Friday, September 21, 2012

Minnesota Fiddlers Archive- Kaye Brokaw



Tunes recorded by Dick Buschel.  Used by permission.

From Kaye's family-

Kaye was always full of mischief, an instigator and very inquisitive. He could make you laugh and he had the patience of a saint when teaching. He overcame many obstacles in his life but never, ever let self-pity consume him. He was raised by our Grandmother and was quite a challenge for her. Kaye was thought to be mentally retarded but in fact he was very intelligent, almost savant-like. He never finished school but read books about many, many different subjects and he was self taught in many different interests. He often said “Too many books, too little time”. Kaye learned to repair watches and clocks, made some musical instruments and also repaired them. He loved old cars and antiques and would go to flea markets and sell antiques and collectibles. While he was selling he would bring out his fiddle and play and people would stop and listen and drop money in can. He would also do this where he worked as a part time janitor at the Clearwater Truck Stop…he met many people this way. One time he collected over two hundred dollars and said “Not too bad for a retarded bald headed Irishman and a twelve dollar and fifty cent fiddle."

                                                 Tunes recorded by Kaye and family.  Used by permission.

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Kaye was very proud of his Irish heritage and learned a lot of Irish music. He learned to play around the age of fourteen or so. He learned a lot from his great uncles, Hank and Bob Bodle…he spent a lot of time with them. He would play fiddle and Grandmother would play piano and they would play for family functions and get-to-gathers. He first started to play in public in Deerwood at Whitepine Inn with Bill Hanson and Gus Fletcher. Soon he was playing at many different little bars with some of his friends and he had lots of them. People who knew Kaye and became friends with him were his friends for life. Among them were Bud and Archie LaSart, Dick Kuschel, Lloyd LaPlant, Ben and Gene Marquette, Arne Johnson, Arne Wannebo and “Grandfather” Dahl of Dahl Violin Shop in Minneapolis. 


Kaye also played in many fiddle contests in Minnesota and Iowa. He played with many different bands including the Range Ramblers and The Wagon Wheelers. He acquired many friends over the years and people who met him never forgot him. His quick wit, sense of humor and mischievous smile and of course his great talent made him unique and unforgettable. He would always say, “Everyone needs music in their lives, it makes you whole.”


Kaye was also a great story teller and whenever he wrote a letter it was as if he was right there talking to you…he made every letter a masterpiece of humor and he could spell any word you gave him. I think he had a photographic memory and could remember things from when he was two years old…that was also when he learned to read. Kaye also had a great love for dogs and said they were the only living thing that was capable of unconditional love and loyalty.

 It’s hard to know what his favorite tunes were because he played so many but a few that come to mind are: Boil the Cabbage, Devil’s Dream, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Golden Slippers, Diggi Liggi Li, and Orange Blossom Special. I think Kaye will always be remembered as a humble but very unique individual with a great talent, quick wit, fabulous sense of humor and not an ounce of self pity.   No matter what life handed to him he took it with a smile, added some fiddle music to it and left us with wonderful memories of a little Irish imp who made this world a better place because he was here.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Eric Christopher makes an album of Upper-Midwest music.

This year Minnesota fiddler Eric Christopher put out an album of Upper Midwest fiddle music.  I wanted to catch up with him about his project and research, so he came over to my house a few months back to talk and play some tunes.

Eric playing one of his own compositions.

Eric has been a staple in the Twin Cities bluegrass scene for many years.  He has played in the High 48's, Tangled Roots, and Minor Planets.  Old-school bluegrass has always been his favorite, but he has dabbled in everything from punk rock to alt-country.

Eric playing a tune from a Craig Ruble recording. Craig learned it
from the playing of Selmer Ramsey.

For this latest project, and his first with only fiddle tunes, he decided to explore what music was closer to home for him by learning tunes from the Upper Midwest states.  He wanted to see if he could connect to a more "Northern" sound.  He has already integrated some of these tunes into his other bands' sets.

His sources are a great wealth of musical knowledge.  Chirps Smith is a walking encyclopedia of Illinios tunes who played and learned from the late Garry Harrison.  Eric studied some tunes of Les Raber, who was a Michigan dance fiddler for 80 years and left behind a wealth of tunes.  Eric learned a tune from our own Sara Pajunen, whose Minnesota-Finnish style can also be heard on the Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project CD.  Although it didn't make the album, Eric learned Red River Jig, which is a staple of the North Dakota Metis fiddlers.   He also picked up a Selmer Ramsey tune from Craig Ruble and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble.

