Many thanks to Bill Dillof for documenting this fantastic music in 1984, and for digitizing and sharing it.
These gentlemen still play, thirty years later. Pete Sutherland in Monkton, VT., Pete Vigor in Crozet, VA, Mark Graham in Seattle, WA, and Stefan Senders in Trumansburg, NY. Thank you to all of you for a lifetime of inspiration.
[see the website above for info on a documentary about “Westphalia Waltz”]
The melody of the Westphalia Waltz derives from a Polish song known by several titles — “Pytala Sie Pani,” “Wszystkie Rybki,” and others. Citing references from Poland’s National Library in Warsaw and the Polish Museum of America in Chicago, the film shows the presence of the song in Poland and the United States in the early twentieth century. It includes interviews with descendents of the Polish immigrants who worked the mills in Massachusetts and the coal mines in the Alleghenies. The grandson of the lead trumpet player from Victor’s 1930 recording recalls his grandfather’s musical and professional life. The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner relates his father’s insistence that he learn music as a way out of their coal town.
From the mills of New England and the coal mines of Pennsylvania, to the farms of Wisconsin and the boisterous taverns of Chicago, “Pytala Sie Pani” was a unifying and bawdy favorite that the overworked, underpaid, ostracized and homesick Polish-Americans sang to forget the Great Depression. Victor (1930) and Columbia (1937) both recorded it. Publishers in Chicago (Sajewski) and Philadelphia (Podgorski) sold the sheet music. Steve Okonski, a fiddler from Bremond, Texas’s largest Polish settlement, brought the tune from Chicago to Bremond in the late 1930’s. But in Westphalia, just 35 miles west of Bremond, the locals gave it a different name.
Cotton Collins, a gifted Texas fiddler, recorded the piece in 1946 with the Waco-area band the Lone Star Playboys. Collins had re-interpreted the piece as a Texas fiddle waltz and named it after the small Texas village of Westphalia, just 34 miles south of Waco. After Collins registered the copyright in 1947, the tune gained great popularity in the country music arena. The Lone Star Playboys performed it frequently at gigs and on their daily radio show, broadcast at lunchtime on WACO in Waco. “Westphalia Waltz” was recorded by a long string of artists, notably Floyd Tillman (in 1947, on Columbia) and then Hank Thompson in 1955, on Capitol Records. Thompson’s well-produced recording, with Capitol’s national promotion and distribution, elevated the “Westphalia Waltz” to national exposure, where it enchanted fiddlers and listeners alike.
Pete Sutherland: Old-time music’s nuances are most apparent to me, and easiest to reproduce from listening. But I think if I was starting now I’d be playing more local Vermont music, which is a hybrid of Yankee, whatever that means, and Irish and French-Canadian. There were some lucky accidents that made me go southern. I was living in Vermont, where I’m from, and there was hardly anybody playing anything recognizably Appalachian. This was 1972, and there were these chance encounters with the right people— an old-time banjo player named Tom Azarian, going to the Fox Hollow festival and hearing the campground jams—that gave me a critical mass of repertoire and a jump start on the style.
In the beginning I was just a tune-sucker and trying to spit them all out, and David Green said to me, “You just have to pick one style and do that— I don’t care what it is, but you have to pick one. You’re never going to get anywhere if you try to play all of these styles.” And I’m sort of a stubborn guy and I said to myself, “No, I really want to get into all of them.” But I did take to heart that I would have to be careful if I didn’t want to make a hash of the whole thing.
I think I was as careful as I could be, and it paid off because those first few years are so important. It’s like being a kid; you set a lot of your patterns for your learning life right there. I learned to recognize the difference in bowing styles, even though I couldn’t necessarily replicate them. I tried to create all these files in my brain for the different ways that people use the bow. I didn’t spend as much time on the Quebecois thing, but I had that front-row seat in Louis’ kitchen to watch. I think the visual thing is really underrated; I learned to play guitar by watching as much as listening.
In as much as anybody tries to be multilingual and keep the styles straight, eventually you’re just going to wake up one day and you have a style that is distinct and identifiably yours. I don’t think I’d have the ability to keep the styles completely pure. I can try my damnedest to play exactly like Tommy Jarrell and probably there’ll be some Irish in there unintentionally. When I’m not in that head and not trying to be pure, and just play my way, I think it’s a hybrid of all the things that I like. To people that know Irish music I’ll play Irish and they’ll invariably say it sounds southern, and they always did, and to people that like hard-driving old-time music my playing sounds really northern. I’m sitting with my butt on the Mason Dixon line forever.
Old-time music is like this river; there’s never been that many people who play it, there’s fewer that play it well, there’s even fewer that understand it and fewer that are going to get to a position of some prominence or as a teacher where you’re going to be asked, as I am, to interpret for someone else, so that puts a lot of responsibility on you to be as savvy about the tradition as you can, and usually it boils down to a matter of listening.
We often don’t take the time to listen—we hear something and just want to play, but if you keep listening to your old scratchy tapes or whatever it was that turned you on in the first place, and really key into the subtleties of the style that you are the next generation of, then you’ll always dig something else out and deepen your respect and make you a better player.