by Gwen Koyanagi
[ I first met Gwen Koyanagi a few years ago when she was playing fiddle with Blaine Sprouse, a fiddler transplant from Nashville Tennessee. Born in Hawaii to Okinawaian mother and Japanese father, and raised in Torrance, Southern California, Gwen fell in love with traditional American fiddling of various styles — as expressed in the fiddling of old timers displaced from many areas of the United States and Canada. I have encouraged her to write her story. She has some fascinating tales to tell, as they describe the spread and evolution of eastern and midwestern fiddling and how it changed in the fast-moving California scene. As always, comments are welcome. –Peter Feldmann]
In the early 70s (1972?) I heard my first fiddling from Canadian street performers on the old wooden Redondo Beach Pier. I ended up picking up what was in the air and playing my fiddle on the street too. One day we went to a fiddle banjo festival and I saw a flyer about a fiddle club, so I went. It was so much fun I went every time it met (twice a month) for the next 3 years…all during my high school years). There were a bunch of old people there. The fiddlers (almost all men) and their wives (the audience) came from different places (Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Illinois, Canada, Ohio, etc.). Most of the fiddlers played all of their lives, and they ALL PLAYED DIFFERENT. And there were so many good players. (I learned from everyone eventually.) They would write their name in the list on a chalkboard and when it was their turn, they would get to play 3 tunes “on stage” with good back up players. This was important because each fiddler played so different and you could really hear what they were doing. They would play their best tunes and were each other’s fan.
In the hallway, there was this scary guy there. He looked at me and played a train whistle sound and a riff and then GROWLED loudly at me. I was soooo scared! He didn’t speak. He kept doing that. So one day I got a tape recorder and taped it. Then I went home and learned the sound and the next time he did that to me I gave it to him right back. He said LOUDLY, “WELL HI THERE! MY NAME IS BOB ROGERS! WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” From then on it was call and response. The game started. Bob Rogers was from the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee, and he played with his fiddle rocking on his chest bone. He wailed with his bow….a sweet wailing sound. When he changed to another string he would rock the fiddle on his chest bone instead of rocking his bow to hit the next string….and he would tap his foot…a big black shoe. As years went by we became good friends.
We just moved to Torrance from Los Alamitos when I was 15. When I was 10 years old I played in the elementary and Jr. High band room (Orchestra class) because it was free and they had extra fiddles (I borrowed school fiddles until one day mom traded one of her paintings for a neighbor lady’s fiddle) but I couldn’t be a real violinist because I couldn’t afford lessons and when we moved to Torrance there were no music programs at school. I was Lonesome so I would ride my bike to Redondo Pier around Sunset so I could see the sun going down on the water. One day I heard my first fiddling. It was a Canadian guy named Darryl (don’t remember last name) with a guitar player playing Old Joe Clark and Uncle Pen. I liked that and he helped me learn a little and I started playing on the pier too and played blues and joined a string band. We played in bars and around town. These guys were older (in their 20s). The string band changed their name every night. One night we were the “Red Eyed Rangers”. Embarrassing. The girl in the band (Marsha Vore) moved to Colorado and one of the guys (Mark Kroner) ran off to Germany with one of the Labae (sorry can’t spell) brothers and a gypsy named Simon Simone. They were from the Tarzan swing band. I played on the street for hours and then at the fiddle clubs on Sundays. Every Sunday at the fiddle club I would try to put out 3 brand new tunes (simple tunes) so things wouldn’t get boring. They were like my brothers and uncles and were just regular guys. Not famous or hooked into a scene.
There were times when a small group would all play in unison together for the fun of it, but there was also a healthy competition to see what the other guy was playing and how they were playing it. One guy would play a tune and another guy would say “Well that’s fine, but let me show you how I DO IT!” Then they would play their version. Many times it was between Bob Rogers and Earl Collins. Bob would say “Let ‘er go Brother Collins!” and get Earl excited. Bob called everyone “Brother”. There was “Brother Collins”, “Brother Mel”, etc. Sometimes people would clog dance.
