Fiddling around Colonial Williamsburg since 1968His heritage and a love of playing the fiddle inspire John Turner to preserve the tradition of Scottish fiddling. June 12, 2006
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking John Turner, and at Colonial Williamsburg he’s senior tavern entertainer – one of the first titles I’ve ever read [for the podcast interviews] that I knew what it was.
John Turner: (Laughs)
Lloyd: Obviously you are involved with music.
John: Yes, I’ve been doing something musically at Colonial Williamsburg since 1968.
Lloyd: That’s a long time.
John: It is.
Lloyd: What do you do?
John: I’m a multi-instrumentalist, and also sing, and for most of my life I’ve been a piper, but I am more or less retired from the bagpipes. I used to play them in the taverns, especially when I felt I was being ignored.
John: But I am primarily a fiddler, and my specialty is 18th-century Scottish fiddle music. I teach a school of Scottish fiddling in North Carolina every summer. This is the 23rd annual coming up. I have 12 or so recordings that feature me as a Scottish fiddler, and I am currently working on the 74th recording project that I have contributed tracks to.
Lloyd: How does Scottish fiddling differ from anybody else’s fiddling?
John: Well, there are flippant answers to that, and there are sort of reasonable answers to it, and the truth always comes up in between somewhere. Of course, it’s Celtic, in general, but Scottish traditional music – even in Scotland there are three or four different traditions that can be identified – and it gets confusing for people today because a number of Scottish fiddlers are playing what I would call pan-Celtic styles instead of playing specific traditional Scottish styles. Part of my career as a fiddler has been to try and maintain this sort of golden era of Scottish fiddle music, and to keep it alive, which was a specific style or several specific styles in the 18th century. For the average listener, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference – as you suggest – particularly between Irish fiddle music and Scottish fiddle music, but I’ll try and give you a demarcation which is not easy to do.
As a general rule, Irish fiddlers – like most bluegrass fiddlers – sort of have this idea that the better the fiddler the faster he or she can play, and the music reflects that. You can listen to very good Irish groups or very good bluegrass groups sometimes, and they are playing almost so fast that you can not hear what the tune is. The optimum tempo in Scottish fiddle music was always what is the best tempo to dance to? Anything else was just showing off. So, I like to tell my students and the people who come to me for learning this style that the difference is if you are an Irish fiddler the better you are, the faster you can play. If you are a Scottish fiddler the better you are the more slowly you can play and still make it interesting.
Lloyd: Okay that raises a musician question which I also can’t answer. Is it true that the better musician you are the slower you can play?
John: Yes, it is, because the bow control that’s required – anybody can play fast. All it means is that you use less bow. If you are trying to play quickly, you are using an inch or two of the bow, and that’s all, people who know what they are doing. If you are playing slowly, you are using the whole bow, and that requires a lot more muscle control, and it requires a lot more practice. But it also becomes more a part of the player. To make slow music interesting, you’ve got to express yourself, and you’ve got to be telling a story. You’ve got to be letting your emotion into the music. You can’t just saw away.
Lloyd: Okay, now you did not get into that by accident standing on a street corner one day saying “I think I’ll be a Scottish fiddle player.”
John: No, that’s right.
Lloyd: So, what attracted you?
Lloyd: I cannot imagine a Scottish fiddle player in a rock band.
John: Well today there are lots of Scottish fiddlers in rock bands…
Lloyd: Oh really?
John: …Celtic rock bands…
Lloyd: Oh, okay.
John: …well I mean the two things have come together. I’m sort of seen as the “old man” of the idiom and one of the old curmudgeons who keeps trying to tell people to play the way they used to play.
Lloyd: Well, if you have been playing here since 1968 you probably are the old curmudgeon who keeps telling people to play the way they ought to. And you teach at a school every summer, so there must be people who are interested.
John: Oh, they are, and we have people that come from all over the United States and usually a few from Britain, because even in Scotland there are not many people teaching this style any more, so people come over hereto the school. The school is called The Jink and Diddle School of Scottish Fiddling, and I can see by your smile that I have to explain that.
