By Warren Miller
Bear Creek, Chinese Breakdown, Soldier's Joy, Whistlin' Rufus, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Red Wing, Kentucky Waltz, Sweetheart Schottische, Soppin' the Gravy, Ragtime Annie--- the names of fiddle tunes evoke a past rich in the textures of country life. These and other colorful old time fiddle tunes can be heard Saturday, October 2, at 1:00 p.m. when the Mile High Chapter of the Arizona Old Time Fiddlers takes the stage at the 21st Annual Sharlot Hall Museum Folk Music Festival.
The past is reflected in the present by people who carry forward traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the music of the people: folk music. Folk music is different from other forms of music: it is learned informally, passed from one musician to another, played by ear and not from written scores.
The Arizona Old Time Fiddlers organization exists to keep alive the country dance music of our ancestors. The Mile High Chapter of the Arizona Old Time Fiddlers is only about ten years old, but the music it propagates is hundreds of years old. The club was formed in September, 1989, by six couples: Raleigh & Reva Normandin, Gene & Avis Evans, Mike & Betty McGovern, Lee & Betty Herring, Jim & Jemmie Helmericks, and Ed & Edith Denton. By 1992, membership had grown to seventy-five people. The club was formed because these people were worried that the music they had learned from their parents and grandparents might stop with their generation.
The family of long-time member Ruth Gilpin, the matriarch of one of the earliest families in Paulden, shows how traditional music can be interwoven through several generations. Ruth plays fiddle and guitar, her daughter, Mary Hill, plays guitar and is trying to interest her granddaughter in playing. Mary's late husband, Jerry Hill, was an excellent guitarist in the style of Merle Travis; his dad had been a fiddler. Ruth's husband played guitar and loved to sing the old time cowboy songs; her father, O.T. Pownall, played mandolin and banjo. At the family's store in Paulden, the only business in the area when Ruth was a child, musicians would gather almost every evening to play the old tunes, and the children would dance. This was before television, and there was no radio reception in Paulden; the people had to make their own fun the same way their ancestors had.
When Ruth was young her parents valued music so much that they drove her to Prescott once a week to take violin lessons from Gabriel Payne, a fine musician and violin maker who was also the bandmaster. Ruth remembers being very impressed with Mr. Payne's ability to play a great variety of musical styles; among other musical duties he would play violin for silent films at the Elks Theater. Payne had come to Prescott from Kentucky in 1922. He passed his violin-making skills on to the late Sam Saum, who told this writer that in his rigorous apprenticeship with Payne he had to rehair 300 bows before he was allowed to begin learning violin work. One of Ruth's most prized possessions is the Gabriel Payne violin her parents bought her-for the princely sum of $150-in 1930 to encourage her music. It is the fiddle she plays today.
Ruth remembers how much the whole community looked forward to the occasional dances which were held in the basement of the old stone Mormon church, at the Matli's ranch, or over in Williamson Valley at the Burnt Ranch. The dances at the Mormon church were mostly couple dances: waltzes, fox trots, Schottisches, with an occasional Virginia Reel. Floyd Eckert played piano, there was a saxophonist, and Ruth often played violin . Mary Hill remembers her dad teaching her to dance the Schottische, saying "Listen to the music and hop with the music. One, two, three . . . hop."
The Old Time Fiddlers get together every Friday evening for a jam and have monthly meetings on the third Sunday of the month. They welcome everyone, and are particularly interested in having young musicians join them to learn the old dance tunes. For information, call Ruth Gilpin at 636-2272. The Folk Music Festival is free to all and takes place from 10 am to 5 pm Saturday and Sunday, October 2 and 3, at the Sharlot Hall Museum. A complete schedule of musicians can be found on the Museum's web site (www.sharlothall.lib.az.us).
Warren Miller is the Curator of Education at the Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (pb132f4i5). Reuse only by permission.
This is all girls string band was probably photographed in Southern Arizona around the turn of the century. The Heritage Middle School (Chino Valley) String Band will perform at next weekend's Festival at Noon on Saturday.
Cut line 2: Old Time Fiddlers members Ruth Gilpin and daughter Mary Hill, of Paulden, Arizona. The Old Time Fiddlers will serve up the finest of old-time songs on Saturday at 1:00 pm at the Museum.