A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Across Generations: Ruby John and Her Musical Influences

On February 23, 2014 I had arranged to meet fiddler Ruby John. Though I had been hearing about Ruby for years on my musical travels through northern Michigan, I had not yet met her. We shared a community of friends and musicians in the region, and I had heard of her skill as a fiddler. She is not hard to find online, either – she has YouTube videos of herself fiddling along with Lee Sloan and others, such as renowned fiddler Rene Cote. Here is Ruby playing Mouth of the Tobique with Jack chambers at the Peshawbestown Art Market in 2008.

I was on a fieldwork trip interviewing Michigan’s fiddlers as part of a National Endowment for the Arts grant project administered through the Michigan State University Museum. I make my living as a fiddler and storyteller. I am a native of Michigan who has made the fiddle playing of the Great Lakes – especially Michigan and Ontario – one of my primary topics of interest, coupled with the founding of a website dedicated to Michigan Fiddlers.

After a bit of dicey snow in Gaylord, I made it through to Charlevoix, which presented a snowy northern scene that day. Danny Gillespie, son of Michigan Heritage Award winner Jewell Gillespie, kindly offered to let us conduct the interview in his home. At the same time, Danny Gillespie notified 2014 Michigan Heritage Award Recipient Danny Johnston  who began the even more treacherous trip down to Charlevoix from Goodhart, Michigan. Things were shaping up for a nice jam.

Ruby John and Danny Johnston fiddle together
Photo by Trae McMaken, Feb.23, 2014

But before that, I had some questions rolling around in my mind, taking space amidst concerns about the snow-covered roads. I knew that Ruby was a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. I also knew that she had fiddled with Métis fiddlers. “Métis” is a term sometimes used to refer to a style of fiddling among First Nations peoples in Canada and the United States. What I did not know and what I hoped to find out, among other things, was if the identifier "Métis" was an idea or term used in Ruby’s home region or in Michigan in general, or if it was a term that more recently entered the scene.

When Ruby arrived and we were introduced, I set up my sound recorder for an interview. My first impression of Ruby was shown to be true throughout the day; she is a friendly person, and she has all the social graces of a fiddler raised among older local fiddlers. There is something I find noticeable about such fiddlers – they have an ease of bearing across generations. They also show respect to their fellow musicians; local heroes and friends from childhood are not supplanted in respect even when travels far and wide bring the young people into contact with musicians of greater skill and renown. I think this respect has to do with the level of mentoring from older generations that such fiddlers receive. After skill is acquired, relationships still matter.

Born in 1990 in Traverse City, Michigan, Ruby is the daughter of commercial fishermen and is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Ruby is the great-granddaughter of a fiddler, and recorded fiddle music was a staple in her home growing up. At the age of around five, Ruby told her mother that she wanted to play the fiddle, but it was not till the age of ten when her mother was able to secure a grant that allowed Ruby to get an instrument and lessons. Ruby was initially part of a group of young violin players, including her brothers Alex and Cameron, that were enabled to learn through the grant. She studied violin from Jan Ostrowski and became active in the OMFA and has continued with the fiddle to the present.

In our interview, Ruby attributed much of her musical development to a wide array of fiddle activities in her mid to late teens, including trips to Canada, mentorship by older players, and the attendance of many OMFA Jamborees. Ruby and her mother even managed to attend every OMFA jamboree during Ruby’s senior year of high school and perhaps the following year as well. OMFA fiddler Lee Sloan mentored Ruby. Others, such as Danny Johnston, were important figures in her musical upbringing. While attending AlgomaTrad, a fiddle camp on St. Joseph Island in Ontario, Ruby met Anne Lederman, a Canadian fiddler and practitioner of Métis music. Lederman invited Ruby to participate in a trip to Toronto to learn from Métis master fiddlers such as James Cheechoo of Moose Factory, Ontario and John Arcand from Saskatchewan. After a second trip to Toronto to learn from “Teddy Boy” Houle, Ruby performed and taught with the group of students at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention. Ruby has actively been attending fiddle events around Michigan and further afield, such as Jerusalem Ridge in Kentucky. Of late, Ruby has teamed up with George Trudeau, a Canadian traditional piano accompanist. Ruby currently lives in Northport, Leelanau County, Michigan.

Though Ruby has learned from Métis fiddlers, she does not identify as a Métis fiddler and has a diverse range of influences that include Bluegrass, Canadian styles, and Michigan fiddling. Ruby especially loves to play for dancing but performs at a variety of other venues from tribal events to festivals. There were excellent Native American fiddlers in Michigan, such as Pete Keller who Ruby got to hear before his death. Yet they seemed to have referred to themselves just as “fiddlers” and there is little evidence so far to support a common style between them different from their non-Native American compatriots. Ruby was certainly brought up with a deep attachment to traditional Michigan fiddling and does identify herself as a Michigan fiddler. Ruby says:
"I want to clarify regarding the statement that I learned from Metis fiddlers but that I do not identify as a Métis fiddler. This is out of respect to the true born and raised Métis. I am First Nation and I am carrying on Métis music- fiddle music- which makes me very affiliated with Métis people and teachers. I just don't qualify to be defined as one because myself and my ancestors are not from Red River area and I would not want to offend the people who are truly Métis by misspeaking. I am of mixed Native American and European descent and I am very close to many Métis people and love their music and love playing it. I don't want to misrepresent myself to them out of respect.
I wouldn't want any Métis people to read the article and feel I don't identify with them or hurt their feelings. I look up to them and play Métis music and Métis people are a huge rich influence in my life. My Mom and I learned and fell in love with Metis music from watching the Medicine Fiddle movie and through my teacher at Algomatrad Fiddle Camp, Anne Lederman, and met Métis fiddlers from Canada."

Eventually, we migrated to the living room and I started another track on my recorder as the jam began. Formality was left behind as old and new friends began to play tunes together. Old, local repertoire was played that harkened far back beyond Ruby's time and my time, back to the youthful days of Danny Johnston and beyond. In addition, repertoire from other eras and regions was mixed in, and discussion ranged from local anecdote to foreign travels. “Big John McNeil,” “Miller’s Reel,’ “Monymusk,” “Mouth of the Tobique,” “The Clarinet Polka,” and others rang out. It was a good jam. Danny Johnston decided to leave fairly early to attempt to get back to Goodhart before the snow made the roads too dangerous.

It was then that an internet-age small-town phenomenon showed itself alive and well. Some local Beaver Islanders had seen a photo on Facebook of the jam happening at Danny Gillespie's home. They soon arrived with refreshments, and after Tammy Gillespie provided us dinner, the jam started again for some time to appease the desires of winter appetites for music and entertainment.

Click here to listen to a recording of Ruby John, Danny Johnston, Trae McMaken, Danny Gillespie, and Bradley Winkler playing “Big John McNeil” and “Miller’s Reel.”

Written by Trae McMaken in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the MSU Museum.