[Paul F. Wells has been researching extensively the New England fiddle tradition. He is presently editing an album of New England fiddle music, including material from the l920s through the 1970s, for the JEMF. It should be available next spring.]
NOTE: This is JEMF-105, "New England Traditional Fiddling, 1926-1975"; after the Foundation's dissolution, its remaining stock of recordings was acquired by Down Home Music, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito CA 94530, (510) 525-2129, www.downhomemusic.com. Try them for the LP.
In 1926, the country was seized by a mania for old time fiddling. A tremendous number of fiddle contests were staged that year, several fiddlers had brief careers as vaudeville performers, and many made phonograph records. All this uproar was generated in a very unlikely fashion. It was not, as might be expected, the result of a promotional scheme on the part of any of the record companies that were engaged in recording and marketing old time music, nor was it caused by any colossal effort on the part of folklorists to bring traditional music to the public's attention. Rather, this sudden and widespread interest in fiddling was due to the coming together of two men - industrialist Henry Ford, and a Maine farmer, snowshoe maker and fiddler, Alanson Mellen, or "Mellie", Dunham.
Although their meeting cannot be described as one of pure chance, the circumstances which led to it and the events precipitated by it, could hardly have been foreseen.
Ford had a long-standing interest in old time dances, dating prior to World War I, and he and his wife had organized private parties featuring such dances. As early as 1923, he had begun to seek out and patronize old time fiddlers. One of the first fiddlers to achieve some notoriety through Ford's ministrations was Jasper, or "Jep," Bisbee, of Paris, Michigan, whom Ford and Thomas Edison had met in the summer of 1923. Bisbee later recorded several sides for Edison. (An article on Bisbee is planned for the future.) Ford's interest in fiddling and dancing stemmed from his strong feelings against jazz, which was sweeping the country at that time and which Ford felt had a demoralizing effect on Americans. He thought that by encouraging and promoting old time dancing, he could "help America take a step. . . toward a saner and sweeter idea of life that prevailed in pre-war days."(1) He apparently never stopped to think about the considerable influence that he himself had had in changing the country's life style.
Mellie Dunham was a lifelong resident of the small town of Norway, in southwestern Maine. He was born there on 29 July 1853, and made his living by working the family farm and by making snowshoes. He had gained a certain degree of fame through this latter trade, as he had made the shoes used by Commodore Robert Peary in his expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Mellie also fiddled for many dances at the Heywood Club in Norway.
Acting on a dare from a friend, Mellie entered a fiddle contest held at the Armory in nearby Lewiston in the fall of 1925. He apparently made a great hit with the audience and the judges, and earned himself the title of champion fiddler of Maine. Though this in itself was no mean feat, it was paltry compared with what was to follow.
At this point, the news media entered the picture. A Boston newspaperman named Os Brown, who was also from Norway, heard of Mellie Dunham's contest victory. He also knew of Henry Ford's interest in fiddling and sent the car manufacturer a clipping about Mellie. Just what Brown's motive was for doing this is unknown, but it can be supposed that he was hoping to generate some publicity for his home area. At any rate, his action obtained results, for in mid-November of 1925, Mellie received an invitation from Ford to come to Dearborn and play the fiddle for him.(2) There was nothing unusual in this invitation, as Ford had entertained thirty-eight fiddlers prior to Mellie. However, none of these previous visitors attracted the fanfare that Mellie did. Newspapers carried stories about Ford's invitation and Mellie's reply ("I don t want to come before December 1, but if you really want me before then, say so and I ll drop everything and come right away."), and related nearly every step in the proceedings thereafter.
Ford sent railroad tickets for Mellie and his wife Emma (who became "Gram" in all the news stories) to travel to Michigan. On 7 December, amid a large farewell gathering, the Dunhams left Norway. They journeyed to Detroit by way of Montreal, and were accompanied by newspaper correspondents for the entire trip. They arrived at Detroit the next day and were escorted to Dearborn to meet Henry Ford. Ford himself was amazed and somewhat chagrined at the amount of publicity which Mellie and Gram attracted. Nevertheless, he and the Dunhams apparently took an immediate liking to one another and Ford entertained the Down-East couple in grand style.
