“I was born a-dancing” Ora Watson used to say, and indeed when she was barely old enough to stand she would try dancing on her mother’s lap at church when the music started. Watson’s father, an expert old-time musician, was also a great buck dancer, and she recalled picking up steps from him.
A farmer, mother of four, and veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, Watson could raise the energy on any stage by playing fiddle and dancing at the same time, often to her favorite fiddle tune, “Ragtime Annie”. In her youth she won several dance competitions, including at least one Charleston competition, and old-time buck dancing aficionados could spot the Charleston’s influence on her footwork.
While Henry Ford’s mind looked toward the mechanized, industrialized future, his heart was in the past—a world where life was simple, and entertainment meant old-time music and dance with one’s family and neighbors. An amateur fiddler himself, Ford enthusiastically encouraged participation in these pursuits, and was always on the lookout for contacts with outstanding old-time fiddlers.
One such contact was Mellie Dunham, a snowshoe maker, farmer, and fiddler in rural Maine. Thinking that a letter from Ford was just another order for snowshoes, he put it aside until he had time for it. When he finally opened it, he replied to Ford that he was too busy with farm work to accept the auto maker’s invitation to visit him in Detroit.
Local newspapers caught wind of the story, and eventually it took the state’s governor to persuade Dunham to make the visit. The fiddler departed Maine in December 1925 to great fanfare, in a Pullman railroad car provided by Ford. After the trip, Dunham formed a band that toured the vaudeville circuit making as much as $1500 a week, until he eventually went back to his snowshoe business in Maine.
This according to “Henry Ford: A penchant for fiddling” by Matt Merta (Fiddler magazine XXV/1 [spring 2018] pp. 13–16).
Compiled and narrated by the fiddler Matt Combs, John’s daughter Katie Harford Hogue, and the musicologist Greg Reish, the book illuminates Hartford’s creative process through original tune compositions, his own reflections on the fiddle, and interviews with family and fellow musicians.
The volume includes more than 60 of Hartford’s personal drawings—ranging in theme from steamboats and the river, to fellow musicians, home and everyday life—as well as several never-before-seen photographs.
Above, a page from the book: Hartford’s Annual waltz as part of a holiday card and invitation to his 1980 wedding; below, the composer performs the song and tune.
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Although most of the recordings included are LPs, many have been reissued as cassettes and CDs.
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