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, September 23, 2014

A Tale of Two (Michigan) Fiddlers

When I first met Trae McMaken a year ago, I hadn’t interviewed a Michigan fiddler in fifteen years. The fiddler whose career and repertoire I knew best, Beaver Island’s Patrick Bonner, was a man I had never met. Bonner died in 1973, well before I began to explore the richness of Michigan’s cultural landscape as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist. Later I came to know Bonner through a remarkable body of field recordings by twentieth-century folklorists Ivan Walton (University of Michigan) and Alan Lomax, who, when he came to Beaver Island in 1938, was a young Assistant in Charge for the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress.

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.
Michigan, of course, has its share of living fiddlers who play in many styles. Lately, I just hadn’t had the good fortune to work with them. This changed when I met Trae McMaken―a gifted young musician in his twenties who is passionate about playing and documenting Michigan fiddling, with a goal of inspiring younger generations to embrace and continue the state’s fiddling heritage. (See Trae’s website, michiganfiddle.com.)

Trae McMaken plays a few tunes.
Photo by Laurie Sommers.
Trae was raised in rural China Township, in St. Clair County along the St. Clair River, and grew up a musical family that specialized in gospel music. He was first exposed to fiddle at age 7 or 8 through family friends and was immediately captivated by the instrument. But unlike Bonner—who grew up on a close-knit island of fiddlers playing community dances, picnics, weddings, and house parties—Trae had no local fiddlers as mentors. He learned the fundamentals of violin through private teachers. His real introduction to the fiddling community came at age 13 when he first attended Celtic College in Goderich, Ontario. There he participated in workshops by prominent Celtic fiddlers from Ireland, Scotland, France, and Canada. While the workshops were instructive, it was the after-hours jam sessions in local pubs—where fiddlers informally shared tunes and techniques―that were the best teachers.

Meet and Hear Fiddler Trae McMaken


Patrick Bonner, by contrast, didn’t have to travel very far to hear his own community’s “Celtic” tradition. The son of an Irish immigrant, he was born in 1882 on “America’s Arranmore,” the nickname for Beaver Island that references the small island off the coast of Donegal, Ireland, that was home for most of Beaver Island’s early Irish settlers. Pat got his first fiddle at age 12, but he already knew many tunes by listening to the island's older generation of Irish-born fiddlers. In his youth, Pat only needed to hear a tune once to learn it. On Beaver Island during Bonner's boyhood, house parties and community gatherings featured dancing, fiddling, ballad singing, and storytelling, all liberally laced with drink.

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.