Washington Phillips

December 20, 2014 by


 from http://chiseler.org:

In Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a mentally unbalanced young man  plays a recording of Washington Phillips singing an old spiritual, “I Was Born to Preach the Gospel,” for his girlfriend and tells her, “This is the voice of God.”

Even if Washington Phillips wasn’t God incarnate, he remains nearly as enigmatic. Until only a few years ago, everything that was known about Phillips could be summed up this way: between 1927 and 1929, the Texas-born Phillips recorded eighteen angelic gospel songs set to twelve-bar blues, including  “I’ve Got the Key to the Kingdom,” “Denomination Blues (Pts. 1 & 2),” and “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There.” Then he disappeared.

There have been a number of early and influential blues musicians, like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson whose recording histories  were extremely limited, but at least we knew a little something about them. Those things we didn’t know for certain, we crafted stories and legends to explain. In comparison Phillips was like a fleeting hallucination, half-remembered for a few moments before vanishing.

It was unclear when he was born or when he died. No one seemed to have the slightest idea who he was or what he did either before or after that two-year stretch in the late ‘20s. In fact the biographical liner notes accompanying a 1991 disc of Phillips recordings turn out to be about a different Washington Phillips. Everything we knew about the gospel blues singer was  in those sixteen of the eighteen spare, heartfelt, and gorgeous songs that still existed.

But the mystery didn’t even end there, as musicologists couldn’t even agree on what instrument Phillips was playing. It was a sweet, strange, ethereal sound, almost a hum, which smart joes with highly trained ears had over the years attributed to everything from a banjo played like a lap steel to the innards of a gutted piano to more obscure instruments like  a Celestaphone, two Celestaphones tuned in octaves attached side-by-side, a Phonoharp or some homemade instrument constructed from a wooden box and some strings.

Experts couldn’t even agree if Phillips was plucking something or striking something, which led the more zealous true believers to claim the music came directly from heaven itself. When the 1991 liner notes which claimed  Phillips had died of tuberculosis in an Austin sanitarium in 1939 further claimed the instrument in question was a small portable autoharp-type keyboard known as a Dolceola, well, everyone just accepted that. Over the next decade, the Dolceola, a rare and rarely-heard instrument, became an inextricable part of the meager Phillips legend.

In 2002, a journalist and musicologist named  Michael Corcoran began looking into the enigma of Washington Phillips, a man almost completely forgotten by everyone save for a handful of academics and musicians with an ear for the obscure roots of American traditional music. After a number of interviews and public records searches, he came as close to an accurate biography as we’re likely to see. Even then there isn’t much to tell.

Phillips was born in rural Texas  in 1880, though what happened over the next 47 years remains virtually  unknown. He was reportedly a deacon at assorted local Baptist and Methodist churches who (as detailed in several songs) had no patience for religious hypocrisy. He also enjoyed snuff. Although known to his family and local churchgoers for his beautiful singing, it wasn’t until he was discovered by a field recorder from Columbia Records that the idea of preserving some of his songs ever occurred to anyone, least of all Phillips himself.

He traveled to Dallas and  recorded a few 78s (including a remarkable six songs during a single 1929 recording session), then returned to his quiet farming life in  Simsboro, where he continued to sell homemade cane syrup and  sing for his neighbors and family, but never recorded another thing.  Despite claims he’d died in the madhouse in ‘39 (that was the other Washington Phillips, who was eleven years younger than the one in question), he lived until 1954, dying after he received a severe head injury falling down the stairs at the local Social Security office.

That’s all we have, save for those sixteen extant songs. But maybe those sixteen songs are all we need, maybe he’d said everything he’d needed to say and told us all we needed to know. So many of the songs, like “Train Your children” and “You Can’t stop a Tattler (Pts. 1&2)” take the form of simple poetic sermons whose gentle resolve (as it’s been termed) and accompanying celestial music are quite unlike anything else recorded at the time or since.

In the process of his research, Corcoran may have even solved the mystery of where that music comes from. A 1928 issue of a local community paper ran a photograph of Phillips in the studio. In the photo, he’s holding two fretless zithers. Although some still insist he was playing a Dolceola, there is no evidence apart from musical speculation to confirm this, Phillips himself having left no written record behind.

