What the Reviewers Say

VRCD 350: PHIL & VIVIAN WILLIAMS: DANCE MUSIC OF THE OREGON TRAIL

Days may have been sweat-filled and backbreaking, but at night the pioneers along the Oregon Trail celebrated with music and dance. Many of these selections rendered by Phil and Vivian Williams are tunes that were played along the trail, ranging from the childhood familiars ("Buffalo Gals," "Oh Susanna") to the intriguing, such as "The Girl I Left Behind Me," which was originally published in England almost 100 years before. Others ("Detroit Scottische," "Mississippi Sawyer") are not necessarily Oregon Trail staples but survived in the pioneer communities throughout the West. Phil plays flawless banjo, guitar, mandolin, and accordion, while Vivian maintains a commanding presence on fiddle. The informative liner notes provide the tunes' published source, as well as other names they're known by. Highly recommended. Dan Willging, Dirty Linen

*****

Can't get more traditional or involved in the Festival World than these two superb musicians. They started the Folklife Festival, have played 100's of Festivals, while Vivian's fiddling has won many fiddle events such as Weiser. Here they concentrate on the dance music of the Oregon Trail as settlers moved from Missouri to the Northwest in the last half of the 1800's. Lots of these songs we have sung as children like "Buffalo Gals," "Skip to My Lou/Old Dan Tucker." Traditional musicans have for years played and jammed on songs like "Old Joe Clark," "Arkansas Traveler" and "Turkey in the Straw." The notes like the music interpretation are excellent. Love the high spirited, fun lead line of "Fisher's Hornpipe." You get a sense of that time and how the music got into the Oregon Trail stream. You will find your toes tapping, a smile on your face. Phil & Vivian play old time, dance music, bluegrass and have bands to fit the particular need of a festival or fair. They have good pictures and promo materials and reference a foot deep. Last saw them in a concert setting for the Bald Eagle Festival mixing all styles of music from fiddle tune, to old time dance tunes to bluegrass. Festivals Directory Northwest

*****

The Pacific Northwest has a rich tradition of fiddle and dance tunes. The musical traditions brought to the area by pioneers included Appalachian, Celtic, and Scandinavian, which simmered in the musical melting pot that is old-time music. New styles developed and were incorporated, most notably Northwestern style fiddle. As time and technology moved forward, the acoustic world made way for the electric one and much of that great, history-laden old-time music was in danger of being lost. That will never be the case since Vivian and Phil Williams make it their goal to preserve the lush musical heritage of the area.

The Williams are multi-talented musicians, who weave the history of the area into their musicianship, be it in studio or a live performance. The couple has documented and performed Northwest traditional music since their teens in the 1950s. They have been instrumental in preserving the musical traditions of the Northwest by helping found the Seattle Folklore Society, Northwest Folklife, and the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association, and by playing bluegrass or old-time music at festivals or square dances. They also own and operate Voyager Recordings & Publications, which has released recordings of more than 85 fiddlers and developed the most extensive recorded archive of Northwest fiddle and old-time music in the country.

Musically speaking, Vivian and Phil Williams are superb talents. Vivian is a noted fiddler and the 1999 National Senior Old-Time Fiddling Champion (Weiser, ID). Furthermore, she is a prolific and talented composer. Phil plays "just about anything with strings on it." For the three recordings, he ably handles guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass, providing rhythm to Vivian's fiddle. Phil also repairs and makes stringed instruments, is a recording engineer, and was a consultant to the Smithsonian on traditional music in the region. Together, they are a well-versed, considerable talent.

Much of the success of their music is built upon their understanding of the traditions of the Pacific Northwest. To their familiarity with the old-time traditions of the Oregon Trail, the Williams add their passionate performances and deft sense of timing. Top it all off with sound engineering by Phil Williams and the result is a series of well-developed musical narratives and successful examples of the style.

Dance Music of the Oregon Trail is as much a narrative of the musical settling of the Northwest as it is a collection of America's most familiar tunes. The liner notes set the tone with the prosaic explanations of the early pioneers who trekked the Oregon Trail. The album ties together elements of minstrel tunes, British Isles, country dance tunes, and polka. Particularly impressive is the inclusion of suggested reading on Dance Music on the Oregon Trail.

