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Lissa Schneckenburger: Staying true to form

By Alan Lewis | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted May 10, 2007

Southern Vermont-based Lissa Schneckenburger is on a quest of late, drawing inspiration from the history and traditional repertoire of the New England folk dance scene.

“I have been obsessed with looking for older LPs and field recordings of this material and trying to piece together elements of the style. People commonly ask me, ‘What is New England fiddling?’ and I’m always looking for better ways to explain it. I’m always trying to be better informed and am really in love with all the material that I’ve been finding. I keep digging up ‘new’ old dance tunes — music that is really an integral part of the tradition but that, for one reason or another, is no longer played very often.”

Speaking of her repertoire, Schneckenburger said, in a 2005 interview, “It’s music that I took a lot of care in finding and arranging, so it’s always really fun to play it for a new audience.”

Popular interest in New England folk dance is not just recent. Searches of the Boston Globe online historic archives turned up relevant news items going back to within a year of the paper’s 1872 founding. Schneckenburger notes inspirations that vary across both space and time.

“Dance bands in New England have been influenced by a different cultural group in almost every decade of its history,” she said. “It is a hub of industry and a common entrance point into the country for immigrants, so the music and dance tradition has been far from isolated over the past couple of hundred years. Some of the main cultural influences are Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Scandanavia, Canada, and some of the Southern states.”

Schneckenburger’s career is in a very interesting spot in the folk community’s matrix. She is active as a folk dance fiddler, she plays concerts for sit-down audiences, and she sings in a smooth voice that would be equally well suited for pop vocals.

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Asked how playing concerts differs from fiddling for dancers, she said, “[A] lot of people don’t realize that you might play music differently depending on the venue. People listen differently at a dance as opposed to at a concert, and so you have to meld your music accordingly. At a concert, people are sitting down and watching and listening to you a little more intently. They’ll quickly pick up on more subtle musical elements as well as body language, dress, and attitude. When we’re preparing for a concert we are very careful about the details of an arrangement.

“At a dance, people listen more passively, in the midst of dancing and socializing. Dancers feel a little freer to express their enjoyment vocally, with whoops, hollers, and rhythmic footwork, so there can be a really fun exchange of energy between the band and the crowd. Musically speaking, the band will feel freer to do more arrangements on the fly and use more improvisation, both melodically and harmonically.”

Asked to name a musician whose varied career might be seen as a forerunner of her own, Schneckenburger said, “The first name that comes to mind is Rodney Miller. He’s one of the few New England fiddlers to both play dances and concerts the way I do. He’s also one of the few New Englanders to go out on the road and tour around, performing this style of music for other people.

“One of my all-time favorite New England bands is Nightingale, who are also based in Vermont. I was very influenced by their music and professionalism from a very early age.

“However, it is more common for a New England musician to stay closer to home. A lot of my favorite New England musicians are not famous, nor do they want to be. They’re usually happy to have another line of work professionally, just play the local dance on the weekends and maybe teach a few fiddle lessons here and there. In one sense it’s sad, because there is all this amazing music that only a few people will ever get to hear. But on the other hand, it’s part of what keeps these musicians creatively fresh and true to themselves. It almost seems like part of the musical style, to be humble and to have a sort of ‘down home’ attitude about the whole experience. That attitude has definitely influenced what the music sounds like today.”

Schneckenburger gave extensive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic answers to every question, while referencing her website for those who may want further information. When it comes to thinking about and performing folk dance music, this gal is not just fiddling around.

Schneckenburger played the 2005 Champlain Valley Folk Festival. “I was especially tickled to end up in a workshop appearance with Liz Carroll, one of my fiddle heroes,” she recalled. “As if it wasn’t cool enough that we were playing at the same festival, I got to sit right next to her on stage! I tried not to drool too much when she was playing.”

Schneckenburger’s latest really amazing listening experience was quite recent. She and her band mates, after a month of touring through the Midwest, hurried to Massachusetts to catch a rare Tommy Peoples concert. “We were totally wrecked from the trip: tired, and a little loopy,” she allowed. “But it was so worth it. Tommy sounded amazing. He’s one of the most delicate fiddlers I’ve ever heard, so beautiful, mesmerizing, and almost vulnerable sounding.”

For New England folk dance music from a true enthusiast, in a cozy room, Schneckenburger, at Brattleboro’s Hooker-Dunham Theater, is just the ticket.

Event information

Who: Lissa Schneckenburger with Matt and Shannon Heaton
Where: Hooker-Dunham Theater, Brattleboro
When: May 19, 8 p.m.
For more information: www.lissafiddle.com