.

I think it’s also just the teeniest bit elitist to assume that learning classical violin forms a good “base,” isn’t it? Anyway, I loved it when Wagner would play for folks and could tell that they weren’t so impressed with her fiddling.

Mark O’Connor, fiddling god

– I like that Wagner uses learning about fiddling to try to connect more with the people in the community where she lives. She’s in a trans-Appalachian part of Ohio–a term I’ve heard used to describe the geographic region that’s in the triangle between Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Louisville. There are a lot of folks in this area who moved north from the Appalachians, and in the beginning of the book, Wagner feels fairly alienated from her neighbors, as she and her husband work at a local college. I think a lot of academic type folks build a wall between themselves and the communities in which they live, and that’s where the town/gown phenomenon comes from. I like that Wagner steps out of her comfort zone.

So-so bits:

The bits about Wagner’s personal life were kind of extraneous, and in various places, she tries to make her story bigger than it really is. For example, when she goes to New Orleans, there’s a lot about the Katrina aftermath. Sure, you can’t go to New Orleans without thinking about it, but parts of me wanted to say, “Stick to the fiddling.”

I was going to read this book regardless because I jones for any bit of information about fiddling like an addict. So if you’re really interested in fiddling or folk music, this is a good bet. I don’t know how interesting Wagner’s story would be to folks who aren’t interested in music or fiddling.

I’m always looking for good books about music, and especially old-time, fiddling, or bluegrass music if you have any suggestions.

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  1. I just discovered your blog and I swear you are speaking to my soul. . .old-time fiddle music, the Kentucky Derby, “placists.” Anyways, off to read your older posts. . .
    P.S. Do you read Clyde Edgerton? While he doesn't write treatises on old-time music or anything, it often comes up as a fun plot element.

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