|Beaver Island fiddler Patrick Bonner, pictured here in the 1950s, was first recorded by folklorists Ivan Walton and Alan Lomax in 1938. Photo courtesy of Beaver Island Historical Society.|
|Trae McMaken plays a few tunes.|
Photo by Laurie Sommers.
Meet and Hear Fiddler Trae McMaken
Click here to listen to Pat Bonner performing “Black Tar on a Stick” (Blackthorn Stick) and “Up and Down the Broom,” two Irish reels recorded by Alan Lomax on Beaver Island, 1938, courtesy of the American Folklife Center/Library of Congress.
My initial impression upon meeting Trae was how far removed his story seemed from Bonner’s and those of other elderly fiddlers I had researched throughout my career. Like others of his generation, Trae’s musical world is profoundly shaped by the Internet—a global jukebox at his fingertips. The marketing, networking, and tune sharing reach of the Web would have exceeded Pat Bonner’s wildest dreams.
Trae has described himself as “multilingual on fiddle early on.” Pat remained a Beaver Islander all his life, but his musical influences were far more diverse than the house parties of home. Although geographically isolated, the island was linked culturally to mainstream tradition through records, radio, sheet music, and the comings and goings of islanders and visitors. Pat’s record collection was an eclectic mix of Irish music hall tunes, Yiddish theater, gypsy melodies, Stephen Foster, Tin Pan Alley, and more. Pat didn’t play all these tunes, but his repertoire included far more than the Irish jigs and reels of his forebears. He learned a number of tunes and ballads first-hand during his time working as a lumberjack and schoonerman, where men from varied ethnic backgrounds entertained each another.
Click here to listen to the well-known American fiddle tune “Arkansas Traveler,” with fiddler Patrick Bonner. Recorded by Ivan Walton on Beaver Island in 1952, part of the Ivan Walton Collection at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, and included on the CD accompanying Beaver Island House Party (Michigan State University Press, 1996).
The tale of these two fiddlers merges through the work of folklorists. Patrick Bonner would likely be largely forgotten, save for the recordings made by Ivan Walton and Alan Lomax, the earliest dating to August 1938. Walton made the music and lore of Great Lakes sailors his life's work, and continued to record Bonner through 1960. His remarkable collection is housed at the Bentley Historical Library (University of Michigan), with a copy at the Cultural Collections of the Michigan State University Museum. Lomax ensured that his 1938 recordings of Bonner were preserved in the Library of Congress. Decades later, a few of Bonner’s tunes were included in folklorist Alan Jabbour's 1976 documentary recording, American Fiddle Tunes. Enter Trae McMaken, who was beginning to explore the fiddle traditions of his home state. Jabbour's inclusion of Bonner on American Fiddle Tunes led Trae to Beaver Island, where Trae is becoming part of Beaver Island tradition himself. In addition to performing with musicians currently active on the island, Trae just this month completed his third season as artist in residence teaching Irish fiddle workshops to youngsters at the Eve Glen McDonough Folk School on Beaver Island. Included in the student play-list was one of Pat Bonner’s Irish-origin tunes.
The tale of two fiddlers comes full circle.
Written by Laurie Kay Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the MSU Museum.