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FIDDLING IN MICHIGAN

 

This is the gateway page to the recordings of Michigan fiddlers that I made between 1971 and 1985.  In 1971, there was no organized fiddling activity in the state similar to the contests, clubs, and other activity found in other states.  The Original Dulcimer Players Club had been organized in 1963 and was attended by fiddlers who were also dulcimer players or who had played with dulcimers, but the first “Fun-Fest” at Evart did not happen until 1973 or 1974.  Somewhere I heard that in the 1960s, there had been a fiddle contest sponsored by Zinger’s Funeral Home at Ubly, but it was no longer functioning.  Here and there one could visit survivals of “old-time and modern” dances, although these had been declining since the 1950s.  The Folk Revival-style interest in fiddling largely had not yet begun, although a small number in Ann Arbor mixed it up with bluegrass.  Bluegrass, for that matter, did not exist outside of Ilene’s Restaurant in Ecorse or the Dixie Belle Lounge in Detroit, or some on the west side of the state.  Here, however, the fiddle was largely incidental, since the focus in bluegrass is on singing. The first attempts at imitating Dudley Laufman’s New England "contras” began in Ann Arbor about 1975 or 1976. 

One can see obvious changes in the state since that era forty years ago.  One of the chief contributors to those changes was the formation of the the Original Michigan Fiddlers Association and Michigan Fiddlers Association, and the growth of the “jamboree” phenomenon.  This has taken an interesting path.  Having gone during the preceding five years to various fiddlers’ contests and conventions in other parts of the country and Canada and seen the strengths and weakness of those events, I decided in 1976 to organize a fiddlers’ event in Michigan.  I was the secretary of the Original Dulcimer Players Club and knew several fiddlers who had attended club meetings and the first Evart Funfests.  I thought the Sheridan area would be a good location for the first one, given the address list, and I contacted Ken Staines about recommendations for halls.  I was picturing a small, rural hall, and Ken suggested the one at Vickeryville.  Ultimately Ken got the use of the high school, and we had our first one on May 29, 1976.

I thought that the event could be structured in a way that would preserve and promote tradition in ways that contests did not.  Old-time dances would be held in the evening.  In the afternoon, individual fiddlers and their accompanists would be featured in round-robin manner.  Unlike contests, which made artificial restrictions on what could be played, these events (for which I decided to use the word “jamboree”) would allow anything (though at one point the use of drums was problematic).  No one would be paid, and expenses would be met by asking for donations. With the help of people I had met in the years previously, we organized more jamborees in other places, like Hillman, Harbor Springs (where Danny and Sherry Johnston, who I met in 1976, got the local facilities), Elk Rapids (where Bob Spinner arranged things), and elsewhere.  Bob and Jane were now comfortable with with organization, and Bob especially decided to locate them in as many areas around the state as possible.  The jamborees developed a regular following.  New people would always show up, sometimes only once, but we could always count on others to appear.  New callers constantly showed up, and soon it was necessary to set up a waiting list for callers.  I remember one at Bay City where fifteen callers had signed up.  In 1981, Bill White challenged the organization, and the result was that two organizations, the Michigan Fiddlers Association and the Original Michigan Fiddlers Association were formed. 

The Original Michigan Fiddlers Association organized itself into several regions, each of which had a coordinator who was responsible for organizing local jamborees.  By the early 1980s, these were taking on lives of their own.  Fiddlers who, in the beginning years of the organizations, offered their tunes with some trepidation, now greeted others as old friends, and obscure, nameless tunes would be shared by others.  Others organized jamborees independently.  Soon after I moved to Flint in 1987, I went to one at a senior citizens’ center that Don Ward of Fenton had organized, for example.  One could pick up a local newspaper somewhere in the state and be apt to read an announcement for one, or go to some small town and see a sign in the window of a store.  The jamboree became a true blue-collar Michigan phenomenon in the 1990s. 

The recordings presented here date mostly to the very beginnings of the jamborees and only to a limited extent result from attendance at those events.  The Frank Mattison recordings, for example, were made in conjunction with going to Sheridan and talking with Ken Staines there about getting a hall.  I recorded Helen Gross at her house in 1978 after I had met her at a jamboree.  Other fiddlers, like Elmer House, Bill Cameron, or Gale McAfee, never came to any jamborees.  Bill White, who had a violin shop in Okemos, introduced me to people like Russ Nelson, Wallace Tuttle, and Dallas Langham.  I played at the Murray Hotel at Mackinac Island for eleven summers, starting in 1975, and I looked for old-time fiddlers from the start.  I met Danny Johnston and Pete Keller at a talent show at the Leggs Inn in Cross Village in 1976, and Danny later introduced me to Bud Cease, Dan Naganashe, and Wilbur Brown.  These personal networks, of course, are how the whole movement grew.  Bud Pierce came to the Original Dulcimer Players Club events because of a neighborhood player in his childhood; he eventually brought Les Raber and Varsal Fales to the jamborees.  Les became devoted to the jamborees, hosting many in Hastings and going all over the state to attend others.  His wife Rosemary compiled a book with sketches of the members in 1986. 

This is the context for most of the recordings here.  I was both trying to document the fiddling and tunes of these fiddlers and at the same time have fun doing it.  Sometimes the demands of the one conflicted with the needs of the other, but, whatever the faults, I am glad I so diligently did this for several years and preserved the tapes. 

My lack of a tape recorder and return to school in 1981 mostly prevented me from further recording.  Of course I regret that I didn’t record people like Ben Stockton (or some of the tunes that he played, like “Canadian Loggin’ Bee” or “Weasel in the Fox Hole,” that may be forever lost) and others.  Still, I am glad to have preserved on tape most of the fiddlers who were active at the beginnings of the fiddlers’ associations in Michigan.  As the jamborees developed, many new fiddlers arose, both those who had played a little many years earlier and then quit and those who had never played.  These recordings take us back to the quirks of individual playing, of individuals learning in isolation.