Mellie "played for his supper" though, as he and the Ford Orchestra furnished the music for a dance in Dearborn, Friday night, 11 December. Despite his reservations concerning the publicity which surrounded Mellie's trip, Ford must surely have welcomed the exposure which this gave to his movement to revive old time dancing. He took advantage of the circumstances, and made his first public demonstration of these dances in Detroit, on 12 December, with Mellie and the Ford Orchestra once again supplying the music.
Mellie was scheduled to stay in Dearborn for several more days, but he received an offer to appear in vaudeville in New York City. He cut his visit short, and on 13 December, he and Gram departed for New York.
Upon their arrival, they were treated to a tour of the city, and reportedly the stock exchange even shut down for about a minute to greet the Dunhams.(3) On the 16th of December, Mellie played for a reception held at City Hall, at which Mayor Hylan, a native of the Catskill region of New York state, called the figures of the dances. That same day, Mellie signed a $500-a-week contract for a vaudeville tour on the Keith-Albee circuit, and shortly thereafter, headed for Boston to begin the tour.
Mellie opened at the Keith house in Boston on 22 December and created such a sensation that the act, which was originally scheduled to run for a week, was held over for two additional weeks, often playing to capacity crowds. The stage act, which was the creation of Bart Grady, featured a simulation of a barn dance. Mellie, accompanied by the house orchestra, played before a backdrop depicting the interior of a barn. A group of dancers, some reportedly imported from Maine and others drafted from the ranks of available professional and semi-professional companies, also appeared on stage. Mellie's solo fiddle was apparently inaudible above the orchestra much of the time, but from all accounts, he enjoyed himself on stage and was little affected by the large size of the audiences. Mellie's appearance, which led some writers to describe him as a "sawed-off Mark Twain," was almost too perfect for the part, and this has probably contributed to the popular conception of how an old time fiddler should look. His personality won him great favor with his audiences, and this, combined with the novelty value of the act, contributed to his success.
After Boston, Mellie returned to New York (where he and Gram were met at Grand Central Station by a horse-drawn sleigh), and opened at the Hippodrome on 11 January, 1926. He again received much acclaim and was held over for a second week. His tour subsequently took him to most of the major cities in the northeast, and even carried him as far west as Michigan again. (A complete listing of cities, theaters and dates follows this article.)
The effect of Mellie's fame upon other fiddlers was immediate. Quite frankly, he was a fiddler of only average ability, and many other musicians felt that his fame was undeserved and that they could do as well or better. Another fiddler from Maine, John Grant of Long Island, Casco Bay, who was described as "Mellie Dunham's challenger for the fiddlin' championship hereabouts," played a successful one-week engagement at the Strand theater in Portland, with an act similar to Mellie's.(4) In February, a 7-year-old fiddler expressed a desire to meet Mellie "or any other 70-year-old violinist, for a contest of skill in the playing of popular or classical music or old-time dance tunes."(5) Adin Harper, an Ohio fiddler, turned down a $250-a-week vaudeville contract when someone told him that Mellie was making Sl000 weekly (twice the amount which was disclosed at the time of Mellie's signing), and stated, "I m just as good as Mellie."(6)
Mellie's most famous challenger was Tennessee s Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who had already been a featured performer over WSM in Nashville for nearly a month when Mellie began his vaudeville tour. Actually, Mellie may have been the challenger in this incident. Charles K. Wolfe cites an article in an unnamed Boston newspaper (which I have not seen), which reported that Mellie was "tiring of the challenges and criticism heaped upon him by other fiddlers throughout the country," and hearing of Uncle Jimmy s famous victory in a Dallas, Texas contest, decided that he would like to meet the Tennessean in a two-man contest.(7) Uncle Jimmy was eager for the showdown, and WSM offered to broadcast the competition and allow the radio audience to determine the victor. However, for unknown reasons, the contest was never held.
