What the Reviewers Say

VRCD 301, FIDDLE JAM SESSIONS

This is the most interesting record we have found for a while. It shows the very thing that most fiddlers go to contests and conventions to do -- participate in the jam sessions. These are the golden moments in a fiddler's memories. (American Old Time Fiddlers News)

*****

As both Jam Session discs were recorded in unplanned sessions, the listener must expect a certain degree of raggedness due to the "field" nature of the recordings, and some of the musicians' unfamiliarity with each other. But the raggedness is not really a defect; it merely shows musicians in various stages of musical adaptation, and shows how music is made when divorced from the restrictions of the recording studio. For example, on the tune "Bill Cheatem".... one of the fiddlers plays an "ending" which is followed by the backup, seemingly ending the tune. But one fiddler exuberantly continues the tune, the band picks up again and they all play a few more choruses.

The discs also feature different combinations of musicians. We hear the renowned Byron Berline playing solo, in duets, and in trios, with "Texas" style, old time, and bluegrass backup.

Generally, both records show a wonderful variety of approaches to the fiddle (and guitar and banjo backup playing), and combinations one is likely to hear at a fiddler's convention or contest... The music on each is highly recommended for its variety, proficiency and excitement. (Folklore Forum)

*****

Voyager Recordings is another one of those companies that are putting out good folk records that lots of people would want to buy it they knew they existed... "Fiddle Jam Sessions" [was] recorded in hotel lobbies, motel rooms, parking lots, lawns and other places at fiddle contests in Idaho, Montana and Washington so they have all the hustle and bustle those locations imply going on in the background. But it is the music going on in the foreground that is important and that is fine.... featuring 20 some odd of the best fiddlers from the Yukon to Kentucky. It's foot-stompin' music - lively, spontaneous and lots of fun. (Pickin' Singing' Gather'n)

*****

During festivals and fiddle contests, a lot of good music is made on the parking lots, in hotels and motels, and in other places.... The spontaneity and excitement of these sessions are well-captured here. (Journal of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington)

*****

There are exciting performances here. (Journal of American Folklore)

*****

Too often we make the mistake of thinking that folk music comes only from isolated rural areas of New England and the South. One pleasant surprise is the great number of fiddle contests and gatherings all over the West and Northwest. Although the names of Weiser, Missoula, Fresno, and Lynden do not conjure up the same pictures that Union Grove, Pulaski, or Galax do for some of our readers, nevertheless fiddlers flock to these places and keep alive the ancient art, albeit with some stylistic differences (pianos and tenor banjos are frequently used for accompaniment). To document part of this tradition.....Fiddle Jam Session .... answer[s] the question: why doesn't someone tape what happens late at night at a jam when musicians get together to produce something unique?

These recordings represent more of Lonnie [Pierce]'s fine style than does his single LP he recorded on American Heritage. Likewise, Bill Mitchell of Tupelo, Mississippi, a frequent performer at the Athens, Alabama contest, was also recorded at Weiser, Idaho, performing three very Southern breakdown pieces.... Bill recorded only one LP, and most of the copies of it were unfortunately destroyed by fire several years ago; therefore Mitchell's contributions are very welcome. Playing with Mitchell is one of the finest fiddlers of the Northwest and the person responsible for Voyager Records, Vivian Williams. Miss Williams is a popular performer who played with Bill Monroe when he was in the Washington-Oregon area in 1968. Although some contests have separate categories for "ladies", Miss Williams can compete with the best, male or female. Perhaps the most interesting items on the LP, however, are the tunes played by young Byron Berline.... These present recordings capture him in the first flush of his talents. "Bill Cheatham," "Arkansas Traveler," and "Sally Johnson" show this early brilliance, as well as his trademark "Lost Indian," which has a holler or whoop as an integral part of the tune... In addition, local winners such as Loyd Wanzer and Jim Widner have representative pieces on the record.

Of particular merit is Bill Long's "Wagoner" .... where he uses some very fine double stopping. Also, a pure joy is the twin harmonizing fiddling of Wanzer and Don Gish on the mournful "Snow Deer".... Fiddlers have a disconcerting habit of naming tunes anything they wish, even applying the same popular titles for different tunes; the three versions of "Cluck Old Hen" on the album bear no resemblance to one another, for instance. With so many different fiddlers represented, one gets a first-hand course in American traditional fiddle techniques and styles. (Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin)

*****

Some fine fiddle jamming, twin & triple fiddling.... I hope it's a great future that Voyager records has to look forward to. They'll have a time topping their beginning. (Khrome Kazoo)

This Voyager recording ... demonstrates both that fiddling abounds in quantity and quality in the northwestern United States, and that bluegrass/old-time music buffs from that area are as handy with their portable recorders as are their eastern counterparts.

