Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ken Amundson is a fourth generation Minnesota fiddler.

Nick Hoffman and Ken Amundson.
Ken Amundson is a Saint Paul 3rd generation Minnesota violin luthier and 4th generation Minnesota fiddler. His great grandfather came to Minnesota from Norway. They were mostly barn dance and party fiddlers.  Sometimes there would be just a few musicians and sometimes they would need a bunch of folks to keep the crowds pleased.   They would dance on Friday night until the daylight Saturday and then get back at it after chores on Saturday.   He tells a cute story of kids falling asleep on the pile of jackets that accumulated in the corner of the room during the dances.  His grandpa and dad were house builders, barn builders and farmers. Because his grandfather, Karl, was good with wood, people would ask him to fix their fiddle.  He passed this skill on to Ken’s father Harris and Ken has turned it into the business he has today.  Ken has done work for several important artists including Ricky Scaggs and Kenny Chesney’s fiddler, Nick Hoffman.  Nick learned to play fiddle from Kenny Admundson’s father, Harris. Harris liked to teach tunes to the younger generation.

Harris was a significant Minnesota fiddler. He was involved in starting the Minnesota State Fiddle Association with Elmo Wick.  They starting organizing fiddle festivals around the state.  Ken told a touching story about his father’s favorite tune.  For many years his father couldn’t remember what the name of the tune was.  One day while he was out driving he saw a Westphalia camper and that triggered his memory that the tune was Westphalia waltz.  Many years later Kenny’s brother was with their father by his death bed.  He had not been doing well, but began tapping a tune out in ¾ time on his bed.  Kenny’s brother asked him what tune it was and he said it was the Westphalia Waltz. He died a short while later.   For that reason the song will be in my Minnesota repertoire.  I am in the process of getting copies of Harris's home recordings and then I will share a few tunes with you all.

In the videos Ken also shows us the great Hardanger fiddles that are around his shop.  If you are in need of fiddle repair work, you should contact him.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Henry Ford’s fiddle contests hits Minnesota in 1926.

In 1926 Henry ford decided to have a bunch of fiddle contests at auto shows simultaneously all across the country. They became a major cultural phenomenon. Henry’s putting the fiddle in the national spotlight led to many newspaper articles about the contests. Luckily for us, some of these newspaper clips were collected in one of Bob Andresen's files at the University of Wisconsin. It gives us a peak into who the great Minnesota fiddlers were 85 years ago and glimpses of their repertoire. It shows that Minnesotan fiddlers were playing many of the common tunes that were shared by fiddlers around the country- the kinds of tunes that are still played in jams today. I would be remiss if I didn't add some of these popular tunes into this blog's collection. The three that come up the most are Turkey in the Straw, Irish Washerwoman, and The Girl I Left Behind Me. All three of these tunes have been in Minnesota since the early days of Fort Snelling.

Some notable excerpts from the statewide contests:

- A.A. Lund, chewing away for dear life, without a tooth in his head, gave them The Girl I Left Behind Me, his moustache jerking up and down in perfect time with the tune.

- Between 20,000 and 30,000 fans have packed three theatres over the last 4 nights.

- Rules of contest: Entrant must be over 60 years of age. 90 names were entered.

- Diffney’s right arm amputated just below the elbow where his violin bow was strapped. His second number was Irish Washerwoman which received shouts and applause.

- 600 people attended. Largest crowd ever assembled in the hall.

I have no Minnesota sources of these tunes from the 1920's.  So here are the popular stringbands of the day playing them-

Turkey In The Straw. Gid Tanner And His Skillet Lickers (1926)

The Girl I Left Behind Me. Gid Tanner And His Skillet Lickers (1926)

 Irish Washerwoman. Doc Roberts (1928)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Selmer Ramsey

Talk to the old generation of Minnesota fiddlers and most of them have heard the tune Selmer Ramsey's Waltz. A few might say that he was a guy from up north. I was excited to find an actual out-of-print recording of the man. Selmer passed away 33 years ago.

