The first time I heard Ruthie Dornfeld play the fiddle was December of 1999. She was performing with one of her many musical collaborators, Ruth Hunter. Two women: one accordion, one fiddle, and one voice. As soon as they started to play I was taken on a journey starting in Eastern Europe to Greece, through Scandinavia, Ireland and back. Without altering her impeccable groove, she was able to play a dazzling array of styles, all with the fattest tone imaginable, not to mention beautifully perfect intonation. I was instantly curious about her background as a musician and how her style developed. How was she able to cover so much stylistic ground and still maintain her own distinctive sound? Although she spent many years in the Northeast, she has returned to her native Pacific Northwest to teach, perform and record. She lives in Seattle, Washington, and if you are lucky enough to attend a concert or dance where she is performing you are likely to hear some of the most interesting and gutsy fiddling around.
When did you start to play violin?
I started when I was eleven. My grandfather used to play classical violin but he also played for German dances. He's German-American. My father grew up in Milwaukee, and was part of a German community and his parents spoke German. Music was definitely in the family and my father played piano seriously. Not for a living, but seriously. He made sure everybody in the family learned how to play some instrument. I think I chose the violin because he was trying to get my older sister to play it. I saw her try to play and I thought, "Oh, I want to do that."...
When did you turn your focus away from playing classical music and toward folk?
When I was eighteen years old. I was into international folk dancing. That's where I heard Balkan music for the first time. A group of us dancers that played music got together and formed a little band, and that's when I first started to play that music. At that point, because I didn't really know how to play by ear, I had to painstakingly transcribe everything into music first. But I still hadn't really heard any American folk music. I was just playing European folk music. I thought it was very exciting. It wasn't that I didn't like classical music, but I thought it was an exciting addition. I liked the idea of knowing how to play by ear and wanted to do that. After about a year I met a local guy who played just American fiddle tunes. And I went down to see the Oregon State championship fiddling contest and that's when I saw people playing Irish music and American music for fun in sessions. I started thinking, "Oh I want to learn how to do this, too."
Did you have to spend a lot of time on ear training?
Yes, I did at the beginning.
How did you learn? Was it just trial and error and time?
In the beginning, I would have a recording and I would just play a little piece of it and then I would have to write it down. That kind of trained my ear. After a while I didn't have to write it down. All I know is that it was very, very difficult in the beginning. I took one fiddle lesson. I remember that. I could learn a phrase that the woman showed me, but then she would show me another phrase and after I learned that one then I couldn't remember the first one. I just couldn't hold things in my head the way you need to when you're playing by ear.
Were you pretty sure that music was something you wanted to spend most of your time doing and maybe try to make money at it? Was that in your thoughts at that point?
What was in my thoughts was, "How do I avoid getting a job?"
I thought, if I could do that by playing the fiddle, that would be great. Then I met Joel Bernstein He told me he lived in Olympia (this was when I was still in Corvallis), played at Pike Street Market, and that his fiddling partner had just moved away to Alaska. So I thought this was my chance.
And Joel was playing banjo?
Yes. At that time Joel was just playing banjo. So I went up to Olympia and found him and started playing in the Market with him. I guess I'd probably done some gigs before then, but that was the first time I really made a serious attempt to play for a living.
Did you know a lot of American tunes at that time?
I knew some and I was learning, roughly. There were all these people studying American country music at Evergreen College. Like Scott Nygaard and Dale Russ were there studying Irish music. Mark Graham wasn't a student there but he was hanging around, and Karen England. So I would just learn tunes from them.
Did you move pretty soon after that to the East Coast? Or was that quite a bit later?
Not yet. I moved up to Olympia for a year and then Joel and I lived in Vancouver, B.C. for three months where we busked. Then we went to Ireland. I turned twenty-one in Ireland, I remember, and then I came back to the West Coast for a couple years. Then I moved to Seattle for six months, and then went to the East Coast. I think when I moved to the East Coast I was about twenty-four.
And why did you move there?
Actually the original reason I went to the East Coast was because I wanted to find some old southern fiddler to study with. I never made it there. I made it to Vermont where I was happy and so just stayed there for a year. And then I moved to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music after that. Once I moved to Boston I somehow found that I was able to really make a living just by playing music, so I didn't move for fourteen years.
What kind of music were you playing in Boston?
The music I could make money at was for the contra dances because there were just so many of them.
So you went from playing southern music to playing contra dance music. How would you describe the contra dance music?
Well, when I moved there I think most people were playing a lot of traditional New England music, which is more French Canadian, and sort of sounds English, too. And then some Irish music, too. I thought, well you can play anything that has 32 bars. So I started playing a bunch of old time and Irish music, whatever I felt like, and everybody else seemed to like that, too.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Winter 02/03 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Adam Tanner lives in North Carolina, where he plays old time southern fiddle and bluegrass mandolin.]