Fiddle-L Anthology 1999

A Tour 'Round The World Of Fiddling

Performer Bio


Vivian T. Williams, Seattle Washington ( /

Vivian was born May 27, 1938, in Tacoma, Pierce County, Washington State. She attended public schools in Tacoma, Washington, then majored in history at Reed College, Portland, Oregon; she earned an M.A. in anthropology "(subject of thesis: ethnomusicology, though there was no ethnomusicology department at the time)" at the University of Washington. She is the owner of Voyager Recordings and Publications, and is also a musician and fiddle teacher. She is involved with many musical organizations: Seattle Folklore Society Board of Directors, Northwest Folklife Board of Directors, National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences, Victory Music, Washington Bluegrass Association, National Old Time Fiddle Association, and Washington Old Time Fiddle Association.


Vivian's father, of English and Irish heritage, was born in Hutchinson, Minnesota; her mother, of Jewish heritage, was born in Storozynetz, province of Bukovina, Austria "(Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the time)". No predecessors played the violin, although Vivian's older sister "took lessons for a few years -- and hated it! ... I began playing the violin at age 9, when free music lessons were offered in my grade school in Tacoma, Washington. I took formal classical lessons for 12 years. I've picked up a lot of fiddling tunes and tricks from other fiddlers showing me how to do something. Nothing that I'd call a "lesson", however; just friendly, spur-of-the-moment advice. Notable fiddle advisers have included Hank English, Bill Mitchell, Joe Pancerzewski, Grant Lamb, Carl McKenzie, Frank Ferrel." Vivian hasn't attended a fiddle camp as a student, but has taught at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, at the Washington State Old Time Fiddle Association Workshop in Kittitas, Washington, and the Montana Old Time Fiddle Association workshop at Camp Child, Montana, as well as at small scale workshops associated with bluegrass and old time music festivals.

"The first fiddle tune I ever played was Turkey in the Straw, which I learned to play (by ear) on the harmonica, from my father, when I was a little kid. Later, when I was in junior high school, I learned it again on the violin (off of written music) from one of my classical teachers! My current favorite fiddle tune is "Yellow Barber." The best rendition I've heard of that tune is by Buddy Thomas. Who's my favorite fiddler? That's a tough one -- there are about ten I'd like to name. But the one whose music makes me want to jump up and down when I hear it is Clark Kessinger."


"In addition to reels & hoedowns, I play hornpipes, clogs, schottisches, airs, marches, strathspeys, jigs, rags, blues, bluegrass tunes, hambos, polkas, two- steps, foxtrots, and specialty dance tunes such as Rye Waltz, Tuxedo, Varsouvianna, and Cotton Eyed Joe. I play a handful of tunes in scordatura, including "Black Mountain Blues" tuning, "Bonaparte's Retreat" tuning, GDAD, and AEAE." Vivian adds that she also enjoys playing piano, guitar, bass and a bit of banjo and recorder. "My favorite all-around backup instrument for fiddle is guitar, although for dances a piano is great, and fiddle/banjo is a wonderful sound just for listening. I play a lot for dances - probably more than for stage shows. I don't play regularly in church. The contra dance band I'm in plays for public dances and occasional private parties; I also play with a bluegrass band for bluegrass festivals, folk festivals, and private parties. I also sometimes play for square dances with a miscellaneous assortment of musicians put together by a caller we have been working with for 35 years. My husband Phil and I often play just by ourselves for stage shows, and even occasionally for dances (although it's a lot more work with just two musicians). I've played for one funeral, and for lots of weddings - both for the wedding

ceremony and for the party."


