Stuart Williams is one of the foremost fiddle instructors in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a great show and dance fiddler. He has probably taught the traditional fiddling of this region to more folks than any other fiddle teacher. In his teaching he focuses on the styles of fiddling found in the Northwest, and likes to teach tunes the way he learned them from the numerous traditional fiddlers in this region and in his old home state, Michigan, who were his mentors. Stuart has devoted a lifetime to collecting, studying, analyzing, and teaching the tunes that he made a part of his life growing up, and continues to learn from local fiddlers today. He is one of the very few fiddlers in this region that have consistently looked in their own “backyard” to discover the fiddle treasures lurking there beneath the radar of the predominant fiddle media.
Stuart was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1952, in a family whose roots go back to the British Isles and other parts of Europe. Most of his family stayed around the Northeast, until his generation. The family moved to Boonville, Missouri, when he was five, to Louisiana when he was seven, and then to a small town in Michigan when he was about eleven years old.
His father played violin in the local symphony orchestra wherever they were, and his sister played cello. Stuart took up guitar when he was twelve years old, then recorder, then mandolin. Stuart says about the first time he heard real traditional music:
“The first music I remember hearing and really caring about was when I was seven years old in Boonville, Missouri. On a trip to the Ozarks, my parents had picked up a record of folk music from the Ozarks. A locally-produced thing. I just sat and listened to it. It had ‘Alameda Riddle’ on it and old time fiddling, and I just sat and listened to that for hours and hours. Sang along. My sister and I sang the songs. Because of the family background – we came out of the urban areas and small towns of New England – we didn’t have any connection with this ‘folk music’ culture. It was the beginning of the folk revival movement of the ’50s and ’60s and my parents believed, well, folk music was good for kids, so we’ll get these records.”
Stuart got involved in the folk music scene of the 1960s. He says:
“We were in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There was a local string band of twenty- or thirty- year-olds, revivalist types who were kind of mixing up with the locals. There is a Tarheel population in Detroit, and a lot of folks who came up from the South, and a lot of Appalachian-influence music there. And throughout the state there was the Michigan Old Time Fiddlers and the Michigan Hammer Dulcimer Society. Their influence was much more New England and Henry Ford-sponsored music, with a smattering of Irish and French-Canadian. I was exposed to a wide variety of traditional music, as well as the current folk music at the local coffee house. The local fiddlers were not being completely ignored. The Sweet Corn String Band…one of the members was from a North Carolina family and played bluegrass. They would go out to Weiser and Galax and come back with tunes they learned there. They also would play tunes they learned from local fiddlers and would present performances of these fiddlers. Chet Parker (hammered dulcimer), Les Raber, and others. This was our first exposure to square dances and square dance fiddlers. I would go home and work on playing the tunes I heard on the guitar.”
Stuart got a violin from his father around 1972 and started trying to play it. His father showed him how to hold it, which was his only formal instruction. Then Stuart says: “I saw a fiddle hanging on the wall of a farmer’s house down a dirt road; he was there in his coveralls, and played ‘Soldier’s Joy,’ ‘Flop Eared Mule,’ and some other tunes. I kind of watched what he did and went home and worked on those.”
This started Stuart on the path of learning fiddle tunes directly from traditional fiddlers.
He moved to Eugene, Oregon, around 1973. Very soon he met Oregon fiddler Wayne Holmes, who showed him a number of tunes. Mr. Holmes played what later he would learn was “standard Northwest repertoire.” Then he met fiddler Earl Willis and took to him immediately. Earl was from Mineola, Missouri, and played Little Dixie style, which he learned before moving to Oregon. This is when Stuart became aware of the subtle differences in fiddle styles in this area. In response to the question of whether he had problems keeping the various styles apart, Stuart said:
“This began to change as I started integrating things later on. Now I would say I am faithful to the tradition and try to honor the traditions of those I learned the tunes from. Being faithful to my source was important to me, coming to the music from outside the culture. It was evident to me that I knew a bunch of notes, but it didn’t sound like fiddling, so I very conscientiously set out to find out why the folks I learned from sounded like fiddling. I would go to all these jam sessions and stand behind the fiddler as much as possible and beat out the rhythms and try to imitate their slurs and style. I was trying to feel what it felt like to move. I also started to recognize patterns and analyze things in a more mathematical way and where the rhythms went. I was looking for patterns in their bow work, the subtlety of their touch, how does the right hand move, how does their shoulder move, how do they talk. I started to realize that their fiddling sounded like how they talked. Earl sounds on the fiddle the way he talks, with that Missouri accent. I noticed this in all the fiddlers. The fiddling mimicked their accent. You can hear this in the old Irish and Scottish fiddlers. This is something I felt. The way of accenting. Their fiddling reflects the whole character of the person.”
[For much more of this interview, as well as transcriptions of “Roses in Winter” and “Sally Put a Bug on Me,” subscribe to Fiddler Magazine or purchase the Summer 2014 issue
[Phil and Vivian Williams have been documenting and performing the folk music of the Northwest since the 1950s. They have an extensive catalog of recordings and books available at www.voyagerrecords.com.]
[Photo: Pierce Bounds]