Opinions on the Cello in Traditional Music

Scottish dance duo There was a discussion on the role of the cello in traditional music on the IRTRAD-L mailing list around July 1994. All the discussion was very positive about using the cello. The following are some of the more interesting posts:

There's certainly lots of iconographic evidence (whew!) of cellists playing with fiddlers in Scottish "bands" of the 18th century. Well, maybe not "lots"—there's one picture of Niel Gow that I'm thinking of that's been re-worked numerous times by various copyists, engravers, etc., but, without checking, I think it's a fairly well-established fact. Certainly many of the great Scottish tune collections of the Gows, etc. included "a Bass for the Violoncello or Harpsichord" along with the melody.

There's scattered evidence of its use in American tradition—thinking primarily of the recordings of Mellie Dunham, a Maine fiddler who came to prominence during the Henry Ford-inspired fiddling mania in the mid 1920s. There's a nice, sorta squeaky cello with the fiddle and piano on his discs. A cello was also used by Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, and in a few other old-time recordings. Bob Christeson plays some nice cello on recordings he made of Nebraska fiddle Bob Walters that figure prominently in the Old Time Fiddler's Repertory books and recordings that Univ. of Missouri Press issued in the 1970s. More recently, Nancy Blake has played one to great effect with husband Norman, both with and without other members of the Rising Fawn String Ensemble (usually fiddler James Bryan).

De Danann started using a 'cello on their Ballroom album, which dates from a couple of years back already, but should still be widely available (on CD, that is). The 'cello was then played by an English girl, Caroline Lavelle, and I heard a story that they picked her up in London where she was busking near Covent Garden. I actually saw them play live with her once, and it was fantastic. But she left the band before the first album with the new line-up came out, Jacket of Batteries, so she is not playing on that one. But I'm not quite sure if there is any 'cello on that one or not. I have heard 'cello on later De Dannann recordings, but I don't think they had a 'cello player as an actual band member, just a guest musician probably.

I'm impressed that Han is the only one who used an apostrophe in 'cello. It just goes to show that the Dutch know English better than the native speakers! Or is it music that they know more about?

On the subject of cello, I've remembered a couple of recordings that were real eye-openers for me:

Archetype, Archetype. This is a Breton band consisting of six violins, a cello, and a bass. (One of the fiddlers is Christian Lemaitre of Kornog and The Celtic Fiddle Festival.) Breton music can in itself be an eye-opener, but on top of that these folks have created wild, expansive arrangements.

The Turtle Island String Quartet. If you listen to National Public Radio's Morning Edition or All Things Considered, then you've heard them. Bits of their recordings turn up constantly as buffer music between features. They play jazz, not tradtional, but they knocked me right over. Trully amazing what you can do with strings. They have several albums on Windham Hill.

There a group out of Nova Scotia, headed up by Scott McMillan, called The Octette, which, I believe, combines the instruments of a string band with those of a string quartet in tackling traditional tunes with contemporary arrangements. I've heard Marcia Palmater play this on her show, Downeast Ceilidh (MIT's WMBR), but I've never seen it in the stores, and never remember to ask her about availability.

I've been using cello on Irish music for about 8 years now. In addition to being a perfectly good lead instrument and very effective on airs, it can also provide a variety of moods on the bottom end. You can pluck it. You can do a running bass line with the bow. You can also easily do diad chords either legato (like pipe drones or synthesizer backing) or add kick-ass rhythm to your chords using bowing or turns.

Granted, I haven't heard anybody else do half of these things. But it is an instrument that fits in very naturally with the music, and it has always gotten an immediate positive reaction when brought to a new session. (Which I doubt I can attribute exclusively to the skill of my playing.)

Incidentally, at the recent Shannon concert I saw (Fairfield CT), the audience went wild the one time the bass player used bowing. And it's possible to do a lot more with bowing on the bass line than he was doing.

Steve formerly played in a band called Séamaisín in the U.S. Midwest.

Some more recent posts from the FIDDLE-L list:

Anonymous string band, about 1900 I grew up in East Texas. My Dad and various uncles were fiddlers and accordian (gasp!) players. It seems to me that there were tattered copies of Cole's 1000 fiddle tunes, scraps of music paper and other fiddlecase books in every case and piano bench. I think that then, as now, someone would find a tune in a book, play it and others would pick up on it. Not all fiddling in Texas was for square dancing. The "house dance" was the tradition in East Texas while the community center, often connected to church was more common in central Texas. The cello, guitar, and fiddle(s) was a fairly common combination. They played the old music but had to add new because that's what the dancers wanted. Swing and rag time was added to old time because even though folks danced the old dances, they also wanted the new- just like folks today. Texas swing, or just a moving from a 2/4 to a 4/4 pattern followed social needs. There is a tendency to romanticise the past I know, but there was a time when music was taught, even in rural East Texas and the most remote cornor of West Virginia.

Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham recorded in 1926 with his granddaughter playing piano and her husband playing cello. This was fiddling of quite different character than, say, Uncle Bunt Stephens, but there wasn't much genteel about it, and I'd certainly call both Mellie and Uncle Bunt "folk musicians."

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