A rash of fiddle contests did occur in the first few months of 1926, many of which offered a "Ford Cup" as first prize. One large event held in Lewiston, Maine in April of that year, was billed as the "World Championship" (as were many smaller contests), and attracted fiddlers from great distances. Among these were James Scott Skinner, the famous Scottish fiddler/composer from Aberdeen (who became dissatisfied with the accompanist provided at the contest, and walked off stage part way through his performance), and Joseph Allard, legendary French-Canadian fiddler from Quebec.
Other contests of this time brought forth many fine fiddlers, including Bunt Stephens of Tennessee.(8) The interest in fiddling generated by Dunham had a particularly important impact on his home region of New England, as the only other Yankee fiddlers (to my knowledge) who made 78s, Joe Shippee of Connecticut and John Wilder, Calvin Coolidge's uncle and leader of the Plymouth Vermont Old Time Barn Dance Orchestra, also came to prominence at this time.(9) Guthrie T. Meade has, for many years, been gathering information on the 1926 fiddle contests, and it is hoped that the full story of this phenomenon will one day be presented.
Mellie's tour on the Keith-Albee circuit came to an end in May of 1926, and he and Gram returned home to Norway. In addition to the vaudeville contract, Mellie's fiddling had gotten him involved in some other commercial ventures. He made four records for the Victor Talking Machine Company in January 1926. (A discography follows this article.) He received an initial payment of $1,200 for the eight sides cut, and earned an additional $2,000 in royalties.(10) It is not known if Mellie ever appeared on radio, but he apparently made some efforts in this direction, as Variety reported that he was "propositioning the radio broadcasters for a $100 fee for 15 minutes of broadcasting."(11) Mellie had a book of fiddle tunes published by Carl Fischer, Inc., which included four tunes that he wrote, as well as other more standard pieces.(l2) Although it has been common practice for Country singers to have folios published which contained songs connected with them, Mellie, to my knowledge, is the only United States fiddler to have an "artist folio" published. (Many of the popular Canadian fiddlers such as Don Messer, Bob Scott, King Ganam and Graham Townsend have, however, had many such folios published.) One of Mellie's original tunes which was published in this folio, "Rippling Waves Waltz," was a favorite of Hcnry Ford. Mellie also recorded this tune, which earned him additional royalties.
The excitement may not have been all over for Mellie after the Keith-Albee tour. In July 1926, just two months after he had returned home, Billboard reported that he had signed a contract to play several cities in Maine and New Hampshire during the summer season.(13) Almost a year later, it was reported that he had been booked by another agency for "six weeks of barnstorming in New England and Canada," beginning 23 May 1927.(14) This same article mentions the money that Mellie had made the previous summer, which serves to confirm that engagement, but no further evidence of the 1927 tour has been found.
Mellie and Gram apparently survived their venture into the limelight with true Yankee spirit, and were little affected by their brief celebrity. Mellie continued to play for dances at the Heywood Club, much as he had done before he received the momentous invitation from Henry Ford.(15) Although Mellie had planned to use the money he had earned for the support of his nine grandchildren (whose mother, the Dunham's only child, had died while giving birth to the ninth baby), he may not have been able to do so. While he was on tour, an unauthorized person had signed checks on Mellie's bank account, and although Mellie reportedly knew who it was, he refused to prosecute. He also helped several relatives pay off the mortgages on their farms. In the winter of 1930, Mellie and Gram had their house destroyed by fire. In addition to the financial loss which this entailed, virtually all of the mementoes of their days in the public eye were consumed.
On 27 September 1931, just a few years after his sudden rise to fame, Mellie Dunham passed away in Lewiston Maine, after a short illness. This small fiddler, without even trying, had thrust upon the nation an awareness of traditional fiddling. Although he is little remembered today, he was, for a time, one of the most influential figures in American music.
Information compiled from the weekly listings in Variety and Billboard. Given is the date of opening and the name of the city, followed by the name of the theater.
