Saturday: Noon Heritage, 2:30 p.m. Two Rivers; Sunday: 3 p.m. Heritage
Master fiddlers from three generations bring the musical tradition of Maine’s Franco-American community to The American Folk Festival, playing music that ethnomusicologist Bau Graves of Portland’s Center for Cultural Exchange has described as “simultaneously precisely controlled and wildly danceable.”
Settlers in Maine brought with them both Acadian and Quebecois musical styles, with the Quebecois emphasizing multipart structures and the Acadian generally exhibiting a repeated two-part structure.
The tradition in southern Maine primarily reflects the Acadian style, which incorporates songs from the Irish and Scottish repertoire.
This music was at the heart of a tradition of homegrown entertainment that brought people together in settings ranging from parties at the family hearth to dances in the logging camp. More recently, the tradition has begun to show the influence of decades of fiddle contests, emphasizing clear, precise and – perhaps most significant – fast playing, all the better to bring audiences to their feet.
Gorham’s Don Roy has been called “the dean of Franco-American fiddling in Maine,” a title that reflects both his skilled playing and his dedication to sharing his musical heritage. House parties with fiddling and singing were a weekly occurrence among Roy’s extended family in the Winslow area, and he joined the family’s music-making tradition by taking up the guitar at age 6.
Roy’s uncle Lucien Mathieu, who performs with him in Bangor, recognized his talent and encouraged him to take up the fiddle at age 15. Roy traveled with his “Uncle Lou” to the homes of noted fiddler friends and to fiddle contests throughout New England and Canada, where the young Mainer refined his skills and expanded his repertoire to include Acadian and Irish sounds as well as the Quebecois tunes of his own family.
After many years performing with the Maine French Fiddlers, Roy now leads the Don Roy Trio. Nationally recognized for his skill, Roy has performed at venues including Carnegie Hall and Garrison Keillor’s public radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.” Closer to home, he twice has won the Maine Fellowship for Excellence in Traditional Music. He recently began to pursue an interest in making stringed instruments, working under master craftsman Jon Cooper, and says he finds great joy in “taking a piece of wood and making it alive.”
Roy is particularly proud of the new fiddle-based group Fiddleicious, which has grown out of his teaching at the Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland. What began with a handful of students four years ago has blossomed into a close-knit group of nearly 100 musicians and dancers from their teens to their 80s bringing traditional Franco-American dance tunes to nursing homes and concert halls in the Portland area.
Roy’s most recent album is “Thanks for the Lift,” and he brings that “lift” of his musical traditions to Bangor this summer. The “lift,” he explains, is the musician’s description of “the spirit in the music that makes you want to dance.”
Lucien Mathieu has a long history as an outstanding Maine fiddler. If Don Roy is the dean of today’s Franco-American fiddlers, his uncle and mentor, Lucien, certainly holds that title for the previous generation – and he continues to be a formidable player in his 80s.
For his contributions to Maine music, Mathieu was inducted in 1992 into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame. Born in 1923 into a large and musically talented Quebecois family in Winslow, Mathieu grew up in a context in which music making was both a passion and family entertainment. He began to study the fiddle in earnest in his teens, learning from his father, Joe Mathieu, as well as his own Uncle Lucien.
After returning from service in World War II, Lucien Mathieu was a regular performer on local radio with Yodelin’ Ike and the Hillbilly Jamboree. In the late 1950s and 1960s, he played twin fiddles with Alphy Martin, and for the next 25 years he was a member of the Katahdin Mountaineers.
Beginning in the late 1980s, he led the Maine French Fiddlers with his nephew Don Roy. Both of the younger fiddlers affirm Mathieu’s major role in Maine’s French fiddle tradition. Erica Brown notes that “Pepere” Mathieu’s “desire to preserve this heritage music is unsurpassed by anyone.” Don Roy says of his uncle’s influence: “He gave me a gift to last a lifetime and taught me to have fun with it.”
Erica Brown, 21, of Lewiston is the third generation of Maine fiddlers to grace the Bangor stage this summer. Widely praised for her ability to combine the precision of classical violin technique with the spirit and joy of traditional fiddle, she applies her talents to both bluegrass and the Franco-American tunes of her heritage.
Inspired by the musical talents and traditional repertoire of her grandfather, an accordionist, she began to study music at age 6. She has studied both classical violin and fiddle, the latter under fellow Bangor performer Don Roy, whom she counts as an important mentor.
Brown joined the Maine French Fiddlers at age 10. Since then, she has performed regularly as a solo act with the Old-Time Radio Gang, led her own band, The Bluegrass Connection, and put out three CDs, the latest 2003’s “Imagine That.” She was named the 2003 Junior Female Entertainer of the Year by the Maine Country Music Association. She now studies audio recording at the University of Maine at Augusta, but reports that live performance is still her “favorite thing to do.”
Accompanying these outstanding fiddlers are the remaining members of the Don Roy Trio, Cindy Roy and Jay Young. Growing up in the Acadian-American community in the Westbrook area, Cindy Roy was encouraged to take up the piano by her grandfather, the fiddler Alphy Martin – the same Alphy Martin who played twin fiddles with Lucien Mathieu. While she undertook classical training in her youth, Cindy Roy began to focus on learning traditional Franco-American piano chording in 1980 when she met her husband, Don.
In performance she also incorporates the step dancing she has loved since childhood. She recalls having to be carried off to bed crying as a young girl because she wanted to keep dancing all night at family soirees.
Bassist Jay Young comes to the tradition by a more circuitous route through rock ‘n’ roll and bluegrass, finally teaming up with Don Roy in 1985 to play Franco-American music at house parties, in the Maine French Fiddlers and in the Don Roy Trio.
“The community,” he points out, “has been graciously inclusive.” In the last few years Young has taken another great leap, literally, studying stepping with Roy and becoming, perhaps, the only step-dancing upright bass player in the world.