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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.