November 30, 2017

Recordings from Thumb-area musicians now available online

This post was written by guest author, Dave Langdon. Dave is the president of the Michigan Folklore Society and has undertaken fieldwork for MTAP on hammered dulcimer traditions. Dave worked extensively with Karl Byarski. He successfully nominated Karl for a MHA in 2014 and stewarded Karl’s expansive collection of audio recordings after his passing in December 2016. In this post, we get a unique insight into how some of Karl’s recordings were made accessible online. 

A website from the University of Michigan Flint has recently made available for listening and download recordings of several Thumb area musicians. The web site http://digitalarchives.umflint.edu, is maintained by Paul Gifford, archivist at the Genesee Historical Collections Center, at the Frances Willson Thompson Library at UM-Flint. Selected recordings are available from two collections, Karl Byarski, formerly of Kinde, MI and recordings of the playing of George Pariseau, formerly of Bad Axe, MI from the personal collection of Paul Gifford.

The Karl Byarski Collection

Karl Byarski was born near Kinde, MI in Huron County and lived nearly all of his life in or near this village, about 9 miles north of Bad Axe. Both of his parents were Polish and when he started school he knew only one word of English. Many of his relatives were musical and he heard both Polish and American music growing up. He eventually learned to play the fiddle, mandolin, and to chord on the piano. After graduating from Kinde High School, he eventually married Margaret Lerash and settled in Kinde, raising a close knit family of 6 children. In the early 1950’s he purchased a reel to reel tape recorder from Montgomery Ward and started recording. He liked fiddle music and one of his first recordings is of Nick Yax, who lived in the Pinnebog area, playing fiddle at the home of Ernie Hebert near Caseville. After he heard Nick Yax fiddle, he decided he would never be good enough as a fiddler and eventually, quit playing. He continued to record other musicians, especially fiddlers at a studio in the basement of his home in Kinde and at other locations around Huron County and the Thumb. He purchased other recorders and sold tape recorders to other people in the county. For a short time he had a radio program on local radio station WLEW in Bad Axe, the Hometowners where he played recordings he had collected and possibly had live music as well. For more information on Karl Byarski, see http://gr8tfolks.blogspot.com/2017/01/homage-to-karl-byarski-1916-2016.html and http://museum.msu.edu/s-program/mh_awards/awards/2014KB.html.

In July, 2012, Dave Langdon, a collector of recordings and information about traditional music in Michigan, borrowed a cassette from a man at a fiddlers’ jamboree in Hastings, MI. The cassette was called “12 Michigan Fiddlers” and was produced by Karl Byarski, although that was not known at that time. The tape had a manually typewritten label that said at the top “C62 #376”. That tape piqued Daves curiosity and eventually, through a series of fortunate circumstances, he located Karl at his home in Kinde. Over the next several years, Dave traveled to Kinde to see Karl many times to organize and index Karl’s extensive collection of recordings. Dave also worked to contact many of the relatives of the people that Karl had recorded to try and provide more information about these musicians and their music. Dave nominated Karl for the Michigan Heritage Award, which he received in 2014. Dave is also responsible (with the knowledge and approval of Karl’s family) for placing these tapes from Karl’s collection at the Genesee Historical Collections Center and UM-Flint.

Although Karl recorded other types of music and events, these selections focus on fiddle music and ethnic music, mostly from Huron County fiddlers. Some of the musicians are Clem Zurek, Felix Veginski, and, Bill Walker from Port Austin, George Miller from Sandusky, Nick Yax from the Pinnebog area, Eddie Kranz from Helena, Ford Stein (originally from Bad Axe who played with George Pariseau) from St. Clair Shores, Ernie Patterson from Filion, Sam Pangborn (former Michigan state senator) from Bad Axe, Ben Burns from Bad Axe who also played with George Pariseau, Jim Cregeur from Harbor Beach, Jack Connors from Harbor Beach and Bad Axe, and many others. In total there are over 260 recordings available online.

Paul Gifford has written an excellent finding aid that gives additional information about Karl, and especially a detailed listing of the recordings and tunes on the tapes that were digitized. He also provides a listing of all musicians on the tapes included in this collection.

The George Pariseau Collection

This collection of recordings comes from the personal collection of Paul Gifford. Gifford has been collecting the recordings of George Pariseau for many years and this collection of 22 recordings are either home recordings made by the Pariseau family or in some cases sample recordings (never issued as far as is known) by Gennett Records. Pariseau was a very fine fiddler and played for many years both in Huron County and in the Detroit area. He and his children had an orchestra to play for these events. Many of his children went on to play locally in Huron County after George’s death.

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