and america’s wild improvisational roots

This short clip is from a film called Medicine Fiddle, about a unique hybrid music and dance form created by the convergence of French, Scotch and Irish fur traders and trappers, with Native American tribes in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Canada in the 1700 and 1800’s. These mixed-blood people are often called Metis. Their music is rural American fiddle with a strong beat that echoes the step-dancing of the Europeans and the tribal dancing of Native Americans. When they had no access to a real fiddle, they’d made their own out of maple wood and birch bark, or cigar boxes and fishing line.

Early on in the film an old woman talks about how one of the great mixed-blood fiddlers learned to play:

“He said no one taught him how to play. He said what he used to do is, he used to take his violin…because the old Indians always said there was music in the air…

So he used to go out in the woods with his violin, and he used to play…He said you could hear that music. And he could play a violin. That’s where he learned music, from woods, he said, from the trees…”

Imagine that degree of listening, of being open, and wanting to find the way…

I stumbled on Medicine Fiddle at, a vast preserve of documentary films about American folk – “roots” – culture. There is no way to summarize the richness and beauty of this collection, which ranges from Foodways, to Healing & Medicine, to Aging, to Rural Life. It is a testament to the wild inventiveness of ordinary people and an American spirit of which we may not be aware.

And, there’s lots of music, like Texas Prison Work Songs and Songs of Ghanaian fishermen, improvised out of nothing but the desire to make and be caught up in its rhythm.

Click here to read about Metis fiddle and dance music in cool detail.

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