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The following recordings and information come from Dr. James P. Leary's 1989 fieldwork trip on behalf of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program. The following has been reproduced with permission from Dr. Leary. Please see the "About" page for a biography of Dr. Leary. The following are the field recordings and excertps of the fieldwork paper. Some sections of the paper specifically dealing with the Michigan Folklife Festival will not be reproduced below. Not all exclusions are marked with an ellipsis (. . .)
Of particular note for fiddling: Art Kole, Ed Kania, the Strzelecki brothers, the Gemmil Gang, the Cedar Swamp Boys, Jasper and the Tagalongs.
I've decided to post all this information together initially, before linking it with attributions at appropriate places throughout the site.
Final Fieldwork Report
submitted by James P. Leary
April 19, 1989
Prior to this trip I had never worked in the northern Lower Peninsula, in fact I had only driven through it once, and then straight across the bridge and down the interstate. Consequently, I did a fair amount of advance research and calling so I wouldn't be running around in circles in the field. The Polka News listed two Rogers City Bands, two in Alpena (including Judy and Her Suchey Brothers who performed at a previous Michigan Folklife Festival), and one in Gaylord. Meanwhile the Original Michigan Fiddlers directory listed one rural Alpena fiddler of interest and, moving from the Huron to the Michigan shore, several string bands around Cross Village and Charlevoix. A letter to fiddling scholar Paul Gifford and phone calls to musicians convinced me that fieldwork might begin most profitably in the greater Rogers City area and then move across the state.
Starting around Rogers City was intriguing for two reasons. First, Alan Lomax had recorded fiddlers in nearby Posen in 1938:
"A visit to Posen, Michigan, brought the Library an interesting collection of Polish ballads and fiddle tunes. Many of the latter had been learned from local fiddlers when the Polish settlers arrived and now among young people are passed under Polish names as Polish tunes."
Although Lomax's prose is ambiguous, it sounds like he was referring both to Polish tunes and to Anglo-Celtic tunes picked up by Poles. At any rate, I wanted to see what sort of fiddling persisted in Posen today. Second, I read features in The Timber Producer on three different small family logging operations in rural Rogers City, and I wanted to take a look at the logging scene there with future fieldwork in mind.
Rogers City and Presque Isle County have heavy concentrations of WASPs, Poles, and Germans. The latter ethnic groups came in the 1880s, chiefly from the northern areas of presentday Poland and Germany: Poznan, Kashubia, Pomerania, and Prussia. Settlers and their descendants work in stone quarries, in the woods, on Great Lakes vessels, and on farms (dairying and, especially potato growing).
The overall musical blend varies from community to community, and from individual to individual, but the most common synthesis is a WASP square dance/Polish round dance combination, with an occasional German tune thrown in. Historical records and oral testimony establish accordion-violin duos playing this sort of repertoire in the first decade of this century. Pianos and guitars are equally common. The fiddle fared particularly well in the meeting of ethnic groups, since all had strong fiddling traditions. Doubtless the sustenance of fiddle music in the region has been aided by the Henry Ford led fiddle contests and square dance revitalization of the 1920s and beyond, by the proximity to the eastern UP from whence Canadian fiddling traditions seep into Lower Michigan, and by the Original Michigan Fiddlers' Association which, in recent years, has held jamborees in nearby areas like Metz and Hillman.
It's worth mentioning that Norwegian/WASP fiddle blends are common in Wisconsin, but few if any Poles have maintained the fiddle. Contact with Chicago, a center for Polish concertina players, has helped establish the concertina in Wisconsin (and in the Polish area around Manistee, MI, as well); meanwhile the proximity of German and especially Bohemian neighbors in Wisconsin has supported the maintenance of brass and reed instruments in Polish bands.
The non-fiddle pull in the greater Rogers City area comes from the influence of downstate ethnic bands in the Bay City/Saginaw and Detroit areas. The father of Alpena's Sucheys, for example, hailed from Detroit where he played in Polish polka bands; and the sound his children put out shares more with Polish bands from Detroit, Chicago, and Toledo than with those around Posen. Meanwhile German accordion/guitar bands, like Marv Herzog of Frankenmuth, have played periodically in Rogers City for several decades and their influence has been felt.
While Rogers City and Alpena are ethnic, working class areas, Charlevoix is WASPy, prettified, and heavily influenced by tourism and summer people. Nonetheless traditional music is evident in the genteel square dance and parlor singing of Grange Hall regulars. And around Cross Village, where Ojibwas, Ottawas, Poles, Germans, and Scotch-Irish mix, a rowdier string band tradition with ties to Canada is evident.
