Vivian Williams (1938-2023)

In Memoriam, News from the Field
vivian williams, who is wearing a tan shirt with violet flowers and wears glasses, smiling and holding a fiddle.

Vivian Williams, fiddler, composer, recording artist, and writer, died on January 6, 2023 at the age of 84. She had been suffering with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Beginning as early as 1962, Vivian Williams, working with her late husband, Phil Williams (1928–2017), has had a profound effect on maintaining Anglo-American and other regional fiddle and string band traditions in the Pacific Northwest. Vivian is a musician, author, music promoter, publisher, composer, music editor, historian, field-recordist, and recorded music producer. Each of these skills is significant in itself, but all are part of a continuum that bears appreciation as a whole. In 1962, she completed an M.A. in anthropology with a specialty in ethnomusicology at University of Washington.

Much of what Vivian has accomplished in her cultural work has been in collaboration with her late husband, but her musicianship and performance skills, for which she has gained national renown, are her own. Called the best dance fiddler on the West Coast, Vivian has spent a lifetime crafting the dance music she grew up with into effective music for the dancers of today.

Vivian Williams’s skill as a fiddler and her tireless research into and promotion of regional fiddle styles have revived interest in the fiddle music styles of the Northwest and of the American West in general. Her and her late husband’s efforts have revitalized and sustained traditional fiddle music in the region. The same can be said for her work with traditional dance and the music accompanying it.

Vivian Williams has won numerous fiddle contests since the first one she entered and won in 1964. Among the many are the Smithsonian Fiddle Contest in DC, numerous first places at the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho, including three Grand Championships, and many others, all performed Northwest dance fiddler style, rather than the typical flashy contest style. 

She has been inducted into the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest Hall of Fame, in Weiser in June 2013 and the North American Old Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Osceola, New York, in July 2013. In 2008, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine listed Vivian and Phil Williams among the fifty most influential musicians in the Pacific Northwest, placing them in the company of Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Nirvana.

A specific example of the Williamses’ success has been their outreach, promotion, and recording of the traditional music of residents of the Darrington area in the North Cascades Range. Locally known as “Tar Heels,” because the greatest number came from western North Carolina, these families had relocated there and in the nearby Skagit River Valley from Appalachia to work in the timber industry during the early and middle twentieth century. Vivian and Phil’s involvement was a major help in nurturing the retention of that community’s home-state traditions. Vivian was the knowledgeable and available fiddler at a time when the Washington Tar Heels were missing that core of their musical tradition. The Williamses’ promotion of the Washington Tar Heels’ musical traditions was pivotal in initiating urban interest in Appalachian music in the Pacific Northwest. The Williamses worked with musicians, music fans, and community leaders in Darrington to develop what in 1977 became the Darrington Bluegrass Festival.

Vivian and Phil also recorded and promoted the traditional music of Missourians who had relocated to Whatcom County near the Canadian border. Because of Vivian’s skill as a fiddler and her and Phil’s repeated attendance at, and participation in, the annual National Old Time Fiddlers Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho, they became acquainted with and eventually recorded and promoted traditional fiddlers and their music from the greater American West.

Vivian and Phil’s establishment of Voyager Recordings and Publications in 1967 has publicized and made the music of several generations of older performers available to younger musicians and fans. Vivian and her husband were, with collaboration of a few others in their circle, founders of the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association (1965), the Seattle Folklore Society (1966), and the Northwest Folklife Festival (1972). The festival has grown into a four-day free festival of the Northwest’s cultural diversity that has attracted as many as 250,000 visitors and participants in recent years.

Vivian and Phil also distinguished themselves with several important research projects about Western traditional music out of which they developed educational materials. Working with University of Missouri folklorist Howard Marshall, they researched the traditional music of the Missouri Valley and the repertoires of dance musicians on the Western frontier. While doing this research, the Williamses uncovered the Peter Beemer Manuscript, a collection of dance tunes played in 1860s Idaho mining camps. They also uncovered and published the Willamette Valley Haynes Family Manuscript, sixty-five dance tunes handed down through several generations of three families who came west over the Oregon Trail from Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, and Missouri between 1847 and 1853. 

Beginning in 1960, the Williamses recorded hundreds of performances by traditional musicians, many of them older, in both the the Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain Northwest. These efforts preserved performance styles generally unknown outside these regions. They had planned to deposit these recordings in the American Folklife Center, but at the time, the AFC was approached with the offer it was turned down as it was not deemed sufficiently traditional. This caused a lot of bitterness on Phil’s part, which he was quick to share with the rest of us, as he felt there was a bias at the AFC against traditional Anglo-American music not from Appalachia or the South. At the time, folklorist Howard Marshall of the University of Missouri, arranged to have the materials deposited in the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri. In the last years of her life Vivian negotiated their transfer, together with the catalogue of Voyager Recordings, to Smithsonian Folkways. It’s a shame Phil didn’t live long enough to see this, as it would have given him great satisfaction.

Vivian and Phil were nominated for National Heritage Fellowships several times and Vivian had recently been nominated for the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, but as deserving as they were never made it.

Read Vivian’s obituary on Bluegrass Today and on the Seattle Times.

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