From 25 Years of Fiddling: Original Michigan Fiddlers, Original Michigan Fiddlers Association, 2001
Bill J. Sparrow
I was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan on March 25, 1923. I am retired from Ford Motor Co. I now live in Ocquoec, Michigan and spend the winter in Zephyr Hills, Florida. Dottie and I also spend time in Allendale, Michigan. My father was a fiddler and I would play with his fiddle. At age 6, I began taking fiddle lessons from Mrs. Moffit. I played left-handed and my teacher had to teach me to play right handed.
At age 11, I began attending school sponsored by Henry Ford. My dad worked on the Ford Farms where they raised soybeans. Mr. Ford had several farms in an area of about 60 miles circumference. The kids whose fathers worked on the Ford Farms attended these schools. There were about 20 of these schools. I attended the Willow Run school. We were taught out of the old McGuffey readers. Mr. Ford would come out to the schools to visit. He was very much into the Early American dance music; he promoted it and it was taught at the schools he owned. Mr. Perry [Clayton Perry], a fiddler, and his group came to the schools to teach dancing. Mr. Lovett [Benjamin Lovett] was the caller for square dancing.
One day, Mr. Ford came out to the Willow Run school and had me play the fiddle for him. I played my dad’s fiddle, which, needless to say, was too big for me. Mr. Ford asked Mr. Perry to bring him a ½ size fiddle and to give me ½ hour lessons weekly, before the dancing lessons. This is how I learned to play all the dance tunes, gavottes, heel & toe, polka, square dances, etc.
This was the beginning of my learning the fiddle.
I feel very fortunate that Mr. Ford was so gracious and kind. After I left school, I played music around the Ypsi area until I retired.
While living in Florida during the winter, I met Dot and we were married December 25, 1999. We play music for ice cream socials, potlucks, dances, etc. in Michigan and Florida. Music and fiddling has been a great part of my life. I thank Mr. Ford and Mr. Perry for my success in music.
I also play saxophone and some banjo. My favorite fiddle tune is “When It’s Springtime In The Rockies” because it is the first fiddle tune I learned to play.
I joined the OMFA in 1991.
From Mostly Singing Quadrilles: A Note On The Recordings, David Park Williams, 1988
The great Michigan fiddler, Billy J. Sparrow, moved to Florida in the summer of 1988; that was my primary motivation for making tapes of his playing before he left. When Billy was a boy some sixty years before, he took lessons from Clayton Perry, who was the principal fiddler for Henry Ford, Sr. Bill has shown me, hanging on his wall, the child-size fiddle Henry Ford gave him; he tells of sitting on Ford’s knee, playing the Varsovienne. You can hear Bill on the tapes, both playing straight and frolicking and skylarking around the melody like a kitten with a butterfly.
Liz Olsen, the pianist, is another real musician. Like Billy, she’s a note-reader who can play by ear and improvise all kinds of harmonies and descants. (The only printed music we used for this session was for the Sweet Alice Quadrille.) Liz also tells me what key will be best for me to sing in.
The bass player is my son, Mark, who has made (from scratch) lap dulcimers, hammer dulcimers, a five-string banjo and a mandolin. He rebuilt and restored the stand-up bass he plays and I derive great pleasure from his being in the band.
I told the sound engineer not to worry about MY part. I felt I was just calling to keep the band together, especially so they’d know when to stop playing. Now I wish the engineer hadn’t paid any attention to me, because the band sounds so good it shows up the mediocrity of my own performance! I dubbed over some of the worst bloopers, but there were so many. We recorded 24 tapes in four hours (with a two-hour lunch break) and only did one of them over. I didn’t realize how very much I depend on seeing the dancers to keep my calling straight.
There are five old Sherburne-Plymouth, Vermont numbers in these tapes, mostly Lyn Cady’s, but Annie Laurie may be Rex Jilson’s. They areThe Slow One, Honolulu Baby, Nelly Gray, Jingle Bells and the immensely popular Annie Laurie. There was a lot of “promenade . . . . your corner . . . . your next corner . . . . your next corner . . . . your partner”. (Same thing for “Swing . . . . your corner.) Lyn would also (and I don’t do it here) call “Corners the same”; this meant that when (e.g.) the first couple got to couple four, the second couple would move to couple three and do the same figure the first couple was doing. “Lead to the last and it’s corners the same, and it’s four hands back the other way . . .” I believe they had a grand right and left before the second couple actually took off on their own visits. I first heard Mr. Cady call in 1942. (He had been the drummer in the Plymouth, Vermont Old Time Barn Dance Orchestra in the Coolidge era. You can hear him drumming on the record New England Traditional Fiddling [JEMF-105] in Portland Fancy, reproduced on the above disc from a 1926 recording.) The last time I heard him call was in 1955 when he had come out of retirement. (His doctor had told him to quit because of a heart condition, and Lyn said he’d rather die with his boots on than just sit around and live forever.)
