Someone suggests a tune, and a fiddler kicks it off. The music sets your toes tapping right away. Outside this room it’s 2008, but in here it sounds more like 1910.
Two more fiddles join in, along with a banjo, guitar, and upright bass. Around the circle, everyone takes it easy at first, so that those unfamiliar with the piece can lean in and listen. There is some tentative picking and bowing as the notes take shape. Soon the tune breaks loose, flowing like the River Raisin just outside the door of the Manchester Coffee Mill Cafe.
The players savor the tune, playing it over and over with variations. No one is in a hurry to finish. At last the leader lifts a foot, signaling to everyone it’s the final time through. The music stops, the musicians smile and nod, and talk resumes about what to play next.
Old-time music is generally associated with the rural South, but the Midwest shares in this tradition. In fact, Michigander Jasper Bisbee was one of the first fiddlers ever recorded. In 1923, when he was eighty, Bisbee made a number of old-time music records for Thomas Edison.
The Coffee Mill Cafe has been hosting an exceptional old-time jam for the last two years, thanks to co-owner Pat Vailliencourt’s interest in the music. Players pull up chairs in the back while listeners find seats nearby or at picnic tables in the front. An occasional steam whistle from a coffee machine rises above the conversation and music.
The twice-monthly jam is led by the Millers, a string band composed of Mike Zivsac, Mark Palms of the Raisin Pickers, Carl Johnson, Chuck Anderson, and Randy Markey. Players come from near and far. All are welcome to sit in, but you had better know your stuff. The repertoire consists mostly of hot fiddle “breakdowns,” though other traditional pieces, such as country blues, rags, and waltzes, also spring up. Recording, clog dancing, and bantering about old-time music sources are encouraged.
As the afternoon rolls along, players come and go. Palms raises his fiddle to his chest and cuts loose with “Old Aunt Jenny with Her Nightcap On.” The music, dancing, and smiles begin again.
The jam, free and open to the public, takes place the second and fourth Saturdays of each month at the Coffee Mill, 146 East Main, Manchester. For more information and to confirm dates and times, see themillersmusic.com.