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.