Andrea Hoag on the intricacies of Swedish fiddle traditions and practice
Interview by Eryka Dellenbach
Andrea Hoag is an accomplished player of the Swedish fiddle from Tucson, Arizona by way of Seattle, Washington. Surrounded by Scandinavian community and traditional practices, Andrea learned to fiddle from Swedish Elders who learned from others before the introduction of radio and broader access to music across regions and communities. Andrea is a 2021 recipient of an SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. She and her apprentice, Lara Sands, are studying fiddle traditions from Dalarna, known as the “folklore province.”
What was the foundation of your musical life and fiddle playing?
I was the youngest in my family, and my big sister played piano. From an early age, she encouraged me to sit and pick out things on the piano. We would sing harmony when we were on road trips as a family. It was part of my family, even though my parents both would have said “We’re not musical at all.” But because my sister had an interest, that what was got me going. I was in Girl Scouts and, you know, we would sing in Girl Scouts, too.
I studied violin in school for a few years and then I kind of lost interest in the orchestra playing, but when I was 15, my brother and I were lying on the living room floor one summer day and The Holy Modal Rounders came on the radio. They played old-time Appalachian music with a modern hippie twist. They were just these crazy guys. I thought, Oh, that is really cool music. My brother, bless his heart, went out and bought their two albums for me. I would just sit there and woodshed and try to do what they were doing, to follow the bowing.
One of the things that they did that also holds true in Swedish music is that their name, Holy Modal Rounders––the word “modal” comes from the old Greek modes, but in southern Appalachian fiddling, “modal” refers to tunes that are in an older scale. It’s not major and it’s not minor. You find that in the Swedish music, too: these notes that are “blue notes” that are in between what you would find on the piano. I think that is such a beautiful sound. So I tried to forget the classical technique I’d learned and just play what I was hearing, and then went to North Carolina and Kentucky to learn more of that music. One thing led to another.
And at some point you deepened your study in Sweden with Swedish fiddling?
In Sweden, in all of Scandinavia, they have something called folkhögskola (folk college)––the original idea was a community education for young farming populations. Now it tends to be more city people going to these schools. I heard about one in Dalarna, which is a very rich province in terms of folklore. There was a fiddle playing course and a fiddle teachers’ course. The teacher of that course, Jonny Soling, happened to come to Seattle (where I was living that winter) to perform with Påhl Olle, one of the real masters of creating the parallel harmony style. I said to Jonny, “I have to come to your course.” He said, “Well, we’ll see about it.” I said, “No, I have to come!” And he said, “Okay, send in an audition tape. We’ve never had anybody from outside of Sweden.”
It turned out I got to go, and it was GREAT! Because it was all folk music, we learned everything by ear, but we studied ways of teaching technique, and we all improved our playing technique. We had harmony course, but it was a much more intuitive way of learning harmony than you would have in an academic music college. Most of the people in this course, all the Swedes, had what they called studiecirkels, study circles, at home, which are community classes open to everyone. The focus in our course was how to teach folk music in a group of people learning by ear. In the middle of the course, during the three months of winter, they went home to their studiecirkels to try out the new teaching methods. I went to visit different elder fiddlers and spent time getting deeper into the tradition. I stayed on in the summer and went back a few times to focus on some elder fiddlers, in particular, Päkkos Gustaf of Bingsjö, who I got to spend a lot of time with––and just spending time going around to fiddle festivals, hanging out and jamming till past sunrise, because the sun would rise about three a.m. and you’d still be playing till five!
Do you sing now, too?
I do, yeah. It’s hard to sing and play the fiddle. The fiddle style is so involved. It’s a different part of the brain. And also, guitars are down by your waist, but the fiddle is right there by your ear.
I want to ask about your lineage in relationship to this fiddle style. Do you have Swedish ancestry?
I am not Scandinavian. We had Scandinavian stories in my childhood because we had Grandma Elsa, who was no relation to the family. She lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, and my father’s family was from upstate New York. To this day, I don’t know how Grandma Elsa became our pretend grandma. But every Christmas she would send us a package with traditional Swedish ornaments, a tablecloth with elves embroidered on it, things like that. So Swedish tradition was part of our Christmas. My father’s college roommate was from Sweden, so every now and then a letter would come from him. These were the only direct relations. It was just when I heard that music––it moved me, and I thought “Oh, this is cool and unheard of!” The rhythms can be quite complex, and, yeah, fun stuff!
