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In 1972, Bruce Molsky, a 17-year-old public school student from the Bronx, enrolled at the prestigious Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Two years later the administration tossed him out. “I got involved in music, and I was studying architecture and engineering, which is really demanding,” says Molsky. “And my heart wasn’t in it.”
But it wasn’t the rebel yell of rock ‘n’ roll that sent him down the road less traveled. (And in fact, he pursued a “proper” career in engineering for two decades before quitting to play music full-time at age 40.) Today, Molsky, who performs at Club Passim in Cambridge on Oct. 15, is widely regarded as one of the best living practitioners of Appalachian old-time fiddling, the folk precursor to bluegrass. In a cultural milieu characterized by wall-shaking subwoofers and hyperactive electronics, his is a relatively simple pursuit.
Molsky, who resides in Beacon, New York, is famous mainly in the hermetic subculture that flourishes in old-time music festivals throughout the Blue Ridge Mountain region. He has, however, enjoyed occasional brushes with mainstream success: in 2003, he was nominated for a Grammy award as a member of the fiddle-centric supergroup Fiddlers 4, and a recent collaboration with Anonymous 4, the critically-acclaimed medieval vocal quartet, brought him to the attention of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. But Molsky’s most lasting imprint can be detected in the eager fiddle bows of thousands of young old-time acolytes, many of whom are his former or current students (he teaches at the Berklee college of Music in Boston), who swarm the mountains every summer and keep the festival scene thriving with a near-fanatical commitment to the music.
Molsky says his own fanaticism emerged slowly. In the ‘70s, Ithaca was a hippie haven where a boy from a regular middle class family in the Bronx found his people. “I saw a club and I wanted to join,” says Molsky. He remembers listening to the Highwoods Stringband and hanging out at the legendary Rongovian Embassy bar in Trumansburg, New York. Molsky describes his friends as “back-to-the-land-ers” and “a lot of failed liberal arts students.”
“I think a lot of us were looking for something else,” he says. “I mean, in that sense, I was, certainly. I must have been pretty unsatisfied with what I had, because I was looking for something else. And part of [it], at that age especially—late teens, early 20s—you’re looking for community. And that was definitely community.”
Molsky picked up guitar at age 7, his interest piqued by a visit to his public elementary school by Jazzmobile, a New York City-based music outreach program. He started learning fiddle in college. Over time, his approach to the music became more studied, mirroring the evolution of the folk revival in general. He immersed himself in the strange and arcane field recordings collected by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, dug through old country records, and even paid a visit to the fiddle icon Tommy Jarrell. In his later years, Jarrell, a former North Carolina Highway Department employee, entertained a constant stream of admirers from his porch in Mt. Airy, where he offered up scratchy tunes and quaint reminiscences. Many of his visitors were like Molsky, northerners craving contact with the authentic face of the music they had absorbed primarily through the dusty crackle of the turntable.
“I think you would find that anybody who gets attracted to something about a culture that’s not their culture, that part of the attraction is a certain romantic picture of what you think it’s really like,” says Molsky. “And there was a romantic aspect for me, you know, a simple life living in the country, milking your cow or whatever. Which, eventually you discover that people are the same wherever you go, it’s just that they have different kinds of cultural ways. And so once that sort of honeymoon was over, in a way, the thing that remained [for me] in very, very hard form was the music itself and the history around the music.”
Out of that deliberate approach evolved a distinct and remarkable fiddle style. Molsky’s power lies in his bow, which he wields like a master chef with a knife: rough, free, and deadly accurate. His touch can be flippant, a skipping rock on choppy waters, or furious, a cyclone of ringing strings and flying bow hairs. Less central, but no less admirable are Molsky’s banjo and guitar skills. His singing is understated, but plaintive. He is one of the rare performers who is able to take the stage by himself (which he will at Club Passim) and command it effortlessly.
Molsky has never been a purist. Even his early solo albums contain the occasional modern touch, in the form of an original tune or a guest appearance by a non-traditionalist. Following a flurry of activity in the early 2000s, Molsky’s solo output has slowed in favor of collaborative and cross-genre projects, from Fiddlers 4, which featured Cajun fiddle legend Michael Doucet, to the global folk supergroup Mozaik.
The collaboration with Anonymous 4, titled “1865,” is by far Molsky’s most unlikely. The medieval quartet’s pristine, stately style of singing is the antithesis of everything old-time music purports to be: rugged, wild, imperfect. Released in 2015, “1865” arrived in time for the 150-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and it mines the music of that time, both traditional and composed, northern and southern. Molsky is a subtle presence, at times blending his voice into the lower register and at others lending a gentle banjo warble to the quartet’s crystalline choral arrangements.
“People are the same everywhere you go,” says Molsky. “That’s one of the nice things about folk music. I’ve dug into some other traditions too: Scottish and Irish and Scandinavian music. The music all performs a similar function for people in their lives. It’s an escape and it’s an expression of their culture and it’s a social kind of magnet. And in that sense it really does prove that people are similar. If you look at it that way, then all these different styles of music are just stories told in different accents, but they’re all pretty similar stories. Except,” he adds with a chuckle, “we like murder ballads more.”
Many of the pieces on “1865” rest in historical specificity, from Walter Kittredge’s Union soldier song “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” to a lament for a faraway Confederate lover in “The Southern Soldier Boy.” Yet, like Molsky’s ancient fiddle tunes, they somehow feel familiar. Stephen Foster’s American classic “Hard Times Come Again No More” receives one of the most organic arrangements. The song seems built as much for Molsky’s earthy fiddle as Anonymous 4’s translucent harmonies, which rise warmly in the chorus. At the end, all six voices—Molsky, his fiddle, and the quartet—converge in delicate unison, a fitting tribute to the fragility that binds us all.
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