The performances are generally top-caliber.... Of special interest to BU readers will be Weiser champion Byron Berline's excellent solos, which demonstrate the intricate yet clean style he has more recently brought to Bill Monroe's band. (Bluegrass Unlimited)

*****

I am a sucker for a good fiddle record and this is one. (Bluegrass Unlimited)

*****

There is immense gusto in most of the performances, which easily makes up for something less than perfect recording quality. Berline's "Sally Johnson" is especially vigorous (and who is that hell-for-leather guitarist?), and he also takes part in a genial cutting contest on "Bill Cheatham". (Old Time Music)

*****

You could hardly find fiddlers as different from each other as Ray Osborn, who does jolly, farmyardish versions of "Turkey" and "Hen", and Llewellyn Sexsmith, who glides through "Bailey's" and "Victory" with unruffled ease. A maverick among the hoedowns ... is the Gish-Wanzer "Snow Deer", all old-world and melancholic.... Bill Long and Bill Mitchell, the best represented performers, are both in excellent form. (Old Time Music)

*****

A great album. (Disc Collector)

*****

This is an hour plus of field recordings of renowned (primarily) western fiddlers playing their collective butts off. The original tapes (which appeared as a pair of Voyager LPs, issued in 1967 and 1972) were made at sessions, mostly at Weiser, Idaho, but many also in Washington State, between 1965 and 1971. Although nearly all the fiddlers have won major championships, they are totally busting loose on this recording, expanding the envelope, so to speak - none of that "play it carefully and complexly, but don't make mistakes." They are gleefully pushing it. There are some hot breakdowns, fanciful rags, gorgeous waltzes and a few novelty pieces, performed by folks such as Byron Berline, Bill Long, Pete McMahan, Bill Mitchell, Vivian Williams, Loyd Wanzer, Ora Spiva, Texas Shorty, and the list goes on and on. Because of the informal nature, there are a few mistakes, the sound may not be balanced as in a studio, and the recording quality might be a little light, but all seems worth it to hear such ferocious playing. (Victory Review)

*****

This is a good addition to anyone that likes fiddle music. I recommend this one for fiddle fans, as it has several styles of fiddle playing included. (Disc Collector)

*****

Voyager has scoured the vaults once again and once again come up with a great recording. Fiddle Jam Sessions brings together 42 recordings made at a variety of venues in the Northwest between 1964 and 1971. Most of the tracks are short, under two minutes, and most are solos, but there are several good duets and trios here. The fiddlers are a diverse lot, including (just to name a few of my personal favorites) Pete McMahan, Bill Mitchell, Bud Meredith, and Bill Long. These recordings were impromptu, and what makes them particularly nice is that the fiddlers were not really performing with recording in mind. Instead, Fiddle Jam Sessions drops the listener square into some of the best informal music-making sessions around. The recording quality is quite good throughout, although one or two tracks are a bit noisy. (Dirty Linen)

*****

NEW VOYAGER CD DOCUMENTS HISTORIC JAM SESSIONS by Doug Bright

Competitions like the annual National Oldtime Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho, are characterized by a near-palpable sense of expectation. Some come to the week-long event eager to pit their finely honed fiddling against the ultimate test of national competition. Others are drawn by the spontaneous combustion of the informal jam sessions that have become an unofficial but indispensable part of the festivities. Most, including Seattlites Phil and Vivian Williams, come for both attractions. Vivian, who won an impressive string of Women's Division titles during the Sixties, often serves as a contest judge at Weiser. Phil, an enthusiastic jammer and dedicated audiophile from the beginning, has been taping at fiddle contests ever since 1964. Over the years, their travels have yielded a huge and lively collection of field recordings, and in 1967 they launched their Voyager record label with an album called FIDDLE JAM SESSION. This release and its 1972 sequel have long been out of print, but their most essential moments have recently been repackaged on CD and cassette in a generous 42-track compilation.

When Phil and Vivian Williams came to Seattle in 1959, they had just married and graduated from Reed College in Portland. They had already developed a keen interest in bluegrass and old-time mountain music, and by 1963 they had found enough like-minded pickers and singers to form Seattle's first bluegrass band, The Turkey Pluckers. In western Washington, as everywhere else in America, the folk music revival was in full bloom, and the band was a popular attraction both in the Seattle coffeehouse scene and with the transplanted North Carolina "Tarheel" community around Darrington in Snohomish County.

By 1964 the classically-trained Vivian Williams had transformed herself into one of the Northwest's most dynamic country fiddlers. Although she had played small-scale contests at Darrington, she never experienced formal competition until a strange turn of events led her to the National Fiddle Contest in Missoula, Montana. "Phil's brother was going to law school in Missoula," she explains. "When it came time to move his stuff back home to Olympia, he asked Phil if he'd want to come out with a big car and help him haul his stuff. He said, 'By the way, they're gonna have this fiddle contest, so the timing would be perfect.'"

