Phil and Vivian Williams have been playing and documenting the traditional music scene in the Pacific Northwest for over fifty years. Vivian has won many state and national fiddle championships with Phil backing her on the guitar. He also plays a mean mandolin. Phil and Vivian helped found the Seattle Folklore Society, the Northwest Folklife Festival, the Washington State Old Time Fiddlers’ Association and the Darrington Bluegrass Festival. Their label, Voyager Recordings and Publica-tions, has released recordings of over eighty-five fiddlers as well as seven books of fiddle and mandolin music. Their extensive recorded archive of Northwest fiddling and old time music is the largest in the country. They have been and continue to be a tremendous force for good in the Northwest music community. If I ever never grow up, my goal is to be just like Phil and Vivian. I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with them. I think that you’ll find it fascinating, as I did.
Phil: I grew up in Olympia. My dad was a square dance caller, played all kinds of instruments –– guitar, trombone, saxophone, accordion, piano, harmonica. I learned guitar from him. He played everything from square dance stuff to big band. His band, the Montana Ramblers, went to Shanghai in 1929 as a P& O Line orchestra…they were playing ’20s pop music, of course –– horn music. My mother was a flapper. The reason I was born in Seattle was because of that trip. My dad’s family had been in Kentucky for a long time. My dad learned guitar there from his mother. He came to Montana when he was twelve years old, during World War I, ’cause his dad got a job guarding the trestle in Corbin, Montana, carrying copper ore to the smelter in East Helena. I learned to play on his Model 1915 Washburn guitar. Vivian grew up in Tacoma and learned fiddle tunes from her dad on harmonica.
When my parents decided to have a family, my dad didn’t want to raise a family in Chicago, where he was working. He remembered the town he had gone through to board the ship for Shanghai, so they moved to Seattle. [They later moved to Olympia.]
Phil: We came up in an era when we had a lot of role models. I mean, you being able to play with [Joe] Venuti and us with all the Northwest old time dance fiddlers. It’s the feeling, the fact that’s it’s actually speaking. It’s one of the only ways you can speak with the right half of your brain. These guys are talking to you in a language that says things that are very pleasing and comforting to you. That opportunity has by and large vanished, because what we have now out there on the commercial circuit and in the media is the other side of the equation –– that’s the power people. They’re making themselves stars by their publicity and promotion, and this is an attitude that also affects the way they play.
Paul: I think we all got just got into it because we fell in love with the music.
Phil: And the people. The culture it came from meant something. We were learning from real live people, not from records, not from books. I remember when we first went to Darrington [Washington, at the time home to a good number of folks from the Carolinas], in 1960, they took us in and fed us the soup beans and the moonshine. We started playing with the Carolina Mountain Boys. That opens you up to this idea that, “Gee, there are all these people around that are really friendly. They have a lifestyle that may be a little more primitive than what you’ve grown up with, but there’s some real value there because of the friendship, and the music communicates this.”
We learned a lot of what we did because we were around people who communicated a very warm, comforting feeling to us, both through their music and through their demeanor and their way of life. There’s a difference between this, where we could walk into, say, Fred McFall’s house and sit down on the broken-down couch and here’s the soup beans and stuff and everything’s just fantastic, versus a music festival where the person’s brought from somewhere. They’ve honed their skills very well to be a geezer, and they’re put in the glass cage and paraded before a bunch of people who are eating the food prepared in the cafeteria. They don’t have to look at their kitsch, talk about their politics.
Paul: It’s like the difference between studying with Juan Reynoso up here and going down to Mexico, planting yourself in some-body’s little storage locker and taking a shower across the street, and every day goin’ over to Juan’s.
Vivian: There’s nothing wrong with bringing an artist to a music festival. It’s fantastic, but it’s only half an experience.
Paul: You’ve really gotta go get the dirt under your fingernails, if you’re lucky enough to have that opportunity.
Phil: What we have now in the Northwest, at least in the urban areas, are fiddlers and other players who only have had the workshop experience. They’ve not ever been able to hang out with the featured musicians in their own surroundings. It’s just by accident maybe that we were fortunate enough to come up in a time when there were lots and lots of fiddlers around, and backup players. Growing up in the Northwest, we were exposed to literally hundreds of fiddlers.
Paul: It was remarkable. You had [Joe] Pancerzewski and those guys, tremendous Canadian players, and Al Sanderson playing the Scandinavian stuff. We got lucky in that Benny Thomasson and Dick Barrett were here for a while.
Phil: And dozens of other ones that we didn’t even pay much attention to.
Vivian: Back in the ’60s and ’70s, I was so star-struck that I was following Benny and the hot-shot guys around. I was not following the lesser lights who were so much better than anything going on now. There were a ton of those guys.
Phil: We’ve got a few hundred CDs we’ve made from tapes we’ve made, about thirty or forty boxes of tapes of Northwest fiddling. We listen to these fiddle shows, and say, “Jeez, this guy’s fabulous! Why didn’t we pay any attention to him?”
Because of our upbringing, Vivian and I have always been interested in intellectual pursuits. Vivian has a degree in northwest history and also in anthropology. We’ve always been interested in looking at the world around us and seeing what’s there and what there is about it that can turn us on.
For me, at least, this led to me looking into the concepts of documentation and putting together organizations. I did get involved fairly early on with some of the powers that be in Washington, D.C. This really colored the way I started looking at things all the rest of my life. I soon found out there was definitely a fiefdom battle going on, even way back in the ’60s, among what we call the public sector folklorists. That was something that we’ve battled here in the Northwest all this time. The public sector folklorists and the college people came down to Appalachia, put out the treatises, made all the recordings. Suddenly it becomes the only old time music in America, and all the other old time styles, including the stuff in their own back yard, is cast aside.
