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Fiddle Singing

I noticed early on in my fiddling days that if someone attempted to engage me in conversation whilst I was actually playing, I was physically and mentally incapable of speaking a single word in reply unless I actually stopped playing. I was more than impressed, therefore, when I first encountered Pete Cooper at the Islington Folk Club back in the 80’s, effortlessly singing and playing simultaneously. To me this was a rare and impressive feat, and it would be many years before I even attempted such a thing myself. In the last 20 years or so it has become increasingly common, particularly on the English folk scene, to see singers accompanying themselves on the fiddle, so I thought it would be interesting to look into the history of this practice, see in which other musical cultures it happens, and examine some of the practical challenges it involves.

The idea of singing and playing simultaneously is very natural with some instruments.- guitar and piano being the obvious examples. With the guitar, many people will sing and play from day one without much difficulty. With the fiddle it is by no means so straightforward. Firstly, there is the physical problem that the standard way to play is with the jaw clamped tightly on the chinrest, helping to support the instrument. This makes it difficult if not impossible to sing at the same time. The solution is to abandon the approved classical posture, and lower the fiddle from the chin. Eliza Carthy, one of the foremost practitioners of this particular art, drops the fiddle a couple of inches so that it is supported only by the left hand and collarbone. The instrument is clearly less stable in this position, but the patterns played in accompaniment are usually far less demanding than when playing melodies, so this is not such a problem. What is more important is that lowering the fiddle allows the head to be held in a free and natural position, with the jaw unrestricted.

Ideally you will have two interchangeable postures- one for singing and one for playing. This is clear in the playing of Seth Lakeman. On a song such as Bold Knight you can see that in the slightly more complex phrases which he plays between vocal lines, the fiddle comes up and the chin goes down, giving more control over the instrument. I asked Seth about his posture:

“It's a difficult process as the violin is jammed into the side of your neck, it can restrict the way you sing. You have to sing above the instrument. It really has moulded the loud singing style that I have today”

 

Roger Wilson keeps the fiddle in the same slightly downward tilted position, but the head raises whenever he sings.

For an extreme fiddle singing posture look at “Brid Fiddler” Jim Eldon, who holds the fiddle way down on his chest, allowing for little in the way of accuracy or virtuosity, but allowing a very relaxed delivery.

 

Fiddle Singing in English Folk

Some years ago it occurred to me that whilst fiddle singing was on the rise on the English folk scene, it was very rare in Ireland or Scotland. Naturally I wondered why this might be, and Roger Wilson gave me a very plausible explanation- namely that whilst the Celtic nations have a virtuosic fiddle tradition, England, by and large, does not. Whilst Ireland and Scotland have their Aly Bains, Frankie Gavins and Kevin Burkes, there is really no easy way for an English style fiddler to front a band and become a star on the folk scene. To become a “name” in England it is a big advantage to be able to sing as well.

Jon Boden also pointed out to me that the rather rough and ready quality of English fiddling is more suited to fiddle singing than the more sophisticated celtic styles;

“There’s something quite rough and raw about fiddle singing which is a defining characteristic of English folk. This marks it out as something different from the Irish and Scottish- they are a lot more precise and technically advanced, whereas we have cloven to a more aggressive sort of style which doesn’t worry so much about technical precision. In that respect it’s similar to Old Time music, which is the other place where fiddle singing is a big thing. Here again it’s all about the energy and swagger of it, with less emphasis on intonation or technical precision”

Old Time American Fiddle Singing

Fiddle singing is certainly much more common in Old Time American music. In the Appalachians there has long been a tradition of fiddle singing- a particularly useful accomplishment in the days when a fiddler often played for a dance on his own, calling and singing along as required. Simple songs such as Old Joe Clark and Cluck Old Hen lend themselves easily to unison fiddle singing, and the drones and shuffles used in this style lend themselves naturally to accompaniment. As in England, Old Time fiddle is much less virtuosic than, for example, bluegrass. High speed and position changing are rarely called for, so that the limitations of off-the-chin playing are not a problem. One of the best known fiddle singers in this tradition is Bruce Molsky, a regular visitor to these shores. I asked him about the complex and intertwining vocal and melodic lines he uses:

“Complex fiddling and singing together are not that common in the tradition, but there are some who did: James Howard, Jess Morris, WL Bandy, Jim Bowles and Dennis McGee were some who used strong fiddle elements alongside of singing. Tommy Jarrell chorded behind sung verses but more simply. My approach is built on a few different things, including using voice and fiddle together to harmonize and move chords, making rhythm or combining voice and fiddle melodies in unison. I’ve used these in different combinations to build arrangements. It’s all been a personal invention over many years, and I keep discovering new things and challenges to test and try. I’m not done yet.”

 

Many of the older folk fiddles, predating the viol and rebec were played upside down, resting on the chest or knee; examples include the Cretan Lyra, Bulgarian Gadulka, Chinese Erhu, African Rebab and so on. These instruments , because of their playing position, do not pose any problems for singing. The one- string Serbian Gusle is used to accompany epic ballads. Indeed the Serb war leader Radovan Karadzic during his many years in hiding, used to perform on the gusle in disguise, sitting in front of posters of himself, singing epic ballads of his own exploits.

