Sometimes I have a great deal of trouble explaining the kind of music I play. Many people, some of them my own relatives, think I play bluegrass. I play violin, also known as fiddle; mandolin; mountain dulcimer; and guitar. All but the dulcimer are stalwarts of bluegrass music, but bluegrass is worlds apart in style from Scottish and Irish fiddling. I even sniff haughtily at people who think I play Appalachian fiddle, often called “old-time” music, a term with which I take umbrage for its vagueness, being understood by the people who play the music but for a word nitpicker like me being too broad and undefining.
I never tell people I play “folk music.” That’s another word that is too broad and vague, and it conjures images of folksingers and hootenannies. It’s easier to tell an outsider what I don’t play, but those who play the music I play easily understand it.
My business cards say, “Music for marching and dancing from the British Isles and colonial America.” That’s the best I could do without writing a few paragraphs explaining the music, which of course would not fit on a business card, and it’s still not precise because early Beatles songs came from the British Isles and were good for dancing and John Philip Sousa wrote tunes for marching. I rarely call my music “traditional” because much of it doesn’t fit the definition, as explained by David Johnson in “Scottish Fiddle Music in the 18th Century.”
“Scots fiddling is nowadays regarded as a type of traditional music. We must pause, however, before attaching the label ‘traditional’ too firmly to the fiddling of 200 years ago. ‘Traditional,’ in its basic Latin sense, means ‘handed down’; as in handed-down clothes, it means something which one acquires from another person, which has already been used, and which may perhaps be a little worn out. A traditional culture is one that has stayed the same for many generations. A traditional tune is one so old that everybody has forgotten who composed it. In this sense, ‘traditional’ is the opposite of ‘progressive.’
“Scots fiddling in the 18th century, however, was progressive.” Composers made new arrangements of tunes, “new principles of harmonisation were evolved, and huge sets of variations blossomed as from nowhere. After 1760 the emphasis turned more to original composition, and large quantities of new dance-tunes were written in a very short space of time.
“Other 20th-century ideas about traditional music — that it appeals to all classes of society, and that it is peculiar to its locality — do not entirely fit here either. ... its finest pieces made great demands on players’ technique and audiences’ powers of attention, and can hardly be described as popular music at all.
“Above all, much of this music is not anonymous. ...”
Much of this is still true about Scots fiddling. In one way it can be considered traditional, in that it is locked into a specific style that is taught and judged, and those who deviate from the style are considered to be playing a fusion, perhaps, or another type of music. But the music is a living entity, with people, including me, writing new tunes all the time, and the music still makes great demands on the player’s ability and requires classical violin technique. Here’s Mr. Johnson again:
“Nowadays we tend to have a soft spot for illiterate fiddlers with limited, old-fashioned repertories. The 18th century, in contrast, rewarded players who, due to their literacy, had formed up-to-date tastes, and whose compositions put forward an image of Scotland as a part of Europe. Many of the great fiddlers of the 18th century were actually the leading players and teachers of European art music as well.”
“It follows that mainstream Scots-fiddle playing and mainstream European-violin playing cannot have differed from each other in the 18th century as much as ‘folk fiddle’ and ‘classical violin’ playing do today.”
“... the violin’s defunct 18th-century art-music technique ... elements included: holding the bow some inches up the stick, not at the nut; playing without chin-rest or shoulder-rest; using open strings and first-position fingerings as much as possible; reserving vibrato for special effects; generally aiming at a light rhythmical sound which bounces off the walls, rather than a huge actual tone. All these elements are still very much alive in present-day Scots fiddle-playing, where they have been handed down unchanged for the last 200 years.”
I could say I play Scottish fiddle, but I also play those other instruments, and I play Irish fiddle music and harp tunes, Scottish bagpipe tunes, and English fife and dance tunes. So rather than try too hard to define the music, I must simply play it and let it define itself. Just don’t call it bluegrass.