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Pauline Lerner

Magic red shoes

May 1, 2006 at 8:04 AM


When I was a kid, I read a story about a little girl who had magic red shoes. Whenever she wore them, she couldn’t stop dancing. Logic child that I was, I wondered how she could take the shoes off if she couldn’t stop dancing. Now that I’m an adult and I’ve studied science, I know that her shoes must have been a perpetual motion machine.

I recently got another perpetual motion machine – a book called The Craig Duncan Master Fiddle Solo Collection. When I open the book, I can’t stop playing my fiddle. In fact, I don’t even have to open the book or take my fiddle out of its case. I hear the music playing in my head, and I’ve got to take out my fiddle and play it. I was led to this book by my desire to learn to play more bluegrass fiddle tunes. Of course, I have my well worn copy of The Fiddler’s Fakebook. In fact, it is so well worn that the pages are falling out, and I had to buy a new copy recently. The Fakebook is a great place to start, but after a while, the arrangements seem too simple and boring. Not all the tunes in The Master Fiddle Solo Collection are bluegrass tunes, but they’re all fun, and, as the editor of the book says, “[This tune] is played by many fiddlers of various backgrounds.” For instance, “Miss McLeod’s Reel” is described as Old Time-Celtic. I first learned this tune as, strangely enough, a Scottish tune called “Miss McLeod’s Reel.” It’s also called “Hop Light Ladies” and “Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?” If you say, “Did you ever see the devil, Uncle Joe,” you’ve got the rhythm, just as “Mississippi Hot Dog” morphs into Twinkle. What’s even more fun about this book is the variations on each tune – rhythm variations, bowing variations, and ornaments of many kinds. It’s amazing how many different ways you can play a single tune with only twelve notes of the chromatic scale and (usually) one key signature and one time signature. Even a rudimentary knowledge of harmony (Circle of Fifths, arpeggios, major and minor thirds) can enable you to do so many fun things with a tune. Bluegrass fiddle tunes use a lot of double stops; drones with open strings or fourth finger; unisons of open string and fourth finger; shifting positions, often with double stops; octave jumps; runs of eighth notes interspersed with triplets; slides; broken arpeggios; and shuffles (patterns of variations of bowing and rhythm which are hard to describe and great to hear). In fact, some of this music is downright pyrotechnical. I have a new infatuation with rags, polkas, and blues. I love the sentimental country waltzes, which are like the poor girls’ versions of graceful minuets.

Some of the tunes, like Blackberry Blossom, are so pretty even without ornaments that they keep bubbling through me long after I should be asleep. I go to the living room, take my mandolin down from the wall, and play the tune softly. Music is the best perpetual motion machine ever invented.

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