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Nordic Flavor Injected into Minnesota Fiddle Tunes

If you like your old-time music served with lutefisk and sauerkraut, then do we have the album for you.

Late last month, Mike Sawyer (aka "Clawhammer Mike"), the author of the blogs Clawhammer Tune of the Day and Minnesota Fiddle, released a CD that culminated from two years of brainstorming, research, tune collecting and recording, The Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project.

The album features 27 tunes played by modernday musicians, but influenced by an earlier generation of Minnesota's great fiddlers. The tunes collected here feature a heavy dose of Nordic and Swedish sounds, but that's Minnesota for you.

The Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project includes tunes from a number of the state's local musicians and bands, including Sawyer's group the Temporary Stringband and our friend Craig Evans' Eelpout Stringers, as well as some who have moved away from the state, such as Adam Hurt and Billy Matthews.

Most of the musicians here play in a traditional old-time setup with fiddles, banjos, guitars in there, but you'll also hear some musical sawing, nyckelharpas and harmonium.

While the album was conceived for Minnesotans, fans of old-time will find the CD well worth the purchase. It comes packaged in a handsome trifold case, with excellent liner notes and musician bios. The album is available online at MinnesotaFiddle.com for $15 via PayPal.

Clawhammer Mike was kind enough to answer some of our questions and take time away from his busy schedule, which includes scheduling a CD release party on June 29 in Minneapolis.

How would you describe yourself and what do you do when you're not playing music?
I grew up on old-time and bluegrass music. My mother, my stepfather and my elementary school teacher, were all a part of a band (my mom did sound). I did my best to rebel against the music in my teens and 20s, but it had seeped in too far. I play music late at night because my days are filled with normal stuff like parenting twin boys and working a day job. At 39, I finally learned how to drive a car and steer a canoe this spring. Honestly, this project has had a lot of my attention for the last year and a half.

When did you begin this project?
It started as an idea around a campfire almost two years ago. The beginning months were like slow motion as I encountered all kinds of road blocks, including recovering from a bad sledding accident. (I hit a tree dead on at a rapid speed.) I had to convince people I was serious about it before I could ask them to buy in and as the scope of my project got bigger, I realized I wanted more people to buy in. Eventually, the response of the old-time community to this project was very inspiring.

How long did it take you to find the tunes and record the performers?
I probably did seven months of tune collecting, sorting through various dead ends and solid leads. Some Minnesota tunes were hiding as far away as a library in Madison, Wis., and some collections I encountered hiding no more than a block from my kids' school. The recording was done in sessions over a month in various living rooms. I remember one Sunday when I had seven sessions booked for one day. The logistics of getting 53 musicians to learn and perform all of this new material was a little more than I bargained for, but worth every minute. For a while I was thinking I would just do the CD with a few hand-picked musicians, but opening it up meant that a lot more folks are actively playing these tunes now.

How would you characterize the Minnesota fiddle tunes on this CD?
I am not going to lie -- the CD is dominated by Norwegian-Minnesotan tunes. It was the best collected and preserved fiddle music in these parts. Also represented are the Irish, Finnish, Swedish, French Canadian and Appalachian influences. I couldn't find Meti' fiddlers in Minnesota, although I heard they were here, and I didn't dive into Minnesota's well documented German influenced polka accordion world. As explained in the liner notes, many of the bands on the CD approached the material through an Appalachian-influenced lens, as that is my and many other old-time musicians' first love. The versions we learned from were mostly already highly Americanized, and I was very happy with everyone's commitment to respecting the source recordings they learned them from. I have a vision in my head for the future of this music where the fiddle and the accordion are equal partners in crime and the accompaniment is a little more American. I think we were starting to get there on the CD, but I want to take it further.

Why should people outside of Minnesota be interested in this music?
The idea behind this album is really by Minnesotans for Minnesotans. I don't think the general public outside of Minnesota will be as interested in this album. I think the old-time community throughout the country will care because we crave and live our traditions. Whether you are in Minnesota or Kentucky, old-timers in general have the quest for how we can connect with the past. It is the same reason why I go out and get every obscure Kentucky fiddle music CD. We want to feel connected to other peoples' journeys to find tradition too. Why else would we play clawhammer banjo instead of electric guitar? Our traditions might be a lot more broken up than those in Kentucky, but I think people can still resonate with the quest.

In the liner notes of the CD, you mentioned finding home recordings during your research. Any thoughts on producing an album from those?
I have been able to make digital copies of dozens of hours of Minnesota fiddle music. People have been very generous about this. However, I do not own the rights to any of this. I think an archive of some sort is the next logical step for the music to survive and get a fresh start, but I need to take it slow. I am currently in talks with a few families to get the public access to these old recordings.

What has this project taught you?
It is always positive when you can see a wild, late night idea by the campfire through to its fruition. It was definitely a lesson in perseverance. In the early going it seemed like nothing was going to pan out. It was very disheartening to hear about three or more generations of fiddlers in families whose last generation didn't pick it up and had no recordings. The more I stuck with it, the more sense I could make of it as a whole and more stuff came out of the woodwork. I am hoping that this is just the beginning of both documenting our state's fiddling history and also coming up with new ways keep the tradition alive in the future.

In the future I am looking to expand this project to the Upper-Midwest states of Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin as the music does not really recognize state boundaries. I hope to open a dialog with folks from these states on their fiddling traditions. I also eventually want to take a more serious look at the dances that went along with the music.

Thanks to Mike for his time, and please check out the Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project. We need more initiatives like this to keep the music going. Mike has one last request: "Please contact me if you have tapes of old Minnesota fiddlers rotting in your attic." E-mail him at minnesotafiddle@yahoo.com and be sure to visit his website minnesotafiddle.com.

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