"I enjoy attending fiddle contests, although they certainly don't encourage the most interesting fiddling there is. I used to play in a lot more fiddle contests than I do now; these days I mostly just go to Weiser. The first fiddle contest I ever entered was in Darrington, Washington, in 1961. It was not a "normal" contest, but a little bitty contest that was an adjunct to the logging celebration they used to have, called the "Timber Bowl." The population up there is mostly folks originally from North Carolina. I won with "Orange Blossom Special". I think my backup was guitar and banjo. I don't remember getting any sort of prize or trophy. Second place was won by an old man from Everett named Ray Rodgers. The biggest contest I've ever entered (21 times) is the National Old Time Fiddle Contest at Weiser, Idaho. I won the "Ladies Division" 3 times (which wasn't all of that hard to do back in the '60's). The best I ever did in the Open Division was 5th place, back in 1979.

"I've judged a lot of fiddle contests -- 3 or 4 times at Weiser, several in Oregon, California, British Columbia and Idaho, and this year I'm going to judge the Montana State contest. Pay runs from $100 to $500, and usually includes motels and sometimes meals and travel allowance. I enjoy judging fiddle contests, up to a point; sometimes it's hard to make my feelings about what I hear correspond to the rules about how to give out points. The sociability of the scene is really the best part. A good contest judge needs to be open-minded, and knowledgeable about many fiddle styles. He/she also needs to be careful about being unduly influenced by greater familiarity with certain styles and fiddlers -- this is really difficult. And he/she has to have some kind of satisfactory method of translating opinions into numbers. I don't think it's necessary to be a fiddler to be a good judge, but if a judge was not a fiddler, their credibility with the audience and the contestants might be adversely affected. It's not always possible to convince folks of a person's knowledge about fiddling if he/she doesn't play. On the other hand, being a good fiddler definitely does not necessarily make one a good judge. I've seen some terrible examples -- but let's not get into gossip."


"How to describe my style of fiddling -- that's a difficult one. Maybe it's easier to say what I don't do. I don't play Irish style (although I play a lot of Irish tunes), and I don't play Texas style, or Cajun. I do, however, play lots of Northern Midwest (including Canadian) and Northwest dance music, along with some New England stuff. I started out playing Southern old time and Bluegrass styles, and this still shows in my playing. I have also dabbled a bit in Cape Breton and Scottish fiddling, and use some French Canadian tunes for contra dancing (although when I play them they don't sound the least bit Quebecois.) So where does that leave me? Some kind of pan-U.S./Canadian hybrid, I guess.

"When I first started to play fiddle in 1960, I didn't know of any other fiddlers in the area, so I learned most of my fiddling from the few records that were available of Mike Seeger, Clark Kessinger, Chubby Wise, Benny Martin, and other Southeastern fiddlers, and some of the old time string bands on 78 rpm records. When I started going to national fiddle contests in 1964 I got a big dose of inspiration from Byron Berline, Bill Mitchell, Texas Shorty, Bill Long, and Jim Widner. Then in 1971 I started learning a lot of Canadian and Northern Midwest stuff from Joe Pancerzewski. He was a major mentor and completely turned my fiddling style and repertoire around...

"How many styles are there -- well, let's see: Southeast (at least 4 or 5 definable ones there), Missouri (Northern and Ozark), Midwest (maybe 3 styles, depending on the amount of German, French or Scandinavian influence), Northwest (kind of a hodge podge of other styles, but there are some detectable general characteristics), Benny style (I won't get involved in the controversy about whether this should be called "Contest" or "Texas" or "Modern Texas"), Bluegrass style (old and new), Western Canadian, Metis, Quebecois, Maritime, Cape Breton, Irish, Scottish, Swedish, Norwegian, jazz, Western Swing, Klezmer, gypsy, ..... I've already lost count. There are styles and substyles defined by regions, individuals and their followers, and social settings, all of which criss-cross and overlap. So I guess the question is by its nature unanswerable, because there are as many styles as the observer cares to define. What constitutes the "dominant" fiddle style in this region depends on who you hang out with, and how you define the "region." In the contest scene and especially among the young folks in it, it's Benny style. Among the folk revivalists, it's "old timey" Appalachian, although there's also a sizable Irish contingent. Among the old timers it's Northern Midwest style with a heavy Scandinavian influence. And you can find fiddlers who play whatever style you happen to be interested in: in the folk dance community in the Puget Sound area there are several Spelmanslags (is this a proper plural form?), and you can find some Cape Breton, Western Swing, Scottish, bluegrass, Cajun, Meti (mostly in British Columbia), and almost anything else you can name."

