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Bill Stevens: Preserving the Gwich'in Athabascan Fiddle Traditions
Mary Larsen
1999-06-01

Born in 1933 in a log cabin on the Black River, Alaska, Bill Stevens was raised thirty-five miles away in Fort Yukon, where all-night potlatches and other celebrations were not uncommon. He frequently heard fiddling at the home of his grandfather, Chief Esias Loola. Bill was inspired to take up the fiddle as a young teenager after hearing Old Crow (Yukon Territory) fiddler Paul Ben Kassi. After some begging, Bill finally persuaded his mother to buy him a fiddle; when the package arrived from Sears Roebuck, Bill was on his way. Ethnomusicologist Craig Mishler, who wrote the liner notes for Bill's latest CD, noted that Bill has brought his fiddling to more people in Alaska and northwest Canada than anyone else alive. Between his own playing and his efforts with the Athabascan Old-Time Fiddlers Festival, Bill can rightly take credit for a renewed interest in the art of fiddling. Bill says he has played his fiddle for dances in almost every community on the Yukon River, from Whitehorse to Alakanuk. Mishler notes, "You can hear his notes floating up and downstream for 2,000 miles. It's no wonder that they call him Ch'adzah Aghwaa ('He carries dances') in Gwich'in." It is Bill's desire that the traditions be passed onto the younger generation, and thanks to his efforts, that is indeed happening.

When Bill was in his early twenties, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent him to California for a job training program. His life in California was not always an easy one, but finally things improved. After years of not playing much fiddle, Bill returned to it with new enthusiasm, taking lessons from Virgil Evans and playing with musicians from the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers' Association. It was in California that Bill's musical interests expanded to include bluegrass, old-time, and country styles. Spending several years competing in fiddle contests, Bill acquired a collection of over eighteen trophies. In 1978, he won second place in the men's division of the California Old Time Fiddlers Association State Championship. He has also competed in the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest in Weiser, Idaho, and in the National Indian Fiddlers Contest in Talequah, Oklahoma, as well as many contests throughout Alaska.

When Bill returned to Alaska in 1982, he was asked to help organize the first Athabascan Old-Time Fiddlers Festival, held in November 1983. This entailed extensive traveling around the villages of Alaska and northwest Canada, seeking out and recruiting fiddlers for the event. He was also M.C. of the first festival, and it continues to be one of the highlights of the year for him.

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[For the full text of this article, as well as the tunes "Eagle Island Blues," "Geh Ch'adzah" (Rabbit Dance), and Jig Ahtsii Ch'adzah" (Red River Jig), purchase the Summer 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]