Long Live The Fiddler

By Dave Sheridan

“God protect me from a bad neighbour and a beginner an the flddIe”!! Thus runs the sentiment on one of those daily calendars where each day has a different printed witticism. Certainly, for some, the fiddle conjures up images of auld lads or small children scratching their way through some unfortunate piece of music; the position of the fingers leading to a totally idiosyncratic scale, bearing little resemblance to any accepted scale of notes.

But not me! What other instrument can adapt itself to such a wide range of musical genres? From classical to folk, jazz to rock, the fiddle has the ability to electrify the nerve endings with exhilaration or fill the heart with melancholy. Old King Cole loved the instrument and kept a trio of fiddlers close at hand. Charles 2nd of England put together a band of 24 of the world’s finest fiddlers for his entertainment. I don’t know if it’s a reflection on any of the fiddle players here for the fleadh that the fiddle is the instrument reputedly favoured by ‘Old Nick’, the devil himself!

The fiddle has always had a favoured position in Traditional Irish music circles. It is one of the few instruments that you can have more than one of in a session. Indeed, a number of accomplished fiddlers add to the sound of any session. Remember waiting to gain entrance to a pub during an All-Ireland fleadh. I met a man making his way out. On asking him what the session was like inside, he replied, “It’s absolutely brilliant! There’s a forest of fiddles in there!”

Not alone can the dexterity of the fiddler’s fingers excite the listener with jigs, reels or hompipes, the fiddle can also evoke a very sensitive and sometimes mournful sound. Even our dance tunes, played in a certain way, can have that ‘lonesome note’ that slightly sad nuance paradoxically adding to the spirit of the dance tune.

Fiddle players have always been adaptable and inventive.The great Padraig O’Keeffe put a large key in his mouth and rested the other end on the bridge producing a ‘wailing’ sound while playing a particularly plaintive slow air. This sound imitated the crying of a baby. Other fiddle players adjust the tuning of their fiddles to achieve different drone effects.This may not happen here as much as with our Tennessee and Kentucky cousins (some of those ancestors learned their fiddling from early Irish settlers!). It is not unknown for fiddle players to both play and dance at the same time. Try this with the pipes or piano accordion!!

So, to finish, I would like to quote the 19th century writer,William Carleton, who said of the fiddler:

What a host of light hearted associations are reviewed by that living fountain of fun and frolic, and Irish fiddler. Everything connected with him is agreeable, pleasant, jolly.

Long Live the Fiddler!