Walk a quiet stretch of Los Altos Avenue this autumn and, if you’re lucky, you might hear strains of fiddle music dancing through the evening air. There aren’t many hints to clue in the average citizen, but this city has made the map in the world of international folk music.
Mary Larsen has been anchoring fiddling tradition from her house in Los Altos, connecting players around the world to new tunes, old styles and community news through Fiddler Magazine.
You might catch her playing at a jam in the Bay Area. The foot-stomping, rollicking atmosphere draws musicians and spectators to pubs and pizzerias a surprising number of evenings each month. But Larsen’s best known for originating the quarterly magazine that documents the history of folk tunes and highlights wellsprings of musical tradition.
Growing up, Larsen listened in to her parent’s Irish folk music, groups like The Clancy Brothers, and took a liking to the sound of the fiddle. She studied classical violin for a year but only dabbled in the instrument at first, picking up tunes from books and playing for fun. In her late 20s, she headed to the west of Ireland for a weeklong fiddle school and found her calling.
“It was there I got the idea for Fiddler Magazine,” she said.
Gathering string players in a room, setting a foot to tapping and launching into a reel posed an irresistible appeal. In 1994, she published her first issue and she’s been enmeshed in the world of folk music ever since.
“It’s a way to make music with friends in a totally stress-free environment,” Larsen said. “It’s not something you hear on the radio very often.”
Connecting musicians, spreading traditions
From its under-the-radar base in Los Altos, Fiddler Magazine draws practitioners from around the world. Caoimhin Mac Aoidh has spent the past 30 years documenting, teaching and playing the music of Western Ireland. He made the trek from County Donegal to California last month, meeting with Larsen to plan for “World Fiddle Day,” May 18 next year.
“You celebrate it in your own way of celebrating, whether it’s a philharmonic dedicating a piece or one person playing alone in their house,” Mac Aoidh explained. “We want to get the message out globally, and Fiddler Magazine is extremely widely read.”
Even if the glossy isn’t stocked in the racks at Main Street Cafe & Books, Larsen’s text has a niche farther afield.
“Everybody that I know is aware of it, even in very remote parts of Europe,” Mac Aoidh said. “In the Irish government archive of traditional music, it’s the first publication you see on the rack when you walk in.”
Mac Aoidh founded an Irish organization that offers training for young musicians and connects them to respected older players, so traditions can pass between generations.
“The problem at home now is winning back the audience,” he said.
Why should newcomers to the world of stringed instruments take a shine to fiddle tunes? Don’t get Mac Aoidh and Larsen started.
From concert hall to barn dance
“It’s the most brilliant of instruments you can play. It’s possibly the most widely played instrument, across many ethnic traditions,” Mac Aoidh said. “These forms of music have existed for hundreds of years, still enduring, and they have a very local aspect. Go 40 miles down the road and there’s a different accent.”
“The fiddle itself is a very portable instrument, immigrants have always taken them with them,” Larsen added.
When she tunes up at an old-time jam in Palo Alto, she’s playing music born in Scotland and Ireland and Africa, filtered through the American south and inflected with the accent of settlements across the U.S. If you’ve ever listened to Pete Seeger, the Carolina Chocolate Drops or Old Crow Medicine Show, you’ve heard the rowdy, acoustic rhythms of an immigrant, essentially American, tradition.
The fiddles soar over and around the plucked melodies from banjos, mandolins, guitars and basses. What distinguishes a fiddle from a classical violin? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s 12 ounces of wood and 4 strings,” Mac Aoidh said. “If you just take the instrument itself, there are kind of two cultures – classical music and everybody else, violin and fiddle.”
They’re the same instrument, but once you use one label, the other side sometimes tunes out. It doesn’t need to be that way, Mac Aoidh pointed out.
“Serious players, people who are passionate about the instrument, tend to see less of that distinction,” he said.
“The Chinese 2-stringed fiddle belongs in World Fiddle Day,” Larsen chimed in.
And so does the Hardanger Fiddle – a curious, droning Norwegian instrument with a double layer of strings.
“If someone plays a string with a bow, it’s a celebration of all of that,” Mac Aoidh said.
When Larsen started connecting with local jams in the ’90s, a friend working at Gryphon Stringed Instruments introduced her to that local anchor of guitar experts, dulcimers, fiddles and ukuleles. The South Palo Alto institution offers private and group classes, rentals and repairs and links local residents interested in the folk music scene. Fandango Pizza on Middlefield Road hosts old-time and bluegrass jams each week, St. Stephens Green in Mountain View sponsors a beginners-friendly Irish session on Tuesday evenings and the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association meets monthly in San Jose.
What might you hear at a jam? Old-time and bluegrass tunes use a drone across two strings to provide all-natural amplification and fill out the sound of a tune. Players take turns picking out titles like “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Squirrel Hunters.” As players dance a finger along a string to create a fleeting five-note roll or hop through triplets with the rapid shake of a striking bow, the physics of bodies and wood electrify the room with compounding rhythms. Medleys cycle through variations on a tune until someone “kicks that thing,” literally throwing a foot in the air to signal it’s time to move on to a new pick.
Rhythm rules the day, and fiddling music, particularly as it has evolved in North America, is all about dancing. Larsen picked up clogging and flat-footing during a decade in Cape Breton, and visions of square dancers or line dancers come to mind as players strike up a jig or reel.
“Cape Breton girls would be doing this elaborate stuff in Doc Martens or barefoot,” Larsen reminisced of her days deep in folk dance in Canada.
She recommended a quick YouTube search for Ira Bernstein, Natalie MacMaster or Stompin’ Dave for a sample of how bodies move when the music starts up.
Fiddler Magazine covers the makers of instruments as well as chronicling little-known musical styles and esteemed players. Larsen’s own fiddle, dating to the late 1700s, sports a carved lion’s head scroll at its top.
“It’s a nice mellow-sounding fiddle – it’s kind of soft and dainty,” she said.
She mostly learns new tunes through sight-reading, but at a local jam, she can listen in and pick it up by ear.
“When you learn it by ear, it really sticks with you,” she said.
At an old-time jam in Palo Alto last summer, a banjo, two violins, two mandolins, a bass and a guitar noodled away at their tunings until someone elected to kick things off and the music started booming. Check the sidebar below for listings of local jams to find out if you, too, will find the melodies irresistible. 7
Watch or join a local fiddling jam
Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association
1-5 p.m. first Sunday of every month
Hoover Middle School, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose
O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub
Noon to 3 p.m. second and fourth Sundays of every month
25 N. San Pedro St., San Jose
Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra
2-5 p.m. last Sunday of every month
Hillview Community Center, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos
Pipers’ Club Slow Session
7:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays
St. Stephens Green, 223 Castro St., Mountain View
7-9 p.m. Wednesdays
Fandango Pizza, 3163 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto