Categories
Folk Music

The Fiddler of Beaver Island

Beaver Island is one of the few places in my home state of Michigan that I have not visited, When I was growing up, my next-door neighbor, who was born and raised on the island, would pack up his family and vacation there for two weeks in the summer.

Beaver Island has a unique history. It sits in the upper part of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles off the coast near Charlevoix. Initially inhabited by Irish immigrants, a Mormon group settled on the island in the 1850s, led by a man named James Strang. He ruled his congregation like a tyrant, and was eventually shot by men whom he flogged in public for adultery. He became a polygamist, claimed surrounding islands as part of his kingdom, and often forced his power onto other islanders not part of his congregation. He would eventually die from his gunshot wound, and his congregation soon after disappeared, mostly due to threats from other residents.

It was during the 20th century that Beaver Island gained its more positive and popular notoriety. Due to the rise of Irish and other European immigration, the island became a haven for fiddlers and old-time fiddle folk music. Dozens of fiddlers lived there, and my neighbor learned the fiddle and mandolin there as a child. I can still remember hearing him play the fiddle in the evenings.

The most popular fiddler from the island was a man named Patrick Bonner (1882-1973). He blended his Irish background with styles from other Michigan regions, such as the contra dances around Detroit and the Scandinavian lumberjacks and miners in the Upper Peninsula. He played dances on and off the island, and had a great reputation for unique interpretations of standard fiddle tunes. He came to prominence as a folk music icon during the 1930s through the research and promotion of Ivan Walton, a professor of English folklore at the University of Michigan. National musicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax, along with Walton, would go on to record a number of sessions with Bonner, which remain archived at the Library of Congress and Wayne State University in Detroit.

There were a number of other musicians from Beaver Island that Walton recorded as well. Add to that the multitude of hobbyist musicians (like my old neighbor) and you can imagine what Beaver Island was like. The air was filled with music constantly, and there was always a dance or concert going on in the evenings. I truly miss hearing my neighbor. I sometimes imagine him listening to me playing folk songs on the fiddle and guitar when I am at my mom/s house.

I had nearly forgotten about the island’s fiddle history until a few years ago when I came across the book An Island of Fiddlers: Fiddle Tunes of Patrick Bonner, Beaver Island, Michigan at Elderly Instruments in Lansing (www.elderly.com). Written and self-published by Glenn Hendrix, another fiddler from Michigan. Ringed-notebook in style, it contains a short biography and interview with Bonner done before his passing, as well as a number of tunes transcribed by Hendrix from old recordings of Bonner. Some tunes are variations of standards and public domain samples, while others seem to be semi-original compositions by Bonner. I felt that this was such as treasure of a book regarding the music of Beaver Island that I purchased a second copy and gave it to the daughter of my old neighbor. It turns out she gave his old fiddle to one of his grandchildren who now performs with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Nice ending.


Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Folk Music

Na Zdrowie! Eastern European Folk Music (and Comedy)

Like I said before, not everything on the blog will be related to bluegrass music. While it is still my Number 1 passion in music, I still love to discover other forms and genres. I will always love most of the stuff lumped under Americana, but lately I have been getting into listening to Eastern European folk music, especially performed by female vocalists.

First, Let us look at Rokiczanka. They sing Polish folk songs with a small ensemble backing them up. They are a combination of male and female singers, but it is the two female lead singers that garner much of the attention from the audiences (at least from what one can tell by the videos). This is pure Polish folk music that has been polished up to be presentable live to all audiences. The whole group looks like they are having fun performing the music at concerts. I especially enjoy their interpretation of the folk song “Lipka.” Just an enjoyment to watch. The website is https://rokiczanka.pl/en/ .

About two years ago, I found Beloe Zlato on YouTube, and continue to be amazed by their harmonies. Over the years, the lineup has changed, but three of the ladies have been there for a long time keeping the group active (Daria Luneeva, Valeria Grigorieva, and Maria Baranenko). Besides being very easy on the eyes, they harmonize so well that it sounds more like a human pipe organ. This literally sounds angelic. If they ever were to come to the US, whatever city, I would make the trip just to hear these beautiful voices live. They almost do not seem real. They make videos singing around tourist spots in Moscow. Most of the early videos were a capella, but more recent ones include being accompanied by an accordion or balalaika. Sometimes they appear in traditional dress, sometimes in jeans and t-shirts. They are as addictive as potato chips. The website is https://beloezlato.ru/ . Be sure to check all of their YouTube videos!

While looking around for other Polish folk groups a few weeks ago, I came across Trio Mandili. Wow! They are actually from Georgia (the country in East Europe, NOT the southern US state), but sing Polish, Russian, and Turkish folk songs as well as Georgian. They are like a Cossack version of The Andrew Sisters! They have been around for about six years, but have only recently been putting out videos, which consist of the one original member, Tatuli Mgeladze, filming them with her iPhone. They walk around sites in Georgia singing, with one member, Mariam Qurasbedian, playing the three-stringed panduri (a cross between a dulcimer and a cigar-box guitar). The third member, Tako Tsiklauri, dances around in the background and is always smiling. The group came into notoriety when in 2014 they posted a video of them singing a folk song while walking down a dirt road. The harmonies were beautiful. The video has had over 6.5 million views on YouTube! About two years later, a punk metal trio added backing music to the video, and it came out sounding really cool! You have to check them all out! Their live shows are a bit tacky, with choreography that definitely looks Eastern European or Middle Eastern and not from New York, London, or Paris. I have seen a few other Georgian “Trio” groups on YouTube, but none compare to the originality of Trio Mandili. Unfortunately, the website is extremely slow to upload – I have yet to get it fully up to see anything. So trying to order a CD is impossible. Good luck at trying it yourself: http://triomandili.com/ .

Last on this list is not really a musical group, but a comedy troupe. I don’t know exactly how I came across Kabaret Hrabi, but I am glad that I did. Think of a Polish version of Saturday Night Live or Second City. The three gentlemen and one lady take on modern topics and satire them to the fullest. Yes, it is all in Polish, and I can only make out about 10 percent of what they are saying, but what I can make out is hilarious. If you do understand Polish, you will not be disappointed. The one skit that got me rolling on the floor crying from laughter was “Kultura Naradowa.” They recite old Polish folk songs as if they are seriously reading Shakespeare! Hearing “Miała Baba Koguta” (About a woman that puts a rooster into a boot. My father, God rest his soul, used to play a 78 of this all of the time!) read like a soliloquy just gets to me. The website is http://hrabi.pl/ .

Chew on it and comment.