The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 6

Jasper E. “Jep” Bisbee
Old-Time Michigan Dance Fiddler

by Paul Gifford
Click Here to hear Bisbee's Devil's Dream (RealAudio file)
Image and audio courtesy of
Robert's Old Schmaltz Archives

August 16, 1923 would have been a normal, quiet summer day in Paris, Michigan, a poor, unincorporated hamlet in the western part of the state’s Lower Peninsula. This day, however, was different. A touring party, consisting of two of the country’s best-known and closely watched public figures, Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison, along with tire company owner Harvey Firestone, had stopped in Paris on their annual camping trip. Ford’s brother-in-law, Milton D. Bryant, a Ford dealer in Traverse City, Michigan, had told him about his bookkeeper’s father, a skilled fiddler, who lived at Paris. Ford’s party made the stop at Paris to meet and hear Jep Bisbee, the fiddler.

Bisbee was in his workshop, working on his latest violin, when Henry Ford and G. Edward Kingsford, the manager of Ford’s mining and forest interests at Iron Mountain, Michigan, who had attended dances at which Bisbee had played 40 years earlier, appeared at his door. Kingsford introduced himself and Ford and said that Ford would like to hear him play. Bisbee, who later said he always felt ready to play, invited them into his living room. For the next half-hour, he played tune after tune, accompanied by his wife on an old square grand piano. Ford was unexpectedly taken by the music. He ran out to the road and told his wife and the rest of the party that they had better come in.

The Bisbees played for another hour, with the almost deaf Edison directing his ear trumpet toward the fiddler’s bow. Ford and Firestone and their wives danced. Ford and Edison suggested that Bisbee go to Edison’s laboratory to be recorded and filmed. Undoubtedly stunned by this sudden attention, Bisbee nonetheless must have been amenable to this proposition. Ford asked if the fiddle that Bisbee had, one that he had made, was for sale, and he purchased it for $100. The camping party, pleased with their visit, got back into their cars and drove off to Traverse City, where Ford’s yacht awaited them for a trip to the Upper Peninsula.

This visit, Ford later recalled, led to his campaign to promote the dances of his youth and indirectly to the Ford-inspired fiddling contests that swept the country in 1926. Residents of Paris and the nearby city of Big Rapids, filled with a mixture of pride and jealousy over the visit, hoped that the attention would lead to economic investment in the community. It didn’t. Ford’s interest in Bisbee’s music was strictly personal.

Jasper E. (“Jep”) Bisbee was in many ways a typical Michigander of his generation. He was born in the town of Ossian, Livingston County, New York, on July 29, 1843, the youngest son of Alanson and Mary C. (Bagley) Bisbee, and a descendant of Thomas Besbeech, who settled in Massachusetts in 1635. The family moved to Campbell Township, Ionia County, Michigan, in 1858. For several years Jep worked on the farm, but it seems that he had other interests than farming.

He said that his older brother made him a fiddle from an apple tree limb and horsehair, and he began to learn tunes from his mother’s whistling. This must have taken place when the family still lived in western New York State, because in a later interview, he said that he got interested in the fiddle as soon as he moved West. In any case, his older brother James reported in the 1860 census that his occupation was a musician, and it seems most likely that Jep learned from his brother and probably by this time was playing with him at dances. The combination of first and second fiddle was common at rural dances in Michigan and throughout much of the country at this time. Around the time of the Civil War, for three years, Jep traveled around as part of some kind of “troop,” giving public entertainments. This may have been a fife-and-drum band, as Bisbee later said he had been in Detroit in 1861 playing the drum.

He worked as a clerk in a store at Saranac, Ionia County, Michigan, for a year, where he learned how to make boots and shoes. In 1869, he married Sarah E. Scranton, and located in the village of Croton, Newaygo County, Michigan. He bought a 160-acre farm in 1872 near Croton, but promptly sold it and set up shop in Paris, which was a booming sawmill town. He worked as a shoemaker through the rest of the decade, tried farming again for a year, and then, during the 1880s and early 1890s, ran a drugstore and grocery store. In the 1900s and 1910s, he painted houses for a living, but by 1918 had returned to shoe making.

