In Memoriam

Recent Obituaries
In Memoriam Archive

The Wizard of the Strings

Philip L. Williams ’58

He was a pillar of the Northwest folk-music scene and cofounded the Northwest Folklife Festival—the nation’s largest community-powered arts festival, which for more than 40 years has celebrated music and artistic traditions.

After discovering as a boy that his father—an attorney with building skills—didn’t know how to fix a radio, Phil proceeded to learn how. He built a laboratory in the basement and became a self-taught science-fair wizard, building and exhibiting a Tesla coil, a Van de Graaff generator, a modulated light beam transmitter, and much more. By the time he was in Olympia High School, he was known as “The Brain.”

While deciding what college to attend, he visited Reed, and, after observing professors and students eating lunch together and discussing scholarly matters, he became convinced it was the right place. He intended to major in physics, but became fascinated with the humanities and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Phil’s thesis was on the meaning of right, consistent with the dedication to honesty inherited from his parents. After attending a Pete Seeger concert at Reed, Phil bought a banjo and learned to play it. He met his wife, Vivian Tomlinson ’59, the day she arrived on campus; they married four years later and settled in Seattle. Phil found his joy in Northwest Pioneer music, and their home accommodated an untold number of visiting musicians. He played guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass. Vivian, a classically trained violinist, took up fiddle playing “in self-defense” to go with Phil’s banjo. The couple formed a series of bluegrass/traditional string bands that performed regionally. With their first foray to the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho, in 1966, Vivian won fiddle contests and Phil played accompaniment and taught guitar workshops.

A meticulous craftsman who could make anything, Phil built a number of custom banjo necks, an excellent guitar, and an F-style mandolin. For a day job he earned a University of Washington law degree, became the third attorney in the Williams & Williams “law factory,” and later became half of Butcher & Williams. But music was his love, and he used his law practice to help music organizations and subsidize his work as a festival organizer.

Whereas Reed and Portland had hosted “rediscovered” Mississippi Delta blues and other roots musicians, Seattle had not. To rectify this, Phil and others (in particular John Ullman ’65 and Irene Namkung ’65) founded the nonprofit Seattle Folklore Society in 1966, with Phil drafting the incorporation papers. His passion for traditional music led him to conceive of a free festival where any musician or band could perform on stage or demonstrate a traditional craft, sharing their heritage without pay. He made this vision manifest as the principal founder of the Northwest Folklife Festival in 1972. Later he became instrumental in incorporating other organizations dedicated to traditional music, including the Washington State Old Time Fiddlers’ Association, the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Association, and the Darrington Bluegrass Festival.

Phil and Vivian played with several old-time dance bands and performed traditional music as a twosome. In their travels around the Northwest, they came across several 19th-century music manuscripts from an Idaho mining town and from pioneer communities in the Willamette Valley. Phil photographed each manuscript page, and Vivian reset the music in readable notation; researched the origins of the tunes, the dances done to them, and their social context; and published books about these manuscripts. They presented the early musical heritage of this region in story and music performances throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In 1967, Phil and Vivian launched Voyager Recordings and Publications to issue recordings, tune books, and instructional materials of traditional acoustic fiddle and string band music from the Pacific Northwest and throughout North America. The label started as a kind of accident after they went to fiddle contests in Montana and Idaho. “There were all these amazing jam sessions,” Vivian said. “Phil was just running around, carrying his tape recorder and recording everything.” When the couple got back to Seattle and listened to the tapes, they realized they had a trove of music that wasn’t being recorded anywhere else—most of the traditional music labels had gone to Appalachia. Their label emphasized the Pacific Northwest and Far West of North America. The couple also recorded with the Tall Timber Boys and as a duo performing as Vivian and Phil Williams.

Phil installed a high-quality recording studio and became expert in microphone selection and placement and digital mastering. Though temperamentally introverted, he didn’t hesitate to offer opinions on issues he felt strongly about. At the age of 80, he succumbed to complications arising from cancer. Phil maintained that he was most blessed by being able to make music with the woman he loved for more than 60 years.

comments powered by Disqus