Monday, August 29, 2011

Dan Radford

Dan Radford has been playing fiddle for 75 years. He has been in symphonies, bluegrass bands, and Irish bands. He was lucky to have a symphony teacher who took him under his wing and taught him how to play. He then joined the army where he grew to appreciate hillbilly music but had no fiddle. He had his father carefully mail his fiddle, but when it arrived at the base it was in pieces. When he got it properly repaired he started playing with folks on the base, and he said they made some great music back then.

He has been in the same Irish band for 42 years. They have played all over the country, and he has won 1st place in many contests. Now that he is in his 80's he takes particular pride in talking about the young fiddlers he has mentored. He still enters contests but his hearing issues have made it so he doesn't place much any more. He really likes to tell stories of old days at the Yankton, South Dakota and Cotton, Minnesota festivals.

Dan Radford and Paul Andrews playing Ashokan Farewell at the 1994 fiddle contest in Yankton, South Dakota.

The house he built for he and his wife Orpha is one of the most beautiful open homes I have ever been in. It took him 3 months just to build his rock chimney that must be 30 feet high. One of his last construction projects was to build that 5,000 square foot house in Inver Grove Heights. Within moments of Orpha letting us in the door, he is showing us all the details of his house with great pride. He says he built the house by himself with the help of three other people. Their beautiful basement has a wonderful old bar that they reclaimed out of another building he was doing work in. Their beautiful music room is big enough to seat 44 guests for Christmas dinner. His wife of more than 25 years talked about how it gets harder to hold Christmas gatherings now that their extended family has hit 100.

Orpha is obviously very proud of what Dan has accomplished in fiddling and in construction. There are the fiddle trophies on the wall to prove it. She has organized a lot of old Minnesota tapes of fiddlers and fiddle contests. She has graciously let me digitalize a large part of this collection and I will be sharing a portion of it with all of you as time progresses.

Even though they live in the suburbs of Saint Paul, their home in Inver Grove Heights is in the middle of some beautiful country- hills and trees everywhere. As we left a giant falcon flew down in front of us and ripped a rodent out of a tree. Just the kind of setting you would expect to find a good fiddler.

You can buy some of Dan's Irish CD's at this website.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Trip to the Minnesota State Fiddle Championships.

I went to Cotton, Minnesota for the 30th annual Minnesota State Fiddling championships this August. The first thing you notice about northern Minnesota is the large pine trees and the super clean air. The air is a surprise every time I am up there. For those of you who have never been to Cotton, the festival is held an an old school house and a community center. I went up there hoping to find a half dozen older Minnesota fiddlers, but was not surpised to hear the same mantra I have been hearing, "You should have been here 15 years ago, they've all died." The two who I could've interviewed, Gilmore Lee and Lee Cowan live close enough to me that I didn't have to go up to Cotton to interview.

It was a beautiful day until the moment we pulled into Cotton. We finally caught up to the storm we had been seeing for hours and it proceeded to rain for most of the weekend. It was fun to meet the great Lloyd Laplant from northern Minnesota. He is a fine instrument maker whose instruments have a following throughout the country. He said he would try to set me up with some Minnesota old-timers to record, but he admitted that most have passed.

It seemed to be a well run contest, but I was surprised by the utter lack of jams. I hear this is different than in the days of yore. I sat my chair out in front of the school the first night and decided to jam by myself. The contingent of Thunder Bay, Canada folks seemed to outnumber Minnesotans. A couple of those folks were dismayed by the lack of jamming, but never made it back over to jam with me that night. As the night went on we enjoyed the presence of two young folks who worked at a music store in Fargo, North Dakota. They explained how they travel with their wares to all these small festivals and never sell very much, but hope their name gets out there. They seemed to just like the road trip and a chance to drink and share stories with strangers.

I finally convinced some Thunder Bay folks to jam with me under their awning in the rain. We played for several good hours and the only time I got a little lost was during some fast Canadian two-steps. Jack Hill was a great guy to meet, and he placed in the Senior division. We talked about everything under the sun, and it was a pleasure to see him the next week at the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association hundreds of miles away. He has the same issues with losing feeling in his fingers when playing as I do and had to start bowing with his other hand which is amazing to me.

The only thing that saved the weekend besides the great jam Saturday morning was meeting 84-year-old Chester Enger of Hixton, Wisconsin who has been a mainstay at the festival for many years. He played a great archaic version of Life In The Finnish Woods. Afterwords, I went up to talk to him, and he told me the same three stories at least four times in about 5 minutes. He could remember tunes quite well, though. I asked if I could record some tunes from him and he gave me the best answer- Why would he let me record his tunes when he could go home and record himself. I guess that settled that then and there!