Comments on Individual Musicians and Groups
Kole was born in Alpena in 1926. He left high school in 1944 after the 10th grade and, except for two years in the military, sailed on Great Lakes vessels as an engineer for more than 40 years. His dad, Frank Kurkierewicz, was a fiddler. Art started out on the tenor banjo, then later played the accordion, and has taken up the violin in the past twenty years. He knows both square dance numbers and Polish tunes (obereks, mazurkas, and kujawiaks) that his dad used to play. He has also picked up tunes from books put out in the 1930s by Philadelphia Polish bandleader Ignacy Podgorski. And in recent years, Kole has been heavily influenced by French Canadian fiddling through his participation in fiddler's jamborees.
In addition to playing the fiddle, Kole makes and repairs violins, a craft he has picked up through books and trial and error. He also gardens extensively, does some hunting, and makes Polish sausage with venison and herbs he grows. In 1951, he and a friend each made a very detailed model of a laker, "Consumer's Power," they were sailing on. An experienced sailor, Kole is a fund of occupational knowledge about work on the Great Lakes.
. . . His musical interests have also strayed beyond his root tradition . . . He also played music, worked on vioins, and cooked on the boats, in addition to performing his maintenance duties as an engineer.
Grambau was born in 1957 in Rogers City. A German grandfather, William Trapp of Hawks, played violin in his earlier days and encouraged Bryant to play, buying him an instrument and seeing that he had a few lessons. Grambau was also captivated by Myron Floren's piano accordion work on the Lawrence Welk Show. He formed his first polka band in high school; and in 1968 he joined with Harold Hopp, Clarence Purol, and others to make up The New Crew (two LPs included with fieldwork materials). The New Crew played an eclectic variety of German waltzes, Polish obereks, square dance tunes, Scandinavian schottisches, C&W hits, and pop chestnuts. The repertoire drew upon the region's musical ferment, but it was also influenced by downstate polka bands, particularly by the work of Don Cialkozewski, "The Polish Kid."
Grambau had first seen the "Kid" in the mid-1970s when he was playing with Marv Herzog of Frankenmuth, and also with his own band (Cialkozewski plays with Big Daddy Lackowski of Detroit nowadays). Cialkozewski is an extraordinary button accordion player who inspired Grambau to take up that instrument. Not content with occasional jobs, Grambau left The New Crew. He and his wife had an accordion/drum duet (The Polka Critters) briefly, before moving to Houston from 1979-1988 where Bryant played solo in a German restaurant. Upon his return to Rogers City in 1988, he formed the Polka Joy, a band that has now broken up. When I visited Grambau, he was about to join an Alpen variety band, Track 4.
Grambau is a fine player, somewhat torn by his desire to live in Rogers City while putting out a sound that is more popular downstate. Indeed he is less in touch with the local musical tradition than he is with trends in the larger polka and European-ethnic music world. In keeping with that world, his piano accordion is actually an electronic accorgan that sounds like a Lowry organ and is generally suited to the ethnic lounge or dinner music favored by genteel German restaurants. His button accordion (acoustic, with a reedy old time sound) is largely derivative from Don Cialkozewski . . .
Edward J. Kania, Sr., was born in Metz in 1926. He worked for 35 years at Michigan Limestone in Rogers City, drilling and blasting. His father, Felix, was a fine clarinet player who performed in the Rogers City Band, and who also played for numerous weddings with fiddlers and accordionists. Alan Lomax recorded Felix in 1938. Ed learned to play a little clarinet from his dad, but "fell in love" with the accordion. He played with his dad, and with brothers Phil and Eugene for weddings in Alpena and Presque Isle Counties in the 1940s and 1950s. About ten years ago he took up the violin.
Like Art Kole, Kania admires French Canadian fiddling, particularly the work of Rene Cote, who has performed with the Sugar Island Boys. His root tradition, however, includes square dance tunes, German numbers like "Herr Schmidt," and a wealth of Polish tunes: fast and slow waltzes, polkas, obereks, kujawiaks, and wedding marches.
Unfortunately Kania is a little rusty on his Polish repertoire. Moreover he plays nowadays mostly with his granddaughters who are caught up in the Fiddlers' Jamboree Circuit. Chandi, 11, is developing into quite a good piano player, able to follow just about any old time piece; Rhondi, 9, is still learning on the fiddle (she plays what she plays quite well, but can't really improvise or second on new tunes yet). As a family band, the Kanias' repertoire seems to be moving away from the region toward a Canadian and southern American hilbilly mix. Ed remains a fine resource regarding old time Polish music in the region.
