Judy Hyman: In the Rhythm Bed
"Judy Hyman," a fellow fiddler said recently, "is a force." And that pretty much cuts to the heart of it. For thirty years, Judy Hyman has been playing a powerful groove, exploring the edges of the tradition with the Horse Flies and, more recently, playing with Big Table and Small Tattoo in the dance world, the indie-rock band Boy with a Fish, touring with Natalie Merchant, and doing her own writing for film scores and other media. Like other prominent old-time fiddlers of her generation, Judy caught the bug at southern festivals in the 70's, getting a chance to hear old masters like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham play. Since then, she's done what's come naturally, exploring the rhythmic possibilities of the tradition and putting out some good dance music.
On an early spring day in 2004 we met at Judy's house in Ithaca for some eggplant and brown rice, tunes on the lawn, and a long chat.
When did you start playing?
I started violin when I was 8. I started piano when I was 7. That's not tremendously early by today's standards, but that was pretty typical back then. My dad's a pianist, so it was assumed that everyone would take piano lessons. I started piano and then a year later they said to me, "Well, now it's time for the second instrument." I remember my mom taking me to a grade school orchestra concert and I looked around and thought, "Well those cellos, those are pretty big and unwieldy, and the flutes, they're just sitting there with the instrument in their lap most of the time, but the violins, they play all the time, and they're getting all the melodies. Wow, that's what I want to do."
Where was all this?
I grew up in Northern New Jersey. That particular experience was in Tenafly, and then I went to high school in Montclair. I'm a Jersey girl.
Where'd you go to music school?
Indiana University in Bloomington—a great experience.
And there is a fiddling community there.
Yeah, there is. At that point we chose Bloomington because Jeff is from rural Illinois and always wanted to live a relatively rural kind of existence, and I'm from just outside New York City and wanted some action. Bloomington was a really good combination for us that way.
You guys were already together in high school?
No—I went back to music school when I was about 25, after I'd already completed a degree in anthropology at U Penn, so I was an older undergraduate in music. In some ways we got tied into that fiddling community almost before we moved there. We moved there from upstate New York in 1976 with all our stuff packed up in a couple of vehicles and a dog that had just gotten into a skunk. On the way out we went to the Brandywine festival. We hadn't found a place to live. We were just going out there. It was loony the way we were doing it, but we got lucky. At Brandywine we met Frank Hall, a fiddle player and a dancer and an overall great guy that we've now known for all these years, and Frank said, "Well you know, I'm from Bloomington and I'm going up to Massachusetts from here and I can't say my apartment is completely open because I have a whole lot of people staying there, but you can do that too." So we went to his apartment and Bloomington had such a tight housing market at that point that his apartment was filled with people looking for places to live. We had a rotation going on. We would sleep in the bed at night, and there was somebody else who would sleep in it during the day. It was nutty, but we eventually found a place to live and settled there for a couple years. We made a lot of wonderful, enduring connections with people.
Your interest in fiddling had been sparked before that.
I can put a date on it. When I was in the middle of college, I had already decided that I wanted to play violin seriously and go to music school. But I had to finish college first—that was a parental edict. I was practicing really hard and going to school and just burning it up in terms of hours to the day. I told a friend of mine that I needed to do something for pure fun. She had started playing fiddle, and she said, "Well I can get you a ride to this festival. It's called Union Grove." So I went down to Union Grove [North Carolina] and the driver was Jeff. I was introduced to old-time fiddle and my husband in the same weekend—kind of a life-changing event. That was spring 1973.
So there I was gearing up to go back to music school, which I did about three years later, and getting interested in fiddle at the same time. Which was really complicated, because the techniques are pretty different, and I was ridden with guilt over the fiddling. In those days the violin world was really closed to the idea of fiddle playing, which has changed entirely. You would go into a violin store, looking for instruments or bows, and the minute you started playing fiddle music, they would all turn up their noses and bring you out the cheapest stuff. And I didn't want my teachers to know I was playing fiddle because I thought they would think it was interfering with my progress and ask me to stop. The world has opened up a great deal.
Who were your early influences, the players who really got you excited early on?
