On April 13, 2009, I arranged a three-way telephone interview with the authors of The Portland Collection for my radio show, The Fiddling Zone, on KRCB Radio in Santa Rosa, California.
The Fiddling Zone (FZ): Tell us how The Portland Collection originally came about.
Susan: Well, the original idea was that contra dance music really needed to be heard and played by more people. Prior to our publication, this music was mostly an aural tradition, and any written music was really hard to find.
Clyde: I should point out from the very beginning that the project was really Sue’s idea. I only came in when Sue called me and asked me to assist her in this project of putting together a collection of tunes played by Portland fiddlers. The credit goes to Sue for her vision and her energy.
FZ: Let’s back up a bit. First of all, what was the Portland contra dance scene like in those days?
Clyde: I started playing for contra dances back in the late ’70s, when square dancing was starting to morph into contra dancing here in the Pacific Northwest. When I moved to Portland in 1986, I found a pretty small but very active group of musicians playing for local dances. By the early ’90s, I was playing in a group called Jigsaw, and attending a monthly teaching session sponsored by PCDC (the Portland Country Dance Community). George Penk was the fiddler in Jigsaw, and the two of us were teaching fiddle tunes by ear to beginning-level musicians in Portland. Out of those sessions, there developed regular Wednesday night jam sessions, which, in turn, spawned several long-time Portland contra dance bands.
FZ: Was Susan a part of those early teaching sessions?
Clyde: Yes, that’s where I met Sue. She was playing fiddle and writing down a lot of those tunes. After a while, people were asking her for copies of this music. From that, Sue came up with the idea of putting together the book.
Susan: Because I had never learned music by ear before –– and that’s how Clyde and George were teaching it –– I had no idea whether I’d remember all these tunes by the time I got home. So I started writing them down, and then organizing them, and after a while people were asking me for copies of all this music. They’d say, “I understand you have some contra dance music. Could you sell it to me?” So I started to realize how much people wanted to learn this music, how much of a need there was.
We gave a lot of thought to every detail of the book: how to best organize it so people could find tunes quickly; how much information about each tune; whether the annotations should be on the same page or in the back of the book… Ironically, neither of us are good music readers. Normally, we don’t play from written music at all, except when we have to. So we both struggled with the written music and we wanted to make sure that the music would look real clean and accessible.
Clyde: ... Anyway, when we put the book together, we saw it as a reflection of what fiddlers in Portland were really playing. It was intended mostly for the Portland music community, so we hardly expected it to become a national or worldwide phenomenon –– which is sort of what happened!
Susan: Early in the project, I recall sitting down with Clyde one day and he asked me, “Do you think anyone will actually buy this?” I don’t think we ever dreamed it would become as widespread as it has. Although, in retrospect, I did think it would probably go beyond the Portland community, based on how many people had approached me from other dance communities.
FZ: Tell me how many tunes you had to choose from in the first Portland book. And what were some of the criteria for selection?
Susan: For the first book, I would estimate there were about 360 or so tunes submitted. We just asked all the musicians who played for dances in Portland if they’d be willing to share their repertoire with us.
Everybody was very enthusiastic and people handed over tunes, some of them written, but many of them on tape or just played live, since a lot of the fiddlers only played by ear. So, right away we eliminated the tunes that we knew were already printed in several other collections –– for example, “Paddy on the Turnpike.” We knew you could easily find that tune in a lot of books, so we chose not to include it. But for the second book, amazingly we had about 150 more tunes submitted than we had room for in the book. So we had a much more difficult selection process in the second book. We had to go through and play each tune and decide on the merits of the tune itself whether to include it or not.
Clyde: We had some other parameters, as well. We wanted to include traditional tunes, newly-composed tunes, tunes written by Portland musicians. And we wanted a variety of genres, keys, tune types (marches, reels, jigs, hornpipes). Sue and I had many long discussions about this.
Clyde: But in the second book, we dealt with a lot more music, because in a very short time, it seemed like an explosion was going on in the Portland contra dance scene. I don’t think it was just the publication of the first book, but there was a phenomenal new interest in contra dance music. And suddenly, it seemed as if bands were showing up everywhere! George Penk and I sat down one day and just looked at each other and said, “What have we wrought?” Meaning, we used to get all the gigs in this town! Not anymore.
FZ: Were there a lot of dances?
Susan: Every Saturday night there were dances in Portland. Mostly organized by the Portland Contra Dance Community, but some others, as well.
Clyde: Bands were becoming very competitive. And another band I played in at the time, the Rose City Aces, put on its own dance during those years, featuring mostly Southern Appalachian old time music. Which is why there are so many Southern tunes in The Portland Collection. This was unusual in contra dance tune books.
Susan: Well, it was unusual in other parts of the country for contra dance bands to play music from so many different genres. The bands in Portland play Northern sets, Southern sets, Québécois, a lot of variety.
FZ: That’s what is very impressive in The Portland Collection: old time, Irish, Scottish, Northern tunes, Southern tunes, French Canadian, and so many original fiddle tunes.
Susan: I think there’s another reason for that variety, and that’s the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, held every July in Port Townsend, Washington. Many of the Portland fiddlers attend that festival and bring back fiddle tunes from all over the country, sometimes all over the world.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as two tunes from The Portland Collection ("The Black Cat Jig" and "Le Diable Vert," subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
photo: Diana O'Farrell