Vivian and Phil Williams have taken their love relationship with the music of the Oregon Trail and forged works that mesh masterful musicianship, thorough engineering, and a firm sense of history. Kristin Garau - The Old-Time Herald

*****

Phil Williams is not exactly typical among oldtime fiddle music preservationists. While most of us had to venture outside our native communities to discover this music on records or at folk festivals, Williams, who operates the Seattle-based Voyager record label with his wife Vivian, grew up with oldtime fiddling not in Appalachia, but right here in western Washington. This year the label is celebrating the roots of Northwest fiddling with a well-researched and well-performed CD entitled DANCE MUSIC OF THE OREGON TRAIL.

"I danced to every single tune on that record as a kid," Phil Williams says of his boyhood near the town of Tumwater during the 1940s. "I danced to all these dances and heard all these tunes and played a lot of stuff on the guitar and mandolin. My father came from a Kentucky hillbilly family, and he taught me now to play a guitar style which was real different from anything that I've seen anybody else do. My father had a two- or three-sided musical career. He had a band in the Twenties for the fox trots and big band stuff, but then he'd put on the square dance outfit and do square dances. He and my mother did all the oldtime couple dances, and I learned them all as a kid. We danced in the community center in Olympia on Saturday nights, and there would be everything from square dances to jitterbug. There was no real differentiation."

Although she learned Turkey in the Straw from her father on the harmonica as a child in Tacoma, Vivian Williams' exposure to oldtime fiddling was more gradual. "I started classical violin when I was nine," she recalls. "I had a teacher who got one of the reel and jig collections and had me do some tunes, so I had a clue that there was something out there. I learned to polka and waltz somewhere along the line, but at that time I didn't make any connection between that and American history and the Oregon Trail."

When Phil and Vivian Williams came to Seattle in 1959, they had just married and graduated from Reed College in Portland, where he had focused on law while she had studied history and anthropology. They had already developed a keen interest in bluegrass and oldtime 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 fold 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. Yet important as it was, the Ladies Division trophy wasn't the only thing that came home from Missoula with Phil and Vivian Williams. They had already learned that some of the best fiddling at such contests could be found at the informal jam sessions that took place in hotel lobbies, bars, parks, and camp grounds. Just in case they encountered something worth documenting, they had brought along some recording equipment, and as a result, some great musical moments were captured.

When they made their first journey the following summer to Weiser, Idaho for the National Oldtime Fiddle Contest, they started a succession of annual field recording pilgrimages that has continued to the present and yielded countless hours of multifaceted oldtime fiddling. Back in that era, Phil explains, 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 out tapes, identified the stuff we wanted to put out, and got hold of all the fiddlers and got permission to do it.

As a result, Voyager Recordings was launched in 1967 with an album called FIDDLE JAM SESSION. A second volume followed in 1970, and the label's steady stream of fiddle recordings has continued into the compact disc era. Their longtime involvement in the Washington Old Time Fiddle Association has brought Phil and Vivian Williams in contact with hundreds of fiddlers, many of whom they recorded for Voyager and interviewed for the Washington Traditional Fiddler's Project, an effort funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. "These fiddlers were going away, they were dying," Phil explains, "and the style that we'd heard so prevalently out here wasn't found much anymore. We started wondering where it came from."

It was this historical curiosity that motivated the Williams' latest Voyage release, DANCE MUSIC OF THE OREGON TRAIL. "Vivian did an extensive amount of research," Phil says, "and we traced most of the tunes. The predominant fiddle style in the Pacific Northwest comes from Missouri. Back there in Missouri, you've got the influence of the Great Lakes states coming in from the north end. They you've got the influence from Arkansas and Tennessee and the Ozark regions coming in from the south. They pretty well collide in the middle, and it's that sound that come out here on the Oregon Trail. It wasn't ornamented: it's simple bowing. It's really back to our own roots: it's where we came from."

The new CD, recorded in the Williams' elaborate basement studio, features Vivian on fiddle and Phil on mandolin, banjo, guitar, and accordion. Phil is particularly proud of the gut-strung fretless banjo he plays on the album's deliberately simple fiddle-banjo rendition of Old Joe Clark. "We have twenty-some fretless banjos that undoubtedly came over the Oregon Trail," he says. "We got most of them in junk stores in the Northwest. I mean virtually junk stores full of used appliances and stuff like that."