I was really excited by a group of the old guard, and I was really also very excited by a group of my peers, some of whom were slightly older and some of whom were slightly younger, but they had been around it longer than I. Of the old guard, I can still honestly say that Tommy Jarrell is my favorite fiddle-player of all time. I still take out those records and they make my heart skip a beat. He's definitely a mainstay, and then other people that I encountered at festivals and was really excited by were people like Fred Cockerham and Benton Flippin and Ernest East.
They were a huge influence, but for me of equal influence were the people who had learned from those guys. So, certainly Bruce Molsky, James Leva, Brad Leftwich, Andy Williams, definitely Pete Sutherland, also later on, Mike Bryant. I look back on it a lot, and at that point my chief aspiration was to be a second fiddle player. It never even occurred to me that I would lead and front something.
It was so interesting to me what people did with their bows. I couldn't figure out how they got that sound and all that rhythm. When you're in the south and it's late at night and there's all that moisture in the air, the fiddles play so great—they open out and get really smooth and liquid. It was an enchanting sound. And of course when you're in your early 20's you have the energy to stay up for four days in a row, so each one of those experiences was incredibly intense. So I started out thinking that what I wanted to do was back people up, play second fiddle. I listened to a lot of music but I didn't necessarily learn all of the tunes note for note, and then time went on and I started really learning the tunes.
Also, I have to say that a big part of my initial interest was the social scene around old-time fiddle. We went to southern festivals several times each summer for 15 years or more and made some pretty great friends there.
At this point where are you getting your repertoire from?
Well, there are a lot of people now burning discs of all sorts of wonderful things. In the last few years I've been given discs of Marcus Martin—that's been a really great source—and Bill Hemsley and Manco Snead. There's a set of John Salyer stuff that's pretty important. I love Rayna Gellert's album, Ways of the World, and a lot of Dirk Powell's and Rafe Stefanini's work. And the Ed Haley and Edden Hammons stuff is great. Some of those have been around for some time, but I've only just acquired them in the past few years.
In addition to buying LP's, I used to get my repertoire by going to festivals and taping. That bureau behind you is full of tapes. I'm not doing that anymore, though I've gotten some good tunes on tape at camps I've participated in. People's repertoire has grown incredibly, and I can't say that mine has grown enormously. Expanding my repertoire hasn't always been the goal. I think I've gotten in deeper with the tunes that I've played for a really long time. This week, Richie Stearn's mother died and so we've spent a lot of time together playing and hanging out. On Monday we played and we played a lot of those great old Round Peak standards, and I have to say a lot of my heart is still in that stuff. I love it. I just love it.
There are tunes that I've been playing for years that I still love, that I'm still finding new corners in.
You can find a lot of new corners, and you find yourself playing in a deeper way, and there's so much experience and life in all of these tunes that they bring something out of you.
So as you were going through music school in Indiana, and you were going to these festivals, how conflicted did that feel?
Oh, it was totally intense. In the winter I would try to mostly only play violin, but every now and then I would get the fiddle out, and in the summer I would put the violin away and then go play fiddle all summer. At the end of one summer—I was in music school—I opened up my violin case and the violin top had sunk because it had been in southern Indiana in all that humidity and I hadn't opened it up in three months.
After graduating, you came out to Ithaca?
Yes, we came here right after I finished music school for Jeff to go to graduate school. Cornell was one of the places he was accepted and we knew there was fiddle music here. Lifestyle had as much to do with the decision to come here as academics.
The fiddle thing was the Highwoods String Band.
Well, Highwoods was beginning their end by the time we got here. We had already been to a couple of those Highwoods parties—in maybe '77, '78 and that band was a total inspiration. We moved here in '79. But there were a lot of other great and fun bands in the area. There was the Swamp Root band out of Rochester, with Sandy Stark on fiddle, and the Bubba George band here in town which included Jeb Puryear, who plays guitar with Donna the Buffalo, and Richie Stearns on banjo, who plays with the Horse Flies. There was the Correctones String Band with John Specker and Danny Kornblum on fiddles. It was a pretty inspiring place to be.
Is that when the Horse Flies started to happen?
