Peter “Doc” Rolland is a fiddle player specializing in traditional, cowboy, country, folk and bluegrass songs and a 2016 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Awardee. An Arizona State Fiddle Champion and three-time National Certified Division Fiddling Champion, Rolland is a celebrated performer and educator. He has toured internationally and runs a fiddle camp every summer in Colorado. He spoke to BorderLore about the collecting and preserving of old time fiddle tunes in Arizona.
BorderLore: How did you start playing the fiddle?
Peter Rolland: It’s in my blood. My parents were immigrants from Hungary, both classical musicians. My dad played the violin, and my mom the piano. My grandmother was a pianist and supported the family by playing for silent movies after her husband died. The war ripped the fabric of our family apart, so there might have been other family members who played music that I don’t know about.
I heard music every day. I was born into it. When I was a kid I found that I was able to retain musical thoughts and play back records in my head. I didn’t want to play classical music. I was forced to study it and quit as soon as I could. I started playing fiddle in graduate school and found it to be a good hobby and hobbies sometimes lead to getting paid and that’s what happened to me.
I like playing the fiddle because it’s fun. It’s become a part of me. It’s like breathing.
BL: Is there a difference between a violin and a fiddle?
PR: The instrument evolved out of crude instruments that could have been made by anyone with skilled hands. The development of the violin into its current form was by skilled makers who sold their instruments to people who could pay for them, mostly landed gentry and nobility, and some amateurs who used them for religious services. But you had to have money to pay for it. The music associated with it was a mix of courtly music and melodies. In the early days of manufacture, it couldn’t be afforded by the peasantry.
There is basically one instrument. Itzhak Perlman refers to it as a fiddle. The real question is, “What’s the music that’s played on it?”
You take that instrument and adapt it to the needs of music you’re going to play. In the 20th century when country musicians didn’t have amplifying systems they played on fiddles strung with steel strings, which were louder, cheaper, and more stable than the gut strings of violins. There are also techniques to add loudness. Playing on two strings, for example, which was facilitated by making bridges flatter. So there is variation in how the bridge is cut that varies with styles of music. Fiddlers tend to like a little flatter bridge.
BL: You traveled throughout Arizona in the late 1970s and early 1980s to collect old-time music and fiddle tunes from elderly fiddlers and paid them for their sessions with some support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. What did you learn?
PR: The fiddlers I chose to spend time with were elderly, and they all passed on quite some time ago. They all loved to play the fiddle. The oldest one was well into his 90s. He said playing kept him alive, gave him purpose.
I went to fiddlers primarily who had fairly long histories with the instrument. They knew lots and lots of tunes. I wanted to get them to record as many tunes in their repertoires that they could. I asked them, “Who did you learn from? Where?” I recorded on field cassettes well over a thousand tunes, but there was a fair amount of overlap and some was common material. I was looking for things that you don’t commonly hear.
One of the guys was a founding member of the Arizona Old Time Fiddlers Association, Hiram Brakefield. Another was Dudley Whitlock of Snowflake. He had an extensive repertoire and was lucid about his history. His material doesn’t really contribute anything significant to fiddling archives because he got everything out of a book. But what was unusual was the way he played. He had a particularly unique lilt to his playing. He learned from his dad. He would sit opposite his dad, just like he learned to read. To read, his dad would trace letters and words from the Bible with his finger and Whitlock would watch this upside down. In the same way, he learned to bow backwards. In order to keep his hand moving in same direction, his motions were mirror the image of what everyone else did. It makes substantial difference in the sound. When you play a down-bow, usually your arm is moving down. It’s a set of physical dynamics that’s different from up-bow — it creates a whole different sound.
I was looking for interesting and oddball tunes that you can’t find anywhere else. I found a bunch of those, but I haven’t had time to go exhaustively through them. I got married in ’79. My wife traveled with me to these fiddlers’ homes, then we raised six kids. The material now fills up a big box.
BL: Is there a specific Borderlands’ fiddling tradition?
PR: Arizona is a melting pot state. Unlike the Southeast, which is the birthplace of country music: There, people are born into deeply entrenched styles of old-time music and are around it all their lives. In Arizona it’s a much looser affair.
In popular repertoire, there are a few regional tunes. There’s a tune that’s most played by fiddlers called the “Jesse Polka,” which comes from Chihuahua. There is also “chicken scratch”
[Editor’s note: The Jessie Polka or J.C. Polka is derived from a Mexican polka called the “Jesusita de Chihuahua.” “Chicken scratch” is called “waila” by the Tonono O’odham people. It uses percussion, guitar, and violin, but has now evolved to include the accordion and saxophone.]
BL: In addition to being a performer you also teach fiddle?
PR: I’m at least a third generation music teacher. Teaching is in my blood. I never advertise but people find me somehow. I’m open to anybody who has a desire to learn to play the fiddle. I occasionally teach other instruments as well. I enjoy the process of mentoring people along the path. The journey is worthwhile no matter someone’s ability and talent.
BL: You also run a weeklong annual fiddle camp in Colorado?
PR: Yes. It was an idea my wife and I had. I’d been going to Colorado since I was a four-year-old kid. My parents regularly made the trek out from Illinois for my mom’s health. We hold the camp in Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, neighboring towns near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a combined population of around 1,000 people.
For three years we ran a residential camp in the mountains. Now it’s not residential but is held at the local school, and students find accommodations at RV resorts or motels. We typically have between 25 to 35 students. It’s now in its seventh year. There’s no age requirement, you just have to be mature enough to handle the class load. We have a lot of older students, between 50 and 70 years old. We do a lot of playing by ear, a lot of jamming. You make a lot of friendships as people come back year after year.
BL: How has SFA Master Apprentice Award benefitted you and the fiddling tradition?
PR: I did go through the material 10 years later and culled songs I thought were interesting that I wanted to record. One old guy Jesse Cox created a pretty waltz. No one was playing it. So I started to play it in public. I saved it. Now a lot of kids around the state play it. I’m teaching apprentices through the Master Apprentice Award. I’m trying to pass it forward.
I have four apprentices. Esme Conway, 11, and her sister Francesca Conway, 13; Tilden Walker, 13; and Madison Dietrich, 16.
Getting the award allowed me to dictate what I would teach, not just what students want to learn, which tends to be popular tunes heard on commercial media or at contests. We’re learning a whole different kind of music, not necessarily songs that will win contests or make audiences jump up and down.
There are thousands of tunes that have been born, had a short existence, and died. It’s just like species that die out. After the last one that played it dies, it’ll never be done again.
These good-old, venerable tunes may not have merit on judges scorecards or make audiences go nuts, but they are still important parts of musical history. You have to make people want to learn it or listen to it otherwise it dies in obscurity. What I’m hoping to do is expose people to the good tunes that were played long ago.
- Arizona Old Time Fiddlers Association, based in Flagstaff, AZ, works to preserve, promote and perpetuate the art of old time fiddling. It has a several chapters around the state.
- Arizona Bluegrass Association promotes American musical forms such as of bluegrass, old-time, gospel, and traditional instrumental and vocal music of the United States.