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Old, Weird Idaho

Hearken to Idaho's earliest recordings, and meet the players who want you to listen back even further


by Nicholas Collias

Just over a month ago, I hatched a plan to track down the very first musical recording or recordings made in Idaho for our annual music issue, and make those recordings available for listening on our Web site. At the time, the project seemed simple enough: I'd simply look up the one in-state musical historian with all the answers, turn my brain's music-criticism-knob up to 78 rpm and crack a few cold ones over a few crackly old ones--country waltzes, probably, or folk ballads, or maybe some Basque dance tunes. I wasn't counting on finding Idaho: The Unabridged Box Set, but I was sure that in a state as culturally diverse as Idaho, and as recently removed from its first generations of settlers, I'd have little trouble finding Idaho: The Early Hits.

At first, however, the only tragic ballads I heard were from modern office people behind desks across town.

"Try the Historical Museum. They probably have as much or more than we do," I was told at the Idaho State Historical Archives after finding slim pickings beyond a few swing and folk recordings from 1960s and '70s.

"They told you what?" the Idaho Historical Museum staff gasped before booting me in the general direction of the Boise Public Library and the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

"I think I heard that somebody was trying to do something like that over at the BSU library," offered a city librarian. "I think they got discouraged."

After a few more stops, a few unreturned calls and a few more rejections--including from Idaho folk authority Rosalie Sorrels, who sadly informed me that the few tapes that inspired her 1962 debut, Folk Songs of Idaho and Utah were long, long gone--I became convinced that Idaho's pre-war musical history was limited only to written tunes like the ones Sorrels and a handful of historians assembled 16 years ago for the centennial songbook Way Out in Idaho. As I am a music fan who owns an iPod instead of a guitar and has a tendency to fall asleep during folk performances, that realization felt like a suffocating double bar-line on my quest.

Marie Carmen-Gambliel, the director of folk and traditional arts at the Idaho Commission on the Arts, initially agreed with my conclusion. "It is very sad," she said after hearing my travails. "This is not a good thing that we do not have a recorded history." Then she proceeded to set me straight and deflate my somewhat comforting defeatism with just the tip I had been looking for.

The sounds of early Idaho, I soon discovered, are much older than I had imagined. They were made on the very first type of recording machine and were heard in that format only for 80 years. However, thanks to a small army of benefactors, they are also now easily available in digital form or for purchase over the Internet. And to find them, I only needed only to answer one question: "In an area where the oldest cultures--Native American ones--were built around oral traditions, why would anyone find it necessary to record music at all?"

If that culture were yours, you would record because you knew it was in danger of being silenced.


Dr. Loran Olsen has spent over 30 years cataloging and recording Nez Perce music, but he still only calls it his "hobby." While Olsen is perhaps the pre-eminent academic authority on Nez Perce music--indeed, my calls to various tribal agencies all resulted in referrals back to him--he says professional distance is essential to his authority.

"My field is piano and composition," he says. "My doctor's degree is in hand. I have no vested interest in doing anything other than helping people."

By "vested interest," of course, he is referring to money--the calling card of the numerous "shady characters" he has encountered in his hobby over the years. And so in 1987, when he learned that a dealer in Nez Perce artifacts had come into the possession of an authentic Edison Standard Model D recording machine, complete with 69 beeswax recording cylinders whose contents were unknown, Olsen had only one recourse--he had to make his hobby somebody else's vested interest ... preferably somebody not shady.

After borrowing 10 of the cylinders, each of which can hold approximately 2 minutes of recordings, and verifying their authenticity with the help of a Library of Congress sound engineer, Olsen says realized that the cylinders were "a priceless collection" of long-unheard Nez Perce music.

"Our objective became simply to keep them in the Northwest," he recalls. "So many of these types of Indian artifacts simply disappear. They end up in Europe and places like that. We just didn't want that to happen."

After no buyers could be found, the Washington State University Libraries stepped forward and made the purchase--sort of. Today, the delicate cylinders are on permanent loan to the Library of Congress. But digital copies of 61 of the 69 recordings (the other eight were either irreparably damaged or contained commercial musical recordings) are available at a tiny handful of Northwest locations--including a nondescript cardboard box in a back room of the new Idaho History Center.

