In the art world the authenticity of a work of art follows from its provenance—the verifiable record of who made it, who purchased it and for how much, where and when it was exhibited, and so on. Documents are determinant, hearsay is worthless.
In traditional music, hearsay is all. The provenance of a tune is replayed and retold in tones as ephemeral and as necessary as dreams.
The other day I was playing Québecois fiddle tunes with new friends in Santa Cruz in their Victorian house in the crook of a street called Caledonia.* We started out on the deck, in the shade of a stand of enormous eucalyptus. A monarch drifted by every so often, a stray from the roost. But we couldn’t get the umbrella angled to block the sharp slants of afternoon sun. Unseasonably hot, for January. So the four of us moved inside, to the straight-back chairs arranged in a small circle in the living room. Fiddle, mandolin, fiddle, concertina.
(*Tunes everywhere, even between the lines. “Caledonia,” written by Dougie MacLean in 1977, when I was finishing high school in Southern California, just before heading north to Santa Cruz to college. MacLean was homesick for Scotland. Caledonia, you’re calling me, now I’m going home. Here I was, on Caledonia Street, in a place I hadn’t visited for almost 30 years. Caledonia, California, I’m coming home.)
I said these people in Santa Cruz were new friends, and that’s true in the sense that this was the first time we had met in person. But I’ve known Laurie Rivin for years through the tunes she has written and recorded. My duo included Laurie’s waltz, “Malvina,” on our first album. Laurie is a member of Les Têtes de Violon whose two CDs have taught me a world of Québecois music, especially the airs tordus or “crooked tunes” that have odd, asymmetrical phrases. Last year I became friends with other Têtes, guitarist Guy Bouchard and fiddler Laura Sadowsky, two more keepers of the tradition. The year before I had met the famous left-handed master fiddler from Mont-Joli, Yvon Mimealt. Laurie and Guy and Laura and Yvon have all played for hours together—the same tunes, under the same trees. Yvon carved the finials that mark the corners of Laurie’s deck. (In his 80s, Yvon is among my most active Facebook friends.)
That afternoon in Santa Cruz the tunes were interwoven with stories: where we had played, who we had played with and, above all, the genealogies of the tunes we were playing. We shared a love of the melodies of Thomas Pomerleau, one of the quêteux, itinerant beggars who traveled from town to town in eastern Canada, playing fiddle in exchange for a meal and a bed for the night. The elegance and lilt and heart-swelling forward motion of Pomerleau’s melodies give not a whiff of his allegedly misanthropic character. He refused to teach anyone his tunes, and mostly played for himself in a shack at the edge of a farm near Thetford Mines. As a boy the fiddler Henri Landry would sneak up behind Pomerleau’s shack and listen, memorizing what he heard. Years later Landry taught the tunes to Lisa Ornstein, who taught them to Guy who recorded them with Laurie, which is how they came to me.
We also bonded over Le Rêve du Quêteux Tremblay. This tune is a quietly radical revision of the driving Scottish reel called Archie Menzie’s. Beggar Tremblay’s version is softened, drawn out slightly, kind of cantilevered. Like Pomerleau, Tremblay tried to keep his tunes to himself, though from proprietary motives rather than spite, but the great Québecois fiddler André Alain wrested this tune from Tremblay years later—and Alain taught the tune to Guy who taught it to Lisa and Laurie so on. It has been recorded several times, including one arrangement by La Bottine Souriante for string orchestra (on the CD Je voudrais changer le chapeaux).
I left Laurie’s house before I had had enough, with more tunes queued up in my mind. I didn’t want to overstay. Our time together was typical of encounters organized primarily around shared music: at once almost formal and yet oddly intimate. Only a few degrees of separation between the shack in Québec and the deck in Santa Cruz, between the left-handed fiddler in Mont-Joli and me in the Berkshires, having come home again, repeating in head and hand the tunes I’ve heard.