Wes St. Onge with Jim 48:42 9/28/2015, Walton, NY
This is the 28th of September, Monday afternoon, and we're at George and Gail Mack’s house. We thank them for their hospitality for this project. We have as a guest today Wes St. Onge, and he's going to discuss his father's life as a fiddler in his performing square dances and other kinds of music.
[Your father] was 8 years old in 1924 when he got his first fiddle, right?
That's what it sounded like, up in Tupper Lake, New York.
Is that the same fiddle you have now, your father's?
Yea, you probably got another one.
I really don't know the history on the fiddle I have now, not for sure.
But it was your father's fiddle?
It was my father's fiddle. I have two of his fiddles.
You weren't playing very much on that eight years ago.
Well, that was about the time I started.
Yea, I remember you because you were just trying to learn. Why don't you talk a little bit about your father's music playing. Some of the interest we have is we've got some of the materials you have about your father and the different places he played, but nobody really talks too much about the types of music he played, for who he was playing, or the community aspect of it. We know of the square dances and things like that, and you know what the tunes were and where his music fits in the genre. If you could include that, whether it was a waltz or a jig, or how the music evolved, you could give us a picture as much as you understand it.
Well, unfortunately, when he was still alive I didn't pay as much attention as I should have, but I do know that his father was blinded in an accident and so they had it pretty tough as young kids. At one point they moved to North Carolina for the winters, for his father's health.
Where were they from originally?
Originally, from Tupper Lake, New York, and that's where he started out his violin lessons. I believe it was a parochial school that they were in, but as they got down to Carolina again, they were finding out musicians or neighbors that were playing some music, and they got interested in it.
Your father mentions the southern tunes in something I read. He meant traditional tunes in North Carolina?
Yes. Whatever they were playing probably wasn't a whole lot of the hill country tunes or Appalachian type tunes. They probably were the popular tunes. I remember one of them was "Bully of the Town," which was a popular song back in the early 30's I believe, maybe even before that. Some music of that sort, "Alabama Jubilee," “Year of Jubilo," things like that, were what they were listening to with the neighbors.
I don't really know those tunes, so are they dance tunes?
No, no. "Jubilo" is a Civil War tune.
"Bully of the Town," that was a pop tune, but kind of jumpy. You could polka to it or something, I suppose. So, they would hear the neighbors playing those tunes, and of course they were playing a little bit together. Back when he was first learning to play, he was taking lessons for a year, and I'm sure it was the exercise books, he's doing some scales and so on, and someone came to the house and says, "Well, do you know any tunes?" "No, I don't know any tunes," and the fella went out and got a piece of sheet music or something out of his car, and brought it in. My father had learned to read music by then, and he played it. He was quite amazed, "Oh, I can play a tune." So, at that point, my father's playing fiddle, and my one uncle was playing guitar, I believe, and the other was playing banjo. That was primarily what their instruments were at that point. So, they would have little music sessions at the house, I'm sure, just entertain each other and any family that came by,
But then they started going out again. Money was tight, and my sister's story about my dad is they were learning how to make baskets. Big baskets, apparently, but they would take them to street fairs or whatever and sell them, just trying to make some money cause my father couldn't do much. My grandfather couldn't do much.
That's desolate country up there.
No, no, this is down in Grayham, North Carolina. Then they started going to little contests at various schools or churches or whatever. There was a section in here where my grandmother had it in her diary that Edwin, that was my father, won $1.20 for first prize in something, and $0.35. All these very small amounts.
They'd earn $3 a day working.
That's right, we heard that someplace.
So, I guess it wasn't as low as we think today.