There was not as much concern about drawing a tine between bluegrass and country and old timey fiddling. In addition to traditional tunes Bobby Fenton would play Bob Wills and country songs. Speedy Smith and Harold Hensley would play really fast bluegrass barnburner style. Bob Rogers would play Kenny Baker tunes. Roscoe White would play everything from swing to Howdy Forrester tunes. IT FELT LIKE FREEDOM. IT WAS NEVER BORING. There were soooo many good fiddlers in one place and at that time I thought that was normal, but now I know it was very rare.
But the “secret sauce” (as with any music) was the good backup players. Mel [Durham] played really good slap bass. Ossie White played really good guitar and could even Back up Texas style tunes. There were other really good players back then too. They made the fiddlers sound good and I believe they were the reason the fiddlers gathered.
When you want to learn a tune, you could ask them to show you how it goes. And they would play it (sometimes a little slower) and you better jump on quick…or you could tape it…but they didn’t give “lessons”. It was sink or swim and you learn how to pick up sounds from the air quickly.
Ossie White was the best guitar player for fiddle tunes backup at the club and she came from Oklahoma. When she backed up Bob Rogers, Bob told her “WHOP THAT THING!” because he wanted a STRONG BEAT. Roscoe White came from Arkansas and was the State senior fiddle champion and 2nd in the Nationals (in Weiser, Idaho, right behind Dick Barrett). He was really good and played hard tunes.
There was Earl Collins from Oklahoma (a fine short bow old time fiddler that tapped his foot in double time) and the Durham brothers, “Brother Mel” ended up taking over when the older guys died. John The Canadian was a really good Canadian fiddler but he was homeless. His bow only had a few horse hairs in it and he had to borrow my fiddle to play on stage. Cliff and Maxine Taylor were a married couple that both fiddled, but they would take turns backing each other up on the guitar. Their body language was sooo funny! They dipped and bobbed at the exact same second, randomly. Bud Shields played American Indian tunes. Ed Reagan played lots of tunes. There was Tiny Moore and Bob Smith and Chuck Bealle. Chuck’s daughter married Bruce Johnson (a young fiddler) Bruce’s friend Jerry Higby played banjo. Stuart Duncan was a kid that visited with his dad. Tracy Schwarz (new Lost City Ramblers) followed Bob Rogers around with a tape recorder one day and called him “MR. Rogers”. Jodi Cifra was a gypsy that played bluegrass but would come and play a few tunes now and then. Tom Sauber played bluegrass and old timey. Later, Pete Peterson and Frank Lopez came.
Later, Ossie invited me to join another fiddle club (C.S.O.T.F.A. district 4) that was connected to the state club and Weiser, Idaho. They focused more on Texas contest style fiddling. I went to that club every month as well.
I asked the fiddlers why their own kids weren’t fiddling, and they said their kids wanted to play rock and roll. I couldn’t understand why they can’t do both. There were so many great fiddlers there but I can’t talk about all of them here. I just know it was a special time for fiddling in Southern California.
Later, Ossie and Roscoe talked me into going to fiddle clubs it was a different scene back then. Since there were no time limits or pre- registration and the men and women were separated back then (there were fewer lady fiddlers and no minorities back then. It was different in those fiddle contests.) Ossie would tell me to go at the last minute and she would tell me what to play at the last minute for every round. I got a bunch of trophies and that was a fun game on the side. One year I won the California State fiddle contest in the junior division. Laurie Lewis won in the ladies division. Mark O’Connor won in the Jr Jr division. Jana Jae won the men’s/over all grand champion division. (I think that was the end of the ladies division in California) She was so good Buck Owens married her and put her on Hee Haw. She moved to Oklahoma. I went to a hippie free school and they encouraged me to fiddle there. So I got to play a lot and got fluid at that time. Then high school was over and I moved to Aspen Colorado and worked as a maid in ski lodges in the daytime and joined a bluegrass band named “Cabin Fever” and played at night in the Apre ski hotels. It was a man Jim Furness and his wife and son and Jim and Lee Satterfield were brother and sister and Lee was only 16 but was also playing gigs with Jimmy Ibitson from the dirt band. Years later I saw a lot of these contest and gig people on tv. A lot of them became professionals.
