Gordon Stobbe is a busy man.
The master fiddler, music book author, composer, multi-instrumentalist, square-dance caller and now playwright and historian travels the country “from mid-June to Labour Day” from his home in Nova Scotia, teaching music, playing concerts and dances, and lately working on his newest project, The Fiddler’s History of Canada.
This month he’s in the Yukon to create a June 2014 Yukon Arts Centre production of the two-hour stage show which, he explains, “traces the history of the fiddle from the first Europeans to set foot here to modern times.”
The Fiddler’s History of Canada was first performed two years ago in Smithers, B.C., but the Yukon production will be reworked and updated, with an Old Crow tune and other tunes from the North. “These aren’t just fiddle tunes,” Stobbe explains, “these are arrangements, with harmony parts and stops and starts.”
Stobbe is no stranger to the Yukon. Since he first played at Sourdough Rendezvous in 2009, he’s been in great demand to teach, play, and call barn dances. This trip, in addition to working on the History, and giving fiddle workshops and individual lessons, he’s playing a house concert on Friday evening with local pianist Annie Avery, and a Saturday barn dance at Lorne Mountain Community Centre.
The barn dance will be something of a culmination of the teaching he’s been doing over the past two weeks. Up to 20 members of the youth fiddle group, the Fiddleheads, will be joining Stobbe, Avery, Bob Kuiper, and the Barn Dance Band on stage. Not to worry though, this will not be a cutesy kid performance of scraitching out-of-tune or off-tempo fiddles.
“These are flat-out good players,” says Stobbe. “You know, you can operate a concert on the cute factor. You can get the six-year-olds to come up and play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and it’s really nice, and it’s cute, but dances don’t operate on the cute factor, they only operate on the good factor. The tunes have to be right. They have to be played for a sustained length of time, and they have to be at the right tempo, and these kids can do that.”
Stobbe plays barn dances, square dances, and community dances everywhere he goes. “Everybody dances and everybody has a good time,” he says. “It’s a little taste of how it used to be maybe 60, 70 years ago. We’re not kidding ourselves that we can make that come back, it won’t come back. You know, television and paved roads, and people going to the city for entertainment, and movies and Netflix, it’ll never come back, but it can come back occasionally where people can have that kind of fun.”
If you’re looking for a big booze-up, Stobbe is probably not your man. “I really don’t like doing family dances where alcohol’s a big factor. Cause when you start excluding people cause there’s a liquor licence, and the kids can’t come, and the teenagers can’t come, all of a sudden that to me is not a community builder. I’m not much into that.
“When I do these things everything’s about inclusiveness. So if you’re in a wheelchair and you want to dance, it’s our job to figure out how you can do that. If you’re 10 years old and you know a couple of the tunes, we’re going to see that you get to play. Now that’s not always the case, it’s not always convenient to have a whole bunch of people who are peripheral to the main band, but for this particular dance, I’d like to have it really open. Because how else do you learn to keep a certain tempo? When you play an instrument at a dance, it’s a matter of life and death. The dance will die if you don’t do your job. So the kids are there to learn that and to get that experience. It’s character building and it’s really really fun.”
Stobbe recalls his first LMCA event, played on a summer evening in the centre’s outdoor timber-frame pavilion. “You had this structure that you really couldn’t stop looking at because it’s so gorgeous, and yet it was wide open, you could see the sky, and you’re out of town, and the sun’s not going to go down till 11 o’clock. And there’s this sort of collective thing that happens when people gather to have fun, and a lot of the people here know each other already, so it’s easy.”
For Stobbe, the Yukon “is really a favourite spot to go. When I tell my friends I’m going to Whitehorse they say, ‘Is there some way we can go too?’” He credits the Fiddleheads board for making his stays here so great. “I stay in the finest of places, they always have a car for me, the schedule is absolutely succinct and clear, and they just really make sure it’s a very professionally run thing. So that makes my work easy.”
But there’s also the fact that he just loves the Yukon. “There’s a newness here, a freshness. It’s a special place.” So you’ll probably get another chance to see and hear him if you miss the Saturday barn dance. But don’t. As Stobbe says, “You’re going to miss the night of the year if you don’t come to that.”