Music, however, was never far away and always provided a portion of his income and in some years probably most of it. He later said that promoting a dance at Muskegon, with 300 lumberjacks paying $3 apiece, was so successful that he subsequently pursued music as a career as much as circumstances would allow. He appears in the Michigan State Gazetteer in 1881 as a “professor of music” and in 1893, 1895, and 1897 as a musician. From 1905 to 1909 he was proprietor of Bisbee Hall, which, no doubt, was a dance hall, a common phenomenon in small Michigan towns at the time.

As what we might regard as a professional, although rural, dance musician, Bisbee must have learned to read music in order to be able to keep up with the demands for the tunes that accompanied the latest steps taught by touring dancing masters. Even in his sparsely populated region, there must have been an interest in the popular tunes and dances. This is indicated by his mentioning in one interview of “Howe’s music,” that is, music published by Elias Howe, of Boston. However, his recorded versions of the tunes, all of them published by Howe and others, vary considerably from the published notes. Other evidence, such as the unpublished tune “Drunken Hiccups,” which a young fiddler, Everett Snyder, learned from Bisbee, shows that he also learned tunes by ear.

Jep and his wife had four children: Earl E., born in 1871; Glenn W., born about 1873; Frank L., born about 1878; and Beulah, born about 1887. All played some musical instrument, and one 1920s newspaper interview mention that at one time Jep’s orchestra, except for the clarinet player, consisted entirely of his family. From their ages and the knowledge of the instruments that they played, we can infer that from about 1890 to 1910, the Bisbee orchestra consisted of Jep and his son Frank, first and second fiddles; Glenn, cornet; the outside clarinet player; Earl, bass viol; and Sarah, bass drum and later reed organ. Gradually most of the children moved away. Earl moved to Traverse City; Glenn went to Muskegon, where he worked as a salesman in a music store; and Beulah married Rudolph Schuler and moved to Sturgis, Michigan. By 1920 or so, when fiddler Stewart Carmichael and his wife-to-be went the fifteen miles or so over to a dance at Paris, Jep was playing with his son Frank and probably his wife on organ. Carmichael, incidentally, felt that the son (whose name he recalled as “Jim” Bisbee) was a better fiddler than the father. The Bisbees let the young fiddler “spell” them for a set.

Milton D. Bryant worked closely at his dealership with Earl E. Bisbee, and he must have heard often enough about Bisbee’s experience playing for dances and about his father’s fiddling. How or when Bryant told his brother-in-law, Henry Ford, about Bisbee is unknown, but, in any case, it was only a month after Ford’s purchase of the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts that he went looking for Bisbee. No doubt Ford associated dancing with such inns and hotels, and he began to recall the dances and music of his youth. These thoughts probably came as a relief to him, as since 1915 he had involved himself in various unsuccessful and pernicious political campaigns. Although he had relinquished control of the Ford Motor Company, he still was involved in many business activities as well. But his sudden interest in old-time dancing and music, although not new, since he had learned to play the fiddle as a teenager and occasionally danced in the years since his marriage, gave him pleasure personally.

Ford worked with Earl Bisbee to arrange a trip to Edison’s studios at West Orange, New Jersey. He returned to Paris on October 10, presenting the Bisbees with a new Ford sedan and a box of candy from Mrs. Ford. The car would not fit into the barn, so that day Ford and his associates built a platform to allow access. Ironically, Bisbee never learned to drive it. This visit seems to have been Ford’s way of showing appreciation for the earlier visit and Bisbee’s playing. He also may have given Bisbee, on this occasion, a diamond-studded gold lapel pin in the shape of a violin. The Bisbees played again for Ford and his associates.

Mrs. Bisbee, who had spent every night for the past 40 years at home, felt very reluctant to travel, but she finally consented. After some delay, the trip to West Orange went ahead the following month. Ford had his personal railcar sent to Paris, which picked up the Bisbees, their son Earl and daughter Beulah, and Milton D. Bryant and his wife. When it reached Dearborn, Henry Ford’s wife Clara joined the party. Ford seems to have intended to accompany the group, but must have changed his plans. He saw them off, and the train arrived at West Orange early in the morning of November 23. Thomas Edison met them at the station and the group went straight to the Edison complex.