That got them playing a little, and I'm sure they learned a lot of tunes there. Then when they moved up here they were over at West Davenport, and there's a big house over there called the Tally Ho. It's a restaurant at this point, and that was a house that my grandfather and grandmother bought. [They bought] it for $1,500 [at] a tax auction. Prior to that, and around that same time, again, they didn't have a lot of money, so what they had done was they started playing for the Grange or the hotel in Davenport. There's a little hotel up where the creamery is now, and it's in there. I don't remember the name of it, but they heard that my father and aunt and uncles played music. They wondered if they could do a dance, [my family] not having done one. Apparently, what they wanted to do was square dancing, so there was someone in the area who could call the square dances, [since my family] hadn't done any of that yet, and they started having some dances there at the hotel and making decent money. They decided we don't need to go back to Carolina, we might as well stay here 'cause we're making more money doing this, and that's kind of what they did for years after that. They would be playing
at various granges around, and they would go way down to Fleishmann's, and at times, seeing as they were from Tupper Lake, they would end up in Long Lake doing dances, even in the winter which amazes me. I wouldn't go out myself; some of these roads and the horrible old cars they had and so on. That's pretty much what I remember about the beginning of it--the family band. (The St. Onge Orchestra). My grandfather, although he had been in that accident and was blinded and had lost one his hands, he had a hook or a some sort of clamping arrangement, he would play the drums and
they would play. As they went on they graduated to needing different types of instruments, so they started playing saxophones and so on, accordion, and they would use those for the top dance tunes. They would go back to the fiddles, banjos, and guitars for the square dances, [and] then [at] one point my uncle, Earl, he's the last living one, began to call the [square] dances.
Tell us again how many people in your family just played music? It was your uncle, Earl, your father, and brother?
It was my grandfather playing the drums, and my father playing fiddle and tenor saxophone usually, [though in] later years he played the stand up bass with Linus Hulk(?) Orchestra filling in on jobs. My uncle, Charles, played tenor banjo, clarinet, alto sax, and in later years the mandolin and the five string banjo playing bluegrass music. Way back in the day it was the tenor banjo and the sax and so on. My uncle, Earl, would play guitar and accordion, and then as they switched into the dance music he was also playing, I think, alto sax.
Pretty much that was it until later years, then he got into the bluegrass and he learned to pick the banjo.
When did the bluegrass start? Do you have any idea about that?
They probably got into it in the early 70's. Uncle Charles was out in the Warwick, Rhode Island area, and there was a lot of bluegrass out there. He was [a] pretty good craftsman, and he also did a lot of rebuilding of old banjos, making new necks and doing all the fine inlaid work and everything.
I think it was like 1979 when I was playing in a band, and [my father] just came to listen and played a couple of square dances.
He was doing the fiddle then, was he?
In that case, yea, that's all he played. When I was in high school I took saxophone lessons, and at one point, back in 1958 or so, somebody called and they wanted him to play saxophone for a dance in a barn down in Otego. He said, "No, I can't, but my son can do it." I was playing saxophone in the school band, but I had never played [outside of that]. It was good. I made ten bucks. The big paydays back then.
Let's try this tune. Just tell me what you think about it, and what you remember.
Well, [the] tune's "Off She Goes" (“Smash the Windows”) with the variation on the B part from what we play in our Irish sessions.
That's what it is, "Off She Goes."
It's "Off She Goes," right?
As far as I know. Now, it's possible this is some old time tune that's a corruption of ["Off She Goes"].
Yea, or a variation. We'll call it that.
Now what would he play this with, [or] for [what occasion]?
Square dance. He'd probably call it for a square dance.
Most of the dances nowadays that you go to are musical calls, to a kind of popular song, [like], "I'm Walking the Floor Over You and Back," but they did straight calls, and they would just play the music and they would just holler allemande left and allemande right.
We heard another voice--another voice there.
Actually, that might have been kids in the background.
There was one where my uncle was calling a straight call. "Ragtime Annie" I think he was playing.
You can tell us what this is because it definitely was a square dance, and it definitely was a fiddle tune.
He's playing "Devil's Dream," and that's Dick Thompson calling. Dick is probably just making up the call.
It's not very clear.
No, it's not on that [recording].
Is he playing it too fast?
No, no, it must be skipping, or maybe I didn't get a good copy.
