Unboxing the new Cyril Stinnett DVD
Hi again, everyone. Thanks for all the nice comments on the blog in the last few weeks, and sorry for the long silence. Let’s call it summer hiatus. It was also partly that I keep changing how I play the next tune, Bob Walters’ “Old Dubuque,” and couldn’t quite get my mind around committing it to posterity. But it’s a-coming.
Anyway, no new fiddle tune today, but I’m posting because my copy of Cyril Stinnett: Legendary Missouri Fiddler finally arrived yesterday, and boy am I excited. Bill Peterson and Dwight Lamb have been working hard on this for quite awhile, and it was worth the effort, and the wait. Apparently Dwight was one of the early adopters of home video recording technology in the 70s, and he used his camera to capture these great performances of one of the great fiddlers. I hear there’s more where these came from.
I somehow didn’t grasp this when Bill told me about the project, but the single DVD has over 100 fiddle tunes! Kind of astonishing. They’re only charging fifteen bucks for it, so that’s under fifteen cents per tune. Another thing that surprised me—although it shouldn’t have, considering the quality of their Bob Walters CD, The Champion—is just what a beautiful and high-quality production it is. In the candid, completely unrehearsed photo above, you can get an idea of what it looks like and the nice design work that went into it. Also, as you can clearly see from the expression on my face, the liner notes are fascinating.
Many of you probably know that Stinnett played the fiddle backwards and upside down; that is, he played left-handed on a normal fiddle, held in his right hand and not re-strung. I worry that because of this, some fiddlers out there may feel they can’t learn much from him, since there’s no way really to learn his bowing. Not true!
I’m pretty new to Stinnett’s playing. Remember, I started this blog to share my relatively recent obsession with Bob Walters and my journey discovering midwestern fiddle. I’m learning about the other big names as I go along. But I thought it might be interesting to jot down a few things I’ve found interesting, just having the DVD playing in the background this evening and watching occasionally. (These are strictly folkloric recordings, by the way—black and white, a little fuzzy, and very static—and only the geekiest of fiddlers will sit down and watch the whole thing. I fully intend to. But the sound is really clear, I should add.) If you want to see if you agree, I’ve included one of the videos available on youtube that gives an idea of what the DVD’s like and is representative of Stinnett’s playing. But note that the picture quality on the actual DVD is much, much better than the ones on youtube.
So, what I see so far:
- Even though he bows “upside down,” he’s not a “pattern up-bower.” He starts phrases both directions. He should give hope to anyone who’s been made to feel inadequate about their bowing by being told it has to be “right” and conform to some mystical ideal. There are lots of ways to sound right, and you can’t sound much righter than he does. Another way of putting it might be that there’s lots of room for eccentricity in old-time fiddle.
- I sometimes have a theory that up-bowers tend to swing the rhythm more, but he doesn’t at all. When he’s up-bowing, that is. Perfectly beautiful and straight.
- He holds his bow with his thumb on the frog. The photos I’ve seen of great midwestern fiddlers suggest this was very common. Kenny Baker did it, too, and you can’t really argue with that. I started doing it on a hunch when I started trying to play Bob Walters tunes, and it’s really helped me. Stinnett’s hand is in what I call the “fiddler’s claw” shape with apparently only the first bone (or maybe joint) of his index finger putting pressure on the bow. And it’s very widely separated from his thumb, which maximizes the pressure. I see a lot of beginning fiddlers whose sound is very quiet because their thumb and index finger are very close to each other on the stick.
- He uses bow shakes just as Bob Walters does. You hear them distinctly in the tune below: a very sharp, fast, and subtle “ba-da-bum” at the end of phrases. I intend to study those parts, believe me.
- His sound seems both smoother and more aggressive than Bob Walters’ to me. Smoother because he plays in one continuous (jaw-dropping) flow of notes, with very little phrasing or “articulation” as I think the violinists call it. Bob Walters puts lots of breaks in his phrases. The sound isn’t as pretty as Walters’—much more wiry (undoubtedly metal strings, whereas I’m told Walters used gut), and he seems to push the pitch a tiny bit sharp often, which gives it a nice edge.
- The videos show that playing fiddle tunes in a spaced-out unsmiling shoe-gaze is completely authentic and not an innovation of us young fogies.
In short, there’s no excuse for old-time fiddlers not to order this right away! Enjoy the video, but again, remember that the DVD picture quality is much better.