The O’Neil Family Band is comprised of Tom, guitar and fiddle, Jeanne, banjo and concertina, and Erin, fiddle and feet. Together, they celebrate a form of dance and music that has endured for ages. Throughout the years, these tunes and dances continue to be danced and played across the country -- an art form that never dies out simply because it belongs to the people.
Tom and Jeanne have been holding community dances, presenting concerts, and performing since the 1980s. Tom and Jeanne met in Ames, Iowa, in 1978, as members of the Onion Creek Cloggers. In 1986, they moved to the Red River Valley and formed North Country Fiddle and Dance, a community dance organization which holds regular community dance events.
The O'Neils' performances feature reels, jigs, waltzes, schottisches, and hornpipes, interspersed with step dancing and songs. The fiddle tunes represent several traditional music genres, including Métis tunes, French Canadian music, Scandinavian and Celtic tunes, and New England and Appalachian tunes. Their repertoire includes many tunes composed by Erin. Her music is a unique blend of these traditions but with a style all its own. Minneapolis-based musician Bob Walser says “What's amazing to me about Erin's tune writing is that her tunes feel like they could have been written who knows when, they're just so deeply in the tradition.”
O'Neil Family Band performances frequently include demonstrations of Appalachian clogging and French-Canadian “gigue” dancing. The O’Neils can also provide music and instruction for dance workshops and community dance events.
Erin’s first instruments were her voice and her feet as she sang and danced along with her parents from an early age. She began step dancing at age three and learning the fiddle at age five. By the time she was eleven years old, Erin had composed her first fiddle tune, Mrs. Jon’s Egg (recorded in 2008 on the O’Neils’ first album, MaPaDa), and was playing the fiddle for community dances and performing with her parents as a member of The O’Neil Family Band. She had taken Suzuki violin lessons from Georgia Schmidt, who was a great motivator because she allowed Erin to study both classical and traditional music at the same time. When Georgia moved away, Erin was set with all the tools she needed to move forward as a fiddler. Erin was also active onstage in theatre productions by the time she was in fourth grade, which broadened her versatility as an entertainer.
Tune and song making is a way of life for Erin. She plays and sings for the world around her, wherever she might happen to be. In theatre productions, she has played the fiddle as a narrator character in a production of Tom Sawyer, as Jennie Mae in the play, The Diviners, and in puppet shows for the Firehall Theatre. In former employment as a caregiver in home healthcare, she has played her fiddle for her clients. Two of Erin’s tunes were featured in North Dakota Shakespeare’s summer 2021 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Erin appears as a guest performer playing one of her compositions on the Duluth-Hibbing-based band Sugar On The Roof’s album, Hatdrop.
When considering persons of influence in her musical development, Erin would like to recognize Linda Breitag of Minneapolis, MN
for teaching the French-Canadian “foot thing,” for the gift of dance shoes, and for being an inspiration as a regional female composer. She also would like
to recognize Mike Gregory of Grand Forks, ND for his support and collaboration over the years, as well as Tom Maloney of Duluth, MN for pushing to get the
O’Neils’ second album out, Tunes from Mallory (2013). Finally, Erin would like to acknowledge master fiddler Mark Boggie of Two Harbors, MN for his mentorship
Jeanne's love of folk music and dance began when, as a small child, she went with her parents to international folk dance evenings in Ames, Iowa. As a teenager, she attended the folk dance group started by her parents when they moved to the Chicago area in 1970. The sense of community inspired by the dance forms and ethnic dance music became something that Jeanne wanted to help create and to share. In 1973, Jeanne moved back to Ames, Iowa where she joined the Ames Folk dancers.
Between 1975 and 1980, Jeanne participated in many folk dance festivals held at Folklore Village Farm, near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. There, Jeanne discovered the joy of dancing to live music, often provided by touring folk musicians from other countries. A local Folklore Village Band was in the making, however, and Jeanne was at the music gathering which was held for that purpose. There she was handed an Irish pennywhistle which became her first instrument. In 1978, Jeanne, playing this pennywhistle, won second place in the Miscellaneous Country Instrumentalist Contest at the National Old Time Music Festival in Southwest Iowa.
In 1977, a dance group called The Onion Creek Cloggers was started by Bob and Diane Frederick, who brought clogging to Ames from Blacksburg,Virginia. Jeanne joined this group and there met Tom O'Neil, who was a fiddler and a dancer in the group. Jeanne and Tom were married in 1981, and received, by request, an English concertina as a wedding present from Jeanne's parents, which quickly became Jeanne's primary instrument. Jeanne performed with the Onion Creek Cloggers, both as a dancer and as a musician, from 1977 to 1986. In the early 1980's, when Bob and Diane moved to Kentucky, Jeanne and Tom took over the leadership for the group.
In 1986, Jeanne and Tom moved to East Grand Forks in northern Minnesota. Here, they founded North Country Fiddle and Dance, a community dance organization, and with the help of local musicians, they formed the North Country String Band. In 2001 Jeanne began to play the five string banjo with help and inspiration from Braden Frieder and Merle Hall. Jeanne has played for dances and performed around the region with the North Country String Band, in a duo with her husband Tom, and later, joined by their daughter Erin as the O'Neil Family Band.
In 2014, Jeanne and Tom were inducted into the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame at the 39th National Old Time Music Festival held at LeMars, Iowa, for their contributions, as directors of the Onion Creek Cloggers, in the preservation, promotion and performance of traditional country music.
Folk and traditional music has been a life-long avocation for Tom. He learned to play the ukelele as a child and started playing guitar and singing folk songs during his high school years. He attended college and lived for several years thereafter in Dubuque, Iowa. During this time he performed as a solo musician in taverns, singing folk and country songs and playing guitar, autoharp, and harmonica. He played in the Dubuque area with a bluegrass trio called the Upper Mississippi Mudflat Ramblers in the mid 1970s. Also during this time, inspired by the music of an old-time string band from southern Wisconsin called the Crabgrass Boys, he grew interested in Appalachian fiddle tunes and began to play the fiddle.
In 1978 Tom left Dubuque to attend graduate school in Ames, Iowa. Here he joined a newly formed Appalachian-style clog dance group named the Onion Creek Cloggers as both a musician and clogger. He also played the fiddle with a bluegrass band called Hybrid Grass for a year or so, but found traditional and old-time fiddle tunes more suited to his musical interests. The cloggers performed at music festivals and community events in Iowa and adjacent states through the late '70s and early '80s. It was with this group that he met his wife Jeanne, and when the original founders of the Onion Creek Cloggers moved to Kentucky, Jeanne and Tom took over leadership of the group. Their contribution in this role, in addition to maintaining the performing group, was to begin holding old-time community dances.
In 1986 Tom and
Jeanne moved to East Grand Forks, Minnesota, as Tom had accepted a faculty position at the University of North Dakota. Here they started an organization called
North Country Fiddle and Dance, whose history can be found at northcountrydance.org.
They continued to perform traditional music as a duo and with the North Country String Band. They began performing with their daughter Erin as the
O'Neil Family Band in the 1990s. Tom and Jeanne were listed in the Minnesota Folk Arts Directory in 2001, and in 2014 they were inducted into America's
Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame for their leadership of th Onion Creek Cloggers in the early '80s.