The folk gallery at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York [TAUNY] is currently home to a formidable exhibit of musical instruments from across "the North Country" of Northern New York. (Feb. 7-Oct. 27, '18) The collection of 200 pieces range from home-made to professional quality with displays featuring not only instruments, luthier tools, and art pieces, but family photos, interviews, and historical context that paint a vivid picture of the role of music in the region. To give "voice" to this comprehensive collection, TAUNY has offered a variety of concerts and demonstrations, as well as a "playing parlor" including a variety of instruments to encourage visitors to try their hand at making music.
I moved to Potsdam 25 years ago after marrying into a deeply rooted North Country family, so I definitely have a personal connection to this exhibit! Not only is the space full of the instrumental stores of many of my New York friends, but from my own family as well. My husband Joel Foisy's great-grandfather Jean LeRoux's beautiful fiddle is on display (on loan from Joel's uncle Stephen Fleury) as well as several instruments from my maternal grandfather, Irving B. Howe (mandolin, banjo-lin) and very special instruments made by my father James Koehler (lap dulcimer) and my son, Gaétan B. Foisy (2 washtub basses).
KOEHLER-FOISY FAMILY INSTRUMENTS
This exhibit celebrates a wide range of musical instruments from the eccentric to elegant, makeshift to masterful. Each piece on loan is coupled with the story of the instrument's "keeper." Included in the TAUNY collection are instruments I inherited from my grandfather, several instruments made by my father and son, and the special story of my husband's great-grandfather's fiddle.
[The following narrative is from exhibit curator, Camilla Ammirati- exhibit materials courtesy of TAUNY Archives}
“Fiddler Gretchen Koehler’s father made this dulcimer for her from a kit when she was a child learning to play music. A welder himself, “his medium was metal,” but her father was interested in how wooden stringed instruments worked and put one together both to understand it better and to support his daughters’ musical interest. Gretchen remembers the fun of sliding the dowel on the strings and figuring out how to find the fiddle tunes she was learning on a different stringed instrument as well.”
“This mandolin belonged to fiddler Gretchen Koehler’s grandfather, Irving B. Howe. Though not a player himself, Gretchen says, he was “a complete music lover. He had a room in the house dedicated to music, and had instruments of all kinds hanging on the wall. And when my sister and I began fiddling, he was so tickled, he would follow us around with a tape recorder, recording anything we would play...Oh, it just made us feel wonderful. He absolutely instilled that love of music and curiosity about instruments in me and my sister.” Along with keeping instruments from her grandfather’s collection, Gretchen has her own music room now because of him.”
"This fiddle originally belonged to Jean LeRoux, the great-great-grandfather of Gaétan Foisy (pictured) (Potsdam, NY). Jean brought it with him when he moved from Ontario to the U.S. in 1925, and he played it at many house parties around northern NY until his passing in 1948. It has since been kept in the family and played by family fiddlers including Gretchen Koehler (Potsdam, NY), Jean LeRoux's great-granddaughter-in-law and Stephen Fleury (Brewerton, NY), his grandson. The mark on its back, believed to likely represent a Huguenot cross, seems to be unique to a small group of German makers in the mid-1800s."
THE RETURN LeROUX FAMILY FIDDLE
As told to curator Camilla Ammirati by Steve Fleury.
The LeRoux family fiddle has been through a lot. After coming to Ontaio, Canada with its original owner Jean LeRoux in 1925, and being played often at house parties around northern NY over the next twenty years, it fell into disrepair while resting under a bed at the family farm in Westville, NY. Jean's grandson Stephen Fleury, the current owner, shares that it had seemed unfixable until he met a distant cousin, Fred LeRoux, at a family gathering, the LeRoux Rendezvous in 2011.
Stephen says: "Fred is a well-known Glengarry fiddler and also a luthier from Apple Hill, Ontario, living only a few miles from my grandfather's birthplace. I brought two fiddles to the reunion for Fred to look at, hoping he could at least use a few pieces on my grandfather's to make one. Uninterested in the "better" fiddle, Fred was instantly draw to the pile of wood splinters I presented to him, saying in his understated manner, 'Steve, this is a nice fiddle. We can get it talking again.'
So, the fiddle went back to the area of its original home in Ontario for a while, recovering its health with Fred's tending. From time to time, Fred would call with a progress report, the first to comment how the fiddle was beginning to reveal that whomever played this fiddle 'must have been pretty good fiddler,' favoring the higher positions because of the way the neck was worn. A few months later, Fred called to say 'Steve, just listen here for a few minutes.' I don't remember the song he played, but it was sure a sweet sounding voice from that old fiddle. We had a recording of my grandfather singing, but I had never heard the sound of his fiddle until Fred played it over the phone from Glengarry County. That international call sure seemed fitting.
In the time since, I've had fun learning to play it, but nothing tops hearing Gretchen's loving and masterful playing at a Leroux reunion a few years ago, magically re-connecting the younger generations to my grandfather through his fiddle. There were many tears of joy among our cousins, most of whom had never heard our grandfather's voice, but now was hearing his fiddle's. -Steve Fleury
"Instrumental Stories" will be on display at TAUNY from February 7-October 27, 2018.
Gallery guides available at the online TAUNY Folk Store.
"Instrumental Stories" exhibit materials courtesy of TAUNY Archives.