The next group of tapes, nearly all of which I used in Vermont (and elsewhere) in the late forties and early-to-mid fifties, are calls I learned out west: (Just Because, My Little Girl, Sioux City Sue and Mountain Music I think, because they were on Imperial or Windsor labels) or back East: (Hot Time, Coconuts, Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Uptown, Downtown and Pat Him On The Head) The last two and the Sweet Alice Quadrille came from Ed Durlacher’s records and book. I dance to his calling once in the early fifties on the Mall at Central Park in New York City; he would line up thousands of neophytes, march them down in twos, fours and eights, put them in squares and start them dancing. It was fabulous: apparently he did it earlier at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, too. He also pioneered in square dancing for the blind, and for those in wheel-chairs.
Silver and Gold was a felicitous combination of a Don Messer 78 rpm record (Apex 26296-A) and an 1890s quadrille figure. My wife, Helen, thinks that my love for that tune touched off a domino effect: F & W String Band (F-FW-1), Gunther Schuler’s Country Fiddle Band (Columbia Masterworks M-33981) and New England Chestnuts (Alcazar FR 203). Maybe.
Next come some calls I never did until I came to Michigan; I would have used them earlier if I’d known them. They are: It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, Bully of the Town, Four Leaf Clover and Climbing Up Them Golden Stairs. There is nothing like Texas Star done to Bill Sparrow’sRaggedy Ann (Ragtime Annie) with his own special “C” part; or Right and Left Four and Right and Left Six to Billy’s 6/8 Number. I wonder what the real name of that one is? Bill doesn’t know [It’s Les Raber’s Jig in A in the key of D with a key change to A in the B part] (that tape is without calls because I couldn’t tell without dancers when the “right and left six” ended; I’ve always done it visually!) Oh, yes, and two or three years ago I fitted an old prompt call to Yes, We Have No Bananas; my only “original” singing call, although I do have some original contras. The promenade call SHOULD be: “Promenade and go bananas ‘cause we have no bananas today!”
The patter, especially in Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Mountain Music, and Four Leaf Clover is largely my own. In the first, as in a couple of other things I do, there are attempted imitations of Eddie Cantor, Sir Harry Lauder, Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante. The “Hey, Ma!” routine I got from Slim Sterling of New Rochelle, New York; he would yell “Hey, Ma!” and the dancers would yell back “Hey, Pa!”
There is an instrumental flip side to all the tapes that have calls, and those instrumentals are some of my favorite listening music.
I threw in the waltz quadrilles because I want to do more of them now that ballroom dancing is coming back.
-- David Park Williams
Written by Jim McKinney
The Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest was first held in October 1985 in Huron Township, Michigan as part of the Huron Township Applefest, a small community-based festival designed to bring folks (and dollars) into Huron Township and to promote the local orchards.
In 1997, a Certificate of Special Recognition was obtained from Governor John Engler’s office, recognizing the fiddle contest’s value to the Detroit downriver area and recognizing that the fiddle contest awards the title of State Champion to the winner. This Certificate of Special Recognition has been re-issued and signed by every governor since then.
The original rules of the contest required each contestant to play a waltz, a hoedown and a tune of choice. Judges were seated in the audience or facing the contestants at a table in front of the stage. The winners the first year were a trio of brothers from the Bowling Green, Ohio area: Wallace DePue, Jr., Alex DePue and Jason DePue. This information comes from a 1985 newspaper article. Records of winners and the tunes they played weren’t kept at that time.
I was a competitor in the Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest from 1995 to 2005. During that time the contest saw as many as 18 contestants in one year and as few as three.
The fiddle contest has undergone some changes since I volunteered to serve as director in 2006. For my first five years as a competitor, the same fellow won every year and his students were second and third place. The winner was a very highly trained classical musician who started playing at three years old. He was very talented but it always bothered me that tune selections like Lady Be Good and pentatonic improvisations that abandoned the melody weren't consistent with what I imagined old-time fiddling should sound like. I was also bothered that judges were often chosen at the last minute just because they were handy; usually friends and family members of the contest director. One year the judges were the guitar and bass players from a local country-rock bar-band. I can only recall one year when the judges were actually fiddlers or someone with any knowledge or experience with any kind of fiddling.