From an out-of-print LP -

"Selmer Ramsey was born in 1914 in Highlanding Township, MN. His mother, Sophie Resla, was from Oslo, Norway. His father, James Ramsey, was from Albert Lea, MN. Selmer began playing the violin at the age of nine.
In 1937 Selmer married Ruby McEnelly of Goodridge, MN. They have one daughter, Jean, and two grandchildren, Jeffrey and Kristen. Selmer was a dance band leader for many years in the Goodridge and Thief River Falls area. At one time his band played regularly over KTRF, a local radio station.

Many of the tunes on this record are so old, they are only known as a waltz or schottische. Many were learned from his father James and his uncles Elling and Julius Ramsey, who were all from the Albert Lea area. There are also tunes which he learned from two local fiddlers, Ivan Sjuiestad and Ole Tharaldson. Selmer was also influenced by the old-time music played on radio stations from Winnipeg, Manitoba and Fargo, North Dakota (WDAY). He has several waltzes and schottisches of his own composition.

Tom Dahill and his Irish fiddle passed down from Paddy Hill.

Tom Dahill was born in the Highland Park area of Saint Paul in 1950. Although there were no fiddlers in his family, they did play a lot of music. When he was a child all of the Irish musicians would gather at his neighbor’s house every Sunday. They would also play neighborhood functions and dances. The players in those days were Mike McGivney, Mike Hughes, Mike Nash, Mike Sullivan, Paddy Hill and Tom Donahue. His mom grew up next to Tom Donahue. She remembered going to dances where he played. Tom Dahill's parents met the Hibernian hall that used to be in downtown Saint Paul where they had weekly Irish dances.

I contacted Tom because I wanted to get more Irish influence into this project. I specifically was interested in his connection to Paddy Hill. Paddy was a legendary fiddler from Saint Paul who many seem to reference, but few seemed to be able to tell me about. Tom not only plays music that he learned from Paddy, but still plays Paddy’s old fiddle. He estimates that his fiddle has been played in Saint Paul since the 1800s. It was given to Paddy in 1923 by fiddler Tom Martin.

The Irish American Club started in the 1920s, and they had dances every Saturday night. Their early home base was in a rec hall at Selby and Dale. After a while it moved to a rec hall on Selby and Snelling where the Associated Bank is now.

Tom talked about how there were large Irish farming communities to the Southwest of the Twin Cities. He knew many players in the old days from down in this area. He mentions a group photo he saw of about 30 fiddlers down in the Belle Plain area. They used to look forward to the harvest time and the celebrations that would attract the Irish fiddlers.

Tom continues to make a living from playing Irish music on many instruments. Contact him if you need a great Irish musician to play your function. Here some of the tunes he plays from The Paddy Hill repertoire. All three tune had lyrics that went with them, but we have just the tune featured here.

Maggie In The Woods

Bill Doody Don't Know That His Father Is Dead

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Elmo Wick's tunes

Elmo was born on August 27, 1924, in Sunburg, Minnesota, the son of Andrew and Esther (Erickson) Wick. He grew up in Sunburg where he attended school. He was united in marriage to Melba Gunderson September 12, 1945, in Sunburg. The couple moved to Willmar in 1947, where Elmo worked for the Kandiyohi County Highway Department as a heavy equipment operator for 37 years. He retired in 1983 and moved to Brooten, Minnesota, in 1985. Melba died on December 5, 2002. Elmo was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran faith and was a member of Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar and Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooten. Elmo loved music and played the violin his whole life. He stared playing with Morris Chargo at KWLM Radio on a weekly show. He later played with Harry Forsman Band and the Norskies Band. He also taught violin and played in fiddlers contests throughout the state. He belonged to the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America and the Minnesota State Fiddlers Association. Elmo's vast collection of transcriptions are now being reproduced by the MSFA. - Walter Sigtermans (MSFA)


Friday, November 4, 2011

Elmo Wick

Just before the state fair I called Dee Scott at the Minnesota State Fiddlers Association. Even though it sounded like she was doing about 10 things at the time, she took time out to talk with me. During the course of our conversation, she told me that she had an Elmo Wick tape that she would copy for me. She said I would have to wait for a couple weeks because she was off to the fiddle championships at the Minnesota State Fair. No more than two days later did the mail come with that tape. Bless her heart.

