The one-room schoolhouse in Cherry Gardens, Washington, was a popular Saturday night dance spot in the 1920s and ’30s. People came from miles around to dance, visit with friends, and partake of the homemade spirits sold from the trunk of an entrepreneur from Seattle, some twenty miles to the west. Lit by gas lamps, fiddler Tom Somers led his band through old favorites and tunes of his own composition. Joining him in music-making were Hoover Austin on guitar and fiddle, a Mrs. Brenneman on piano, his son Clarence on fiddle or clarinet or whatever musical instrument he was dabbling in at the time, and his young neighbor Floyd Engstrom on fiddle. Mr. Brenneman called the dances. Close at hand was the coffee tin Tom kept to spit his tobacco juice into.
Tom began teaching Floyd fiddle tunes in 1930, when Floyd was twelve. Floyd says, “Tom coaxed me into learning to play the old time music, so I’d go down there to his place and listen to him play and learn like that.” An uncle had given Floyd a violin some years before, and his family had found the $2 needed for lessons from a Mr. Miller of Renton, south of Seattle. Floyd’s father Axel worked in the saw mills and the family moved often following his work. They settled in Cherry Gardens in 1928, when Axel began working in the mill at Monroe. By then, most of the lowland and foothills had been logged over. The mill could not withstand the Great Depression of 1929 and the Engstrom family and their neighbors were left “up there in the sticks, about seven miles out of Duvall [on] twenty acres of stumps with all the other poor people. Nobody had any work up there.”
Tom hailed from Iowa, and was “a rough player,” as Floyd puts it. But he was a well known and popular fiddler on the local scene, and played for house dances as well as the weekly schoolhouse dances. One family held a regular dance, and “They would get the floor bare; if there was a rug they’d get rid of the rug and stomp around in the living room.” In those days, a fiddler was still an important person who provided the necessary music for family and community celebrations, and especially dances. A young child learning to play a musical instrument was expressing his or her desire to take on that role of community music-maker and was usually supported and helped by the older generation.
“Turkey in the Straw” was probably the first fiddle tune Floyd learned, followed closely by “Buffalo Gals.” Playing with Tom was different from learning from Mr. Miller: “That was all [written] music; that was violin stuff; with Tom Somers it was all by ear.” Floyd adapted quickly and soon joined Tom, Hoover, and the Brennemans at the schoolhouse dances. Square dances, known locally as “quadrilles,” were popular, as were couple dances, such as waltzes, foxtrots, schottisches, polkas, the Varsouvienne, Tuxedo, and Circle Two-Step. There was no set program for the night, the band would “just go as [they] were led,” usually playing four or five couple dances in between squares. People “really liked square dances. They were the simple ones, not all these complicated ones that they have now.”
Floyd left Cherry Gardens to finish his senior year of high school in Seattle. His mother also moved into the city to find work; they lived with one of her sisters, returning to the country on weekends whenever they could get a ride at least part of the way. A high school friend, Don Michel, played mandolin and guitar and would often join the Cherry Gardens band. When Floyd graduated, there was no work in Seattle, so he and Don set off with Don’s father, Ed Michel, to mine for gold in the rivers of southern Oregon. Ed rigged up a “suction device” with a nozzle made out of scrap metal that they would maneuver into the middle of the river. With an old engine they would suck up the sand and gravel from the river bed and run it through a series of sluices. They didn’t find much gold, but they “played a lot of music out there, every night just about, out by the campfire. Ed Michel played banjo, Don played mandolin and guitar, and once in a while some drifter would come through, some musician, and stop by and we got some other music.”
Such musical intermingling was a common feature of American migrations that influenced the development of local styles. In northwestern fiddling, the predominant influences come from Canada, Scandinavia via the Northern Plains, and the Missouri/Arkansas heartland. These permeate the local repertoire and are reflected in local and individual playing styles: some fiddlers relish each and every note of the tightly-woven reels, sounding Canadian, or even Scandinavian to a southern ear; others hone all their tunes to driving shuffles around the key chords and a distinctly southern, yet not quite Appalachian, sound; most fall somewhere in between.
[For the full text of this article, as well as transcriptions of the tunes “Arkansas Traveler” and “Mexican Waltz” as played by Floyd Engstrom, purchase the Fall 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
Eighty-seven at the time of this interview, Floyd had recently released his first CD, Kitsap County Fiddler, on Voyager Recordings, and a second CD of popular hymns (played on Floyd’s fiddle) was in the works. He can also be heard on the compilation Roses in Winter: A Celebration of Old Time Fiddlers in Washington State.
Voyager Recordings: www.voyagerrecords.com
[This article was adapted from the book and compact disc compilation: Roses in Winter: A Celebration of Old Time Fiddlers in Washington State. This publication of the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association grew out of a series of workshops taught by the twelve fiddlers featured in the book. The tunes on the CD (two from each fiddler –– including the two notated here) reflect the diverse origins of Northwest traditional fiddle music and are written out in standard notation in the book. The stories in the book show how fiddle music has been treasured and passed down from generation to generation. For more information see www.wotfa.org.]