When the opportunity to direct the contest came up, I decided that I would volunteer and try to re-shape the contest to live up to its title; old-time fiddling that actually had something to do with the state of Michigan. I haven't competed in the contest since 2005.
The difficulty of defining a Michigan "style" was immediately apparent. There are no particular ornaments or bow strokes that say “Michigan” to a listener and the issue is further complicated by the influence of other cultures that are so common throughout the state. I was aware of New York, Canadian, southern and immigrant influences in the state but couldn't come up with a definition that could incorporate all of them. From my research and experience, the only common thread I could identify was the use of fiddling to accompany dancing. With that as my guideline, I decided that I could define a contest that Les Raber or Ray Shepherd or Bob Murphy or even Ed Lauluma could stand a chance of winning.
I made an executive decision. Even though some Michigan fiddle cultures included solo step dancing, most, if not every culture also included square and round dances. I decided that a contest that displayed a fiddler’s ability to play for square and round dancing could be broad enough to be fair to a fiddler from any tradition in the state and still be specific enough to demonstrate "the way we do things in Michigan."
I tried to create thoughtful definitions of what constitutes good square and round dance music. I changed the tune requirements from waltz, hoedown and tune of choice to waltz, schottische, jig and reel. I decided to use knowledgeable judges in a blind format so that contestants would be judged solely on the sound of their fiddling rather than on any aspect of their appearance. I added criteria awarding points to contestants who played tunes from the repertoires of Michigan’s old-time fiddlers. With these changes, I believed I could create a contest that would give fiddlers from any Michigan tradition an even chance of competing with each other. I also believed that by placing the emphasis on dance experience, I could remove school training from the equation or at least create a more level playing field for a self-taught fiddler who had only the training of their particular tradition. It would be up to the judges to decide whether a Norwegian-influenced fiddler from the Upper Peninsula did a better job at playing their style of dance music than a Henry Ford-influenced quadrille player from the Lower Peninsula did at theirs. Influences from modern recordings of fiddlers from all over the world wouldn't make the judges' job any easier but I felt it would still make a better "Michigan" oriented contest than what we had.
To further promote the Michigan old-time aspect, every contestant since 2006 has been given a book or recording that promotes Michigan fiddling. Michigan Jamboree, An Island of Fiddlers, the Come Dance With Me book and CDs and books of Stewart Carmichael and Clifford Sparks tunes have all been gifts for the contestants.
Since 2006, the fiddle contest has seen as many as 12 contestants in one year and as few as two. Some of the low attendance is due to the time of year the contest is held. It is always the first Saturday in October and it is always held out of doors. Cool weather, mist, rain and even snow are not conducive to enjoyable fiddling and it is believed that some fiddlers choose to stay warm and dry rather than expose their fingers and their instruments to the elements for a chance at the title of State Champion.
The Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest at the Huron Township Applefest continues to promote the art of traditional fiddling and the unique musical heritage of the State of Michigan. Every year, I get phone calls and email from people wanting to know where to find a schottische. Every year, I send out the same list of tune names, repertoire books and recordings. Some of those folks never come to the contest, but some of them come back year after year, learning, practicing and improving, sharing the tunes they’ve worked on with others. Hopefully, this practice and this event will continue for years to come.
Jim McKinney, Director
Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest
at the Huron Township Applefest
New Boston, Michigan
While slowly working through updates for this website, I (Trae McMaken) am also engaged in another Michigan-fiddling related project called "Border Fiddle." It is where I will be posting short videos of myself playing through fiddle tunes from Michigan. If you're interested, see below. Hope you enjoy.
Michigan Fiddle . Com is currently being migrated over to a new design format. A number of links on this site are broken currently. These will be addressed in the new formatting.
Congratulations to Danny Johnston of Goodhart, Michigan. On August 10 at the 2014 Great Lakes Folk Festival Danny was awarded the Michigan Heritage Award for his fiddling and impact in the Michigan fiddle community. Bravo.
Check out the post about Jim McKinney and Glenn Hendrix as MSU Museum's Great Folks Blog: http://gr8tfolks.blogspot.com/2014/08/fiddlers-and-collectors-glenn-hendrix.html
Glenn Hendrix, fiddler, 2014.
Jim McKinney, fiddler, 2014.
Click the following link for the blog entry at the MSU Museum Blog.
Ruby John, fiddler, 2014.
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