Music on Beaver Island, Michigan, has always been essential to island life, but it also draws the interest of outsiders such as musicologist Alan Lomax, for its unique color, which draws from a history of Irish American fiddling, songs and ballads of the Great Lakes, and a Grand Ol Opry set list established in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
At the heart of this unique living tradition is Ed Palmer, who's been entertaining folks on Beaver Island for 50 years.
Well, when I was a young fellow on Beaver Island here, I heard the old-timers play the music, and I always loved that music: the piano, the guitar, and the fiddle. And I learned how to play the piano, then the harmonica, then the guitar. And I started playing for dances, weddings, birthday parties, and in some of the pubs up here. I kept playing. I worked on the boats in Ludington down there for a while, and I went in the Army, went to Vietnam and come back, and continued on playing music, entertained all the Beaver Islanders. And as years went by, the old-timers are kind of passing away, so I'd play for their funerals and continue on playing with their kids as they're growing up.
Ed Palmer learned early on not to look at the piano or the guitar while he played, but to watch the crowd of familiar faces. For him, playing music in the dance hall is like having friends over and making sure everyone is having a good time.
"You knew everybody that you looked in the eye down on the floor, there at the tables. You knew who they were, what they were thinking, what kind of tunes they wanted - it was just a lot of fun," says Palmer. "'Cause you knew everybody personally. You knew their moods and their feelings. Get them to join in singing - it's just a great time, you know. And that's what I always loved all my life. It's been with me, it'll always be with me. Just making people happy. That's what life is about, I guess."
In a town of around 400 people on Beaver Island, nearly everyone Ed knew growing up sang, played a little piano or guitar, or at least danced the Beaver Island jig. Music was not a competition, but a past time.
"I have a lot of people that inspired my music. Couple fiddle players are gone now. Ed Sobie, he was a great fiddle player, he inspired me. And my father-in-law, Jewell Gillespie, he played the piano," Palmer says. "People like that inspired me: they were good musicians, you learn a lot from them, they learn from you, and you learnt together you know. Nobody says I'm better than you or you're better than I am or anything like that. Everybody works together and it makes a good party."
Every so often, Ed will get an itch to put some of his music on CD as a memento for his friends and family. There's Ed Palmer's Party Tunes from Beaver Island, Ed's Favorite Harmonica Tunes, and one he's especially proud of, Ed Palmer featuring his daughters Hilary Rose, Tara Marie, and Rita Jewell. All have natural musical talent, and Hilary in particular has made a point of learning and performing the classic country songs that have been played on Beaver Island since the 1930s.
Old time music is kind of fading out but you got to keep it going the best you can. Pass it on down to my kids. So I just wanted to capture this stuff and put it on tape and hang onto it for future years. So I can wrap this up by saying that I just want to thank everybody that ever listened to my music, if they stopped and paid attention and listened to it and had a good time and enjoyed it. And I hope some of you people come up to Beaver Island and see us and we'll play some music for you up here, have a good time. It's a nice place to come.