Vivian plays in two bands; a contra dance band (Pleasures of Home), and a bluegrass band (Williams and Bray). Vivian is featured on several recordings on the Voyager label:

"Winter Moon" (VRCD and VRCS 336, CD and cassette released 1990, with Harley Bray on banjo, and Phil Williams on guitar and bass)

"Brand New Old Time Fiddle Tunes No. 2" (VRCS 338, released 1992, with Phil Williams on guitar)

"Fiddler" (VRCD and VRCS 323, originally released on LP 1978, with Grant Lamb on piano, Dick Marvin on guitar, Barney Munger on banjo, Lou Harrington on bass, Phil Williams on bass or mandolin)

"Starry Nights and Candlelight" (VRCD and VRCS 333, originally released on LP 1989, with Pat Spaeth on accordion or piano, Phil Williams on guitar or mandolin)

"Twin Sisters" (VRCD and VRCS 316, originally released on LP 1974, with Barbara Lamb, fiddle, and Tall Timber bluegrass band)

"I also play a tune on Mike Seeger's "Third Annual Farewell Reunion" record on Rounder." (Rounder CD 0313)


"My violin was made by Christian Wilhelm Seidel in Markneukirchen around the middle of the 19th century. According to the violin books, Seidel followed several Italian and German models and also came up with his own "Seidel" model; I don't know which category mine fits into. It is loud, responsive, and balanced between upper and lower register. Its tone is not innately particularly sweet or mellow, but it's a lot sweeter than my previous fiddle (which had about as much character as a signal generator), and it is possible to play sweetly on it. Although the action is set very low, it can withstand "digging in" with the bow to get more volume or punch. I use a Resonans shoulder rest. For the E string I use Pirastro Goldstahl; for the A, D, and G I use SuperSensitive mediums. The bow I use for recording, bluegrass and shows is by Albert Nurnberger, and is just a little lighter than average (I don't remember just how many grams). For dance playing I use a heavier bow by Sandner.

"I don't collect violins, but my husband and I like to pick up musical instruments in thrift stores, fix them, keep them around for a while, and eventually sell them. We do have a lot of guitars, banjos, and mandolins, but only 6 fiddles. Although Phil is able to do basic maintenance and repairs, and has built a mandolin and a guitar, I take my fiddle to a professional repairman for most work. I do not rehair bows, or build instruments.


"Why do I play the fiddle? Because it's fun. Also satisfying, ego-building,

and pleasure-giving."


1) "Sam and Elzie": I learned this tune a few years ago from the banjo playing of Harley Bray, who got it from his older brother Wilson Bray (from Illinois). After I had learned it, I heard a tape of Wilson playing it on the fiddle, and then met him when he came out for a visit. So I changed my version a bit to be closer to the original. I have never heard anyone else play this tune, and wonder if anyone has run into it anywhere.

2) "Whistler's Waltz": This is NOT the tune of the same name that's currently popular among contest fiddlers. I heard it a lot at Weiser back in the '60's, played by Idaho and Oregon fiddlers.

3) "Honest John": Grant Lamb from Manitoba taught me this tune around 1978. It's a common Canadian and American dance tune, and is found in the Don Messer book, and in Lloyd Shaw's "Cowboy Dances" as a square dance tune.

Backup on the tape is provided by my husband Phil Williams, with whom I've been playing music since before we got married in 1959 (but we were playing baroque music, not old time, back then). He plays guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, recorder, and a little fiddle and piano. He learned some guitar picking from his father, who was a native of Kentucky and a square dance caller; picked up bluegrass banjo and guitar during the 1960's, and learned mandolin in the 70's. In our contra dance band, he plays guitar, mandolin, and tenor banjo; in our bluegrass band, he plays mandolin and bass.