Below is a photo of this author standing with Alasdair Fraser at a Highland Games event. Though I originally published this basic story in 2012, much has happened since, and so I offer this newer version of the story of the fiddle.
Roots and Rhythms No. 2
James A. McQuiston
Perhaps no other instrument does a better job than the fiddle in connecting the ancient countries of Scotland and Ireland with the “New World.” For centuries the fiddler served as a one-man-band for dance music in small communities from the northern British Isles to North America. Today, the fiddle is still typically the lead instrument at music sessions and Celtic concerts, and for one very good reason . . . it is loud! It is also an extremely soulful instrument.
The violin or fiddle first appeared in Italy in the 1500s. It slowly spread north and began filling a gap in Celtic music between the equally loud but limited bagpipes, and the softer sounding harp. By the 1700s the fiddle had spread into even the most remote corners of Scotland and Ireland.
The bagpipes have a short range of available notes. They made an incredible weapon of war and are the only instrument that has ever been outlawed as such. The harp, though popular as an accompaniment for singers, didn’t have the volume or the ability to create a percussive rhythm to serve as a lead instrument for dancing purposes, or in leading a group of musicians. When bagpipes were outlawed, many pipe tunes were converted to fiddle tunes.
The fiddle reigned supreme and one could be found in nearly every Scottish or Irish household, until its popularity was temporarily subdued by a combination of sadness over emigration to America and an evangelism that swept these countries during the later half of the 1700s. On the Isle of Skye, in 1805, a “veritable mountain of bagpipes and fiddles” was burned in response to the evangelistic spirit. However, this favored instrument would not die.
Not only was the fiddle found to be sufficiently loud, percussive when needed, and possessing a wide range of available musical notes, it was also compact and easily manufactured. No wonder it was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
The question is often asked about the difference between a violin and a fiddle. There is no difference – they are exactly the same instrument. However, there are differences in how they are played. One old saying tells us, “A fiddle is a violin with an attitude.”
Many rules that were followed by violinists were bent along the way, as players began using the fiddle for folk music. One simple example is the “double-stop” or the playing of two notes at the same time. This technique is seldom found in violin pieces but is quite common in so-called “Irish” playing. There is a physical attribute that is sometimes given as the difference between a violin and a fiddle. In order to achieve smoother doublestops, fiddlers will sometimes flatten the bridge of a fiddle to allow the strings to lie a little more on the same plane with each other, thus making it easier to achieve the two-note sound.
Bluegrass and Appalachian styles of fiddling, based on old Ulster techniques, tend to use the double-stop more often than Irish or Cape Breton style players, though I have heard many a fiddler play these two-note “chords” on their instruments quite intentionally, and quite well, no matter the folk style.
And, I have been lucky enough to hear some of the world’s best.
I have attended two concerts by Cape Breton’s great Natalie MacMaster, and spent time in her homeland listening to many other great Nova Scotian players. She even appeared on the cover of Celtic Guide, and was interviewed inside the magazine.
Also appearing on a Celtic Guide cover, and in an accompanying interview, was the great Bonnie Rideout, whose soulful style would melt any heart.
I even spent parts of a three-day weekend with Scotland’s fiddle ambassador, Alasdair Fraser, and am proud to say I have met and shaken the hand of these three fiddling geniuses, as well as many other top level fiddlers.
Throughout Scotland and Ireland various fiddling styles developed, which were brought to America. Alasdair Fraser is one of the leading fiddlers in the world. I watched him demonstrate very specific styles found in America and relate them directly to the communities or locales in Scotland or Ireland where they developed.
I have also attended concerts by fiddle champs Jeremy Kittel and Melinda Crawford, and have had a host of fiddlers in my own family stretching back at least seven generations that we know of, and on both sides of the family. I own some very fine fiddles myself, and it is almost a sin how bad I sound on them. But they are beauts, having been the main axes of my Uncle Clayton, who was well-known regionally as the "Deacon."
In Charles Hanna’s 1902 two-volume work on the Scotch-Irish there is one page of particular interest to me. He quotes from Reverend David McClure’s diary, Pittsburgh, PA, 1772: “[December] 10th. Thursday, preached at Mr. James McQuiston’s, near the head of Sewickley Creek, Mount Pleasant Township.” James, my direct ancestor, was a spy during the Revolutionary War for the Colonial Army.
McClure continues: “It was a scene of wild and confused merriment. They were dancing to the music of a fiddle.”
My great grandfather played the fiddle. My grandfather played the fiddle in beer parlors while his oldest daughter accompanied him on guitar. Even my father played a bit at dances. So far, I've dropped the ball, although I have a niece who picked it back up again, playing the old fiddle tunes and reminding the whole family of the days and music gone by.
Another old saying is that, “A violin sings, a fiddle dances!” The fiddle has provided innumerable hours of dancing enjoyment over the centuries. This saying is also due, in part, to the percussive styles of fiddle playing not often found in violin pieces.
Fiddle music can be bold and exciting or mellow and haunting. It is a great joy to watch a seasoned player perform “tricks” with the bow, bouncing here, drawing it long there, sawing away at the strings one minute, and then quietly creating vibrato on a single note.
One especially wonderful description of the joy of listening to a fiddle is to be found in an article, in an 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly –
“Fiddle! He’d about break your heart with them tunes of his, or else set your heels flying up the floor in a jig, though you was minister o’ the First Parish and all wound up for a funeral prayer. It used to seem to me summer nights, when I was comin’ along the plains road, and he set by the window playin’, as if there was a bewitched human creatur’ in that old red fiddle o’ his. He could make it sound just like a woman’s voice tellin’ somethin’ over and over, as if folks could help her out o’ her sorrows if she could only make ‘em understand. How he would twirl off them jigs and dance tunes! He used to make somethin’ han’some out of 'em in fall an’ winter, playin’ at huskins and dancin’ parties. He’d got the gift, that’s all you could say about it.”
Perhaps that is all you can say about it!