We started to do the Horse Flies almost as soon as we got here, and it was a very different group of people than it is now—friends we had met at festivals who were from up around Geneseo and Rochester. At that point the band was a two-fiddle band. Mike Scott and I played fiddle and John Hoffmann, who is now a very good fiddle player in his own right, played banjo. Jeff played guitar and Molly Stoughton played bass.
At first, were you playing pretty straight with the Horse Flies?
The best I could. (laugh) I mean, when you grow up in New Jersey and then you go through Philadelphia and live in upstate New York, you do the best you can. People get into this stuff in different ways. Some people get really attracted by the ancientness and the history of it, and all the stuff that goes along with that. I was really fascinated by the rhythm. I had always been fascinated by drumming and rhythm, but just happened to play the violin, and I was really taken with the social thing. I was never a reproductionist. I really liked the tunes, I really liked the rhythmic thing, and I always just did it pretty much how it came out. I figured the integrity to it was to try and get it to sound like fiddling and not like violin playing, and I was really interested in the southern repertoire.
At that point we just played fiddle tunes and we sang old songs, so in that sense, we were pretty darn traditional. And when we started with the next iteration of the Horse Flies, which was me, Jeff, Richie Stearns and John Hayward, we were still just basically doing fiddle tunes and old songs. But then things started to happen. There was never a decision made. There was never a conversation. It just started to happen and we decided that it was worth letting happen. It just felt so natural.
The way I see fiddle music is that fiddle music is what people play naturally. People who grew up with it and learned it from their ancestors, that was the natural thing for them to do. And what we ended up doing and have continued to do, if you put together all the pieces, is just exactly right and the natural thing for us to have done. I think a lot of people have thought we were disrespecting the music and trying to do all these oddball things. Not really.
It's all music, and it all feeds into each other, and you follow your own heart through it. I think that's what people who like to stay within the tradition and make it a point to emulate the tradition are feeling, too. I think they're coming to it in exactly the same way, and that's where their heart is taking them. You know when someone is playing music that's not sincere—it just doesn't work.
If someone hadn't heard the Horse Flies, how would you describe your music?
I have a lot of trouble with this question because our music doesn't really work in words. Often when I describe it, it starts to sound like an eclectic nightmare, and like something I wouldn't really like. But I'll give it a try.
There are three realms of Horse Flies music. There's how we do fiddle tunes, there's how we do our ethnic category of original music and there's how we do our slow song-oriented mostly original music. I think readers of Fiddler would be most interested in my description of how our fiddle music works, so I'll only go into that.
The instrumentation now is fiddle, banjo-ukelele, 5 string banjo, accordion, electric bass, and percussion. I can describe what each person does. I obviously play a lot of the melody, but I also diverge from the melody. I do a certain amount of improvising on certain kinds of tunes. Jeff plays the banjo-uke with an incredibly steady and rhythmic strumming stroke that at times sounds to me like it's a machine-produced groove—it fills out the whole middle. It's this tiny little instrument, and even acoustic it's louder than everything else put together. It fills in the whole mid-range and has a very characteristic sound—it's really at the core of our groove. Richie is at heart a clawhammer player, but over the years he has developed his own banjo techniques. He does a lot of syncopated rhythms with pull-offs and strumming, Motown grooves and counter-melodies. He and I have evolved together over such a long time that we intuitively play off each other to create a coordinated thought. The accordion player, Rick Hansen, is new to fiddle music, and he basically just shadows the chords, usually chugging the bellows in a rhythm similar to what the uke is doing. We're very, very minimal on the chord change front, and sometimes that confuses people. They'll say "Are you sure you want to hold that D all the way right through there?" And that's definitely how we want it to go. We're lucky to have found someone who's smart enough to play well, but willing to play simply. June [Drucker] plays very straight ahead I –V, V-I kind of bass, and Taki [Masuko} is a percussionist who's very world-beat oriented. He plays bongos, dumbek, and talking drum. He's going for an ethnic groove, so these days the fiddle music swings in an ethnic vein.
The word that's always come to my mind is "mantra."