When asked by a reporter what he was planning to play, Bisbee responded, “Oh, anything that happens to come into my old head.”  As Ford and Edison had coached him how to deal with the inevitable reporters, Bisbee was somewhat taciturn in giving his answers, and this may have been a way to brush off their curiosity. In fact, he recorded “Opera Reel,” adding his own calls; “McDonald’s Reel;” “Devil’s Dream;” “Money Musk with Variations;” “The Girl I Left Behind Me” (actually a medley of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning”); and “College Hornpipe.” In the session on the first day, Earl joined Bisbee on his three-stringed bass viol and daughter Beulah on the piano. These, however, were not released. Those that were released were the same titles played the next day by Bisbee and his daughter on the piano alone. In addition, the Bisbee family may have been filmed by Edison’s movie cameramen, if the initial plans were carried out.

Edison later said that Bisbee made more records in one day than any other person, according to a statement in Bisbee’s New York Times obituary. This seems doubtful, but in any case we cannot doubt the 80-year-old Bisbee’s stamina. For each title, at least three takes were recorded, so he must have recorded at least 18 sides each day, not including the inevitable rejected takes. The elderly fiddler was clearly out of his element and surrounded by unfamiliar people, but he managed to record several classic versions of these old dance tunes. These were probably not tunes he thought of randomly, but old ones he had carefully chosen in advance. They are remarkable records of nineteenth-century Northern fiddling, classic versions of relatively well-known tunes. Each time through the tune, he makes slight rhythmic and melodic variations, and each take has still further variations. “Opera Reel” is one of the very few recordings with the fiddler doing his own calling. Finally, the recordings are significant as the product of the earliest-born (1843) fiddler. Unfortunately, probably due in part to a bias of modern producers against Northern fiddling, none have been reissued commercially, although a couple are now at Internet websites. The records, especially “Opera Reel/McDonald’s Reel,” the first to be released, in February 1924, sold reasonably well, given the number of extant copies today.

Although Mrs. Bisbee saw her first streetcars on this trip, Jep, on a sightseeing visit to New York City on November 24, told reporters, somewhat unconvincingly, that he had been “around New York City a lot.” He definitely did not want to be taken for a country bumpkin, like the character in chautauqua performer Charles Ross Taggart’s “Old Country Fiddler” sketches, who was unfamiliar with restaurants, bathtubs, and hotels. The old fiddler from Paris, Michigan, seemed to take everything in stride. They returned home from the New Jersey trip following a brief stay with Ford in Dearborn.

Now a celebrity, Bisbee became a drawing card at dances around the state. The first to recognize his new status were the people who lived near him. In the county seat, Big Rapids, the local Grand Army of the Republic and Women’s Relief Commission planned a big dance at the Armory as a sort of thank-you, expecting that Ford would attend. This had evolved apparently from Bisbee’s suggestion earlier that he would give a homecoming dance in honor of Ford and invite all his friends and neighbors. Not wanting public attention, however, Ford declined an invitation to the Big Rapids dance. Instead, he hosted a private party at the Bryant home in Traverse City on January 4, 1924. Jep, with his wife chording on the piano, played for their dancing until well after midnight. Afterwards, Ford impulsively led the guests out on a sleigh ride. Nevertheless, the dance at Big Rapids went off as planned, on January 8, with 600 people in attendance, many of whom probably came expecting to see the reclusive auto manufacturer.

It was the biggest dance Big Rapids had ever witnessed. A five-piece orchestra assisted Mr. and Mrs. Bisbee, consisting of violin, clarinet, bass, piano, and drums. These musicians were the leading local dance musicians, specializing more in the current foxtrots, but also very familiar with square dancing. The dance, however, was what they regarded as “old-time”: in between the eight sets of quadrilles were a Virginia reel, Money Musk (both contradances), a schottische, waltz, and heel-and-toe polka. At this time, in western Michigan, the “Money Musk,” which in the previous century was the best-known tune and dance, and the Virginia reel, were fast disappearing. Square dances held in public halls at this time were mixed mainly with two-steps and the new foxtrots.