When I was 19 Ossie and Roscoe told me to meet them and my parents in Weiser, Idaho and I was in the “ladies division” and made it to the finals. It was last minute sign ups and no time limits so Ossie told me what to play at the last minute. My fiddle broke in half (cheap fiddle I traded from Cliff Taylor) just before the final round. Under the bleachers in the dark a stranger (old man) offered to lend me his fiddle but I was scared of him because he was so friendly and I didn’t know him. He just said he heard about my situation. Later I found out it was Benny Thomason (grand fiddle champion at the time). But for the final round I just borrowed a fiddle from someone I knew ( a forest ranger out of Fresno named Bob Sadler). I ended up getting 4th place and I remember Paul Shelasky and Laurie Lewis were watching that night and said “not bad for a hippie”. At one point when I was 19, I ended up in Austin Texas for a short period of time and then back to Aspen and then to the Bay Area and ended up working in a hand made candle factory in the daytime and playing in a house band every night in a gay leather bar. At one point I decided I didn’t want to fiddle anymore. (Some bad personal experiences added up to the point I associated that with fiddling. I laid it down for almost 20 years.)
When I was 40 I dusted it off for a family reunion and looked up the old fiddle club. Most of the guys were dead by then or so old they couldn’t play like they used to. I helped a young girl at the fiddle club who was playing in a Gospel Bluegrass band. Ghost writing for an 8 year old….I was care taking my sick dad and working for Hughes full time and didn’t have time to play anyway, but after dad died I called that guy (Tim Bryant) who had the little girl fiddler I used to help because he told me to call him if I could fiddle again. I joined one of his local light duty bands. “Windy Ridge”. They all have jobs and are hobby players. Just enough playing to play some fiddle but still doing my full time job. While I was working at Hughes I finally got enough money to have lessons so I took lessons here and there to learn how to do vibrato, play in tune, shift higher positions, read better, etc. I took lessons from Megan Lynch (who was teaching the Clarridges) and Dick Barrett (from Texas but living in Montana), Richard Greene and Blaine Sprouse. Blaine met and played with Ossie before she died but Roscoe was already dead. Mel’s club is gone now. Ossie’s club is in its last year. I looked it up and found everyone playing the same song together in unison and Pete Peterson was the last fiddler from the old days but he got drowned out by the younger players and I couldn’t even hear him anymore. There was not enough individuality for me to stay interested but the organizers said they have no choice since there are not enough players to carry off the old way. So I have just been playing in the senior center and Me n Eds with Windy Ridge but then the lead singer banjo player (Claire Wagner) got cancer really bad so we are taking a break while she does her operations and chemo . I just jam with local whipper snappers. (Young enthusiastic Bluegrass guy’s) and look after mom. There is another local band that was looking for a fiddler but they travel and were doing a west coast tour and I don’t want to leave mom for long periods of time. Recently I sat in at a pirate festival in Long Beach and played horn pipes, reels, jigs, sea shanties for hours and that was like playing on the street. Way fun. I met them at the Calico ghost town gig and they got me to play with them at a reenactment camp (cowboy camp next to the civil war camp, Indian camp, mountain man camp) in Kern county with this guy from Bakersfield. By the way, I ran into Bruce Johnson up north. I was playing twin fiddles with Blaine for the Keith Little band at the Strawberry festival in Grass Valley and there was this rehearsal and it ended up being a reunion for me and Bruce Johnson. What a happy surprise. Bruce said he ended up traveling all around the world with his fiddle. Haha.
Fiddle is better than a sail or paddle!