There are people on this earth who are so accomplished that one can’t help thinking they lived other lives before arriving in this one—it’s almost as though they got a running start, while the rest of us were just looking for surfaces to latch onto. Dance musician and instrument maker Rodney Miller, Artist Laureate of New Hampshire, is undoubtedly one of these individuals.
Mysticism aside, back in the 1950s and ’60s the young Rodney did enjoy a childhood with some fortuitous musical elements; he had a grandfather who played the fiddle, a mother who played a wide range of music on the piano and the organ, and a father who made sure the family attended fiddler picnics on Sunday afternoons in upstate New York. “That’s where I learned tunes like ‘Ragtime Annie,’ ‘Golden Slippers,’ ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler.’”
Rodney’s father was a Presbyterian minister out of Yale Divinity School who had liked and attended square dances in his youth, so jigs and reels filled his son’s ears at an early age. Meanwhile, his mother exposed him not only to classical repertoire, but to the music of the twenties and thirties; “She played ragtime tunes like ‘Nola,’ ‘Tiger Rag,’ and ‘Rosetta.’ It’s all in here,” he told me, pointing to his head, during an interview at his historic, lakeside home in New Hampshire.
Rodney was exposed to the traditional arts from day one. When he wasn’t preaching, Rodney’s father did woodworking. In addition, when she wasn’t playing piano, Rodney’s mother did quilting. And if this didn’t make for enough creative soil, Rodney’s mother made sure that each child learned an instrument. Of the four children, Rodney got the fiddle. It was just the luck of the draw: “Nobody seemed aware of which ‘handedness’ you were back then. So, at age seven, I, being a lefty, was learning to play right-handed on my grandfather’s full-size violin.” Luckily, for this lanky youth, his arms were already long enough to reach the scroll.
By the time he was a teenager, Rodney began to make musical pilgrimages—a habit which has served him well:
“There was a fiddler named Wayne Merrill, out in West Walworth, near Rochester—he had been a lumberjack in his youth. He was in his late eighties when I met him. He had a repertoire from the turn of the century, stuff from Coles’ 1,000 Fiddle Tunes
…. He had an eccentric repertoire, he told me all these stories about lumber camp and logging, like the mountain lion coming onto the roof of his cabin—he knew some quirky tunes, one of which I later recorded as ‘Wayne Merrill’s Jig,’ on the New Leaf
CD with David Surette.”
Although he is widely regarded as one of the most versatile and accomplished contra dance fiddlers ever to grace the stage, Rodney didn’t play for dances until he entered Oberlin College at the age of eighteen. “I was recruited to play basketball. I went for an interview my senior year of high school and found out that the fiddler in Oberlin’s old time string band was graduating, and they said ‘you have to be our fiddler. You have to come.’” So he quit basketball his freshman year and decided to join on as Fiddlin’ Rod and the Totalo Ticklers.
Acting on an opportune tip from an Oberlin classmate, Rodney then spent the summer following his freshman year at Pinewoods Music and Dance Camp on Cape Cod. “I was on scholarship for Dance Music week and then was asked by May Gadd, (then director of the Country Dance and Song Society), to stay and play for dances at Folk Music week.” This is every folkie’s dream; the last night at Pinewoods is generally spent weeping into one’s beer (or into Long Pond) at the thought of having to leave camp the next day. In fact, Pinewoods brochures are full of cautionary phrases about making sure you pack the night before and observe the 10AM departure time Saturday morning. But the musical angels had surrounded Rodney once again.
During camp, Rodney was particularly pleased to make Gadd’s acquaintance. Not only was she kind and supportive of his fiddling, but she represented a direct link to the traditional music and dance world of the early 1900s, when collectors like England’s Cecil Sharpe were doing their seminal field work. In many ways, the relationships he forged during his 1971 stay at Pinewoods formed the springboard for Rodney’s career as a dance musician; it was there that he first met Jeff Warner and Jeff Davis. Contra dance leader Dudley Laufman, on staff that summer, immediately hired Rodney to drive around New England with him in his VW bug and to fiddle for dances in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And it’s up in New Hampshire where Rodney met and worked with the influential dance caller Ralph Page. Rodney began to fall in love with the New England contra dance scene.
Back at Oberlin, Rodney designed his own music and art major which consisted of making instruments, collecting fiddle tunes, and taking ethno-musicology classes.
“I applied for a grant to do a one semester project and got $300 to travel to Vermont in the dead of winter with this reel to reel tape recorder. I went to Plainfield where Goddard College is and visited this old guy named Neil Converse. So I went to his house a couple of times at night—he was a dairy farmer in his mid-eighties who lived alone. Converse was spry but ailing, and I sat in his living room. He had a floor heater that kicked on every ten minutes, so we’d be talking and playing some tunes and there’d be this roar! I learned ‘Green Mountain Petronella,’ ‘Opera Reel,’ and lots of schottisches…. Both Wayne Merrill and Neil Converse had numbness in their hands and they kept slapping their thighs to get some feeling back in their fingers.”
Rodney also spent time visiting and playing tunes with Clem Myers, then president of the Northeast Fiddlers Association based in Barre, Vermont, where he picked up tunes such as “Pacific Slope Reel” and “Golden Wedding Reel.”
But with all of these experiences, when asked about mentors, the name that comes up most is that of a Québécois fiddler whom Rodney barely knew:
“I was infatuated with Jean Carignan. Just trying to learn everything that he played. I kept putting the needle back on that vinyl over and over to learn the hard stuff.” This was before the Amazing Slow-Downer that so many musicians now avail themselves of. “I first heard Jean Carignan play on his Folk Fiddler Electrifies Newport
album back in the mid-seventies. It was one of those life-changing moments. I thought, how can someone play like that? He sounded like Michael Coleman on crack. I had to figure out how he played like he did…electric, bouncing bows, pyrotechnic triplets. I knew then what I had to do…figure it out and imitate him as best I could. I spent hours, weeks, years, doing that. What I came up with has been a cornerstone of my fiddle style—playing with the bow off the strings most of the time, punctuating notes only for the briefest time as the melody spins out. That’s not to say I don’t use the bow full-on while playing waltzes and airs or some of the old time/bluegrassy tunes. But for dance music, that’s what I do. I would describe it as a lifting, airy style of playing, as if energy and space is built into the music, helping to propel both the dancers and the listeners. That’s why I made a series of albums with the word Airplang, to carry through with that airy feeling. Carignan gave me that insight. I met him once and shook his hand. Little did he know what a huge influence he had on me.”
[For much more of this interview, as well as Rodney’s tune “Cloud Nine,” subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, or purchase the Summer 2015 issue
[New Hampshire musician and story chaser Sarah Jane Nelson strives for the same perfect balance, but continues to live a life of artistic disarray. When not writing, or playing for dances, Sarah derives great joy from singing and fiddling in libraries.]
Photo: Robert Johnson (Photography Loft, Keene, NH)