The County History Series
Compiled with commentary by A. Trae McMaken
Early County Histories of Michigan contain many, many references to fiddling and dancing in early Michigan. Some of these references lend a wealth of insight into the history of fiddling in the state of Michigan. This series will consist of excerpts from County Histories with some commentary on interesting aspects of the excerpts. Some of these excerpts consist of generic or heavily-romanticized historical descriptions, but many are memoirs and memories of individuals or plain-spoken local history. I will be using the Michigan County Histories and Atlases Collection of University of Michigan located at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/micounty/
It is my intention to post entries to this series as regularly as possible over the next month or however long it takes to work my way through considering travel and internet access. The first entry below consists of generic descriptions from histories, but the subsequent entries will relate to specific counties, towns, or regions.
I hope you enjoy.
Part I: General Excerpts from Fuller's Historic Michigan, Land of the Great Lakes.
Historic Michigan, land of the Great Lakes; its life, resources, industries, people, politics, government, wars, institutions, achievements, the press, schools and churches, legendary and prehistoric lore. Fuller, George N. ed. (George Newman), 1873-1957.
The following excerpt appears in context to be referencing rural life in the vicinity of Battle Creek. It is written in the somewhat flowery style typical of county histories and local histories of its day (the use of the word Terpsichorean to indicate "dance" is one good example), but it contains some remarkably specific information, including the names of specific fiddlers who provided music in the region. At one point, the narrator references the fiddle as "The Little Wizard," and does so in quotation marks, indicating that this was perhaps a nickname in use at least on a small scale.
The descriptions of the activities below seem to describe an event where play-party games morphed into a full out dance with music. Play party games were popular in Michigan as in the Midwest in general, and were often indulged in communities that looked unfavorably upon dance. Play-parties managed to circumvent this taboo, if more in name than anything else.
The descriptions of fiddlers in this account are interesting. We have fiddlers "Grandfather" Morehouse, Daniel Angell, and the Halladay Boys (Mat and Cal). The two tunes that Morehouse is mentioned as playing are Zip Coon and Money Musk. These are two classics of dance in America. Zip Coon is sometimes known as Turkey in the Straw. "Money Musk" refers to Monymusk, a locale in Scotland and a popular dance tune.
The calls and dance descriptions in this excerpt are quite valuable and interesting. It is a good way to start the series.
"And this brings us to our subject-amusement among the early settlers.
That mankind must have recreation of some kind is conceded. It seems to come as naturally as relaxation after labor, and you might as well attempt to argue away relaxation as a desire for amusements. It will come, you may put it off for a while, but it will eventually steal in, "like dozes in sermon time."
There were no members of the early settlement who felt too indifferent or too dignified to attend the social parties that were held in the settlers' log houses. But what were these parties, you ask. I will tell you. In the first place, there was the quilting frolic; the girls attending in the afternoon, the boys coming in the evening. Then there was the frolic without the quilting, which the girls and boys attended in the evening. The sport in both of these parties was usually begun by the play of "snap and catch 'em," or some rhyming catch, as
"Come, Philander, let's be a-marching, Everyone his true love searching;"
with other plays following; the programme being varied to suit the company. These parties were often called "bussing bees," because the kiss so often stole in during the various acts of the play, while every play was sure to end with a kiss. The music in these frolics was all vocal, consisting of marches, songs, catches, or rhymes improvised for the occasion. Besides these, there was the frolic that began with the play and ended with the fiddle's
"Putting life and mettle in their heels."
As a usual thing all in the house were participants in these amusements. The old folks, or perhaps the dignified maiden aunt, would now and then be "snapped up," or judged to kiss, or be kissed by some young man or young lady, as the case might be. "Snapping up" meant the snapping -of the fingers, by a frolicker, at some of the company, and was a challenge for the person to chase and catch him or her. This brought out the swift-footed Mercuries or Atlantas to the arena, where one chased the other around a group standing in the center of the room. This often resulted in a well contested race, which was varied by all manner of subterfuge and art, in dodging and eluding the pursuer. The young lady, whether the capturer or captured, was always kissed. Sometimes an old settler "snapped up" his wife, or was "snapped up" by her, when we would have a race of an unusually amusing character.
We said that all participated in these recreations. Those who lived in the village of Battle Creek knew but little of these frolics, unless they chanced to be at a settler's house on one of these occasions. There were also families who had no children, or none old enough to go into young company, and there were some who did not object to the plays, but did not like the dancing. They could tolerate Paginini, but not with his fiddle. We remember instances where the plays had gone on until the parents retired for the night, and then the fiddler who had "smuggled" in his "Cremona" opened his magical box and took out the "little wizard". Instantly a sensation of Terpsichorean delight seizes the frolickers. A few passes of the bow across the strings call out couple after couple to the floor, who bow gracefully to each other, as they take their position in two opposite lines across the room. In the meanwhile
"In shirt of check and tallowed hair,
The fiddler sits in his bullrush chair
Like Moses' basket standing there
On the brink of the Father Nile.
