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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Jewell Francis Gillespie and his fiddle
Photo by Al Kamuda

Photo of Jewell Francis Gillespie dancing with a woman
Photo by Laurie Sommers

Jewell Francis Gillespie
1993 awardee, Beaver Island (Charlevoix County), Irish musician

Jewell Gillespie (1917-95) occupies a unique place within Beaver Island tradition, having brought together the older generation of Irish musicians he knew as a youth and a younger generation, that includes his children, Danny and Cindy, his son-in-law, Edward Palmer, and his nephew, Barry Pischner, who carry island music in new directions. Jewell sang at many house parties and often was a lead instrumentalist. He is best known as an accompanist, though, and he played a key role in the island's musical culture.

Jewell grew up with the lilting jig tunes and ballad singing brought by the Irish who settled Beaver Island beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Over the years he taught himself ocarina, mouth organ, piano, and fiddle. With a keen ear and appreciation for music, Jewell performed for neighbors since his teens, and the Gillespie home was the site of many house parties. He knew many of the old Irish tunes, but his interests and repertoire changed with the times, influenced by Tin Pan Alley, country western, and IRA songs that he learned and taught to his daughter, Cindy. Jewell also composed several well-known Beaver Island songs such as "The Town of St. James" (inspired by the Burl Ives song, "The Town of Calrain"), "Enoch Hill" (based on a bootlegging incident on Beaver Island), and the jig tune, "On the Beach at Beaver Island," which has become the signature tune for island parties.

Jewell's contribution is significant not only because of his sustaining role in his own community, but also because of the national recognition accorded the island through the mid-twentieth century field recordings of collectors Ivan Walton and Alan Lomax, housed at the University of Michigan, Library of Congress, and the MSU Museum Archives and Collections. These recordings, in which Jewell is featured as the back-up guitarist for the late island fiddler, Patrick Bonner, document the island's Irish music retention and are a testament to its remarkably rich musical heritage. Jewell Gillespie served as performer, composer, and teacher of Beaver Island music, and the Michigan Heritage Award honors his long musical career and the island tradition that he helped to shape.

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