With funding help from both the Idaho Humanities Council and the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the recordings were digitally enhanced back in 1994, and Olsen and a committee of Nez Perce elders, tribal historians and translators were able to delve into them. What they heard was this:

"This is Sam Morris talking. He is saying: 'This is the way that the people played or had fun. This is a great feeling to know. Now the war dancers will take a moment of rest. All of you ladies, sing along. Take part in the singing. All you women, sing loud."

Sam Morris, (his Nez Perce name translates to "Horse Blanket") was a mysterious Nez Perce man born in Washington in about 1856. He made the recordings between 1909 and 1912, probably in and around Lapwai, after already having led a life that typified the upheaval taking place in Native American culture in the late 19th century.

On one hand, he was the half-brother of the warrior Yellow Wolf, a famed Nez Perce leader in the Nez Perce War during the 1870s. Yellow Wolf even makes an angry speech on one of Morris's recordings. On the other hand, Morris actually served as a scout for the U.S. Army in the early stages of the war, and Yellow Wolf would reportedly not enter Morris's house for many years because of it. Similarly, while Morris's recordings, most of which comprise a short spoken introduction followed by loud drumming, yelling and chanting, contain both tribal and Christian religious elements, he claimed in correspondence to have "no religion of any kind."

"He didn't buy into either of the war factions, really. He was just kind of a loner," Olsen explains. "But he would be kind of a leader at the [Nez Perce] dances. We get an idea for what it was like at the turn of the century, as these young warriors became old, and as they came back and reminisced about all these experiences they had had."

Morris's recordings, it should be noted, aren't the first musical recordings made in Idaho, or even the first recordings of Nez Perce music. Those titles go to ethnographer Herbert Spinden, who visited the Nez Perce village of Lapwai in 1907 and made 37 cylinder recordings, and famed anthropologist Alice Fletcher, who recorded Chief Joseph singing mournful war songs with other tribe members in Washington, D.C., in 1897.

However, Morris's recordings, while less consistent in sound than Spinden's or Fletcher's, are the special for another reason: They are Idaho's first independent music. They're made for listening, not for study by outsiders. Spanning nearly an hour and a half, Morris's collection shows an artist's eye for capturing all the passion, contradiction and desperation in his embattled community. On one track, he captures his son, Jim Morris, playing the fiddle at a Nez Perce square dance. On another, he records a group of Nez Perce singing a Protestant hymn in Chinook Jargon, a trade language used by several regional tribes in the 19th century. The numerous war dances and "Hitting the Rawhide" songs (where women would sing all night before the tribe's men left for war) are packed with mournful, intimate wailing, but Morris also includes rare gems like imported songs from Sioux and Crow tribes, and even some occasional laughter--like when a man telling a hunting story says he shot a white-tailed deer and another man teases him, "Were there any witnesses?"

Where Morris bought the Edison recorder, or where he even got the idea, isn't clear. The devices were widely available after the turn of the century, and Olsen estimates their cost to be about $30, plus 25 cents for each cylinder.

"We're guessing that he must have heard Herbert Spinden making his recordings in 1907," Olsen says. "He was probably there watching. We can only guess." After the recordings were made, according to Olsen's 1999 report "A Legacy From Sam Morris," the cylinders sat in Morris's attic for years, where his family occasionally listened to them--and children played with them as toys. After being officially "returned" in tape form to the Nez Perce tribe in 1995, they are today regarded as one of the most significant auditory "finds" in decades.

"This is the only instance we know of where an Indian had his own machine and was recording music purely for his own purposes," Olsen says. "It's for his own family and his own joy."

Mining for Even Older nuggets

While the Sam Morris collection may corner the market on firsthand accounts of old-world Idaho, one Northwest couple is striving to produce what they hope is the next best thing: authentic recreations of Idaho tunes from back when even Sam Morris was barely old enough to hold a tune. Vivian and Phil Williams, Western music scholars and operators of Seattle-based Voyager Recordings and Publications, have been fixtures in Idaho music since the early 1960s, when Vivian first began taking home trophies at the Weiser Oldtime Fiddler's Contest. But currently, the couple is focused on a musical scene from a full century earlier, when another W-town--Warren--was in full bloom as one of the Idaho Territory's first boomtowns.

