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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Reed Folk

On move-in day in 1955, Philip Williams ’58 watched in bemusement as his buddy chatted up a “blonde bombshell” unpacking her car in front of Kerr. Unimpressed by the trappings of the conventional 1950s figure, Phil had his eye on the bombshell’s roommate.

“I said he’s got the right idea, but the wrong girl,” he says. “There are some times when you just recognize that there’s something there.”

“Yeah,” interjects Vivian Tomlinson Williams ’59, Phil’s wife for nearly 50 years. “I looked like a total nerd—and Phil was a total nerd.”

But Phil was right, there was something there. And, both literally and figuratively, that fateful meeting resulted in five decades’ worth of beautiful music. In 1972, the Williamses helped found the Northwest Folklife Festival, the music and arts fair that now draws a crowd of 250,000 to the Seattle Center each year. Since 1967, they’ve run Voyager Recordings & Publications, a record label focused on traditional music. They have also played music—lots of it—with Vivian on fiddle and Phil (also a lawyer by day) on guitar, banjo, accordion, and mandolin. Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe called Vivian “the best lady fiddler [he’d] ever heard”—though she’s quick to note that many of her fiddle contest wins have been in the “open,” not the “ladies,” competitions.

Vivian and Phil both came to Reed as accomplished classical musicians. “We used to borrow the clavichord from the Capehart Room, stick a microphone into it and launch into an evening of Telleman and stuff,” Vivian says. “It was sort of illegal.” But they soon found their musical horizons expanded by the Reed performances of Odetta, Guy Carawan, Paul Robeson, and, above all, Pete Seeger. “He was blacklisted, and at Reed anyone who was blacklisted was cool,” Phil says. While their first attraction to the nascent folk scene might have been political, the pair quickly got hooked on the music, lending their talents to weekly folk singalongs in the Winch social room. “We got interested in Southern songs, labor songs, we had our IWW Little Red Songbook,” Phil says.

After graduation, the Williamses moved to Seattle—Phil to attend law school and Vivian to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology. Music fell by the wayside, but only briefly: They helped found the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association in 1965, and in 1966, along with fellow Reedies John Ullman ’65 and Irene Namkung ’65, they set out to recreate in Seattle the rich traditional music scene they’d enjoyed at Reed. “We created the Seattle Folklore Society, and got 20 people to put up $20 each,” Phil says. To their surprise, the first show sold out, and the endeavor eventually led to the founding of the Northwest Folklife Festival.

At the same time, Vivian and Phil were developing their own musicianship, incorporating influences they found in corners of the rural Pacific Northwest with styles they’d learned growing up in the area. “When a friend of ours introduced us to the North Carolina people who had moved up here after World War II, that was life-changing for us,” Phil says. Vivian recalls that she could hardly understand the speech of their Tarheel mentors, who had migrated to the Cascade foothills to work in the logging industry. “They were very clannish,” she says. “But they took us in.” By the time the 1960s folk revival was going strong, the Williamses were seasoned bluegrass players, performing around the state and the region. Today, they still play bluegrass shows and dances as part of various bands. They also develop and perform historical shows under the aegis of Humanities Washington, including “Fiddling Down the Oregon Trail” and “Fiddle Tunes of the Lewis & Clark Era.”

Despite the antiquarian element of these programs, Phil stresses that the music itself is very much alive. “We grew up dancing to these tunes in the Pacific Northwest,” he says, “and we play all of the tunes to this very day for dancing.” You can listen—and, if the spirit moves you, dance—to Phil and Vivian’s music at Reunions 2008 Reed-A-Palooza, on June 7.

—Juliette Guilbert ’89

reed magazine logoSpring 2008