The young Jeff Anderson’s greatest pleasure was listening to his grandfather fiddling. “He sat in the rocking chair,” Jeff remembers, “and I always stood and watched him.” It was through this person-to-person handing on of traditional music that families and communities have been endowed with repertoires and styles.
Jeff’s grandpa, Carl Melcher, settled with his wife Olga in North Dakota around the turn of the last century. Jeff’s other grandparents, Norwegians Kristofer and Petra Anderson, arrived there in the early 1900s. Kristofer was a stone mason. “He knew how to hit a stone just right to split it.” He also knew just how to play a fiddle tune. The Anderson house became “a way station for musicians. They had all kinds of jams and parties there. It would be fun if you could go back in time [and join them],” Jeff said.
The homesteaders were scattered by the droughts, dust storms, and Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s: “there were no jobs and nothing for the animals to eat on the farm.” Kristofer and Petra moved to Alaska. Their son Palmer decided to join Carl’s family on their trek west. When they got to Waterville, in eastern Washington, the first winter snow had fallen, so they stayed.
Carl soon began playing for local dances, accompanied by Olga on the pump organ. “They would have dances in people’s barns, a mix of squares and waltzes and stuff like that, probably not as many turning dances as they did in North Dakota.” Nine of the fourteen Melcher children played a musical instrument. Palmer was also an accomplished fiddler. “I guess I have quite a musical family—practically every weekend they would do something, there was music all the time,” Jeff said. In 1938, Palmer married Ruby Melcher, and in 1953 their son, Jeff, was born.
At fifteen, Jeff was inspired by the fiddling of five-year old Doug Thomas in Wenatchee. “I thought, if he can do it maybe I can, too. I told Dad, ‘I’d like to play.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we have two fiddles at home.’” Jeff “wanted to play like Grandpa could play. I looked at pictures to see how he held his hand and tried to figure out how to play it.” Palmer thought it was best “if you figure it out for yourself,” so Jeff was mostly left to his own devices and a tape recording of Carl, who had died a few years before. It was some time before Jeff realized he “somehow had [the fiddle] tuned wrong. Finally my dad tuned it.” Learning got a little easier after that. When he thought he had a tune, he would play it for his mother. If she couldn’t fit the chords in, they knew something was wrong…
Within a year Jeff felt confident enough to play “Devil’s Dream” for some fiddlers at the Waterville fair and “they had to have me join [the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association].”
Eighty-year old Bill Speicker became Jeff’s mentor. He questioned Jeff’s decision to play with just two fingers, grabbing hold of the other two fingers, saying, “what do you have these for then?” Jeff thought, “I’m getting the notes in, so what’s the difference?” Once he started playing more and wore the skin off those two fingers he realized what the difference was. He got a pot-bellied mandolin to work out the fingering, then learned all his tunes again on the fiddle—for the third time.
Jeff met more musicians in his travels. One weekend in 1999 he met accordion player Jane Johnson. “Her fingers just floated over the keyboard, because she played it across the rows, the way you’re supposed to. [We] played late into the night and again the next day.” Jane had learned from Norwegian-American Ed
Morkin and Norwegian Tor Aage Johansen and had visited Tor Aage in Norway, going to the remote Lofoten Islands—“so far out there that even the Norwegians think it’s far away,” she said—where Kristofer and Petra Anderson had met and married.
Jeff’s is a stellar example of Norwegian-American music that was once played across the northern United States but is now dying out. He was included in Norwegian musicologist Einar Eimhjellen’s 2000 study of Norwegian music in America. Einar noted that Jeff, while influenced by other styles, has “best kept the tradition of the early immigrants from Scandinavia.” In September 2011, Jeff and Jane visited Einar at his home near the tiny town of Naustal—“the trip of a lifetime.” They played at concerts, community dances, and one contest, for which they learned a springar, the oldest dance in that region… Jeff was awarded the town’s coat of arms. “I told the mayor it was really something to learn the tunes here, but then to come over [to Norway] and play them where they came from in the first place was a big treat. I didn’t dream that would happen, to get the tunes to go full circle.”
Jeff and Jane (they married in 2004) play together in two bands, Nordic Exposure and Nordic Spirit. Jeff has been on the faculty at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Norsk Folkdance Stemne, and the American Swedish Institute, and has taught numerous workshops.
Jeff lights up when he picks up his fiddle. “I had just as much fun the first time I took it out of the box as I do now, I feel the same rush, each time I take it out of the box—happy to play it, fun just to get it out,” he says. This joy shines through all of his performances.
[Jeff’s recordings are available from Voyager Records (www.voyagerrecords.com): Jeff Anderson Fiddling in the Family Tradition and Nordic Spirit. He was featured in Roses in Winter: A Celebration of Northwest Fiddlers by Bríd Nowlan and Stuart Williams, available from the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association (www.wotfa.org).]
[Bríd Nowlan is a writer and fiddler in Seattle, Washington.]
[For the full text of this article and the tune “Per the Blacksmith’s Vals” (Smed-Jens Vals), purchase the Spring 2012 issue, or subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]