May-June 2011

What is a Strathspey and Reel Society?

By Roland Sturm

Traditional music sessions or jams are an essential part of Irish, old-time, or Bluegrass. In other styles, however, different formats of playing with others have been more important.

One different approach that has taken off in the last few years in the US, even expanded into other styles, originated in Scotland as Strathspey and Reel Societies. Strathspey and Reel Societies in many ways seem like community orchestras, except that they are dedicated to folk music, strathspeys and reels being two distinctive forms of Scottish traditional music. The reason that such groups started in Scotland rather than elsewhere may be that sessions have been less common in Scotland than in Ireland, making people look for other outlets. Scottish music has also always been somewhat more “literate” than other traditional music styles and the use of sheet music enables organizing bigger groups. Tunes that are now standards in the American fiddle tune repertoire, like Devil’s Dream, Soldier’s Joy, Hop High Ladies, originated in Scotland and can be found in Scottish tune collections from more than 200 years ago.

The first traditional Scottish-style Strathspey and Reel Society was actually founded in Los Angeles by Colin Gordon, a Scottish engineer who came to the United States in the 1960s. That group, the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles, is still going strong and has been led for the last 20 years by Jan Tappan. An interesting fact (at least for me as a co-organizer of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival) is that the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles got their start at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest many years ago when Colin Gordon won the contest and met a number of other people interested in that style, which eventually led to the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles. California has several other groups, the Peninsula Scottish Fiddlers, founded by Colin Gordon and his wife Shauna (who continues to lead that group) after leaving Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers, mentored by Alasdair Fraser. While the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles was the first such group in the US, you can now find similar groups in many other places, some even going by the old moniker of Strathspey and Reel Society (the groups in New Hampshire and New Orleans, for example).

The larger group approach has expanded beyond Scottish or Celtic fiddle music. The most recent group may be the Tennessee Fiddle Orchestra, which describes itself as exploring “the rich traditions of fiddle tunes and folk songs which embody the experience of the rural Southeastern United States”. So the style is different, but the Tennessee Fiddle Orchestra explicitly modeled itself after Scottish-style fiddle orchestras. The Tennessee Fiddle Orchestra is led by Jim Wood, a veteran of the professional Nashville music scene and a 5-time Tennessee state fiddle champion.

All of these groups are always welcoming to new members. For many players, especially those without a strong background in traditional music styles or people coming from classical music, this may be an easier entry into the music community,. especially since pub sessions can initially be very intimating to newcomers. The Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles can be contacted via their website or catch them at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival on May 15 at the Eucalyptus Grove or the Celtic Slow Session. Here is a clip of SFLA performing in Pasadena in April 2011:

Some classic Scottish session tunes and including sheet music for those tunes can be found in my column on Boston fiddler Hanneke Cassel.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and leads the monthly Celtic sessions at CTMS. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm