By John Chambless
The high, mournful cry of a fiddle has been a constant in American music since before there was an America. Passed from musician to musician, songs that were rooted in the hardships of rural life were either handed down through the generations, or they were lost.
Clare Milliner and Walt Koken have spent their lives playing the old-time music that predates bluegrass, and their dedication paid off with the 2011 publication of “The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes,” a mammoth 888-page book that captures the exact notes of 1,404 fiddle tunes, so that future generations can open it up and breathe new life into tunes such as “Sallie's Got Mud Between Her Toes,” “Peacock Rag” or “Possum on the Rail.”
Milliner and Koken, who live in Avondale, are the heart of the Orpheus Supertones, a five-member band that will perform at the Kennett Flash on Feb. 15. They're joined by Kellie Allen and Pete Peterson, who play guitar and banjo, respectively. Peterson playes a Supertone banjo. Koken plays an Orpheum, which led to the name of the band. Hilary Dirlam, whose musical career began in the 1960s, plays stand-up bass.
“Old-time music is for dancing and its songs are for lifting us above our burdens,” Koken writes on the Mudthumper.com website. “Our music gives relief from the everyday burdens of modern life, and an insight into a simpler time, with a glimmer of hope for us all.”
The seemingly limitless repertoire of songs shared among the five band members is a rich legacy, but the countless number of songs that are lost – faded away because no one wrote them down or recorded them – is a constant reminder to Milliner and Koken that a large part of American music will never be heard again.
Mudthumper Music is an independent CD label formed in the 1990s when Koken began producing recordings of his solo banjo playing. The name originated from a band in which Walt had played in the 1960s in Ithaca, N.Y., called the Busted Toe Mudthumpers. Through the website, fans of old-time music can buy CDs of the Orpheus Supertones playing slow laments of loves and lives lost, or high-spirited dance tunes that have been filling dance floors for generations.
Old-time music works its magic whether it's being played by a solitary fiddler, or a band that locks into a groove and doesn't let go. The interlaced, intricate music arose from generations of musicians learning the songs from others and then changing the tunes to suit their own playing abilities. If they relied on their memories, sometimes the lyrics changed, or the songs got shorter or longer. In their book, Milliner and Koken had to get as close as possible to what the original songs sounded like. In most cases, that quest was a difficult one.
“The book is a snapshot of what music was like in our history before radio and bluegrass,” Milliner said. “Music changes over time. It changes with our culture as musicians put modern inflections on the tunes. We wanted to capture the past before the style, nuances and flavors of the old-time musicians fade away.”
In concert, the Orpheus Supertones are a relentless force, and their decades of musical experience shine through. A review in The Eureka Times Standard said, "The band displays a familiarity that draws the audience in right off the bat. … Don't be fooled by the just-folks, easy demeanor. These people are take-no-prisoner, downright hot musicians."
The Orpheus Supertones have produced three CDs, all on the Mudthumper label. They are six-time prize winners in the prestigious traditional string band competition at the Appalachian String Band Festival, and have won numerous prizes at other old-time music contests. Individual members have won ribbons in fiddle, banjo, bass playing, and vocals. Each band member is also a seasoned teacher, offering workshops in old-time fiddle, banjo, guitar, upright bass, singing, vocal harmony styles, fiddle/banjo duets, band arrangements and the work of particular old-time sources.
True to the folk roots of their music, the Orpheus Supertones play without pretense or fancy equipment, as if they were gathering for a barn dance at a neighbor's farm. Their concerts take the audience back to a time when a community shared its joys and sorrows the same way – by dancing.
The Orpheus Supertones will perform at the Kennett Flash on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. Opening the show will be the folk duo Attractive Nuisance. Tickets are $15 in advance and $19 at the door. Visit www.kennettflash.com.