Most of the tunes on this album will be familiar even to those with virtually no exposure to oldtime fiddling, tunes like Sweet Betsy From Pike, Irish Washerwoman, Pop Goes the Weasel, Skip To My Lou, and Home Sweet Home. "We've had the privilege of actually playing with fiddlers that came over the Trail," Phil says. "We've played with hundreds of Northwest fiddlers. We'd go out and play Red Wing and all of that: it wasn't very esoteric. Finally it occurred to us that there was plenty of stuff that was actually quite esoteric in our own backyard, the stuff we'd listened to all our lives and ignored. It never occurs to you that the stuff your parents are into is worth anything until later in life. That's how that whole production came about."

The origins of the tunes played here powerfully illustrate the cultural diversity that the pioneer population represented. From the South come tunes like Old Joe Clark, Arkansas Traveler, and Mississippi Sawyer. The album's most obviously Celtic number is Moneymusk, written in 1780 by Scottish composer Daniel Dow as Sir Archibald Grant of Moneymusk's Reel. Buy a Broom is an old waltz which, despite its unfamiliar title, is probably the best-known German melody in America. As Phil and Vivian Williams well-researched liner notes reveal, many familiar tunes have surprising histories. The hoedown standard "Flop Eared Mule," for example, was originally published in 1853 by Adam Couse, a Detroit dance master and music store owner, as "Detroit Schottische." A Southern fiddle tune which I learned as "The Fourth of July" turns out to be an eighteenth-century piece from the British Isles called "My Love Is But A Lassie." "Home Sweet Home" was originally a Sicilian air that was given English lyrics by an Englishman, John Howard Payne, and published in 1823 as part of a play called "Clari, or The Maid of Milan." "It was converted to a waltz in Oregon Trail days, " Phil Williams relates. "It was the traditional last waltz of Washington pioneer dances. It make a pretty good one, you know."

However common most of these tunes are, there's nothing boring about the way Phil and Vivian Williams present them. The instrumentation ranges from fiddle-banjo duets like "Old Joe Clark" and "Sourwood Mountain" to arrangements featuring Vivian's expertly overdubbed twin fiddling to the accompaniment of guitar, banjo, and in one case, accordion. Phil's mandolin often trades solos with Vivian's fiddle, eventually blending into beautifully harmonized twin-fiddle simulations. Yet despite the Williams' devotion to nineteenth-century authenticity on this project, Vivian playfully throws some chordal shuffle bowing into the final chorus of the album's closer, "Turkey in the Straw." "We couldn't resist the temptation to add some 20th-century hot licks," she says in the liner notes.

With its beautifully simple performance strategy and meticulous documentation, this album is quickly catching on with Northwest museums and historical societies. "We find a lot of these interpretive centers are playing it for background music," Phil explains. "They have gift shops, and they sell 'em. This is exactly what they want. We haven't put that out for any kind of distribution really, and we're almost out of the first pressing of a thousand. I don't know of a single production out there that's like this one. It's well researched and done in authentic style." DANCE MUSIC OF THE OREGON TRAIL can also be purchased through Voyager's well-organized and constantly expanding website, www.voyagerrecords.com. "We can accept four different credit cards, and we have a secure order form," Phil explains. "When a person wants to order online from us, they can either download and print our order blank and fax or mail it to us, or they can click on the secure order form." Heritage Music Review

*****

Phil and Vivian Williams have long been part of the old time and bluegrass scene in the Northwest. This is the second CD of late featuring their duet. While they state that there were no special effect used to record this project [N.B. - this statement is incorrect, the actual statement is "no signal processing was used in making the recording." - Phil Williams], there was one: overdubbing. They have layered the fiddles, guitar, mandolin and banjo to good effect. There are plenty of simple duets as well as a few tunes that are treated to more elaborate arrangements like "Arkansas Traveler." The tunes should be well known to many players and are taken from the bedrock of American folk music. The idea was to recreate the tunes that the early pioneers may have played and danced to when traveling the Oregon Trail. The liner notes help to substantiate this claim. While some folks may dispute this premise, the music is all well played and the tunes are given due respect. Phil and Vivian are well-respected players and they are able to breathe new life into well-worn tunes. This is an enjoyable set that will please fans of history and the tunes that have been a part of American consciousness for a long time. - Bob Buckingham, Fiddler Magazine.