As a result of his celebrity, Bisbee’s career took off. Unlike that of Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham or of other fiddlers brought to prominence by Ford-inspired contests or visits, however, Bisbee never played on a vaudeville stage. He stuck strictly to dances. On March 2, 1924, Bisbee wrote to Ford:

[I] have been Playing very buisy for Large Dances to Grand Rapids Ionia and calls coming all the time for more music. I get calls from Every quarter 3 or 4 Letters daily. I have an orchestra of 9 Pieces and they are all Fine Musions rite up to date and onley for you & Mr Edison they would of forgotten me but now they all Know me. They Leave their work to go Play for me. Some Places we have had as High 300 couple some of the Largest Halls in the state through our country and still they are Looking for me still we charge them Extra for my servis $50.00 and they do not find Enny fault at that they started at this about the 13th of January and keeping it rite up. My second son got the orchestra arranged and he Looks to it. He Plays violin rite a Long with me. [punctuation and spelling as in original]

As a result of the publicity, public attention, at least in Michigan, started to soar. In Flint, the Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored an “old fiddler’s contest” on February 20 to a packed audience at the high school auditorium. Profiles of local fiddlers appeared in the local press. Other contests followed in other Michigan towns. This was in a state without any tradition of fiddling contests. Bisbee also faced the inevitable problems celebrity brought. In May, he reported that a fellow in Grand Rapids was selling violins with bogus labels bearing his name, and that he had gotten as much as $500 for one, and that someone else was advertising for an orchestra which featured Bisbee. At the same time, orders for Bisbee’s violins poured in, and he was selling them for as much as $100 apiece. Ford had Rudolph Wurlitzer supply him with violin wood.

Bisbee inevitably became more commercial. Mrs. Bisbee dropped out by November 1924, as the traditional winter dancing season began. A clerk in the Big Rapids post office resigned in order to play clarinet full time with Bisbee. At the large dances, the large orchestra sometimes drowned Bisbee out. At one party, held at the summer home of a doctor at which 400 attended, Bisbee told the reporter that the orchestra he was playing with was a “fox trot orchestra.... we give ‘em any kind of music they want…jazz or the old-time stuff.” No doubt on such occasions the orchestra featured Bisbee on the square dances but let him take a back seat on the fox trots. Although, as one might expect, Bisbee thought little of “jazz,” he seemed to take it all in stride.

Ford, meanwhile, had other plans. What began as an impulsive, personal interest in old-time tunes and dancing gradually took on an organized quality. In July 1924, Ford came up to Traverse City on his yacht, bringing with him Billy Hallup, a Gypsy cimbalom player, who was hired as a player of the dulcimer that Ford remembered from his youth. On that occasion, Mr. and Mrs. Bisbee played for a group of 200. In the summer of 1924, during a stay at the Wayside Inn, Ford contacted a local dancing master, Benjamin Lovett, to instruct him in the steps of a particular dance. This led, within two weeks, to Ford’s bringing him to Dearborn permanently. Lovett began work on a dance manual, which Ford determined to use as his main weapon in a public campaign to standardize and to help revive the old-time dances. By May 1925, Ford had formed an orchestra, led by Clayton Perry, on violin, consisting also of dulcimer, cimbalom, and sousaphone, which accompanied the dances that Lovett called. Finally, in July 1925, Ford consented to a lengthy New York Times interview explaining his interest. The copyright-free manual, Good Morning, was published, and its contents soon began to be serialized in local newspapers. As far as Ford was concerned, his project was largely accomplished. The Ford-hungry press would take care of the rest.

Although Bisbee was mainly occupied with playing for dances in western Michigan, he did come down to Detroit on occasion. Ford purchased an 1830s hostelry, the Botsford Inn, near Detroit, restored it, and to dedicate it for a private party, searched out local musicians who had played for dances there years earlier. He contacted Volney Gunning, who played the bass viol, who would play for Ford’s dances numerous times. On May 9, 1925, Bisbee played with Gunning and other local musicians at the Botsford Inn.

Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham visited Ford between December 8 and 13, 1925, setting off a media frenzy. The unanticipated publicity resulted in challenges from local fiddlers all over the country, even while Dunham was still in Detroit. Radio stations, vaudeville theatres, fraternal organizations, and local boosters began to hold old-time talent shows and fiddler’s contests. It should be noted that Ford or the Ford Motor Company never sponsored a contest. On the other hand, most of these could be described as Ford-inspired, because of the publicity over his interest and especially Dunham’s visit. One Iowa contest even had a Henry Ford impersonator award the prize. Others sent invitations in the vain hope that he would attend. But Ford nevertheless must have authorized the use of his name in the “Champion of Dixie” contest held in Louisville and the regional contest in Nashville, both sponsored by Ford dealers, and he did donate a cup as the prize for the North Atlantic States Radio Fiddler’s Contest held on WBZ, Boston, in February. As in other states, Michigan had to raise its own challenge to Dunham’s success.

