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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Lawrence "Honey" McCoy
Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo of Lawrence "Honey" McCoy playing piano
Photo by Al Kamuda

Lawrence "Honey" McCoy
1986-1987 awardee, Sault Ste. Marie (Chippewa County), piano player

Lawrence "Honey" McCoy was born in 1904, one of eight children, in the house in which he lived his whole life, at Payment Settlement on Sugar Island. Located near Sault Ste. Marie and "a stone's throw from Canada," the area's regional and ethnic music influenced the styles and tunes Honey would play throughout his life.

Honey began playing his family's pump organ at age four and performing at house parties around age twelve. House parties were a strong weekend tradition, when workers in the lumber camps would gather with other locals to share and play tunes and dance.

"We'd go a long way to go to a dance, often on horseback," Honey commented about the square dances and house parties of his youth. (1) Fiddle players figured prominently on the traditional music scene, and Honey could always be found backing them up on the organ. Honey recalled that the earliest instruments heard at house parties were the organ and the fiddle, with the guitar and piano introduced later.

Honey was one of the founders of The Sugar Island Boys, an old-time ensemble dedicated to preserving and performing the regional music they grew up with. This group of traditional musicians mirrors the ethnic diversity of the area, both Canadian and American, calling upon local French, Native American, Scottish, and Irish tunes for their repertoire. Songs such as "Whitefish on the Rapids" or "Devil's Dream" have been local standards for decades. Although dances were mostly called in English, the same songs and dances could be heard called in French, especially across the Garden River in Canada. Other core members of the group include Rene Cote (fiddle), Joe Menard (guitar and vocals), Jack Holt (bass), and Tom Stephenson (dobro).

Honey continues to play the same local tunes on the piano that he played as a boy, in the same house, accompanied by the dancers, fiddlers, and other musicians he grew up with. According to folklorist Nick Spitzer, "There is no doubt in my mind that on the American side of the border the best old-time ensemble active today is The Sugar Island Boys. . .[Honey] is an essential member to the personality and old-time sound of this group." (2)

(1) McCoy, Lawrence. Interview with Roger Pilon, Sugar Island, Michigan. 24 April 1985.
(2) Spitzer, Nick. 1987 Festival of American Folklife field report. August 1986.

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