That was a square dance that we were playing for a regular dance at the Evening Inn in Oneonta. I think I remember that was 1979, and I was playing with Dick Thompson and the Driftwoods. I had given up my own band and gone and joined the rest of my old band who was playing with Dick, and Dick was very good at booking jobs and keeping you busy. I think Dad came up to tape the show that night, and we talked him into playing because we probably must not have had [to] push him too hard or he wouldn't have had his fiddle with him. He was playing at that point, [and] I believe it was "The Devil's Dream." He's playing it, to me, impressively good and fast.
I think you know a lot of these tunes here were wonderful.
Dick is making up the call as he goes, you know, just filling in.
Now that also sounds like they're having a good time. This is the one you were talking about.
must be a square dance.
I'm sure my band was tired after this one. We played this tune for a long time. It's a hard tune to play, "Devil's Dream."
When I play, it doesn't sound anything like that.
Try number nine on there. It just has the fiddle playing.
I think this is "Listen to the Mockingbird," maybe, or one of the tunes on this track.
This one [that's] on here later, I see, too, with the fiddling and the guitar. I think it's "Come (Comin’ Round the Mountain," "As They Come Around the Mountain.") Who would be the guitar player?
What I like in this tune is he actually does the birds at some point.
There's the bird.
This is ten.
Now where did you get these tunes at? These are all traditional tunes, aren't they? Southern, so maybe he picked up this stuff down there. Was it also up here, that kind of music?
I'm sure it was, yes. I know that years ago I could go over [to who I was] playing [with] and just say, "Let's do "Chicken Reel," and they [knew what I meant].
"Mockingbird," because that's an old singing song.
I mean, I knew that song.
These tunes [that] you're listening to right now [was when] we [were] at my house, probably Thanksgiving, and that might have been 86'.
My daughter was playing flute. She just learned to play the five string banjo a little bit. You heard her say, "They told me what to play." That was my daughter, but it was just basically my dad and I. He was also hollering because he had not had [his fiddle] out in so long that when he got ready to bring it up it had a broken E string. We put a new string on it, and this came on, and he became pretty [excited].
Now is that the "Irish Washerwoman?"
It's not really an Irish tune, I don't think.
Yea, I get a kick out of listening to us. She (?) was a lot better than I realized.
He bowed quite well and fingered quite well, especially [since] he was maybe 70.
So you said your father stopped playing for awhile?
Well, yes. Probably right around 1948 or so is where he totally stopped because of his business and the little kids and so on and not having any time. As far as playing with his brothers, [that ended]. I just asked my uncle, Earl, about this. He's still going, he's 95, and he plays guitar. They go out to the old folks homes and play sometimes. Not as much as they used to, but he said that right after the war, my father was in the service, and he was in the army air force. He was a B-24 mechanic, but he was in Galveston, Texas. My uncle, Earl, he was over in New Guinea, and my uncle, Charles, I'm not sure exactly where he was, [but] he was in the navy, [and] they were all out. My father never went overseas. The other two did. When they came back from the service, of course they were after jobs, trying to find out something to do. Both of my uncles ended up working for GE. One of them was, I don't know where the college came in or maybe it didn't, but Earl was an engineer. He ended up working in the Knowles lab up in Schenectady. The other one, Charles, he was with GE [at] the jet lab. So anyway, somewhere after the war, 46' or 47', they got those jobs and they moved away, and that was pretty much the end of the family band. At that point I believe my father would play with other bands. I know that he played with Linus Hulk. I remember him practicing on the saxophone in the house
with the big bass fiddle, but eventually he [also] stopped that. About the time he [shed] it off on me, and then he didn't play any more other than at an occasional picnic in the summer with the family or Christmas or Thanksgiving or something like that. We'd always grab out instruments for play, but not for long and not much.
I do remember him, once in awhile, getting his books out and looking at the cheat sheets of the tunes.
