MUSICIANS CONTEMPORARY WITH GRANT ROGERS
The hills and valleys of Delaware County and the surrounding Catskills area in the early 1900s were filled with old-time musicians. Grant Rogers would have known and played music with many of them. Fiddler Leslie Scofield from the Masonville area recalled many of them by name, village, and instrument. He was 80 years old at the time (in 2007) and his description of the area’s “music scene” during the 1900s can be found in his article “Memories of Old Time Musicians And Their Music” in the book Tompkins the First 200 Years, pp. 142-149. He remembered hearing fiddler and lumberman Sherm Yorks, for example, one of Grant Rogers’ mentors: “One tune he played was ‘Casey Jones’ Clog Time.’”
Other musicians mentioned by Scofield included fiddler Art Coarser (Rock Rift), his wife Olive and daughter Frances (piano); Austin Sprague, Harry Ingram and Clarence Knapp (Downsville); blacksmith and fiddler Fred DeMott and fiddler Lennie Winchell (Cannonsville); and Jack Shackelton and Glen Shackelton (Loomis Brook). Scofield also recalled fiddlers Charley Mean and Burt Pease in the Delhi area, and “a colored family by the name of Coss which had a dance band,” (p.148).
Scofield said when he moved to Granton as a teenager, there were not many fiddlers there, so he decided to learn to play the fiddle himself, starting at the age of 14. There was, however, a guitarist and dance caller, Stanley VanValkenburgh.
“We practiced only when we played at dances as we both had to work very hard,” said Scofield. … “We went to every dance to hear the music and then we practiced the tunes and calls we heard.” (Tompkins the First 200 Years, p.145).
ROBERT GREGORY, STORYTELLER
Bob Gregory was not a musician, but a storyteller. He was a great grandson of an early settler, Josiah Gregory, who came to the West Branch of the Delaware in 1824. Bob was born in 1882 and remembered a way of life and a culture tied to the river, the rafting of logs down the river, and the stories of that life. He left the area at one point to go to sea as a mail clerk, but returned to the old homestead in Granton in 1935. Later, in the 1950s, Norman Studer discovered Gregory while doing research for a proposed film about the folk history of various regions of the country. One result of a Sunday “jam session” with Gregory and Grant Rogers was the recording “The Cannonsville Story” on which Gregory’s stories are interspersed with the music of Rogers. Studer describes Gregory’s storytelling in this way:
“At every crossroad’s store, saloon, or lumber camp, at elections, husking bees or barn raisings, there were story tellers, ballad singers, jokesters or jig dancers. Every village and region had its masters of the art of story telling, and the art was learned by ear and transmitted from generation to generation. Bob Gregory’s style is in the American frontier tradition with its dry understatement, its pokerfaced flights into fantasy, its sharp delineation of character.”
Robert Gregory’s stories can be heard in the AUDIO section of this website under Tales.
Bob’s story called “The Gregory Family” from “The Cannonsville Story” tells how his family settled and made a living on the West Branch of the Delaware River. Captured in Gregory’s story is an almost 200-year history of the West Branch itself.
“George’s Story,” perhaps best described as a tall tale, describes a somewhat unbelievable Chicago Express train wreck and rescue.
ROCK RIFT AREA MUSICIANS
It’s important to remember that none of the Rock Rift musicians were playing music full time. Music was a significant leisure time activity, especially before the days of radio, recordings, and later, television, but work certainly took up most of the musicians’ days during the week. Most men were either cutting wood for the Inderlied & Son Company Acid Factory, which opened in1882 and closed in 1938, or for the Risley Sawmill, both industries important for the economy of Rock Rift, or for the rafting of logs down the river to Deposit. Or they might have worked for the railroad, which ran from Walton to Deposit through the towns along the West Branch of the Delaware River, or perhaps they worked as quarry men, quarrying being another important local industry. (For a thorough description of Rock Rift’s history, see Walking Through Time in Rock Rift by Beatrice Bennett.) As noted in Grant Rogers’ bio on this website, Grant’s father was engaged as a railroad worker and then a stonecutter, and Grant eventually ended up working in the quarries.
According to Leslie Scofield, fiddler Art Coarser was a wood chopper for the Rock Rift acid factory, and he had lost parts of his first and middle fingers. When he played the fiddle, he had to put on leather artificial finger ends when his fiddling fingers got sore. Scofield continued:
“You go to Art’s home and ask him to play and he would get his fiddle from the piano top, put on his false fingers, and his wife or daughter would mount the piano stool…. To me it was better than Carnegie Hall any time.
