Old-time fiddle festival helps heat up winter in Fairbanks

Athabascan event brings fiddlers from across the Interior

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Edgar "Paddy" Nollner Jr., 70, remembers cold, dark nights growing up in Galena. The whole town would gather together in a cabin heated by a large wood stove and lit by gas lamps. They'd spend the night dancing, eating and fiddling.

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"Outside it would be 50 below, but the dance would still be going strong with the good old fiddle and guitar," he said. "And that didn't just happen in Galena, you know. That happened all over the different villages.

"In those days there wasn't anything else to do. We had no TV, we had no Sno-Go."

Having grown up with the music and playing the guitar himself since the age of 12 or so, Nollner said he was dismayed in the '80s to see that fiddle music seemed to be disappearing from Alaska.

"It went away for a while," he said of the music. "It seemed like a lot of people put their fiddles away."

That's why Nollner was so excited 25 years ago to take part in the first Athabascan Fiddle Festival. Held in Fairbanks, the festival brought together Athabascan fiddlers from across the Interior. The musicians back in 1983 weren't trying to make a yearly institution, Nollner said, they just wanted to make music.

"We thought (the festival in 1983) was going to be the one and only one," he said. "But it's still going strong after 25 years."

Nollner, who still lives in Galena and who still plays the guitar, has come to Fairbanks every year for the past 25 years to take part in the Athabascan Fiddle Festival. On Nov. 10, the last day of this year's jam session, Nollner was among the dozens of musicians and music-lovers taking in the twang at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall.

More than 80 bands from nearly every corner of the state and even Canada took part in this year's festival, Ann Fears, the event's director, said.

"We have musicians performing from all over the state," she said. "We're bulging at the seams with 650 people-plus in the audience on Friday and Saturday nights."

Early Saturday afternoon the music was lively and the dance floor was filled. Everyone - young and old - was smiling.

"We just love the music and seeing each other every year," Nollner said. "Everyone seems to get along and that's the way it should be."

Nollner said he was most excited to see the young people in the audience and up on the stage.

"We've got some young folks that are really good backup guitarists," he said. "That makes the music that much better. We've got to get the young folks to come in and take our places. A lot of us are getting older. We're not going to keep going forever, you know."

But as more young musicians are joining into the yearly festival, Fears said, the music being played is evolving. There's more rock 'n' roll and more modern country and western music.

For his part, Nollner said he'd like to see the young players embrace the more traditional fiddle music.

"You want to keep the old-time music going instead of bringing in rock 'n' roll with the younger kids getting too wild," he said.

But Fears isn't sure the older players can stop the influx of more modern tunes into the festival.

"It's like trying to hold back the wind," she said. "With the younger generation coming in it's evolving, it's changing."

Fears doesn't see it as a clashing of the generations, but rather a melding of the two.

And she might be right. On Saturday, a couple shared a dance to a spirited fiddle tune - an older gentleman with silver hair and a young woman with a Bluetooth cell phone headset conspicuously resting in her ear.

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