Although fiddler Allan Block faded from view during the last decade of his life due to a lengthy illness, news of his death this past fall traveled quickly, and people shared stories and recollections (often humorous) of how Allan touched their lives both as an individual and as a mentor. One week after his passing I found myself at Fiddle Hell down in Concord, Massachusetts. During an afternoon jam session headed by Boston fiddler Alan Kaufman, longtime dance musicians such as George Fowler and Art Bryan volleyed “Allan tunes” amongst themselves—“Big Sciota,” “Georgia Railroad,” “Ebeneezer,” “Rochester Schottische,” and many more. I could think of no better tribute to his life and influence.
Allan started life as a classical violinist back in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. His great-uncle Nathan, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was a violinist himself, and often came to the house and played music with Allan’s father, a pianist. Allan became a fairly accomplished violinist—he proudly recalled tackling the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor at age 11 or 12, and being one of the first youngsters to play live over the radio in Madison. In fact, the radio was a major factor in the development of Allan’s musical tastes: he loved hearing “Music Americana,” as he called it. He fondly recalled radio music hours on Saturdays and Sundays that were filled with the American pop music of the 1920s, by Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby, or the lively concoction of music, story, and wit from performers like Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny.
As has been well documented elsewhere in recent months, Allan’s life as a fiddler really began in New York City. The first job he got after World War II was working for $38 a week at People’s Artists, an organization that brought folk artists to New York from all over the country. They also published the magazine People’s Songs, which was a precursor to the modern-day Sing Out. Allan did clerical work in the office while being exposed to the music of Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs, among many others. He felt a particular kinship with Ashley: “Whenever I open my mouth to sing, I am a partial replica of Clarence Ashley…with his wonderful high tenor voice in the early days.”
In 1950, when Allan was starting a family and needed some steady income, he opened the Allan Block Sandal Shop on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The shop’s success grew out of a magical alchemy of Allan the leather craftsman and Allan the musician. This integration of work and art was a theme throughout Allan’s life. When professor emeritus and musician friend Jeff Titon remarked on this in their 1989 interview at Brown University, Allan replied, “My life is all of a piece…I don’t even think about it very much. But people look at me and say, ‘you’ve got it made.’”
During the 1960s the shop’s Saturday jams sometimes included now-luminaries like Bob Dylan, Cisco Houston, Lee Hayes, and Mike Seeger. Allan gleefully recalled these days: “I was out front—people would come in and absolutely pack the store…Bob Dylan came in those days before he played anything! He’d say, ‘How do you do this, and how do you do that?’ We’d say, ‘Bob, you’ve got to get yourself a guitar.’ The next week he came running into the shop saying, ‘How do you play this C chord?’”
The New Lost City Ramblers became a centerpiece of Allan’s musical life. “John (Cohen) found out I played violin. He’d drop tapes and records off with me and say, ‘Listen to it, and come play with us.’” Mike Seeger also had a big influence on Allan’s musical direction: “I liked Mike Seeger’s fiddling, but he didn’t want to play fiddle, he wanted to play banjo and mandolin, so I started to rehearse with them.” Allan was invited to go on tour with the Ramblers, but as he characteristically put it, “I was mostly a homebody.” He wanted to stay home in New York with his family and grow his sandal business.
Allan moved up north in the late 1960s when the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen bought $1,000 or more of his leather goods. His children, including blues artist Rory Block, took over the shop in New York. It was during this time that he started to get acquainted with New England’s dance halls: “I started sitting in on Saturday nights at dances with [callers] Ralph Page, Dudley Laufman and Duke Miller. After they found out I could read music they summarily hired me…I learned a lot in a very short time.” Allan had never played for dances before and was exhilarated by this activity: “I met many musicians, including the Tolman family.”
Allan got swept up in the contra dance revival, spearheaded by Canterbury resident Dudley Laufman, another poet/musician who is now in his eighties. Allan’s fiddle playing can be heard on the first recording of the now-disbanded Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. He sounded rhapsodic at times when he described the mixing of generations on the dance floor, or the beauty of entire families dancing together. Allan also became a keen observer of those who came to the Saturday dances. He noted that in the summer the dances were frequented by migratory apple pickers. Jeff Titon says, “Some of those apple pickers were part of the back to the land counterculture, had no steady day-jobs, and found that they could make good money doing temporary migrant farm work this way….Many were musicians themselves.”
Allan got hired to play for more and more dances. As the lead musician, he was now in charge of what happened on stage. Regarding musician sit-ins he said, “Well, let’s see if you can keep the beat. If you get off the beat I’m going to say politely ‘no.’” He became a mentor to many a budding dance musician, including myself. He was picky about his piano players: “There’s a bowing that brings out the accents on the second and fourth beats…[pianists] don’t do that. It would be jerky if both instruments made the accenting at the same time in the same way.” Regarding fiddlers, “Classical fiddlers aren’t as good as dance fiddlers…Classical musicians stand in awe of country fiddlers. They just can’t figure out how we do it.” He became friends with the conductor/violist of the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra, who was always inviting Allan to “play some country music” during gatherings at his house.
He also formed strong opinions on dance callers. When asked by Jeff Titon about what makes a good caller, Allan said, without hesitation, that they need to be “extroverted, erudite, have a love of music, a strong rhythmic sense, and be able to read the situation on the floor.”
Allan was particularly enthusiastic about the fact that musicians were now playing more and more American music, rather than the jigs and reels that originated in Ireland, Scotland or French Canada. Allan openly expressed his feeling that North American music was superior to that of other places: “We have Canadian music, cowboy music, ragtime…That’s why Europeans love American music; they don’t have that great ferment.” In comparing American music to that of Europe he said, “Their societies are more homogeneous… That’s why American music is so great and influences so many people, and has me absolutely spellbound.”