“If people got to talking, Art put up the fiddle right off the bat. I guess he thought if you didn’t appreciate the fact that he had practiced two hours daily while also working out every day, that you could listen to lesser playing.” (Tompkins the First 200 Years, p. 147.)
Leslie Scofield noted that Grant Rogers, in Rock Rift, was “a good fiddler and a good singer, who also twangs away on the guitar.” According to Scofield, Grant played a fiddle built by Lorenzo Peake of Rock Rift.
In addition to Grant Rogers and Art Coarser, Jim Coddington, and Frank Fisher were mentioned by Leslie Scofield as Rock Rift fiddlers (“Memories of Old Time Musicians and their Music” in Tompkins The First 200 Years, p.146) as well as Grant’s brother-in-law, Frank Schlafer. Close neighbors, Don McAdams, on banjo, and Pete McAdams, singer, would often join them. (See Interview 1 with Fran and Leona) House sessions also often included another neighbor, pianist Cordelia Hartley, or Grant’s sister Gladys on piano, and square dances in the area might have included Marvin Atwell on tenor banjo, Ernie Sager on guitar and harmonica, Don McAdams on mandolin, and Max Tuttle, a well-known dance caller.
Frank Fisher was an accomplished fiddler, though his son Francis (Loppy) Fisher (1932-2017) thought that Grant Rogers’s repertoire was larger than his father’s, especially “the older songs that people liked to hear.” (See Francis’s Interview, recorded in 2015.) Loppy and Grant’s nieces Fran Schlafer Watson and Leona Schlafer Poulin all recall the friendly rivalry that went on at house sessions between Frank Fisher, Frank Schlafer, and Grant Rogers. Loppy also recalled Grant’s cigarette smoking:
“He would take four drags of that weed, and no smoke would come out….and then pretty soon, just like a cloud. It was funny. He could do it and put up with it. He was a kind of a storyteller, too. He was good at that.” (Interview with Loppy Fisher)
Frank Fisher’s playing can be heard on a family tape, transferred to CD, in the AUDIO section of this website. Tunes range from traditional reels played for square dances, to waltzes, an occasional jig, and a few popular songs of the time. Here’s a link to Fisher playing a traditional reel.
As his sons grew, Frank taught them to play the music he was playing. Loppy reported: “It was always at night, and when everybody was around, my father would have to catch us and set us down. ‘Come on, we’re going to play here.’” Eventually, as the boys became more proficient, the family formed a band known as the Fisher Brothers Band.
The band began to play for square dances in the mid-1940s. They started in Cannonsville (Guntown) on Saturday nights at a place called Buckeys, often with Cordelia Hartley at the piano, and then began playing for dances in Rock Rift on the second floor of Obermeyer’s Bakery. Frank, Sr. played fiddle; son Frank (Gump) played the bass and sometimes was a dance caller; Francis (Loppy) played piano; Richard (Dick) played drums; Tom played guitar, and Jim played drums and bass.
Leona Poulin remembers going to dances upstairs in the Rock Rift bakery, when the Fisher Brothers played:
“…[T]here were quite a few of the Fisher boys, and they were all self-taught. They played square dancing music, and we’d go there every Saturday night. It was just great. So, we kind of had our childhood pretty much figured out with square dancing and round dancing.” (Fran & Leona interview 1)
The Fisher Brothers Band became well known as a dance band, which led them to play for dances in other places, for example, for barn dances with Bruce Hoyt (dance caller), as far away as Beaverkill, Northfield, and Margaretville and for street dances in Walton. Younger folks remember going to Fisher Brothers’ dances at a building the Fishers owned on the way to Meridale and at the Roundup Ranch outside Walton.
Then in Loppy’s later years, the band broke up, and he continued on his own, playing piano at the Roundup Ranch and at the Andes Hotel.
ST. ONGE ORCHESTRA
Edwin St. Onge (b. 1916 in Tupper Lake, NY) had his first violin lesson in July 1924. He was not quite 8 years old. His father had been blinded in an accident and also lost the use of one of his hands, and for a time, the family would move to North Carolina for the winters. Hearing the music being played there got Edwin and his brothers interested in playing too. While there, the kids won a few music contests, which further encouraged them. “By 1934, Dad and us boys were all playing musical instruments,” reported Edwin to his daughter who interviewed him a number of years ago for a book about the St. Onge family.
