Communities in Focus: Northwest Fiddle and Dance

Community Coordinator Bríd Nowlan sheds some light on the Pacific Northwest Fiddle and Dance scene.

Who is your community?  What can audiences at the Festival expect to experience at your showcase?

Ours is a community of fiddlers, other musicians and dancers.

The fiddle has been at the center of community gatherings in the Pacific Northwest since the earliest days of European exploration. Lewis and Clark brought with them no less than two fiddlers, who helped ease relations between the newcomers and the native residents. In 1862, at a wedding on the banks of the Duwamish River, fiddler Jake Lake entertained both European settlers and Native Americans with tunes still played here today. Fiddlers are still settling here, coming from all over the world with their tunes and dances.  The Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association was founded in 1965 to foster the tradition of Northwest fiddle music.

Marty Dahlgren

Marty Dahlgren

We have four community events at this year’s festival.  The annual Fiddlers Showcase, Saturday 11AM-2PM at the Charlotte Martin Theatre, will feature some of the best fiddlers from the region and beyond. At 2PM Sunday, in the Roadhouse, you can dance to the music of three outstanding dance fiddlers from Washington State: Gil Kiesecker played fiddle for dances in the 1920s and 30s in Eastern Washington; Vivian Williams has been entertaining Seattlites for four decades; and Marty Dahlgren has been playing around the Northwest for the past seventy years or so. At a workshop, 11AM on Sunday morning, in the Lopez Room, fiddler and historian Linda Danielson of Oregon and Missouri fiddler John White will teach some fiddle tunes. At 4PM on Monday, we will present two hundred years of Northwest fiddling on the Narrative Stage, with fiddlers Stuart Williams, Vivian Williams, Warren Argo and friends.


(Stuart Williams, Vivian Williams on fiddle, Phil Williams on guitar, play Marmaduke’s Hornpip at the 2006 Folklife Festival)

How long has your community been involved with Northwest Folklife?  How did you first get involved?

The Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association has been involved with Northwest Folklife since its beginning—the two organizations share Phil & Vivian Williams as founders. The Association had a stage with non-stop fiddle music in the first few years of the festival. Stuart Williams now organizes the Fiddlers Showcase, which has been one of the few places where Seattlites can hear older Washington fiddlers from outside the city.

How are younger or newer folks getting involved?

The Association has 16 districts across the state, each of which hosts regular jams and other events where new and younger musicians are always welcome. The Association’s annual workshop at Kittitas is an important source of instruction for new fiddlers. We also have several publications that chronicle the history and feature this music.

Three things you’d like people to know about your community and your cultural traditions and arts:

1. The traditional fiddle music of the Pacific Northwest tells the story of modern human migrations across the North American continent. European and French Canadian reels and jigs, Missouri hoedowns and Scandinavian walking tunes came here on the bows of numerous anonymous fiddlers to form the backbone of a unique musical style.

2. There has been a continuous tradition of fiddle music in the Pacific Northwest since the earliest days of European settlement. Before the mid-twentieth century fiddlers of all backgrounds played together here, generating a new sound of which just a few practitioners remain. By the mid-twentieth century, new recording technologies allowed musicians to maintain distinct threads of musical styles at a distance from their source. Wax discs, reel-to-reel and cassette tapes and now digital recordings allow people to learn their style of choice, whether Scandinavian, Irish or Appalachian, regardless of where they live.

3. Music is a community resource, an essential component of almost all our gatherings. It used to be dependent on a live musician and rooted in place. Over time new technologies encroached upon the musician’s place—and especially that of the traditional fiddler. More recently, the pendulum has begun to swing back again and there are probably more fiddlers now than ever before and more opportunities to hear music and participate in dances. The Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association honors the region’s tradition bearers while welcoming and encouraging newcomers.


(Gil Kiesecker on fiddle, Stuart Williams on guitar, playing Clearwater Stomp at Folklife, 2006)

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