It's very mantra oriented; it's very minimalist. Things change but they don't change fast, except that Richie and I are kind of poking out from all of this rhythm bed with things that are, certainly to a traditionalist's ear, unexpected. Although to us now they've become completely normal. When we play fiddle tunes, most of the time we're all playing, but we do use some dynamic levels, which is not very overly typical of old-time music. If it's the right kind of tune, if it's a tune that's open-ended enough to support improvisation, we'll do that. And on those tunes I also like to drop out for a few revolutions, because then Richie and Taki can interact in a way that they can't when the melody is still going on.
And even when the fiddle is there, it's not the traditional arrangement where the fiddle is way out front and everything else is holding it up. Your fiddle is back in the mix.
I like to think of it as the whole thing being a rhythm bed, and the fiddle is in there with everything else. We've experimented with a lot of different ways of mixing when we record stuff, and now we're beginning to experiment with a mix where you have the banjo partly on one side and the fiddle partly on the other, and both of them tucked down low enough that the drums and uke can be right in there with them. I think that what we all see in it and what we're all trying to communicate is something that makes you feel and enjoy rhythm, and that has a lot of float and a lot of interesting things poking out of it, but doesn't have any one thing that's driving it. And melody is not the main thing for us, and harmony certainly isn't the main thing for us, although—as I mentioned—how the chords work is very important to us.
So given the emphasis on rhythm, do you feel that your natural home is playing for dancers or playing for a concert?
Oh, I think it's both. Sometimes people ask if our natural home is playing live or recording, and the answer is both. I think it's very definitely both. That's one of the great things about where I'm finding myself at this point, is that there are a lot of things that I feel equally passionate and invested in. I wouldn't say that any one thing is more important than any other, and I really like that they're all happening now.
For dancing, there's this obvious interaction between the rhythm of the band and what people are doing, but you're also tied into 32 bar phrasing. Does that limit you?
We like 32 bars. We like predictable rhythm. We don't want to interrupt that intuitive body reception of the music. I suppose we've become known as experimenters, though I wouldn't call what we're doing experimenting because it's just sort of what comes out. We like to play dances because you can really go somewhere with the tune, but we're not at all interested in yanking things around to a place where it's in any way confusing for people. When we play outside the context of a dance we'll play Southern tunes that add a measure here or take a measure away there and our songs do some of that as well, but even there we like a predictable flow to the music that makes you want to dance and doesn't make you fall over and get confused.
And you're involved with a ton of other stuff now.
I am involved with a lot of stuff. For all those years, I really did nothing but the Horse Flies and I also, for much of the time, held down full-time work. We went through all those musical evolutions—from acoustic traditional to acoustic experimental to electric and back—and it was very satisfying. I sometimes look back and go, "When did I stop going to festivals?" I stopped going to festivals when music around me that I could do on almost a daily basis got so satisfying that I didn't feel the need to get in the car and drive 16 hours. And then the band came to an end when John Hayward passed away in 1996. That left me with no desire to play fiddle music: we were all so torn up. We had played together for 17 years and it was very emotionally traumatizing.
What did he die of?
Cancer. He had had cancer, been treated, operated on, went into remission for about two years. Things were grand and we had a fabulous little tour out west and right before we went his doctor said to him, "There's something funky in your blood test. When you get back from this trip come see me." When we came back from the trip, there it was. They gave him 6 months; he lasted a year.
So after he died I got involved in all sorts of other things, and now, fortunately, I'm managing to juggle all of them. I've been doing a lot of composing -- film scoring and string arranging. I've gotten pretty good with midi and digital audio and have built a nice studio setup at home where I write. Richie and I are about to go on tour for a second time with pop singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, who's quite interested in folk music. Jeff and I have just released an album of our indie-rock band, Boy with a Fish. And I've been teaching violin and fiddle lessons.
Eventually I made my way back to fiddle music and over the last few years Jeff and I have been playing with a bunch of different fiddle band configurations, mostly for dances and dance weekends. One is Big Table, which is with Jeremiah McLane on accordion, Larry Unger, a fabulous guitar player, and June Drucker playing bass. That project has been a lot of fun because it's a crossover of southern and northern tunes and attitudes. Jeremiah sometimes calls it a musical civil war -- the north vs. the south. Another is Small Tattoo, with Stuart Kenney on bass, Liza Constable on guitar, and Taki plays percussion. That one's pretty straight southern – except for the percussion. Those are the two that are most active these days.
