Festival of American Fiddle Tunes

For the love of fiddling — for the cause of social justice

Posted 7/2/20

The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes is a Port Townsend staple, a gathering of hundreds of players, lovers and listeners of fiddle music from around the nation and the world. 

The festival, …

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Festival of American Fiddle Tunes

For the love of fiddling — for the cause of social justice


The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes is a Port Townsend staple, a gathering of hundreds of players, lovers and listeners of fiddle music from around the nation and the world. 

The festival, which has run continuously since 1977, was initially postponed until 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It wasn’t until late May that the idea came about to hold the week-long event online. Rebranded “Coviddle Tunes,” the festival was rescheduled to run June 26 to July 3, using Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube to connect musicians.

From dining rooms, kitchens, and porches, accompanied by pets, spouses, kids, and various drinks, people joined to play music together while miles apart.

The virus is not the only thing affecting the shape of Coviddle Tunes, which ends this Friday. Festival organizers knew that the event could not go on without acknowledgment of Black contributions to, and previous exclusions from, the style of music being performed and taught. 

“The environment of the world was changing as we were trying to pull this all together,” said program manager Peter McCracken.

Goals of the festival

When the idea for Coviddle Tunes was drawn together, there were some obvious obstacles to overcome. A small group of longtime Fiddle Tunes participants were playing together when they realized their jam over Zoom could be translated to a much larger scale, even one that encompasses the hundreds of participants each year.

However, eight people in a Zoom call is very different from 80. The organizers began creating a week of workshops, jams, and parties that could happen online, open to anyone who wanted to participate. Unlike in previous years, there was no registration and no fee.

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation and organizations became more aware of their own diversity, or lack thereof, the organizers also looked internally at how the event, and the community, could improve.

Coviddle Tunes featured three special presentations exploring Black contributions to American fiddle traditions. Red Nose volunteer W.B Reid hopes these presentations, which he called both “excellent and uncomfortable,” will “make people think.” As a Red Nose, Reid is there to help participants answer any questions that arise, but this year found himself pointing the way on the development of Coviddle Tunes.

“Tackling these issues as a community will make them more digestible and approachable for people who can’t tackle it on their own,” said musician and Tutor Coordinator Charmaine Slaven. 

Fiddle Tunes focuses on old-time music, a style that has Appalachain roots, Reid explained. Although many of these songs have African American roots, relatively few African American artists participate in Fiddle Tunes.

“This is an issue for the Fiddle Tunes community specifically,” Reid said. “Why are there not more people of color at these events?”

Along with informing participants on racial issues and how to work toward solving them, organizers wanted to contribute substantively to the causes that promote social justice

All funds raised via PayPal over the course of the event are added to a festival-wide tip jar, which had collected $3,300 as of Sunday afternoon. 

The funds will be split between two organizations, Campaign Zero and Wa Na Wari. The former is a nonprofit working to end police violence and the latter is focused on supporting Black artists in Seattle.

Playing music online

A typical day of Fiddle Tunes would be incomplete without a constant stream of different music jams rising up from all around the grounds at Fort Worden.

Unfortunately, videoconferencing platforms don’t allow for simultaneous playing “barring a change in the laws of physics,” the Coviddle Tunes website reads. Instead, one person carries the tune while the others play along with their microphones muted. 

Famous fiddler Bruce Molsky was able to perform at Saturday night’s concert from his home in Beacon, NY despite technical difficulties. 

He had the sound “all nailed down” just hours before the concert, he said, but when the time came the Facebook Live wasn’t cooperating. 

Molsky ended up streaming the performance from his iPhone, which flipped the camera so it looked like he was playing left-handed. This didn’t deter viewers, though, and 88 people tuned in to the evening concert 

This was not Molsky’s first experience with online music. As a visiting scholar at the Berklee College of Music, he had to teach over Zoom for the remainder of the academic year when the school moved to distance learning. 

“It made me realize how much we get out of being in the same space as other people,” Molsky said. 

Despite the downsides, but there are silver linings to this method of video collaboration. 

Since the only music heard is that coming from the host, participants are free to experiment without distracting others and play songs that they are still learning. 

“I was able to do something that all my life I’ve never been able to do,” Reid said. Normally, playing along when one doesn’t know the song would be “the height of rudeness,” he said.

Some teachers were able to use the Zoom capabilities to their advantage. Canadian folk musician Daniel Lapp was able to show written music through the screen sharing feature so everyone could read notes as they played along. 

Craig Judelman, a fiddler and composer, noted that having the students muted means they can try new things or take a break without bringing the instructor’s attention away from others, which he thinks helps the learning process. 

To combat a loss of motivation due to a loss of social interaction, Molsky tries to look deeply into the small thumbnails of everyone that appear on the call and make a connection. The fact that people at Fiddle Tunes have a strong connection to each other already makes that easier. 

“Fiddle tunes had been at the epicenter of a really really strong community for so many years. That’s not going to go away,” Molsky said.

A day at Coviddle Tunes

The first morning of workshops took off Saturday. Class options ranged from a pre-recorded banjo workshop with over an hour and a half of tips and tutorials to a Facebook livestream with 32 real-time viewers sending a flood of hearts across the screen. As people joined, some were set up with recording equipment, others were on walks with dogs in the background.

Judelman taught a morning class for those in Washington, but it was a late afternoon class as far as he was concerned from his residence in Berlin, Germany.

