This column is the first of what I intend as a new series featuring newer original fiddle tunes (or at least tunes playable on fiddle!). As an avid maker of tunes myself, and in recent years teaching tune-writing at Berklee College of Music, for some time I’ve wanted to do more to celebrate the tunesmith’s art, and to recognize the many contemporary tunesmiths who are continually adding to their respective traditions – especially those less often acknowledged.
Ira Bernstein (a longtime personal friend) is an acclaimed and influential dancer, who was a pivotal figure in the 1980s/’90s percussive dance revival in the old time and wider folk scenes. In legendary solo performances, Ira integrated Appalachian flatfooting styles with varied regional step, clog, and tap dance traditions, interweaving steps learned from older dancers with his own improvised or choreographed movement vocabulary.
Ira also plays fiddle, though primarily in solo or social rather than performance contexts. And, during a fecund decade or so circa the 1990s, Ira composed – or rather, “made,” as he like many tunesmiths prefers to describe the craft – a sprightly batch of original fiddle tunes: most in an old time style, with some waltzes and a few outlier curiosities.
A few summers ago, I bumped into Ira at the summer Clifftop festival: it was in the dim wee hours, outside the bathroom stalls of “Gravel Court” in the lower campground. I hadn’t seen Ira in some years, but knew he’d been fighting a long-arc battle with Parkinson’s. After awkwardly conveying my sympathies, I told Ira I’d be happy to help document and transcribe his original tunes. A mere four years or so later (an eye-blink by old time musician standards!), Ira reached out to tell me he’d unearthed a few old cassettes with solo fiddle sketches of some 25 of his tunes. As Ira is, for now anyway, unable to play fiddle, these recordings provide a snapshot of a body of tunes that might otherwise have faded into obscurity.
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