Before anything, there was the rhythm.
I was a high-school student in Ithaca, N.Y., classically trained on the violin, when I first saw fiddlers play on the dusty stages of the Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, just up the road. The fiddlers were Judy Hyman and Jeb Puryear, Chad Crumm and Tara Nevins, and the swirling rhythms they inhabited seemed like music from a foreign country. They were playing with stringbands, or accordions and drums, unleashing grooves that were impossible not to dance to, and hundreds of us did, packed as close to the stage as we could get, like we were at a punk show.
But I realized I didn’t know anything. I didn’t understand how the bow movements I was seeing were making the sound I was hearing. I didn’t understand where the tunes began or ended, or what anyone else in the band was doing, or how the musicians knew when to stop. I just heard that rhythm.
I loved it, and it seemed totally out of reach.
I listened hard and didn’t even try to play a beat of it until a couple years later, after I’d left Ithaca to go to college in western Massachusetts. A friend of mine named Ilya, who had also grown up in Ithaca, was learning to play banjo. He asked if I wanted to play Southern fiddle. I said yes. I already knew what I wanted to sound like. I just didn’t know how to make it happen.
* * *
The rhythm of Southern fiddle music that hooked me from the start was the pulsing groove made between the fiddle, a European instrument, and the banjo, of African descent. The music is an American thing through and through, a hybrid of distant cultures brought together into a new and seamless whole. The historical record of how the music came to be is distressingly thin. There are scraps, just letters and drawings, and not a lot of them. In some of those letters, white writers attempt to process the African music they’re hearing much the same way I tried to understand fiddle music. It came somewhere out of the mix of sharecroppers from the British Isles, fleeing grinding economic conditions at home and ending up somewhere barely better in America, and slaves, kidnapped, rounded up, and pressed through the horrors of the Middle Passage to be sold and worked until death. The music is shot through with the ugliest aspects of American history—its virulent racism, and the stories of who managed to accumulate wealth and who did not, and why. The race and class problems that America may not survive are all there, in every note. And at the same time, it’s also the sound handed down to us from people 400 years ago who had fiddles and banjos and a bunch of musical ideas and just wanted to figure out how to play and party together, and the sound they built was unstoppable.
As an interloper, just a middle-class kid from upstate New York, I owe karmic debts. One debt is to Appalachian musicians from Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed to John Salyer and Dock Boggs, whose sound entranced the fiddlers who, in turn, entranced me. But because it’s the rhythm that got me, I owe a deeper debt to the unknown African and African-American musicians who brought those beats here and drove them into American music, from fiddle tunes to blues to jazz, to the modern forms of New Orleans brass band music, R&B, funk, soul, and hip hop that I love. Trying to repay those debts in the way that I play, speak, and move through the world, to me, goes hand in hand with being a better musician.
* * *
But I didn’t know any of the history when I first started playing the music. I just wanted to get lost in that rhythm, that hypnotic around-and-around that fiddle tunes do. I took a lesson from Judy Hyman, who showed me how to move my bow to make the sound I wanted. The lesson was an hour and a half long, and almost 25 years later, I’m still digging deeper into the things she showed me. I also understood that technique and bowing patterns were just part of it. The phrasing, the nuance, that took the rhythm from frantic to driving, from skittering to swinging, I was beginning to understand, had more to do with listening really hard, to my own playing and everyone around me, so that we could build the groove together.
For me, it also meant trying to play rhythms from other genres of music on the instruments of Southern fiddle music. On the banjo, I learned how to play all the rhythmic instrumental parts to James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn.” I played fiddle and banjo along to P. Funk songs until I could catch some of that band’s deep, delicious groove. I moved then to Fela Kuti, to a slew of West African recordings, and by then it wasn’t so much about copping parts as it was about feeling the differences in the way they swung their rhythms. I learned to play a little mbira—a Zimbabwean thumb piano—in the hopes that I could decipher some of those rhythm patterns and bring them into my banjo playing. I spent hours upon listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, to Willie Colón, to Al Green, to Mos Def, to the Roots, to D’Angelo, to New Orleans brass bands, to reggae, to Cuban and Mexican bands of all stripes. To the cacophony of music that poured out of open windows in the summers when I lived in New York City. To the pounding music that blasted out of tinny speakers on buses in Guatemala. Most of all, to all the people I had the luck to play with, in jam sessions and bands. Any kind of music where the rhythm drove everything, and where the music could teach me how to play better. I’m still learning.