Of course there’s no evidence beyond that photo that he was playing a fretless zither, either. they might’ve just been sitting there in the studio at the time. As appropriate as it seems that today Phillips rests in an unmarked grave in the Cotton Gin Cemetery near Teague, TX, maybe it’s best that the source of the music he was playing remain a buried enigma as well. When you listen to the music, the honest grace of the music, it seems to me the precise identity of the instrument he was playing at the time simply doesn’t matter.

Brother Duets

December 19, 2014 by

Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac and Bob)

from http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com:

 From the mid-1930s into the 1950s, harmony duos—often comprised of two brothers—constituted a major style in country music. Especially popular and influential in the Piedmont and Appalachian regions, such duos in the 1930s generally accompanied themselves on two guitars or on a guitar and a mandolin; by the 1940s, however, additional instruments were often added. Dozens of brother duos flourished via radio and recordings.

The first musicians to popularize the close harmony male-duo style were from Appalachia but were not brothers. Mac and Bob, the stage name of blind friends Lester McFarland, from Gray, Kentucky, and Robert Gardner, from Oliver Springs, Tennessee, won favor with Chicago radio audiences in the 1920s. Their recordings on the Brunswick and Vocalion labels featured traditional and popular ballads as well as hymns.

In the early 1930s, two Rockcastle County, Kentucky, natives, Karl Davis and Hartford Taylor, known as Karl and Harty, also attained radio popularity in Chicago and modest recording success nationally (on the Paramount and the American Record Corporation labels).

The first actual brothers to become major national figures as a duo were Alton and Rabon Delmore, from Elkmont, Alabama, who joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1933 and became widely known for their Bluebird recordings. The Delmore Brothers performed a variety of sacred songs, ballads, and blues-influenced numbers while popularizing such Alton Delmore–composed songs as “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” The Delmores’ career extended until Rabon’s death in 1952; their later repertoire included more modern-sounding material such as “hillbilly boogie” songs.

In 1934 the American Record Corporation introduced the Asheville, North Carolina–based Callahan Brothers. Featuring higher-pitched vocals than the Delmore Brothers, Homer and Walter Callahan recorded several widely popular songs, including “She’s My Curly Headed Baby.” The Morris Brothers (Wiley and Zeke), from Old Fort, North Carolina, recorded such influential original songs as “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog.”

The latter two duos were overshadowed—even within Appalachia—by the Monroe Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. Bill and Charlie Monroe were western Kentuckians, but they reached their height of popularity through radio broadcasts from Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, and Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and through recordings on the Bluebird label. Bill Monroe’s fast mandolin playing and high tenor distinguished the Monroes’ music.

The pair broke up in 1938 to pursue separate careers. The Blue Sky Boys—Bill and Earl Bolick, from Hickory, North Carolina—had a mellower sound than the Monroe Brothers, though the Bolick brothers’ instrumentation was less dynamic. Like the Delmores’, the Blue Sky Boys’ career on radio and Bluebird/RCA Victor Records extended into the early 1950s.

In the 1940s, the Bailes Brothers, from Charleston, West Virginia, were a favorite act on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, performing such original songs as “Dust on the Bible” and “I Want to Be Loved.” There were four Bailes boys, Homer, John, Kyle, and Walter. Until 1947 the duo was composed of John and Walter; thereafter, Homer performed with John.

The end of that decade brought the rise of perhaps the most popular brother duo of all, the Louvin Brothers. Ira and Charlie Louvin (born Loudermilk), from the Sand Mountain region of Alabama, recorded primarily for Capitol Records between 1947 and 1963, when they dissolved their partnership. As Grand Ole Opry regulars from 1955 until 1963, the Louvins represented a commercial peak in the brother-duo style.

A few non-brother harmony duos also had notable careers, including West Virginia’s Bill Cox and Cliff Hobbs, North Carolina’s Whitey and Hogan (Roy Grant and Arval Hogan), and, especially, Tennessee’s Johnnie (Wright) and Jack (Anglin), who were brothers-in-law. Many characteristics of the brother-duo style survive in the music of such bluegrass musicians from Appalachia as the Stanley Brothers, the Lilly Brothers, the Goins Brothers, Jim and Jesse (McReynolds), and the Crowe Brothers. Although the brother-duo style has had much less influence in contemporary country music, many contemporary folk musicians have attempted to recreate the sound.

