Crooked Stovepipe

by

 review by PEGGY DUESENBERRY:

The Crooked Stovepipe is an enjoyable book concerned with music and dance forms developed by Upriver Gwich’in-speaking Athapaskan Indians after contact with Europeans. Contact was mainly with Orcadian employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the mid-nineteenth century, but significant contact also took place during the 1896-97 gold rush. The book is partly derived from Craig Mishler’s doctoral thesis (“Gwich’in Athapaskan Music and Dance: An Ethnography and Ethnohistory” [University of Texas at Austin, 1981]), but also includes material based on more recent research. Musical transcriptions by Pamela Swing are included in an appendix.

Crooked Stovepipe refers both to a fiddle tune and, metaphorically, to what Mishler calls “the culture that looks like nineteenth-century frontier America cocked at a bit of an angle” (p. 6). The author’s hypothesis is that Gwich’in fiddlers’ performance practice results from a syncretic relationship between “aboriginal-style singing and fiddling” (p. 147). The book provides the social and historical study necessary for analysis of these “crooked” versions of European-based fiddle tunes; the musical analysis necessary to support the idea of a syncretic musical style is not attempted. However, readers can refer to a recording of Gwich’in fiddlers produced by Mishler (“Music of the Alaskan Kutchin Indians” [Folkways Records, 1974; FE 4070] distributed by the Smithsonian).

Mishler begins, in chapter 1, with a discussion of the musical contact that took place during the heyday of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Using Company archives and secondary sources, Mishler identifies important musician-employees and describes dance-events held between 1848 and 1920. Chapter 2 contains biographical sketches of twentieth-century North Athapaskan fiddlers, based on secondary sources and field work.

These chapters lead us to the heart of the book, which examines the fiddlers’ repertory and the repertory of dances associated with this fiddle music. In chapter 3 Mishler examines Gwich’in fiddle tunes according to the categories developed by George Casey and others in “Repertoire Categorization and Performer-Audience Relationships: Some Newfoundland Examples” (Ethnomusicology 16 [1972]: 397-403).

A brief section on learning (pp. 59-61) shows a weakness of this book: Mishler makes full use of his field work experience and of secondary sources, but he still finds it necessary to speculate. This may result from conducting field work in “a series of twelve intermittent visits, averaging about five to eight days each and spanning twenty full years” (p. 10).

Brief visits to the field may also explain Mishler’s approach to dance: he makes no attempt to study steps and footwork. This could be a fruitful area for further research, especially in view of the current interest in step-dance traditions in other areas influenced by Scottish emigrants.

Chapters 4 (on jigs and contras) and 5 (on square dances and quadrilles) are the strongest in the book; the main concern is with detailed descriptions of the dance figures. Mishler’s knowledge of historical sources for the description of Scottish, English, and American dances is impressive; he uses them convincingly to make connections between Old and New World dances. These chapters also include insightful comment on relationships between dance figures and other aspects of Gwich’in culture.

The final chapters bring Mishler’s research up-to-date. Chapter 6 describes the Athapaskan Old-Time Fiddling Festival, held annually since 1983. Mishler assesses the impact of the festival in bringing together musicians formerly isolated from each other in terms of musical convergence, new prestige and better pay for fiddlers, and in helping to create a new musical solidarity among Upriver and Downriver Athapaskans. Chapter 7 provides reflections on musical change and points to much-needed further research on the “major pan-subarctic and arctic folk music and dance culture built around the fiddle” (p. 151).

The Crooked Stovepipe is a most welcome addition to the growing collection of fiddle-music and dance studies, especially in bringing this remote area of North America into focus. Delightfully written and especially strong on dance, Mishler’s book belongs in the libraries of folkiorists and ethnomusicologists interested in the Athapaskan region, in fiddle music, or in associated dance traditions.

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