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.

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