Voyager Recordings & Publications

Articles and Comments about Vivian and Phil Williams' Historical Fiddling Programs

The third of a four-part Inquiring Mind Series sponsored locally by The Friends of Moscow Library, "Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail" with Vivian and Phil WIlliams last week proved to be an informative and entertaining exploration of the origins of traditional fiddle tunes in the Pacific Northwest.

Appearing in Moscow's restored 1912 Center, the couple demonstrated both their seasoned musical talent and their engaging knowledge of the history of folk fiddling.

Vivian, who has been playing fiddle for over 30 years and is fluent in a variety of styles, is well known in the Northwest for her square and contradance fiddling. Her roomful of fiddle trophies includes Washington State, National Ladies, West Coast International and Smithsonian Fiddle Contest championships.

Husband Phil, in addition to accompanying his wife on guitar, mandolin, and banjo, also provides the relaxed narration that ties their program together and provides the historical background for their playing of often familiar fiddle tunes.

And all of this history with all its tunes and styles is something less than 200 years old, going back to the time of a Thomas Jefferson who sent the first fiddle west. Yes, the Lewis and Clark expedition of discovery had two fiddlers in its ranks and fiddling and dancing played and important part in lifting the spirits of the men at the end of a hard, grueling day seeking a passage to the Northwest.

Phil Williams made a point of the fact that much of the story he told was based on written documentation carefully researched by his multi-talented wife Vivian who continues to capture bits and pieces of personal journals and letters that attest to the importance of the fiddle and fiddle tunes in the history of the westward movement.

Both husband and wife are talented on more than one stringed instrument. In addition to playing guitar accompaniment for his wife's fiddling, Phil also solos on mandolin to his wife's accompaniment on a small, old-fashioned guitar. He also can work up a rhythmic storm on the banjo to accompany her in playing a dance tune like "Old Joe Clark." Feet started tapping when the two took off together on that one!

Fortunately there were some local costumed folk dancers present among the audience last week and their light-footed steps added to the charm of the music as they demonstrated the square dance, the waltz, the polka, and the schottische. The exchange of feelings between the dancers and the musicians was evident, building memories together for the audience to take home with them at evening's end.

Most of the tunes that Vivian and Phil played last week were familiar to the audience. Many of the tunes they could trace back their childhood. Anyone who ever saw a Popeye cartoon at the movies immediately recognized the music of "The College Hornpipe," but not the name. They knew it as "The Sailors' Hornpipe."

More often than not, however, the names of the tunes were unfamiliar to the audience . . . unfamiliar and perhaps even curious. Like "Old Aunt Sally Put a Bug on Me"? And who would have thought that "The Girl I Left Behind Me" would begin as an Irish song, be taken over the by British who played it dockside as troops went off to extend the Empire, and end up as the 7th Cavalry marching tune or as music for the grand march as a formal dance!

Surprise after surprise . . . That really was the essence of last week's excellent program, "Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail," featuring the tunes and the history associated with fiddle music moving westward with the pioneers. Vivian and Phil Williams have the gift of making it seem like only yesterday. (Frank Jacobson, Latah Co. Eagle, Moscow, ID)


What a wonderful performance! I have heard such positive comments; and people have even called to comment on how much they enjoyed your music. (Oak Harbor, WA Friends of the Library)


The final event of the day was a presentation by Seattle NW OCTA members Phil and Vivian Williams, of the musical history of northwest region from the time of the first "European" musical instruments that would have been heard in the area in 1792, to the latter part of the 19th century. The Williams' presentation was excellently prepared, well paced, very charmingly presented, and enthusiastically enjoyed by all present.

Just a note to tell you how much we all enjoyed your performance last Saturday. It truly was a highlight of the picnic. It is my hope that I can call on you again to share your wonderful music with us. (Oregon/California Trail Association, NW annual picnic)


Thank you very much for your performance at Central for the Douglas Honors College last Tuesday. It was a perfect mid-winter show for all of us here in Ellensburg. We liked the costumes and your generous sharing of your instruments at the end of the show. But more than anything else, we enjoyed the warm and friendly tone and style of the performance combined with your musical expertise and historical accuracy. We've had enthusiastic messages from the university and the community; I was especially delighted with the number of people from off campus who ventured out. (Virginia Mack, Interim Director, The Williams O. Douglas Honors College, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA)


On behalf of the Mount Vernon City Library and all those who attended your wonderful program, "Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail," I wish to thank you for a most memorable evening.