"He feels his fiddle's slender neck,
Picks out the notes with thumb and check,
And times the tune with nod and beck,
And thinks it a weary while.
"All ready! Now he gives the call,
Cries, 'Honor to the ladies!' all,
The jolly tides of laughter fall
And ebb in a happy smile.
"'Begin!' D-o-w-n goes the bow on every string,
'First couple join right hands and swing!'
As light as any blue-bird's wing,
'Swing once and half way round.'
"Whirls Mary Martin, all in blue
Calico gown and stockings new,
And tinted eyes that tell you true,
Dance all to the dancing sound.
"She flits about big Moses Brown,
Who holds her hands to keep her down,
And thinks her hair a golden crown,
And his heart turns over once!
"His cheeks with Mary's breath are wet,
It gives a second somerset,
He means to win the maiden yet;
Alas for the awkward dunce!
"Now the first pair dance apart,
Then 'Forward six!' advance, retreat,
Like midgets gay in Sun-beam street,
'Tis Money Musk in busy feet,
And the Money Musk by heart!
"'Three quarters 'round your partner swing,'
'Across the set!' the rafters ring,
And boys and girls have taken wing,
And have brought their roses out.
"'Tis 'Forward six!' with rustic grace,
Ah, rarer fun than 'swing to place '
Than golden clouds of old point lace,
They bring the dance about.
"Then clasping hands all-'Right and left!'
All swiftly weave the measure deft
Across the room in loving weft,
And the Money Musk is done.
"Oh, dancers of the rustling busk.
Good-night, sweethearts, 'tis growin' dusk,
Good-night for aye to Money Musk,
For the heavy march begun."
The ox team, that was dignified with the name of "horned horses," carried the merry loads through the woods to the house of the settler who gave the party. We can recall instances where a prayer meeting was held in a log house one evening, and on the next evening a party was given in the same house. The same ones who composed the choir and sang "Old Hundred," "Come ye sinners, poor and needy," or, "Awake my soul to joyful lays," at the prayer meeting, led the next night at the party in
"Come, Philander, let's be a-marching."
Looking back upon these scenes from today's standpoint, we might feel inclined to be censorious and call them frivolous, silly recreations, if not morally wrong. Distance doesn't lend any enchantmeent to them. But we can look back upon the past and find a good many things done forty years ago that appear like nonsense to us now which were not so to the people of that day. They were harmless recreations, and under like circumstances would be so today. After the customary conversation and chitchat were over, the program for an evening party sometimes began in this way: A young man would ask a young lady to take his arm, and they would begin marching around the room; another couple, and another followed, till a full set were promenading two and two about the floor, each chiming in the catch which the first couple commenced singing as they took the floor:
"We're all a-marching to Quebec;
The drums are loudly beating,
The Americans have gained the day,
And the British are retreating;
The wars are o'er, and we'll turn back
To the place from whence we started;
So open the ring and choose a couple in
To relieve the broken hearted."
Round and round the room they marched singing, till they came to
"Open the ring and choose a couple in,"
when they took hold of each others' hands, fell hack and formed a circle around the entire room. Someone was then deputed to go into the ring and choose a partner from among those of the circle, at which all chimed in.
"Green grow the rushes, 0!
Kiss her quick and let her go!
But don't you muss her ruffle,!"
When the marching was over and the company felt inclined to change the play, they would take hold of hands and form a circle about the room. Then, by request, a young lady would step into the middle of the ring, when the company would sing:
"There's a rose in the garden
For you, young man, (repeat)
Now pluck up courage and
Pick it if you can."
She then selects a partner from the circle, who walks into the ring with her, and all sing:
"Green grow the rushes, 0,
Kiss her quick and let her go," etc.
He obeys and she goes out of the ring leaving him in alone. Then perhaps the rest would sing:
"There he stands, that great big booby,
Who he is I do not know,
Who will take him for his beauty,
Let her answer, yes or no."
He then selects a young lady from the circle, they chant:
"Green grow the rushes, 0," etc.
He kisses her and goes out. Thus the play goes on until all of the girls are kissed out of the ring. At another time the frolickers marched two by two around the room, a young man standing in the center of the floor, while they promenaded about him and sang:
"The miller he lived close by the mill,
And the wheel went round without his will;
With a hand in the hopper and one in the bag,
As the wheel goes round he cries out, grab."
