Tag Archives: folksong autobiography

DrDosido and Mr. Seeger

Like any respectable folkie I sang along with Pete Seeger in concert several times. All that took, of course, was a ticket.  The somber news of his passing, and the many well-deserved tributes that sprang up on Facebook and other media made me pause to reflect on how his singular humanity and distinctive musical commonality influenced my life. (I am not sure that these flowery descriptives come at all close to expressing his impact and my admiration.) A couple of memories did force their way to the front of my meditations. I had a few face-to-face encounters with Mr. Seeger in the halls of the Old Town School of Folk Music, and also back stage at the Orchestra Hall concert he headlined to mark the School’s 35th anniversary in 1992.

The one extended conversation we had was by phone. It was occasioned by the oral history project I was assigned to mark that same anniversary. My interviews had to be recorded so that excerpts could be used on a WFMT radio special celebrating those 35 years.  So I called Pete up. He was sitting in the comfort of his home in Beacon, New York.  I was in the studios of public radio station WBEZ in the Chicago Loop, using their special recording equipment. I viewed the situation as momentous. For Pete, it was much more mundane. I wanted him to remember the legendary night in the late 1950s that he dropped by the Old Town School’s Second Half and led some songs for the assembled students.  The event looms large in Old Town School lore. Pete couldn’t recall it. But he could frame it in the bigger picture – his mission and ours.  The world, he told me, needs an Old Town School of Folk Music in every city to help people learn to play and remember how to sing together.

Pete Seeger helped me learn how to play. Not directly, though I did use his How to Play the 5-String Banjo tutor back in 1976, after I constructed my own banjo from a Stewart-MacDonald kit. Earlier, in the summer of 1969, when I was back home after my freshman year of college, I made regular trips to the Allen County Public Library to check out record albums from their surprisingly (to me) large collection of folk music. By that time, I knew was through with rock and roll, and that folk music was what I wanted to pursue. I didn’t know much back then about folk music, about  the large and growing scene of folkies devoted to traditional music. I didn’t know enough to realize that the music I grew up with locally, mostly wedding and square dance bands, was in fact folk music. My own LP collection at the time contained only a couple of Beach Boys albums and a record of bluegrass instrumentals by an unidentified band, an LP that Dad had won as a door prize somewhere. The albums I borrowed from the library that summer included several of Pete’s.

I don’t remember any particulars about the albums or the songs.  But I remember being impressed that Pete sang songs that came from people all over the world.  I realize now that Dad must have had reservations about Pete’s politics.  But he never expressed them to me out loud.  He did ask why I was borrowing these LPs from the library. I told him I wanted to do with my life what Pete Seeger was doing with his. Dad requested further explanation. My answer was that I wanted to go everywhere and learn the songs that regular people sing. Pete was my model.

Pete Seeger helped turn me into DrDosido. He, at least, helped move me down that path. In fact, Pete’s younger brother Mike became a more influential role model. Like Mike, I mostly narrowed my focus to Anglo-American traditional music. And following Mike’s footsteps, I began to seek out unheralded country fiddlers and other local musicians. I began to visit community events where friends and neighbors made their own music together, often for dancing. I began to realize that I had grown up with folk music and dance all around me. But I followed my own path. I didn’t go out looking for authentic mountain music or old-time southern music. For several decades my gaze was frozen on my home region: the Old Northwest, the Great Lakes states, whatever name you want to give to my Midwestern home. I did what Pete Seeger did. I just didn’t go very far away.

It’s good that I can complete the circle I started inscribing with these memories. On one of those visits to the library while home on a college break, I took the advice of my best friend, Steve Winters. He suggested I check out a Mike Seeger album called “The Second Annual Farewell Reunion.” It consisted of Mike doing duets with different musical friends on a variety of old-time and traditional songs. If my memory is reliable, one of the pieces on that LP was a duet of two Seeger brothers doing a song Pete wrote, adapting a melody and turn of phrase from the Scottish ditty, “Well May the Keel Row.” Pete universalized the sentiment into “Well May the World Go.” Since news of Pete’s death, I find myself whistling that tune every morning as I’m making coffee. I learned it over 40 years ago. I never sang it for anybody until last week.

