2007 Governors Arts Awards
New Hampshire Folk Heritage Award Recipient:
Harvey Tolman, Nelson
It is no surprise that when the dancers at the weekly Nelson, New Hampshire contra dance wanted to design a T-shirt celebrating the twenty-five year anniversary of the dance, they chose the image of Harvey Tolman playing his fiddle. Traditional contra and square dancing has flourished in the village for over two hundred years. Over the last quarter-century, this has been largely due to his music.
Although Tolman was born in Massachusetts, the extended Tolman family has lived in Nelson for generations, contributing to its cultural and musical heritage. In 1950, when Harvey was twelve, his family returned to the homestead. There, his uncles Fran and Newt Tolman, were already part of the traditional music revival, collecting and playing the old jigs and reels on fiddle and flute.
Attending the many dances and house parties in the area throughout the 1950s, Tolman was exposed to the music of many fine musicians—most notably fiddler, painter, and violin maker Albert Quigley. “Quig” played New England dance music with Harvey’s uncles, accompanying Ralph Page and other dance callers of the day.
Quigley had a huge impact on young Tolman and gave him, not only inspiration, but also his first fiddle. Despite the influence of his uncles, and that of musicians like Albert Quigley, Tolman wasn’t completely won over to traditional music until he and some friends traveled down to Boston in 1960 to the annual Scottish Games. There, he heard Cape Breton fiddle music for the first time. The music touched him deeply: combining, as it did, the potential for solo performance that he’d always loved, and the possibility for a community of fellow musicians.
In 1970, in spite of having worked on his fiddling for almost a decade, Tolman realized that something was still missing. He needed to get to the source, so he packed fiddle and guitar into the truck and headed north to Cape Breton. It was the first of his annual pilgrimages to the island, trips that continue to the present day.
In 1980, Tolman found another opportunity to share his love of music. Musician and dance caller Peter Temple started a weekly contra dance in Harrisville, just down the road from Nelson. When his “regular” fiddler couldn’t play, Temple came to Tolman and asked if he would stand in. Shy about playing for a dance, Tolman said that he would do his best. Twenty-seven years later, Tolman’s fiddling still anchors the music at the “Monday Night Dance.”
In 1999, Tolman was invited to represent New Hampshire arts at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, highlighting the special affinity between the hill farms of the Monadnock region and the Scots who immigrated to Cape Breton.
In recent years, he has taken on several fiddle students. He was a recipient of a State Arts Council’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant to pass the tradition onto an apprentice.
And he continues to play for the dance every Monday night, where he’s known, not only for his rhythmic style and great repertoire, but also for his graciousness to visiting and new musicians.
Harvey Tolman has inspired musicians, composers, and dancers in New Hampshire, Cape Breton, and beyond. He has dedicated his whole life to community folk music, and, by sharing his tunes and stories, has greatly enriched the state’s own folk heritage.