By: Joan Retsinas
Featured in PrimeTime, RI Monthly, 2005
If you love contra dancing, French Canadian music, or Appalachian reels, you have probably heard Deck Nieforth play the harmonica. For the past twelve years, he has played with a series of bands, from Money Up Front to The K.C. Moaners, starting GET REEL! and The Franco-Americans along the way. Today he and his band members play monthly throughout Southern New England.
Deck was born into the music. In 1932, when his 19 year-old father emigrated from Nova Scotia to West Warwick, he brought with him not only a talent for carpentry, but a talent for music. For work, he joined his 5 siblings in Nieforth Brothers Construction Company. For fun, he played reels and other French Canadian tunes on his fiddle at home and with the Old Fiddlers’ Club of RI. Deck remembers his father playing kitchen spoons for percussion, like the old impromptu family gatherings that revolved around people seizing fiddles, harmonicas and spoons to play around the kitchen stove after dinner. Deck remembers running upstairs as a child when his father played reels for just himself.
Until middle age, Deck’s life didn’t revolve around music, but around the construction business. After graduating from Deering High School, he joined the army, then went into the family business. He had started working alongside his father at age 13; by age 16, he was helping to build kitchens. By 1970 he and a cousin were running Nieforth, Inc. He built the house he now lives in, right next door to the house he grew up in, which his father had built.
Deck played harmonica only occasionally, as a treat to entertain his toddler daughters when he washed them up in the tub.
That playing, though, started him on his career in music. Many years later, his teenage daughter announced: “I want to play the violin.” Deck offered her his father’s fiddle. Her teacher played her a reel that Deck used to play when she was a kid. The teacher was intrigued that her father knew that music, and asked the daughter to bring her father to the next lesson. Deck came, played his harmonica for Michelle Kaminsky – and took step one into the world of music.
He joined the teacher’s band, Money Up Front, and played the harmonica. When that band broke up ten years ago he started his own band, GET REEL!, which plays old-time Southern music. Later he formed an additional band, the Franco-Americans, who featuring old New England fiddle tunes with a French accent. As for the music, he plays the reels and tunes his father used to play.
Carpenter by day. Musician by night. Until recently the two worlds did not join. At 40, Deck dissolved his construction company, and set out as a master craftsman building custom-designed staircases, kitchens, and entertainment centers.
Then six years ago, Deck bridged the worlds. He bought a $20 book on how to make a fiddle. “I had never made anything musical,” explains Deck. “But I wondered if I could.” With book in hand, and scraps of wood left over from carpentry jobs, he fashioned a fiddle. “It looked beautiful, but it sounded terrible.”
That fiddle now hangs on the wall of Deck’s den.
He realized, “Now I have to have proper wood, glue, bending iron, gouges, and chisels. The next fiddle, made with seasoned wood and some proper equipment, sounded better.
Today he makes fiddles that professionals play. Deck estimates that a fiddle takes him 200 hours. “I enjoy doing it, working at my own pace. I work when I want to.” He also makes spoons, using Brazilian mahogany and teak.