* * *
There are things I learned from all this that I can intellectualize. I’ve learned, for example, how to think hard about just how much to swing the beat. Every beat has to have a little swing in it. If it doesn’t, it won’t make people’s hips move, it won’t make them want to dance, and this is dance music we’re playing. The swing is the motor that keeps the beat running. But it doesn’t translate that the harder the swing is, the deeper the groove is. It’s about finding the right swing, and the right speed, for the tune, for the musicians around you, for the dancers in front of you. It’s about finding that spot that brings everyone together.
All that listening has also taught me two things that might sound like they’re in tension with one another, though they’re really not. First is to always be listening for the ways that the rhythms within Southern fiddle music are unique—from tune to tune, from region to region, and from player to player. Mississippi tunes swing differently from Georgia tunes, which swing differently from Kentucky tunes, and North Carolina tunes. Willie Narmour and the Skillet Lickers and John Salyer and Tommy Jarrell and Joe Thompson didn’t really sound all that much like one another, and they didn’t play all their tunes the same way. Those differences are important to hear, whether it’s because you’re a deep traditionalist who wants to try to capture the sounds of the sources as closely as possibly, or whether you’re more like me and want to find ways to incorporate their specific approaches into your own. The astonishing diversity of musical voices in American fiddling is what makes it so rich.
But second, I find myself also listening for the ways that the music connects. So many tunes partake of the same musical parts. There is something unifying in the way different fiddlers play, as if they’re all driving toward the same end. And the best Southern fiddle music isn’t really all that far away from qawwali, or Afro-Cuban stuff, or jazz, or contemporary West African music, as it initially sounds. The intoxicating, interlocking polyrhythms of a group of drummers in Ghana or Nigeria are there in the bowing patterns and the pushing pulse of the banjo, and the way you play can leave them latent or unearth and explore them. I love the sound of a lot of players who make it smooth. But I’m here to explore. It’s still true for me that before anything else, there’s the rhythm, and I want to keep digging into it. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom. Part of me believes that if you keep digging, you break through the soil altogether, and there’s open sky below.
* * *
All of these details about polyrhythms and swing and differences in regional style coalesce in a larger question about what the music is for—why we play it, and for whom. One of the best things I’ve ever read is John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythms and African Sensibilities, a book about a man who goes to Ghana to learn to play drums, and among the glorious details about how West African music is different from Western music, there are beautiful stories about the people he meets and the lessons he learns from them. One of the key ideas in the book is a clarity Chernoff brings in discerning between artistic music and social music—not to say that music can’t be a mix of the two at all times, but just to point out that there’s a fundamental difference between, say, a cello concerto played in a concert hall and a tune that’s played for a dance. One is received as art. The other is serving a specific social purpose.
For Chernoff, Southern fiddle music would be squarely in his definition of social music. It’s music designed for dances, which is why it’s worth obsessing about how the rhythm works, technically and historically. But the journey of figuring out how to play fiddle music as well as I can has ultimately come down to questions about why I, specifically, am playing it at all. The music, after all, was doing just fine before I arrived. What do I think I’m bringing to the music? What is the point?
For me—beyond the deep pleasure from playing music of any kind, which one one level is reason enough for anyone to do it—the point is to get people to move. Tapping into and learning more about the music’s complicated history has helped me do that. So has spending countless hours just moving that bow across the string. But at the risk of getting suddenly spiritual about it, the musicians I’ve been so fortunate to play with, and the music itself, have been patiently teaching me for the past quarter-century about what my place in the music is. For about twenty years of that time, I felt like my playing was really just a loose collection of rhythmic ideas and an inchoate viewpoint that I didn’t understand very well myself. Then about five years ago—I can remember the specific day, in fact—somehow it all fell together, and I learned to play the music with a clarity I didn’t have before.
The music is drenched in its past, and lot of that is a hard story of suffering. But the tunes themselves are so often a form of ecstasy. I’ve started to understand that what I am trying to do is to use the rhythms in the music to convey both the sadness and the joy all the time, in every beat if I can. I try to reach out and connect with everyone around me, my fellow musicians and anyone who happens to be listening to us. When I’m playing as well as I really can, which only happens for about an hour a year if I’m lucky, it seems like I get a glimmer of what it might be like to step out of time and speak with the dead—all those dead—and with people who have not yet been born. When that’s happening, it feels as though I’m mostly floating above the ground, tethered to the earth by one foot. I’d love to figure out how to just lift that foot up, even for a second.