Jacob and Joseph Strzelecki
Jake (1920- ) and Joe (1910- ) were each born on the family farm between Metz and Posen. Their father, Anthony, was fiddler, who often played with their uncle Walter (a bowed bass player) for Polish weddings and other festive doings. Anthony and Walter Strzelecki were recorded by Alan Lomax in Posen, in 1938, in the home where Joe Strzelecki still lives. Jake was "a railroad man" from 1941-1972; he farmed on the side while on the railroad and continued to farm until a few years ago. He still keeps some beef cattle and plants a small garden. Joe farmed until his marriage in 1932, then operated a cream shipping business out of Posen for 30 years; meanwhile he operated a Mom and Pop store in Posen until 1988, and on the side was a regional fire chief, drove a school bus, and drive a fuel oil truck.
Both brothers learned to play instruments by ear early. Joe played violin and has always favored a twin fiddle style, with one musician playing the high part and the other the low part. Years ago the fiddles were augmented with a bowed bass. Until the past decade his wife fiddled with him, but now he plays alone or along with tapes of his own playing. He has an archaic repertoire of almost entirely Polish tunes acquired from his father and grandfather: fast and slow waltzes, polkas, obereks, wedding marches.
Jake learned to play button accordion at eight. He played for houseparties and with his dad and brothers at weddings. Until recently he might play his accordion informally in taverns. He has "quite drinking" lately and it seems that many of the old tunes have slipped away from him. He hasn't been performing recently.
Purol was born on a farm near Posen in 1919. A truck driver and carpenter in his early years, Purol labored at the Rogers City limestone quarry from 1957 until 1982; meanwhile he farmed. An older brother, Louis, fiddle and Clarence learned on his instrument. Prior to his marriage, Purol played a mixed Polish and square dance repertoire for house parties and weddings. He joined The New Crew, mentioned above, with Bryant Grambau and Harold Hopp, in the mid-1970s and recorded two LPs with them, the second of which includes Purol's composition, "The Presque Isle Reel."
Purol has not picked up the fiddle in three years. He is a good resource regarding old time music in the region, and he seems willing to play again with sufficient notice. . .
The Gemmil Gang
Viola Gemmil Reisener, three of her sisters, her daughter, and her aunt have played together informally all of their lives. Nowadays they frequently jam together at a family cabin on nearby Grand Lake, attracting boaters who fill the bay. Viola (b. 1923) plays fiddle, Beatrice Gemmil Reisener (b. ca. 1926) plays the washboard, Ruby Gemmil Makowski (b. 1941) plays guitar and fiddle, and Bonnie Gemmil Bruning (b. 1945) plays button accordion and piano accordion; their maternal aunt, Grace Steele Lozen (b. 1915) plays piano and piano accordion, button accordion, and drums on wood blocks. Bonnie, Ruby, and Grace have played together in wedding and variety bands. Viola has played with other groups for weddings and square dances. But the name "Gemmil Gang" was made up on the spot when I interviewed the women, just in case they were invited to the festival and had to have a name.
The core of their repertoire comes from the square dance fiddling of their grandfather (and Grace's father), William Steele, of Scotch and Irish descent. "Little Red Barn" (# 153-184 on the cassette) is one of his classic numbers. But they also play a large number of Polish tunes: including marches, mazurkas, obereks, polkas, and waltzes--the result of playing at numerous Polish weddings, at the Posen Potato Festival, and in the local Polka Inn (of the 24 tunes on the cassette, 9 are Polish). Although only "Edelwiss" from the Sound of Music appears as a "German" number on the tape, they also know standards like "Ach Du Lieber Augustine," "Du, Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen," and the special dance number, "Herr Schmidt." In addition, both Bonnie and Pat have "made up" tunes on the button accordion.
Together the Gemmils are versatile in both instrumentation and repertoire. They enjoy playing together and are all solid musicians. Viola has that heavy-on-the bow, give-her-tarpaper attack of old time fiddlers from the pre-amplification era. Ruby is rock solid on the guitar. Bonnie and Pat are both first-rate accordionists. Their button accordion/piano accordion duets are particularly impressive with Bonnie carrying the melody and Pat seconding. Beatrice's whisk-on-washboard percussion gives the group, to my ear, a real Scottish sound reminiscent of the spoons or bones. Grace Lozen wasn't able to come, but I was told that, at 74, she remains very good on piano and accordion. She also knows many tunes played by William Steele.
. . . Here are three genertions actively playing together. They have a broad and instrumentally varied repertoire . . . They are a vital bunch, constantly joking with and inspiring one another. Finally, they are all women--and that's a rarity with family bands and with working musicians in general.
