Ryan J. Thomson,
The Fiddler's Almanac
(Captain Fiddle, 1985)

It isn't very hard for fiddlers to find tunes to play. But for other fiddle-related information, where do they turn?

The Fiddler's Almanac by Ryan J. Thomson.

You're not going to find tunes in the pages between its bright orange covers -- OK, well, there are a few, but only to make specific points. Instead, you'll find gobs of fun fiddle facts and useful lore about the popular folk instrument.

It begins with a chapter about fiddling in general, tackling right away the age-old question defining the difference between a fiddle and a violin. Thomson cites New England fiddler Allan Brock, who says the defining quality is "the person who plays it." There's much more to it than that, but I'll let you read that essay for yourself.

There are instructional essays on the structure of a violin and the process for making or buying one. The bow (Brazilwood, especially the expensive "Pernambuco," is far superior to once-trendy snakewood and fiberglass construction; genuine horsehair beats nylon) and other accessories (rosin, chinrests, mutes, humidifiers, etc.) are explored in detail. There are also quite a few pages devoted to learning to play a fiddle, delving into methods like learning from sheet music vs. learning by ear.

The almanac explores fiddle playing in various cultures around the world in brief; oddly, Swedish fiddle music gets its own chapter, while other styles, such as Irish, Cajun and American bluegrass, get only passing mentions. This, to me, was the biggest failing of the book; with so many grand fiddling traditions in the world, a chapter exploring even briefly their differences and similarities would have been fascinating.

There's a very extensive bibliography, citing references of works devoted to every facet of fiddles and fiddling. There is also a sampling of fiddle album reviews and a glossary of related terms. (What's "purfling"? What are "crooked tunes"? The answers are here.)

Parts of The Fiddler's Almanac are fun just to sit back and read. Thomson has a pleasant, conversational style of imparting facts, often quoting famous and obscure fiddlers in the field to make points and add color. Other sections are intended more for reference only; they don't make good browsing, but they're handy to have when you need the facts.

If you're a fiddler or just a fan who wants to know more than the basic "draw the bow across the strings to make sound," this is an excellent resource to keep on your shelf.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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