By stereotype, it might be expected that a violinist with a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University with years of experience playing with symphony orchestras would be living in a metropolitan circle of culture. Deborah Greenblatt defies stereotyping.
About forty-five miles south of Omaha, the Nebraska countryside features well-cultivated farmland. Houses are few and far between. A dead end “spur” off of a narrow rural road leads to the community of Avoca (population 270), which essentially has no commercial enterprises other than a feed and grain store. Since the town no longer appears on most maps, I was thankful that Google Maps provided directions for my visit to the storied Old Schoolhouse.
In this distinctly isolated area, Deborah Greenblatt and her husband, David Seay, live in the Old Schoolhouse (there is no longer an active school in Avoca). Their 10,000 square foot musical mecca has a sunken gymnasium and a lovely auditorium with a stage; most of the space is devoted to teaching studios, computer labs, instrument storage, and performance areas. The two live in a relatively small area of the Old Schoolhouse. Yes, Deborah Greenblatt is the modern-day equivalent of the “prairie school marm” with a world-class folk music school.
Deborah was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, on July 24, 1951, “the same day that Henry David Thoreau got busted for tax evasion—to commemorate it, my father insisted later that the whole family walk the circumference of Walden Pond.” For her first four years, she lived in Belmont, Massachusetts, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, at the age of eight, and then at age ten to Warwick, Rhode Island.…
By her high school years, Debby’s talent for music was obvious. She played in the school orchestra, and was studying violin with Ermete Maiani. “Because my parents took the family to the Newport Folk Festival, the first music book that I ever purchased at Axelrod’s Music in Providence was a book of fiddle tunes. Mr. Maiani took one look at it, got mad, and told me that ‘if you are going to play that kind of music, you need to take lessons from someone else.’” So she stayed on the classical straight and narrow road, and was soon playing with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. In her senior year of high school, she began to study violin with Professor Gerald Geldbloom at Boston University. Little did anyone realize what lay ahead for her in the fiddling world.
Deborah continued her commitment to classical violin by majoring in violin performance at and receiving her Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University (1973), and playing with the Portland (Maine) Symphony Orchestra. In the process, she studied with Professor Gelbloom, and Eugene Lehner served as her chamber music coach (both Gelbloom and Lehner played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Onward she went, playing with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra (Durham, NC, 1973-74), Brevard Symphony Orchestra (Cape Canaveral, FL, 1974-75), and Florida Symphony Orchestra, along with gigs at Disneyland (Orlando, FL, 1975-76). And then her life changed in many ways—she moved to Nebraska.
In 1976, she was recruited to play principal second violin with the Omaha (NE) Symphony Orchestra. She arrived to find that the ensemble was in great turmoil. The conductor, perhaps at the mandate of the board of directors, had declared that, to upgrade, the orchestra would replace members from the community with professional musicians from elsewhere. In a roughshod manner, local musicians were fired and emotions flared—some sources, to this day, believe that the schism between the Orchestra management and the community has never been adequately bridged. Into the swirl of negativity came twenty-five year-old Deborah; she was forced to share a stand with the violinist she had displaced (Virginia Moriarty): “She was diplomatic about my replacing her as principal, but there was tension—we came to be, however, great stand partners.” Deborah stayed with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra for two years (1976-78).
The unpleasant atmosphere in the Orchestra opened her mind to other possibilities. When she met David Seay and he asked her to play fiddle with his bluegrass band, her musical route shifted dramatically. And they married about three months later (July 27, 1978) in Omaha.
Why did you take up the fiddle?
Deborah: A simple answer, the sound of the strings appealed to me.
Given your classical training, are you tied to the page, so to speak?
Being with symphonies, I read well, so I got calls to play for major acts coming to Omaha—George Burns, Bill Cosby, the Fifth Dimension, and many others—which really diversified my musical interests and expanded my knowledge of my instrument. In the early years of making a living with my music, I was not very good at improvisation, but I am better now. Playing bluegrass requires connecting into what the other musicians are playing, so improvisation is required.
Was David Seay your biggest influence to move into old time fiddling?
To some extent, but when I first came to Omaha, a year before I met David, I became friends with a colorful old fiddler in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Carl Wilson Carson. He was a street musician and he taught me how play folk music to connect to an audience. Carl taught me a lot of fiddle tunes, and would take me to local fiddle jam sessions.
I am aware that you and David have a very active performance schedule, playing a lot of concerts and doing residencies in the schools, but you also seem to have developed a well respected and recognized publishing company.
We play about fifty gigs a year in a wide variety of venues and with audiences of all ages. Our repertoire is all over the place. We tell stories, play unusual instruments, dress in old time clothing, and really try to entertain folks. For our publishing, we do compositions and arrangements for string instruments and recorders that range from folk to ethnic to ragtime to jazz to whatever. We especially like to do songs for kids. We have received some very positive reviews in music magazines, including Fiddler Magazine. Our website has also been productive (www.greenblattandseay.com
). At first, we thought we were lucky to get an order once per week, and then almost suddenly, orders became a steady flow. We have been fortunate.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as Deborah’s song/tune “Practice, Practice, Practice,” purchase
the spring 2010 issue, or subscribe
to Fiddler Magazine!]
Publications and Discography
Greenblatt & Seay have a “cornucopia of musical publications and recordings,” including (but certainly not limited to) collections of fiddle tunes (solos, duets, and trios for numerous instruments), string arrangements (trios, quartets, quintets, and orchestras), and recorder arrangements (solos, duets, trios, and quartets), and recordings. A few of the CD products are:
• Barn Dance Fiddle Tunes for Two Violins
• Irish Fiddle Tunes for Two Violins
• Wedding Fiddling Tunes for Two Violins
• Freakin’ Fiddles • Fiddle Fables • Noah’s Ark
[Robert “Doc” Woody is a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and a consulting psychologist and an attorney in private practice. He is the leader of Doc Woody and the River City Ragtime Band (see www.docwoodymusic.com
). He frequently contributes articles to music journals and magazines.]