Biography:John Hand

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John Hand

 Given name:     John "Johnny"
 Middle name:     
 Family name:     Hand
 Place of birth:     
 Place of death:     Chicago, Ill.
 Year of birth:     c. 1829
 Year of death:     1916
 Profile:     Musician
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Biographical notes

John and James ("Johnny" and "Jimmy") Hand are names attached to tunes in Ryan's Mammoth Collection (1883). Information about them, whether they were brothers or not, where they lived or were from, etc., has proved elusive to date. Because William Bradbury Ryan and his publisher, Elias Howe, were connected with New England regional journeyman composers and prominent dance bandleaders and musicians, whose names and compositions are to be found in the collection, it is assumed that they were either social dance band leaders or prominent fiddlers in the New England, or perhaps were on the New York-New England variety circuit. No playbills or newspaper mentions have surfaced that mention such a conjecture.

However, there are intriguing elements that may prove to be connections. Researcher Conor Ward has found two compositions in 19th century manuscripts from County Leitrim referencing "Johnny Hand" in the title. He suggests it is possible this John Hand emigrated to Boston in the latter 19th century and became connected with the Irish music scene in the area. Don Meade points out the the Hand compositions and tunes in Ryan's Mammoth are Irish or in the Irish style. However, again, further information is wanting at this time.

The death of a fiddler named John Hand appeared in the Chicago periodical Unity of Oct., 26, 1916, and may possibly be Johnny Hand of Ryan's Mammoth Collection (1883). This, however, is doubtful as there is no mention of a musical brother or relation named Jimmy Hand, and the Chicago John Hand grew up in Germany before emigrating (and is unlikely to have been immersed in the Irish musical idiom, although it is not impossible). He was a fiddler of great local repute and much affection, however, as these notices of his demise attest.

"Johnny Hand" is dead, Chicago's greatest fiddler. He was a little German, who, sixty-five years ago, came from Germany as a modest wood carer and cigar maker, but he brought with him we suspect, as a part of the immigrant "luggage", a fiddle--not a violin, but a plain fiddle, and he was simply a fiddler who could compel heel and toe to keep time to his fiddling. Latterly, he became a "violinist", the "leader of an orchestra."

He began in fiddling for barn dances; he ednded in playing the violin at millionaire weddings. He became the indispensable ornament at swell functions, the pride and admiration of proud dames and famous capitalists. But all this time he was simpley "Johnny Hand." He laid aside his carver's tools, he wore a top hat, but still he was the magician of the bow.

Johnny Hand lived almost eight-eight years. He probably was one of the best beloved, most widely known personalities in Chicago. The sentance in Jack Lait's appreciative tribute in the Chicago Herald, that most impressed the present writer, who is dull of ear and heavy of foot, was this: "In those days, the girls who now are mistresses of mansions on the Lake Shore Drive, would capture Johnny and his violin to give spirit to sleigh-rides to far away points over roadless snow-drifts to a barn for the dance where he 'called-off' as well as played.

Is the "calling-off", a social quadrille dance where there was grace and spirit and where each one of the eight came in due time to bow and touch the hand and trip the toe to every other one in the set, lost for ever? And is there nothing left for clean-minded, high-spirited joyful young men and women but the inane, listless, ungraceful and oftentimes disgraceful jig-jig-jiggledy of the "one-step" and the "turkey trot"? The most spiritless, unintellectual, hopelessly stupid gathering in modern life is the respectable dance, as conducted nowadays. At these functions young people, and old people, too, try to persuade themselves that the dances, originated in unrespectable places, are very nice, quite proper, "the thing to do, don't you know."

We believe in dancing; religion and morals may well take up the refrain: "On with the dance!" But give us back the dance of our forefathers, the dance of the log house, where the lively fiddle promoted sociability, health and courage. Let us again hear the summons to rhythmic feet: "Salute Your Partners! Grand Right and Left! all chassez; do-si-do! "Cross Over!" Ladies in the Center and Gents All Around! "Swing Your Partners!" and so on to the merry end. Oh, you "social workers", "settlement uplifters", advocates of "folk-dancing", prophets of "playgrounds," missionairies of "wholesome amusement," do something to save us form the inanities of nice dancing aside for they represented a worthy cause and one deadly stupidity.

Jack Lait wrote in the Chicago Herald of Oct., 19, 1916:

Our village fiddler has been taken from us. We are no longer a village, and we need no fiddler. But we wanted this one. He had been with us so long, so faithfully, so friendly-like, had Johnnie Hand, who passed away yesterday. Had he lived just seven days more he would have been 88 years old; had he lived just eight days more he would have lived in Chicago exactly sixty-six years.

And now, when the handful has grown to two and a half milliion, when the trails are boulevards and the cottages skyscrapers, when the youth of his youth is aged and the throb of his gentle heart is stilled, a metropolis mourns the taking away of its first and best beloved merrymaker.

This generation had learned from its fathers of Johnnie Hand and his historic fiddle. It revered him. The survivors of other, past generations, adored him.

Surely this is a monument to a German boy with a cheap violin, to have so melodied his way into the hearts of millions, to be mourned like a brother and remembered as a friend.

A sometimes-repeated remark of Hand's was "Genius is not always!"