In 1967 we started Voyager Recordings. We had gone to Montana in 1964 for a big national fiddle contest. [There they met Texas-style fiddlers Byron Berline and Texas Shorty (Jim Chancellor).]
Vivian: Going to Montana in ’64 was the first time that we had ever been exposed to a whole raft of good fiddling all at once. We went to Weiser in 1965.
The Texas style had just barely gotten in there. Byron was there, and Texas Shorty. And then Herman Johnson showed up, and Dick Barrett, and then gradually there were more and more. It was the natural thing to do, people wanting to learn the style. They saw that those people did really well in the contest. It was exciting, it won contests, and it was challenging and fun. And, at the time, it was new and different.
[Phil says that at the Montana contest so many years ago, he and Vivian first became aware of what he calls the “Great Controversy.” This has to do with a major break in the definition of old time fiddling. This controversy ran rampant for many years at Weiser.]
Phil: It’s the difference between the old time dance fiddling which was the style of fiddling played in the Pacific Northwest, and for that matter all along the Oregon Trail, versus the Texas contest style, which was never intended for dancing in the first place. We know now why this is the case. We started researching where old time dance fiddling as traditionally played in the Northwest came from and how come we knew a lot of these tunes from childhood.Our research revealed that these tunes came here over the Oregon Trail. They were family dance tunes. Women and children traveled the Oregon Trail. David Dary’s great book Seeking Pleasure in the West included research on the cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. Cowboys driving the cows to the rail head. No women, no kids, no dancing. They’d get into town and raise hell and drink, and they were fiddlers. And the tunes they played read like a championship round at Weiser.
That’s where the break comes. That’s why we call the fiddle contests “fiddle rodeo.” It was never intended for dance playing. It was intended for showing off before each other. This whole business that Benny talked about, when he was nineteen, lost a contest, and then worked up innovative variations to the tunes and won his next contest. This is a whole completely different social use of the tunes and the instruments.
Paul: Music as a competitive sport.
Phil: Yes. A competitive sport. A whole different social use from the social use that pervaded the Northwest, where it was all dance music. It’s apples and oranges, and the two won’t mix.
In ’67, we realized that what we came to Weiser and the other contests for were the jam sessions. The records out there were not of that at all. You could get the studio job that some fiddler did, but the real action was at the jam sessions.
In 1966 we had recorded an incredible jam session with Byron Berline and Gene Meads, who played guitar with Clark Kessinger. This was just dynamic. We said, “People have to hear this,” so I called Berline and talked to him, and he said, “Yeah, by all means! That’s the kind of stuff that needs to be out there,” so we took our jam session recordings and put together an LP of what we considered to be some of the best stuff that we had recorded.
Vivian: Now, there’s still this thing going on where “old time” usually is assumed to mean old time Southern. The stuff that we play, mostly, and the stuff that we record, mostly, although we’re pretty eclectic in what we record, isn’t that. It’s this other stuff. And so that’s the other issue, what does old time mean? Does it mean Southern, or should it be broader than that? Of course, we’re 100% in the camp of, yes, it should be broader than that. If you want to talk about old time Appalachian you should call it old time Appalachian, or old time Tennessee or old time North Georgia or whatever. I feel very strongly about that. I get very irritated when people say, “Well, what kind of fiddling do you do? Do you do old time fiddling, or do you do New England fiddling?” Do you do apples or do you do Delicious apples?
The contra dance people have attempted to deal with that issue by saying, “Do you play Northern or do you play Southern?” It puts the issue on at least a debatable level where it seems to make sense, but when they say Northern, they’re talking Québécois, they’re talking New England. What about, I play Nebraska, I play Montana, I play Manitoba, what’s that?
Phil: North Dakota?
Vivian: I think it’s perfectly OK to dabble in as many kinds of music as you feel like dabbling in. It doesn’t mean that you’re a chameleon. Sometimes I have mixed feelings about this –– you learn a style and you should sound like you’re from there. Well, not necessarily. If people choose to do that, that’s terrific. If they choose to become a carbon copy of somebody whose music they admire, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I personally don’t think that it’s necessary to do that.
If you’re trying to emulate the old timers, like Clayton McMichen or Clark Kessinger or any of these people who are almost universally admired, those guys didn’t sit around saying, “Well, I guess I better not play that ’cause that’s not authentic West Virginia…I’d better not play that because that’s not what my grandpa from North Georgia would have done.” They didn’t worry about stuff like that. They just played whatever they liked to play. And the other thing they did not do was worry about, “Well, I’ve gotta play my own style. I’ve gotta do my own thing.” They just played, and it just came out being their own style. People get really bent out of shape about how you have to immerse yourself in a single stream, a single tradition. Well you don’t!
[For the rest of this interview, along with transcriptions of Vivian's tunes "Starry Nights and Candlelight" and "Sarah Brown," as well as an article by Vivian Williams called "A Pioneer Wedding Dance in Seattle" (along with the tunes "Gal on a Log" and "The Unfortunate Dog"), subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
[A former student of Joe Venuti, Paul Anastasio is a veteran of the bands of Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, and Loretta Lynn, and studied extensively with Juan Reynoso in Mexico. For information on his "Swing Cat" recording company and "The Impressionist" chin rest, visit his website at www.swingcatenterprises.com.]
Photo: Irene Young