- 22 Dec. 1925
Boston, Mass. Keith 11 Jan. 1926 New York City Hippodrome 25 Jan. 1926 Philadelphia, Pa. Keith 1 Feb. 1926 Newark, N. J. Proctor 8 Feb. 1926 Brooklyn, N. Y. Albee 15(?) Feb. 1926 Providence, R. I. Albee 22 Feb. 1926 Baltimore, Md. Maryland 1 Mar. 1926 Washington, D. C. Keith 8 Mar. 1926 Cleveland, Oh. Keith or Palace 15 Mar. 1926 Detroit, Mich. Temple 22 Mar. 1926 Indianapolis, Ind. Keith 29 Mar. 1926 Cincinnati, Oh. Keith 19 Apr. 1926 Cleveland, Oh. or Toledo, Oh. 105th Street or Keith 22 Apr. 1926 Grand Rapids, Mich. Empress or Romona Park 26 (?) Apr.1926 Pittsburgh, Pa. Davis 6 May 1926 Syracuse, N. Y. Keith 10 May 1926 Lowell, Mass. Keith 17 May 1926 Portland, Me Keith
Master numbers, dates, locations and personnel are from Rust, The Victor Master Book. All releases have been confirmed. Label credits read either "Mellie Dunham's Orchestra" or "Mellie Dunham and His Orchestra." Titles in brackets [ ] are the titles of the tunes being played where they differ from the label titles, as the latter seem, in some cases, to refer to the dances being called rather than to the music. Tune titles have been supplied from the titles used in Mellie's folio of dance tunes, or from common usage. Personnel in all cases is Dunham, fiddle; M. A. Noble, violoncello; and, Cherrie Noble (Mellie's granddaughter), piano. Dance calls, where noted are by M. A. Noble. It is possible that Rust has made an error, either in location or date, in regard to the two parts of the "Medley of Reels," as it seems unlikely that Dunham recorded in both New York and Camden on the same day, especially since he also had to play a date in Newark, New Jersey that day.
|19 January 1926, New York City||34338-1||Chorus Jig (w/calls)||Vi 40131|
|34339-2||Lady of the Lake [Portsmouth Hornpipe] (w/calls)||Vi 19940|
|34340-3||Mountain Rangers [Haste To the Wedding] (w/calls)||Vi 19940|
|34341-1||Hull's Victory (w/calls)||Vi 40131|
|34344||Boston Fancy (w/calls)||unissued|
|26 January 1926, Camden, New Jersey||34344-7||Boston Fancy [The Tempest] (w/calls)||Vi 20001,MW M_8l37*|
|34440-2||Rippling Waves Waltz||Vi 20001|
|3 February 1926, New York City||34440-4||Medley of Reels**||Vi 20537|
|3 February, 1926, Camden, New Jersey||34528-4||Medley of Reels**||Vi 20537|
*This was a coupling of Mellie's "Boston Fancy" with a number by the Crook Brothers String Band, under the title "Barn Dance On the Mountain," parts 1 and 2, of which Mellie's cut was part 2.
**Titles of individual tunes contained in the two medleys of "reels" ("Irish Washerwoman", etc. is actually a set of jigs) are given on the labels, but it is not known which group belongs to which master. The two groups are: "Miss McCloud's Reel;" "White Cockade;" "Johnny Coakley" and "Irish Washerwoman;" "Lannigan's Ball;" "Campbells Are Coming."
[Following is a chronological listing of all articles I have seen which specifically relate to Mellie Dunham. The main sources for contemporary accounts have been Variety (V), Billboard (Bb) and the New York Times (NYT) . Other newspapers of the day probably carried similar stories. Articles relating to other fiddle contests of the rime have not been cited, although they are numerous.]
Invites a Fiddler," NYT,
19 Nov. 1925, p. 26, col. 3.
"Ford Sends Tickets to Maine's Fiddler," NYT, 2 Dec. 1925, p. 12, col. 5.
"Ford Greets Dunham at Dearborn Home," NYT, 9 Dec. 1925, p. 14, col. 7.
"Henry Ford Greets New Dance Tune Fiddler," NYT, 10 Dec. 1925, p. 16, col. 4.
"Ford Party Dances to Dunham's Music," NYT, 12 Dec. 1925, p. 2, col. 2.
"Ford and His Fiddler To Move On Detroit," NYT, 13 Dec. 1925, part I, p. 6, col. 2.
