Perth-Andover is a quiet New Brunswick village just off Highway 2 that my wife and I visited for a day, and longed to stay. This orderly village with its shingled storefronts and friendly shop-keepers welcomes you to a place where modern life mingles gently with the traditions of the past. It straddles the celebrated and mighty St. John River, and is home to Garold Hanscom; a bright star and a man on a mission who is quietly bringing back fiddling to his community.
Old-time fiddlers were almost extinct in Perth-Andover in 1992 when Garold Hanscom started teaching students of all ages for $1.00 a lesson, or free if they could not afford it. He jokes, "All the fiddles put away in attics during the rock and roll years are now being played." Garold believes that "fiddle music -- a jig or a reel -- can give you a rush of happiness, while a lament can tear your heart out."
I first becam aware of Garold Hanscom in May 2006 when village resident Glen Furge noticed our B.C. plates and approached as I pumped gas at their highway service centre. He spoke of how excited he was to be learning the fiddle at age sixty-nine and of the man who was his teacher --Garold Hanscom. I realized only after Glen drove away that here was a story. My detective work eventually led us to the ornate red brick City Hall where a friendly young lady pointed us in the direction of the historic St. James United Church a short distance away.
Sweet sounds of fiddle music drifted out of the church hall. A bearded "fiddler on the loose" with a twinkle in his eye accompanied a young girl playing a solo, while fifteen fiddle players of all ages waited silently to join in. Garold Hanscom stood relaxed amid the players, turning first to one, and then another, or stopping the group to make a point.
On-lookers were friendly and talkative, watching and listening with pleasure to their children, husbands, or wives, while strangers like us were accepted warmly and without reservation into the group.
Above Garold's salt and pepper beard are kind eyes and a face that makes children and adults smile. His easy way belies the passion he holds for his pupils and their progress. His teaching formula is simple; "I try to teach new students songs they know, like 'Old McDonald'; songs they recognize, so they know how long to hold the notes."
"As I get older I am beginning to appreciate that there is something unusual about this music. We visit nursing homes and these folks just light up at the sound of the fiddle. Alzheimer's patients who do not react to anything will start moving their hands or feet to the music. "
Hanscom writes the music for his beginners using a "tab system." He explains, "Students don't necessarily relate the string letters --E,A,D,G -- to their fingers, which are numbered 1,2,3, and 4 -- so you put your first finger on the E string." As Garold's students progress and gain confidence, he gradually takes the "tab" away and they start to play by indentifying the notes.
Garold chuckles, "My older students don't want to learn to read music, they just want to play." He muses, "When I began playing at six, the old fiddlers would tell me, 'Don't learn to read music -- it will ruin you.'
Garold Hanscom's first music job was at fourteen in the '50's with a Tobique First Nations band. he smiles, "They would come and get me for a dance on the Reserve and then take me home." Later he played lead guitar in a band, with his father on drums, until 1962.
I asked Garold whether he learned to play the guitar or fiddle first. "It's kind of a funny story. Santa Claus was to bring me a fiddle, but a week before Christmas a guitar appeared, and before Christmas came along I was able to make chords on the guitar. When the fiddle arrived, I wasn't terribly interested in it." He pauses in thought, "I still play the guitar once in a while."
Hanscom's students play old time fiddling music, "but some are learning to play in the Celtic style made popular by the famous Cape Breton families of Ashely MacIsaac, and the MacMasters, Natalie and Buddy," he explains. "They do 'cuts,' a little stutter, a form of a triplet that imitates the bagpipes, but around here you play the Don Messer style."
9:15 pm: The church hall is alive with piano, drums,
guitars, and fifty fiddles, including Garold's wife Dorothy,
fiddlers from nearby Maine, and Hanscom's eighty-nine
year old father Winfred on spoons. We are tapping our
toes in time to tunes like "Cock of the North", "Whalens
Breakdown," and "Boil the Cabbage." Ninety-three year
old retired dentist Dr. Lee White approached to show us
his sleek fiddle, smiled, and said, "I have hand-built
ninety-nine violins, not one hundred."
Bringing back fiddle music to New Brunswick is
important to Garold Hanscom. "I grew up listening to
Don Messer, and my grandfather was a fiddler who
always wanted me to play." An old fiddler once told
Hanscom that, "you listen to other forms of music, but
the fiddle puts the music right under your feet."
Hanscom relates, "As i get older I am beginning to appreciate that there is something unusual about this music. We visit nursing homes and these folks just light up at the sound of the fiddle. Alzheimer's patients who do not react to anything will start moving their hands or feet to the music. Toddlers will jig to a fiddle tune, and mothers dance around with babies in their arms."
Garold Hanscom feels that, "fiddle music is special; it's important that it be preserved, and everyone, particularly young people, should have a chance to play. Once you learn it, it lasts a lifetime."
Perth-Andover was not our original destination, but worked its magic spell upon us. We will return.
[Gary Grieco is a writer who likes to travel. His freelance career began when he re-styled his life to pursue these two twin passions. He has published articles in magazines including Pacific Yachting, Gam on Yachting, 50Plus Magazine, Powell River Living Magazine, RV Magazines, and numerous newspapers.]