When we think of the rich folk music tradition of the United States, we tend to think of its origins along the coastal spine of the Appalachian Mountain range, our memories mired in the influences of Tennessee's black banjo musicians of the late 1800s or the traditions of the ballads of the Western Carolinas, where folk music’s roots are at their deepest and richest.
But here in Upstate New York and particularly, in the Southern Tier of the state, we have our own form of folk music distinctive from those dotting the rest of the mountain range, a legacy which, since 1989, has been celebrated each summer in a festival on the southern shore of Seneca Lake.
Beginning at noon on Saturday, June 16 at Watkins Glen’s Lakewood Vineyards, the Arts Council Of The Southern Finger Lakes will be hosting its 39th Annual Fiddler’s Gathering, a celebration of the of the region’s distinct identity and musical tradition. A derivative form of modern country music, the form personifies a the story of America itself, with respect to the heritage of a young nation of immigrants finding their voice in a new world in the rapid westward settlement of New York State after the Revolutionary War. The form combines a variety of styles from assorted European and African influences, including English ballads, Irish and Scottish traditional music, African-American blues and more religious songs. However in New York State, traditional folk music here is tied to a more danceable style, popularized in the barn dances and grange gatherings of several centuries ago which derive from the traditions carried to the New World by British settlers in the 19th Century.
According to an essay on the subject by American folklorist Simon Bronner, favorite dances included jigs, reels, contra dances, cotillions (forerunner of the square dance), quadrilles, minuets and hornpipes – universally known tunes among the new crop that could easily be led by a fiddle-playing bandleader among the monotonous labors of harvest season or the work bees of the era. The British fiddle tune, wrote Bronner, was “almost free of syncopation” with the notes of the melody “brief and distinct” with a “clear, lilting quality.”
“Although many of the tunes used in America came from British sources, American musicians did put their own stylistic stamp on them,” Bronner wrote. “American performances tended to take away the ornamentation common to the British originals. Americans also regularized the beat and gave the music a bounciness in place of the drones common in many British tunes.
In the numerous repetitions of the tune, with perhaps slight variations around the melody in each strain, fiddlers drew praise for their precision and consistency. The style lent itself to the demands of performing country dances through a long winter's night and to duets with a fife or another fiddle.” (For further reading, check out James Kimball’s 2003 article in the Journal of New York Folklore, which outlines the history of the genre’s evolution quite efficiently.)
It’s a tradition that the Arts Council has, for nearly four decades now, been a reliable steward of.
When it started in 1989, the Fiddler’s Gathering was a smaller fair of traditional upstate New York fiddlers, held at Watkins Glen State Park with just a few hundred people attending. Since moving to Lakewood Vineyard several years ago, the event has blossomed into a calendar-marking event for nearly 1,400 attendees over the weekend. Though it was started specifically to celebrate New York’s distinct folk heritage, the festival has since opened the door to all types of folk music, representing all styles from Irish folk to more modern iterations of classic styles.
“We try to make room for all of them,” Maria Kennedy, the council’s folklorist and the festival’s organizer said. “But we still feature that more traditional Upstate New York style.”
While the preservation of the region’s cultural identity is the primary focus, cultural diffusion is encouraged there as well, and a jam tent will be open on-premises for anyone with any musical inclinations to join in. There, the musicians will often crossing boundaries to bring new elements to otherwise concrete musical traditions, offering up hybrids of the old world with influences as diverse as Nordic folk music to the salsas and tangos more familiar to the populations of Latin America.
“We want people to come and play themselves,” said Kennedy. “It’s not just a festival about coming to watch other people. We encourage people to come and play in the jam tent, listen to music and make new, like-minded friends and really participate.”
Beyond the area’s musical traditions, Kennedy notes organizers have been trying to get more arts and crafts as well as cultural demonstrations incorporated throughout the weekend, including the Corning-based group Seven Generations – a Southern Tier Native American cultural group named for the Iroquois philosophy to live several generations ahead of the present when making decisions – and a banjo luthier on-site to demonstrate the construction of one of these instruments. The festival’s central aim is to acknowledge and honor the art forms that make everyone’s everyday lives significant and special, she said, solidifying the traditions that lend themselves to an area’s identity and culture and helping to amplify their practitioners who may otherwise fall under the radar.
Beyond the traditional amenities – wine tasting on-site as well as numerous food vendors – the original perk is in the cost of the event: The event is free and anyone can come (though a $5 donation is suggested). For a full schedule, visit earts.org/programs/music-performance/fiddlers-gathering-2017