Don’t fence me in: Phil Williams, who co-founded Folklife and fought to keep it free, dies at 80

Phil Williams, co-founder of the Folklife festival and the pioneering folk label Voyager Recordings, has died at the age of 80.

Phil Williams, a co-founder Seattle’s Folklife festival and pillar of the region’s folk-music scene, died last week of complications from blood cancer. He was 80.

Mr. Williams was a business attorney, a philosophy major at Reed College and a mandolin and guitar player. His widow and former collaborator Vivian Williams “plays fiddle,” as she put it, but they both served as conduits who brought folk music — from Asia to Africa to Snohomish County — to Seattle for decades. She served on the Folklife board for years and they started a record label,Voyager, to document and preserve music other folk-record companies were overlooking.

Voyager started as kind of an accident, when the two of them went to fiddle contests in Montana and Idaho. “There were all these amazing jam sessions,” Williams said. “Phil was just running around, carrying his tape recorder and recording everything.”

When the couple got back to Seattle and listened to the tapes, they realized they had a sonic treasure trove: sounds that weren’t being recorded anywhere else. “All the traditional-music record labels had gone to Appalachia,” Williams said. “But the Texas guys had a knack for making incredibly intricate improvisations based on very simple melodies; the Northwest fiddlers were dance-oriented and tended to play quite simply and unornamented.” But, she added, the Northwest tradition — largely influenced by people from Kentucky and Tennessee who’d settled in the Darrington area, as well as northern European immigrants — played with a heartfeltness the two of them hadn’t found anywhere else.

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“Darrington was an end-of-the-road kind of place back then,” she said. “But we got acquainted with those folks, learned their music, ate…

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