Harold Hopp and the Happy Wanderers
Harold Hopp (guitar), his wife Martha (drums), Carol Shaedig (chordovox), and Sylvester Wyrembelski (saxophone, button accordion, and harmonica) form the Happy Wanderers, a group that has been in existence since 1982. I neglected to get ages for the members, but they all appear to be in their 50s. Harold and Martha, of Rogers City, are of German background; as is Carl, of Alpena. Wyrembelski, from Posen, is Polish. This is a typical up north "variety" band with a repertoire that combines indigenous traditions (German and Polish dance pieces, square dance numbers) with extra-regional forces (C&W, the Bird Dance, the Hokey Pokey). All members sing, with Syl handling Polish vocals and Martha on German vocals; Carol and Martha yodel in both alpine and cowboy styles. Meanwhile Syl adds instrumental versatility, honking out sax leads on most tunes, but playing button accordion on waltzes and lending harmonica to country numbers. They play for local dances (like those of the Presque Isle Sportsman's Club and the Rogers City German Club), for the Posen Potato Festival, and for anniversaries and weddings.
I wasn't able to meet with Norm Siess since he winters in Phoenix (something I learned from the Polka News after several conversation's with Siess's Alpena answering machine). I called him in his snowbird's lair. He gave me some information and promised to send a recording. I was also able to track down information about his record in a back issue of the Polka News.
Siess was born in Alpena in 1936. His dad, Frank, had immigrated from Germany at three and Norm didn't speak English until age five. Frank played the button accordion, and Norm began playing piano accordion at six. He was playing out at thirteen. Frankie Yankovic was big when Norm started playing out and he was captivated by Frankie's Slovenian sound, but he also learned a core of German tunes from his dad, as well as Polish numbers from Alpena neighbors, and a few other ethnic standards like the Finnish "Kulkurin (Vagabond) Valssi." He played in a polka band for eleven years. After a layoff, he formed a band, The Cordovox Trio, with a German emphasis and recorded an LP, Touch of German, with Arnold Jahnke on German vocals, Kirk Mousseau on drums, and Karen Stroiwas on accordion. Alpena has a contingent of post-WWII Germans whose German Club provided support for Siess. Semi-retired from his work as a building contractor, he winters in Arizona where, clad in lederhosen and alpine jaeger's cap, he plays solo gigs at German restaurants and international festivals. He has recently replaced his electronic chordovox piano accordion with an even more electronic Elkavox that features "thirty-five settings" (for synthesizing assorted sounds) as well as built-in guitar and drum rhythms.
I'm sure Siess's LP will show him to be very accomplished at what he does. He is clearly coming out of a regional tradition and still has strong ties to it. At the same time, his aesthetic, like Grambau's above, tends toward ethnic lounge music played solo on electronic instruments. This represents an important trend, largely driven by economics, wherein sidemen are dropped and the solo accordionist creates a full sound electronically. It's certainly easier for a musician following this route to make a living playing music.
The Cedar Swamp Boys
R. Daniel (Danny) Johnston and Walter (Pete) Keller form the core of this group which plays in the Harbor Springs/Cross Village area. Johnston was born in Harbor Springs in 1940, has farmed some and works as a carpenter. He's Scotch-Irish, a self-described "Orangeman," whose grandparents immigrated to Michigan from Ontario. Keller, of German-Polish background but married to an Ottawa, was born in Cross Village in 1926. Like his father and uncles, he logged and worked in sawmills. Nowadays he is a semi-retired repairman and up north jack-of-all-trades. Both Johnston and Keller are descended from musicians, and both play fiddle, tenor banjo, and piano; Pete also plays button accordion. They have played for the past few years with Roy McFarland, mandolin, and with guitarist Ron Keller, a distant relative of Pete's, in the Cedar Swamp Boys.
The cassette features a part of the Cedar Swamp Boys public repertoire, a blend of Michigan square dance numbers (Centennial Two Step, Waltz Promenade), schottisches, hillbilly fiddle tunes done up in northern style (Mississippi Sawyers, Soldier's Joy), Canadian fiddle tunes (Joys of Quebec, Maple Sugar), southern bluegrass standards (Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms, Blue Ridge Mountain Blues), C&W hits (Pick Me Up On Your Way Down, Waltz Across Texas), and Polish Polkas (Siwy Kon and Hupaj Siupaj). Whew! This versatility speaks to their own regional and extra-regional influences and to the demands of barroom audiences. And there's even more! I didn't get on tape their third and fourth sets which included Pete on piano accordion performing Polish polkas and obereks, and Yankovic-inspired Slovenian standards, not to mention Roy McFarland (one of several callers in the band) sending square dancers through their paces. Ron Keller is also an adept MC, introducing tunes, interacting with the audience, and cracking jokes.