Warren, located approximately 40 miles northeast of McCall, was at one time a thriving assemblage of camps and claims housing approximately 2,000 Chinese and American miners--as well as Polly Bemis, the Chinese immigrant and slave who was the subject of the novel and film Thousand Pieces of Gold. But in this case, Polly's husband Charlie, the saloon owner who famously won Polly in a card game, is the subject of the William's academic interest. On special occasions, Charlie Bemis reportedly would stack up the tables and cover the artwork in his men-only watering hole in downtown Warren, transform it into a coed dance hall and play lead fiddle in the Warren Orchestra. This six-piece ensemble had a repertoire of over 100 waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, schottishes, quadrilles and other dance tunes, which were penned by the band's leader and flautist, Peter Beemer. Beemer learned them in 1864 by asking the Warren townsfolk to whistle, hum or sing their favorite songs while he jotted down the notes. He would then expand and arrange the melodies into scores for his orchestra, giving the diverse community a chance to dance to familiar sounds--and providing Bemis a convenient loophole around the law that women were not allowed in saloons. That's all according to a manuscript handed over to the Idaho Historical Society in 1961 by Taylor Smith, a New Meadows resident who claimed to have been given the original fiddle parts by his fiddle teacher, none other than Charlie Bemis himself.

Vivian Williams says she was first hipped to the Warren sound by a fellow Weiser fiddler, and she has since been able locate "a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox" of the scores, which are stored on a far-from-perfect microfilm representation at the State Historical Archives. After poring over old census reports, she was able to confirm the existence of some of the other band members, who Smith identifies as Rube Bessey on second fiddle (and, it should be noted, a homemade one), "Mr. Jenkins" on homemade banjo, Charles Brown on accordion, and ... that's it. According to Smith's manuscript, he couldn't recall the sixth member of the band. But that kind of gap just encourages Williams to keep digging. So do the discrepancies in the scores themselves, such as when Beemer calls one song a "duet for first flutes."

"Is there another flute player, or did someone else double on the flute?" Williams asks. "And who is the mysterious sixth member of the band? There are all these little mysteries to be solved."

Williams admits that some of the songs are "not wonderful music," but she says she is nonetheless planning to put together a duplicate of the band in the near future and even release an album once a few more of the mysteries are solved. And if anyone is fit to solve them, it's Williams. After all, the last project she undertook to revive old Western music--music at least 60 years older than the Warren Orchestra--she didn't even have songs from which to work. All she had were journal entries.

"Such as were able to shake a foot amused themselves in dancing on the green to the music of the violin which Cruzatte plays extreemly well," wrote Meriwether Lewis on June 25, 1805, after the Corps of Discovery had spent the day on a rough portage of the Great Falls on the Yellowstone river. The expedition featured two members of a fiddling persuasion, privates Peter Cruzatte and George Gibson, and both are mentioned frequently in the journals of various company members. However, the specific songs they played are not. So, when the Williamses wanted to record modern renditions of what was undoubtedly the first fiddle music heard in Idaho, they had to do their best approximation. After researching the dance tunes popular near the turn of the century in St. Louis, Missouri, where Cruzatte was from, they and University of Missouri professor Dr. Howard Marshall were able to gather 24 into a meticulously researched collection titled Fiddle Tunes of the Lewis and Clark Era.

The album contains tunes ranging from no-brainer early American standards like "Yankee Doodle" and "Soldier's Joy" to unearthed gems like Thomas Jefferson's campaign song, "Jefferson and Liberty," and "College Hornpipe," one of the songs that had been played on a barrel organ kept onboard English naval captain George's Vancouver voyage up the Northwest coast in 1792. The Williamses regularly perform these and other songs from their album and its predecessor, Dance Music of the Oregon Trail, at museums and Lewis and Clark xhibits around the northwest, and--get this--they even have competition. Daniel Slosberg, a Los Angeles fiddler who serves as America's other Lewis and Clark musicologist, will play the character of Peter Cruzatte at next month's 10-day "Circle of Cultures: The Boise Lewis and Clark Experience" in Julia Davis Park.

If the greatest hits of the Warren Orchestra does get issued in the coming year, don't expect to hear about it. The Williams' recordings, like those in the Sam Morris Collection, may be about history, but they rarely make waves outside of historical circles on their release. But if anybody ever does decide to finally make a Spinal Tap-esque rockumentary about the success of these types of recordings, Phil Williams has just the tagline:

"The interpretive centers, they sell the hell out of them," he says.

To listen to free MP3s of selections from the Nez Perce music collection, including the oldest recorded music made in Idaho, or to hear the Williams' New Columbia Fiddlers performing songs from the Lewis and Clark era, visit