At the word "grab" the young man in the ring seized hold of a young lady's arm, while her partner caught the arm of the young lady ahead of him, and her partner seized the arm of the young lady still ahead of him; thus they caught or stole each others' girls while hurriedly marching about the room, making a very lively and amusing confusion. When the change was made, perhaps some two or three times over, there was still an odd one left, who went into the ring, and the play began again, and was repeated as often as they desired.
When the party wished something still livelier, "hurly-burly" never failed to awaken and amuse the dullest. In this, two went around and gave each one, secretly, something to do. For instance, this girl was to pull some young man's hair; another was to pull a nose or tweak an ear, or trip someone; such a young man was to measure off so many yards of tape, or make "a double-and-twisted lordy-massy" with some young lady, and so on to the end of the chapter. When all had been told what to do, the master of ceremonies cried out, "hurly-burly!" Everyone sprang to the floor and hastened to do as they had been instructed. This created a scene of a mixed and ludicrous character and was most properly named "hurly-burly."
As we have said, the drones stayed east. None but the working bees came to this new hive of industry in the west. Hence the class of young men and young ladies were first in point of worth and industry.
Old Gran'ther Morehouse, father to Aaron and Bradley Morehouse, was sometimes the musician at parties at my father's house when the violin was called into requisition. He was a fine old gentleman of the school of the first half of this century-tall and dignified in person, yet so affable and genial in manner that everybody liked him and felt at home in his presence. He was an old man then; his gray locks and wrinkled face indicated the grandfather; yet when he took the violin, there was all the graceful ease and skill in handling the bow for which he was celebrated in his younger days. He could yet evoke weird strains from his favorite instrument. 'Tis said he purchased his violin at Montreal in 18oo; that its trade mark was 16oo, and that it was made at Innspruck in the Tyrol, by Jacob Steiner, who learned his trade at Cremona in Italy. This instrument is now owned by Wm. Neale of Battle Creek. We knew nothing of the history of this violin then, but we knew that Gran'ther Morehouse could give "Zip Coon," "Money Musk," and all the favorite tunes of that day to the delight of everybody, on the instrument that he handled. Daniel Angell also "handled the fiddle and the bow" at these frolics. The Halladay boys-both "Mat" and "Cal"-were also much in vogue as fiddlers on these occasions.
These parties were not only a source of amusement, but afforded an occasion for the young folks to get acquainted with each other. They were really a kind of social school to the young people in the settlement. We had no churches, and no preaching, save an occasional sermon in a settler's house, by some wandering minister; there were no newspapers, few books, no public lectures, or any public meetings for entertainment or instruction. There was a dearth of social and intellectual culture. These parties were the first phase of social entertainment and improvement. "
Ibid. Page 975.
This is another short mention of early social activities from the same source.
"But there was a brighter side to pioneer life. House-raisings, logrollings and husking-bees were made occasions for neighbors to get together for merry-makings as well as for labor. After the work was done, athletic contests and horse races took place; and, commencing in the evening, to the music of the squeaking fiddle, young and old continued to dance until well toward morning, when they would "hook up" their teams and return home."
Ibid. Page 214.
David William Smith, a political figure in early Detroit after the American Revolution, wrote the first paragraph in preparation for a political event. Forsyth's tavern was an early locale in Detroit and was apparently used for such things as public dances (for more information on these topics, see the previous page in this history. The following paragraph appears to be Fuller's belief of what fiddler may have been active in that time. Beaubien is obviously of French descent and has interesting connections to both Chicago and Detroit.
"'Have proper booths erected for my friends at the hustings; employ Forsyth to make a large plumb cake, with plenty of fruit, &c., and be sure let the wine be good and plenty. Let the peasants have a fiddle, some beverage and beef.'
Jean Baptiste Beaubien, one of the founders of Chicago, and a noted fiddler at every dance in the early years of that village, was born in Detroit, September 5, I787."
Ibid. Page 594.
The following is a comment on the French Canadian settlers in "the Copper and Iron Regions." It is interesting to see mentioned the love of the violin and dance. It is interesting that this aspect of life is mentioned in relation to the French Canadians as opposed to the various other people groups mentioned, such as the Scandinavians, Irish, Scottish, and Cornish.
"The Canadian Frenchman could not be induced to become a miner. The depths of a mine are a horror to his lively fancy and timid disposition. His forte is in the woods and his tool, par excellence, is an ax. In cutting cord wood, hewing timber, hauling saw logs, rafting and boating, etc., he is au fait. He avoids the great mine community and loves to dwell near the water, or in the woods, having for his companions his own people. He is clannish in this respect. He is active, patient, good natured, likes to talk, likes the violin and the dance. He spends his money freely, but is not without native shrewdness, is a good deal of a politician, and generally manages to become the owner of a small farm with a comfortable home. He is a good citizen."