"Judy Hyman," a fellow fiddler said recently, "is a force." And that pretty much cuts to the heart of it. For thirty years, Judy Hyman has been playing a powerful groove, exploring the edges of the tradition with the Horse Flies and, more recently, playing with Big Table and Small Tattoo in the dance world, the indie-rock band Boy with a Fish, touring with Natalie Merchant, and doing her own writing for film scores and other media. Like other prominent old time fiddlers of her generation, Judy caught the bug at southern festivals in the '70s, getting a chance to hear old masters like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham play. Since then, she's done what's come naturally, exploring the rhythmic possibilities of the tradition and putting out some good dance music.
On an early spring day in 2004 we met at Judy's house in Ithaca for some eggplant and brown rice, tunes on the lawn, and a long chat.
When did you start playing?
I started violin when I was eight. I started piano when I was seven. That's not tremendously early by today's standards, but that was pretty typical back then. My dad's a pianist, so it was assumed that everyone would take piano lessons. I started piano and then a year later they said to me, "Well, now it's time for the second instrument." I remember my mom taking me to a grade school orchestra concert and I looked around and thought, "Well, those cellos, those are pretty big and unwieldy, and the flutes, they're just sitting there with the instrument in their lap most of the time, but the violins, they play all the time, and they're getting all the melodies. Wow, that's what I want to do."
Where was all this?
I grew up in northern New Jersey. That particular experience was in Tenafly, and then I went to high school in Montclair. I'm a Jersey girl.
Where'd you go to music school?
Indiana University in Bloomington -- a great experience.
And there is a fiddling community there.
Yeah, there is. At that point we chose Bloomington because Jeff [Claus] is from rural Illinois and always wanted to live a relatively rural kind of existence, and I'm from just outside New York City and wanted some action. Bloomington was a really good combination for us that way.
Your interest in fiddling had been sparked before that.
I can put a date on it. When I was in the middle of college, I had already decided that I wanted to play violin seriously and go to music school. But I had to finish college first -- that was a parental edict. I was practicing really hard and going to school and just burning it up in terms of hours to the day. I told a friend of mine that I needed to do something for pure fun. She had started playing fiddle, and she said, "Well I can get you a ride to this festival. It's called Union Grove." So I went down to Union Grove [North Carolina] and the driver was Jeff. I was introduced to old time fiddle and my husband in the same weekend -- kind of a life-changing event. That was spring 1973.
So there I was gearing up to go back to music school, which I did about three years later, and getting interested in fiddle at the same time. Which was really complicated, because the techniques are pretty different, and I was ridden with guilt over the fiddling. In those days the violin world was really closed to the idea of fiddle playing, which has changed entirely. You would go into a violin store, looking for instruments or bows, and the minute you started playing fiddle music, they would all turn up their noses and bring you out the cheapest stuff. And I didn't want my teachers to know I was playing fiddle because I thought they would think it was interfering with my progress and ask me to stop. The world has opened up a great deal.
Who were your early influences, the players who really got you excited early on?
I was really excited by a group of the old guard, and I was really also very excited by a group of my peers, some of whom were slightly older and some of whom were slightly younger, but they had been around it longer than I. Of the old guard, I can still honestly say that Tommy Jarrell is my favorite fiddle-player of all time. I still take out those records and they make my heart skip a beat. He's definitely a mainstay, and then other people that I encountered at festivals and was really excited by were people like Fred Cockerham and Benton Flippin and Ernest East.
They were a huge influence, but for me of equal influence were the people who had learned from those guys. So, certainly Bruce Molsky, James Leva, Brad Leftwich, Andy Williams, definitely Pete Sutherland, also later on, Mike Bryant. I look back on it a lot, and at that point my chief aspiration was to be a second fiddle player. It never even occurred to me that I would lead and front something.
It was so interesting to me what people did with their bows. I couldn't figure out how they got that sound and all that rhythm. When you're in the South and it's late at night and there's all that moisture in the air, the fiddles play so great -- they open out and get really smooth and liquid. It was an enchanting sound. And of course when you're in your early twenties you have the energy to stay up for four days in a row, so each one of those experiences was incredibly intense. So I started out thinking that what I wanted to do was back people up, play second fiddle. I listened to a lot of music but I didn't necessarily learn all of the tunes note for note, and then time went on and I started really learning the tunes.
Also, I have to say that a big part of my initial interest was the social scene around old time fiddle. We went to southern festivals several times each summer for fifteen years or more and made some pretty great friends there.
At this point where are you getting your repertoire from?
Well, there are a lot of people now burning discs of all sorts of wonderful things. In the last few years I've been given discs of Marcus Martin -- that's been a really great source -- and Bill Hemsley and Manco Snead. There's a set of John Salyer stuff that's pretty important. I love Rayna Gellert's album, Ways of the World, and a lot of Dirk Powell's and Rafe Stefanini's work. And the Ed Haley and Edden Hammons stuff is great. Some of those have been around for some time, but I've only just acquired them in the past few years.
In addition to buying LPs, I used to get my repertoire by going to festivals and taping. That bureau behind you is full of tapes. I'm not doing that anymore, though I've gotten some good tunes on tape at camps I've participated in. People's repertoire has grown incredibly, and I can't say that mine has grown enormously. Expanding my repertoire hasn't always been the goal. I think I've gotten in deeper with the tunes that I've played for a really long time. This week, Richie Stearn's mother died and so we've spent a lot of time together playing and hanging out. On Monday we played and we played a lot of those great old Round Peak standards, and I have to say a lot of my heart is still in that stuff. I love it. I just love it.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as a transcription of Judy's tune "Ralph's Watch," purchase the Fall 2004 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays both fiddle and guitar. He holds a master's degree in traditional Irish fiddle from the University of Limerick, currently plays with Magic Foot and Colman's Well, and directs Turtle Dove Harmony. Please see www.brendantaaffe.com and www.myspace.com/magicfootmusic.]
Photo: Randi Anglin