Lloyd: Oh yes…
John: Robert Burns was, of course, the national poet of Scotland, and he was very fond of fiddlers, and some say he even played the fiddle himself, but he had a very genius ability for setting his poetry to pre-existing tunes, and because of this genius he was responsible for saving a lot of tunes that were sort of already being considered old-fashioned and were going extinct and not being used. But when he wrote a song to them, then people got interested in them again. Usually today, I’m just about the only person who knows the original name of the tune. Most people, if Burns wrote a song to it, they remember his song name and not the original name of the tune. He had a number of fiddler friends, and one of his letter/poems to a fiddler friend contained the lines – and I won’t remember the whole thing – but within the poem was:
Lloyd: You had me on that one. I would never have guessed it was part of a Burns poem – Jink and Diddle – but on the other hand, it sounds just about right.
Lloyd: People come from all over, but do you know how many keep on with it after they’ve been to school with you?
John: Oh, quite a few do, in fact, this year is the 30th anniversary of the U.S. National Scottish fiddling championship and will be the 31st time that the competition has been held. And out of the 30 competitions that have been held so far, 17 of them have been won either by me or my students. And a number of my students have gone on to be better known really in a broader sense as recording artists and performers than I now am because I keep on trying to do the several things I do instead of sticking to one.
Lloyd: Instead of concentrating on one. What’s the fun in that? Besides if you ever got tired of it, you could go back to the bagpipes and really punish ’em – that’ll teach ’em.
John: I really miss playing the bagpipes.
John: Yeah, I do, but one of the things I’m known for – fiddling wise – is imitating the bagpipes on the fiddle, which was a style that became prevalent after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Parliament was tired of the Jacobite uprisings, and Parliament eventually passed a series of laws in 1747 called the Disarming Acts, which were intended to break down the whole Highland clan system because the British government was tired of dealing with it. They knew how to do this because they had done a very similar thing in Ireland 100 years before. Among the laws that were passed were laws that prohibited the wearing of the kilt, because this was a kind of badge that helped the clansmen collect with each other, so they made that illegal. They also made the private use of the bagpipes illegal. And that was enforced from 1747 until 1782 when it was repealed. So during that 35-year period, you have lots of people putting the pipes aside rather than being put in jail for it, but continuing to play the old pipe tunes on the fiddle. So this style emerges – people are frequently telling me that if they don’t see me and they hear the sound, they think I’m playing the bagpipes when I am playing the fiddle.
Lloyd: The only thing I know about Scottish music was that the music for “Waltzing Matilda” in Australia is from a Scottish song. At one time I knew the name of it, but I do not now…
John: It’ll come to me, maybe, but yes, that’s in my memory bank, too, somewhere…
Lloyd: I thought that was absolutely fascinating that in Australia the – it’s not the anthem, but it’s the best-known tune in Australia. The words to it were written by a freelance war correspondent.
John: Is that right?
Lloyd: That’s all my knowledge about Scottish music, right there. You’ve got it. [I] can’t tell you another thing.
You’ve won 17…
John: No, I won ten times, and then retired, and another seven have been won by students of mine.
Lloyd: So people do go on. What do you hope they will do?
John: Oh, I hope they will continue the style and continue to be ambassadors for …well, first of all, I hope they will enjoy the music, and I hope they will pass that enjoyment on to their friends relatives and children and grandchildren. The hope is that this style that was so much a part of 18th-century life and so much a vital part of the social scene, not only in Scotland, but particularly in Virginia, because Scottish music for a variety of reasons was very popular in Virginia in the 18th century. It was the most popular dance music of the day.
If you look in Jefferson’s library, you find lots of Scottish dance tunes – Bremner’s Harpsichord and Spinet Miscellany – and you find lots of other sources of Scottish dance tunes. Patrick Henry, of course, was a Scottish fiddler. He’s first generation American, but his father and uncle emigrated here from Aberdeen, and he’s playing precisely the kind of tunes that I play. In fact, two times the Commonwealth of Virginia in the past 20 years has asked me to play Patrick Henry’s fiddle for official government functions, which I have done. So it was the popular music of Virginia as well as being the music of Scotland. It was also popular in London.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.