The Everly Brothers—rock ’n’ roll pioneers from western Kentucky who worked on radio in Knoxville, Tennessee—displayed reverence for the brother-duo tradition throughout their careers. Their style of harmony singing—modeled on that tradition—proved influential to many subsequent rock and pop performers, including the Beatles.

Krack and McCumber

December 18, 2014 by

imagesfrom http://www.nytimes.com:

The mountain-hollow art of old-time Appalachian fiddling, long withering under the pressures of youthful emigration and homogenized broadcast entertainment, is hanging on by a few well-bowed strings here in a backwoods master-apprentice program.

Toe-tapping in syncopation, his right wrist snapping off bow movements the way other lads ply a curve ball, 14-year-old Jake Krack followed his master, 78-year-old Lester McCumber, through the popping, tuneful intricacies of ”Ida Red.”

The lustrous, haunting scrape of the music drifted out toward the surrounding forest this evening, the sound wreathing the simple McCumber household as pungently as autumnal chimney smoke.

The two were jamming, by the boy’s terminology, or just fiddling, by that of his lean and craggy master. But the music — part of an ever-fading pre-Colonial Appalachian canon rarely written down and ”played by air,” as the teacher tells his pupil — was assuredly alive and well.

”Now that’s the original way of playing ‘Ida Red,’ the way the old man who lived down the road — Senate Cottrell was his name — played it,” the master instructed, suddenly looking back on his own young tutelage by a departed local legend.

In the gifted hands of Jake, the fiddling arts of Mr. McCumber — and of Mr. Cottrell, the fiddler French Carpenter and sundry masters before — now promises to outlive them all through a new generation. Read the rest of this entry »

Tin Pan Alley

December 17, 2014 by


edited from Tin Pan Alley’s Contribution to Folk Music by Norman Cohen
(Western Folklore, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 9-20):
Prior to 1880 music publishers were scattered throughout the country. In the years that followed, however, Union Square in New York gained ascendancy as the locus of song publishers. The magnet which drew them there was the presence of a major entertainment center boasting music halls, theaters, dance halls, and burlesque houses.

During this decade several publishers discovered that songs could be marketed like any other commodity. This meant manufacturing them to meet prevailing taste and “plugging” them, that is, prevailing on the singers to feature them in their public performances. In the next decade theatrical activity moved further uptown and the music publishers followed it, making Twenty-eighth Street the center of the music-publishing world for a quarter-century or so. This was the street that was dubbed “Tin Pan Alley” by journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld about 1903.

Why did these songs of Tin Pan Alley make such a dent in the repertoire of the American south? Perhaps the urbanization and industrialization of rural America left many persons with a sense of longing for a lost way of life so that the sentimental ballads of mother and home found a receptive audience in the hills after they had been driven out of the towns.

However, another factor less often considered is the predominant style of TPA songs of the 1880s and 1890s. The language used was simple and effective poetry, never rising to levels of great artistry but never sinking to the convoluted awkwardness of the broadside hacks of a century earlier.

On the other hand, American popular songs of the pre-Civil War period were, as indicated earlier, often flowery and stilted, and marked the unsuccessful attempts of their creators at romantic poetry. There were numerous sentimental songs of mother and home in the 1850s and 1860s, but they tended to be more descriptive and lyrical than the narrative ballads of the later years. These antebellum songs were, in effect, not memorable, and for this reason the songs of the last decades of the century achieved a place in oral tradition that their predecessors could not attain.

Kilby Snow Anthology Series

December 16, 2014 by


from http://www.kilbysnow.com:

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Mississippi Fiddle Resources

December 15, 2014 by


from http://harrybolick.com:

From the late 1927-36 white Mississippi fiddlers were represented on approximately 200 78rpm records. Though the number of bands and fiddlers recorded was small as compared to other southern states, the quality was high and a wide variety of styles were captured. Some of the recorded musicians were the Carter Brothers and Son, Narmour and Smith, The Leake County Revelers, Hoyt Ming and his Pep-Steppers, Freeny’s Barn Dance Band, Mississippi Possum Hunters, Ray Brothers, The Newton County Hillbillies and The Nations Brothers.

