John Summers

See John Summers – Master Indiana Fiddler (FRC310) and John Wesley Summers: A Historical Sketch of My Father (article)

By Joel Shimberg

Mr. Summers’ old friend, Judge Dan White, had gone on vacation to a dude ranch in Colorado. He met a young couple from Los Angeles, Dan and Lorna O’Leary, who admired his fiddling. He told them that they should hear his friend, Dick Summers, and sent them these recordings. (‘Dick’ was a childhood nickname.) The tapes were given to a member of the New Lost City Ramblers (John Cohen), who gave them to Art Rosenbaum, who lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. Art later visited Mr. Summers and did extensive recording.

John Wesley Summers was born in 1887, in Howard Co., Indiana. His father, Simon, started teaching him to play when he was four years old. Both Simon Summers and his brother, Isaac Summers, were strong influences on Dick’s fiddling. The other major influence was a fiddler from Kentucky, Tom Riley, who had come to Marion, Indiana, and operated a boarding house. He was a fine fiddler, and Dick visited him regularly, fiddling through the night. Dick was a farmer, as his father had been.

Dick learned many tunes from Ryan’s 1050 Tunes, which were read to him by a friend, Matt Simons, a violinmaker who helped Dick get started making instruments after retiring from the farm. Dick had a player piano, and he learned a number of rag-time pieces from piano rolls. He also taught himself to read music in later life (when he was 70 or so) with the piano’s help. John W. Summers died in 1976.

Kathy and I took five fiddles that Dick had made, the deal was that we’d sell four at the price he asked and keep one as commission. We had already bought one of his fiddles, and Kathy kept that when we split, while I kept the “commission fiddle”. Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard each bought one, and I don’t recall who got the other two. At any rate, after Dick died we had to get the money to John K. and offer him our sympathy and respects, so we went to Anderson and met with him. In chatting, I told him that his father had become almost like a grandfather to us. He said something to the effect that things were different when he was a boy. He had a strong, clear memory of an incident. Dick had always kept a bunch of fiddles, and his kids were forbidden to touch them. One day, John K. had a friend from school visit, and they had talked about Dick’s fiddles. John K. snuck a case out from under the bed and had opened it to show a fiddle to his friend. He said that they were afraid to touch it and just looked at it in the case. When Dick came home that night he could tell that his case had been opened. He flew into a towering rage, and took one or two of his fiddles and smashed them and threw them into the stove.

<<Back to main Notes page