Feb 172009

Last week I finally got a copy of “The Portlan Collection, vol. 2.” The Portland books are two volumes of fiddle tunes collected by contra dance musicians from the northwest United States. I’ve had volume one for several years now, and I never tire of it. Volume two just picks right up and continues the intriguing music and commentary.

The books are formatted simply. All tunes are listed in alphabetical order. In the back are several of the usual indexes, by key and title and alternate title, etc. There is also an alphabetized commentary section that gives background, sources, recommended recordings, and playing tips for the tunes. A fiddler could have these in her or his bathroom for thirty years and never run out of stuff to look at.

The tunes are transcribed in very simple arrangements. No bow markings for the fiddlers, and very few double stops and drones. They leave it up to you to add your style, which I like. For example, from Feel The Wag suggested that we try “Horace Hanesworth,” which has a fairly vanilla B part if played as written. But when I put a little Georgia shuffle on it, that B part turned right Appalachian without hardly trying.

I like the choice of tunes in the Portland books. They have a lot of common tunes found elsewhere, but they have so many tunes that just don’t show up in other books. It is a treat to flip through and see a new tune to try spontaneously. “One-Horned Sheep” came to our band this way, when I saw at a glance that it had some affinity with one of my favorites, “Money In Both Pockets.” When Bud opened his book to look at “One-Horned Sheep,” he pointed out “old Grey Cat,” a forgotten favorite on the opposing page. So the cat jumped immediately onto the band’s lists as well.

OK, so every old-time or contra fiddler should have these books: Portland Collection volumes one and two, Stacy Phillips big collection of tunes (only volume one is in print), and Phillips’s collection of waltzes. There are probably better waltz books for American fiddlers, but I haven’t found any. Please send along your suggestions.

I must comment here on David Brody’s “Fiddler Fake Book.” This is a very nice book and well worth having. But for some reason it does not captivate me the way the Portland and Phillips books do. Perhaps it is the large, clumsy page size of the Brody book. Or it may just be that it doesn’t have as many tunes as the others. I know that Brody’s book is the canon for some bands and jams, but I always go to Portland or Phillips first.

No one book has all the definitive versions of tunes, for certain. I play “Duck River” in the traditional Appalachian or old-time contour, but I don’t think I’ve found that version of the tune in any of my large fiddle collections. The only place where I have it for sure is in the Molsky-Fisk-Marxer slow jam book that has maybe a dozen tunes or so.

So stop reading this blog, and take your Portland collection to the john to find some new fiddle tunes!

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