BATH, Maine — Frank Ferrel got the call on a Sunday afternoon in 1973. His friend Gerry Robichaud was on the other end of the line, at the French Victory Club in Waltham, Massachusetts.
“You’ll never guess who just walked in,” Robichaud said. “I’m sitting here having a drink with him right now.”
Ferrel had no idea.
“It’s Tommy Doucet,” Robichaud said.
Both men were amazed. They idolized Doucet’s lively, precise fiddle playing, known to them only through a well-worn tape recording from the 1950s. Also, they’d been sure the 70-something man was dead. Ferrel, then living in Massachusetts, drove straight to the club. He and Robichaud spend the rest of the evening trying to get Doucet to play for them.
Ferrel, now 78, didn’t know it at the time, but that Sunday call started a project which would take him 50 years to complete. Doucet became his gateway into the almost forgotten world of mid-century New England dance bands and the virtuoso French fiddlers who led them. The music was a unique amalgamation of influences, reflecting the gritty, yet aspirational, milltowns where it was born. Fiddlers like Doucet created something entirely new, mixing French, Scots and Irish folk traditions with more modern swing, pop and classical music they heard on the radio.
“You often think of fiddle music from that era as being rough, kind of basic,” Ferrel said. “But these guys were polished — even being self-taught — and they could play anything and everything they could get their hands on.”
Ferrel’s spent the past five decades preserving recordings, photos and handwritten tune books while interviewing the scene’s surviving players. He then painstakingly transcribed each nuanced fiddle note onto paper, preserving the unique style for generations to come.
The result is a new book and CD collection: “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Urban French-American Fiddling from the 1930s – 1950s.”
It’s taken a mountain of effort but Ferrel feels like it was something he had to do.
“I’d hate to see it get lost,” he said. “I’ve got all of this knowledge about these guys, drawn from their personal interviews, and what I’ve learned from their personal repertoire, and boxes of their personal recordings and tune books here in my office. Eventually, my kids would find it when I’m gone and say, ‘What do we do with all of this?’”
After that first meeting, Ferrel visited Doucet often, at his house in Lynn — always with a tape recorder. He also began to learn about other great French players from the era like Emil Melanson, Oliver Tremblay, Romeo Lemay and Alcide Aucoin. Ferrel was able to interview some of them and also collected all the home recordings he could find — which can be heard on the CD portion of Ferrel’s project.
“We’d get together on Sundays a lot to make these [home] records,” Oliver Tremblay told Ferrel. “We used to spend hours on that, all afternoon and part of the night. Then we’d sit beside that, play piano and sing and have a few beers.”
Doucet and the others were not rustics. Though rooted in tradition, they were sophisticated players.
“In 1929, I was pretty well advanced,” Doucet told Ferrel. “I used to take care of everything — play for the square dance, and play the waltzes, polka, fox trot, whatever they want.”
In his book, Ferrel includes transcribed 144 versions of well-known French tunes from the Canadian Maritimes as well as hot jazz medleys and trick tunes in odd keys, meant to impress.
To get such a wide-ranging repertoire down on paper — accurately — he had to call on his entire lifetime of fiddling experience, sometimes listening to particular passages for hours, getting it just right.
Ferrel knows fiddling. He’s been at it since he was 8 years old, teaching all over the country, playing on A Prairie Home Companion and having his own recordings preserved by the Library of Congress. In 2017, Ferrel was inducted into the North American Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame.
“He is a quiet giant,” said Phil McIntyre, one of Maine’s best-known presenters of traditional music. “His knowledge of fiddling in America is very likely unsurpassed. They say a prophet is seldom known in his own country. Frank is probably more well known outside of Maine.”
Ferrel thinks finally publishing the book, after years of work, is his duty. Old fiddlers freely gave him the music when he was young. Now that he’s an old fiddler, himself, it’s only fair that he does the same.
“It was a labor of love. It’s a style of music I thought was very unique and it would get lost if someone didn’t do something about it,” Ferrel said. “I have a responsibility to pass it on.”
Frank Ferrel’s book and CD collection “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Urban French-American Fiddling from the 1930s – 1950s,” as well as his other books and recordings, are available through his website.