In 1923, Arthur Palmer Hudson began his ballad collecting in Mississippi, which culminated in his 1936 publication of Folksongs of Mississippi. Although his focus was on documenting the Mississippi textural variations of the classic Scots and English ballads, his fieldwork documented other songs and folkways. Unfortunately, only a handful of the songs were documented with musical notation and that was not until he published, in 1937 a small collection, Folk tunes of Mississippi.

In the Summer of 1936, the WPA Music and Writers’ Project in Mississippi, inspired by Hudson’s work, began collecting songs in the state. I am currently at work on a book about and containing the sheet music for the approximately 150 fiddle tunes that were collected.

The  state office of the Music and Writers Project arranged the recording schedule for  the Library of Congress field recording expedition of 1939. During that summer, Herbert Halpert’s 400 field recordings in Mississippi documented ballad singers, children’s songs and games, blues, gospel singing and fiddle and banjo players. Some of the musicians Halpert recorded were John Hatcher, W.E.Claunch, Stephen B. Tucker, Enos Canoy, Thaddeus C. Willingham, and John Brown. Of his recordings about 150 are of fiddlers.

Alan Lomax’s five LOC field trips from 1936-1959 focused on the black music traditions. Fiddlers that he recorded include Son Sim’s and Sid Hemphill.

The Smithsonian festival in Washington in 1974 featrured Mississippi fiddlers, notably Hoyt Ming and Alvis Massengale and the Six Towns Band attended. Around that time field recordings were made of Alvis Massengale, Hoyt Ming and Homer Grice. Additionally there are some “Home Recordings” of W.E. Claunch with his guitar player made in the 1950’s.

In lp record era there were 4 recordings of interest:
Hoyt Ming and his Pep-Steppers – New Hot Times -1973 a modern recording of the family band that made the classic 78’s
The Leake County String Band Led by Morgan Gilmer, son of the original Leake County Revelers fiddler Will Gilmer, they made a brief appearance in the movie “The ballad of BIlly Joe”
Mississippi Sawyers – 1980 – living fiddlers playing in a variety of state styles. Bluegrass, Old time, Celtic and Cajun
Great Big Yam Taters -1985 – a fantastic source of information and recordings from the 1939 Library of Congress trip to Mississippi.

Morgan Sexton

December 14, 2014 by


from http://arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/morgan-sexton:

Morgan Sexton was born January 28, 1911, in Linefork, Kentucky, to Shaderick (Shade) and Harriet Cornett Sexton. As a young boy, he said, “my cousin, Press Whitaker, and me got some old lard buckets and cut the bottoms out and fixed us some banjos. They sounded awful, but we played them like they were real banjos.”

Sexton’s father was a banjo player, and he began to teach his son to play, but shortly thereafter he became ill and died, leaving his wife with seven children and no source of income. “When I was about 11 years, I quit school to go to work for my uncle gathering crops. I was 13 when I worked in a sawmill for 50 cents a day. From there, I went to work cutting railroad ties,” Sexton recalled.

Despite the long hours and hard labor, Sexton continued to play the banjo, helped along by his sister, Hettie. When he was 17, he bought his first real banjo for $10.86 from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. “I had to walk four miles to Ulvah to pick it up,” he said. “I played it all the way back home. I would try to play it every day when I got home from work.”

Sexton was 25 when he met and married his wife, Virgie Hayes. At that time, he was working “up on Bull Creek logging timber.” A year later, he started working in the coal mines. “This was long before they started to use the rockdust (powdered limestone) they use now (to keep the coal dust down).” The conditions in the mines were oppressive, and by the time Sexton retired in 1976, he had contracted silicosis, a disease of the lungs caused by coal (or quarry) dust.

Over the years, playing the banjo was a great joy for Sexton. Throughout his lifetime, he played for his family and friends, keeping active his repertoire of hundreds of traditional ballads, love songs, and dance tunes. When neighbors came to his house, he liked to entertain them with his music and stories of his childhood in Kentucky. Everyone in Sexton’s family played the banjo, including his mother, who died in 1947.

Both Sexton’s singing and instrumental styles were unaffected by contemporary influences and musical ideas. His banjo picking was a delicate and absolute individualized version of the Appalachian two-fingered style, liquid and serene, each melody using its own particular tuning in the old-fashioned way. Although Sexton usually played by himself, he was sometimes joined by his neighbor Boyd Watts, a fiddler, at schoolhouse events, at Christmas, and in end-of-the-school-year programs. At square dances, however, the banjo alone was passed from one player to the next.