This program was so well attended that yours will be a hard act to follow. I know that all who were able to listen to your program, and even some of our front desk staff, had a fun and educational experience as you performed. It was delightful to hear alternate renditions of some of the "classic" pieces like "Old Joe Clark" and "No Place Like Home." Placing the songs in the context of history provided me with a new way of "hearing" those songs.

Again, we with to thank you for your expertise, your knowledge, and especially the atmosphere we were allowed to share in as you took us along the musical travels of the Pacific Northwest history. Thank you, as well for the list of sources of books, and web pages, you used to prepare for the program. We would also like to wish you continued success in all your musical endeavors. (Betsy Cherednik, Reference Librarian, Mount Vernon City Library, Mt. Vernon, WA)


They had costumes worthy of the Oregon Trail, related so well with the audience. We asked lots of questions and enjoyed their stories and musical instruments. Everyone had their feet tapping. I have heard so many good things about the program from many in the audience. Everyone loved the entire program. Since many were teachers they really enjoyed the history behind the songs and music. (Inquiring Mind, Washington Commission for the Humanities, evaluation)


Very effective, funny, natural - they clearly enjoy what they do! We all learned much about the Oregon Trail experience. (Inquiring Mind, Washington Commission for the Humanities, evaluation)


Philip and Vivian Williams did a wonderful job of presenting the topic "Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail." They grabbed the audience's attention with music and then launched into some background information, taking alternating turns speaking about the history of music along the Oregon Trail. They did this in a very natural flowing way. Both the pace and tone of their presentation gave the listeners the experience of what it would have been like around the campfire at night, after a long day on the Trail. It was a magical evening with just the right amount of history and the sharing of tunes performed on a diverse set of musical instruments to impart to the audience a sense of well-being and wonderment. (Inquiring Mind, Washington Commission for the Humanities, evaluation)


The strongest part of the presentation was the enthusiasm the musicians had for their subject - it brought vitality to the evening. In addition, of course, was their extensive knowledge of the history of fiddling and music and life of the settlers and early America. They dressed in appropriate costumes enhancing the effect - and their musical ability was impressive - playing a variety of instruments. The audience was quite impressed with the knowledge and skill of the presenters - interested in the stories and loving the music. (Inquiring Mind, Washington Commission for the Humanities, evaluation)


Vivian and Phil Williams know just how to tell a tale about the Oregon Trail using a guitar and fiddle. Their performances are packed with historic fodder about how music came to be in the Pacific Northwest. Attending one of their concerts stimulates sitting around the campfire with those intrepid explorers Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark after a long day of exploring. The two have been playing together for more than four decades. ALong the way they've incorporated a detailed historic storytelling routine to complement their music. (Tri-City Herald)


Inside the Center [National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center - U.S. Bureau of Land Management], nationally known musicians, Phil & Vivian Williams will be offering three musical programs each day in the Leo Adler Theater. Recognized for their research and preservation of American music, the Williams play fiddle, guitar, and banjo to recreate authentic music from pioneer days. (Baker City Herald, Baker City, OR)


I want to thank you for your wonderful presentation of Pioneer Dance Tunes of the Far West in the Port Angeles Main Library on April 17th. I hope that you had as much fun as the audience in giving this program.

For an afternoon program on a wonderful sunny day I thought that the program was well attended, especially considering that the tall Ships Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain were doing reenactments in the Port Angeles harbor at the same time. The public was highly complementary and supportive in their comments after the program. Many members of the Old Tim Fiddlers who attended did indeed stay after the program to have an impromptu jam session which drew patrons into the room for a chat at least an hour past the end of the program. (Beth Witters, Librarian, Port Angeles, WA Library)

Return to Historical Presentations Return to Voyager Recordings Home Page