“Surprise after surprise . . . That really was the essence of last week’s excellent program, “Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail,” featuring the tunes and the history associated with fiddle music moving westward with the pioneers. Vivian and Phil Williams have the gift of making it seem like only yesterday.”
- Frank Jacobson, Latah Eagle, Moscow, ID)
For five decades, Phil and Vivian Williams have made substantial contributions to the folk and traditional arts in the Pacific Northwest in four main areas: performance, research and documentation, education, and folk arts organizations. As musicians they are highly acclaimed performers of old time fiddle, bluegrass, and traditional ballroom dance music. Their scholarship has included extensive recording and researching the fiddle and dance music of the Pacific Northwest. They have published 84 CD’s and 8 books on their Voyager label. As educators, Phil and Vivian have given formal and informal instruction to a couple of generations of aspiring musicians, published a number of instructional books and CD’s, and participated in countless workshops. They have co-founded a half a dozen folk arts organizations and have been involved with others, assisting them variously by volunteering, molding their missions, obtaining nonprofit status for them, and serving on their boards. Phil and Vivian continue to maintain a full schedule of appearances around the Northwest, appearing regularly at festivals, fiddle events, teaching camps, corporate events, and most of all, dances. On the first Wednesday of every month they host a fiddle jam session in their home. Several times a year they hit the road and go a little farther afield.
But perhaps their greatest contribution Phil and Vivian have made to their particular artistic tradition was to recognize that, in fact, they had one. When Phil and Vivian were going to Grange dances in the 1940’s and ’50’s, they, like most others, took the music and dances for granted. It just seemed to be what everyone did. As they attended fiddle events in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, learning and recording the music they heard, they were able to begin connecting the dots that indicated the music they grew up with had been around for a while. Their discovery of the Beemer and Haynes Manuscripts confirmed what they suspected. There is a Northwest fiddle and dance music tradition that is distinct in origin and repertoire and dates back 150 years to the first Oregon Trail pioneers.
PERFORMANCES & SHOWS:
Fiddle and Old time Music in the Pacific Northwest from the Lewis & Clark Expedition to the Present
The Pacific Northwest has a legacy of fiddle and dance tunes going back to the earliest days of exploration in the region. Vivian and Phil play the traditional music brought to the region by early explorers, pioneers, and later immigrants to the region. Each tune has a story about how it came to the region, the occasions where it was, and, in many cases, still is, played, and the people from whom they learned it.
Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail
Much of the fiddle and old time music found throughout the Pacific Northwest when Vivian and Phil were growing up, and now found mostly in rural areas and in gatherings of the Northwest Fiddle Associations, was brought to the region over the Oregon Trail. They have done considerable research into the dance music played on the Oregon Trail and in pioneer communities along the way as recorded in pioneer journals. They play this material both on modern instruments and instruments from Oregon Trail days, including fiddle, mid-1800′s guitar, a gut strung fretless banjo that likely came over the Trail, jaw harp, and a mandolin from this era, interwoven with glimpses of how these tunes and dances helped ease a hard day of travel. The Williams presented this program for many years under the auspices of the ‘Inquiring Mind” program of the Humanities Washington, various Arts Commissions, and many other presenters. Reviews and Comments about this Program
Fiddle Tunes of the Lewis & Clark Era
Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805, and brought with them the first fiddlers heard in our home region of which we have any documentation. They were Pierre Cruzzate, from St. Louis, and George Gibson, originally from Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the tunes they played were not mentioned in the Expedition journals. Careful research and experience by them and by Dr. Howard Marshall, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri, revealed many tunes popular in the region where these fiddlers were from at the time of the Expedition. The program includes quotes from the journals and histories of the tunes, and brings out the importance of the fiddling and dancing in the relations of the Expedition with the Indians, something usually overlooked by most historians. Many of the journal quotes concerning this early cultural exchange, which have been left out of nearly all the abridged versions of the Expedition journals, have been uncovered by the Williams and illustrate the opinion of a historian writing in the 1930s that, without the “fiddle diplomacy,” the Expedition well may not have succeeded. The Williams have presented this program many times during the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial under the auspices of Humanities Washington, Washington State Arts Commission, National Park Service Tent of Many Voices, Lewis & Clark Bicentennial associations, any many others. Reviews and Comments about this Program
