Treasure trove for fiddlers

The Fiddle Handbook by Chris Haigh. Published by Backbeat Books, £19.95. Ringbound hardback with two CDs.

The author’s introduction says it all: “This book answers once and for all the hoary old question ‘What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?’ The answer, of course, is that fiddle players have more fun. They’re the rascals, rogues, chancers and jokers of the violin world. They answer to no composer or conductor, and they make up their own rules. They play from the heart, from memory, from the noisiest corner of the pub.”

That’s what this book is all about; the world is full of fiddlers sawing away at Celtic, American, gypsy, blues, jazz, or everything in between. It’s a treasure trove of information spanning the whole range of the instrument, its relatives worldwide, their history, and a similarly wide range of styles and music.

Chris Haigh, from Huddersfield originally, is a respected and versatile fiddle player, composer, teacher and writer – as this work amply demonstrates. Early chapters take us through the development of the instrument and the basics of playing it, after which there are no fewer than 13 chapters each on the history, tunes and techniques of a distinct branch of the art. Each chapter concludes with a tutorial on the style in question, with notated examples to practice. In a sleeve at the back are two CDs, covering everything, so the author can actually be heard demonstrating all the tricks of these various musical “trades”.

Now, while I’m not much of a fiddler, I’ve long been interested in fiddling and fiddle music, and I can willingly state that this book is a ground-breaking, epoch-making work, unique in its treatment of the subject, and unlikely ever to be surpassed. In short, it’s a classic. Pretty much everything a fiddle player needs to know, or should know, about his or her native fiddle style is here, along with clear easy-to-understand tuition on all the other fiddle styles you’ll encounter in a lifetime of playing.

Non-fiddlers like me will find the comprehensive and detailed histories of the worldwide styles extremely interesting. Chris Haigh’s style is easy, almost laid-back, with an abundance of dry humour and some delightful yet though-provoking comment, and a wealth of super stories and anecdotes of the players all through the book. He’s fearless with criticism where he sees it appropriate, as for example on Scott Skinner: “… he introduced a strong element of elitism and snobbery, encouraging showy technique over emotion. When Irish fiddling today is compared to Scottish fiddling, much of the difference in contrast and approach can be put down to the influence of Skinner”.

Discussing the famed English musicologist Cecil Sharp, he notes: “When Cecil Sharp began to record and revive the rural dance tradition, he was already a couple of gener­ations too late, and even what little was left was only partially preserved. His collecting ignored what was left of the step-dancing tradition, and failed to reflect the diversity of repertoire of many players. He had no interest in the Newcastle hornpipe fiddle tradition, probably the most exciting and vibrant survival of English fiddling.”

I particularly enjoyed his accounts of what is revealed to be a common historical pattern – the decline of nearly every folk music tradition in its homeland, a period of stagnation often followed by its discovery by classical composers, and then a varying but usually sucessful post-war revival. While Tom Anderson laboured to save and rebuild our Shetland tradition many others did exactly the same elsewhere but the English fiddle tradition behaved differently, as the author records. Its decline is acutely analysed and its slow and hesitant revival outlined with the evident sadness of one whose native traditional music has not fared nearly so well as that in most other places. The developments – commercialisation, perhaps – that grew out of the various playing traditions are equally fascinating to learn, particularly in America – the land of invented tradition where, out of “old time”, emerged bluegrass, hillbilly, western swing and country – each one a title coined by recording and broadcasting moguls to suit a new musical sensation. As a distinct fiddling region of Scotland, Shetland receives honourable and generally suitable mention in the book: Tom Anderson, Aly Bain, Catriona MacDonald, Skyinbow fiddles.

One omission puzzled me, though: although Cape Breton fiddling is well covered, the rest of Canada is ignored. I would have thought the likes of Graham Townsend and Jean Carrignon were worth a mention, at least.

Otherwise, as I stated earlier, this is a fantastic book of its kind, a classic. It puts traditional fiddle-playing properly in a world-wide context, and gives it a sociological respect long overdue in many quarters. A copy should be in the Santie-sock of every young fiddler, for it gives valuable advice and affords fiddlers a valuable technical insight into other fiddle styles. Perhaps my favourite pearl of wisdom in the book comes early on, in discussing Irish pub sessions: “… if the other players are plodding carefully through ‘The Boys of Bluehill’ at half the normal speed, they may not be impressed if you launch into a high-powered ‘Mason’s Apron’ with all the trimmings … the general aim is to find a level at which most of the players can join in together”.

Chris Haigh knows his stuff, and has imparted it with ease; the world of traditonal fiddling is in his debt. Repay him by buying his book in vast numbers.

Charlie Simpson


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