(HOST) Northwestern Vermont meets neighboring French Quebec once a year at the St. Albans Maple Festival Fiddlers Variety Show. It’s a toe tapping, foot stomping event; and for Commentator Anne Averyt it’s a special Vermont rite of spring.
(AVERYT) On a recent, rainy Saturday night I drove with friends up the interstate to celebrate my favorite end of winter, early spring event – the St. Albans Maple Festival Fiddlers Variety Show, a uniquely northwestern Vermont event, mixing music and community with a flair of "just across the border."
The names on the program – Gaston and Guy, Fabio and Michelle, Lattimer and Roland – give a hint of the event’s mixed lineage. French is spoken here, and sung, as freely as English, but what is shared and what makes the evening so special is the music – toe-taping, energetic, infectious fun – jigs and reels, waltzes and quadrilles.
As we pass Exit 18 on our way north, my friends tell me that for years they came to Georgia to the Cobweb Dance Hall for Saturday night round and square dancing – BYOB, No Shorts and Families Welcome. It was also a cross border event and featured the same brand of hoedown fiddling.
The Cobweb isn’t there anymore, but the tradition of traditional music is still very much alive in this part of Vermont. And it’s a tradition that brings generations together. This year the Fiddlers Show moved from its usual stage at the Bellows Free Academy to St. Paul’s Methodist Church, because the BFA auditorium is – thankfully – undergoing renovation.
The church hall was packed with a couple hundred people, a diverse mix of beard lengths, hair colors and boot sizes. Center stage was a shared space for women and men, the young and not so young, fiddlers, cloggers, piano plunkers and singers.
There was music to recognize – The Tennessee Waltz, Turkey in the Straw, and Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain – and even more with little known but evocative names like Turkey in the Patch, Hamish the Carpenter, and Chinese Breakdown. I don’t really know the difference between a waltz and a reel, but it didn’t matter that evening. I did know there was an intriguing range of instruments – fiddles of course (all sizes), guitar and piano for back-up, harmonicas (small and considerably larger), and this year’s surprise addition – bagpipes serenading at intermission. All the music seemed to be about variations on a tune; the influences and nationalities like the United Nations – Gaelic, Scottish, Quebecois, and a little Kentucky bluegrass. I recognized from previous years some of the same songs, many of the same faces, even a few of the same outfits – like Dave’s red suspenders and Roger’s Irish cable sweater.
The program was considerably shorter this year, just under three hours, rather than ringing in midnight; but there was no lack of camaraderie or lowdown-hoedown fun. It’s a worthy down home tradition in upstate Vermont – ushering out winter and welcoming in spring.