Understanding Fiddle Music

What Is Fiddle Music?

Many feet moving to the sound of fiddle music

Fiddle music arose because people like to dance, and fiddle music provided a good danceable sound. Today the same holds true for contra dancing and Appalachian style back-step dancing. For country music line dancing a fiddle may not be required, but it would always be welcome. Irish step dancing is typically packed by traditional Irish instruments including a fiddle. The fiddle plays to encourage the movement of many feet.

With the evolution of string band music into Bluegrass, the dance is left behind. Bluegrass music is a listening audience music. Bluegrass fans love to sit and listen to bands, one after another at festivals. You might see someone dancing a little, but it’s not the rule. Often with this genre the tempos of the instrumentals, and sometimes even the songs, is just too fast for dancing.

In jazz and blues the fiddle is edged out by the violin. Same instrument, of course, but different concept. Blues inspires more dancing than does jazz. But you hear “blues violin” and “jazz violin” as the terms denoting our favorite string instrument. When it comes to “jazz fiddle” we are moving into the realm of “cracker jazz.”

Contest Fiddling Evolution

Contest fiddling also goes beyond the scope of dancing. Fiddle contests go back to the 19th century. The form of contests encouraged the evolution of fiddle tune playing. Today it’s advanced far beyond dance music. The intricate and creative variations that contest fiddlers play is almost mesmerizing. Dancing means you are more interested in your own movements than you are in the sounds. Listening to contest fiddling live is a strong tradition and now we have YouTube videos featuring the same for a much larger audience of listeners.

Back in the 1980’s there was an effort to create a new genre called “folk and acoustic.” Since I haven’t heard that term for a long time, I believe it didn’t catch on. David Grisman and dawg music was at the forefront of this musical expansion into new territory. Then we enjoyed to sounds of the Turtle Island String Quartet, followed by the Republic of Strings, both launched by Darol Anger. 

YouTube Reveals New Fiddle Music

The continuation of that process can be heard today on YouTube with the recorded concerts of Joe Walsh’s ensembles, the duo of Lauren Rioux and Brittany Haas. Their musically heightened approach to fiddle music is bordering on sophisticated. Many other players have been influenced by the same sounds.

One powerful source of those sounds in the Mike Block String Camp. The week long event in Vero Beach, Florida emphasizes learning by ear and arranging by thoughtful planning. There no doubt are other string camps that have similar focus, but my personal experience is with MBSC, last July.

Some fiddlers prefer to set up a music stand and play from music notation charts. I have seen this locally and believe the Tampa Bay area is not the only place fiddlers read music when they play. I nag my students mercilessly to memorize their tunes. They have the good grace to lower their face and shuffle their feet when I ask them to play a tune from memory that is not yet ready.

Fiddle and Violin

The relationship between fiddle and violin is closer today, mainly through the efforts of Mark O’Connor. The sessions he did with Yoyo Ma and Joshua Bell started a wave of fusion that has not stopped. I would speculate that there are as many violinists playing his concerto today as fiddlers. Maybe more.

Another example of violin-fiddle fusion is heard in the looping efforts of solo performers. Christian Howes on the violin side and Casey Driessen on the fiddle side inspire many students and street performers to try their feet at looping. We are almost back to fiddling being dominated by feet with looping.

While the evolution of fiddling is apparent, i hesitate to say where it may go from here. I think a period of consolidation is at hand, just as it was in the 1960’s when Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys dominated fiddling for most audiences. That inspired many musicians to put together a Bluegrass band. That genre is also evolving in a similar way to instrumental, or string band music. Recently, listening to Mile 12, I marveled at the excellence of the arrangements and contoured sound they achieve.

Maybe, at the very least, we need to agree on what this music is called. Historically it’s called string band music. Today there is some evasion of that term, it seems. Unless the string band sees itself in a tradition of string bands from the past. If you go back to the beginnings of string bands, you find as much on the swing side as you do on the fiddle/dance side. For me that’s a clue on how inclusive string band is as a catch all term for…well, bands made up of stringed instruments.

4 thoughts on “Understanding Fiddle Music”

  1. I enjoyed your interpretation of the Fiddle/Violin evolution and have noted similar experiences. I remember long-bow fiddler Ralph Blizard reminding my step-son the importance of playing on the downbeat with old-time music, as it is dance music. Bluegrass plays on the upbeat which is not as friendly to dancing.
    While in Ireland, the musicians I played with told me the people did not come to listen and just watch fiddlers like they do today – they played music for people to dance to it.
    There is definitely some transitions going on regarding terminology of fiddle vs violin and even the use of “string band.” and I consider it all good. I am naturally inclined to acoustic music and I am glad to see the fiddler and violinist taking the main stage and leading the way

    1. Thank your your thoughtful comment. Maybe I don’t understand Ralph Blizzard’s reasoning. It was Appalachian style fiddling that taught me about the off-beat in fiddling. That’s what they do the back-step dancing to. I teach my students about the off beat. Liz Carroll put out an album last year, On the Off Beat. Of course, we don’t have to be obsessive-compulsive about it.

  2. I am a big fan of Hanneke Cassel, who I believe is Mike Block’s wife. I have learned several songs from her on YouTube.

    1. Yes she is Mike Block’s wife and just had a baby not long ago. I hope to get some coaching from her this summer!

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