That same year, the family moved to Davenport, NY. Neighbors heard them playing music together and asked them if they could play for dances. They knew a caller, Hank Sloan, who joined them at their first dance, which soon led to other “gigs.” Edwin talked about his father’s decision to stay in New York instead of going back to North Carolina:
“The first thing we knew, we had people coming from different places wanting to know if we’d play in the grange halls and places like that. Before we knew it, we had quite a few jobs lined up…..Our dances usually paid about three dollars a man which wasn’t too bad for us.” See photo of schedule in Archive Images
This was the beginning of the St. Onge Orchestra. Edwin’s father Edward played drums, Edwin played fiddle and tenor sax, his brother Earl played guitar and accordion, and Charles played tenor banjo, sax, and later on, for bluegrass music, mandolin and five-string banjo. The instruments used depended on the type of dance – more traditional instruments for square dances, and more modern instruments for the popular tunes of the day. In addition to playing dances in Davenport Center, according to Edwin, they played “in Bloomville, Delhi, Walton, Oneonta, in all of the towns within 40 or 50 miles.” A partial schedule of engagements from 1934-1937 shows a very busy time for the band. (See photo of schedule.)
Edwin’s son, Wes, recalls a story his father told about a dance they played at a grange hall in Pierstown, near Cooperstown. “People were having such a good time dancing that the supports in floor gave way…and the floor just dropped out of the place. I don’t think they finished the night.” (Interview with Wes St. Onge)
Though the St. Onge band members probably never played with Grant Rogers, it’s clear that they were an important part of the musical history of the area in the 1930s and 1940s. The band disbanded in about 1948, though Edwin (Wes's father) played with a few other bands around, for example, Linus Houck’s.
Wes remembers a dance he was playing in 1979 at the Evening Inn in Oneonta with Dick Thompson and the Driftwoods. His father came to tape the show that night, and they talked him into playing the fiddle with them. He was 63 at the time. You can hear the band and Edwin St. Onge here:
Here is Edwin at a family party in 1986 at age 70 with “Listen to the Mockingbird.”
Here’s a link to Wes playing three of the tunes his father played, “Chinese Breakdown”, “The Shepherd’s Schottisch” and "Bully of the Town".
Though two of Wes’s uncles have passed away, Wes’s Uncle Earl, in his mid 90s, still performs on occasion. Here’s a link to a 2015 Café Lena video of Earl St. Onge playing guitar with fiddler Sara Milonovich.
Bob Moss (b. 1926) spent his first few years on a farm on Baggly Brook Road (now Route 2, between Delancy and Andes) until his father lost the farm in 1931, in the Depression. He recalls going to house dances in that neighborhood where he became interested in playing the fiddle and calling square dances. The family continued to go back there for dances even after they had moved to Walton.
“We went up there and there was two Negro boys that lived out on Cabin Hill. The Coss brothers, and they played around the square dances…. They kind of had a habit of getting into the moonshine a little, and then they couldn’t talk too good so somebody said, ‘Bob can call’, and they got me a stool.” (Interview with Bob Moss)
Bob was about 12 or 14 at the time. So from then on, he called square dances, mainly at house dances. He later took up the fiddle. While in school in Sidney, he was in a violin class, but he said he didn’t stay in the class very long.
“The music teacher said, ‘You know you’re wasting your time. You’re wasting mine.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘You never play what I put out there. You’re playing by ear….You might as well quit.’” (Interview)
From then on, Bob practiced fiddle and guitar on his own. After high school, he played house dances with Clayton French and Red Scherer. Later on, he bought a beautiful L7 Gibson guitar at Wheat’s and Nickerson’s in Binghamton, and then played and called dances with fiddler Bob McClennan. A couple of other fiddlers he remembered were Harold Smith and Frank Fisher. When asked what kind of music they played, he said, “‘Red River Valley,’ ‘Wabash Cannonball,’ that kind of stuff.” He said they seldom played round dances at a house dance; people wanted square dances. And when asked to describe house dances, Bob said:
“We’d just move everything out, you’d set up, and you’d have a set in this room, and a set in that room, and if you had a double door you’d sit in the double door, in the middle of the two doors…. Yup, and holler as loud as you could.” (Interview)
In 1948, after Bob was married (he married in 1947), he answered an ad for a guitar player and fiddler. It turns out the ad was placed by Ed St. Onge. “Terrific fiddle player.” But Bob discovered that musicians had to be in a union in order to play, so they applied and were accepted in the union. That began a five-year engagement with the St. Onge Orchestra at Joe’s and Mary’s on West Road in Oneonta, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturday nights. Their first night there, Bob said they played three tunes, love tunes, and then a square dance. The band then started the next one, but apparently the boss was unhappy.