We're doing this Grant Rogers project. Did he have any connection? Did you ever discuss him or talk about him?
Not that I know of, no.
I know it mentions here all the places your father played, and they played in Oneonta, and Delhi, and Walton, and different places.
Grant played mostly down south of here.
Grant Rogers, well, he was in Rock Rift. That's where he's from, [and] after that he moved to a trailer outside of Walton. I think he was a stone lineman, but a lot of people from around here still know (of) him and remember him and his connection.
Well, the thing I got a kick out of was seeing the schedule and where they were playing.
It was like, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday, things like this. All these weeknights.
He mentions a lot of places around here plus a lot of other places.
As far as where and when he actually learned [the tunes], I don't know.
Let's maybe [approach] it from a different angle. Could you tell us a little more about the venues, the types of places he (your father) played? Was it dances or just playing music somewhere?
Primarily they were grange halls, I believe. Some bars, but not in the sense of the honky tonks or wild places. I do remember him talking about playing at Rainbow Gardens up in Davenport when a fella that owned it was an Oneonta real estate guy named Frank Fatta. I guess it was a nice spot, no rough stuff, pop, possibly even no alcohol, I don't know. It was a dime a dance type situation.
So these grange things were dances basically?
They were basically dances, yup.
What period of time now?
That would have been in the late 30's.
Late 30's. Now, has the music changed a little bit from [then], or where was it at that point?
At that point I'm pretty sure that it was all--
--still square dancing.
Still some square dancing, but--
--but the music maybe changed.
--but doing pop tunes of the day. I also remember seeing, when I was a kid [we] had a piano in the house [of course], and, in the piano bench were all the different books. They were little, and I can't remember exactly what they were called. I was thinking that earlier, but you would open [them] up and they would be kind of like a cheat book of the pop hits of the day.
I think Gail can play the piano.
Or they would be little arrangements, simple arrangements, of a particular tune for the sax, a couple of saxophones and so on.
Now, the way he plays some of these jigs and reels it's hard to believe he would learn that from reading. He must have [learned by ear.] You know how traditional music is usually passed on by ear? Did he have a good ear?
Yes, he had a good ear. They all had good ears. I guess if you've played for so many years it starts coming.
[Do] you know his first name was Edwin?
He could fiddle the buds--
--something the buds off a sweet potato vine. That was high school. High school they were probably picking on him, actually. Appreciatively picking on him. He did graduate from Oneonta High School in 1937. I remember that I had his belt buckle, but, yea, that was in his yearbook.
It mentions a lot of venues where he played, theatres, and places in Walton and Oneonta. Were they grange halls too, or different types of [venues]?
To the best of my knowledge, everyplace he played was either a club or a grange hall, or the hotel in Davenport where it had a big ballroom that's sole purpose was for dancing.
Did they ever play house dances?
I don't know if they did or not.
I remember Bob Moss talking about playing for a house (dance). That's how they started.
I mean, they probably did, but mostly they were playing out. They were established enough [that] they were busy.
Yea, I get the feeling from listening to you [that] pretty much everybody just did their business; they played their music and then they went home. They didn't go out carousing. That was their job and not a lot of hanging around.
The one story that I remember that is kind of fun is that they were playing at the grange hall up in Pierstown, up near Cooperstown, and people were having such a good time dancing that, when they built these old grange halls, they built the floor so that they would have spring in them, to aid the dancers. T hey were aiding the dancers so good that the supports gave way and it only had to drop six or eight inches, but the floor just dropped out of the place while they were playing. I don't think they finished the night. I'm not sure.
Why don't you talk a little bit about how your father influenced you and your music and on how you changed also. What did you get from him? First of all, you start with his fiddle. You've got one of his fiddles, but you weren't playing that until eight years ago.
No, i wasn't playing that until after he died. When I was young, five years old, six years old, whatever it was, they had us take piano lessons. My sister and I both had to do that. We never went very far--a couple of years. Of course, as a little kid I wouldn't practice, but I got a little basic basis in that, and then when I was ten, I got my first guitar. I think I got that mainly so I could play in the family gatherings. If he (my father) would be practicing on the fiddle at home or something, I would play the square dance tunes with them. Play the rhythms.
