"You know how to tell when you're gettin' old?" asks octogenarian Larry Downey, entertaining a concert audience with stage patter between fiddle tunes. "When you bend over to tie your shoes, you look around to see if there's anything else you can do while you're down there."
Born August 3, 1910, in Endicott, New York, he still teaches, plays regularly, and performs occasionally. Often, he joins with an ensemble for jam sessions on weekday evenings in a local church, in the region where he's lived his whole life, not far from where the Susquehanna River crosses the Pennsylvania border. Hammer dulcimer, guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano, flute, tin whistle, sometimes an accordion, and always fiddles, get together without an audience, just to play the old repertoire; and Larry Downey is the elder statesman, remembering songs from his childhood, and pretty much the entire century since.
Larry accounts for some of his talent from Welsh, Scottish, and Irish forebears. "Welsh people are noted for their abilities with melodies and their singing," he says. His mother's uncle was a violin maker; and he remembers her whistling or humming tunes as she went about her housework, sometimes picking out melodies on a pump organ or piano.
He's played concerts, coffeehouses, hotels, weddings, parties, nursing homes, round and square dances. During the 1940s and '50s, he played country-western radio broadcasts with a union orchestra. He's been inducted into the New York State Old-Time Fiddling Association's Hall of Fame. He's entered contests around the eastern U.S., and won a few. "But I really don't like contests. They keep you on your mettle, but the very idea of competition sort of goes against my grain, because it's not really the fun part."
In spite of all this experience, "I never became a professional musician," Larry says. He always had a job somewhere else: shoe factory and tannery worker; taxi driver and manager of a cab business; truck driver for the Town of Union; and finally highway foreman for eighteen years before his retirement.
How did you get started?
A man came knocking on our door, and he wanted to know if there was anyone in the house who wanted to learn to play the violin. My father said, 'Well, maybe.' He turned to me and said, 'So, what do you say?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to, I'd like to.' So my father said, 'What is the proposition? What are you offering?' He said, 'Well, we charge 75¢ a lesson, and if you take forty-eight lessons, we will give you the violin.' Well, that sounded real great, way back in 1917 or so, and I said, 'Gee, great,' or something to that effect, and so we agreed.
The violin that you got...
That violin came in a canvas sack. With snaps on it. I don't think it was a full-size violin I don't think I was quite long-armed enough to play a full-size violin, yet. I think they kind of fitted us to the fiddle when we got to take our first lesson. I was walking home from this church I must have been about nine or ten, I think. I'd been playing in that church and it was a bitter, bitter cold night. The moon was shining brightly, and I had that fiddle, in the canvas case, tucked under my arm, and my hands in my pants pockets. And I came to a very slippery, icy spot, and I fell on that poor little fiddle, and crushed it. And that was the end of that one. But we had some neighbors who were throwing away a violin they were just going to throw it in the garbage pail. And someone helped me to get strings, and a bridge, and a tailpiece, and tune it up, and get it going. That's how I got my second fiddle. I don't think from there on I was ever without a violin.
What kind of music did you play, when you were first learning?
Most of the standard things that were accepted at that time, like "Red Wing," and "Snow Deer," which by the way were on my grandfather's old Edison phonograph, on cylinder records. He had two dresser drawers full of them, and that was a lot of records, because they didn't take a lot of room. I'd go to his house and sit and listen by the hour to the old Edison phonograph. And I remember some of those tunes from before I learned to play the fiddle. Those tunes were in my mind, I could whistle them, or hum 'em, and as soon as I learned how to play, I could play them.
When do you think you were at your best?
Maybe now. I don't know. I really don't think I've lost anything. Perhaps a little speed in my vibrato. That varies, according to how you feel. If you're getting feedback from an audience, that you know are enjoying what you're doing, then you can do it much more easily. Your fiddle seems to sing better, if you're getting feedback that people are pleased. It's not a thing that you can put your finger on. But all artists seem to know this. All people who play music have to have this feeling of approbation from their audience. And it instills a desire to excel.
How would you describe the style that you play now?
"Much varied." I love very, very, varied repertoire. There's certain elements in what I do that's in most jig and reel books, hornpipe style, and like that foot-stompin' music, that's what I like to do things that make you wanna stomp your feet. When I used to play square dances, I used to like to see their knees come right up under their chins!
[Michael Butler is a freelance writer and poet who lives in Vestal, New York.]
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Larry's tune "Halloween Sprite," purchase the Fall 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]