Oscar Hamry / Fairbault, Minnesota 1939 - CD
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cd cover Oscar Hamry
Fairbault, Minnesota 1939 (Ta:lik)

Important old recordings of Norwegian American fiddling, restored and published on this marvelous set of 23 tunes performed by the fiddler and fiddle maker, born in Vestre Slidre, Norway and who moved to Minnessota in 1913. These 1939 recordings show the mastery of his playing as well as the beautiful sound of the fiddles he made.



Oscar Hamry (Ola O. Reishagen) was the son of Ola Gudmundson Hamre from the tenant farm Hamro, belonging to Midtre Hande in Vestre Slidre. He was born in 1884, and spent his childhood years with his parents at Hamro. He had two brothers, also named Ola. Around 1900, one of the brothers bought the farm Reishagen. After a while Ola moved in there and adopted the farm’s name. His other brother emigrated to the USA while still quite young and settled in Minnesota. In 1912 Ola married Ambjørg Sårrbu from Vang. They immediately emigrated to America, and later had a daughter.

To avoid being mistaken for his brothers, he took the name Oscar and the surname Hamry after his father. They lived for a while in St. Paul before moving to Northfield and, finally, Fairbault, Minnesota. He made a living as caretaker at St. Olav’s College, and was also a member of the orchestra there.

Ola Reishagen’s playing is faithful to the Slidre style, but strongly influenced by Jørn Hilme. His mentors were Ivar Ringestad and, most of all, Ola Neste, who had been taught to play by his cousin, Olav Moe. In the US, Ola quickly became acquainted with Jøger Quale, who would often describe Ola as the best fiddler he had ever heard. Ola spent time with the Smedal brothers Eilev and Harald, but his closest friend was Gunnleik Smedal.

In 1939, Jøger Quale bought a phonograph, intending to record every tune that Ola knew. For a start, he visited Ola in Fairbault, set up his recording equipment in Ola’s kitchen and recorded some 20 or 30 tunes. He made some recordings of Gunnleik Smedal as well. But he never got to record any more, because Ola died shortly after, taking suddenly ill at work and dying the same day.

In 1978, I had Jøger’s son Thorwald make tapes of these tunes. The recordings met with enthusiastic response in Norway, so I let the Valdres Traditional Music Archive have copies. When Thorwald and his wife passed away at the turn of the century, we had Randi Johansen in St. Paul, my wife Sigrid Olga’s sister, obtain the original phonograph recordings. They are now in the care of the Vestre Slidre traditional music and dance society.

In addition to the records, we got a short film clip of Ola playing a springar to accompany the dance-steps of Jøger Quale, Reidar Qualley and their respective wives. Recordings of master fiddlers from Vestre Slidre are hard to come by. Accordingly, gaining access to these original recordings from the 1930s is a major event. Credit for this initiative goes to Jøger Quale and his great dedication to traditional music. To give an example of their reception in Norway, when I lent my tape of the recordings to fiddler Olav Jørgen Hegge (1941-2005), he returned it with a note saying “We have much to learn from this.

It should also be noted that Ola Reishagen was an excellent fiddlemaker. He made his own fiddles, and made an especially good one for his brother Ola in Slidre. His best fiddle, which became his preferred instrument, was completed in the winter of 1921 while was visiting his home, staying at Reisvangen. The body and fingerboard are masterfully inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A man who was watching Ola at work assked him: “Why do you put som much work into a fiddle, when you don’t even know if it will sound good?” “It will sound good,” was Ola’s reply.

And indeed, these recordings prove that Ola Reishagen’s fiddle did sound good. We are grateful to Ola Reishagen and Jøger Quale for this opportunity to publish the recordings.

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