A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Waltzes with Bob Bernard

Bob Bernard
Photo by Trae McMaken
I sat and played waltzes with Bob Bernard on a blustery day. I was on a fieldwork trip interviewing Michigan’s fiddlers as part of a National Endowment for the Arts grant project administered through the Michigan State University Museum. I make my living as a fiddler and storyteller. I am a native of Michigan who has made the fiddle playing of the Great Lakes – especially Michigan and Ontario – one of my primary topics of interest, even making Michigan fiddlers the topic of a master’s project some time ago, coupled with the founding of a website dedicated to Michigan Fiddlers.

Snowdrift in Lake City, Michigan
Photo by Trae McMaken
 It was February near Lake City. The snow drifts were high and jagged at the edge of the lake, and the cottage wore a heavy stole of snow. It was the first time I had ever met this white haired man, but he reminded me of melodies that were like long lost acquaintances. I found that I had never appreciated them enough – especially not on a snowy day. “Simple Things,” “Midnight on the Water,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “The Ash Grove” were just a few. Bob was the only fiddler I interviewed on that trip who suggested that instead of talking first, we should play music together first. It set the tone for our discussions.

We finished fiddling the waltz on a high-low harmony, and I immediately laughed.
          “You know it’s good when you laugh after,” Bob said.

 Bob is a native of the U.P. – Marquette to be specific. His parents were both fiddlers, as was a grandfather. Other musicians filled the family with music, as well, like an Irish aunt who arranged an annual St. Patrick’s day concert. He still has a set list, written on old paper, of the tunes his parents used to play.

Bob is an eloquent man. As we sat in the living room with a cat curled up on my lap, he told me of his decision to move to his farm, Earthwork Farm. He had suffered from partial paralysis that caused him to eventually give up his job as a wildlife field biologist. Bob wanted to create a beautiful environment, to live simply and ecologically. He wanted to raise bees and cattle. The farm was his solution. He wanted to live life at a slower pace. It is hard not to draw a connection between his farm and his music. Bob has become known for the waltz.
Bob Bernard with a concert poster
Photo by Trae Mcmaken
Bob and his son Seth host The Earthwork Harvest Gathering at his farm. One of the premier events of the festival, The Waltz Hour, has become something of a musical revival of the waltz. Dancers pack the dance floor to the strains of Bob’s ad hoc waltz bands. Bob’s album with Chinese virtuoso Kailin Yong is another exploration of the waltz where Bob’s self-taught musicality meets Kailin’s classical expertise and desire for musical freedom. Bob loves harmony. Like the house parties of his childhood where he says the strictures of life could fall away and the drama of the music be expressed, Bob feels that music allows him to exercise his emotions. I felt the reality of that, as we sat and played waltzes together while the wind blew the snow over the frozen lake and the drifts reached towards the windows.

Click the link to listen to Bob and Trae play and improvise to the waltz “Midnight On the Water.”

Catch Bob and his waltz posse on Saturday, August 9th, at the 2014 Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, MI.

Written by Trae McMaken in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program