Well may the skiers turn, the swimmers churn, the lovers burn.
Peace may the generals learn, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

Sweet may the fiddle sound, the banjo play the old hoedown,
The dancers swing ‘round and ‘round, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

Strong may the trees grow. Clear may the streams flow,
Blue above and green below, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

A Folksong Autobiography, episode 2 (not in chronological order)

I’ve been trying to remember, but I can’t locate the first seeds of my obsession with the fiddle. It must have had something to do with Hoagland’s passion for square dancing (see They didn’t know it yet, . . . below). But I can not recall a local wedding band at the Hoagland Hayloft in the 1960s that included a fiddler. Somehow, back then, I knew that square dancing, as fun as it was, would be even better with a fiddler in the band. In the lack of any clear evidence, I probably have to give credit to television–probably a Bugs Bunny cartoon–or perhaps the radio. Maybe I heard violinist Jack Carmen fiddle a hoedown with Nancy Lee & the Hilltoppers on the Little Red Barn show on WOWO.

There was a violin in our attic. My mom had played it in high school orchestra in the early 1930s. (BTW Hoagland High School had an orchestra in 1930, but only a band in 1960!) She admitted that she was never very good at it, and the instrument in our attic had no strings. Dad played the mandolin. He kept his Gibson A-model in its chipboard case on the floor of the coat closet by the front door (the door we never used). On the somewhat sporadic occasions he’d get it out to play, he also would bring out some sheets of music, some printed and others handwritten. I don’t remember where he kept his music. But a few years after his death in 1972, Mom gave me a big binder full of music from Dad’s days as a student in the Ted Barr Mandolin Orchestra in Fort Wayne before the War. It is a totally amazing collection of mostly handwritten mandolin parts, much of it for 2nd mandolin. But that’s a story for another time. Most of the music-making in our house centered around practicing for the lessons my sister and I took. Jean is three-and-a-half years older. She started first on piano, with lessons from Mom’s first cousin, Helen Reynolds. When I was in 3rd Grade I asked to take piano lessons too. (Helen’s importance in my musical development is yet another story.) Then two years later I started taking cornet lessons with Mr. Marr at the high school next door to our house. I believe Jean followed a short time later with trombone lessons.

But there was no fiddle music in the Tyler home on Hoagland Road. Again, I don’t recall ever seeing a live fiddler at a dance at the Hayloft. But I clearly knew there should be, or could be, or had been. At some point I began asking Mom about square dances and musicians from her earlier days. She had not been an avid dancer, but she had a thorough knowledge of who was who in the Hoagland area, especially the Good German Lutherans on the farms between Hoagland and Monroeville, six miles to the East. I knew that dancing in the old days often took place in the barn. Of course everybody knew that. The Hoagland Hayloft itself, at least the first one before the fire, was a regular bank barn converted into a commercial dance and reception hall. To my surprise, I found out that the before barns were used for dances, folks would clear out the furniture and have a house dance. My Grandpa Franke (Mom’s dad) played harmonica for some of those old neighborhood dances. And he got paid for it too. But after raising a family and struggling to keep the farm during the dark days of the Great Depression, Grandpa Franke saw little value in playing music anymore. I never heard him play. He died in 1961. A decade later, I asked Grandma Franke if he had kept a harmonica. She couldn’t remember having seen one for years.

Mom was able to tell me about a few of the local bands from back in the day when it was mostly the young folks who went to barn dances. The most popular dance band in the 1930s was Hilbert Holle’s band. I later found out they were called the Hoosier Eagles. Hilbert lived three doors to the west of us. His wife, Dorothy played the piano and was occasionally a substitute organist at church. She played in Hilbert’s band. In 1976, I went over to the Holles and talked to both Hilbert and Dorothy about the old-time dances. (I have notes from that conversation filed away, so the story of the Hoosier Eagles will reappear in the future.) Another surprise for me was that Hilbert and Dorothy did not remember their music as old-time. Hilbert played the saxophone, and the Hoosier Eagles saw themselves as playing the latest and most up-to-date sounds that people wanted to dance to. Of course they included some square dances in an evening’s program. But they weren’t that interested in the old-fashioned stuff.

