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New Vintage Frets & Friends Combine Antique Mandolins & Vintage Wisconsin Compositions

Paul Ruppa

Mandolin players these days are making music as varied as Bach to bluegrass. And a cadre of Milwaukee mandolin players, the New Vintage Frets & Friends, are teaming together to play songs from a more uncommonly drawn from era and style.

They've dug out mandolin compositions with Wisconsin ties from 1892-1919. To play the compositions, they’re using antique mandolins — instruments built by the Boston-based Vega company before 1925. 

"We wanted to have composers, arrangers and publishers from Milwaukee and from Wisconsin represented on the CD," says music historian Paul Ruppa.

He played with the mandolin orchestra for 31 years, and during that time he began researching the history of mandolin orchestras.

"With the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra starting in 1900, they have one of the biggest mandolin music libraries in the world for American music," Ruppa says. "And I just found it so fascinating and fell in love with so much of the music."

He says he developed an understanding of the repertoire and was able to assemble pieces that hadn't been recorded by the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra yet that he thought deserved to be recorded.

Ruppa says the mandolins that were made for orchestras by numerous mandolin builders during the industrial revolution are some of the mandolins that the bluegrass and jazz players are playing today.

"So, yes, of course, this music had an influence," he says. "But the real problem is that the bluegrassers and the jazz guys don't really know about this music."

He says mandolins were too quiet to fit into jazz bands, so the Mandolin Orchestra-era petered out after about 1930.

"We're just lucky that Wisconsin has a tradition of really stubborn people that don't get the message and just kept the mandolin orchestra going," he says.

The Wisconsin/Vega Project CD release concert is at Anodyne on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m.

Maayan Silver is a WUWM news reporter.