Just chords. Just chords, and I didn't do an awful lot. Other than playing occasional holidays with the family, that's about all I ever really did with my dad or with my uncles. By the time I got to be 14 it was rock and roll, and the girls liked the guitar player. I had to do that, you know. So, I got into that. I liked country, but mainly what I would listen to was big band stuff, a lot of big band sound, and I kind of liked that. That's what got me into taking saxophone in school and high school.
This would be in the 40's and 50's?
No, this would be in the 50's for me. Then that that led me to that dance that dad didn't want to play, and from there I pretty much started playing every week at [the] Maple Grove Grange Hall. No, that's a lie. The first job was in John Pohli’s barn in Otego. It was in October, and it was cold and we were in the hay loft. It was a fundraiser. He was very instrumental in getting ice hockey going, so it was a fundraiser for that. I remember almost freezing my lips off playing the saxophone. That particular band quickly turned into a regular job over in Maple Grove at the grange hall, and [there were] Saturday night dances there all the time. I played--
-- saxophone and guitar pretty much?
--saxophone. Actually, there were two saxophones in that band. There was an older fella named Harold Salisbury who played tenor sax. I also played tenor sax. We had a drummer and guitar player, and once in awhile there was an old fiddler. His name was Cal Kyper. This was when I was still in high school. One of my girlfriends in high school, her father gave me an accordion. I would take the accordion and I would play that with some of the stuff, and then I started taking guitar and branching out.
So this was like rock and roll (No, no)? This was square dancing?
No, this was square dances and old tunes. "Sentimental Journey," "Goodnight Sweetheart," and then some country tunes. That's what I can remember, anyway. We're talking a long ways back here.
Then, if this fiddler was there, you would do some of the maybe older [tunes]?
He would do square dances. [I] forgot [that] we had a banjo player, too. I can't remember his name, but [he played] once in awhile.
What made you go back to playing your [father's fiddle]? You're doing a lot of that with bluegrass right now, right? I mean, Irish and everything else.
Well, what happened is [that] after my father died, he had stuff. A lot of stuff. So, we were going to sell them because I wasn't playing and nobody else in my family was ever playing any fiddles. One of the fiddles is [a] guarnarious copy. Nice looking fiddle, but it had a little tiny crack in the top, so I took it up and had it repaired. That cost $350, or something like that. We did find out that maybe it was worth $1500 or something. My sister took a couple of them to Antiques Roadshow, and I said, well...at that point my wife had gone to Florida to visit my son and her father and left me alone in the house. I said well...might as well.
Years later I've looked back, and apparently when I was in sixth grade, somewhere in there, I apparently took some violin lessons in school. I see a picture of myself in a Boy Scout uniform with a violin. I don't remember anything about that, so it may not have lasted long. Anyways, after we had the fiddle repaired and I had the time alone at the house, I said, "Well, I may as well do this." It was sort of challenging. Boy, is it challenging.
Well, you're doing very well. You have been playing pretty steady with us for eight years.
You guys have been playing together eight years?
Yea. Almost since the summer we started because I remember at first it was just Kathy, Steve and I, and Jean. Then it was the same [until] maybe a week later, or two weeks, and you joined, and Jim Thompson came there, too.
I probably had been playing for a year or something before that.
Yea, you played a little bit. I kind of remember that because I was just trying to learn the flute.
So you play every Thursday, too?
Well, no, this is something new. You sort of inherited this group up in My Father's Place, right? Somebody started before you?
Somebody had started downtown in Oneonta at a place called the Sego Cafe and that closed. Then we arranged for the folks at My Father's Place.
What kind of music was that from the beginning?