Elmo Wick was a Minnesota fiddler from the town of Brooten. Brooten is located in the middle of the state, west of Saint Cloud. He was one of the three founding fiddlers of the Minnesota State Fiddle Association. In the newsletter accompanying the letter below are pictures of Elmo transcribing a fiddle tune to paper. This is fitting, as this was one of his favorite things to do. The MSFA currently has possession of his sheet music.

Below is a history of the MSFA he wrote for the organization's newsletter:

Letter to the MSFA, from Elmo Wick (edited)

June, 2001

A big thanks to Dee Scott for a fine job of writing the newsletter and also to Dan Radford, president, and Gilmore Lee, vice-president, and all of the other officers and directors for keeping the MSFA alive and well.

I am sending Dee all the information on how the MFSA started. For those of you wondering how the fiddlers’ association came into being, I asked Lloyd Eisert and Gilmore Lee at the concert in Annandale, in August of 1986, if they would help me start a fiddlers' association for the state of Minnesota, and they agreed to do so.

I used my own time and money to buy stamps. I looked for a place to meet in the center of Minnesota and asked some of the fiddlers that I knew if Saint Cloud would be OK. So I drove to the Holiday Inn in Saint Cloud in September of 1986 and rented a meeting room for the afternoon of October 26th.

My wife Melba and I wrote letter to sixty fiddlers in Minnesota to invite them to the meeting. At the meeting we elected our board of directors and our officers. The Holiday Inn made an offer to me- If I could sell 25 noon dinners that day, then we could use the room for free. Twenty six dinners were sold, so that saved me some money.

The meeting was a great success. Lloyd Eisert was elected president. Sid Kjeldahl was elected treasurer, and Gilmore Lee and I were elected directors. Michele Kolbrek suggested the name. I wish the word “old-time” would have been included in the name because I really want old-time fiddling to live forever.

I donated $100 to the MSFA for expenses. I also played at the county fairs with the South Dakota Fiddlers and gave the profits I earned to the MSFA. In 1989 Lloyd Eisert turned in a bill for mileage expenses and a phone bill for $485. That left the MFSA in the red. We were lucky to have Sid Kjeldahl take over and save the MFSA by putting on programs in Long Prairie once a month for three years. By charging $2 a person and donating it all to the MSFA, we got out of debt.

Another fiddler who has done a lot for the MSFA is Gilmore Lee. He has donated lots of driving, playing time, and phone calls. He has done this all for free. I also fondly recall all of the donations made by Archie Teigan and Howard Borgerding. I also am sending Dee two tapes of Alan Erickson and I playing old-time fiddle tunes, along with two tunes transcribed for the newsletter.

Sincerely, Elmo Wick.


From his obituary-

He was born Aug. 27, 1924, in Sunburg, MN to Andrew and Esther (Erickson) Wick. He grew up in Sunburg where he attended school.

He married Melba Gunderson on Sept. 12, 1945, in Sunburg. They moved to Willmar, MN in 1947 where he worked for the Kandiyohi County Highway Department as a heavy equipment operator for 37 years. He retired in 1983 and moved to Brooten in 1985. He was a member of Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar and Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooten. He played the violin with Morris Chargo on a weekly show on KWLM Radio. He later played with the Harry Forsman Band and the Norskies Band and entertained in later years at various senior citizens' clubs and numerous functions. He taught violin and played in fiddlers' contests throughout the state.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Minnesota Fiddle Music In Wisconsin?

This weekend my search for Minnesota fiddle music took me to Wisconsin. As odd as this may seem, the Center For The Study Of Upper Midwestern Cultures collection is housed at the Mills Music Library (I know, it is a mouthful). I went there specifically to look at the collection of Robert Andresen and Leonard Finseth.

