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Background:

Along the Black River, 35 miles North of Fort Yukon Alaska, a Gwitchyaa Gwich'in native with a musical destiny was born. At a very young age, Bill Stevens was exposed to the fiddling of his grandfather, Chief Esias Loola, and later found his ultimate inspiration from Old Crow fiddler Paul Ben Kassi. After some begging, Bill convinced his mother to purchase his first fiddle from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Not only did Bill learn the traditional athabascan tunes, but he also began incorporating fiddle tunes heard from local fiddlers and from recordings. By the time he was working in California, he had begun picking up bluegrass, country, and old-time fiddling.

1978 Trophy
Bill with trophy, 1978
Tundra Times Photograph Project image

The years in California served as an important time in his life. With training from Virgil Evans, he started competing in fiddling contests, accumulating quite a large collection of awards, including second place in the men's division of the 1978 California Old Time Fiddlers Association State Championship. Other competitions included the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest in Weiser, Idaho, and the National Indian Fiddlers Contest in Talequah, Oklahoma.

Unfortunately, not all was well in California. Bill was battling alcoholism, which he openly discusses. His difficult journey to sobriety changed his life, adding special meaning to the gospel hymns that he now includes in his repertoire.

Today, Bill keeps the Athabascan style of fiddling alive by performing throughout Alaska, NW Canada, and the US. It is important to him to preserve Gwich'in, Athabascan, and old-time fiddle music for future generations. The Athabascan Old Time Fiddling Festival, of which he is a founding member, is just one way in which he has contributed along the way.

1994 Athabascan Fiddle Festival: Tundra Times Photograph Project image
1994 Athabascan Fiddle Festival
Tundra Times Photograph Project image

Performances have included the Smithsonian Institution's Folk Life Festival, Wolf Trap, the Sea Music Festival in Mystic, CT, as well as overseas performances in England, Orkney Scotland, and recently the Tasmanian Craft Fair in Australia.

In Alaska, Bill performs throughout the year at local schools, potlatches, festivals, and community events. Craig Mishler, an ethnomusicologist, notes, "You can hear his notes floating up and downstream for 2,000 miles. It's no wonder that they call him Ch'adzah Aghwaa ('He carries dances') in Gwich'in." Because of his incredible contribution to Alaska and beyond, Bill received the 2002 Governor's Arts and Humanities Award for the category of Native Artist. The Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Humanities Forum selected the honorees.

Bill has been featured in Fiddler Magazine, and "The Crooked Stovepipe," by Craig Mishler. His six recordings include his retrospective CD, " Fiddlin' Through the Years", which is his only CD currently available.

 

Fiddling in Old Crow, Canada
Fiddling in Old Crow, Canada, 2001

 

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