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GENERAL OBSERVATIONS AND COMMENTS

 

The fiddlers represented here are from many parts of Michigan.  Although they come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, they tend to have certain things in common.  Almost all were born on farms or were raised in rural environments.  Some moved to cities or larger towns, but most remained in rural areas all their lives.  Their homes were in many parts of the Lower Peninsula, from towns and farms outside Detroit westward and northward, including the Thumb, parts of mid-Michigan and western Michigan, through to the northern tip.  Several fiddlers from the eastern Upper Peninsula are included as well.  The western Upper Peninsula, however, is not.  I only heard of Finnish-American fiddlers there, and Helmer Toyras, the only one I ever heard, played mainly Finnish tunes, having little knowledge of traditional square dance music. 

The forebears of these fiddlers came to Michigan from the usual source locations.  Two were members of the Chippewa tribe and one a member of the Ottawa tribe.  Western New York State was the chief origin of the wave of the agricultural migrants who came between 1825 and the Civil War.  Canada, mainly Ontario, was the dominant source for the Thumb, much of the northern Lower Peninsula, and the eastern Upper Peninsula, and Canadians included French-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians of American origin, as well as 19th-century immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland.  Germans settled in large numbers in Wayne County, Saginaw County, in the Thumb, and in areas in western Michigan.  After the Civil War, many migrants from Ohio and Indiana, of various ethnic ancestries, bought land in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, as did migrants from southern Michigan.  Danes settled in Montcalm County after the Civil War, and Poles (mainly from Prussia) settled in the Thumb and in the northeastern part of the Lower Peninsula.  The large Dutch community in Ottawa County is not represented, presumably because their religious beliefs did not tolerate fiddling.  Nevertheless, with the understandable exceptions here, the fiddlers here represent a good mix of the ethnic groups which lived and settled in rural Michigan during the 19th century.

The repertoires of these fiddlers varied somewhat, but mainly consisted of tunes appropriate for “old-time” dancing.  These included widely known tunes with names, such as “Irish Washerwoman,” “Haste to the Wedding,”  “Devil’s Dream,” “Soldier’s Joy,” and the like, which have been widely published since the late 18th century.  Generally these tunes, and others, are known throughout North America.  Certain publications in the 19th century were probably influential in spreading these tunes.  These include the various collections published by Elias Howe, including Violin without a Master (1847), which was included in violin kits sold by Sears & Roebuck; O. F. (Cub) Berdan’s One Night in a Ball-Room (Detroit, 1883); and the series Gems of the Ball Room (Chicago:  E. T. Root, 1888-1901). In modern times, 1000 Fiddle Tunes (Chicago:  M. Cole, 1940, but originally Ryan’s Mammoth Collection) has had influence. 

Obviously many tunes were spread orally.  Some, like “My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet,” or “Gilderoy,” might be associated with particular dances or calls (in these cases, the Caledonian Quadrille and Do-Si Balinet).  Others were what might be called “old Virginia reels,” like “Arkansas Traveler,” “Mississippi Sawyer,” and “Tennessee Wagoner,” which spread from the Upper South or the Ohio River Valley northwards.    A few tunes were relatively well-known in Michigan, or parts of the state, but lacked names.  These include a tune in B flat and F (which appears in a manuscript credited to Eli Loranger, of Williamston, Michigan, as the second change of the “Sauger Lake Quadrille”) or a D tune in 6/8 once widely known in western Michigan.  Many more tunes without names are totally obscure.

Some recordings directly or indirectly had influence.  These include Eck Robertson’s “Ragtime Annie” (1922) (also called “Raggedy Ann”), John Baltzell’s “Old Red Barn Quadrille” (1923; generally known and widely played as “Little Red Barn”), and some of Henry Ford’s  Old-Time Orchestra’s records, like “Ticknor’s Quadrille.”  Canadian fiddlers, through radio, recordings, and publications, have had a limited influence, with tunes like “St. Anne’s Reel” and “Crooked Stovepipe” and others mainly being played by fiddlers in the Thumb, in the Alpena area, and in the eastern Upper Peninsula, all areas within the range of Canadian radio.

Round dances (the polka, schottische, varsovienne, waltz, and others) appeared at Michigan balls starting in the 1840s and in time were widely danced at rural parties.  German immigrants certainly popularized the waltz and made it socially acceptable, and some of the waltzes played by Michigan fiddlers may be of German origin.  The best-known schottisches, however, like “Detroit Schottisch” (Detroit:  Adam Couse, 1853) were American compositions, and this particular tune was widely played.  Similarly, while the composer of the “Jenny Lind Polka,” Anton Wallerstein, may have been a German violinist who lived in Paris, the tune entered the United States about the same time as the dance (1844), and it soon entered oral tradition.  Dancing masters must have invented and popularized certain other dances which seem to have been little known in other parts of the country.  Such is probably the case with “Sally Waters,” which the late Les Raber characterized as a “kids’ dance.”  This tune and dance seems to derive from a popular stage song, “The Babies on Our Block,” by Dave Braham and Ed Harrigan (New York:  William A. Pond, 1879), which has the chorus “Oh, little Sally Waters, sitting in the sun,” referring to a children’s song itself.

