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Richie Davis/Special to The Commons

David Kaynor fiddles at a fundraiser last fall to help pay for his medical expenses.

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A difficult passage for a friend and mentor

As fiddle master David Kaynor battles ALS, members of a Facebook group come together to play for and buoy the artist who has spent a lifetime cultivating and nourishing their creative community

The “Tune Raiser for David” group on Facebook can be found at bit.ly/tuneraiser. Richie Davis is retired from a 40-plus-year career as reporter for the Greenfield Recorder.

Lissa Schneckenburger sits down at the piano, smiles into the video camera, and starts off with “just a snippet of what I did yesterday afternoon [as] we suddenly have a horn player in the family!”

And the fiddler-composer from Brattleboro launches into a jaunty rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as her son Hunter oompahs on the trombone in the background.

It’s just one of dozens of videos of dancers and musicians in Thetford, Montpelier, and Craftsbury, of friends playing the musical saw, of dancers and musicians sending their love to fiddle master David Kaynor on Facebook.

Kaynor, the 71-year-old music director of the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra and longtime contradance caller-fiddler and violin teacher and composer, has been battling Lou Gehrig’s disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — for more than a year.

From all over Vermont and New England, across the country and around the world, well over 100 musicians are sharing dozens of songs with Kaynor as part of a “Tune-raiser for David” Facebook group to gather around Kaynor’s hospital and recovery bedsides.

There’s a Swedish trio making music in an igloo in their underwear, Pennsylvania dancers moving to Kaynor’s tune “Our Hearts, Like Clouds, Dancing Over These Mountains,” a Pittsburgh woman singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as she cranks her crankie for visual accompaniment, and the “skiing fiddler” skiing in Montana as he and his son play fiddle and mandolin in the background.

A heartwarming way to celebrate his influences

Since his diagnosis, Kaynor, who also co-leads the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Mass., where he lives, has continued to play for the traditional music and dance community that stretches up and down the tri-state region like an extended contra line, but also across to Boston and New York, and around the country where he’s led fiddling workshops for years.

The Facebook effort was launched by friends who are members of that dedicated music and dance community after the incurable disease led to two bouts of pneumonia following a tracheotomy just after Christmas that left him hospitalized for weeks.

Within days, Kaynor’s friends created the Tune-raiser group, which now numbers nearly 650 members, to provide “a chance for people who aren’t able to come to play music with David in person to share a tune or song with him while he is in the hospital dealing with the ups and downs of the trach [tracheostomy] and learning to live with the new normal.”

Jean Allison, a Maine friend of Kaynor’s from college, explained, “In honor of David’s life’s work, several friends came up with a truly heartwarming and personal way to celebrate his enormous influences. They encouraged family, friends, students, dancers, etc. to send David videos of their music — his tunes, tunes of ‘the Masters,’ tunes David taught them. Tunes that they played together.... Anything. Everything....from all over the world. Literally. The contributions have been, and continue to be, totally inspiring.”

Kaynor, who was moved in recent days to a nursing facility in Pittsfield, Mass., has kept in touch with his international community of musicians, dancers, and other friends through Facebook and emails.

“In addition to being fascinating and fun,” he wrote of the online outpouring, “it has given me some big, much-needed heart-warming and spirit-lifting.”

“Some of my students have contributed and so have some old veterans who have been acknowledged tradition-bearers for 40 years and more,” Kaynor added, calling it “a great pulling-together of a huge diversity of musical cultures and dialects, types of tune and song, instruments, and personalities.”

A community builder with a mission

ALS, an incurable motor-neuron disease that weakens muscles — especially those associated with speaking, swallowing, and breathing — has gradually encroached on the life of this athletic Wilbraham, Mass. native, who first took up fiddling while living in Burlington.

Kaynor has spent decades playing, calling, and teaching up and down the Connecticut River Valley and far beyond, earning a reputation as a community builder and friend of traditional music.

“The thing I think David’s done best in his life is he’s encouraged hundreds of people who probably never really saw themselves as up-and-coming musicians,” said his longtime friend, Susan Secco, of Northfield, Mass.

At his dances, “There was always an open-door policy on stage,” Secco added. “He’s had a mission, trying hard to break down barriers.”

Kaynor first noticed the incurable disease as a pain in his shoulder, hip, and back about 2{1/2} years ago and then realized he was struggling to inhale while he was out for runs.

First he had to give up calling. Speaking, too, became more difficult, and he found himself having to work harder to avoid slurring words before recently giving up speech entirely.

Fiddling itself became too discouraging and too difficult as his muscles weakened.

That hasn’t kept Kaynor from enjoying watching his former students play their favorite tunes — many of which they credit to having learned from him.

And a recent video on the Facebook group shows two friends playing fiddle in Kaynor’s room in CooleyDickinson Hospital.

In the video, despite all he has had to give up, Kaynor, guitar in hand, is participating in the music.

‘Beautiful show of support and community’

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the Tune-raiser,” says Mary Cay Brass of Athens, a seasoned musician and leader of the River Singers, based in Saxtons River.

Brass, over the years, has played piano for Kaynor’s dances and took part in fundraising dances in Brattleboro and Greenfield, Mass. to help pay some of his medical expenses.

“People are taking videos at jam sessions, solo or with friends in their living rooms, at dances and other community music events,” Brass said. “It’s such a beautiful show of support and community and positive use of social media. I know it means the world to David.”

In the Facebook Tune-raiser group, Anna Crawford of Pittsboro, N.C. sends a waltz composed and played by fiddler Tommy Wagner of the Carolina Cat Wranglers, explaining that it was inspired by “seeing you express your love for others through music.”

There’s also a video from a family contra dance in Apex, N.C., Family Dance, at which Kaynor’s tunes were played for “a new generation now dancing to your music,” wrote Anna Crawford of the Carolina Cat Wranglers. “Some are so young they must be carried. At least one was dancing ‘in utero.’”

Crawford and her fellow musicians signed off with a simple phrase.

“We love you.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #548 (Wednesday, February 12, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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