Stephanie Coleman, fiddler on the quad

Writer: 
March 31, 2006

 

Stephanie Coleman, fiddler on the quad

Jon Gardiner.

 

The summer after her freshman year, Stephanie Coleman didn't want to get a real job. Not even an internship. The sophomore, who plans to complete a Program II curriculum in American Studies, instead spent the summer playing.

Playing the fiddle, that is. Before coming to Duke, Coleman had done some busking at farmers' markets around her native suburban Chicago, playing music for spare change. She was convinced, from that experience, that she could make some money playing—and have a good time doing it.

And so, three or four days a week, she would hop on a yellow-line train in Skokie, change to the red line in Evanston, and ride down to Chicago's north side, fiddle case in hand. Most days, she would set up on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Ohio Street, near the city's famed Water Tower Place. On a good day, she'd make as much as $30 an hour. On a bad day, maybe five.

Though Coleman has, on occasion, relived those days by playing with friends on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street, busking plays but a small part in what has been a lifelong love of old-time music. Since age five, Coleman has accompanied her father, also a fiddler, to old-time music festivals around the country. She says she loved the close-knit community and the sense of tradition inspired by the music--an Anglo-Celtic style shaped by African influence and developed in the Appalachian region.

But it wasn't until she was nine that she decided she wanted to play a more active role. She tried her hand at the tambour (an Irish drum) and the guitar before settling on the fiddle. Throughout high school, she played regular gigs with the Chicago Barn Dance Company and at local bars and churches.

To her, there is nothing better than playing for square dances or getting together with friends for jam sessions that also include discussions of the history of each song and its arrangement, as well as regional variations of the music. The Triangle, she says, has a thriving old-time scene, and, at Duke, amateur musicians, including professors and graduate students, gather from time to time at various venues on campus to give open-air performances.

The biggest event on her calendar each year is the Appalachian String Band Music Festival--known to regulars simply as "Clifftop," after its location in Clifftop, West Virginia. Officially, it runs Wednesday through Sunday, but Coleman, like many of her friends and fellow musicians from around the country, shows up Monday to enjoy more time camping, hanging out, and playing music. The festival includes concerts, square dancing, and crafts, as well as "lots of jamming all over the place."

It also hosts a fiddle contest, which usually attracts about 100 fiddlers. Coleman has made it to the final round several times, slowly inching her way from fifth, to fourth, and, last year, to third place.

Over the years, the music has led her to spark some unlikely, and influential, friendships. Although women are certainly present in the old-time scene, she says that the majority of her competitors in these events, and her musical collaborators over the years, have been middle-aged men. She reminisces about a band she played in during high school, called Stephie and the Boyz. "With a 'z'--it's kind of corny, I know." She talks as though it was just a group of teenage friends. In fact, the other band members were three accomplished local musicians who were in their mid-forties.

"My dad always said we shared a peer group," she says. "He blamed me, jokingly, for stealing away his friends."