*****

The Williams’ have been a dominant force in the Northwest folk music scene back to the sixties (Think Folklife, Seattle Folklore Society, old-time dance scene, Voyager Records and a lot more). They have very strong educational and historical credentials with Vivian a BofA in history from Reed and an MA in anthropology from U of W. Phil has a BofA in philosophy from Reed and Juris Doctor degree from U.S. Law School. And their musicianship has taken them far and wide in our folk community from concerts, special library presentation, old time dances, workshops and demonstrations, and leading old time jam sessions. I was lucky enough to run into them right after getting to Tacoma in the early 70s, and they were already an established duo. They helped encourage and support what I was doing and did the same thing traveling to Olympia and supporting Burt and Di Meyers’ many Olympia programs. They were part of the root fabric of Northwest music coming from the traditional side. Here, the duo focuses on the songs that were often played on the Oregon Trail after a hard day’s Travel. This duos’ study of diaries found mentions of the songs they sang, played, and even danced to alongside the covered wagons. The songs have stood the test of time, and many you will recognize or will have heard in an old-time jam session at Folklife or another spot or in a sing-a-long. The eight-page accompanying booklet helps give background about the Trail and each of the songs. You will have great fun reading the history of the songs, as well as listening to the cleanly recorded music. Vivian is a champion fiddler, and Phil is a guitar, mandolin, banjo and accordion player here. The list of instruments used is supplied, and the recording was done digitally in stereo with no signal processing or artificial reverb. They also give a suggested reading list. There are seventeen tunes starting with “Old Joe Clark” that immediately establishes the clear dynamics of the sound. Inside, you are dancing, toes are tapping, with the fretless gut string banjo delivering the pulse in a very old-time feel. “Arkansas Traveler” feels a bit more modern. You feel yourself dancing gaily with the fiddle and mandolin just making such a sweet mood. “Buffalo Gals/Oh, Susanna” are joyful and you will be humming and singing. I found it easy to visualize folks singing these songs around a campfire in the evening. The musicians reach for the high end notes in “Fishers Hornpipe” with the fiddle very exact on the high notes and the mandolin with this insinuation of the dance. Fun piece. “Sweet Betsy from Pike” is a story song turned dance with guitar and mandolin moving the fiddle sweetly along. Lots of movement in the three-song medley “Garryowen/Irish Washerwoman/Pop Goes the Weasel.” The mandolin opens, the fiddle carries your body forward, and you get to picture the Virginia Reel dance; then finally the mandolin creates the Pop in the Weasel; all are done as dance tunes. “Richmond Polka” delivers that style of music in upbeat, quick dancing movement in a “don’t miss your partner mood.” “Girl I Left Behind” is a mid-tempo piece with guitar and banjo pushing the rhythm. There is a joyful mandolin solo over the guitar. “Sourwood Mountain” has banjo light and clean with high-end fiddle licks. A romp cleanly done. “Buy a Broom” has a slow waltz feel with the accordion pumping the tune. The movement of guitar, accordion, and fiddle is superb. “Mississippi Sawyer” has up-tempo guitar and fiddle and a bit of banjo. The song is about trees that died along the river and fell, hampering boat passage up and down in the river. The mandolin is ripping along and pushing the full sound of the fiddle. You dig into your childhood singing with “Skip to My Lou/Old Dan Tucker” done here as successful dance tunes. Mandolin solo leads lovingly into the fiddle run. Guitar cements the rhythm with the banjo adding that pulse for the fine fiddle work. The line between songs sung on the trail and dance tunes on the trail is a bit arbitrary, as you can tell. “Money Musk” has superb fiddle with the guitar rhythm that moves you to dancing in a simple way, and the do a four-part version they learned from a Mohawk India, Phil Cook. “My Love is But a Lassie” has been played under many names, and I believe I heard someone, maybe Duck Baker, do it as “Richmond Blues” a long way back. Here is a joyful dancing romp with fiddle driving and the mandolin accenting the high note dancing. One of my favorite cuts. “Home Sweet Home” is a slow, sad song with low-end fiddle and guitar. There is a kind of counterpoint work to keep the moody aspect of the song. “Detroit Schottische” will put you in full dance mode with a simple guitar-filled mood. It was full-pocket mode, as the song sold 100,000 copies in 1853. Song, also known as “Flop Eared Mule,” is in a hoedown style. “Turkey in the Straw” is a guitar and fiddle romp, and you will move to this song we all know. This is a superb collection, great information notes, and you get a great sense of it all. You can paint in you mind the picture of folks singing and playing these songs. So why did I review this CD of a decade ago? Well, the Williams have a book out now, and it makes a nice complement to the book reviewed next. They are not a set; they just work together well Chris Lund, Ancient Victories News, Summer 2014)

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