VAIL MILLS – Friends and family this week gathered to celebrate the life of a retired auto mechanic and World War II veteran who also served for nearly a century as a quiet champion of his Adirondack forebears’ musical heritage.
“My dad never lost his humility,” says Paul Kibler, whose father, Victor Fountain Kibler, had a repertoire of more than 500 tunes and was regarded as one of the region’s greatest folk musicians. “He was a private person, but when he got on a stage, he turned into a different human being … He never boasted of what he could do, he just got up there and did it, and people were wowed.”
Vic Kibler died Aug. 19 at the age of 93, and music was an important part of his life right up to the end, according to Sue Casler, a fiddler who learned many of the tunes in his repertoire.
Casler, a Glen resident, was one of several musicians who attended Tuesday’s memorial service for Kibler in Northampton and a reception at Jackie’s Diner in Vail Mills.
“For me, one of the things that stand out about Victor was his sensitivity,” Casler said. “Even at 92, 93 years old … he was a very compassionate, sensitive human being. Our fiddle sessions were mixed with life and living and ‘how are you doing?’ – very practical things – while he was teaching the tunes.”
Born in Wells in 1919, Kibler spent his early years on family farms in Northampton and Speculator. He learned tunes passed down by his grandfather, his mother (who played five instruments), and his fiddling uncles Lewis Nichols and Maurice Fountain.
“These people played instruments, they sang, they did everything,” said Paul Kibler, who grew up in Vail Mills and accompanied his father on piano for decades, both at home and in public performances.
The instrument Kibler played for most of his life was a fiddle he acquired at age 15. Its previous owner was willing to part with it for five dollars after losing fingers in a Broadalbin sawmill accident.
As a teenager, Kibler played fiddle in a country band called the Adirondack Mountaineers. Later, he served in Europe during World War II.
A devoted Christian, Kibler insisted on non-violent service in the war.
“My dad made it very clear that he would not pick up a gun and he would not kill anybody, so he became a medic,” Paul Kibler said. “He played music quite often with his Army buddies in the war.”
George Ward, a Rexford folk musician and scholar who played with Kibler, said his repertoire was vast and varied, including old-timey American tunes as well as French Canadian and Celtic tunes.
Ward said Kibler, like many musicians in the days before recording devices were readily available, had an amazing memory for tunes.
“He didn’t have to hear a tune a lot to learn it,” Ward said. “You hear stories about these old guys listening to the radio while they were milking the cows in the barn … the trick was to remember the tune long enough till you got back in the house and could pick up the fiddle.”
Dave Ruch, a Buffalo-area musician and storyteller who specializes in the historic folk music of New York state, included a tune he learned from Kibler’s family repertoire on one of his own CDs.
“I only met Vic once, at his home for an informal music making session, but I have been listening to and studying his music for quite some time,” said Ruch. “I did record one of his ‘family tunes’ for my CD ‘The Oldest Was Born First.’ What I mean by ‘family tune’ is that some of Vic’s music was learned ‘knee-to-knee,’ informally, from great uncles and grandparents who played and passed the tunes along to him.
They didn’t even have titles for some them! This was quite typical of how fiddlers in the North Country would learn some of their music.”
The track in question on Ruch’s CD is a medley of two tunes, the “Ball and Pin Hornpipe” from Tug Hill fiddler Henry Caster, and “Vic Kibler’s tune,” which Kibler himself called “Uncle Lukey’s Tune” after his Uncle Lewis “Lukey” Nichols.
“I play it on mandolin, which lends itself well to fiddle tunes, and have two fiddlers on the recording playing it with mem” Ruch said. “I chose it because I really liked it and it has some history here in New York state, having been passed down through the generations to Vic.”
Kibler never played for dances, having promised his mother he would stay on the straight and narrow, so for most of his life making music was a private hobby. But in the 1970s, he was thrust into the public eye when his friend Larry Older took him to Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs to hear a concert by Aly Bain, the famous Shetland fiddler from the band Boys of the Lough. When Bain took a break, Older went to his car, pulled a fiddle out of the trunk and put it in Vic’s hands.
“He said, ‘We need intermission music, Vic, and you’re it,'” Paul Kibler recalls. “My dad had no idea – he was mortified. Well, he got up there, played a couple of songs, and the crowd just went insane. It was like, ‘Who is this guy? Where did he come from?’ I mean, we all knew what kind of player he was, but the world didn’t know it yet. But they found out that night.”
By the late 1980s, Vic Kibler was folk-music “superstar,” Paul said. The two of them recorded an album with Ward and dulcimer player Paul Van Arsdale. Titled “Vic Kibler: Adirondack Fiddler,” it was released by Sampler records in 1992 and earned that year’s Outstanding Folk Recording Award from the American Folklife Center of The Library of Congress. The album was followed by performances at venues including the Troy Music Hall, the Altamont Fair and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
“I don’t think I ever saw an audience that didn’t like him,” Paul Kibler says of his father. “For one thing, he took a lot of joy in playing.”