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Mendhi hands by Pushpa Jain. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.Fish decoy. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Embroidered dress detail. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Cedar bird by Glen VanAntwerp. Photo by Al Kamuda. All rights reserved.
Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo by Al Kamuda

Cecil McKenzie
1986-1987 awardee, Port Huron (St. Clair County), house party piano player

Born in 1912 and raised in a family of fiddlers, organists and singers, Cecil McKenzie grew up in an environment where music was a vital part of her life and house parties were common. Whether sleeping, dancing, or performing, as the sounds of polkas, squares, schottisches, and step dances filled the air, children were a common sight at the house parties, and this rich musical environment had a profound influence on young Cecil.

Cecil was fascinated as a child by the mechanical pump organ in her home. By the time she was eight or nine years old, she was joining her father at house parties on organ. Cecil was an especially good listener, and, while others played from written music or learned note by note, her gifted ear aided her on Saturday nights at age 11 when she would join the other organists at the silent movies. Another way she learned new tunes was by listening to records on a Victrola. Depending on the difficulty of the tune, she was sometimes able to play a new piece on piano in the course of an afternoon and evening. Her father taught her that learning to play chords was the most important aspect of piano playing, and she grew to be admired for her colorful melodic embellishments and lively tempos. Since childhood Cecil accompanied traditional fiddlers and was one of the most requested piano players at fiddlers' jamborees and other traditional music gatherings throughout the state. In her later years, she regularly accompanied fiddlers and callers at square dance sessions, and was also active in performing at local nursing homes and senior centers, which was especially meaningful for her. Much of the growth of traditional music activities in the Thumb Area of Michigan can be attributed to Cecil's efforts.

Cecil once reflected, "I always had a good time; always liked music. We didn't have other entertainment, and I think that made the difference." (1) Although she enjoyed playing popular music from the 1920s through the early 1950s, what she liked best were the old fiddle tunes of the British Isles, handed down through the members of her musical family in Michigan and Canada. Cecil is remembered for her tireless commitment toward the continuation and preservation of traditional music, which she approached with joy, energy, and zeal.

(1) McKenzie, Cecil. Cited in Steve R. Williams, ed. House Party: Reminiscences by traditional Musician and Square Dance Callers in Michigan's Thumb Area, Port Huron, Michigan: Museum of Arts and History, 1982:21.

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