During the last decade of his life, Sexton began to play and sing in public, performing at the Celebration of Traditional Music at Berea College and the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in addition to demonstrating his talents on many radio programs and at local events. He was honored at the Banjo Institute in Lebanon, Tennessee. Sexton prided himself in preserving the old-time banjo styles he learned growing up and in teaching his nephew, Lee Sexton, to carry this tradition on for future generations.

Lost Newport Treasures

December 13, 2014 by


from http://www.multiculturalmedia.com:

Over 40 years since they were recorded and 20 years since the recordings surfaced, 18 historic performances from the 1968-‘70 Newport Folk Festivals are finally available. Unlike the vinyl LPs of the 1960s or even the shiny CDs of the 1990s, however, this release is entirely digital download only. Lost Newport Treasures on Multicultural Media’s Rootstock Recordings label is available as an entire album with liner notes or as individual tracks from iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, Rhapsody and many other digital download sites.

The tapes of the complete 1968-70 festivals were discovered in a closet at event producer Festival Productions’ Manhattan offices in 1990. Greenberg was hired to log and evaluate the performances by Alcazar Records, of Waterbury, Vermont, which hoped to release several Newport compilations. Alcazar went out of business, however, before the project could be completed, and the release languished until Multicultural Media, excited by the collection’s musical and historical value, acquired permission to release it.

Lost Newport Treasures includes a rare, solo, acoustic performance by Chicago electric blues “father,” Muddy Waters. Mississippi Delta bluesman, Son House, Waters’ mentor and one of the legendary artists from the 1930s rediscovered in the 1960s, also provides a track. Sleepy John Estes, Jesse Fuller, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry furnish other compelling examples of acoustic, country blues and related styles.

The Cook County Singers–a large, church group from Chicago–deliver a stirring example of African American shape note singing, while an a capella hymn from Doc Watson, Fred Price, and Clint Howard’s reflects the traditional singing of many white Southern Baptist churches.

The New Lost City Ramblers’ “In the Pines” represents bluegrass as it was emerging from old-time roots to become the genre performed here by first-generation masters Don Reno, Bill Harrell and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, and Mac (“The Voice with a Heart”) Wiseman.

Congolese Mwenda Jean Bosco and Kentuckian Ike Everly (father of rock-and-rollers Don and Phil) provide examples of distinct yet related fingerpicking guitar styles, while a whaling ballad from Scottish singer and weaver Norman Kennedy exemplifies one of the important sources of American vernacular music.

A children’s song from one-time radio and vaudeville performer Sam Hinton and a topical song by Folk Revival patriarch Pete Seeger round out Lost Newport Treasures.

The Newport Folk Festival turned 50 in 2009 (with a few hiatuses) and continues to present a wide range of American music. Yet the 1960s festivals remain unsurpassed in their combination of authentic vernacular musicians, revivalists, and popularizers. Many Newport performances from the first half of the 1960s have been available on several recordings and films. But the late ‘60s have been less well-documented, until now.

The on-line release of Lost Newport Treasures provides a testimonial to the timelessness of music that continues to inspire and delight even in a medium that would be unrecognizable to many of these Newport artists.

Peer and Rodgers

December 12, 2014 by


Thanks to Peter Feldman (http://bluegrasswest.com) for this:

The following article was written by Ralph Peer ca. 1953:

The best things in life seem to occur by pure accident. We strive to accomplish something worthwhile; success finally comes to us, but usually from an unexpected source.

In 1927, after serving as an executive of Okeh Records for a number of years, I decided to go into business for myself as a music publisher. At that time a business alliance was started with the Victor Talking Machine Company which continued for many years. The arrangement was that I would select the artists and material and supervise the hillbilly recordings for Victor. My publishing firm would own the copyrights, and thus I would be compensated by the royalties resulting from the compositions which I would select for recording purposes.

During the spring of 1928 I made a survey of various Southern cities and determined to make initial recordings for Victor in Atlanta, Savannah, Bristol, Tenn., and Memphis. A recording crew of two men was assigned to me, and I set about the business of finding talent and repertoire.

