Traditional Arts Indiana will be at the Indiana State Fair again this year to help celebrate the art and work of the Indiana State Fair Masters. This year we have put together a brochure and display honoring the life and work of our long time friend, and 2017 State Fair Master, Bill Bailey. A fixture at the Indiana State Fair for many years, Bill Bailey coordinates the entertainment in the Pioneer Village, inviting musicians, storytellers, and other entertainers from around the state to perform on the village’s two rustic stages. His relationship with the fair began in 1991, when he played percussion with a band in the village—but Bill is no ordinary percussionist. A self-proclaimed “idiophonist,” he makes his rhythmic music with spoons, washboards, and a variety of other everyday items.
Bill played percussion throughout his school years, but sold his drums when he went to college, remaining “music-less” for a while. Then in 1976, a couple that played old-time music moved next door, and he was inspired to try his hand at the mandolin, guitar, and harmonica—yet percussion continued to call to him. He picked up playing the spoons, and eventually began tapping out his syncopated rhythms on a washboard and a variety of other resonate objects such as a wooden shoe, triangles, and horse shoes. Before long, Bill was playing multiple styles of music including old-time, blues, and jug band.
In 1991, Bill played with a couple of bands that were performing in the fair’s Pioneer Village. He was hooked. Each year he returned and played with a variety of musicians. In 2003, Gerry Gray, the original music coordinator for the village, chose Bill as her replacement. He continued to book the old-time and dulcimer music that had been featured at the fair since the 1970s, but he also expanded the program to include a greater variety of traditional music and other forms of entertainment. One successful program that he helped develop was a tribute to the WLS National Barn Dance, which featured the music and theatrical routines of the popular radio show in the early 20th Century. For six years, large audiences came to see this reenactment show.
Besides his work at the Indiana State Fair, Bill serves as a musical ambassador for the Columbus Washboard Company, the last manufacturer of hand-built washboards in North America. Bill paints and outfits their boards, transforming them into musical instruments. The company sells dozens of Bill’s musical boards, which they ship all over the world. Each year, Bill also travels to Ohio to perform at their Washboard Music Festival to promote this unique musical genre.
Today, in addition to his own musical pursuits, Bill continues to coordinate the entertainment at the Pioneer Village. From old-time country, bluegrass, gospel, and blues, to storytelling and fiddling contests, the stages at the village help create a nostalgic atmosphere where fairgoers can escape the pressures of contemporary life. And while he makes sure the Pioneer Village stage shows run smoothly, visitors can still find Bill Bailey tapping out his upbeat rhythms and entertaining audiences.