The Williams Lake Old Time Fiddlers have had toes tapping, voices singing and people up dancing to the music around the region for 30 years this summer.
Founded July 22, 1981 by a group of fiddlers and other musicians with a love for old time fiddle tunes, the lakecity group is the Chapter 10 charter member of the B.C. Old Time Fiddlers.
Their first official public appearance was in the basement hall of the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church Hall, says Marj Blair, one of the founding members.
Blair has played the violin since she was five years old and brings the discipline of her classical training to the group.
She was born in Prince George, schooled in Kimberley and Dempsey Lake, and moved to Williams Lake with her family in high school where she met her husband, Alan, and settled here to raise their children.
“I learned more guitar from Marj than from anyone,” says Rossetta Paxton, who has played guitar with the group off and on for many years. “’Timing girl, timing,’ Marj would say. When you play with a group it forces you to get better.”
Over the years Paxton says Marj also taught her and many other people in the community how to play the fiddle.
“She taught a lot of people how to play the fiddle,” Paxton says. “It is known that if the fiddle is the lead then you play in the key off the fiddler.”
Bill Downie, another of the founding members, turned 93 this year and still plays banjo with the group periodically, although with some difficulty these days now that he suffers with arthritis and some hearing loss.
Downie was inducted into the B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame this year and also plays saxophone, which he says he learned while working on ranches where there were no neighbours to complain — “but the dog would howl and run away.”
For years before the Old Time Fiddlers came to be, Downie says he played with Hilary Place and his Satellites at dances and concerts from Quesnel to Lillooet.
The Lillooet community would pay their way on the rail bud car and give them a few bucks on top to come and play at community dances.
“We always had a good crowd,” Downie says.
Ed Caissie, the other founding member, who continues to play guitar with the group today has been the club treasurer since the beginning.
“I enjoy it for sure,” Caissie says. “I have met many new friends who I would never have met otherwise.”
Founding members no longer with the group are the late Phil DeLeenheer (the club’s first president) on fiddle and mandolin, and the late Dan Gunderson on fiddle.
In the early years the avid fiddlers in the group also included Roy Desault, the late Frank Turcott, Frank Kolotylo, and the late Reg Rankin, as well as Eugene Stowell and Mel Klyne both on guitar.
Today the Old Time Fiddlers are fewer in number but as active as ever.
In addition to the founders still with the group, members include Ken Emery on fiddle, Cathy Fetters on piano and accordion, Hal Giles on keyboard, fiddle, guitar and bass, Joe Lecomte on fiddle, Brian Garland on guitar, Gavin White on fiddle, club president Pat Myre on fiddle and guitar and periodically Vern Mulvahill on guitar, and youth fiddler Lea Butler.
Emery, in the senior category, and Butler, in the youth category, are both current championship fiddlers in their respective classes.
They also have two new members in training — Duncan Gilchrist and Ryder Cheyne, both on guitar.
Interestingly, from the beginning, Blair says they have always had at least one and sometimes two Franks and Pats in the group. In addition to president Pat Myre, today the group has Pat Gunderson as their secretary and social convener.
“We play a lot of Andy de Jarlis and Don Messer, the old master,” Blair says.
Popular songs in their repertoire include Love Letters in the Sand, Sunny Side of the Street, My Blue Heaven, Crazy Arms, Crazy, and My Shoes Keep Walkin’ Back to You. Then there is Panhandle Rag, Bye Bye Blues, Up the Lazy River and more. They also play a lot of music from the 1960s and 70s.
Don Messer’s Memorial has lots of changes. Alleganey Moon has tricky timing.
“They’re all danceable tunes,” Paxton says.
The Old Time Fiddlers hire on to perform at weddings, birthdays, reunions, dances, and parties at lodges, resorts and ranches, and at concerts in Boitanio Park.
They also volunteer time to perform for seniors and at community events such as the Stampede Parade, street party, Royal Purple’s Strawberry Tea, wagon rides for seniors event, Variety Club and 139 Children’s Fundraising Society events, and the Legion. They performed for years at the old Cariboo Lodge and Deni House and continue performing today at the Seniors’ Village.
Their most recent engagements were performing for the 150 Mile House 150th anniversary in July and as buskers for the 2011 Art Walk Show and Sale.
Downie says the Horsefly Hall dances were some of the most fun events.
But one of the most memorable occasions for the group was performing three shows a day during Cariboo Week at Expo ’86 in Vancouver.
“We played all over the site and had lots of fun,” Downie says.
At one point, Blair says they had a dressing room next to Liberace and met the internationally famous pianist.
Paxton says fiddlers also shared one front page of the Vancouver Sun with Liberace.
For quite a few years Jim Mowery was their master of ceremonies.
“He could really pull in a crowd,” Blair says.
Members have played and entered contests in Quesnel, Merritt, Kelowna and on Vancouver Island.
The group has also hosted several fiddle contests at the Elks Hall in Williams Lake over the years.
Blair has been both a contestant and a judge at various fiddle contests.
She was thrilled to place in one of the North American Fiddle Contests held in Wabumum, AB where Al Cherney from the Tommy Hunter Show was one of the judges. Blair placed 11th of the 39 in the open category.
“It was fun,” Blair says.
Paxton and Ruth St. Germaine were accompanists for Blair and other contestants.
Paxton says it is a little unnerving for the back-up players in a contest because the timing has to be right on.
“Marj was always really gentle with us. When she said she was going to play a tune she would play it. A lot of times we would get a list from a performer we were backing up and they wouldn’t end up playing anything on the list,” Paxton says.
For many years Blair judged at contests in Prince George, Kamloops and Quesnel.
The judges are not permitted to see the contestants as they perform.
“You can sometimes recognize a particular fiddle or style of playing but you can’t let that influence your marking,” Blair says.
Myre says the Old Time Fiddlers’ mandate is not just to entertain at parties but to keep the old time fiddle music craft going. He says funds they raise from their paid gigs help to pay for students to attend the Gavin Lake Forest Education Centre fiddle camps and to provide a musical instrument lending library for interested students.
“All of the non-members who have helped us over the years deserve a big hand-and-a slap-on-the-back thank you. The community has supported us well,” Myre says.
During its second year Linda Purjue designed a crest for the group, which they wear on their blue band shirts for performances.
The Old Time Fiddlers practice September through June on Thursday evenings at the Seniors’ Activity Centre starting about 7 p.m.
The public is invited to come out and watch the practices, have a dance or two and join in if they play an instrument and enjoy old time fiddle music.
“Anyone can come and play. The more the merrier,” say Blair and Downie.
The Old Time Fiddlers had a 30-year reunion at the Seniors’ Activity Centre on Aug. 13 and six of the original members were in attendance, Blair says, including Frank Kolotylo now of Salmon Arm and Jim Mowery, who came out for the evening to be their master of ceremonies once again.
“It was really fun.”