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Vassar Clements: From Bill Monroe to Jerry Garcia
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Liz Carroll: America's Irish Fiddler Extraordinaire
Donna Maurer
1999-12-01

Liz Carroll is internationally recognized as one of the finest American composers and fiddlers in the Irish tradition. As a teen, she won both the Junior and the Senior All-Ireland Fiddle Championships. In 1994, Liz was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, presented by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, for her immense contribution to the Irish musical tradition in America. Liz was also selected as one of the top 100 Irish Americans of 1995 by Irish America magazine.

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I met Liz Carroll this August at the first annual Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp, held at Camp Shady Brook near Deckers, Colorado. Liz was an instructor and performer at the camp; she was also a session player and camper along with her two children. I attended many of Liz' classes while at the camp, and found her to be quite accessible, with her warm and witty personality, as well as easy to learn from and extremely knowledgeable about Irish fiddle playing. With so much going on at the camp, Liz and I decided to wait until later to chat about her fiddle-playing. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

When did you start playing the fiddle?

I started the fiddle when I was nine, at the South Side of Chicago. There was a school there that had a nun that taught violin and piano. She taught both instruments, which was pretty rare for South Side Catholic schools. I was going to be playing the piano. We bought a piano, but we couldn't get it in the house. It was the days of upright pianos. So my Mom said, "C'mon, do this, try this, because Grandpa plays the fiddle, and you could play it with him, and you could bring it with you places." That's how I ended up with the fiddle, and I loved it. I had thought I'd hate it, and I was refusing to do it until then I think I was lucky [to play fiddle, and now] I'm really glad. When I put my hands on a piano since then, I can just see it would have been a disaster!

How did you come to start liking the fiddle?

Oh, I liked it the first minute I had it in the house. I was already playing the accordion at home, and my parents had bought me a tin whistle, too. So I was already able to play tunes Actually, when we started off, we got sticks to begin with, so you didn't get the violin itself. The one stick was just to bow with, and the other one had all the fingering. You'd turn the stick around and practice putting your fingers in the spots. That's what we got first, and I think it was a good three weeks before I got an actual violin in the house; then I thought that it was the greatest. It's like my son with a basketball: he loves it, loves the feel of it, loves everything about it. That's the way I've felt about the fiddle right from the start. I was already playing another instrument, and I was able to pick up stuff by ear. I didn't get that fiddle until I had the notion about what to do with it.

I think I started trying to figure out my tunes as soon as I got it home. I had definite lessons that started off with open strings, and I was trying to find my tunes that I knew right off the bat. I think anybody does that pretty much. It's pretty hard to keep anybody from wanting to surge ahead.

How long had you been playing tin whistle and accordion?

I don't know; I think since I was six. I started off with a little play accordion, and then I went on to my Dad's accordion. For Christmas or for whatever holiday [was coming up], I was interested in some little shiny trumpet in the store, or a keyboard or something. I've always liked instruments.

It sounds like you're from a musical family.

Yes. Mom's father played the fiddle, and she really loved the music. She didn't play herself, but she's able to lilt. My Dad plays the accordion. I think his father played a bit, and his grandmother played a little bit of concertina. My brother Tom played trombone and very scratchy fiddle for awhile, but he didn't stick with it. He was very happy the day that he sat on his fiddle and cracked it, to which he said, "yeah!" We were all saying, "Wow, it was that easy!"

It's kind of funny My mom's father played the fiddle, but my mom's mother used to do a bit of theater. She was a farmer, actually a farmer's wife; she used to do a bit of theater, and she was good at speaking. Well, I feel like my brother Tom and I are "split." He does acting here in Chicago, and he's able to memorize words left and right, [whereas] I have a horrible time remembering words. He always had a very difficult time remembering music... he'd have to read it, [whereas] I never had a hard time with the music.

Could you describe what you're doing when you play and write Irish traditional music? How do you keep it traditional, yet make it your own?

I've always done it; I've always made up tunes, it seems. I have a slip of paper here  my brother wrote on it, "Liz' Masterpiece." It was the first tune that I actually wrote down, but I was always playing around with bits and pieces of tunes. I started the fiddle when I was nine, and I know I wrote a tune for the fiddle when I was nine. So I've always been doing it. I don't know how it comes out Irish; it's very interesting, isn't it? My mind just goes that way, that it tends to settle in and be an Irish tune.

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[For the rest this article, and Liz's tune "Sevens," purchase the Winter 99/00 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]