Entranced by trance music

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jan. 13, 1999, written by Jeff Iseminger

Toe-tapping old-time tunes like “Betty Baker” wafted through the autumn air on a sunny, blue-splashed day this past fall on Library Mall, tunes from the fiddle of Peter Gorman and the banjo of Hans Verick. Sitting on the steps of the State Historical Society, they showed all within earshot how infectious and evocative of time gone by a banjo and a fiddle can be.

The two men form half of an old-time band with the very cool name of Slippery Lick. Gorman is an automation librarian who works in Memorial Library, not far from where he was fiddling.  With his Amish-style beard, he looks born to play traditional tunes.

Librarian by day, fiddler by night – that’s just the way Gorman wants it. Like so many librarians, it seems, he has Renaissance sensibilities, managing to gracefully integrate computers, Old Icelandic language and old-time music into a single life.

Gorman loves old-time music, he says, “because of its spiritual quality. It’s like a meditation or ‘flow,’ when you don’t think about what you’re doing, you just do it.” That day on the mall his face had flow-state written all over it, as he fiddled away in rapt concentration

Because old-time music has few solos and only small variations of melodies over extended sets, Gorman calls it “trance music.” “At first it’s interesting to hear,” he says, “but after a few minutes, a listener might get bored.”

But it’s a hoot to hear for square and contra dancers, because old-time music is dance music. In fact, it was born in the barn, where dances were commonly held. “It’s great playing for dancers,” says Gorman. “A whole room full of people is moving to your music.”

Old-time music married Scotch-Irish melodies with African-American rhythms. It also married the fiddle with the banjo, an adaptation of an instrument used by West African slaves in the Americas. Slippery Lickers play fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo, with Gorman adept on the first three.

You’ll hear a distinct difference between old-time music and its offspring, bluegrass. “In bluegrass, you use the tune to show your ability,” says Gorman. “In old-time music, you use your ability to show the tune, with little improvising.”

Gorman first honed his ability on the guitar, which he played for Catholic folk masses while growing up in Maryland. “It was a great way to learn, since my audiences were very nonjudgmental,” he says with a smile.

He attended Penn State for two years and then transferred to the University of Michigan, where he liked to play music by Cat Stevens and Neil Young. One night, bored to ever-loving tears, he had a musical epiphany.

“I took my guitar to a square dance in the student union and got sucked up into traditional music on the spot,” he says. He later moved to fiddle and now plays his grandfather’s instrument.

Gorman and Slippery Lick hit the old-time big time last summer. The band was featured at an old-time music festival in Clifftop, W.Va., the largest such gathering in the nation. In the Madison area, the band plays for dances, weddings and private parties about twice a month.

Gorman’s family finds the dance hall congenial. His wife, Catherine Baer, whom he met at a dance, is a square dance caller, as was her father in the ’40s and ’50s. Nine-year-old Johanna is a clogger like her mother, and even little ‘Liza Jane, 2, improvises with folk songs, adapting lyrics to whatever she’s doing.

Gorman’s day job does justice to his nonmusical passions. “It’s extremely exciting to be a librarian right now because of the huge changes caused by technology,” he says. “It’s like being a printer in the 1400s after the invention of the printing press.”

An automation librarian at UW-Madison since 1994, Gorman is a standard- bearer for the General Library System (GLS) as it carries clients into the fray of finding information electronically. He gets deeply involved in electronic text projects, such the web edition of John Nolen’s city plan for Madison, which can be found at: http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/ModelCity/ModelCity_top.html

Gorman also developed a site (http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/Jonas/) that features 50 works of Icelandic poet Jonas Hallgrimsson, translated by Richard Ringler, professor of English and Scandinavian studies at UW-Madison.

“That made a big splash in Iceland,” says Gorman. The Icelandic government flew Ringler and GLS Director Ken Frazier to Iceland for the ceremonial click opening the site, an event attended by Iceland’s president.

A project instigator was librarian Dennis Hill, who enlisted Gorman because of a common bond: They both took a class in Old Icelandic from the same Penn State professor, though at different times. (Believe it or not, a third GLS employee, Associate Director Lou Pittschmann, also took the same course at Penn State.)

Gorman was first drawn to Old Icelandic and a college minor in Scandinavian studies through English literature. “I was a big fan of Tolkien,” he says, “and I read that a source for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy was Scandinavian mythology. So I read some and found it was even better than Tolkien.”

After graduating from Michigan with a linguistics major, Gorman earned a master’s in library science at Drexel University while he worked at the University of Pennsylvania. There he helped the Penn library convert its catalog from cards to computers. “I hadn’t consciously planned a library career,” he says, “but I liked seeing tangible products in automation.”

And today, Gorman likes the way being a librarian busies his fingers when they aren’t fiddling. As they fly over fingerboard and keyboard, his hands create sounds that are loved at dances, as well as sights that are loved in libraries.