Aviva Steigmeyer: interview + tunes

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I grew up in Washington state and started playing old-time music when I was 18 years old. My parents were migrant fruit pickers in the 1970s and ‘80s and both are writers and artists, so I grew up with a connection to land and lots of encouragement to be creative. There weren’t musicians in my family but we were definitely music lovers and there was always old music being played on the stereo: Mississippi John Hurt, Hank Williams, bluegrass records. There was a monthly square dance at the grange hall that I went to as a child and family friends picked guitars and played fiddles. 

I went to college in Bellingham, WA and some of my friends were just starting to play fiddle, banjo, and guitar. I wanted to take part in the fun so I built a washtub bass and joined them busking at the farmers market and playing for house parties. In a way, the washtub bass was a great first instrument because it forced me to learn by ear and emphasized the importance of rhythm. I started to learn about some basic structure of old-time tunes and we encouraged each other to learn more, try different instruments, and listen to more old recordings. I picked up the banjo and the guitar and started taking some singing lessons from Laurel Bliss singing Carter Family songs and learning harmony. I traveled to festivals and square dances all over the Pacific Northwest.

Eventually, I got the itch to travel further and after a Canadian cross-country trip by train with some musician friends I ventured down to the Appalachia region where a lot of old-time music I liked was from. I had made a cranky in 2007 set to the ballad “Love Has Brought Me to Despair” as sung by Berzilla Wallin, so when I ended up in rural Madison County, NC where she was from, I really connected to the place and it inspired me to learn more about that area’s rich culture of ballad singing. In 2008 I joined some friends for a five week puppet and old-time music tour by horse-drawn wagon and bicycle through the state of Vermont, playing town greens, in old barns, farms and a cidery. Afterwards I lived in Keezletown, VA for a number of years where it was a short trip to numerous old-time music festivals during the summer. 

During this time I really connected old-time music with place and enjoyed learning about regional styles of music. I also started building parlor guitars, inspired by the ladder braced guitars that some of my old-time heroes were playing in the early 1900s. I now live in the Arkansas Ozarks where I build guitars, homestead, and play in a string band called the Ozark Highballers, which focuses on regional fiddle tunes and songs from this area. 

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I’ve gained so many tools in my guitar playing toolbox from playing with and listening to different musicians in various parts of the country that I’ve lived or traveled. Old-time music has shaped my life but it’s been about more than just the music. For me, it’s learning to take the good parts of the past with us and connect with people in a manner that feels real to me – knee to knee in a jam, swinging your corner at a square dance, or helping out at a work party. I love the music of early America but I also love the agrarian lifestyle, the self-reliance, the importance of community. To me, this is what preservation is. To keep practicing the parts of our past that are good and meaningful, which definitely includes the music.

Find out more about Aviva and her guitars at Preservation Guitar Co.

Video editing: Rachel Krause

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