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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Homage to Karl Byarski, 1916-2016

Karl Byarski with his recording equipment in the basement of his home in Kinde, Michigan

Dave Langdon, a fiddler, fiddle music researcher, and Michigan Folklore Society president, wrote the following words to commemorate Karl Byarski, who sadly passed away on December 22, 2016.

Karl Byarski (August 5, 1916 – December 22, 2016) passed away at his home in Kinde, MI on Thursday, December 22, 2016. Karl had been honored by the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the MSU Museum in 2014 with the Michigan Heritage Award for his collecting and documentation activities in Huron County, MI and the rest of the Thumb area. Here is a link to his obituary.

Karl purchased a reel to reel tape recorder from Montgomery Ward in about 1952. This recorder was a one speed 1 7/8 inches per second recorder. He liked fiddle music, so he recorded people playing the fiddle. He liked Polish music, so he recorded people playing Polish music. He liked the sounds of nature, so he would wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and set up his tape recorder to record nature sounds. He was a religious man, having been raised Roman Catholic and attending St. Mary of Czestochowa church in nearby Dwight Township for most of his life, so he recorded special services and the choir of the church (and other churches) and parties at the church hall. He loved his family, so he recorded many family activities both at home and other locations. He liked to record things so he borrowed records from friends and recorded them on tape.

Phil Miller (Karl's uncle from Kinde, MI), Karl Byarski, William Reehl (fiddler from Bad Axe, MI), Ernie Patterson with fiddle (Filion, MI) at former State Senator Sam Pangborn's home in Bad Axe, MI circa 1958. From L to R.

Karl exchanged tapes with several other people who did recording, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Someone would send Karl a tape and he was supposed to listen to it and then record his message and his recordings over the original message and send it back to the person who sent the tape. But Karl would keep these tapes as he kept almost all of the recordings he made.

Karl converted most of the basement of the family home into an amateur recording studio. At the time he started recording, the idea that a person could hear music they had just created was something of a novelty in Huron County, Michigan. People would come over to his house either by invitation or having heard about his recording and be recorded. Many weekend parties took place in that basement and many recordings were made there. Karl also often took his recorder with him to the homes of people who played music and recorded them at their home. He went to other churches in the area and recorded church services and parties at church halls. He recorded some fiddlers’ jamborees. He recorded an outdoor fiddling contest in nearby Ubly, MI in 1965. For a time he had a radio program called the Hometowners on local Bad Axe radio station WLEW where he played recordings he had collected and sometimes had musicians play live at the studio. He recorded the Barney Schubring Show on radio station WLEW and other radio programs as well. He would call friends and record the telephone conversation. He took his recorder with him on vacation and made recordings at some of the places the family visited.

I first met Karl on Friday, July 13, 2012, just before he turned 96 years old. I had borrowed a cassette from a man from Deckerville that turned out to have been made by Karl and I had spent about the two weeks prior trying to find out who had made the borrowed tape and whether there were other tapes. After doing several internet searches and contacting people via email and depending on the help of total strangers, I had been told that Karl had “quite a few tapes” and lived in Kinde and I was given a contact phone number. I called the number and a woman (who turned out to be Karl’s daughter) answered the phone. After giving me the third degree about why I wanted to talk with her father, she put Karl on the phone with me. We talked for a few minutes about his collection of recordings and then Karl gave me his email address and asked me to send him an email, “then I’ll have your email address. I’ll send you some stuff” he said. So I gave him my email address and the next morning as I was sitting at my computer, working, I received an email from Karl with an attached .mp3 file of Ford and Florence Stein playing music. Ford on the violin, Florence on the piano, about 45 minutes worth of music. About 15 minutes later, I received another email with more music from someone else and then 15 minutes later, a third email with more music again from Ford and Florence Stein. I decided that I needed to get up to see Karl as soon as possible, that evening I drove to Huron County and stayed with some friends from Lansing at their cottage near Oak Beach. The next day I went to see Karl at his home for the first time. I met his daughter, Linda and his wife, Margaret as well. We sat at the kitchen table and I talked with them about the collecting work that I was doing and Karl told me a little bit about the recordings he had made and how he got started recording. After a while, Karl asked me if I wanted to see his recordings. I said that I did and his daughter and I helped him go down to the basement where the recordings were kept. As I neared the bottom of the stairs, I saw a handmade wooden cassette storage unit that was full of cassettes. There were 6 rows and 10 columns of cubbyholes. Later I learned that each cubbyhole held about 15 cassettes (900 cassettes). When I turned around, I saw several shelves against the wall full of reel to reel tapes. As I looked around the basement, I saw several other cabinets with cardboard boxes holding cassettes and another smaller cassette storage unit on the wall in another room. I could not believe the number of tapes that Karl had.

Cassette holder (top) and shelves with reel-to-reels (bottom) filled with Karl's recordings.
I spent more than 100 hours interviewing Karl Byarski at his home in Kinde during the time we were documenting and indexing his recordings. One of the biggest problems I had was getting Karl to talk about himself. I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. He was always willing to talk with me about his recordings. We would sit at his kitchen table with the recorder going and I would bring several tapes up from the basement and number them and then I would give the tapes to Karl and he would talk about them. Especially with the reel to reel tapes when he took the tape in his hands and looked at the notes he had written on the back cover, it seemed like he would be transported in time back to when he had recorded that tape. Through the interviews I had with Karl, I became much more familiar with Huron County, a place I had hardly visited prior to meeting Karl. And in working to contact families of the people Karl recorded, I met many people from this part of Michigan. Almost without exception, they have been willing to share their time and recordings, pictures and information with me. I have discovered what a fine place Karl had lived in for so many years. One of the first times I visited Karl, he asked me to play some tunes for him and virtually every time I went to his house, I had to play a few tunes for him before I left. He and his family were always very generous with their time and hospitality. I came to feel like a member of the Byarski family. During these last several months as Karl’s health has declined and he was in hospice care at his home, I tried to visit him at his home and play some tunes on my fiddle for him. He always seemed to appreciate hearing and talking about these tunes. It will seem very strange to me now to go to the Thumb and not stop at his house and talk and play tunes for him. But as Karl himself had done over the years, I have preserved the memory of many of our conversations and visits by recording them. These will be a reminder of Karl's love and devotion for music, nature, friends, and family.