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.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Notes from the Field: “FIDDLERS SIGN IN” at the Original Michigan Fiddlers Jamboree

Notes from the Field is a new series of blog posts that chronicles fieldwork undertaken by MSU Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program staff and associates. Stay connected for access to photos, videos, and interview excerpts with traditional artists across the state.

From the fieldnotes of Molly McBride:

Sign in sheets according to musical role
Photo by Molly McBride
Neon-colored signs sit at the top of clipboards, directing participants to sign in according to their musical role: guests, fiddlers, other musicians, piano players, and dance callers. I sign my name on the fiddlers list and turn to find my place with other fiddlers and musicians.

On Saturday May 30th, I attended the Original Michigan Fiddlers Jamboree in Pentwater, Michigan. The Original Michigan Fiddlers Association (OMFA) is a longstanding organization in Michigan that supports and promotes traditional fiddle music in Michigan. Throughout the year, they hold jamborees across the state where musicians, dancers, music-enthusiasts meet to celebrate their shared love of Michigan fiddle music.

Musicians play at the OMFA Jamboree
Photo by Molly McBride
At the head of the room, a thicket of musicians sit in front of a line of microphones with a bass player flanking each side (although a third bass later joins the ranks). On the right, one microphone stands tall awaiting each lead fiddler and beside it is the keyboard, an integral element in accompanying fiddlers. On the left, Richard McEachin, the current president of the OMFA, sits with his fiddle behind the sound system where he emcees the event. Rows of chairs are set up facing the musicians where audience members take in the four-hour event.

The audience listens to Dave Preston lead a tune.
Photo by Molly McBride
At the jamboree, fiddlers who “sign in” each lead three songs while other musicians play along. On Saturday, seventeen fiddlers from all over Michigan signed up to lead tunes. A wide variety of tunes were picked and played; some from the Michigan repertoire, for example “Black Velvet Waltz” and “Tyler’s Trot”, some modern compositions like “Ashokan Farewell”, and some songs played as instrumental pieces such as “Grandfather’s Clock” and “I’ll Fly Away”.

I was ninth in line and when it came time to step up to the microphone, I was nervous. I could hear jittery nerves in my own playing, but was met with warm enthusiasm when I finished the tunes. More generally, I was struck by the kindness, respect, and support musicians gave each other throughout the day, whether behind the microphones, in the audience, or discussions over dinner. Words of admiration were exchanged often: about someone’s playing, tune choice, or in remembering those who have passed. Many musicians in attendance learned from and played with well-known fiddlers Les Raber and Stewart Carmichael and spoke of them before playing a tune, offering a personal story or words of gratitude.

Two fiddlers share the mic.
Photo by Molly McBride
Because the act of remembering teachers, family, and friends was so prevalent throughout the day, it strikes me as significant to both the event and to the tradition. In choosing a tune from a certain repertoire, dedicating a tune to someone special (like a teacher), and prefacing a tune with a personal story, we memorialize people who are important to the tradition. Through memorializing, our teachers are recognized as tradition bearers, as people who have kept fiddle music alive in Michigan. However, memorializing not only tells stories about the person at hand, but implicitly speaks volumes about the storyteller’s location within the tradition. So often when we talk about traditional music, we talk about facts from the past and neglect to recognize the ways in which we participate in tradition now; fiddle traditions are no more about repertoires and bowing styles than they are about the processes of musical and social exchange and the relationships we form through them.

I’ve been told more than once by traditional musicians that we are an amalgam of those we’ve learned from and played with. At the OMFA jamboree it is clearly evident that what is valued is sharing a tune with old and new friends--making connections with other people through fiddle music.


Molly McBride is an ethnomusicologist and a lead fieldworker for the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, Michigan State University Museum with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. This summer she is undertaking fieldwork on musical communities in Michigan.