We hold our images dear. When we speak of Irish music, we think of the fiddler who learned his tunes from his father and his father’s father, his music sprung from his native soil. But the community of Irish music has grown large and complex, and is now played around the world. Born in Japan to a Navy father, Sarah Blair’s playing is earthy, driving, and complex –– her music fully a part of the idiom. If it really is our choices that define us, Sarah is an exemplar of such choice and of dedication to a music she loves. We spoke at her home in Montpelier, Vermont.
Tell me how you got started playing the fiddle.
I started playing classical violin in a public school string program in third grade in Alexandria, Virginia. My mother played violin, so I was very keen –– so keen that they talked the school into letting me start a year early. I had heard some traditional Scottish music when I was a kid –– my dad’s family is from Cape Breton Island and we used to go to Highland Games –– and I was a big fan of Hee Haw. The violin player on Hee Haw was this lady who smiled the whole time she played –– she made a big impression on me. I always thought I’d really like to play fiddle music, but I didn’t know anyone who was playing it, and I couldn’t play anything by ear. I played classical music through school, though I did have a three-year break where I had no lessons, no teacher, and no school program. In my senior year I had a private teacher who was a member of the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a very good teacher –– Sheldon Lambert –– and said a couple of things that really stuck with me. He said, “This could well be the last year that you have lessons, so what we need to do is clean up your technique. We need to get you squared away forever.” That whole year all I did was exercises. I had one melody: other than that, it was all scales and exercises and bowing exercises and shifting exercises. It was gut-wrenching.
You stuck with that?
For one year. I did quit at the end of that school year. He said something else funny –– when I went for my first lesson, he asked me to play something for him. I played a Mozart piece and I didn’t play it that well. When I finished, he asked me what my goal was. I said, “Well, I don’t want to be a professional musician or anything,” and he said, “Obviously.” It wasn’t the most tactful thing, but he was right –– the writing was on the wall about classical violin. I didn’t listen to it. I wasn’t seeking it out. I didn’t love it.
Then I went to college at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I didn’t play much until the end when I got into the free improv, a completely non-idiomatic, “out” music. There’s no theme, no head, key, time signature –– many people hate it. One time I played a tape that I had made for my parents. My dad listened to it for about twenty seconds, folded his paper, said, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” and left the room. And it was; it was definitely the worst thing he’d ever heard. After college, we were living in Providence and I met Jimmy Devine. Jimmy was born in New York to Irish parents, and is one of the real lynchpins of the Irish scene in Providence –– playing for dances, sessions, house parties, and teaching. I had really been wanting to learn to play Irish fiddle, and when I met Jimmy I finally had an “in.” Jimmy totally got me started –– he was wonderful. I didn’t know anything. He loaned me a bunch of records, and I mean all of his record collection. He was moving from one apartment to another and he handed me a crate of records and said, “Here, return these to my next apartment. Help me move.”
Not lessons, but informal direction.
Not formal, but it was very direct. It was him and me at his house. Don’t use vibrato: do do this. He was very formative, and especially formative about listening to people whose music was worthwhile. Jimmy invited me to sessions in his house and I’d sit right next to him and try to copy everything he did. Just a really generous guy. There were a bunch of people in Providence at the time playing music –– Mark Roberts, Patrick Hutchinson, Tina Lech was a teenager and a really fabulous fiddler. We had a great time: we played for set dancing and ceili dancing, and we played out and played in people’s houses. We’d go to Boston periodically, but mostly stayed around Providence.
Didn’t you play a lot in the Boston scene?
I did. After we moved here, I started playing a lot in Boston. I played every weekend with people like Noel Scott, Billy Kelly, and Shay Walker. It was a great crowd of people down there. I had a great time and put in massive hours of playing.
How did those sessions shape your playing?
There were some great things I learned in Boston. Before that, I definitely had a tendency to be too careful about how I was playing. That was beaten out of me playing at sessions in Boston. I learned to play out, play strongly, and play with strong rhythm.
You came into this tradition from a classical background and you aren’t Irish –– I’m curious if there was any prejudice against you leading sessions.
By that point I don’t think there was. I had had the incredible good fortune of being in Providence when I was first playing, because none of those people were from Ireland and it wasn’t a performing scene. Not being Irish was not an issue, and I didn’t feel like anybody looked down on me for having a classical background. It was really matter of fact and obvious that there were things to overcome by having that background: the automatic vibrato had to go and there’s a certain way that classical violinists use their bows that’s just completely inappropriate. I’m sure that people listened to a lot of really poor playing from me while I was getting that figured out. In Boston, I don’t think people cared that much that I was American. Sometimes people were surprised that I was American and could play a bit. There were definitely times when someone wanted to bring me down by making some reference to a classical background. But the way I look at it, it’s like being bilingual. There are people who can speak more than one language verbally and there are people who can speak more than one language musically. It’s all a matter of deciding what is the sound you want to make and figuring out how you make those different sounds.
I will say that I had no interest in any other kind of fiddling. I wasn’t playing for contra dances –– I’d never been to a contra dance. I wasn’t interested in New England playing. I admired certain French-Canadian fiddlers that I’d heard, but I didn’t try to learn any of those tunes. I was monomaniacal about traditional Irish fiddling. So, while I didn’t achieve the sound I wanted to get, it was obvious that I was trying to be within the tradition. I think that made a big difference –– it comes across pretty soon that someone is devoted to this particular tradition.
[For the full text of this interview, and the tunes “The Hope Jig” and “Minnie Young’s,” purchase the Summer 2007 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays fiddle and guitar for contra dances and concerts. He holds a master’s degree in Irish music from the University of Limerick, and has toured in Europe and North America. Visit his website atwww.brendantaaffe.com]