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For The Sheer Joy of It: Fellow Travelers, Immersed in Swedish Music

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A late-summer gathering in Montpelier, playing Swedish music on Donna Hopkins' porch on College Street. Photo by Will Lindner.
On Monday afternoons this summer, in the warmth and light of Vermont’s most succulent season, music floated from the porch of a brown-shingled home on College Street in Montpelier. People strolling past, perhaps with friends or with their dog on a leash, sometimes stopped to listen. The musicians couldn’t easily be seen. Seated in a circle on Donna and John Hopkins’s spacious covered porch, they were largely concealed behind a hedgerow of hemlock and yew trees. But trees couldn’t contain the sound of bows upon strings, the woody resonance of a guitar, or the chordal urging of an accordion.

If the passers-by were the dancing type, they might give it a go with a two-step, a waltz, or a jig. But if they paid attention to the music, it may have dawned upon them that things weren’t working out just right.

For this was Swedish music they were hearing. Fiddle music, to be sure, and familiar in that respect, but ‘Swedish’ fiddle music, with innate peculiarities (to American ears, at least) of gait, timing, and tempo. This is true even though traditional Swedish music is composed purposefully to be danced to.

“You can’t believe what some of these people do!” says Tim Newcomb, who plays the nyckelharpa, and fiddle, too, on Donna’s porch. Newcomb, a well-known graphic artist and political cartoonist who lives in Worcester, has traveled to Sweden and immersed himself in the music; he’s seen how Swedish dancers respond to the pace and nuances of their music, and how it creates the spaces for their movements.

“Uneven beats is the thing,” he explains. “The polska is in threes, but the second beat is extended: one-TWOOO-three, one-TWOOO-three. It’s because of the dancing. You’re lifting the partner on the second beat and she mooo-ves through the air.”

Susan Reid, a Montpelier fiddler who played for years for contra dances at the Capital City Grange, describes the polska differently.

 Referring to an annual festival in New Hampshire dedicated to Scandinavian music and dance, Reid said, “I went to Nordic Fiddles and Feet, and someone said, ‘Imagine walking in a swamp.’”

Which doesn’t mean it’s like slogging (it’s dance, after all); it’s more about the tension and release you feel as your foot springs from the mire.

There were no dancers on Donna Hopkins’s porch, or in fellow-fiddler Scottie Harrison’s detached studio in the woods in Plainfield, another of the group’s gathering places. But a polska is a polska; its beat doesn’t devolve into Anglo-European predictability — let alone downbeat-dominated Scots-Irish- or blues-inspired American cadences — just because no one’s there to cut a rug.

“The music and the dance are symbiotic,” says Hopkins.

Swedish music — and the Scandinavian genres of which it is, perhaps, the dominant part — may be idiosyncratic, but for the players who met nearly every week this summer and early fall, it has a singular appeal.

“I just find it so much more interesting than other traditions,” Newcomb says. “It really carries forward a lot of the voices from the baroque era.”

But this group doesn’t play gigs; members’ musical résumés vary tremendously; they have no aspirations other than to keep improving, individually and as a unit, to support each other in their shared quest to absorb and then fully replicate the sounds that inspire them. 

In other words, they’re playing music for the purest of reasons. The near-professionals among them are not jaded or impatient, the near-beginners are eager and seem not to be intimidated.

But that Swedish music thing … Where did that come from?

A Toehold, Above the Savoy

It was threads coming together.

But, as threads are, each was composed of smaller threads. Eventually they intertwined, to create something stouter, and — the participants believe — enduring. That this well-stitched creation never fully unraveled during the onslaught of COVID, then reassembled when (and where) participants judged it safe, reveals they may be right.

An early thread started some 35 years ago, in the office spaces above the Savoy Theater on Main Street in Montpelier. Rick Winston, co-founder of the art cinema downstairs, shared the front office with his partner and staff. Behind them, Tim Newcomb and his business partner launched a writing and graphic design service for local businesses and nonprofits. Across the hall, Jeanne and Paul Haskell operated a ceramics studio, Haskell Pottery.

It was the perfect petri dish for jam sessions. Rick and Tim were fiddlers, Jeanne was learning concertina, and Paul played guitar.

Somehow, Swedish music crept in.

“I had been exposed to it at various small folk festivals in New England,” Winston explains. “I remember bringing some handouts for Swedish and Norwegian tunes that were given to me by Matt Fichtenbaum, from Massachusetts, who was the first person I ever saw play a nyckelharpa.”

“He was a great mentor to me!” Newcomb interjects enthusiastically (totally a Newcomb trait).

“That was some of what we would play in the Haskells’ studio,” Winston resumes. “We would play various dance tunes, contra dance, New England, or Irish. But Swedish and Norwegian were part of the repertoire.”

“They were always my favorites!” Newcomb interjects enthusiastically.

Winston had grown up in the New York City area and taken piano and violin lessons. Most formative, though, was a camp he attended each summer in Connecticut, where his parents were counselors. There, he says, “Folk music was the coin of the realm. There was international folk dancing and singing around the campfire. So my ears were already attuned to the folk world.”

