2004-06-03 / Arts

Fiddler Harold Luce Is 'Heritage Artist'

Fiddler Harold Luce Is 'Heritage Artist'

Harold Luce of Chelsea is congratulated by Gov. Jim Douglas. The 85-year-old fiddler was named a Vermont Heritage Artist and will appear in the winter issue of Vermont Life.Harold Luce of Chelsea is congratulated by Gov. Jim Douglas. The 85-year-old fiddler was named a Vermont Heritage Artist and will appear in the winter issue of Vermont Life.

In honor of a lifetime of music-making and teaching, Vermont renowned fiddler, Harold Luce of Chelsea received the 2004 Governor’s Heritage Award at a ceremony at the Folklife Center in Middlebury on May 18.

The award, presented by Gov. James Douglas, recognizes "a lifetime of dedication to a musical tradition that exemplifies the rural culture of Vermont." The award is co-sponsored by the Folklife Center and "Vermont Life," and will include a tribute in the winter issue of the magazine.

At age 85, Luce is a local celebrity or sorts. These days he can be found giving lessons to students ages five to 76 or performing with his band at Upper Valley senior centers and nursing homes. Over the years, he’s given concerts, played at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, the Tunbridge Fair, two New York World’s Fairs, and alongside legendary fiddler Ed Larkin.

Luce grew up in a time in Vermont when kitchen junkets brought musicians and dancers together on a regular basis for a hodge-podge of sound and rhythm. He remembers going to dances in the Sons of the Union Veterans Hall and hiding in the corner behind the piano, listening intently to Larkin playing his fiddle and calling out changes to the dancers, mimicking the motions of Larkin’s fingers on the strings.

When he was about 16, he stood in for Larkin at a kitchen junket. He outgrew his shyness and played what he’d learned from listening and practicing. His ear was his teacher. And ever since then people just keep asking to hear him play.

Only people didn’t just want to hear him play, they wanted to learn along with him. He has never advertised a day in his life, but he has become a teacher in great demand. People travel from all corners of the state to partake in his unconventional lessons on the fiddle.

He never instructs with a book. He teaches as he learned, getting to know the strings and their sounds without even realizing they are making music. "Most everyone can play one or two songs by the time they leave the first lesson," shares Luce.

His living room features evidence of his success both as a teacher and performer. Pictures of his students cover the walls. Except for a few, he has captured every student in his museum of teaching. And rows and rows of trophies document awards at fiddling competitions from through out the Northeast.

Luce has only eight students now, but he has taught as many an 27 at a time over the years. He is extremely dedicated to his schedule of visiting area senior centers and nursing homes, and various dances around the state. His appointment book is full of engagements and lessons—up to 200 a year—and his fiddle isn’t often far from his reach.

Despite the modern changes in Vermont culture, Harold Luce’s fiddling has transcended time. The Heritage Award credits Luce’s presence in a truly unique Vermont musical tradition, "that this tradition remains vital and alive today is in no small part thanks to Harold’s work as both an artist and a mentor."

Also honored by the governor was Judy Dow, an Abenaki basketmaker, who won the award for a "heritage educator."

By Emily Marshia

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