For the real old-time music, I had to talk to some of the remaining members of the generation before my mother’s. There were older musicians in some of the local families with names like Fuelling, Koeneman, Schoemann and Thiele. You can tell they were Good Germans, and mostly Lutheran. Again I have notes from conversations with some of these men. But the one name Mom gave me that struck me as greatly significant was Peppler, George Peppler, I believe. I could have the story wrong, or maybe Mom’s memory was only approximate, but Mr. Peppler was a fiddle player and a relative. Or maybe he was related to the Frankes by marriage, perhaps a distant cousin of my Aunt Dorothy who married Mom’s brother Edward. To be fair, Mom knew exactly who was related to who and how. That’s where my memory is fuzzy. I was more interested in who played fiddle and who played which accompanying instrument.

So this is about as far as this story goes. I’ve long thought that there was one known fiddler in my family, and his name was Peppler. I never knew him, and, as far as I know, I never laid eyes on him and certainly never heard him play. Still, he looms large as an image or symbol for my chosen path through life. If Mr. Peppler was not a fiddler, then he played what has been called variously the concertina or accordion. If the latter is true, then he played regularly with a man named George Judt, who was the fiddler. And whichever of these two men was the fiddler also played for a time with Gus Koeneman, who played the squeezebox. As I began my quest to uncover the story of the real old-time music around Hoagland, I went to Gus Koeneman’s door right after Christmas in 1976. Mr. Koeneman was ill that day, and was not in good shape those last years of his life. I was never able to interview him or find out for sure whether he played a concertina or an accordion.

I learned from other sources that the Chemnitzer concertina, a big square squeezebox with buttons on the faces at each end, was favored by a number of German musicians in the area around Fort Wayne. The Thiele Brother Orchestra in Yoder (ten miles west of Hoagland, where Hoagland Road is known as Yoder Road) played for dances for years. Early on they featured fiddle and concertina. The first Chemnitzer concertina I ever remember seeing was played by Herman Fox of Fort Wayne. In his retirement years, he teamed up with fiddler Hugh Sowers from Arcola, a small town as far northwest of Fort Wayne as Hoagland was to the southeast. After discovering him at a fiddle contest at the Allen County 4-H Fair in 1976 (my sister helped organize it and I was a judge, because I’d been to a fiddle contest a few years earlier when I lived in North Carolina–another story), Herman Fox was one of the first old-time musicians I interviewed formally with a tape recorder running. I’ll upload some more concertina playing from that thoroughly delightful visit in coming weeks. But to hear the sound of fiddle and concertina, what I like to think of as the old-time Hoagland sound, you can follow this link for some 1980 recordings of Herman Fox at the Indiana Fiddlers Gathering in Battle Ground. I’m the fiddler. At the time I had been playing for four years. Herman had been playing for seventy. Plus, here’s a link to Herman’s story (click the Hoosier Folklore Society Newsletter).

N.B. If any of my Franke cousins read this, especially from Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Edward’s family, perhaps you can help clarify for me the identity of Mr. Peppler and some of the others. My mother was good at knowing who was related to who in the community, but Aunt Dorothy was a true master of the art. She passed away in September of 2009. As in the case of my mom and dad, I have a lot more questions I wish I had asked.

A Folksong Autobiography, episode 1

I must have been about three.  My sister was at school.  Christmas time was coming and it was cold, so I was playing on the floor under the telephone right next to the hot air register.  Mom was in the kitchen doing mom things at the sink.  I was singing “Silent Night,” but I didn’t know all the words.  So I got up from my play and went out to the kitchen and learned a line or two from Mom.  I went back to the toys and sang some more till I could add those lines to what I knew.  I repeated the process, and leaned another line or two.  This went on until I knew all three verses to Silent Night. In my memory it took me all morning to learn the whole song, and I’ve never forgotten it. I wish I could know Mom’s memory of how I learned my first folk song.

