Vivian Williams, fiddler, composer, recording artist, and writer, passed away on January 6, 2023 at the age of 84. She had been suffering with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, for a few years.
Vivian Tomlinson Williams was born on May 27, 1938, in Tacoma, Washington, where her early years were influenced by her father’s fiddle and harmonica playing, and her mother’s love of gypsy violin. She began taking piano lessons at the age of six and classical violin lessons three years later.
While at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she met her future husband, Phil Williams, she played mandolin, guitar, and banjo. A late-1950s appearance at the college by Pete Seeger ignited the couple’s interest in folk music.
While there she earned a BA in American History, and then an MA in Anthropology/Ethnomusicology from the University of Washington.
In 1960, at the age of 22, she switched to fiddle, initially playing bluegrass and Southern old time music. Later Williams specialised in Northwest regional styles, 19th century ballroom, and pioneer music of the American Far West.
She was influenced significantly by players in the Darrington logging and milling community northeast of Seattle, where many musicians from Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee – along with a few immigrants from Scandinavian and Celtic countries – gathered to play music informally.
In 1962 Vivian and Phil Williams formed a string band called The Turkey Pluckers, with Mike Nelson (guitar) and Ron Ginther (mandolin), to play at square dances, coffee houses, and on television and radio.
Four years on she helped to form a strictly bluegrass band, The Tall Timber Boys (aka The Tall Timber Gang), and then just known as Tall Timber.
They appeared at bluegrass festivals around Oregon, on the Evergreen Jubilee TV show on KOMO-TV, Seattle, and did some basement tapes for Seattle’s Radio KRAB as well as later commercial recordings.
About this time Williams also got together with Barbara Hug on banjo and folk singer Carol Crist (guitar) as the all-female fun-band, White Pine Girls.
Vivian and Phil Williams helped with the foundation of the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association in 1965, the Seattle Folklore Society (1966), the Northwest Folklife Festival (1972) – the music and arts fair that drew as many as 250,000 to the Seattle Center each year – and the Darrington Bluegrass Festival -(1976) and the Darrington Bluegrass and Country Music Makers Association.
Darrington became the self-proclaimed Bluegrass Capital of the Northwest.
In 1967 Phil and Vivian Williams started Voyager Recordings, building on a career that began in the mid-1950s when he first became involved in recording, and he made some of the first “in-line” stereo recordings in the Northwest.
A few examples of their work during that decade include him engineering recordings and Vivian serving as a producer for Cross Road Records, a Seattle label that recorded and issued 45s, primarily, including country & western, rhythm ‘n’ blues, bluegrass, and square dance releases.
The Turkey Pluckers had three singles on the label, although one of these was only identified as by Vivian Williams.
Late in the spring of 1967 Bill Monroe made his seventh trip to the West Coast. However, his bus broke down enroute, leaving band members Byon Berline, Lama Grier, and James Monroe stranded near Dallas. As a result, Vivian Williams was one of three local musicians – Kentuckian Paul Wiley (a very accomplished banjo player and a member of Tall Timber) and Phil Williams (bass) were the others – who filled in for Monroe’s May 5th and 6th concerts in Seattle and Centralia, Washington.
Monroe reputedly opined ….
“I have never heard a lady fiddler that could beat Williams, and a lot of men fiddlers can’t beat her.”
A Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer, writing about her first solo album, commented on her classical background calling her style, “very polished and exact,” expressing the view that those who like “clean well-executed fiddle playing” should enjoy it.
Tall Timber in Seattle, Washington, 1968
Banjolina and Stoney Lonesome
Having already been her tutor for a few years she teamed up with fiddle prodigy Barbara Lamb to release what was probably only the third ever fiddle album; it was certainly the first female fiddle record.
In 1983 the Williamses expanded their business when Vivian published the first of the Brand-New Old-Time Fiddle Tunes books, and the name of the organization was changed to Voyager Recordings & Publications.
Friends of Sally Johnson emerged in the mid-1980s from jam sessions involving Barry Brower, John Welch, Vivian and Phil Williams, and Harley and Shara Bray. They played many bluegrass festivals – performing at the 1988 Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival and appeared on ABC TV’s Home Show.
Brower shared these thoughts with us ….
“Yes, sad news for us but, given the circumstances of what she was facing with ALS, good news for her. As she put it to her niece, shortly before she passed, ‘I feel sorry for the people that will miss me, but too bad.’ Vintage Vivian — she always undersold herself and her importance.
There’s a Ph.D of info that I could say about Vivian (and Phil), but much of that will be expressed by others. What I would point out is that we are losing a giant, in terms of her importance to the acoustic ‘folk’ music scene in Washington. Particularly of note (among so many things I could mention), is her importance to female fiddlers, who she inspired by her accomplishments and encouraged throughout her life. At a time — the 1960s — when fiddling was for the most part a man’s endeavor, Vivian splashed on the scene and won three championship trophies at Weiser (not to mention many others she won in future years). She had an incalculable importance to so many young women taking up the instrument. She was a real guiding light in that regard.
Another important thing: Phil and Vivian have been instrumental in unearthing and publishing fiddle tune manuscripts from northwest pioneers.
They have done so much to establish Pacific northwest fiddling as a folk tradition. This endeavor was a major part of their lives in later years, and I think important to note, as many folks I don’t believe are aware of that.”
Friends of Sally Johnson, recorded in April 1987, at Mt Vernon, Washington – Montana Cowboy
Vivian Williams sings harmony on the chorus.
Williams is featured in this instrumental rendition of a Stephen Foster piece. Recorded at a Spokane Folklore Society concert in September of 1988.
Angeline The Baker
Other Friends of Sally Johnson are Harley Bray (banjo), Phil Williams (bass), Shera Bray (guitar), Barry Brower (mandolin).
