Uncle Joe Shippee

The essay below was written to be included in the liner notes for a forthcoming CD called "North of the Ohio" to be released on the Dust to Digital label. The CD is being edited by Patrick Huber and Kevin Fontenot—it will probably be released sometime in 2010 and will feature a range of fiddling culled from 78rpm discs. I don't know if the complete essay on Uncle Joe Shippee will be included, so I am presenting it here. For a fuller account of Shippee, see my essay on the 1926 All New England Fiddle Contest.

Joseph Harley “Uncle Joe” Shippee (1856-1934). Like many oldtime fiddlers during the 1920s, Joe Shippee enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight after winning a well-publicized fiddle contest. In January 1926, the Providence Town Criers, a businessmen’s association, spied a promotional opportunity in the wake of widespread press coverage about Mellie Dunham’s visit with Henry Ford in Michigan the week of December 9th, 1925. On Christmas Eve, regional newspapers announced the Town Criers’ intention to hold an All New England Fiddle Contest.

On January 2nd, a list of nineteen entrants from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island appeared in the Providence Evening News. Among them was Joseph Shippee from Plainfield, Connecticut—the News called him the “King Pin of Fiddlers.” Shippee told newspapers he was a widower and came from “pure old Connecticut Yankee stock,” adding with a touch of dry humor “I’ve most farmed it, but I’ve chopped wood, teamed, worked for the mill—done anything to get a dollar, and I ain’t got one now.”

The contest was to take place over the course of three evenings and would be held in the elegant Keith-Albee Theater that seated over two thousand people, a far cry from the rural grange halls where oldtime fiddlers like Joe Shippee were accustomed to playing. At the outset Shippee was not very keen on the whole idea of the contest—he had a heart condition and had been warned by his doctor not to press his luck by entering. But his family “pitched on” him and a neighbor offered to drive him to Providence, so he went.

On Monday night, Shippee competed against nine other fiddlers from Connecticut and Rhode Island. At the end of the evening, applause from the audience suggested a tie between Shippee and octogenarian Dan Elliott of Bristol, Rhode Island, so the judges asked them each to play another tune. In the end, the judges gave the decision to Shippee. On Tuesday night, James Gaffney, an Irish fiddler from Providence, beat out his competitors setting the stage for a final showdown on Wednesday evening between Gaffney and Shippee. The crowd for the final round of fiddling was enormous—the largest in the history of the theater. Reporting on the Wednesday evening contest, most newspapers commented on Shippee’s grave expression and casual dress but none painted such a dreary picture of him as the writer for the Boston Post who described him as “solemn faced, his eyes sunken and red, garbed in big dusty overshoes, and wearing a gray flannel shirt.” Again, the judges had difficulty reaching a decision and asked both fiddlers to play another reel and jig. When all was said and done, the award went to Shippee. He seemed in a daze and didn’t realize all the applause was for him until a stage assistant leaned over his chair and told him he had won.

The day after the contest, routine life for Joe Shippee began to unravel as reporters, photographers, theater agents, record company men, friends, and well-wishers descended on the little two-room apartment house above the railroad track where Shippee lived with his daughter, Pearl Opperman, and her husband. While his family was pleased about the attention he was getting, Shippee quickly grew uneasy because of the various ways in which he was being “importuned to ‘cash in’ on his laurels.” By noon Thursday, a theatrical agent had already approached him to sign a vaudeville contract. One newspaper speculated that “tempting monetary considerations” might “lure him back behind the footlights,” but although the promoters held out an enticing fee, it wasn’t enough to persuade Joe to spend a week choked up in stuffy dressing rooms and blinded by the lights on a Boston stage. He was content to play for Saturday night dances like those at Hyde’s Hall, Canterbury, about five miles from his home.

Reporters queried Shippee about how many tunes he thought he knew. In a strangely futuristic reply, Joe seemed to foretell of tape recorders when he explained, “There’s a reel in the back of my head with all the tunes on it and when I sit down to play, the reel turns and I play the first tune that comes off of it.” Some of Shippee’s tunes included “Swallowtail Jig,” “Pigtown Fling,” “Peel Her Jacket,” and “I’ll Never Kiss My Love Again Behind the Kitchen Door.” A few days earlier, Shippee had given the impression that his life had been an ordinary one built on a foundation of manual labor. It turned out—when the Boston Globe published a sketch of his life— the old felt-booted fiddler had experienced far more than anyone could have imagined.

Joe Shippee was born at Killingly, Connecticut in 1856. Shortly after he was born, his parents separated, the father keeping the infant. When Joe was less than two years old, his father died, but before his death he had given the baby to his sister to keep. The mother came and stole the baby back and took him to Providence, putting him in care of an African-American family. According to the Globe, a grandfather traced young Joe’s whereabouts and took him away from the caretaking family. When he was twelve, Joe purchased a fiddle from a cousin for thirteen dollars and found a local man to teach him the rudiments of music. After that, he taught himself to play. Joe worked summers and although he went to school in the wintertime, his chores kept his attendance minimal resulting in a limited education. When he was nineteen, he married Leonora Tyler and together they had seven children. For a number of years, Joe “drove for the mill,” presumably as a teamster. At some point, he owned a livery stable keeping ten horses and six driving horses. For eight years, he made a living hauling stone. In his later years, he turned to logging and cutting wood. Shippee’s wife Leonora died around 1922 after which he lived with his children, most of whom had settled close by.

On Friday, January 8th, the Boston Globe ran a photo of Shippee captioned NEW FIDDLING CHAMPION REFUSES OFFER TO APPEAR ON STAGE HERE. Uncle John Wilder of Vermont had heard of Shippee’s contest win and challenged the Connecticut man to play off against him at the Bowdoin Theater in Boston. Shippee viewed the invitation as a publicity stunt connected to Wilder’s week-long vaudeville engagement. Having no interest in show business, he turned down the challenge. By January 17th, however, his resistance was weakening as those around him pressured him to “cash in.” Through what might be termed “suggestive interviewing” reporters took Shippee’s invectives against jazz music and his reflection that he’d consider playing in a Boston theater for the sum of $200 and presented this as evidence that Joe was ready to take on the world. On Saturday, January 23rd, the Providence News announced that Shippee had reversed his earlier adamant refusal of theatrical offers and had agreed to appear the following week at the St. James Theater in Boston. Shippee and his daughter Pearl did perform at the St. James during the week of January 25th as part of a 30-person entourage that made up a portion of the theater’s variety show cast. If it wasn’t strange enough that Shippee found himself participating in a theatrical stage show that included a magician, a movie melodrama, and a pair of “sensational whirlwind roller skaters,” the show’s finale included an additional irony. The house orchestra rendered its version of “Rippling Waves Waltz,” Henry Ford’s “favorite” tune composed by Mellie Dunham.

At some point in conjunction with his new-found fame, Shippee sat before a recording studio microphone long enough to make two commercial 78rpm records that were released on the Pathé and Perfect labels. The exact recording date has remained elusive—discographies by Russell and Meade say only circa January or February 1926. In any case, Shippee became one of the few northeastern fiddlers at this time to leave any legacy whatsoever in the form of phonograph records. The All New England Fiddle Contest quickly became a memory as scores of other contests large and small were held throughout the country in the spring of 1926. Uncle Joe Shippee was typical of the many oldtime fiddlers who ventured on stage during the Henry Ford “fiddle craze” and then returned quietly to community life once the hubbub subsided. Shippee died in 1934 and is buried in Plainfield, Connecticut.

—©2008 Steve Green