Written on July 2, 2011 – 11:11 am | by Cameron Hussey
In a region fixated on everything new, there’s still room for something old.
San Jose’s Rose Garden Park was filled with the jaunty twangs of a fiddle jam session Sunday afternoon, an apt prelude to Monday’s Fourth of July celebrations.
The musicians, members of the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association, billed as the state’s only independent fiddlers organization, gathered under a small grove of redwood trees and played tunes that the body just can’t resist wanting to move to. Fiddle jams include not just the fiddle, but also a number of other acoustic instruments, including guitar, double bass and mandolin.
“It’s American music — Saturday-night-relaxing-time music,” said Charlotte Prater, a trustee of the association, who broke into a jig as five or more clusters of musicians picked up bows and picked at banjos, producing an array of blues-country-swing-and-old-time fiddle tunes.
“It has upbeat rhythms, but some of the songs are the saddest songs you’ve ever heard in your life,” she said. —’Oh, Daddy, please don’t go to the mine today. I’ve had such a terrible dream.’ There are songs about children dying and soldiers dying. It’s emotional music.”
The music itself, though, is upbeat — a musical metaphor of the resilient spirit of early Americans and others who overcome hardship and heartache to build a new country and work through individual struggles.
The fiddle provided the soundtrack of the growth and yearnings of a young America. Early settlers embraced the portable and rugged instruments. And while devotees of the art form are apt to refer to fiddling as “old-time” music, its tempo is still very much a part of the nation’s landscape.
One doesn’t have to be westward bound in a covered wagon to enjoy its foot-jumping beats. Today, its timeless tunes attract players from 8 to 80.
As the jam was getting started, Robin Gau and her three daughters showed up to join in.
“I like how it’s very fast, very lively music,” said 12-year-old Zoe Wu just before she and her family pulled violins out of their cases.
“It’s so happy,” Gau said. “It’s a group thing. It gets people going. But it’s never too rowdy. It’s wholesome.”
The association, which aims to promote the genre, holds annual youth fiddle contests. It performs the first Sunday of every month, usually at nearby Hoover Middle School, but moves its venue to the park in July and August. The group sponsors several training sessions for young people with a professional musician every year, said Richard Brooks, president of the 38-year-old fiddlers association that has as many as 200 members.
“The goal is for us to have fun,” he said.
Just before Christmas, $4,000 worth of speakers, microphones and mixers were stolen from the group’s San Jose storage locker. The nonprofit organization, which relies on donations, hopes to buy new equipment before its annual youth fiddle contest on Nov. 6.
Fiddle jam sessions are relaxed, free-flowing events. Each musician in a group gets a turn at choosing the tune. Players frequently shift from group to group.
“It’s totally disorganized,” Prater said. “If a jam gets too big, it breaks up” as some players drift over to other groups.
On Sunday, dozens of lovers of fiddling set up lawn chairs under the canopy of redwood branches to listen to the soothing tunes on a hot summer day.
“It’s perfect summer music,” said Mirell Fayne, who just recently fell in love with the folksy music. “You couldn’t ask for more. You have the Rose Garden and the musicians. It’s simple, acoustic, relaxing. It’s a treat.”
She’s taken on a personal task to promote fiddle music.
“It’s always the new that makes the conversation,” Fayne said. “There should be a way to make this known. I’m sure a lot of people would be interested. There’s a lot to learn about it. It’s amazing to hear it live.”
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496.
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