Editor’s Note: This week, Ovations welcomes Grammy nominated Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey to our classical music series on Tuesday, February 18. Avital is an Israeli mandolinist who specializes in renditions of both the Baroque classical repertory and—given his instrument—folk traditions. He has moved over his career from mandolin transcriptions of violin and fiddle music to focusing on and premiering works specifically written for mandolin. Throughout their history, mandolins have been featured in traditional and folk music, so we thought we’d connect this program to Maine’s strong stringed folk traditions.
“…he laid a plan to get up a frolic at a public house and suitable persons were employed to invite the lads and lasses for a country dance. […] Having but one fiddler and the company being large, it became necessary to have dancing in more than one room, I was selected by some of the officers, to sing for some of the dancers…”
— Sailor Andrew Sherburne, writing of an event in York, Maine 1780
As this quote suggests, Maine has a long, rich, and varied tradition of folk music — or, perhaps it would be better to say “traditions.” Since colonization, the Pine Tree State has been home to a wealth of ballad singers, songmakers, Yankee, French & Irish fiddlers, Christian psalmodists, and Shaker singers. Mainers have written songs and sung about their work in the woods, on the sea, on farms, and in factories. They’ve played their fiddles for dances in community halls, for their co-workers in lumber camps, for audiences across the country on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, and at folk festivals near and far in the 21st century. They’ve sung and played pieces brought from their original homelands, and composed many more based on their lives here in Maine. They’ve written and sung about naval victories and maritime disasters, about heroism and tragedy in the lumber industry, about work and hardship in textile factories.
In the mid-1920s a diminutive fiddling snowshoe maker named Mellie Dunham, from the town of Norway, caught the attention of industrialist Henry Ford and became the toast of the nation. This notoriety set off a nationwide craze for fiddling contests and focused all eyes on Maine for a few months. In more recent times, four Maine musicians – three fiddlers and a Shaker sister who was a living repository of the songs of her order — have been named National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor our nation bestows upon our traditional artists. Mainers have crafted fiddles, guitars, mandolins, and banjos for backyard players, and for some of our leading instrumentalists.
Today Maine boasts one of the most active traditional music communities in the U.S. Irish music sessions flourish in pubs in the large cities. Music camps held in various corners of the state offer eager students the opportunity to learn from master musicians. Concerts in homes and churches offer aficionados the opportunity to hear favorite artists in intimate settings. Contradances continue to flourish in towns, large and small. Fiddleicious, a community orchestra led by National Heritage Fellows Don & Cindy Roy, boasts a membership of close to 140 players of all levels. Traditional musicians from Maine are well-represented on recordings—many done in studios located in the state—and numerous programs of traditional music can be heard regularly over the airwaves of Maine radio stations.
Fiddleicious. Pictured: Don Roy, second from right
As we observe our state’s bicentennial this year, let us especially celebrate the rich heritage of traditional music that is such a significant part of Maine’s culture. It is yet another way in which Maine leads the way!
–Paul F. Wells
Paul F. Wells of Kennebunk is a folklorist, musicologist, and fiddler. He is the founding director (emeritus) of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, and is a past-president of the Society for American Music. He has published extensively on a wide variety of topics in American Music, with traditional fiddling at the heart of his research. In addition to his academic work he spent several years in the record business; three of his productions were nominated for Grammy awards.