I grew up from the Northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I still live. My parents spent a lot of time at the Bluemont contradances and my dad was a fiddle player, so I saw pretty clearly how much fun could be had with music and dance. I started playing the fiddle and percussion around age 12 (maybe?) and was lucky enough to have access to a lot of people at home and around Washington D.C. who went out of their way to make experiences fun for me and create opportunities for me to play. There were several of us playing traditional Irish music that the grown-ups used to book as The Next Generation. Through the generosity of people like Trish Callahan and Jesse Winch (and our folks, of course), we played dances and festivals, took trips to Ireland, played at the White House and Smithsonian. It was impossible to know at the time what a privilege those things were.
So, even now, my most satisfying experiences with music are with people whose focus is on the the sheer fun and play of music and dance, and the active enabling and encouraging of others to play and dance more.
For many years I’ve played with a diverse and inspiring bunch of people who meet for an annual tour under the name Childsplay, led by violin-maker Bob Childs.
I’m also a member of The Hot Seats, with whom I’ve travelled more than I can remember. We play old stringband music and honky tonk, and seem committed, for better or worse, to using a mix of pure musical inspiration and personal pathology as our only tools for success.
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Those two groups have led me to think a lot about the different experiences of music for performance and music for private enjoyment.
I still also play traditional Irish music, and love getting to be a part of the DC Irish music community—most notably playing for the unbelievable bunch of sean-nós dancers that have sprouted up there, and being on staff at CCE’s Musical Arts and Dance (MAD) week that happens in Bethesda in the Summer.
That’s a lot of big music talk, but the truth is that I spend most of my time doing (and then recovering from) carpentry and masonry. And besides that I sing a lot of shape-note music and occasionally help organize singings from The Shenandoah Harmony and The Sacred Harp. I take particular delight in our area’s history of shape-note singing and how it really helps color in our understanding of the singing and dancing and playing we do.
The fiddle player Graham references as the source for Old Sledge, Ed Fowler, lived in Clay City, Kentucky – not far from Winchester, Kentucky. He and Bill DeZarn we fiddle players and dance musicians from the mid 1920’s until Bill’s death in 1953. That span covered a range of music – the early years, when they would play any and every type of music they encountered: fiddle tunes, hymns, blues, popular songs from the radio, through the beginnings of bluegrass, to the later period where bluegrass was where the work/money were to be found. Ed told me that what became bluegrass they called “hot fiddlin'” when it was first developing. Late in his music career, he went by the name Bluegrass Eddie. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows any more of Ed Fowler’s music. Graham really captures the feel in that tune, complete with those shivery double-stops. -Joe DeZarn