This project was a good excuse for him to break outside of his bluegrass box, and play with some his favorite musicians in a new context for him.  I am glad that a good young fiddler has also decided to tackle this area's music. The result is a album that is very easy on the ears. I look forward to hearing more from Eric in the future as he continues to explore our region's music.

You can buy Eric's album here.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Visit with Beth Hoven Rotto

In early spring, right after the Bluff Country Gathering, I made a trip to go meet Beth Hoven Rotto.  Beth has been keeping the fiddling traditions of Southwest Minnesota and Northeast Iowa alive for the last couple of decades.  I was particularly interested in her time with Bill Sherburne, who is one of Minnesota's most influential old-time fiddlers.  Beth and her band, Foot-notes, have continued Bill's tradition of having old-time dances at church outside of Decorah, Iowa.


Beth received her first violin from her great uncle when she was a young girl and started playing when she was in the first grade.  She played her violin through college, but says she was never really good at it.  Then after college she heard some Norwegian music on a show on the radio. She started taping and learning the tunes from the show.  She felt like she finally found music that she wanted to play.  During this time she heard that the Iowa Arts Council was issuing grants to study with master artists.  She applied to study with Bill Sherburne, who had been the fiddler at the Highlandville dance that she regularily attended. She ended up playing those dances with Bill for the few years until he died and then kept the tradition alive by playing them with her own band.

When Beth first started to talk to Bill about the project, he didn't seem that enthused, and she had a hard time reading him.  She was wondering if her grant was even going to happen because she couldn't get an answer from him.  It ended up being someone in his band that let her know he was excited about doing the project.  Soon Beth and her husband were regulars at Bill's house soaking up his tunes. She thinks she learned about 50 of Bill's tunes.  She remembers sitting right next to him and learning his bow style and the way he played the notes.  People tell her that she sounds a lot like him.

There were others who thought Bill learned from local fiddler Gust Ellingson, but Bill told Beth that he learned a lot of tunes from his grandmother.  Spring Grove was a hotbed of fiddling back in the day.  Bill told her there was a bar in Spring Grove that always had a fiddle on top of the piano for people to play.

Beth has many things she still wants to work on.  There are songbooks from the turn of last century that need to be transcribed, and there are reel to reel collections out there that are still sitting in storage and could be shared with the world.  I look foward to our paths crossing in the future.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Brian Miller and Friends

Brian Miller and Friends are another group I somehow left out of the liner notes on The Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project CD.  It is a shame, because there is no more stronger an advocate for the reclamation of songs played in Minnesota than Brian.  His particular interest is in the songs of the old Irish lumber camps up north. Here is their bio (which I now don't have to edit for length to fit in a booklet.) -

Milwaukee-based tenor banjo player Randy Gosa has studied with several top Irish music masters including Liz Carroll, SiléShigley, Andy Irvine and Tony Nother. He also studied music at the University of Limerick, Ireland with Niall Keegan and Sandra Joyce. He tours nationally with the innovative Celtic group Murzik. In addition to being a string musician for over 15 years, Randy is a graduate of Visual Art and Celtic Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is also an active céilí and set dance musician in Milwaukee and teaches at the Irish Fest School of Music.

Fiddler Nathan Gourley hails from Madison, Wisconsin, where he grew up in a musical family that often traveled to folk and fiddle festivals across the country. Now based in the Twin Cities, Nathan puts his passion for Irish music into practice as a member of several groups including The Two Tap Trio and The Máirtín de CógáinProject. He also performs frequently with Irish accordion legend Paddy O’Brien. These days, Nathan can often be found at the MSP airport en route to many yearly excursions to Ireland, New York, Chicago and other hotbeds of traditional Irish music

“The backing of Brian Miller on guitar flexes not just muscle but a fully complementary style” writes esteemed Irish music critic Earle Hitchner.  Brian’s guitar accompaniment is the backbone of nationally touring Irish music group Bua.He has performed throughout the US and in Canada and Ireland. In Ireland he has been featured on TG4, RTE television and RTE radio. In 2010, Brian received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to fund Minnesota Lumberjack Songs, a CD of Irish-style songs that were once sung in Minnesotan lumber camps. He continues to energetically research the history of Irish music in Great Lakes logging communities. He frequently performs “Irish Music from the Lumber Camps” with Randy at venues around the Midwest.

Click here to go to Brian and Randy's website.