You mentioned that the Horse Flies are getting active again.
We really did think we weren't ever going to do that, and just like these other things, we really didn't take steps to make that happen. But about a year and a half ago – word travels slowly across the great ocean—an agent in Germany asked if the Horse Flies wanted to do a tour. We said sure, and decided as a group that we wouldn't just play the old repertoire. We had to make new music to get our hearts into it. We couldn't just swap in a bass player and do the same old, same old. Somehow we actually found the time to put together a bunch of new repertoire—which was challenging because Taki lives in Boston.
About the same time that the Europe trip was offered, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival expressed interest. We hadn't done that since '96, the summer before John died. They also wanted to use the name Horse Flies. So we did those things, and we did a few festivals around here under the name Edna's Driveway because I was uncomfortable using the name Horse Flies. Then at the end of the summer we looked at each other and said, "Okay, that was fun, it was really fun." So we've started saying yes to certain things as the Horse Flies and we're going to make an album over the summer.
You seem to be in a really good place.
I'm the happiest I've been for a really, really long time. I've got enough different stuff going on that every day is very interesting.
On Gear and Tunings
Now you're pretty geared up. Let's talk about your gear – when you're on stage, what all is up there with you?
For acoustic violin, which is what I do for dances and dance camps, and with the Horse Flies and Natalie Merchant, I use a Baggs bridge and a Mills microphone. The Baggs bridge makes a pretty nice sound on its own, and the Mills microphone makes a very nice, organic sibilance. I blend the two together to get a more acoustic sound than you'd get with just a pick-up. Then I run from that through a Pendulum pre-amp, a guitar pre-amp, intended for acoustic guitars. It has a lot of great controls on it. I use a touch of reverb processing from a Lexicon unit, because when you amplify violins they lose something in the translation that you want to restore and make them a little more liquid. Then I like to run a little amp on stage for my own monitoring. In concert with the Horse Flies I'm also using a "Line 6" delay pedal to throw off different kinds of delays on the songs.
You also play electric.
I play electric violins in Boy With A Fish. I have two and keep them in different tunings. It's basically the same set up as with the acoustics with one more pedal, which is a phaser pedal. There's a guy named Eric Aceton in Trumansburg, which is the town just north of here. He's a great violin player and fiddler and he builds electric violins. I have three of his. The violins are called Violects and his business is called Ithaca Stringed Instruments. It's such a lucky thing to have the guy right up the road. He does all my violin repair and everything.
The acoustic violins—who are they from?
I have one that I bought from Fred Oster [Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia] in the mid ‘80s. That's my main instrument and I love it to death. It was not an expensive instrument and it has no label in it, so who knows what it really is. Fred thought it was probably German circa 1930. And then I have one that I bought from Rafe Stefanini and he re-graded the top. It has a label in it, and I really can't remember the name of the maker. Rafe takes these modest instruments and opens them up and regrades the top. So it's as much his as anybody's.
So you have two, one cross-tuned and one in standard?
That's what I travel with: I mean I have other instruments here at home, but they don't count. I'd like more, I'd like to have another one that I'm equally as in love with as that no-name instrument, but I've hunted for a long time, and haven't found it yet.
How many different tunings do you use?
On a regular basis I use four: standard, most of the G and C tunes are in standard, and there's a whole bunch of things that I play out of standard for Big Table because I try not to tune too much for that band. But when we're going a little more southern, then in the key of D I would tune the G string up to A, and in the key of A I have this instrument that I keep in cross-key (AEAE). Then I like to play in dropped G tuning, you play in G and take the E and tune it down to a D (GDAD). There are bunches of others but I rarely do them in public performances, because it's too much tuning for people to endure. So I either have to another instrument around, or be in a really casual setting where I have time to tune.
On Ralph's Watch
My husband Jeff's dad, Ralph Claus, passed away in December 2002. He left Jeff a gold pocket watch that had been in the family for many generations. I made this tune shortly after his passing and we played it at his memorial. I've always liked the double entendre—that he's "watching" over us. He was a very kind man and very dear to both of us. Ralph loved to hear my waltzes. I wish he could have heard this one.
© Brendan Taaffe, 2005. All Rights Reserved.