PART I: ROOTS
Grant Rogers’ family loved music. As many families did at that time, they enjoyed singing around the piano. His father, Delbert, also did some fiddling, though it appears he wasn’t particularly skilled at it. His mother Ethel, however, was an accomplished piano player who also clogged and played an instrument they called a concertina (melodeon). She would not only play for her family and for larger family gatherings, but also for local dances. Grant’s nieces Fran Watson and Leona Poulin say that Grant got some of his music talent from his mother. Fran and Leona’s mother was Gladys, Grant’s sister. Gladys also played piano for church and for family gatherings. (Interview 2 with Fran and Leona dated 12/2/15)
Later on, after Grant became an adult and Gladys married Frank Schlafer, the extended family would get together for jam sessions on Saturday nights, with Grant and Frank on fiddles and Gladys on piano. This is Leona’s description of Saturday night sessions:
“Every Saturday night when the cows were milked, we played music and it was great. They got into it so that they would have practically their noses on the floor trying to see who was the better violinist, and we sat back and we really enjoyed it. I think Grant, Uncle Grant, got a lot of his ideas just from comments. The neighbor kids were all invited, anyone that wanted to come in. My mom, she played chords, and she just kept the house jumping. They'd play the violin and the other one would play, and then they'd play together. Sometimes, Frank Fisher would come and play with them…. He played violin. So, they kind of had this little competition going over who was the better Delaware County fiddler, but we really enjoyed it.” (Interview 1 with Fran and Leona dated 12/2/15)
It seems clear that family music had a great influence on Grant.
Grant Rogers, Fiddle Master of the Catskills, video by Jessica Vecchione
Grant named his grandfather as the source of some of the stories that served as the basis for at least one of his songs. When Sandy Paton asked Grant about a song he wrote called “Tales of My Grandad,” Grant replied:
“My grandad was filled with all these yarns, you know. He’d tell yarns about animals in the woods and all such things, like the old guys used to tell years back; maybe about hunting panthers, cougars, we call them, in the woods or running out at night with a light to chase the bears away from the pig-pen.
“The idea of the song is, well, a lot of grandfathers will tell, like to their grandchildren, more or less fantastic stories. You know, they get them on their knee and tell them things…”
“Tales of My Grandad,” Track 2, “Songmaker of the Catskills: Grant Rogers,” Recorded and with notes by Sandy Paton, Folk-Legacy Records, Inc., Sharon, Connecticut, 1965.
NY STATE OLD TIME MUSICIANS
“Grant Rogers is testimony to the vitality of our regional traditions. He stems from the raftsmen and woodsmen of the Delaware Valley, and his music would not be properly understood unless it were seen against the backdrop of the narrow river valleys and the endless mountain ridges. It is not a static tradition, embalmed in its own past, but a live and changing thing, growing with the changes that come to the mountains in which he has his roots.”
[Quoted in Sandy Paton’s liner notes, p.4, for his recording of Grant Rogers in “Songmaker of the Catskills, Grant Rogers,” Folk-Legacy Records, Inc., Sharon, Connecticut, 1965.}
Grant Rogers grew up listening to the many Catskill area musicians who played for local barn dances, round dances and square dances. He described going to dances as a young person where he would stand around just listening to the musicians, especially the fiddlers, and in that way, would absorb the music for his use later as he grew more and more adept at the fiddle. In fact, his first experience playing the fiddle for dances began at the age of seven or so, when he would be put on a stool at dances and encouraged to play along with the other musicians. As he said to Sandy Paton,
“Well, they used to stand me up on a chair and I’d fiddle right along with the caller there. I probably didn’t do it like some of the older fellows there, but they thought it was all right. Maybe they was just trying to help me out. I don’t know.”
