The Local, June 26/2023
Fifty years ago I shared a stage with a number of local musicians for a childrens camp fundraiser organized by John Wiebe at St.Catharines United Mennonite Church. I was especially excited to be playing with Bill Koop, an extraordinary musician and master of any stringed instrument.
As a teen Koop went to live and work on his uncle’s peach farm one summer in 1947. The small farmhouse was shared with his aunt, uncle and 13 cousins. He felt lucky to have not only his own bed but the privilege of having a large battery powered radio in the bedroom. Lying in bed after a hot humid day of picking peaches he would listen to exotic bluegrass tunes drifting in from a radio station from far away in Wheeling, West Virginia. He fell in love with the music he heard, a world away from the familiar Mennonite hymns he had grown up with. He used his peach money to buy a $2 guitar from McKey Music store on King St. in St. Catharines and started to teach himself some of the tunes. He hadn’t heard of guitar picks so the first 2 years he pulled teeth out of his pocket comb and used them as a pick.
He began writing tunes based on those long, hot days in the peach orchard.
“ We’d go to work at the break of day
Life was hard at a dollar a day
But work and music’s what it’s all about
When the sun went down we’d play our misery out.”
When he met kindred spirits Eric Goerz and John Harder they formed the Peach Pickers, bound together by their love of bluegrass music and their shared experience of hot humid days suffering the trials of peach fuzz in the orchards. They began singing at local church socials and recorded their first song direct to disc in 1949 at a tiny recording studio under the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls. The Peach Pickers continued to evolve after Bill left for Teachers college Toronto, eventually recording the hit “Niagara Moon” which soon hit the air waves across several states in the US.
Bill began soaking in new genres of music that year in Toronto, and found himself playing bass at folk gigs despite the fact he had never played bass before. His mottos “Why not?” and “Never say no” – expanded his musical horizons exponentially during that time. Employment opportunities were unlimited in the 50’s and he accepted a position teaching woodshop at the St.Catharines Collegiate upon graduation. It was there that he met Terry Pothier who taught music at the high school.
Pothier was a vivacious, vibrant vocalist whose enthusiastic leadership created one the best school choirs in Niagara. Pothier is still fondly remembered as the pianist leading the sing-a-longs at the Oban Inn and later Riverbend in Niagara on the Lake for almost 3 decades.
By the late 60’s Terry Pothier began adding contemporary songs to their classical repertoire and Bill formed a folk band to back them up. The band was a big hit when the choir toured to Florida, New York City, Expo 67, Vancouver and Kentucky. Koop’s woodshop became the unofficial headquarters for the musicians, with students dropping in at the end of the school day to jam. The well known brothers Rob, Jeff and Stuart Laughton from Lakeshore Rd. took turns playing guitar and standup bass.
By then Koop had expanded his musical skills to play banjo and mandolin, as well as building instruments in his shop room.
In 1971 I was in grade 11 and had just been granted my freedom after years of doing hard time with my piano teacher. My dad was a fan of the TV show Hee Haw and despite its corny humour I became intrigued with the unique fresh sound of bluegrass banjo.
Randy Scott, a teacher at a local music store in the Grantham Plaza, gave me a few lessons as I struggled to play a warped old banjo that refused to tune.
The turning point for me was an invitation from him to meet Bill Koop at the St.Catharines Collegiate wood shop. I skipped my last class at Laura Secord high school and rode my bike to the Collegiate one afternoon, greeted by an intoxicating blend of fresh cut wood and solvents when I entered the room. Randy guided me through the shop floor and introduced me to Bill Koop, a 39 year old shaggy, bearded teacher who immediately made me feel at home. The room was filled with laughter and a sense of anticipation as a few enthusiastic students gathered around a drafting table, tuning up their guitars. A tall lanky student named Jeff Laughton lugged in a large stand up bass.
Koop patiently taught the students the finger patterns of bluegrass style picking as they followed him with rapt attention. I marvelled that his sturdy carpenter fingers could navigate the slender fretboards and fly over the strings in incredibly complex patterns.
Following the session Bill invited me up to his office overlooking the shop and introduced me to his latest creation.
Laid out on his work table rested a tenderly crafted blonde maple banjo with a brass resonator, translucent skin and a slender neck. He picked it and played a few bars producing a pretty sound as bright and clear as a Kentucky warbler.
I was smitten, it was love at first sight.
He sold me the blonde banjo on the promise a few weeks later on the condition that I wouldn’t sell it to anyone else. I devoted every spare minute to practicing, much to the annoyance of family mwho had to listen the repeating the same patterns an hour at a time.
It was pure joy to sit in on the sessions every week until the school year ended.
Two years later on the last weekend of June 1973, I played with Bill and his young friends at the fundraiser concert. Someone took a photo of us playing after the concert which included a young man watching intently from behind. A conversation with Brian Andres followed at the end of the evening and after a few banjo “lessons” Brian decided to stick to guitar. We began playing music together along with his brothers Larry and Ron and a few friends. Bill took time out from his busy schedule teaching and touring with The Torchmen, a gospel quartet, to play at our wedding 3 years later.
Koop has had an illustrious musical career spanning 7 decades, his face still popping up on the cover of music magazines. On several occasions his band Sweetwater played at the Saturday Farm Market at the Village, the tunes drifting over the neighbouring peach orchards close to where it all started on Niven Rd.
At 91 he travels to Cambridge to play a weekly gig with friends. His son Richard does the driving and plays stand up bass, also a treasured creation from Bill’s woodshop.
This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the concert where John Wiebe, Bill Koop, Brian and I were introduced to each other. It was a rare opportunity for us to play and reminisce about the incredible influence he has had on students and musicians over the years.
Bill amazed us as his fingers flew once again over the fretboards of the banjo he built long ago.
”Gimme a minute” he would say and pause, reaching deep into his memory bank before retrieving a few bars and then launching into a song from 70 years ago. Our bodies and joints may be getting a little rusty but the instruments Bill lovingly crafted can still sing out the beautiful tunes fused in the heat and humidity of the peach orchards of Niagara!