The management of the Arcadia Ballroom in Detroit, a commercial ballroom featuring William Finzel’s orchestra, had started holding old-time dances on Tuesday nights and now decided to sponsor a statewide fiddler’s contest. Henry Ford paid for a gold-plated loving cup. Jep Bisbee came down to Detroit on the train, where he was met by Ford and his chauffeur and taken to Dearborn. While there, he played with Ford’s orchestra and was filmed dancing a jig. This film survives in the Ford Motor Company collection at the Library of Congress and serves as a remarkable document of his stamina. He played on radio station WWJ. He appeared at a dinner for reporters at the Cadillac Hotel and played for one of the dances at the Arcadia. It seems that he spent the next two weeks in Detroit.

A chain of vaudeville theaters, owned by Frank Butterfield, sponsored the regional contests as part of the “Henry Ford Cup Michigan State Fiddler’s Contest,” held mostly on January 15, 1926, on short notice. In a few places, winners from contests sponsored by fraternal organizations were allowed to compete. Over a hundred fiddlers took part in these contests. The rules varied. Some required an age minimum of 60; others allowed accompaniment; some permitted the performers to play four tunes, while at others two was the number allowed. Butterfield paid the travel expenses for the winners to take part in the statewide contest at the Arcadia. The organizers talked up the possibility of the state winner taking part in a national contest.

Five thousand people sat in the audience for the statewide contest in Detroit on January 19. Henry Ford sat off in a spot in the balcony, out of view of the public. In the first round, the judges eliminated eleven participants, leaving five to fiddle in the final round. The judges awarded the prize to Bisbee, who had played “Opera Reel” and “Money Musk” in the final round. The runner-up was Frank Woods, who had played “Sailor’s Hornpipe” and “Drowsy Maggie.” The well-known virtuoso Mischa Elman, who had given a recital in Detroit the previous evening, was in the crowd and presented the cup to the winner.

Was the judging fair? We shall never know, and it is probably a moot point anyway. Frank Woods did record two sides for OKeh, which, unfortunately, were never released. If test copies exist, they might provide some sort of evidence for our contemporary ears. William Finzel, in an interview after Ford’s death, recalled that Ford insisted to him, “Now, if I have to give the cup, Bill, it will have to be absolutely on the square as far as judging.” Perhaps none of the judges felt that awarding the prize to someone else was worth the consequences that might follow. Mischa Elman told a reporter that “[Bisbee] has the trick. See how he uses his wrist. The others held their arms stiff. Now, he is using the full bow! ... and such a stage presence. Surely the man missed his calling.” Elman’s presence, however, was no coincidence. He had offered a proposal to Ford for him to spend $50,000 or $60,000 to sponsor a string quartet, and it seems certain that he was trying to garner favor with the manufacturer. Finzel nevertheless felt that “there was no doubt at all that Bisbee was way ahead of the rest of them. He was perfectly in tune and his technique was good.”

Bisbee was busy the rest of the winter playing for dances, just as he had been for the previous two years. Gradually, however, the old man appeared less and less in public. He kept busy making violins and buying and selling them. His last public appearance was on a Father Marquette memorial observance program at Ludington, Michigan. Shortly after playing, he suffered a heart attack and cerebral hemorrhage. Taken to the local hospital, he died August 10, 1935, and was buried in the West Cemetery near Paris.

Ford admitted that Bisbee “isn’t the picturesque character old Mellie Dunham was, but I guess he’s a better fiddler.” Not particularly talkative, Bisbee offered reporters a human-interest story with his newfound celebrity, but he refused to be typecast as a rube. He accepted Ford’s friendship sincerely, and, although well paid for it, participated in his projects when needed. Finzel found him to be a “likeable chap.” Edison, four years younger than Bisbee, was impressed by his energy during the recording session. The documents he left behind (the six Edison recordings and the film of his jigging in the Ford Motor Company collection at the Library of Congress) are the 19th-century legacy he left for all of us.

A native of Detroit, Paul Gifford comes from a musical family of Chautauqua County, New York, and has been interested in fiddling since he was a teenager in the late ’60s. His father first told him first about Henry Ford’s musical interests and about Mellie Dunham and Jesse Martin. In 1971, Stewart Carmichael, an Evart (Michigan)farmer and fiddler, told him about Jep Bisbee.

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