Andresen came from Outing, MN. He devoted a large part of his life to studying, preserving, and performing music from Minnesota. He had a great radio show out of Duluth called The Northern Hoedown which featured music, interviews, and stories of the artists he was collecting.

Finseth is not officially a Minnesotan, but you can barely reference another Minnesota fiddler's name from his generation without including him. He apparently was all over this state playing with the other great fiddlers of his generation. The fact that he lived 30 miles away from the Minnesota border will be overlooked due to his significant influence and collaboration he had with other Minnesota fiddlers.

The Finseth collection is filled with old cassettes of his playing with various people. The reel-to-reels in this collection are what I really wanted to hear. They contain several fiddlers from the fertile Spring Grove area that I have no other links to. Unfortunately, the collage's reel-to-reel player was broken. The Finseth collection is mostly unprocessed due to low interest. I worry that the tapes are degrading, but I had a good chat with the library folks who said that since I have shown interest it might be pushed up on their priority list of items to digitize. I am going to have a good time going through and learning those Finseth tunes from those cassettes.

The Andresen Collection is a real treasure trove which I will be sharing in pieces. It includes correspondences, pictures, newspaper clippings, and personal accounts of Minnesota fiddlers mostly forgotten about. Bob played guitar with a lot of these folks and seemed like he was every one's friend.

Madison, Wisconsin is just a lovely city in general. I love that State street is always bustling with life and imagination and the farmers' market was very impressive, from street theatre, to banjos, accordions, brass bands, and food carts. I could have stayed at the library all night. It was good it closed at 5 each day so I could get out and see a few things. I have to make sure I don't become a research hermit- After all, the point of this project is to keep this music alive.

Here is Andresen talking about his father and Minnesotan fiddle music on his Northern Hoedown radio show.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Phil Nusbaum and his research of Minnesota old-time music made by Norwegians

In the late 1980s Phil Nusbaum took his tape recorder all over Minnesota to do field recordings of traditional music played by Norwegian immigrants to Minnesota. The album that came from it is: Norwegian-American Music from Minnesota Old-Time and Traditional Favorites. The record came with an informative 15 page booklet that provides a lot of history and context for the album.

I did not have a copy of his record so I went to Ebay and picked up a unopened LP for $9.99 that came with the booklet. What a great document of Minnesota history that package is. In the end of the booklet he asks a question about the future of Norwegian music in Minnesota. Will it continue to fade away as he saw it or would it grow into new form that could again blossom? That question in a broader sense is what started my project. Can we reshape all of this lost cross-cultural repertoire into something uniquely Minnesotan that more people could be excited about again?

The first time I talked with Phil about this project I asked him about living folks. He told me that most have passed on, which I knew. Then I decided to ask him about tapes of certain fiddlers who have passed, and I was surprised to hear that he still had tapes of all those folks he recorded in the '80s.

The ironic thing is that I have travelled through the state looking for this music and the real treasure trove of recordings was no more than a half of mile from my house.

When I showed up at Phil's house he took me into his music room and there on the top shelf of his closet was a dusty bowl full of these recordings. Many fiddlers who I was looking for were there. As he went through the tapes he explained various aspects of his project and told me about the artists. Someday soon I will go back and interview him properly with the recorder. I am going through those old tapes now and will be sharing with you some of the tunes as this project moves along.

Bill is the host of 2 weekly shows. The Bluegrass Review is his nationally syndicated weekly radio show, and you can listen to him locally every Saturday hosting Bluegrass Saturday Morning on KBEM.

Here is one of the tunes Phil put on his Norwegian album. The band is the Erksine Old-Timers. Most of the members were up in age at the time of this recording. Erksine is a little town up in Northwestern Minnesota. More on the Old-Timers in a future blog. This tune will probably make it in the repertoire as many Minnesota fiddlers were playing it.

Gary's polka-