A Brief History of The Fiddle

by Bob Blackman

Bob BlackmanIn the fall of 1974, I met Gary and Barb Gardner (a couple who had moved here from Boston, where they were active in folk music activities) to plan a weekly coffeehouse under the auspices of the MSU Folksong Society. Between Gary’s expertise and my time and energy, we figured we could make it work. We discovered Old College Hall, a small private room within the MSU Union Grill, and got permission to use it for most of our concerts.

Everyone always asks how we picked the name. It’s common to name coffeehouses after folksongs or fiddle tunes. The Gardners and I pored through Gary’s songbooks until we settled on the title of a Scottish fiddle tune. Of course, in the tune’s name, “Ten Pound” undoubtedly refers to ten pounds in British currency, not weight, but we liked the visual image.

We based the format on that of a typical British folk club: opening each concert with a group of local “resident singers”, bringing on the main act for one set, letting “floor singers” (volunteers from the audience) do a few songs after the intermission (essentially an “open mike” segment), and then the main act’s second set. Occasionally, evenings were devoted exclusively to resident singers, who would swap songs in a round-robin format. The original residents were Sally Rogers, Stan Werbin, Gary Gardner, and me.

(Within the first year or two, we phased out the floor singers and stopped opening shows with the resident singers, although we kept the periodic “Residents’ Night” concerts featuring selected local singers.Many of this area’s top folksingers and musicians have passed through the revolving ranks.)

The first concert, on January 10, 1975, featured the local duo John and Rosy Goacher. John was an English singer who was hosting a weekly program called A British Tradition on WKAR Radio. He and his wife Rosy sang a fine assortment of English traditional folksongs to an audience of over 100 people.

Our second show came two weeks later, on January 21, with local favorite Joel Mabus — the first of his many appearances at The Fiddle. Several other musicians did shows that season as well. Sally Rogers did a show on May 9, as well as serving as a resident singer. (Sally also became the Fiddle’s booking manager the following season, alternating with me in that post until 1981.)

Thanks to Gary’s connections, we were able to book several singers from other parts of the country to supplement the talent from our own area. Joe Hickerson (head of the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress), Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin, Ed Trickett, and Vermont folksinger Margaret MacArthur all came to the Fiddle in our first season.

The Fiddle quickly built a steady audience, a crew of volunteers (including Wayne Swick, who retired as The Fiddle’s Technical Director after more than twenty years of service), and a somewhat more professional ambiance. We stayed in Old College Hall until 1979, with occasional larger concerts in other venues around campus. One of our biggest accomplishments was working with MSU’s Lecture-Concert Series to bring Jean Ritchie, the great traditional singer and songwriter from Kentucky, for a big concert at Fairchild Theatre in April 1977. Our monthly contra and square dances started in the 1977-78 season, thanks mainly to Bob and Laura Stein. We were one of the first U.S. venues to book Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers (in 1978); sadly, we were also one of the last places he played before his death in an airplane fire in 1983.

One memorable evening in those early years, Bill Staines was set to play. We got to Old College Hall only to find that a power failure had blacked out the whole Union building. We tacked up some signs on the doors, directed people to Sally Rogers’ house, and did the concert in her living room. Bill sat in an easy chair with several dozen people huddled around on the floor, and he gave a tremendous concert. (Later on, the Fiddle often scheduled extra house concerts, usually to accommodate performers passing through the area mid-week.)

In 1979 we moved our usual location to a big room (formerly a cafeteria) in Williams Hall, a dorm on campus. Joel Mabus recorded a live album (Settin’ the Woods on Fire) at a January 1980 concert there. Some of the shows from our 1981-82 season were recorded by WKAR Radio and packaged into a 13-week series for national distribution; over 25 stations from Alaska to Florida broadcast those programs with Utah Phillips, Robin and Linda Williams, Michael Cooney, and other great performers. In May 1983, Sally Rogers and Claudia Schmidt did their first joint Mother’s Day concert for us, a tradition they continued for almost a decade.

After five years, the Fiddle moved off campus to the United Ministries in Higher Education building, where our highlights included the first East Lansing appearance of the Chenille Sisters in January 1987. (One of the Chenille Sisters, Cheryl Dawdy, had played at the Fiddle back in March 1977!) Joel Mabus again recorded a live album at the Fiddle in 1988, The Naked Truth. The Fiddle moved again in 1993 to our current location, the Unitarian Universalist Church at 855 Grove Street in East Lansing.

Hundreds of outstanding performers have appeared at the Fiddle, from some of the most famous names in folk music (Tom Paxton, John McCutcheon, Jean Redpath, Gordon Bok, Kate Wolf, and dozens more) to many less established – but extremely talented – people. Indeed, some of our up-and-;coming guests have gone on to become very well known: Suzanne Vega (1985), Nanci Griffith (1985), Christine Lavin (1988), John Gorka (1990).

All in all, I am proud of the tremendous amount of great music that the Fiddle has presented, and pleased that scores of volunteers and thousands of audience members have kept it going for so long. Many of the best concerts I’ve ever heard were at the Fiddle. If you’ve been a Fiddle regular, I bet you can say the same.

Bob Blackman is the former host of The Folk Tradition.

View the List of Performers who have played at “The Fiddle” from 1975 until now. Go to Performer History List


Written by Bob Blackman in 1995 in celebration of the Fiddle’s 20th anniversary.