After Brower’s departure in 1990, Friends of Sally Johnson became known simply as Williams and Bray, and with this combination, utilizing Nancy Katz or Judith Webster Gold (playing bass), they remained active for well over two decades.
Vivian Williams, accompanied by her husband, Phil, on guitar – Up Jumped the Devil, a tune that she learned from a 78 rpm square dance record many years earlier.
Vivian Williams and WB Reid (guitar) in Concert for Quarantine Happy Hour – recorded October 19, 2020, Seattle
Note she includes a Brahms polka, demonstrating her abilities playing classical music.
Babs Lamb was just eight years old when she started taking lessons ….
“My fiddle teacher Vivian Williams not only taught me hundreds of tunes, she taught me how to play like I meant it, something not to be skipped in bluegrass.”
Vivian Williams won over 50 fiddle contests, including the 1999 National Senior Championship at Weiser, Idaho; the Smithsonian Fiddle Contest in Washington, DC; and the Western Open Senior Championship; and four times at the West Coast International in Canada. Also, she was the Washington State Senior Champion, the Washington State fiddle champion, National Ladies Champion – all on multiple occasions.
As well as receiving the Folk Alliance’s Best of the West award and being noted by a major Seattle magazine as one of the Fifty Most Influential Seattle Musicians in the Past 100 Years, Williams was inducted into the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest Hall of Fame, Weiser, Idaho (in June 2013), and the following month into the North American Old Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Osceola, New York.
Clarinet Polka performed by the Tall Timber band, Vivian Williams, fiddle; Barney Munger, banjo; Sue Thompson, guitar, Phil Williams, bass, at the Seattle Concert Theater, 1981.
Since Phil Williams passed away in February 2017, she has continued to keep the Voyager catalog available.
It would be difficult to overstate Vivian Williams’ impact and influence on bluegrass and traditional music in the Pacific Northwest. She was a pioneer in so many ways, helping to lay a strong foundation for old time, bluegrass, and roots music to thrive, and dedicated her life to the study, preservation, and fostering of traditional fiddle music. A highly respected fiddler with recordings of over 300 fiddle tunes, Williams left a very rich and inspiring legacy.
Writer and musician Joe Ross described her and her husband as “song carriers.”
RIP Vivian Williams
We are grateful to Tom Keeney and Barry Brower for their help in completing this obituary.
- Lee Highway Ramble / Back Up And Push – 45rpm (Cross Road Music 3004, released 1967)
- Fiddler (Voyager VRLP 323-S, 1979) re-issued on CD in 1996 (Voyager VRCD 323)
- Brand New Old Time Fiddle Tunes No. 2 (Voyager CD 338)
- Waltzes (Voyager VRCD 351, 2001)
- Fiddle Tunes Of The Lewis And Clark Era (Voyager CD 358
Vivian & Phil Williams
- Live! (Voyager CD 347, 2000)
- Winter Moon (Voyager CD 336, 1991), with Harley Bray
- Fiddling Down The Oregon Trail (Voyager CD 373, 2007)
Phil & Vivian Williams
- Dance Music Of The Oregon Trail (Voyager VRCD350, 2000)
- Pioneer Dance Tunes Of The Far West (Voyager CD 371, 2006)
Williams & Bray
- Bluegrass Hoedown (Voyager CD 359, 2003)
Barbara Lamb / Vivian Williams
- Twin Sisters (Voyager VRLP 316-S, 1975), with Tall Timber re-issued on CD in 1994 (Voyager VRCD 316)
- St. Paul Waltz (Voyager Recordings VRLP 102 S), released as by the Twin Sisters
Rick Ruskin & Vivian Williams
- The Gospel According To Rick Ruskin & Vivian Williams (Lion Dog LD-CD 9710, 2005)
The Turkey Pluckers
- Chinese Breakdown / Dance All Night (Cross Road 9001, circa 1963) with Vivian Williams on side 2 only
- Orange Blossom Special / Hard Luck Blues (Cross Road 3001, circa 1963)
- Various Artists – Oregon Territory: Northwest Bluegrass (Grassroots Music GR 001, 1974)
- Bluebirds Singing For Me, Lost Indian and Who’s Sorry Now
- Various Artists – Tenino Old Time Music Festival 1975 – 1976 – 1977 (Voyager RVRLP 321 – S, 1977)
- Sugar In The Gourd
- Various Artists – West Coast Bluegrass (Grassroots Music GR 007, 1981)
- Masons Apron and I’m Sitting On Top Of The World
- Encore (Voyager VRLP 332-S, 1985), with Sue Thompson, later released on CD (Voyager VRCD CS 322)
- Pat Spaeth, Phil Williams, Vivian Williams –
- We Love 💜 Contra Dances (Voyager VRLP 333-S)
- The Fossil Record (Voyager VRCD- 348, 2000) One track only – I’m Lost In This World Without You
- Fiddle Jam Session (Voyager Recordings VRLP 301, 1967)
- Devil’s Dream and Flop-Eared Mule
- More Fiddle Jam Sessions (Voyager Recordings VRLP 304, 1972)
- Fishers Hornpipe and Leather Britches (Vivian Williams is featured accompanied by others
- Tenino Old Time Music Festival 1973-1974 (Voyager Recordings VRLP 313-S, 1975)
- Dry Creek Reel (with Joe Pancerzewski and Barbara Lamb)
- Roses in Winter (Washington Old Time Fiddlers
- Honest John and Red River Cart Polka, A companion to the book Roses in Winter: A Celebration of Old-Time Fiddling in Washington State
And a classical set
- Michael McIntyre, Ruth McIntyre, Vivian Williams
- A David Crighton Benefit Concert
- David Crighton Music Fund (no label / number, 2001)