Before I went to Sweden, I was back in Seattle, and I got involved with Scandia Folkdance Society, which is a pretty large organization in Seattle. It was started by Gordon Ekvall Tracie, who, back in the ’50s, went to Sweden and recorded a lot of elder fiddlers, to the extent that after he died, Swedish archivists came to Seattle to see what was in his archives that they didn’t have. He became fascinated with the dancing and started Scandia to share it. At the time I was living there, there were three or four dance evenings a week, so you could go and study at different levels of difficulty, and then social dancing on the weekends. I met fiddlers through Scandia and started jamming and playing for dancing.
It sounds like the warmth and community around the Swedish music and dance lineage played a significant role in your devotion to these practices.
When Lara Sands, my apprentice, and I were doing our grant application, we came to the realization that although neither of us has Swedish DNA, it was the sense of community among musicians and dancers that was so meaningful to us. Some people in the community have Swedish heritage, some people just came to it out of love—but that community has now created its own traditions. If I go to an event with Swedes from Sweden, I feel some sense of belonging, but when I’m in the music and dance community, it’s a much deeper sense of belonging.
I can understand that feeling that comes from being welcomed into community around a practice. I practice capoeira, but it’s not in my lineage. So I’m always thinking about that — how do I identify or connect with this?
Yeah. There’s a lot of back and forth. A lot of the dance communities here bring teachers over from Sweden and Norway, and a lot of fiddlers and dancers go over there. There’s a strong connection. For me, because I spent a lot of time in Sweden in my 20s, which is now 40 years ago, I feel very privileged to have known some of the elders who have passed on, who had grown up without recordings and had learned by ear.
One of my goals, or gifts, of this master apprentice relationship is to be able to convey that direct knowledge and those memories and to say to Lara, “Well, you know, Leif Göras did it this way. Gustaf did it this way.” That sense of being part of a lineage is really special.
When you say you’re part of the lineage, how do you trace it back? By your teachers?
Yeah. My main teacher in the course, Jonny Soling, didn’t start playing till he was an adult, actually, but I spent time with elders like Påhl Olle and Gustaf, whose house I went to numerous times, to play with him. I got to help make hay on the farm, which I was really bad at. It was with wooden rakes, and I broke some of the teeth in the rake. They’re like, “Oh, you beginner you!” But they were very tolerant of me.
In the ’70s, in Sweden, there was what they called Gröna vågen, the “Green Wave,” where young Swedish people said, “Why are we listening to American rock and roll? Let’s find out our tradition.” A whole generation grew up with that, finding the elders and learning from them. Nowadays, there’s a whole new generation, and the teaching has become, I hate to use the word institutionalized, but it’s not just sitting and playing knee to knee. A lot of the civic music schools and colleges have folk music programs. So younger fiddlers have grown up learning classical music and folk music side-by-side. The older fiddlers who I played with, they just learned it from watching and listening. That was it. To be there and be able to follow them and play harmony along with them, that was great.
Are there many people in Tucson or Arizona working in these traditions?
No, there aren’t. There isn’t really what you would call a Scandinavian music community anywhere in the Southwest. I feel like my community is more national. And in the era of Zoom, it’s like everybody is everybody’s community now. Now that we’re getting back to live stuff, I definitely feel more motivated to create something of our own here in Arizona.
Can you talk about the Swedish Polska? When I think of Polska, I think of Poland and of Polish lineage.
Well, the word does mean “Polish,” but I don’t think anyone has really found this kind of dance in Poland. A friend of mine who used to do Polish music and dance had found one mountain area where there were things similar, but it just it took on a life in Sweden––it related to the minuet early on, but then developed into a style of turning close together in the dance––I don’t know who else has that really. In the Viennese era, of course, there’s the waltz, but it’s not as close, not that very close way of turning right around each other.
The minuet. Is that a dance or a song?
