By Jerome Tharaud
When Scottish, English and Irish immigrants set sail for a new world in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, they were leaving behind much of what they had known. Gone were the sights and smells of home and the spell of a particular piece of ground, along with the feelings they left buried in it.
But at least one piece of their old lives was not gone: the music. The immigrants scattered fiddle notes on the waves as they sailed. After that long journey, the old-time music, as it is affectionately called today, was planted firmly in the mountain soil of places like Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and took root. With the addition of other stringed instruments like the banjo, guitar, bass and mandolin, the music took on something of its American environment and produced regional variations, but the songs themselves were preserved. Often they were about simple subjects of agricultural life, like cows, chickens and mules.
The rural subjects translated well to the immigrants' new home. Families would play the songs together after a hard day in the fields, and communities would congregate for foot-stomping country dances on the weekends. While somewhere beyond the quiet ridges a new nation grew up and stitched itself together with railroad tracks and telegraph wires, the people and music of Appalachia drowsed in a cultural never-time where little entered and left.
When the first musicologists penetrated the mountains in the early 1900s, they heard a music that had been frozen in time for nearly 200 years. Those pioneers, doing for American folk music what composer Bela Bartok was doing for European folk music, set the melodies they found to paper and recorded them. Soon the art form was being heard by many Americans for the first time. Sped by the advent of radio, the old-time music became popular and gave birth to new forms like country and bluegrass.
As late as the 1970s these "tune collectors" were still at work documenting and preserving pieces of living musical history. By then the music had spread all over the country - even as far as Montana.
At least that's how Havre banjo player Jay Johnson tells the story. Johnson, known to some local musicians as Banjo Johnson, was introduced to old-time music nine years ago by a friend. The friend got it from his father, who had moved to Montana from Arkansas in his teens, Johnson said. That's how the music traveled from one agricultural region to another, one enthusiast at a time.
On a Sunday afternoon at the Big Sandy senior citizens center, Johnson and Kremlin fiddler Eddie Fallo were bent over an upright bass like doctors over a patient. They were trying to fish out a clip that had fallen in one of the F-holes and was clunking around inside. Johnson's two banjo cases sat on a chair nearby, and music stands, Peavey amps and violin cases were clustered in front of a mass of seats waiting to be filled.
Meanwhile Big Sandy music teacher Almeda Terry and Judy Fallo, Eddie's wife, were setting up an electric piano.
The members of the small group are descendants of those first fiddle-playing strangers. It's not a literal blood tie, but nonetheless the notes communicate something of those earlier musicians to the veins and fingertips of these. To know that the bowed notes of a plaintive waltz like "Midnight on the Water" once affirmed a watery fact, to know that the cheerful gallop of a reel like "Sally Ann" once animated a line of faces and limbs long since extinguished - to play them is to tug on an invisible string that stretches back in time, and to feel it tugging back.
Sunday was one of the district's monthly jam sessions. Part concert for the older musicians, part recital for Terry's students, the gatherings move to a different town each month, fall through spring, in a district that sprawls from Chester to Malta, and Loma to the Canadian border. They play a mix of old-style songs as well as bluegrass, and fiddle tunes from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Despite frigid weather and questionable roads on Sunday, the seats were starting to fill up. Johnson was warming up his down-stroking "clawhammer" banjo style on his Celebrated Benay banjo, a leather-covered antique dating from around 1870.
"They made these things out of boards, out of cigar boxes, out of anything that had a shape," Johnson said.
Meanwhile Judy Fallo was scribbling chord progressions on square sticky notes for the other musicians while her husband, Eddie, addressed himself to the strings of a guitar. A younger musician - Kallan Bahnmiller, 14, of Big Sandy - had also joined the group on bass. Originally a guitar player, Bahnmiller took up the bass two years ago.
The group kicked off with a "Sally Ann" and led into "Halfway Home," a waltz. Eddie Fallo and Terry traded off on the fiddle and guitar between songs, with Johnson on banjo, Bahnmiller on bass and Judy Fallo on piano.
After a set of several songs, it was the younger players' turn.
"We like to pass it down to the next generation, and that's what we're trying to do here," said Eddie Fallo, who is president of District 6 of the Montana Old-Time Fiddlers Association.
A group of students as young as 6 with one-half and one-quarter-sized fiddles played songs like "Aunt Rhody," "Camptown Races and "Tennessee Waltz." The audience, by then well above 50 people, accompanied them with a chorus of clapping, foot-tapping and an occasional whoop.
Terry teaches 27 students, most of whom are home-schooled. The donations raised from the monthly jam sessions will be used to help send some of them to the two-week Montana Fiddle Camp held every summer in Monarch. Several of the students will also play in the Winter Fair Fiddle Contest in Lewistown on Saturday.
"It's just fun to play and get together with other people and jam," said Tyce Bahnmiller, 12, who played the mandolin Sunday and also plays the electric bass. Bahnmiller is Kallan Bahnmiller's brother.
Levi Beirwagen, 11, has played the violin for five years and mandolin for one. His younger sister, Victoria, plays too, he said.
Not everyone starts young.
"This is kind of a late-in-life thing I decided to do," said Eddie Fallo. Fallo's fiddle career started about 10 years ago, when Fallo saw an old violin for sale in a music store in Hamilton. Fiddling is played on a violin; the style in which it is played distinguishes it as fiddling. Fallo fiddled his heart out.
"I bought it and it drove my family nuts," said Fallo. "I got so when I wanted to be alone, all I had to do was flip open the case snaps and they'd be gone."
Eventually he bought another, better violin, and recently he started playing the bass as well.
Terry has played music for 40 years. She was classically trained - first on the violin and then on the cello. It wasn't until she was in her 20s, a college student studying music in Oregon, that she began to learn old-time music. Inspired by country stars like Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline, she taught herself to play the banjo and to flat-pick a guitar, country style.
"It's just something that came to me," Terry said. "I found the music out there."
Terry found herself teaching music in a public school in Idaho, and she wanted to start a program to teach kids to play traditional American music on fretted string instruments. That never materialized, but now in Montana she has achieved something similar with her students.
"I'm doing privately what I thought it would be cool to do in a public school," she said.
As a result, a form of music that used to be passed down from generation to generation now often moves the other way, from kids to parents.
Tyce and Kallan Bahnmiller have two other brothers who play the fiddle, and now their mother is starting to play it, Tyce said.
Kelly Lanchbury, 15, began playing the violin three years ago. Soon after, her younger brothers, Jacob and Hunter, decided they wanted to play too. Within the next year their mother, Ellen Lanchbury, received a violin for her birthday and began learning to play. The family is beginning to get to the point where they can play together, she said.
"It's really been fun. It's been something we can do as a family," Ellen Lanchbury said.
The district's February jam session will be held in Chinook. For more information, contact Eddie Fallo at 372-3228 or Almeda Terry at 378-3220.