The Ballad of Peter Beemer 

A glimpse into the dawn of Idaho music

When Tchaikovsky was just a frustrated civil servant and Mahler was a twinkle in an Austrian bartender's eye, orchestral music was already ringing out in the canyons and mining camps of early Idaho.

According to 150-year-old dispatches to the Washington Statesman in Walla Walla, Wash., from the initial outpost of Florence, professional musicians appeared almost as quickly as prospectors, and they came in search of a different kind of gold. Music was one of the basic needs in such camps--it filled long hours in winter, brought familiarity to new terrain and as many camp newspaper editors pointed out, it "soothed the savage beast."

"Do you think the old, rusty-looking miner has no appreciation of music or song?" asked the Idaho City Idaho World's editor in 1898. "Why, I have often seen men who have lived for days in the solitude of mountains come to town and walk into some big gambling hall and toss a yellow $20 to John Kelly to sing some particular song or play a favorite tune."

Kelly was an Irish immigrant who toured nationally and internationally through the late 19th century. Though he may have been the high mark, most old, rusty-looking miners had musical talent lurking beneath the grime. And Idaho happens to have one of the best surviving examples of that talent, thanks to the industrious work of Peter Beemer.

Sometime in the early 1860s, Beemer, a miner and musician who lived in the remote Idaho County town of Warren, began asking residents to whistle, hum or sing their favorite tunes. He transcribed 124 such tunes, on musical staffs scrawled across ledger books, to arrange scores for the Warren Orchestra, a six-piece of flutes, violins, accordion and homemade banjo, which would play in the bar owned by Charles Bemis, husband of Polly Bemis.

In the ensuing years, Beemer's canvas-bound repertoire passed from the author to Bemis, to Taylor Smith, who lived with the Bemises as a young man. In 1961, at age 80, Smith typed a vivid two-page reminiscence and allowed the Idaho Historical Society to make black-and-white copies of the music.

Until recently, these primitive scans were the only available evidence of Beemer's unique project. But in 2008, the Special Collections department at the Boise State library obtained the originals and made them available to researchers with powers of persuasion and a pair of clean, white archivist's gloves.

Looking at the amazingly intact original, no musical skill is needed to realize that the writer of the manuscript possessed skill. Staffs and notes proceed throughout with clockwork pacing and uniformity, showing an experienced hand at work.

"It's a very unique manuscript," said Vivian Williams, a musical historian and performer who released the CDs Pioneer Dance Tunes of the Far West and Fiddle Tunes of the Lewis & Clark Era with her husband Phil.

"Since I first saw it, I've run into others, but they don't have the same significance, because Peter Beemer not only wrote down some stuff to play music from ... but he actually collected tunes. And so a lot of those tunes are 'waltz from so-and-so,' and 'polka from so-and-so.' ... It's almost an ethnographic document in that sense," she said.

Along with these tunes, which bear ample titles like "Schottish from S. Strongberg, Camp Washington, Idaho Warren's Diggings," come a handful of 19th century staples, including the French national anthem and a few unexpected appearances from the classical canon, such as "Celebrated Opera Air by Mozart" and "Turkish Polka by Beethoven."

"They're pretty out there," Williams conceded of Beemer's re-interpretations. "By the time an opera aria gets transmogrified into a waltz for dancing, and then after it's gone through at least one person by ear, the tune is going to get changed. It's like the folk process in spades."

In 2008, the couple released a book of transcriptions and an accompanying CD: The Peter Beemer Manuscript: Dance Music Collected in the Gold Mining Camp of Warren's Diggings, Idaho in the 1860s.

The volume soon found its way to Leslie Beck, a retired Meridian music teacher who works alongside Williams at an annual fiddle workshop in Ellensburg, Wash. The Beemer manuscript instantly resonated with Beck, both for its Idaho focus and for the way it hearkens to a style--and philosophy--of playing that would seem old timey or quaint among the hot licks of modern festivals.

"This is the kind of fiddling that my grandfather did," recalled Beck, whose grandfather, Mannie Shaw was one of the founders of the Idaho Old-Time Fiddlers in the early 1960s. "They played for entertainment, for themselves, to get together for the community dance ... I don't think a lot of the kids who are really good today would even think it was fun to play this kind of down-home style. It's too easy. But it's the basis--it's what fiddling came out here as."

Beck will play selections from the Beemer manuscript on a fiddle made from a tree planted next to the Idaho Capitol Building in 1891 on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at the Idaho State Historical Museum's Brown Bag lecture. Her goal is to help modern listeners grasp the excitement that this type of music caused in Idaho's remotest locales.

"They had nothing to do, it was Saturday night and they had a band," Beck said. "They'd tie the handkerchief around one of the guy's arms, and that denoted being 'the woman.' Because the music wasn't just played for them to sit and listen to. They danced."

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