Phil Williams, co-founder of the Folklife festival and the pioneering folk label Voyager Recordings, has died at the age of 80.
Phil Williams, a co-founder Seattle’s Folklife festival and pillar of the region’s folk-music scene, died last week of complications from blood cancer. He was 80.
Mr. Williams was a business attorney, a philosophy major at Reed College and a mandolin and guitar player. His widow and former collaborator Vivian Williams “plays fiddle,” as she put it, but they both served as conduits who brought folk music — from Asia to Africa to Snohomish County — to Seattle for decades. She served on the Folklife board for years and they started a record label,Voyager, to document and preserve music other folk-record companies were overlooking.
Voyager started as kind of an accident, when the two of them went to fiddle contests in Montana and Idaho. “There were all these amazing jam sessions,” Williams 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 sonic treasure trove: sounds that weren’t being recorded anywhere else. “All the traditional-music record labels had gone to Appalachia,” Williams said. “But the Texas guys had a knack for making incredibly intricate improvisations based on very simple melodies; the Northwest fiddlers were dance-oriented and tended to play quite simply and unornamented.” But, she added, the Northwest tradition — largely influenced by people from Kentucky and Tennessee who’d settled in the Darrington area, as well as northern European immigrants — played with a heartfeltness the two of them hadn’t found anywhere else.
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“Darrington was an end-of-the-road kind of place back then,” she said. “But we got acquainted with those folks, learned their music, ate their soup beans, played their benefits for the local Boy Scouts.” Voyager Records “started as a hobby that grew out of hand” and the couple recorded some of those little-known Darrington musicians on the 1969 album “Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
The Folklife festival got started in 1972 and used to share offices with Bumbershoot (which has since been sold to international music corporation AEG). But when Bumbershoot started charging money and put up fences to keep out interlopers, Mr. Williams dug in his heels to stop the festival he’d co-founded from going the same direction. “Phil was an inspiration who fought to keep it free,” said Scott Nagel, who worked as executive director of the festival for 18 years. “He truly believed that music is for everybody. It shouldn’t be elitist.”
That notion helped inspire “Bluegrass Hill,” Vivian Williams said, an annual Folklife phenomenon where dozens of bluegrass musicians — from well-known professionals to amateurs — would stand on a grass hill at Seattle Center and play together.
“That was the guiding principal,” said former Seattle Times music critic Paul de Barros, who worked as Folklife’s program director from 1991 to 1996. “Phil wasn’t about ‘stars.’ He had this philosophical underpinning that industrialized society had alienated people from their own culture because they only became consumers of it. He believed it was better to go down to Seattle Center on a Sunday and learn how to clog or play harmonica from all these unsung master-musicians who are already here. Maybe they’re working in a post office or maybe they drive a cab for a living or maybe they’re famous — but they have all this talent and skill, and it’s better to learn it from someone in your own community.”
To this day, Folklife remains free and without fences.
“They were folky outlaws,” de Barros said of Vivian and Mr. Williams. “They thought the ‘folk star’ system took real people out of the equation — you should play it yourself, sing it yourself, sing it with your neighbors in churches and grange halls.”
Mr. Williams started as a physics major at Reed before graduating with a degree in philosophy and serving in the U.S. Army. Then he studied law at the University of Washington and became an attorney. But, Nagel said, “his love was music” and he used his law practice to both help music organizations and subsidize his work as a festival organizer.
At Folklife, de Barros said, some of the folklorist “purists” first resisted the idea of bringing groups from Cuba or the Philippines — they were more interested in clogging and bluegrass. But Mr. Williams kept pushing for the festival to be more inclusive. Somebody might come down to learn something about Portuguese guitar, de Barros explained, “and Phil would say: ‘That’s great!’ Next year, come on down and learn something about Chinese music!’ ”
“Phil,” his widow said, “figured everybody should have a chance to get to know people from other communities, whether it was quilting or playing bluegrass or Japanese koto.”
His resistance to the Bumbershoot-style fences, she said, also included a sensitivity to refugees in Seattle “who’d had their fill of barbed-wire fences and being closed in. He thought some people wouldn’t be comfortable with that. He was very, very inclusive.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Williams is survived by brothers Michael S. Williams (La Honda, Calif.) and Robert Williams (Brescia, Italy).
The date and location for Mr. Williams’ public memorial are still to be decided — but it will most certainly include some heartfelt music.