Alan Jabbour Visits Providence

Alan Jabbour Visits Providence

Nov 2, 2005

Matt McConeghy


Alan Jabbour has been visiting for a few days at Brown University's Music Department --  this visit was instigated and organized by Brown Graduate student James Ruchala with the support of Professor Jeff Titon -- thanks are certainly due to James for arranging the visit and for generously sharing Alan with the community in a public lecture, workshop and concert. I've been told that about 50 people attended the afternoon lecture, and when I attended the workshop it was full, mostly with enthusiastic Brown students. The concert was also well attended; to my knowledge, at least 20 fiddlers were in the concert audience, from beginners to long-time fiddlers to symphony level violinists.


At heart, Alan is not a virtuoso fiddler in the mold of a Bruce Molsky, Natalie McMaster or Mark O'Connor, and the concert had only one piece - Mony Musk -- which could in any sense be seen as a tour de force. Most of the tunes Alan played were just ordinary fiddle tunes such as any good fiddler would play, yet the audience listened with rapt attention. There were clearly many to whom tunes such as Over the Waterfall, Dinah, Ebenezer or Texas were carrying a profound extra level of meaning when coming from this revered figure. Without him, these tunes, and many others widely played such as Kitchen Girl, Frosty Morning, Quince Dillon's High D, Santa Anna's Retreat, Shoes and Stockings, etc would be only names in an old book, or not even that. Watching and hearing him was not just listening to a good fiddler, it was being immersed in the most authentic fiddle sound that exists. I glanced around the hall and saw several of the fiddlers consciously or unconsciously bowing along with him as he ran through the tunes.... it was sipping at the true vine. Typical of Alan, he was accompanied in the concert by two young students, Charlie Hunter and Scott Linford, who very attentively and sensitively supported him with banjo and guitar.


Alan's knowledge of tunes and the history of fiddle playing in America is unmatched, and he personally owns a great deal of the credit for sparking the nation-wide revival of interest in old time music that has secured its future from Seattle to the Crooked Road, from San Diego to Portland. As he describes it, the history of this music is like the figure of an hourglass -- in the 1960s the once widespread fiddle music of Appalachia was disappearing. Many tunes were known to only a handful of fiddlers, or in many cases, only a single fiddler. The 19th century's rich store of tunes had constricted to a tiny trickle, a few grains of sand hardly managing to pass on. Then young enthusiasts caught those last few grains and multiplied them across the nation.


As a grad student at Duke University in 1965, he met the 81 year old Virginia fiddler Henry Reed. In the three years before Henry's death Alan recorded and eagerly learned hundreds of tunes which he then issued on LP from his Hollow Rock String Band. The tunes resonated in a subconscious chord for hundreds of young musicians, rapidly spreading far and wide. Almost immediately they helped inspire the dramatic expansion of this music as more new bands emerged - Highwoods, Fuzzy Mountain, Deseret, Fennig's, Sweets Mill and others that explored this tradition and then their own local fiddle traditions. Heading off to UCLA as a newly fledged professor in 1968, Alan found that his album had preceded him - Topanga Canyon was already echoing to the sound of Henry Reed's tunes! Alan quickly did an about-face. Instead of following a routine academic career, he returned east and joined the staff of the Library of Congress where for the next thirty years he was a hugely successful advocate for fiddling and all genres of folk music and crafts. During those years he was able to meet hundreds of fiddlers from all the American music traditions, as well as carry on scholarly research into the history of fiddling.


Now retired, Alan has been travelling widely and has been an artist-instructor at many fiddle workshops, fiddle camps and festivals around the country, and he continues to explore the world of traditional fiddling, just recently releasing a CD with the highly respected northern banjo player Ken Perlman. He is a wonderful teacher, as many of us in Rhode Island know from first hand experience. The great sense of humor, warm charm and profound mastery of the music that he showed at the concert is even more engaging when you have a chance to spend a few days with him. It's not just learning tunes - there are lots of good players who can teach you tunes - but there are very few who can explain exactly what happens in your right arm to separate that hornpipe from a breakdown, or what those Scots snaps are doing in the middle of that Ragtime! Often we listen to the music and suspect that for every bowstroke there is a reason - almost uniquely, Alan knows the exact reason.


In the next few years there will probably be many opportunities to hear Alan, play tunes with him, learn from him. I intend to take advantage of as many of those as I can.


[This essay by Matthew McConeghy is reproduced from his website,]