Not only did Vivian Williams attend the 1964 Missoula contest, but she entered it, taking first place in the Ladies' Division and fourth in general competition. One of the judges, delivering the ultimate complement, told her, "You were playin' just like a man!"

Important as it was, the Ladies' Division trophy wasn't the only thing that came home from the Missoula contest with Phil and Vivian Williams. As they say in the liner notes to their new CD, they soon discovered that "some of the best fiddling can be found in jam sessions in motel rooms, hotel lobbies, parks, bars, and campgrounds." Just in case they might encounter something worth documenting, they had brought along some recording equipment, and as a result, some great musical moments were captured on tape. "The stuff was done in the Palace Hotel on some kind of ancient Viking reel-to-reel tape recorder plugged into the wall," Vivian remembers. "If you listen to the original tape, there's a place where somebody tripped over the power cord and unplugged it, and we had to plug it back in again."

By the following summer, when the couple made their first journey to Weiser, Idaho for the National Oldtime Fiddle Contest, Phil Williams was using an Ampex 960, an AC-powered machine with half-track stereo capabilities. With the battery-powered Uher 4000 he acquired in 1967, the possibilities were virtually limitless. "We were camping in Reverend Stone's back yard in a little, dinky pup tent," Vivian recalls. "We would jam all night - way until two, three, four in the morning. Then we would go back to our tent with our tape recorder and we would listen to what we had recorded, and that took the rest of the night. We were living on coffee and adrenaline. I don't know how we did it back then!"

"Back in that era," Phil adds, "we were about the only ones around here that were doing any of this kind of recording. We figured as long as we liked it, other people might like it, so we went through our tapes, identified the stuff we wanted to put out, and got hold of all the fiddlers and got permission to do it. We went on recording jam sessions and put out the next one in 1972. When we did the CD, we had to leave off about four numbers because we didn't have enough time on the CD to accommodate both albums."

The new disc, FIDDLE JAM SESSION (Voyager VRCD 301), spans seven years of irresistibly spontaneous fiddle jams ranging from the 1964 Missoula contest to the 1971 Tenino (WA) Old Time Music Festival. The fiddlers come from as far south as Tupelo, Mississippi and as far north as Canada's Yukon Territory. By far the most famous name on the roster is bluegrass fiddle virtuoso Byron Berline, who had just cut a landmark album with the Dillards called PICKIN' AND FIDDLIN' when Phil and Vivian met him at Missoula in 1964. He appears five times on the new Voyager package. The tracks most indicative of his talent are an ingeniously improvised "Arkansas Traveller" and two tunes from a high-energy bluegrass jam at Weiser. Of course, it's all in fun, and when the banjo player flubs the end of his second solo on "Monroe's Hornpipe", he chuckles heartily.

Two lesser known but equally exciting fiddlers are also featured here: Bill Long from Billings, Montana and Bill Mitchell from Tupelo, Mississippi. Long's most rousing contributions, recorded in the mid-1960's at Weiser, include "Leather Britches" and a medley of "Sally Johnson" and "Katy Hill." Although he's the featured fiddler on a couple of tunes here, Mitchell appears mostly in tightly harmonized "twin fiddle" duets, including a couple with Vivian Williams. "I spent all the time I could with him," she recalls. "That's how I learned how to do twin fiddling. He said that if you're playing a lead part and expecting somebody else to twin to it, you gotta play the lead part simple. I listened to those tapes very carefully and figured out what he was doing. It's more fun than anything!"

Although most of the fiddling to be heard here is in the classic hoedown style associated with bluegrass, there is also some fascinating diversity. In one of the album's most exciting tracks, Kentuckians Bud Meredith and Lonnie Pierce harmonize a hard-driving tune called "Swinging Fiddles". Though the tempo and mood are definitely bluegrass, the tune is more a rag than a hoedown. Pierce also contributes an original composition to the album: the brisk and compellingly melodious "Waltz of the Bluegrass". Dick Barrett from Pottsboro, Texas applies the smooth, subtle improvisation of Lone Star State contest fiddling to the well-known Irish tune "Whiskey Before Breakfast". On "Bailey's" and "Victory Breakdown", Llewellyn Sexsmith from Whitehorse, Yukon demonstrates the crisp, Celtic-flavored style reminiscent of Canada's most influential fiddler, Don Messer.

Exciting as the music on this disc is, it merely scratches the surface of Phil and Vivian Williams' vast collection of vintage fiddle jam session tapes. "Nothing has ever been erased," says Phil, "and there's a huge volume of stuff here - boxes and boxes of tapes. Slowly but surely, I'm going through it and trying to find the gems." (Heritage Music Review)

*****

Here's another one of the fine Voyager releases that has been released on CD. The selections on this fine recording were recorded at jam sessions at various fiddle contests and festivals in the Pacific Northwest from 1964 to 1971. Many of the fiddlers are household names in the fiddle-contest circuit. This CD reaffirms the belief that some of the best fiddling is never heard on stage.