Pioneer Dance Music of the Far West
The great migration to settle the Far West started in the 1840′s, and ended around the early part of the 20th Century. The emigrants brought their music and dances with them. The community dance was a major social event and entertainment in the pioneer communities. The fiddle was the most popular and versatile dance instrument, although a wide variety of instruments was used . Rounding up musicians to play a dance often was a challenge. Usually there were very few musicians in the community, and they may all have come from different musical backgrounds and traditions. The tunes they brought with them came from different musical traditions, and had to be adapted so that everyone in the “band” could play them. As a consequence, dances in the Far West typically included many styles of tunes and dances from diverse national and regional traditions. This is the type of community dance they did here in the Puget Sound region as kids. They have done lots of research on the dance music and dances of the pioneer Far West, and present a program of this music, dance descriptions (and demonstrations, when they can get dancers), stories from accounts of Far West pioneer dances, and histories of many of the tunes. This covers an era of great development of popular dance in America, from the days of longways set dances (contra dances) and quadrilles (square dances), to the waltz, polka, schottische, mazurka, two-step, and the various “pattern” dances that they did as kids, but which now are considered “North American Folk Dances.” They play tunes from pioneer dances of mining camps, farming settlements, and maritime communities in the Far West, using a variety of instruments commonly used for these dances. This program has been presented under the auspices of Humanities Washington, and by many historical societies, community organizations, schools, colleges, etc.
Dance Tunes of the Alaska Gold Rush
The Alaska Gold Rush started in July, 1897, when the steamship Portland docked in Seattle with news of the gold strike in the Klondike and a load of gold to prove it. People flocked to Seattle from around the world to catch a boat to Alaska and make their way to the Yukon. Soon the population of Dawson and the mining camps in the region exploded. One of the principal entertainments of the miners was dancing in the many saloons and dance halls. This program presents the music they danced to, the type of dances done, and quotes about music and dance from journals and accounts from the gold rush. The influx of wealth and people due to the Alaska gold rush greatly enhanced the development of arts and entertainments in Seattle, including the start of the Seattle Symphony and major theater and vaudeville chains. The tunes are performed by champion fiddler Vivian Williams, accompanied by her husband Phil on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. This is a chance for the family to experience the “hidden history” of the gold rush, as music and dance generally are not presented by historians. The Williams, as historians of the dance music of the pioneer West, as well as contemporary old time dance musicians, are uniquely able to make this music and the gold rush come alive.
Tunes from the Peter Beemer and Haynes Family Manuscripts
Vivian has published the only two manuscripts actually played from by a dance band for community dances in the pioneer Pacific Northwest. The Peter Beemer Manuscript containing 124 tunes, was hand written in the 1860s in the mining camp of Warren’s Diggins’, Idaho, by Peter Beemer, who collected the tunes by having folks in the camp play, whistle, or sing their favorite dance tunes, which he transcribed. The band, which consisted of flute, two fiddles, banjo, and button accordion, played dances on Saturday nights in the saloon owned by one of the fiddlers. This manuscript somehow survived for over 140 years, and was known to only a few people, until its existence became known to Vivian. This manuscript is now owned by Boise State University as a major work in their “Western Historical Papers” collection.
The Haynes Family Manuscript was discovered by the Williams in the hands of a the fifth generation descendant of one of the authors. It was a collaboration among three families who came out over the Oregon Trail in the late 1840s and early 1850s, and settled on Chehalem Mountain south of Portland, Oregon. The manuscript was used for dances throughout the Willamette Valley. The sophistication and variety of the tunes in these manuscripts surprised music historians, who, before their publication, could only speculate as to the tunes actually played for dancing in the pioneer West. The Williams present a cross section of the tunes from these manuscripts on violin and guitar, and talk about the history of the manuscripts, tunes, and the dances for which they were played. (See The Peter Beemer Manuscript and The Haynes Family Manuscript.)