By the ’70s, he had moved to Vermont and found a home in Adamant, where he still lives. He joined the Jack Hill Contra Dance Band, playing piano (“there were already plenty of fiddles”), and vividly recalls band member Michael Goldfinger introducing something new: a Swedish dance tune.

“It was not challenging rhythmically. It was just an upbeat, sunny tune, and I just loved it. I started going to folk festivals, and some people were actually playing this.”

It was at one of these festivals that he received the seminal sheets provided by Newcomb’s mentor, Fichtenbaum.

Newcomb, raised mainly in Ohio, was the son of a jazz pianist who succumbed to cancer when Newcomb was 13, yet still imparted to his son a love and commitment to music that has never flickered. Newcomb became enamored of the fiddle during high school — (clandestinely, because fiddles weren’t cool). Throughout his college years, and then during a sojourn in New York City before he moved to Vermont in 1981, he studied traditional fiddle styles and classical violin. (He abandoned the latter, because his graphic design work left no time for it.)

Like Winston, he remembers his first exposure to Swedish music. An acquaintance advised him, “There’s another tradition you should be listening to,” and loaned him some Nonesuch LPs of Swedish fiddling.

“I really liked them, but I thought, ‘This is so difficult!’ . . .  with all the key changes, and back and forth between minor keys. And then the harmonies! Because Swedish tradition really is playing in harmonies pretty much all the time. Back then, for me to sort out the melody and harmony lines while they were converging was just difficult.”

Yet he was smitten.

The office jams above the Savoy petered out as the design studio and pottery shop drifted to new locations. Winston kept playing with contra dance groups, and learned accordion to join the newly formed (and still enduring) Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band in 1981. Swedish music, however, receded in his consciousness, until about three years ago, when he learned of its growing local following. 

That’s when he began participating in what we’ll call (they don’t call it anything) “the (usually) Monday group.” Alas, this was just in time for COVID, which forced a suspension of the practice sessions that resumed this year. Consequently, Winston, who plays his accordion in this tradition that largely excludes accordion, feels he’s still something of a new kid.

Newcomb, however, stuck with it. Nay, devoted himself to it. He expanded his relationships internationally and brought established Swedish performers to Vermont for concerts and workshops at venues such as the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture in Montpelier, and — predictably (“I’m fascinated with any instrument with strings on it!”) — embraced the nyckelharpa.

The nyckelharpa is an improbable instrument, a physically beautiful wooden structure, slightly reminiscent of a lap (not hammered) dulcimer, but bowed — with a shorter bow than a violin’s — and noted not with the fingers but using a row of buttons virtually concealed from the player’s view. The sounds from its five bowed strings are enhanced by the vibrations of a dozen or so sympathetic strings underneath them. Tuning it is a royal pain, but teamed with a half-dozen fiddles on Donna Hopkins’s porch or in Scottie Harrison’s studio, it contributes a banquet of tones and harmonies as the players work their way through the melodies, getting better with each passage.


The nyckelharpa, a beautiful but odd musical invention, is said to date back to the 1600s in Swedish music. Photo by Will Lindner.
All this is possible because other threads of Swedish and Scandinavian music, unassociated with the Savoy Theater, were making inroads with Montpelier’s traditional music community all the while.

Swedish Garden

Vermont’s Swedish music enthusiasts can be visualized as bulbs planted beneath the soil in fall, waiting for the right conditions to emerge from their dark pockets and bloom.

Of course, those pockets weren’t really dark. They burst with the vibrant repertoires of New England fiddle music; Irish and Scottish tunes; the abrupt, percussive fiddle styles of the Quebecois; and old-timey (mostly Appalachian) jigs and reels. Yet Swedish music, although culturally less connected to our region, was testing the waters here. Its chief purveyor was David Kaynor, a well-loved and -traveled musician and dance caller who lived in western Massachusetts. (He passed away last June.)

For Kaynor, Vermont was fertile territory. He participated in contra dances throughout the state, and during the past decade or so traveled to Montpelier to present workshops at the Summit School and for the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra (VFO), which local fiddler Sarah Hotchkiss founded in 2003. In 2013, Kaynor became its director.

Back in 1979, Kaynor had traveled to Sweden. Musically, it was a turning point for him — although, in his journal about the trip he seemed even more infatuated with his skiing experiences. Henceforward, Swedish music infused his playing and teaching. When Susan Reid encountered him at the Northeast Heritage Music Camp at Johnson State College, about 2005, that was what struck her most deeply.

“He stood up one morning and offered to teach some Swedish tunes,” she says. “I was curious, and so were, like, three other people.”

Tunes she remembers are the King’s Wedding March (“a lovely, minor tune”), and Linda’s Polska No. 3. Particularly, she was touched by the harmonies. Harmonies are one of the richest elements of music, and yet, Reid observes, “Often, harmonies don’t happen in Irish music, or old-time, or in New England music. They are a matter of course in Scandinavian fiddle music. A saying is that when you get married there you hire two musicians so they can harmonize.