Among the standout pieces are SALLY JOHNSON and MONROE'S HORNPIPE by Byron Berline. Byron is at his best on these pieces and it is easy to see why he was so successful as a contest fiddler during this period. His fiddle must have been smoking when he finished playing these two spectacular numbers! This is a CD you will be pleased to add to your collection. Recommended. (Devil's Box)

*****

There's nothing quite like roaming around the site of a major fiddlers convention or contest. Although the competitive aspect is always hovering about, the real attraction in these gatherings for many musicians is the opportunity just to sit around and jam all night with friends, old and new. It's not unusual in these settings to find players of national renown sitting under a dining fly next to someone you've never heard of - and have difficulty deciding who's playing better. There are an awful lot of really, really good fiddlers around if you know where to look. Inevitably, at these campground sessions, there's always the guy (for some reason, they invariably seem to be male) drifting from group to group with a tape recorder, and in an abstract sense, he's the guy you can thank for Fiddle Jam Sessions.

Voyager Recordings, specialists in traditional music of the Pacific Northwest, originally released this material on two LP's: Fiddle Jam Session (#301 in 1967) and More Fiddle Jam Sessions(#304, 1972). They were recorded at a series of Northwest fiddle contests between 1964 and 1970, in particular the highly regarded national contest held annually at Weiser, Idaho. Although basically field recordings in nature, the quality of the sound is respectable. With the focus on the fiddles, the backup rhythms by guitars and other instruments is sometimes a bit muddy and indistinct, but still audible. Most importantly, though, the energy of the music comes through nicely.

The selection of tunes is a virtual primer of fiddle tunes likely to be heard at any major fiddle event, whether it's in Idaho or North Carolina - "Bill Cheatham," "Lost Indian," "Sally Goodin," "Arkansas Traveller," "Fisher's Hornpipe," and that's just scratching the surface of the 42 tracks included on this CD. Several of the tunes appear more than once, yet this merely adds to the feeling of immediacy, of listening to one group play a tune, only to wander on to the next group and hear them play the same tune a few minutes later. Spend an evening at Weiser, or Clifftop, or Mt. Airy and you're virtually guaranteed to hear "Whiskey Before Breakfast" at least a dozen times.

The majority of fiddlers featured here are not well-known outside the Northwest, but as previously stated, that doesn't suggest they aren't damn good fiddlers. There are a few ringers to be found - Byron Berline and Texas Shorty, not to mention Sam Bush popping up as the mandolin player on one cut. Also appearing in a couple of places is the fine Missouri fiddler Pete McMahan, who should be more widely known than he is.

For the accomplished fiddler looking for new tunes to learn, there's nothing here that's not already very familiar, but for those of us who have trouble learning and keeping track of the canonical fiddle tunes - how does that one go again? - this is a pretty handy CD to have and play along with. That it's also pretty entertaining and evocative music is icing on the cake. (Sing Out)

*****

Here is the rationale for this release: the poorer quality of recording made at a jam session is more than compensated for by the "liveliness and spontaneity" of such sessions which cannot be duplicated in either concert setting or studio. The recording is actually material released before in 1967 and 1972. The jam sessions were taped at fiddle contests and festivals in the American Pacific Northwest between 1964 and 1971. Most of the tunes are good old standards - "Grey Eagle," "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Sally Goodin," etc., forty two of them in all. The session fiddlers include some prominent ones, such as Byron Berline, Texas Shorty, and Vivian Williams, as well as the more obscure.

There's hootin', hollerin' and fun here. The cuts do capture the energy, joy and creativity of spontaneous music-making. (Fiddler Magazine)

*****

Voyager Recordings, founded by Phil and Vivian Williams in 1967, has been "an independent recording and publishing company that features the best in old time music, primarily fiddle music, from the Pacific Northwest and throughout North America" (from Voyager website). They took their recording equipment into the field and recorded their music at jam sessions and fiddle contests, resulting in recordings of some of the better, more authentic fiddling this reviewer has stumbled upon in the last few years.

The Pacific Northwest fiddle tradition comes from the dance fiddle brought to the area with the covered wagon. The area is a jumble of styles, from Irish and Scottish influences to Scandinavian roots, with not a great deal of mixing.

A fiddle jam session was a time for fiddlers to compete, compare or just have a good time and would take place at almost every fiddle contest. Fiddle Jam Session is a compilation of recordings made "at various fiddle contests and festivals around the Pacific Northwest" between 1964 and 1971. This is a hodge podge of tunes and styles, and is great fun to listen to. Sit back and enjoy. (Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Bulletin)

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