[“He said], ‘What are you guys doing?’ ‘We’re just playing,’ and he said, ‘Yea, but if you don’t stop for awhile and let them drink, I won’t make any money.’ So, that was the time we would play three rounds, and then we’d do a square dance, a real fast one on the end, and then just take 20 minutes off.” (Moss Interview)
They played elsewhere as well, in grange halls, school dances, for the fire department, for New Year’s Eve dances in Oneonta, and so on. They also traveled a lot. In South Kortright, Bob reported, the band played on the second floor of a chicken coop. When asked about their practice sessions, Bob said they practiced from 12 midnight to 1:00 at Joe’s and Mary’s. The dance hall was not allowed to sell alcohol after midnight, but the band was paid to play until 1:00 a.m., so that was when they practiced.
Bob said he learned a lot by playing with the others in the St. Onge Orchestra. He liked playing with a band that traveled out and was well organized (with music stands and lights, set lists, and written music with chords indicated, and a new set of tunes each month. Ed also had a trailer where they could store their instruments when they traveled.) Bob said, “It was fun playing with them. It was more up to date, and some real good music. ‘Tea for Two’ and all [those] kinds of songs.” (Moss Interview)
At that point the band was made up of Ed St. Onge on fiddle, Charlie St. Onge on bass or trumpet, Turning Haskins on sax, and Rose Bell on piano. Bob played fiddle and guitar.
After they lost their sax player, the band broke up. Bob then joined up with Stewart Nickels, Billy Sherman and Ben Shackleton from the Walton area and they formed a band called the Delaware Valley Boys. In addition to dances, they also played on the radio and played for dances in Hancock “for a long time.” Bob played fiddle for that band.
When asked about the history of house dances and dances elsewhere, Bob said first came house dances, for which people would pay a small fee (maybe $3 per night). Everybody brought something to eat and the host made a big pot of coffee. Then the dances gradually moved to grange halls. Bob recalls grange halls in Walton and the upstairs of a building in Hamden. And then, especially in the 1940s, street dances became popular. Bob said these were called “whole block dances.”
In 1982, Hilton Hoyt of Walton said:
The biggest crowd with the most squares I ever played to was the block dances. In Walton they blocked off the main street. There were between 60 and 70 sets.” (Good Times: Delaware County’s Community Album by Linda Norris, p. 34.)
Bob worked for many years as Transportation Supervisor for the Walton Central Schools. After his retirement in the mid-1980s, he was able to travel more. He then started spending time in Florida. He became acquainted with musicians there and was soon jamming and playing for dances with them. He and others formed a band to play in resorts. Bob said he didn’t play much fiddle in that group, but played rhythm; other musicians played lead guitar, bass, mandolin, and fiddle. He heard and played a lot of bluegrass music in Florida, and of course, country music.
Meanwhile, when he would come back to the Walton area, he continued to play fiddle for dances. He played once for a dance at Echo Pavilion in North Afton; then he played summers for a couple of years for barn dances at Bolster’s barn on Route 206.
Bob still has his fiddle. He was told by a violin player 75 years ago never to sell it because “That’s going to be a real good one.” (Moss Interview) Of his music career, Bob says, “It’s been a lot of fun.” Bob, at age 91 in 2017, still plays once a week for dances in Sidney.
Bruce Hoyt (b. 1922) grew up in Mundale, a settlement along East Brook Road northeast of Walton. He had four brothers and three sisters, all of whom became musicians. Their mother, Edith, played the piano and guitar and their father, Bruce Sr., played the mouth organ. The girls all played piano. Bruce describes some of their family music sessions:
“My mother would bring us kids in the living room. Florence would play the piano. Oh, we would discord just for the heck of it. Mom would holler, ‘You kids are going to sing! You sing the way you’re supposed to, or we’re not going to sing.’” (Hoyt Interview)
Apparently, singing in harmony came to them naturally. Their father and three of the boys formed a quartet (the Hoyt Quartet) and sang regularly in the Presbyterian Church in Mundale.
The eldest boy, Walter, learned to play the fiddle, and the next boy, Hilton (b.1915), learned guitar and later on, also became a square dance caller. Bruce learned guitar and calling. When they got older and started playing dances, the three boys would often harmonize as they sang the calls for dances. This was a bit unusual, as dance callers did not necessarily sing calls, but the Hoyts enjoyed doing so.
Winter entertainment in Mundale in Bruce’s early years was house dances. The dances were for all ages and would rotate from house to house. Bruce and his brothers provided the music, sometimes with Bill Tweedie as well.
