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Sue Draheim: Widely admired folk violinist


There are all kinds of musicians. Sue Draheim fell into the category of team player. As a fiddler, she straddled the folk scenes of her homeland and the British Isles, as no other US-born, UK-based fiddler has since Tom Paley in the 1960s. During a burst of activity in the 1970s she added American-style fiddle colour to British sessions for musicians of the calibre of Wizz Jones, John Martyn and Richard Thompson and joined the Albion Country Band and the John Renbourn Group. Despite calling "the music and tunes of the British Isles" her "greatest musical love", in the United States she blazed a still brighter trail.

In February 2011 El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records celebrated a half-century in the business with a birthday bash at the nearby Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. Over three days, a line-up of label-linked acts performed. Among them were Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite, Ry Cooder, Country Joe McDonald, The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band and Taj Mahal.

Also on the bill was the Any Old Time string band, which featured Sue Draheim on violin. It was she who had originally been elected to approach Arhoolie head Chris Strachwitz about recording them. "We were all women," recalls Kate Brislin in the commemorative 4-CD hardback set from those Berkeley concerts, They All Played for Us (2012), "and although we didn't think about the women's aspect of it at the time, it probably made us more popular than we would have been otherwise."

Sue Draheim had been born in 1949 in Oakland. As a nine-year-old she gravitated to the violin under the influence of Fritz Kreisler and "the violinist on The Lawrence Welk Show." By July 1968, as part of Berkeley's psychedelised Colby Street scene and as a member of Dr Humbead's New Tranquility String Band and Medicine Show, she was on the bill of the 11th Berkeley Folk Festival, headlined by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Howlin' Wolf, Joan Baez and Jesse Fuller. In February 1970 she recorded for the Mike Seeger-directed anthology Berkeley Farms: Oldtime and Country Style Music of Berkeley (1972). By the time Folkways issued it, she was far away.

In the summer of 1970 she won first prize at the fiddlers' convention at Galax, Virginia. "The Peeler Creek Waltz" appeared on Blue Ridge Mountain Field Trip (1970) on the UK-based Leader label. Later that year in England, it proved a calling card of sorts. Aside from absorbing the Co Clare style of fiddle playing – much to the delight of uilleann pipes maestro Willie Clancy – Draheim brought an Americanness and a lightly worn English and Irish dimension to session work. Her egoless playing behind "Poor Ditching Boy" on Richard Thompson's solo debut, Henry the Human Fly (1972), complements his then less-than-sure vocal delivery.

The great violinistic chameleon that she was, she added colour to "Over the Hill" on John Martyn's Solid Air (1973) and Wizz Jones's Right Now (1972). By then, she had fallen in with Ashley Hutchings' Albion Country Band, but left before they recorded. After them, she joined the John Renbourn Group for five years, debuting on Renbourn's Faro Annie (1971), and touring in France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, then recording A Maid in Bedlam (1977) with them.

Shortly after she returned to the Bay Area and joined Any Old Time. With its eclectic repertoire drawing on the Six and Seven-Eights [sometimes spelled Eighths] String Band of New Orleans, Bing Crosby, Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family – a chance for Draheim to put down the fiddle and sing alto – and the Girls of the Golden West, they would make two remarkable albums: Any Old Time String Band (1978) and Ladies Choice (1980), together reissued as I Bid You Goodnight (1996).

Another notable session was with Jody Stecher, David Grisman and John Cohen, captured on Cohen's Stories the Crow Told Me (1998). A versatile and pragmatic musician, she played with folk groups like Golden Bough, Tempest and Caliban, the Western Opera Theater and the Lamplighters light-opera company. She had a rare gift for creating understatedly perfect, unobtrusively essential violin parts.

After graduating from Berkeley's California School of Professional Fabric Design (2006-2010), in 2011 she moved to Kentucky, where, aside from playing contra dances with Sea Change, she pursued a parallel career in textile and surface pattern design. She is survived by her partner, Wayde Blair.

Susan Ann Draheim, musician: born Oakland, California 17 August 1949; died Berea, Kentucky 11 April 2013.