Grant mentioned old-time Irish fiddler and square dance caller Thomas Mullen as a player from whom he learned many tunes and dance calls. He also learned a way of playing from him, with a strong beat appropriate for dancing. One tune Grant learned from Mullen was the jig “Larry O’Gaff,” a tune closely associated with Grant Rogers. This tune is still played today in Irish traditional music sessions, though it is sometimes called “Daniel O’Connell.” (For alternate titles to this tune, along with written music and references to recordings, see Larry O’Gaff at www.thesession.org.) Written music for the jig is also presented in Dance Music of Ireland, O’Neill’s 1001, edited by Capt. Francis O’Neill, #128, p.36. Waltons’ Musical Instrument Gallery, 2-5 North Frederick Street, Dublin, Ireland.
Here is a link to an Irish session in 2014 in East Durham, NY, with “Larry O’Gaff” as the first of a three-jig set.
A recording of Grant Rogers playing “Larry O’Gaff” can be found on Track 8 of the Folk Legacy Recording , “Songmaker of the Catskills: Grant Rogers” recorded by Sandy Paton in 1965, Folk-Legacy Records.
Another local fiddler who may have indirectly influenced Grant Rogers was Alva Belcher. Belcher was an African American fiddler from the Delhi area who died in about 1900, before Grant was born. However, he had been a very popular dance band leader in the late 1800s and his fame and musical influence would certainly have extended to the dance world of the southern part of Delaware County. He became associated with one reel in particular, “Mason’s Apron,” popular even today with players of traditional Irish music. Because Belcher played the reel so often and so well, it became known to local folk as “Belcher’s Reel.” (See “Mason’s Apron” in www.thesession.org.)
As a young person Rogers found work in the woods, where he encountered such musicians as fiddler Sherm Yorks, who apparently had a wooden leg. According to ethnomusicologist, Sandy Paton (p.19 of liner notes for “Song-Maker of the Catskills: Grant Rogers”, Folk Legacy Records, 1965), Rogers said of his experiences in lumber camps:
“We used to have some jamborees of our own back in the lumber-camps, you know. Once in awhile you’d run into an awful good fiddler and some of ‘em could sing pretty good, too, jig-dance, and such like. There wasn’t very many dull moments, you know; they had amusement of their own.”
Rogers soon became a much sought after fiddler and dance caller with an ever-expanding repertoire of jigs, reels and hornpipes in the northeastern style, tunes from the British Isles tradition, as well as traditional American waltzes and reels. Most of the tunes he played for dances were learned by ear from the older musicians in his local area.
A popular square dance tune that he would have learned from hearing it played in his area was called “The Little Red Barn.” In this recording, track 11 of “Songmaker of the Catskills” by Folk-Legacy Records, Grant introduces the tune before he plays it:
For a brief history of dance traditions in the Western Catskills area, see interview with local musician and ethnomusicologist Kathy Shimberg. [Interviews on this website.]
[Information on other Delaware County musicians, especially fiddlers, appears in “Memories of Old Time Musicians and Their Music” by Leslie Scofield, pp. 142-147, in Tompkins, The First 200 Years, written and researched by Perry Shelton, Supervisor of Town of Tompkins, and published by the Tompkins Town Board.]
In addition to fiddle tunes learned from lumber camp jamborees, Grant also learned stories and songs from loggers’ experiences and traditions. In telling Sandy Paton about the origins of a song he wrote, “Pat McBraid,” Grant said the following:
"I heard some awful good lumber songs – you know, for lumbermen, lumberjacks. Anyway, I just wondered why I couldn’t write a song based on this lumber business and I came up with ‘Pat McBraid.’ I wrote that one in, let’s see, I guess it was in about 1960.”
(p. 19, Paton’s liner notes)
“Pat McBraid,” track 13 on Folk Legacy Recording.
Grant listened to and played with local Delaware Valley music and musicians, but he also listened to a wide variety of recordings from around the United States and Canada. One recording he especially liked was by Canadian singer Frank Crumit. [Note: Crumit was actually born in the U.S., in Ohio, and was a popular singer in the 1920s and 1930s.]