Away from the barroom hurly burly, when Pete, Danny, and Ron jam, they have a preference for old time fiddle tunes of Michigan and Canadian pedigree, including some old hornpipes with irregular structures Pete picked up from Ottawa fiddlers. Although Pete didn't fiddle with the band in public, his fiddle playing is very much in the old time vein. He sits down and holds the fiddle against his chest. I was also able to hear a tape of Pete singing hobo songs, very much in the style of the old Wobbly and cowboy singer Haywire Mac, accompanying himself on guitar or piano. He said he only performed them under the influence of white lightning, so I don't know if they could be unearthed at a festival.
But here is a great band. Versatile, dynamic, authentic, active. . . Pete has been a logger and sawmill worker, Danny is a carpenter, and Ron builds strip canoes during the winter when he's off from his harbor master job in Harbor Springs. . .
Jasper and the Tagalongs
Bill Stevens (guitar), Jasper Warner (electric guitar, tenor banjo, fiddle), and Delores Cain (piano) form the core of this group, with Bill's sons, Dudley (fiddle, mandolin) and Rodney (guitar, tenor banjo), as regular participants, along with Norm Impey (guitar) and a few others. They are all members of the Barnard Grange near Charlevoix where they play regularly, and they are active in the Original Michigan Fiddlers' Association.
Bill Stevens was born in 1934 in rural Charlevoix County. Both his parents played and sang at local houseparties and square dances. Bill started to play for similar doings as a young man. Stevens is a building contractor. His son Rodney (b. 1962), works for him; while Dudley (b. 1966) works in hardware repair.
Jasper Warner was born in Charlevoix in 1917 and has worked as a truck driver, a farmer, and on security for a nuclear power plant. His dad played organ and piano, while his mother played violin. Jap started playing banjo for grange dances at 12, then took up guitar and fiddle. He has had the Tagalongs for about 18 years, although Bill Stevens arranges most of their jobs nowadays.
Delores Cain was born in Bay Shore between Petoskey and Charlevoix (I didn't get her age, but she looks about 60). Her mother and an older sister played piano and Delores picked it up by ear. She started playing with Jasper and Bull when she joined the Barnard Grange.
Unlike the Cedar Swamp Boys up the road, there is no Canadian influences in this band, nor is there any Polish or German trace. This is old time Anglo-Celtic music of the sort I assume pervades the rural southern half of the Lower Peninsula. Jigs and reels, a schottische, waltzes, and pop tunes of the sentimental and "singalong" variety. The band is very good at what they do. Jasper knows some interesting old square dance tunes (like his mother's Emma's Pride, and Cross-eyed Butcher), Bill and Rodney call square dances to novel tunes (Just Because, Pistol Packin' Mama), Dudley plays a few numbers learned from Beaver Island musicians, and Bill and Norm harmonize well in a barbershop mode.
. . . they certainly have a following and they represent what a good many Michiganders would regard as traditional music. On the night I recorded them, they hadn't played together for several months and Jasper was having trouble remembering some of his old tunes.
The Gaylord Scene
I had hoped to find some bands in Gaylord, but they had either skipped town or broken up. Rick Viniecki, leader of the Polka Kings, has moved to Bridgeport, more of a hotbed for his Polish style work. Meanwhile the Polkamasters, led by the Prusakiewicz brothers, Alex and Charles, have broken up their Polish/Country act (two fiddles, accordion, drums) with Charles' retirement from playing. Alex and some of the other members are deciding whether or not to continue, and he wasn't willing to have me visit at this time.
Both Bill Stevens and Danny Johnston have been to Aura, north of Baraga, recently and report that Helmer Toyras, a fine Finnish fiddler, is now playing regularly with an accordionist, Kenny Salo, and with John Perona, who plays spoons and concertina. Meanwhile Richard March tells me that Helmer has also teamed up with Whitewater, a kind of folk-revival-cum-Finnish band that features hammer dulcimer, out of the Crystal Falls area.
Bill and Dudley Stevens both recommended a trip to Beaver Island where fiddler Jewell Gillespie, musical heir to Pat Bonner (who Ivan Walton recorded), and other talented musicians still hold forth. St. Patrick's Day is an unparalleled event there, by reports.
I will try to learn in June when I got to D.C. how copies of the Lomax 1938 recordings might be obtained for family members. Since Ed Kania and Joe Strzelecki both play tunes learned from their fathers, it would be interesting to compare what's happened over the years. Theire might be a good radio show documentary recording in this.
END OF 1989 LEARY FIELDWORK