Vassar Clements–Virtuoso Fiddler
Recently, a friend called me with the news that Vassar Clements had passed away. Today I’m putting aside the material I had prepared for the August FTN.
What follows is my view of that phenomenon of the Music Spirit that we called Vassar.
On just a few occasions I was able to get right next to Vassar while he was playing. I watched and listened closely, just drinking it in.
In conversation with him it was clear that his attention was on music, not on being the famous fiddler and carving out fame and recognition from a culture that gives fiddlers little regard anyway.
The first time was way back in the days that I began playing with a bluegrass band. This was my first chance to move beyond a few easy folkie licks and do some real fiddling.
It was with a violinist’s background and technique that I witnessed his impromptu demonstration in a record store in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was talking and just playing a few riffs when the session suddenly went over-the-top.
The casual atmosphere exploded with energy when Mike Marshall came breezing in with his violin case. He quickly opened it up, pulled out his fiddle, and plunged into a lively twin fiddle version of “Old Joe Clark” with Vassar.
This was my introduction to twin fiddling. I was too astounded to even notice who was playing which part! It was flawless in its performance. I thought they might have rehearsed it. It was all spontaneous, of course. That’s fiddling.
Later that evening I was performing with the bluegrass band. As I pushed myself further into the Vassar zone, and out of my comfort zone, I heard the harmonica player say, “Rassel that thang!”
And I have been ever since.
The glory of Vassar’s style is in his unique signature licks and the eerie, melancholy sound that no one else has matched.
The licks, though advanced and difficult, can be learned. The sound, his unique, instantly identifiable sound, is as personal as a vocalist’s sound. Mimicked and modeled by few, it’s equaled by none.
The comment about mimicking his sound is not disparaging. I would like to boast that I have modeled Vassar’s playing. But I can only confess to being a common lick thief.
Only two players I know of come close to Vassar’s likeness. I envy their ability.
Vassar chose to drop the rhythmic shuffle style of dance fiddling early on. He focussed on the melodic aspect of playing. “Instead of changing the bow to a shuffling thing, where I would have to give up some of the notes, I started using short and long bow strokes in order to get it clear and let it flow.”
Listening to Vassar play, you hear him move between a legato sound and staccato. For legato, notes are connected in one bow. Stacatto means each note having its own bow stroke. It all sounds intuitive and effortless.
Crafting the Improviser
Vassar said this about his early experience with Bill Monroe: “Chubby Wise was my idol. To me, he was the smoothest fiddler I had ever heard; it sounded like he never took his bow off the strings and he could get more out of one tone…a really rich sound.
I just wanted to get a sound like he did; and I did, at one time. I had it where when I first started playing with Monroe I had all the songs down just like Chubby had’em–and Monroe liked that. He liked you to play the way it was on the record. And I had it note-for-note just like Chubby so he was grinning all the time.”
On tunes that he did not know, Vassar would improvise. “I’d play as much of the tune of it as I could, before I’d get lost. And I’d get lost and just try to keep playing; I’d try to get on one string that sounded as close in tune with the whole overall sound as I could, and just work from there. I’d hear things that I liked a little bit along the way, and I’d keep those and try and remember them.
There wasn’t so many things running through my head, and so I’d work in other tunes–so if I got lost there I’d know kind of what to do.”
His philosophy about playing music was summed up when he said, “For me, the fun of music is in learning. I don’t want to play ‘Little Maggie’ twenty years from now like I do now. I don’t mind playing the same songs but if I don’t learn anything, then I’m just spinning my wheels….The fun in music is always learning.
If I can stay out here where people can keep hearing what I’m doing, that’s what I want to do. I’d like to accomplish that and keep learning and never come to a standstill.”
Amen to that, brother.
Thanks go especially to Matt Glaser for his book, Vassar Clements Fiddle, published by Oak Publications, 1978.
The extended quotations are from this book. It has many transcriptions of Vassar tunes. I highly recommend it.