For a few years in the 1970s, I borrowed an autoharp from someone and learned to play it.  As Christmas time approached in 1980–a few month’s after Mom died–I remember sitting on the davenport in my living room in Bloomington and playing “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” (Mom’s favorite) on the autoharp while tears streamed down my face. I know I cried at other times, but that’s the time I remember.  Shortly after that, I returned the autoharp to whoever it was who loaned it to me.

Now as Christmas time again approaches, and we get ready for our 12th annual Songs of Good Cheer singalong at the Old Town School of Folk Music, I brought to the group a song that cries out for autoharp.  So I borrowed one again, and after thirty years I can still pick out melodies with some facility.  I’d like to use it on Silent Night, but the instrument I’ve borrowed has no button for an A major chord, and that’s our key. I might have to get my own autoharp and customize the chord bars.

BTW for any one who is nearby and interested, I’m playing the One Mic Stand at the Grafton (two doors south of the Old Town School)  on Tuesday, Dec. 14 some time after 9:30.  When I played there last Spring, it was the public debut of my Folksong Autobiography.  Folks seem to like it.  This time I intend to have some help from my buddy, Steve Rosen, as well as from my wife, Gail.  I’ve got a few more stories in mind.

They didn’t know it yet, . . .

. . . but 60 years ago this coming Friday, Mildred Franke Tyler gave birth to Dr. Dosido, the only son and second child of Wade Edward Tyler.  They named him Paul Leslie. They brought him home to a warm and comfortable house at the very eastern edge of Hoagland, Indiana.  Only the school, Madison-Marion Consolidated School, better known as Hoagland Elementary and Hoagland High School (all in one) stood between the Tyler house and the flat, fertile farmland that stretched east about a dozen miles to the Indiana-Ohio state line and beyond.

Fields of crops, mostly corn and soybeans, were visible across the road and right behind the long back yard of the Tyler house.  Hoagland was not very big in 1950.  And even when Paul left for college, beginning the trek through higher education that would transform him into Dr. Dosido, the town’s population numbered only 500.  However, Hoagland itself was always bigger than the houses set within the limits of the unincorporated entity known as Hoagland.

If you measured Hoagland by the public school, two whole rural townships were Wildcat territory.  If you measured it by the rural postal routes covered by the Hoagland post office, it was a  bit smaller, as some “Hoaglanders” addresses were Rural Route 10 from Fort Wayne (the big city), or Rural Route 2 from Monroeville (home of the rival Cubs).

Hoagland was and still is, in fact, a community of feeling. It encompassed a large open country network of farm families, former farm families turned to factory work and other occupations, and new arrivals, mostly escapees from Fort Wayne. Many people identified their networks as Hoagland, because of the draw of the school or Three Kings, the local tavern with a family room that enjoyed a near monopoly. The world of officialdom did little to define the boundaries or even recognize the importance of Hoagland.  But people did.  Hoagland was a community enacted through regular assemblies that met the peoples’s needs for local organization.  It could be the Volunteer Fire Department or the Hoagland Area Advancement Association or the baseball diamonds filled every summer evening with youth games or church league softball. An important nexus in all these networks was the Hoagland Hayloft, a bank barn refurbished as a reception hall.

The Hoagland Hayloft is where many wedding receptions, anniversary parties, and club socials were held.  The first floor of the Hayloft had a large kitchen and plenty of long tables for the feeding of guests.  The whole upstairs was a sprung wooden dance floor with a raised platform for the band set in the middle of the long east wall. The bands who were booked to play the Hayloft had to be good for three kinds of dances: slow dances (for the older folks), fast dances (for the young folks), and square dances (for everyone).

This is where Dr. Dosido’s journey began.  To be continued.