"I learned (“Down by the Railroad Track”) off of a phonograph record of Frank Crumit. He was a Canadian and, let me tell you, he was an awful good singer, I always thought. You know, them Canadian boys are good singers! Like, take folksinging – I’d rather hear any guy out of Canada sing folk songs than anybody in the States. They’ve just got what it takes; it’s a natural thing for them.” (Paton, p. 17)
Paton goes on to say, “Despite the great influence of such singers as Bradley Kincaid and Vernon Dalhart, Grant’s music taste is the result of his growing up within the northeastern musical tradition. Stylistically, the music of upstate New York appears to be more closely related to that of Canada and, of course, New England, than it is to the music of the Southern Appalachians.” Even though folks like Grant had access to southern mountain music and country and western music on radio and juke box, he was still, says Paton, “primarily a performer in the northern tradition.”
For a recording of Grant singing “Down by the Railroad Track, see Track 13 of “Songmaker of the Catskills: Grant Rogers,” Folk Legacy Recording, 1965.
Having told Paton that his favorite fiddlers were Canadians, Grant went on to compare southern and northern fiddlers:
“Well, now look --- I’m a fiddler. Now, all fiddlers might not feel like this, but I’ve never heard my idea of a good fiddler in the States from the South, and there’s where we find most of them. I’d call them ‘hacksaw fiddlers.’ They act as though they want to take their fiddle and do some trick with it, in place of the tune. Now, you take a Canadian fiddler. If he can’t fiddle a tune right, if he’s got doubts about it, he won’t play it…..
“There’s a difference in the sound of a northern and a southern fiddler, too. I think the northerner, as far as the fiddle is concerned, has got a better touch to his violin than all of these southerners….. You just listen to Don Messer and his Islanders. Where could you find a better outfit than that? I want to tell you, they’re really good.!”
See entry for Don Messer at www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca Don Messer, for information on Don Messer, “an icon of Canadian music down-east fiddle style.” Along with numerous recordings, Messer and his Islanders also presented a CBC-TV series called Don Messer’s Jubilee from 1959 to 1969.
Don Messer (1909-1973) would have been about the same age as Grant Rogers, but it was clear that Grant saw Messer as a mentor in style and tunes. As Paton was listening to Grant play a string of fiddle tunes one evening, he would try to interrupt the playing to find out where Grant had learned a tune. The repeated answer was “Don Messer and His Islanders,…. Yeah…. Prince Edward Island. That’s one of his.” (p. 27-28, Paton)
Messer once said that his music was “not Western or Cowboy music. Our tunes have been around for two or three hundred years. They’re folk tunes passed from generation to generation.” (See www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca, Don Messer.)
One of the fiddle tunes Grant learned from Don Messer is called “The Canadian Rose.” For his recording, see Track 18 on the CD “Songmaker of the Catskills: Grant Rogers.
Grant Rogers soon gained a reputation as a fiddler and singer outside of his immediate area. He came to the attention of folksong collectors Norman Cazden and Norman Studer, who (with Herbert Haufrecht) were running a children’s camp called Camp Woodland near Phoenicia, NY. A major goal of the camp was to introduce NYC children to folk songs and dances of the Catskills. In 1950 Studer invited Rogers and his mother Ethel to perform at Camp Woodland, and after his first appearance there, Grant spent several weeks there each summer until the early 1960s. Grant explained it this way.
“Norman Studer used to come around looking for talent, you know, fiddlers, anybody that was capable of entertaining. And he got to scouting around a bigger and bigger area. Well, he got into my country and found out about me. So I started going over there. It was about seventy miles from here… Most of them (the musicians) were fiddlers and singers like me, not really professionals. The nearest to a professional I ever saw over there was Pete Seeger….. I used to go back over to the camp every summer until 1963. It changed hands then, you see.”
It was probably the influence of the folk music of that part of the Catskills and folk musicians like Pete Seeger at Camp Woodland that caused Grant to appreciate even more the traditional music of his home area.
[Note: For a very detailed history of Camp Woodland and the Central Catskills region, see the book The Improbable Community: Camp Woodland and the American Democratic Ideal by Bill Horne. See Bibliography for details.]
Here is a video recording of Grant Rogers and Pete Seeger in a 1965 TV program produced by Seeger. Grant was one of several folk musicians recorded by Seeger for this series.