Festival of American Fiddle Tunes
By Ryan Thomson - Dear NHSRS,
This is a report of my attendance at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in July, 2001. I
would like to sincerely thank the SRS for assisting with my expenses to attend the school.
This week long music camp is located in Port Townsend, Washington, on the site of a
former army base. Fiddle is the major focus, but there are classes in many other folk
instruments as well. There are fiddle classes in many styles of dance fiddling including
Scottish, Cape Breton, Irish, Appalachian, Klezmer, Mexican, and others.
I focussed on piano accompaniment for fiddle tunes. Cape Breton piano was taught by Doug
McPhee who comes from a prominent Cape Breton musical family. His grandfather and
father both played the fiddle and his mother was one of the most popular dance piano
players of the area. His grandfather placed 2nd in a large contest in Boston in 1926 which
was judged by the famous Scottish composer J. Scott Skinner.
He told many stories of growing up in a musical household where well known fiddlers were
often invited over to play. On a music making night he would scramble to help his mother
with household chores prior to the arrival of musical guests. He began his own piano
playing at age 12 when he was already familiar with hundreds of tunes that he had grown up
listening to. The older piano players, including his mother, used the "boom chuck" method
of chording, and simple 1, 4, 5 chords, which is quite different from the popular modern
pyrotechnic styles. His own style has evolved into a modern form which uses almost the
entire range of the piano.
I was interested to discover from Doug that Cape Breton fiddlers have been heavily
influenced by Irish fiddling, particularly from the playing of virtuosos Sean Mcguire and
Michael Coleman. A large body of Irish and Scottish tunes alike are considered part of the
general repertoire of the region. Another distinguishing feature of this fiddling tradition is
that many new tunes are being composed continuously by many different players.
Doug came to the camp along with fiddler David Greenburg, who, according to Doug, has
become a recognized master of the older Cape Breton fiddle style. I spent many hours
listening to them play together. Scottish fiddle was taught by Calum McKinnon. I enjoyed
hearing him discuss differences and similarities between Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling.
I picked up a number of playing tips and techniques on both fiddle and piano which I will
practice diligently in the coming year to incorporate into my own dance playing style and
to impart to my students.
This article by Ryan Thomson, 2002