Michigan Heritage Awards
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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,
(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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