“There are sensibilities to those harmonies that I don’t know technically,” she admits. “But when you hear it, it makes sense, through a Swedish [lens]. David knew it solidly. He had spent chunks of time over there.”

With Kaynor’s increasing presence in Montpelier (although, to the end, he commuted from Massachusetts), and through his influence with other players steeped in traditional music in central Vermont, a Swedish garden began to grow. At its center, most people agree, were fiddlers Kaynor and Reid; multi-instrumentalist, dancer, and singer Aaron Marcus; and Newcomb uniquely playing the nyckelharpa. Swedish fiddler Anna Lindblad visited repeatedly to lead workshops, and Vermont’s fortuitous location between Boston and Montreal helped Newcomb and others attract Swedish players such as nyckelharpist Peter Hedlund for stopover concerts and workshops.

About 2015, the idea occurred to these converts and acolytes that they had achieved a critical mass, large and dedicated enough to gather and play music on their own, and be each other’s instructors and supporters. 

So they did. And the garden grew.

Roots and Branches

These Swedish impersonators are a varied lot. How many are there? It’s hard to say, because participation fluctuates according to distance (Ellen Bartlett, for example, lives in Peacham) and people’s schedules. John Harrison, Scottie’s spouse in Plainfield, who adds cello to their gatherings, has a stunning résumé as a composer and choral director in New York, and is also busy in Vermont, where he directs the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir and Barre’s Rock City chorus. Fiddler Molly Backup chairs the board of the VFO.

Fiddling at a Swedish jam in Plainfield, From top, Amy Handy, Marge Garfield, and Donna Hopkins. Photo by Will Lindner.
As interesting as their personal endeavors are their backgrounds in music. Reid is a native Vermonter, raised in Randolph — “one of those classical kids,” she says. “I started taking violin lessons when I was eight.” One of her teachers, though, slipped her a booklet with jigs and reels, and she went in that direction for a while. But she actually suspended her fiddle playing for 20 years, keeping musically active with choral singing.

Another native Vermonter, Sandy Weaver, is from true Vermont fiddle stock. Her father, Clem Myers (1922–1988), was one of the best-known Vermont fiddlers of his generation. Inspired by an old-time fiddling concert staged by a Goddard College professor in 1964, Myers co-founded the Northeast Fiddlers’ Association (NEFA) in 1965 and served as its president. For years, its annual contests at the Barre Auditorium drew fans, families, and fiddlers from far and wide. Main Street was transformed for days, as fiddlers jammed gleefully in store doorways. Myers won NEFA fiddling championships in 1967 and 1980; traveled (with Sandy) to compete for a national title in Weiser, Idaho; and played in Washington, D.C., at the festivities for Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. 

In 1972, he recorded an album at Philo Records’ studio in Ferrisburgh. Sandy accompanied him on guitar, with her sister Donna on piano and brother-in-law Duane Perry on bass.

Sandy Weaver has never forsaken music. She’s been in business as a salon owner for 43 years, and was a single mother for some time, but she kept her hand in — and, in fact, won a NEFA championship of her own in her first year competing in the senior division. 

It was as a member of the VFO that she came under the tutelage of David Kaynor (and helped recruit him as director after Hotchkiss resigned in 2013). She confesses to feeling a bit out of water at the Swedish get-togethers. But she loves it, and feels deeply indebted to Susan Reid.

“I’m the least Swedish of all,” she demurs. “Susan is a godsend to me. She puts tunes on my recorder, and I learn to play them by ear.” She smiles, then quietly adds, “She’s my friend.”

Thankful

And so it is with the sometimes-Monday group. People with, perhaps, little else in common, sit down together to play music deriving from a tradition that has very little, intrinsically, to do with Vermont. It has added to Donna Hopkins’s gratitude that she and her husband chose Montpelier as their new home after retiring from their respective careers with the U.S. State Department and NASA in 2014. 

“Vermont,” she explains, “had the mountains, the four seasons, proximity to universities. And there was a community of traditional-music players.” (John plays bass, but not with the Swedish group.) How better to embark on the next phase of their lives?

Their circle has only widened. Sitting on their porch on a balmy late-summer afternoon, Marge Garfield, on fiddle, names a tune from the scores — perhaps hundreds, Garfield suggests — that they’ve learned over time. As they start, the melody sounds awkward, unconvincing, as the players search their minds and the muscle memories in their bowing hands and fingers, seeking to recapture something they haven’t played for weeks, or even months. They work their way through it, then circle around to the beginning and try it again. It clicks a little better this time. By the third time through, the bowing smooths out and people begin finding harmonies. The nyckelharpa, its sympathetic strings resonating, adds alluring complexities, Rick Winston expands the envelope, inflating and contracting his accordion, Pam Bockes adds rich depth with her guitar.

Come the fourth time, they’re making real music. And pedestrians are stopping to listen. And the players settle into a comfortable belief in themselves and each other. And Sweden has loaned tiny, faraway Montpelier a precious gift of music. 

And both players and listeners are grateful.

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