May 132008
 

Harvey Tolman’s influence on local musicians, his recordings and compositions, and his regular appearances at the Monday night Nelson contra dance have all magically combined to help spread the compelling dance music of Cape Breton throughout the region and well beyond, across the country. It was indeed an occasion for great rejoicing when Harvey was honored by being selected to receive the Governors Arts Awards “New Hampshire Folk Heritage Award” in 2007. The Folk Heritage Award was presented to Harvey by the N.H. State Council on the Arts on April 24, 2008, before an enthusiastic audience at the Colonial Theater in Keene.

The Council on the Arts had contacted me in the fall of 2007, asking if I’d be interested in creating a work of art that could be presented to Harvey at the awards ceremony in the spring of 2008. I was deeply honored and thrilled to be given this opportunity to help honor Harvey, who I’ve known for many years. I’ve enjoyed dancing to Harvey’s music, and visiting him to listen to and play tunes. (click on the image to see a larger rendering)

Several stipulations accompanied the commission: the artwork had to be relevant to the recipient’s field of endeavor (in this case, Harvey’s fiddle music and his dedication to his local contra dance in Nelson), and it had to include an eagle’s image. This latter requirement is meant to commemorate the state’s first-in-the-nation funding for the arts – in 1819 the legislature had hired a wood carver to create the eagle that sits atop the dome of the New Hampshire state house.

The raw material: the back of this old, fairly useless violinI decided to create a picture on the inside surface of the back of a violin, burning the design into the bare maple and then coloring it with oil pencils. Since tone and playability were not factors for this particular creation, I chose an old junk fiddle, took it apart, repaired a rather large crack in the back, and set about designing the picture.

Three areas of the fiddle back suggested a 3-part design. In the smaller oval area at the top, I decided to place a close-up view of the old entrance doorway to the Nelson town hall, where dances have been held continuously for more than 150 years. This antique landmark building, where Harvey is a mainstay fiddler, is the site of 4 or 5 dances every month. It’s Harvey’s office, so to speak.

The middle portion of the fiddle back seemed suitable for placing the image of an eagle, and I was careful to create not just any old eagle, but a replica of the original carved one from 1819. In addition to symbolizing the steadfast fighting spirit that won this country its independence, this eagle also represents the substantial resources that a state can muster, and beneficially use, for the enrichment of its citizens through the arts.

The third part of the fiddle back (the larger lower oval) seemed ideal for placing what actually was my first impulse to honor Harvey – a fiddle-tune composition that he might enjoy playing. As a fiddle player myself, with some previous experience in tune composition, it was only a matter of several winter evenings of effort, sitting next to the wood stove in my living room, to draw out a 32-measure reel. I call it “Harvey’s Heritage Reel” and it contains some of the cuts and turns that one might hear in a Cape Breton-style tune.

Using a special wood-burning tool, I first executed a complete practice design on a maple breadboard. All the important decisions of spacing, size, line variation, coloring, and border (I tried several borders before settling on one containing flowers and fiddle-heads) were made in this walk-through. The second, final version flowed smoothly and efficiently, a hole was drilled at the top to hang up the fiddle back, and several coats of shellac were applied to preserve the artwork.

It’s my hope that Harvey will enjoy the fiddle back – and his Heritage Reel – for many years to come.

Visit the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts’ website for photos of Harvey, Randy, and the award presentation.

Listen to the tune:

Download a pdf of the fiddleback with the tune.

Randy Miller is a fiddler, pianist, music teacher, and tunebook publisher active in contra dancing since the 1970s. His contradance band, Celticladda, was formed in 2006 and performs nationwide. Randy is also a wood engraver and member of the League of NH Craftsmen and the NH Art Association. Randy’s website is www.fiddlecasebooks.com.

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