That was almost exactly like it was now. It was all contra dance tunes. A lot of it was out of the Portland collection of contra dance tunes. Some Irish obviously, but it wasn't primarily Irish. Over the last couple of years it's been drifting a little more and more Irish, especially since the last year we've come up with a very nice whistle player, a girl named Liz Brown. She's super.
She also plays the Scottish pipes, but we won't let her bring those, no.
Do people break into a dance every now and again?
Every once in awhile, yes. We really truthfully don't have enough of a crowd up there. At the Sego Cafe it was an attraction. College kids would walk by, and people that like that kind of music from town would stop by, the professors and whatever. Up at My Father's Place it's pretty much just a convenience for us to have a place to go, and people once in awhile wander in and listen, but it's not a regular [crowd].
You have some really good musicians.
You also do bluegrass.
Just because I was playing the fiddle, my daughter is now, or was. [ She's] better on the banjo than she had been, and she's been down in Florida for quite a few years now. Probably ten, or something like that, and she always wanted to do banjo. She found a banjo teacher down there, well, he happened to be semi-active in a band, and then she's cute and blonde and petite and ponytail, and she fit right into the band. They were playing mostly just in [a] house jam every week, but they would pick up a few little jobs where they would play at a festival [as a] secondary act. When I got down there they already had the mandolin player, and guitar player, and the banjo player, and the bass player, so, well, I may as well try to do the fiddle, and I do. It's frankly very pitiful compared to a good fiddler, but I have fun doing it, so that's what I do in the winter. Then, when I come back up here I can get back into my [regular instrument and music]. There is some down there, but I have to go an hour or a half north or south to come up with an Irish session.
So, your daughter's doing this and that must be satisfying too, playing with her a little bit.
It is. It is, and she's getting better as the years go on.
Do you have any other family gatherings like that where you play music?
Well, not too much. We do usually [have] Thanksgiving at our house in Florida. She ends up bringing her banjo over, and I have a son that lives in Cape Coral, Florida, and they usually come up for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Does he play any music?
He can play guitar a little bit. He can play guitar, but it's more the popular rock stuff. He does DJing for a living. He comes up. He strums along on the guitar and has fun.
Music is still a very big thing in your family, (Yes, yes.) and I hope that you know, spreading this information around, Wes, [we will] encourage other people to continue their [music traditions].
It's kind of hard with all the technology today.
You listen more than play.
Yea, I can see how technology provides a lot, but to me it's, to go to a place and hear recorded music as compared to seeing a band, I'd much prefer the band.
Well, in a sad way, when you're playing it too. I've been in country bands and had my own band and played in other bands, but everybody's funny. They're getting older and they're not playing anymore. I do manage to find a few groups to play with in Florida. Not so lucky up here in New York, but, as soon as I can play some different instruments, and with the technology of today, the good part about it is we're able to take a recorder and say, ok, here's the piano part, and here's the bass part, and basically make my own band, and then I can in Florida, and up here I can go out and play what I've done and play along with it.
Bob Utter, who plays steel guitar, and he'd been in my band ever since way back in the 70's.
We were just playing yesterday.
The other half of that technology story, I forgot about this piece. For the restaurant owners and so on, technology is less of a demand on their resources than a band, and that sort of stuff, and that's what's hurt. I had a brother who played guitar professionally and that's what stopped (him).
Wes St. Onge 4:24, 9/28/2015, Walton, NY
I'm Wes St. Onge, and these are some tunes that I remember my dad playing. I didn't learn from him with him telling me fingering and so on, so I'm sure these aren't exact, but these are tunes I remember him playing. This one is called "Chinese Breakdown."
He also seemed to be really enamored of a tune he called "The Shepherd's Schottisch." I have no idea where he learned it, and nobody else seems to know exactly what it is, but this was something he would always play.
My father was Ed St. Onge, and he spent a lot of time as a youth down in South Carolina. A tune that he learned down there, I think it was popular on the radio back in the thirties, is one called "The Bully of the Town."
We'll try "White Cockade." I remember him playing this also.