Preservation Waltz Son Builds Studio To Keep Fiddling Father’s Music Alive
Joel MacDonald figured future generations deserve to hear his father’s tunes, and Hollywood agreed.
When stiff joints and muffled hearing began to slow the lively two-steps Allan MacDonald saws on his homemade fiddles, his son jumped into action.
“Dad had tunes, but he hadn’t written anything down. I didn’t want to lose them,” Joel says.
He ended up saving Allan’s tunes and Aunt Ruth’s yodels, Aunt Doris’ champion fiddling and his mother’s honky-tonk piano music. Some of the music even made it onto two Hollywood-produced cassette tape collections.
Joel captured farm country’s unwritten soul music before the “Grapes of Wrath” generation carried it to the grave. And, from his rustic farm in Bonners Ferry, he launched a quiet war against the expensive recording industry.
“A lot of fiddlers like myself can’t afford to record their music,” says white-haired Allan. He’s 78 with seven decades of fiddling and a score of fiddle contest championships behind him.
“I worry about losing the music. There are no more barn dances,” says Gary Huntington, president of the Idaho Old Time Fiddlers Association. “It’s nice of Joel and Allan to do something to preserve it.”
Joel deserted a teaching career in Hawaii two years ago to open his down-home recording studio in the century-old house his great grandmother had recently vacated.
Allan, his wife, Mildred, and Joel’s sister, Dorothy, welcomed their 40-year-old boy back to the family farm.
They helped Joel rewire and panel the old home that once served as a cook shack for a logging camp.
To create a sound booth, they stapled foam egg carton mattresses to the walls of Grandma’s pint-sized bedroom, and added plush carpeting.
They installed recorders and tape decks, a CD-maker, sound enhancer and mixing board. They replaced Grandma’s television with a computer and color printer.
The shrink-wrap machine that seals CDs and cassette tapes had to go in the closet-sized kitchen next to the wood-burning cookstove.
Joel was so determined to record his father that he spent all his retirement savings on equipment he didn’t know how to operate.
“I learned from a book, a toll-free number and with a lot of cussing,” he says. “I know they disconnected that toll-free number because of me.”
For most of his life, Joel took music for granted. He and his sisters drifted into childhood sleep to the gentle rocking of Allan’s waltzes.
They watched their father carve fragile fiddles from bulky blocks of Oregon myrtle and American sycamore.
“I had a desire to play the fiddle and no instrument, so I made one,” Allan says, pulling his first from its nest in a coat closet. He made it when he was 18, based on a pattern he drew of his father’s fiddle.
“It’s a little pot-bellied,” he says. In profile, the instrument bulges a bit through the middle. Allan says it has a sweeter sound than most.
Music united Allan and Mildred. Allan relieved his father as he fiddled at a dance. Mildred hopped onto the piano bench to accompany him. They married in 1941.
“We’ve played together so much, I know when he’s going to make a mistake,” she says.
Music was no way to raise a family in Idaho’s rugged Panhandle, so Allan worked for the Great Northern Railroad. But the tunes never stopped in his house.
His 10 brothers and sisters sang, yodeled, played guitar, fiddle and piano. No one had formal training. They picked up melodies from their father and passed them on to their children without ever setting a note on paper.
Allan taught Joel to fiddle. Joel learned piano, too, and singing. While his voice was changing, he picked up yodeling from his Aunt Ruth Hoglan.
“I always remember her performing in the high school auditorium with her long layered dress all the way to the floor,” he says a little dreamily. “I was fascinated.”
He practiced yodeling under the tractor’s roar during haying season, thinking no one could hear his awkward soprano/tenor leaps.
“You could hear him all over,” Allan says, busting up with laughter.
One sister, Linda, learned piano on the family’s ancient upright. Dorothy took up guitar.
“I got tired of sitting in the audience at contests,” she says. “There were always cute fiddlers, and I wanted to be up there with them.”
Allan won the first fiddle contest he entered in the late 1960s, playing genteel two-steps and reels to Mildred’s bouncy accompaniment. By 1978, he’d won the Idaho State Fiddler’s championship and was heading into contest judging.
The years slipped by so casually that Joel hardly noticed his father’s thinning hair. Then, in 1995, Joel realized with middle-aged clarity that Allan was slowing down and no one outside the family could play his tunes.
Joel took Allan to a Sandpoint studio where father fiddled and son yodeled and sang. It cost $900 to make one cassette tape.
Joel figured he could do better, even with no experience. A year later, he opened MCCBS Studio for MacDonald’s Creative Computype and Book Service. He planned to help support the studio by typing for people, but abandoned the idea within a few months. Joel also writes books about his family.
The equipment he bought makes five tapes at once or one CD in 45 minutes. Nothing is computerized. Joel charges $500 for four hours of studio time and 50 tapes or a proportionate combination of tapes and CDs.
Allan and his sister, Doris Howard, were Joel’s first clients. Doris won the Idaho State Senior-Senior Fiddling championship twice in the 1990s.
They played schottisches and waltzes, jigs and hornpipes. Allan played 25 of his original tunes.
Family supplied accompaniment - Joel on fiddle, Mildred on piano and Dorothy on guitar. Joel recorded himself yodeling in Swiss and western style, his galloping voice as smooth as the wood on his father’s handmade fiddles.
The MacDonalds hawked their music at contests, through a catalog and in local stores. It wasn’t long before Joel’s operation wooed Canadian fiddle champion Charlie Beaton, who’s 86, down from Cranbrook and bluegrass musicians Doug and Kathy Sheffler from Montana.
A soft rock/blues band from Rocky Mountain Academy booked studio time and so did a grunge band that invited Allan to join in on his fiddle.
The MCCBS catalog offers 27 cassette tapes and CDs. Joel sent Allan’s tunes off for copyrights a few months ago and two independent Hollywood recording studios responded.
Amerecord of Hollywood added Allan’s “Millie’s Midnight Two-step” to its “Star Tracks USA” collection. Allan just agreed to allow Hilltop Records to record his “Turkey Day Trot.”
The studios add accompaniment to Allan’s fiddle and Mildred’s piano. They distribute their collections to Los Angeles music stores. Allan will earn 11 cents from each cassette tape sold.
“It’s a first step,” says Barry Fasel, a Boston-based music agent who works with Amerecord.
The MacDonalds don’t care much about the money. Joel’s studio is holding its own, especially since his cousin, Summer MacDonald, put it on the Internet and people all over the world read the catalog.
Most importantly, the old tunes are saved and the old tunemakers have found a studio more interested in their music than their money.
“I thought when I raised my family and retired, I’d have life easy,” Mildred says, obviously energized by the buzz of activity around her. “We have company constantly now, but we have a lot of fun, and we play a lot of music.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:
To listen to Allan MacDonald’s Turkey Day Trot, call Coeur d’Alene Cityline with a TouchTone phone at (208) 765-8811, Ext. 9870. In Eastern Washington, call (509) 458-8800, Ext. 9870. Cityline is a free service, although normal long distance charges apply.
This sidebar appeared with the story: CITYLINE To listen to Allan MacDonald’s Turkey Day Trot, call Coeur d’Alene Cityline with a TouchTone phone at (208) 765-8811, Ext. 9870. In Eastern Washington, call (509) 458-8800, Ext. 9870. Cityline is a free service, although normal long distance charges apply.