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Ryan & Brennish Thomson

Updated Feb 2, 2024

Festival of American Fiddle Tunes

Port Townsend, Washington, June 23 - July 7, 1996.

By Ryan Thomson

On June 23 I packed up my trusty violin and a two week supply of clothes to catch a flight from Boston to Seattle. From the airport I boarded the "Fiddle Express" bus with other musicians who had arrived from the far corners of North America and overseas. Ahead of us was a two hour ride to Port Townsend, a small town situated on a beautiful peninsula on Puget Sound. 

Our common interest was literally the best fiddling event in the entire world for 1996, the "Festival of American Fiddle Tunes." Arriving at the site, we registered for dormitory rooms at historic Fort Worden, the site of the Centrum Foundation, an organization which sponsors a variety of cultural events throughout the year. 


Despite the word "American," in the title of this particular event, there was a distinguished faculty of over 100 of the best fiddlers of almost every imaginable tradition including Irish, Scottish, French Canadian, Cape Breton, Romanian, Mexican, Greek, Klesmer, Jazz, American Indian, bluegrass, and many varieties of U.S. traditional dance fiddling. 

The official faculty list changed from one week to another, but many staff members from the first week stayed over through the second for a chance to jam and expand their own musical boundaries. I took the option of a two week stint although the majority of students attended for either a full first or second week. 


Being an eclectic full time fiddler, tune collector, and teacher myself, I found a niche with classes in styles of fiddling relatively unknown in New Hampshire including Romanian, Klesmer, and American Indian. In the Celtic area I attended concerts and workshops led by Martin Hayes and Alasdair Fraser, highly respected master players in their respective Irish and Scottish traditions. 

Music classes and tutorial sessions filled the days, while dancing and music jam sessions continued through much of the dark hours. Students of fiddle, banjo, guitar, piano and other instruments at all skill levels were present. This resulted in wonderful late night jam sessions and opportunities to apply classroom learning with folks of like ability. 


Most fiddle music of any ethnic tradition is connected with dancing, and I found a healthy balance of dancing and playing to fit my musical and physical needs. During the evenings scheduled dances ran simultaneously in 3 dance areas. Offerings included western and New England style contras, squares, Mexican, cajun, zydeco, traditional swing and jitterbug, and many other forms of couple dancing. I managed to squeeze several hours of dancing in per day. 

Any musician who attended this extended music party certainly found their musical skills noticeably improved by the end. My expenses for two weeks, including classes and transportation costs, worked out to be approximately $1500. I highly recommend the Fiddle Tunes experience.

For more information visit the Centrum web site

Written by Ryan Thomson, 1997

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