Pope, Virginia, "Maine's Champion Fiddler Finds Fame At His Door," NYT Magazine (part IV of Sunday paper), 13 Dec. 1925, pp. 4, 20. Photos of Dunham in Rotogravure Picture Section (not paginated) of same issue.
"Ford Hires Big Hall For Old-Time Dance," NYT, 14 Dec. 1925, p. 2, col. 4.
"Fiddled For Ford, Now Sees New York," NYT, 15 Dec. 1925, p. 27, col. 6.
" 'Mellie' Dunham Fiddles For Hylan, NYT 16 Dec. 1925, p. 15, col. 2.
"He Laughs At Those Who Laugh," NYT, 17 Dec. 1925, p. 22, col. 6.
"Melody Three," Time, 6, (21 Dec. 1925), p. 18.
" 'Mellie' More Than A Fiddler," NYT, 23 Dec. 1925, p. 18, col.
"Keith's Boston," V, 81 (23 Dec. 1925), p. 13.
"Big Ovation For Mellie," Bb, 38 ( Jan. 1926), p. 16.
"Fiddling To Henry Ford," Literary Digest, 88 (2 Jan. 1926) , pp. 33-38.
"Rival Fiddlers In Lists," NYT, 4 Jan. 1926, p. 2, col. 2.
"Keith's Boston," V, 81 (6 Jan. 1926), p. 13.
"Mellie Dunham Arrives," NYT, 11 Jan. 1926, p. 33, col. 2.
" 'Mellie' Dunham Fiddles," NYT, 12 Jan. 1926, p. 26, col. 3.
"New Acts This Week: 'Mellie' Dunham, Champ Fiddler," V, 81 (13 Jan. 1926), p. 15.
"Hippodrome," V, 81 (13 Jan. 1926), p. 14.
"Hippodrome," Bb, 38 (16 Jan. 1926), p. 15.
"Fiddler Wants To Talk," V, 81 (20 Jan. 1926), p. 4.
"Hippodrome," V, 81 (20 Jan. 1926), p. 13.
"Hippodrome," Bb, 38 (23 Jan. 1926), p. 15.
"Old-timer Falling In Soft: Wood Chopping, Pie Eating or Any 'Contest' ," V, 81 (27 Jan, 1926), pp. 1, 48.
Photo of Dunham, Bb, 38 (30 Jan. 1926), p. 14.
"Old Timers On Records," V, 81 (3 Feb. 1926), p. 12.
"Newark, New Jersey," V, 81 (10 Feb. 1926), p. 54.
"7-Year-Old Fiddler Challenges 'Mellie' " , Bb, 38 (20 Feb. 1926), p. 12.
Review of Dunham's performance at Keith's Theater, Cincinnati, Bb, 38 (3 Apr. 1926), p. 14.
"Dunham Welcomed Home," NYT, 25 May 1926, p. 13, col. 6.
"Mellie Dunham to Tour Maine and New Hampshire," Bb, 38(17 Jul. 1926), p. 17.
"Fiddle Enriches Dunham," NYT, 25 Apr. 1927, p. 7. col. 5.
Edwards, George Thornton. Music and Musicians of Maine (Portland: The Southport Press, 1928), pp. 175; 315-316; 388.
"Mellie Dunham, Noted Fiddler Dies," NYT, 28 Sept. 1931, p. 19, col. S.
"Mellie Dunham Died Poor," NYT, 1 Oct. 1931, p. 29, col. 1.
Wigging, Frances Burgeon. Maine Composers and Their Music: A Biographical Dictionary (Rockland, Me.: Maine Federation of Music Clubs [Bald Mountain Printing Co.], 1959). "Dunham, Alanson Mellen ('Mellie' )", p. 29.
Whitman, Vic. "Fiddler for Henry Ford," Down East, 14 (March 1968), pp. 59-61. Reprinted in Old Time Music Gazette, 1 (August 1975), pp. 8-10, w/preliminary discography by Paul F. Wells.
Benton, Major. "Heyday For Mellie," Yankee, 37 (Feb. 1973), pp. 118-123, 170-171.
-- John Edwards Memorial Foundation