“They just moved the furniture out on the porch or into another room somewhere. The dance was one or two rooms and the music was all free. There was enough of us in the neighborhood that played. We just had a violin and guitar.” (Hoyt Interview)
In 1982 Bruce’s brother Hilt was quoted as saying, “I remember one New Year’s Eve we played at a house dance and we danced right through till daylight. (Good Times Delaware County, by Linda Norris, p. 37.)
In the 1950s, according to Bruce, TV and radio started to kill the house dances. Also, public dances were rising in popularity.
One band that Bruce eventually played guitar for was the Catskill Mountaineers, with Bob Parsons (accordion), Bob Buchanan (fiddle), Red Scherer (electric steel guitar), and Max Dutcher (drums). Bruce said the five of them stayed together for “a long time.” Like so many of the other bands around, they played at grange halls, schools, fire halls, and for awhile in summers, played every night of the week except Sundays.
The Catskills Mountaineers also played in summer for Walton Friday night block dances on Delaware Street. There were other bands that played for the street dances as well; Bruce mentioned Hilton Kelly from Roxbury, Bob Lang from Franklin, as well as Stu Nichols.
Eventually two members of the band dropped out, so they were left with Bob Buchanan, Bob Parsons, and Bruce. Sometimes Bruce’s brother Hilt or Walt joined them. They played in Shavertown at the Pleasant Valley Grange Hall every Saturday, so were referred to as the Shavertown Boys or the Pleasant Valley Boys. They sometimes got up to $20 each for a dance, unless it was a New Year’s Eve dance. The highest Bruce ever got for a dance was $50, for four hours of playing.
Bruce described two types of square dancing, what he and local bands played and the so-called Western style or club dancing. He said that the Western style was stricter.
“You had to be in a certain spot at a certain time or you were lost.” [He felt it is] “manufactured…. [The dancers] never look each other in the eye. That’s part of the fun of dancing is you’re communicating with the other people.”
During all the years that Bruce was playing music, he was also working on the farm and fulltime at Bailey’s (for 41 years), so his day went from four in the morning to eight or nine at night. Music for dances happened after that long day of work. It was not surprising then that at the age of 68, in 1990, Bruce got tired of it and decided to quit playing dances. He also found that he didn’t like to travel at night.
ART (ARTHUR) JAMIESON
About 15 years younger than Grant Rogers, Art Jamieson (1923-2009) grew up on East Brook Road near Walton. He learned to read music in school and later attended Ithaca Collage to study music, concentrating on baritone horn and violin.
During his two years in the military service, Art played in the Army Air Corps Band, and when he got out, in 1946, began teaching instrumental music at Walton Central School until his retirement in 1978. It was here that he learned to play many additional instruments in order to keep ahead of his band students. Art was also a member of the Oneonta Community Band, playing baritone horn, and with the Catskill Symphony Orchestra, where he played viola. He also sang in the local Presbyterian Church choir. And in 1957, Art took over the Walton Music House, which he ran until passing it on to his son, Larry, in 1990.
As a youngster, Art went to many of the local house dances, where the musicians would stand in the doorway between two rooms and square dancers would dance in both rooms. Later, Art himself began to play for square dances, which required his playing music by ear. One band he played with frequently was the Pleasant Valley Boys, with Bruce or Hilton Hoyt.
Larry recalls many weekends when Bruce Hoyt would pick up his father for dances. He remembers a story involving his father and Bruce Hoyt at a dance in Mount Upton when a heavyset man sat on Art’s fiddle and broke it. The man apologized profusely, and in a week or so, gave his father another violin, which Art subsequently took to his violin lesson at Ithaca College. The instructor promptly said, “Gee, your violin sounds a whole lot better this week than it did last.”
Art also played at times with Bob McClellan, a fiddler who was a mechanic at Bob Sibert’s Flying A Station, and with Bob Sibert, who played sax. Art would play accordion and often Bruce Hoyt would be the dance caller.
The bands Art played in also played for proms. Prom dances involved playing the popular music of the day, which included big band music, the kind of music Art had also played at officers’ clubs and private parties while in the service. He had the ability to have two or three instruments in front of him and pick up a trumpet, saxophone, or clarinet, alternating among them. Larry said, “He’d play a chorus on one, put it down, play a chorus on another. So, he was versatile, and because of that got a lot of work.” Larry said the money his dad made playing for dances would be saved for family vacations.
Larry remembers one of the first times he heard his father play live, when Larry was around 10 years old. It was at a Halloween dance at the Townsend School. The band included Art, Bruce Hoyt, and Red Scherer on lap steel guitar. Larry remembers being impressed: “Gee, these guys sound pretty good!” No doubt a lifetime of hearing his father play, as well as hearing his mother play piano, encouraged Larry and his siblings to become equally involved in music.