It’s a dance. In southern Sweden, where there was much more intercourse with mainland Europe, you found the minuet. One of the polskas we play is the Boda polska: 1-2 … 3, 1-2 … 3. Where a minuet would be much more even: 1, 2, and 3 and 1, 2, and 3 and 1, 2, and 3. Then you find other tunes that are: dudda-luddy, dudda-luddy dudda-luddy dudda-luddy — more like Baroque music. Whereas the further into the woods you go in Sweden, the wilder and woolier the rhythms get. Meaning the further north and west, the more things become just … different rhythms, asymmetrical, and you find more of the blue notes that kind of got washed out elsewhere. The more communication there was with Baroque and classical society, the more things got leveled out.
Can you define what a blue note is?
I could demonstrate it more easily on my fiddle. But if you’re singing a major scale, DO RE MI FA SO LA TI DO, that’s what we’re used to. But the old scale in Sweden, they call it the fäbodstoner. The fäbod was the mountain farm where the young women would be for the summer, and they would play instruments made from nature. They would take cow horn or goat horn and boil out the innards (which is really stinky, by the way), then put holes in them and blow them. Willow flute, same thing, putting holes in that gives you a scale that is based on the natural overtone series instead of being tempered, like our western scale.
Oftentimes, when I’m performing, I will say, “This might sound out of tune to you, but this is really how it is.” Then demonstrate the scale. Early on, I was guesting on someone else’s program, and I heard one musician saying, “Boy, Andrea’s really good, but she doesn’t play in tune.” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a different way to be in tune.” On those older scales, that’s where harmonizing can be really a challenge because you can’t just do a major arpeggio, right? You’ve got to find some things in the cracks that will enhance the melody.
So, when you’re basing the blue note off instruments that are not westernized, formalized instruments, you’re taking from that tradition and those materials and trying to reapply it to the fiddle. Is that right?
Yeah. A lot of the older fiddle tunes have those notes that they call fäbodstoner, fäbod notes. The closer you get to the outer edges of Sweden, the more the tradition has gotten into more standard major and minor, which is not to say those older notes don’t exist, but the further away you get from Europe, the more “ålderdomlig” (old-ways-ish).
One thing you find quite a bit in Swedish tunes is, maybe there’ll be an F natural and an F sharp in the same tune. Or maybe there’ll be a place where it’s in between F sharp and F natural but then elsewhere it’s just F sharp. So there’s a lot of changing tonality inside a tune.
Can you tell us about working with your apprentice, Lara Sands? What styles and traditions are you exploring?
I am really lucky with Lara as an apprentice, because she already is so knowledgeable and so skilled. We’re able to work at a pretty high level. A lot of it is just absorbing, just being together, and she gets to see what I do close-up. But among the other things we’ve done is to very attentively go through recordings that were made in the late ’50s and early ’60s of people who were old at that time. We listen closely for, Okay, what ornament did he do? What bowing did he do? And we listen to more recent recordings too and think about how the style has changed. That kind of fine-tuned listening and analyzing—that’s really fun to do.
We talked early on about focusing on Dalarna, the province where I have the deepest knowledge. We ended up spending three months on Rättvik. We just got so interested in that tradition, listening to recordings and talking about what’s changed in the tradition. Now we’re working on Orsa, which is a very interesting, complex tradition. Later in the year, we will work on Ore, and especially look at some of the harmonies created by Påhl Olle. Then we will come to Bingsjö, which is truly dear to my heart.
The Bingsjö tradition is very energetic and like you’ve had a lot of coffee, very intense––a lot of ornaments, a lot of work with the bow and really, really fun to play. When I would play with Päkkos Gustaf, we would come to the end of a tune and he would say, “Uh! It makes me altogether sweaty.” This is such a wonderful music.
One of the first times I met Gustaf, someone took some time-lapse photos of him playing with another fiddler. You could see the other fiddler’s bow as a blur, but the whole of Gustaf was a blur when he played. He’d just throw himself into it wholeheartedly. So, a lot of really wonderful memories of him that I’m looking forward to sharing with Lara, as well as this style. Interestingly, the dance that is done to this music is as smooth as glass, and a lot of people play the music that way. But I feel like we want the real deal.
Eryka Dellenbach (they/she) is a semi-nomadic artist and educator working between film, performance, and experimental, practice-based ethnography. Born in Chicago and now living in Tucson, they are a capoerista with UCA Tucson Quilombolas and work primarily as a freelance, devotional filmmaker. You can learn more about their work on their website: erykadellenbach.com
Cover photo: Steven Meckler