Allan’s listeners were often spellbound by his own playing, as illustrated in this anecdote from banjoist Don Borchelt:
Back around 1974 I saw Allan play at the old flea market at Faneuil Hall [Boston]…Near the end of his set Allan announced that he had recently added a new feature to his performances, he was going to pick out a tune that he’d never played before from a collection, and perform it just by sight reading it, on the spot. The tune he played—quite well, I might add—was “Saratoga.” The reason I remember the tune is that I had just learned it myself a few months earlier from Coles 1000 Fiddle Tunes, and I had been unable to get anyone else interested in it. I was so excited I was beside myself. Only much later, after life had made a complete cynic out of me, did the thought cross my mind that it might have been a put on. Either way, it was a fabulous performance.
In listening to Jeff and Allan’s interviews I was reminded of Allan’s passion for traditional music and dislike of the singer/songwriter movement that came quickly on the heels of the folk revival: he called it “me, me, me” music and said, “I don’t want to write music. I don’t want to get involved in it in a personal way that has a personal message to deliver. I identify with this old-time music and that’s enough for me. I keep it alive and try to spread it, and to get other people to play it and get interested in it.”
Allan built a strong community around old-time music. During the years he spent in New Hampshire he regularly commuted down to the Music Emporium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other sites to give group lessons to musicians, some of whom were often getting their first taste of Southern tunes. Says Bradford Bog fiddler Beth Eldridge, “I just wanted to play fiddle—I didn’t care what kind.” She had a few fiddle teachers before coming to Allan. “Allan told me about the Brandywine Festival and that became a musical staple for me. I could go hear Tommy Jarrell, Highwoods and other bands, and I came to realize that I was playing old-time.”
George Touchstone, an accomplished fiddler and a photographic documentarian of the Harry Smith Frolic and Lake Genero Fiddlin’ Bear gathering, was one of the students in this class. George was signed up for a fiddle class at the Music Emporium, but the teacher, who was more into bluegrass, quickly realized that George was headed in a different direction and steered him to Allan. He started studying with Allan in 1981 and continued until about 1987. The people who attended the class, mostly young professionals, grew into a closely knit community of old-time musicians who remain friends to this day. As for his pedagogical style, George described Allan as both “very eccentric” and “exacting.”
One of Allan’s most memorable and prolific musical partnerships was with the talented old-time singer and guitarist Martha Burns. She first got to know Allan at Pete Peterson’s Christmas gathering in Woodbury, Connecticut, in 1975, and jammed at other music events with him thereafter. She and Allan led parallel lives before they started working together; back in Greenwich Village, where Martha grew up, she and Allan were next-door neighbors. She was at number 310 and he was at 308 on W. Eleventh: “I didn’t know we were neighbors, though, because I didn’t know what Allan looked like. I knew him by reputation and certainly knew about his sandal shop. But I never attended the jam sessions there. I was still in high school and not really ready to mix with adults that way.” Instead she spent Sundays at Washington Square Park and took guitar lessons at Fretted Instruments School of Folk Music (next to Izzy Young’s Folklore Center).
In the early 1980s, when Martha was living in Boston, she lined up a series of fifteen concerts with Allan; he started booking concerts for them as well. Martha says that “Allan wasn’t into rehearsing, so our concerts were usually pretty spontaneous.” Nonetheless, anyone who ever heard these two play together would never forget it. Some years ago Martha posted several YouTube videos of their performances; there’s “Yellow Barber,” “Red Mountain Wine,” and among the most moving, “Wedding Dress,” in which their brief banter about the evolution of the song (and those of its ilk) adds immeasurably to the performance itself.
There are parts of Allan’s life and character, like the mysteries around his bowing style, that refuse to be pinned down; one hears it in the Brown interview when Allan said, “Music is like the lost family I never had…it’s a focus of feeling without having to be responsible to be in a certain place at a certain time, to carving out a certain series of pre-ordained commands, like in a family.” He created a community of old-time players but also kept a certain amount of distance.
According to Jeff Titon, Allan imparted “his take” on Southern tunes but didn’t necessarily impart the big picture. That said, no one would quibble with the fact that Allan was a major player in introducing old-time music to New England. Each April former students would flock to Allan’s leatherwork booth at the New England Folk Festival in order to entice him into a jam session, leaving his son Paul to chat with customers for an hour or sometimes two. Allan would brag about sleeping onsite in the van, since he had just returned from his winter sojourn busking on the streets of St. Augustine, Florida.
There is perhaps no more fitting way to conclude this remembrance than with Allan’s reflections in the Brown interviews on the fiddle itself, which were both sweeping and insightful; they were delivered in the rhythmic cadences of a man who had spent his entire life thinking about music.
Much can be said about the fiddle…almost as much as what comes out of it. You could tell stories and stories galore. Some think it’s the Devil’s instrument… And some said the same thing about the banjo, but [banjoist] Pete Steele said, “Oh no, quite to the contrary. I have recruited more people for the true church through my banjo playing and my singing than anybody in this here area of Hamilton, Ohio.”
There’s a lot of weird and mysterious sounding fiddle tunes and that may have a lot to do with people’s feeling that it was the Devil’s instrument. But it sure has had a large influence on a wide number of people. There’s hardly anybody I know who doesn’t love the fiddle—it’s one of the most captivating, the most intoxicating sounds and if you hear a good fiddler play even by himself, you just can’t keep from dancing.
-Sarah Jane Nelson, with Jeff Todd Titon
While in the process of recollecting Allan Block’s life I contacted ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon. Unless otherwise indicated, Jeff‘s Artist-in-Residency interview is the source of the direct quotations from Allan as well as much of the biographical information in this remembrance. -SJN