The two-step appeared in 1892, and public dances in Michigan incorporated it as well.  This brought marches like “Blaze Away!” and “Repasz Band March” (1904, a favorite for the circle two-step in the late 20th century) to the dance fiddler’s repertoire.  Tin Pan Alley waltzes and two-steps from this era, like “After the Ball” (1892), “Red Wing” (1907), “Silver Bell” (1910), “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (1910), and many others also entered the repertoire.

Public square dances from about 1920 to about 1960 and later, whether sponsored by organizations like the Grange or Oddfellows, or by more commercial interests,  were typically advertised as “modern and old-time dancing” or “round and square dancing.”  This indicated that the dances included two-steps or fox trots danced to “modern” (Tin Pan Alley) tunes as well as older square dances and waltzes.  The orchestra might include a saxophone, tenor banjo (both associated with fox trots) and drums (which had been introduced with the two-step), as well as a violin and piano.  Sometimes the fiddler doubled on sax, playing the latter for round dances and the fiddle for square dances, or the sax player might fade into the background on the square dances.  This combination of “old-time” and “modern” satisfied the need for dancing in both rural communities and in working-class cities like Flint, where two commercial dance barns attracted large crowds in the late 1940s. 

What this meant was that active dance fiddlers learned new fox trots like “Darktown Strutters Ball” (1917), “Whispering” (1920), “Any Time” (1921), “Who’s Sorry Now” (1923), and many others.  As new styles developed, the dance songs associated with those styles also were added:  Bob Wills’s “San Antonio Rose” (1938) and “Spanish Two-Step” (1935), among other country-western hits, and the 1940s polka craze resulted in “Beer Barrel Polka” (1939), “Just Because” (1948), and many more.  Fiddlers continued to add later hits, which now were popularized through jukeboxes, radio, movies, and television, such as Les Paul’s “Mockin’bird Hill” (1951), Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” (1950), Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” (1957), Anita Bryant’s “Paper Roses” (1960), Nat King Cole’s “Ramblin’ Rose” (1962), Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” (1966), and Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me”  (1967).  Such songs had simple melodic lines and rhythms suitable for the waltz or two-step.  On the other hand, rock ‘n roll, because of its structure and melodic nature, was but rarely attempted by musicians at “old-time and modern” dances.  Television had already affected attendance at dances negatively, and by the 1960s there was little hope of attracting teenagers.  By the 1970s, most such dances were now “senior citizens’” dances.

I mention these later trends and styles in order to show that the tunes included in this site form only a partial picture of the repertoire of the Michigan fiddler in the 20th century.  They are presumably in the public domain.  Many lack titles, or the players at least knew no titles for them or referred to them by the name of the person from whom they had learned the tunes.  Their origins and history are mostly lost. 

Often the fiddlers had not played them or thought of them for a long time, and the accompanist (usually me) never heard them before.  I played different instruments when accompanying them (dulcimer, piano, organ, guitar, second fiddle, even tenor banjo and melodica), and my facility with the style gradually improved between 1971 and 1981.  Still, the listener must excuse the performances sometimes for their poor intonation and other irregularities.  The fiddlers preferred various tempi, and I had to adjust my accompanying to fit their needs.

I used my father’s Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder from 1971 to 1975, after which I used a Superscope monaural recorder until that wore out a few years later.  Occasionally I had to borrow or rent others’ tape recorders, but I couldn’t afford professional equipment.  In 1981 I returned to school to work on a bachelor’s degree, and I mostly stopped recording.  I had been constantly learning new tunes, but at that point I no longer felt the hunger I had had for new, obscure tunes.  Unfortunately, I missed several opportunities to record tunes from fiddlers who have since died, and I regret that.  But the ubiquity of cassette recorders during this period means that a lot of valuable cassettes probably reside in family members’ homes waiting to be discovered.  The challenge will be to organize and preserve these fragile cassettes for the future. 

Many of the fiddlers represented here regularly attended the “jamborees” of the Michigan Fiddlers Association and Original Michigan Fiddlers Association.  I was involved in organizing the first jamboree, at Sheridan in 1976.  The original mailing list grew out of that of the Original Dulcimer Players Club, of which I was secretary.  I played at the Murray Hotel at Mackinac Island every summer from 1975 to 1985, making many serendipitous contacts.  The result was jamborees held in different locations throughout the state.  Bob Fleck and Jane Allison, who were making a film about the subject, had the motivation to find further locations and to publicize the events, and within a few years, the jamborees had regular followings and new fiddlers were constantly coming.

For the most part, the fiddlers recorded here did not know the others represented here.  Many never attended any jamborees, while others were recorded at jamborees in their first appearances.  I made many recordings at their homes as well.  I tried to be as flexible as possible, and only when they could not think of something might I suggest a tune.   Thus I hope the result of this survey is a fairly accurate representation of the old-time tunes circulating in Michigan tradition.  The recordings here are not a complete collection of everything recorded, but rather a large selection which demonstrates the characteristic repertoire.

Thanks are due to many, but because of the time elapsed, many are no longer with us.  The late Bob Spinner, of Elk Rapids, shared many of the traditions he had absorbed.  I would like to thank Dan Johnston, of Harbor Springs, who introduced me to several fiddlers in his neighborhood;  to Jon Blasius and Will Tyler White, who accompanied me on the earliest trips; to Bob Fleck, whose enthusiasm encouraged further visits and jamborees; and finally to the fiddlers themselves, who were graciously generous with their music.