Amid people asking for screen recording permission and the Judelman pausing to let new participants into the online classroom, 19 people joined to learn a tune in the style of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

Being the first class of the week, participants chatted amongst themselves, old friends reconnecting after months apart. Instead of whispering from the back of the room, these conversations were happening through the private messaging function on Zoom.

By the end of the session, the group was playing in unison, a screen full of fiddlers with all different backdrops bowing in time.

“It really looks like you’re playing the fiddle,” Judelman said when the tune ended. After a pause: “….I hope it sounds like it.”

Highlighting Black music

Participants were encouraged to view the YouTube video “Black Music. Full stop.,” created by African American scholar and musician Benjamin Hunter. The video explores the history of Black music in the U.S. and gives insight moving forward.

Joseph Seamons, Hunter’s musical partner, led a community discussion about the video titled “Exploitation & Disrespect in American Dance Music.”

Joined by his wife Tina, Seamons carefully answered participants’ questions, giving guidance and information about steps to be taken for greater racial equity within the community.

Most questions revolved around playing songs that have complicated histories, including racist lyrics and minstrelsy. 

Seamons said that the first step in fighting for racial equity is an acknowledgment of the racial history that accompanies actions and songs.

“If I play blues in America as a white man and don’t acknowledge the fact that I’m playing music from Black culture, I’m exploiting. It only takes a moment to acknowledge that blues is Black music,” Seamons explained.

The community brainstormed ideas of increasing representation of people of color at Fiddle Tunes and bringing more racially diverse artists and participants. 

Jerron Paxton was the second Black artist highlighted by the festival. In a performance and commentary Sunday morning, Paxton Zoomed in from his Android phone to share songs and stories.

From his kitchen in Queens, NY, Paxton played to a group of over 70 people. Switching between instruments, he even took viewers to the piano at the request of the audience.

“I ain’t practiced today, so leave me alone,” Paxton began before sounding out a perfect ragtime tune.

Paxton first learned of music from his grandmother, who was born on a plantation in Louisana but moved to Los Angeles in 1956 after Emmett Till’s lynching.

“I was 10 years old before I learned Black people play music,” Paxton said.

He kept the audience entertained with jokes alongside the songs. People especially loved his frequent callbacks to an early comment that “nobody plays music like ugly people.” Many viewers found the presentation so engaging that they unmuted their microphones and displayed their videos several times so Paxton could see and hear their cheering.

“We’re having a little community online!” Paxton exclaimed when he saw the warm reception.

Paxton also explained the role that old-time music has had in racial oppression.

“Songs can be weaponized. Songs can be racialized. Sometimes, people using a song for evil can taint it. That’s one of the things we have to face in old-time culture. That’s one of the reasons we have to get this music out of the hands of people who would use it for that disparaging reason before it can all get tainted,” Paxton explained.

When asked about the diversification of Fiddle Tunes, Paxton smiled. 

“It doesn’t have to be less white, but more color is always welcome,” Paxton said. 

Sunday night, Slaven led a violin vigil for Elijah McClain, a young man who was killed during an interaction with police in Aurora, CO. McClain was a violinist and spent his free time playing for stray cats at the animal shelter. 

Attendees led songs of love, loss, and a bit of hope in remembrance of McClain, his picture displayed on the Zoom screen.

Another vigil will be held Friday night, July 3.

Online transition

The online format of Coviddle Tunes allowed for increased participation by knocking down some common barriers to entry like the travel and funds required to attend.

“We’re going to reach beyond our usual Fiddle Tunes participation,” Slaven said.

Judelman would not have necessarily been able to attend in-person Fiddle tunes given the distance he would have to travel. 

“It was really meaningful for me to be able to participate in the online activities,” Judelman said. “In some ways, it was easier than normal as I could do so from my living room in the middle of Berlin!”

For others, like North Carolinian college student Rachel Dunaway, the online concerts provided an opportunity for engagement that wasn’t there before. She’d heard of Fiddle Tunes before, but hadn’t looked too much into it because of the location. This year, she was able to see her favorite artists from her own computer screen. 

John Hockings watched those same concerts, but it was the early morning from his home in Brisbane, Australia. He’d been watching concerts from the Quarantine Happy Hour Facebook group for a while, but Molsky’s performance was the highlight.

Tuning in on his school laptop from his home in Victoria, British Columbia, fiddler Samuel Jasper was able to attend workshops and create some of his own. 

“It’s impressive how quickly and effectively they got a website together, got a schedule, they even have an entire Zoom hangout area,” Jasper said.

Not everyone had quite as much luck with the online format. 

“Old-time musicians everywhere are learning how to use technology,” one man shouted out as people tried to tell someone that their microphone was unmuted.

Missing and moving

Coviddle Tunes has been a success thus far, but many people can’t wait for next year’s in-person gathering.

Dancing and hugs topped the list of things participants missed most about the annual festival, and Reid reminisced walking around Fort Worden through Building 204 at 3 a.m. 

Fiddler and Fiddle Tunes alumni Dirk and Amelia Powell joined from Louisiana. With another friend filling out the musical trio, they peppered the Facebook Live concert with anecdotes from the normal Fiddle Tunes, in a lexicon only those familiar with it would understand.

“If you were in 204 heading from the Sugar Shack to the other side, this would be a jam in the hallway, and you’d stop to dance,” Dirk said, and a stream of thumbs up followed.

“I put Christmas lights up in the room to evoke the spirit of 204,” one viewer wrote.

There will be continued programming through Friday night. To participate or watch the recorded session from the past week, go to https://coviddletunes.org and look up the “Quarantine Happy Hour” on Facebook.


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