As the rebec and viol began to come into use in medieval times, at some point the playing position was reversed, but old pictures and engravings suggest that they were often played low down on the chest, and that the modern day “approved” posture did not arrive until the development of the violin and its use as an “art” rather than folk instrument. There was a long tradition in England of singing “broadside ballads” – basically the news headlines set to music- to the accompaniment of the fiddle. The English folk fiddle tradition virtually died out in the mid to late 19thC, so that when the folk revival got underway in the 50’s and 60’s, there was little in the way of role models either for virtuosic fiddling, or fiddle singing. Much of what we hear today is a rather haphazard reinvention, with individual artists more or less working out the possibilities for themselves.

Pete Cooper told me that in his early days he learned many songs from books, and would play fiddle as he was reading the dots in order to pitch himself and work out the tune. This gradually evolved into his own form of fiddle accompaniment- a mixture of unison melody and other forms of backing.

Seth Lakeman was inspired to try fiddle singing by watching Tom McConville, while for Jon Boden it was Barry Dransfield;

“The way I did it was to learn a specific song and arrangement by Barry Dransfield. I learned the fiddle part separate to the singing part and then I just had to lock myself away in a room for two days and keep hammering away at it until I was able to do both at the same time.

My own experience comes from many years of playing with singer guitarists- at first just playing fiddle, then alternating with backing vocals, and finally, and very slowly, learning to do the two simultaneously. What genuine fiddle singers do is more challenging, since it often involves the fiddle providing all, rather than part of the accompaniment, and the vocals are at the forefront rather than just a line here and there.

So what, apart from the simple and obvious unison, are the techniques available to a fiddle singer? Most straightforward is to play long drones- ideally two notes at a time, to give an approximation of the chord sequence. Drones can alternate with more complex melodic fills between vocal lines, and many of the best players will weave effortlessly between drone, unison melody and counterpoint melody. With a little thought and mental dexterity, you can also harmonise the melody that you are singing.

I asked Jon Boden about his different accompaniment techniques;

“Spiccato is something I have done quite a lot of. A sort of rhythmical bounce. Works very nicely when playing with another instrument (eg melodion). Gives a nice percussive attack. When playing by yourself the fiddle has to be more simple. Drones, double stopping, open fifth drones seem to be the best thing; plus unison and harmony. You can move between these three seamlessly, without even arranging it. You can be quite improvisatory with it. Rhythmic patterns have to be very repetitive, or else it gets too disjointed. Simple arpeggios work nicely, or simple shuffles, but nothing too complicated or contrapuntal.”

 

Some fiddlers take a very rhythmic approach. Seth Lakeman, in particular, aims for a driving and energetic backing, frequently using a syncopated 123,123,12 shuffle pattern behind his vocal lines.

Fiddle Chopping

One of the most interesting new approaches to rhythm fiddling is the technique of ”chopping” developed by bluegrass fiddlers Richard Greene and Darol Anger. The simple off the beat downward chop has evolved rapidly into a highly complex series of rhythm patterns which involves both melody notes and dead “scratch” notes which are purely percussive, achieved by scraping the bow forwards or backwards across the string, at right angles to the normal direction of movement. The most influential player to use this in a fiddle singing context is the American Casey Driessen. His “Working on a building” video will astound you if haven’t come across chopping before. Particularly impressive is his infamous “triple chop”.

 

The best UK exponent I have come across of this technique is Kate Young in Scotland. Songs such as “Push and Spark “and “Green and Gold” are built around mesmeric repeated chopping patterns, sometimes involving a unique “squeak” sound achieved by bringing the bow right up to the bridge.

 

Kate told be that she first learned chopping and fiddle singing from American fiddler Laura Cortese;

“She came to my university (Newcastle Folk Degree) and gave a workshop, and then I also got some private lessons from her at the Uni. From the first time I saw and heard this, I finally realised this could be a way for me to bring together my previously disparate practises of fiddle-playing

Her advice on fiddle accompaniment is

“Try to be inventive, adventurous but if it is someone else singing a regular folk song, don’t overcrowd it! Be conscious of dynamics of course – same rules that would apply to any other type of accompanying instrument. But the fiddle has the ability to be in the forefront too of course, so have fun playing with the boundaries!”

I’ll give the last word to Pete Cooper. In an article on this subject in Fiddler Magazine in 2008. He pointed out perhaps the most extreme example he knew of virtuosic fiddle singing; Nancy Kerr’s version of Dance to your Daddy, which she sings whilst simultaneously playing an unrelated reel. However, he points out that, at a basic level, fiddle singing is not such an amazing feat;

”Probably it’s just one of those things that would come naturally to more people if nobody insisted on telling them how hard it is!”

 

 

(This article first appeared in Living Tradition magazine)

 

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