In Bristol, the problem was not easy because of the relatively small population in that area. The local broadcasting stations, music stores, record dealers, etc., helped me as much as possible, but few candidates appeared. I then appealed to the editor of a local newspaper, explaining to him the great advantages to the community of my enterprise. He thought that I had a good idea and ran a half column on his front page. This worked like dynamite, and the very next day I was deluged with long-distance calls from the surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains, or on foot.

Jimmie Rodgers telephoned from Asheville. He said that he was a singer with a string band. He had read the newspaper article and was quite sure that his group would be satisfactory. I told him to come on a certain day, and promised a try-out.

First Meeting
When I was alone with Jimmie in our recording studio (a very old warehouse which had not been in use for many years), I was elated when I heard him perform. It seemed to me that he had his own personal and peculiar style, and I thought that his yodel alone might spell success. Very definitely he was worth a trial. We ran into a snag almost immediately because, in order to earn a living in Asheville, he was singing mostly songs originated by New York publishers—the current hits. Actually, he had only one song of his own, “Soldier’s Sweetheart,” written several years before. When I told Jimmie what I needed to put him over as a recording artist, his perennial optimism bubbled over. If I would give him a week he could have a dozen songs ready for recording. I let him record his own song, and as a coupling his unique version of “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep.” This, I thought, would be a very good coupling, as “Soldier’s Sweetheart” was a straight ballad and the other side gave him a chance to display his ability as a yodeler. In spite of the lack of original repertoire, I considered Rodgers to be one of my best bets.
Read the rest of this entry »

Gott and Cohen in Madison Co.

December 11, 2014 by
from “Curious Tales and Captivating Voices: The Ballad Tradition of the Southern Appalachians” by Wendy Baker:
“Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound” examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott’s film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today’s ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O’Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner.

Peter Gott came to Madison County, NC, in pursuit of traditional banjo music.  He happened to hear a recording of Madison County banjo player Obray Ramsey playing “Pretty Polly” and the traditional tune “Little Maggie.” Gott, in turn, inspired musician and filmmaker John Cohen to come to Madison County.

Cohen’s interest in the singers of Madison County inspired him to produce a film entitled “End of an Old Song” about the legendary Dillard Chandler (1907-1992). Chandler, one of a long line of ballad singers, is said to have had one of the best voices for ballads in the world.

Cohen describes Dillard Chandler’s bewilderment when, in 1963, Cohen asked if he could record him singing ballads. “There was this big wall of silence–not resistance…I was there an awfully long time trying to explain to him why he should sing for my microphone…There’s something about this music–it would be so good if other people could hear it.”  From this account, we can see that clearly, Dillard Chandler had never anticipated the interest in his singing from a wider audience.

This outside interest in the people of the ballad and traditional music scene eventually led to some unfortunate misunderstandings about the use of the recordings. As singers began to perform for festivals, strangers told them about seeing or hearing a recording of them. This revelation led to the belief that others were making money from their talent, without sharing in the financial benefits.
Sheila Kay Adams explains, “Wherever they would go, somebody would inevitably come up to them and say, ‘I heard you on this record that John Cohen put out.’ To them, it started to sound like there were millions of these records out there because people would say, ‘Oh look, here I’ve got this record with your picture on it.’”
In fact, while Cohen’s work may have given the Madison County singers much deserved recognition and external respect, his efforts were focused on the documentary aspect of this culture and its traditions, rather than on reaping commercial profits.
The singers’ misconceptions continued to build. Singer Doug Wallin one day said to John Cohen, “That record you made of my parents [Lee and Berzilla Wallin]–that’s all over the place…it’s probably all over the country in jukeboxes everywhere, and you’re keeping our money.”
The conflict finally came to a head in one incident. Peter Gott and John Cohen frequently spent time at Doug Wallin’s house. One day Doug explained to them that they were welcome to come, but that he didn’t want any more recording.
In Gott’s words, “Well, John wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept begging until finally, Doug lost his temper and took a
swing at him. And he said, ‘Get outta here and don’t ever come back! And that goes for both of you!’…For me it was the end of a beautiful friendship not just with Doug but with his whole family. I never went back.”


December 10, 2014 by


The Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.VA,  came into its own about 17 years ago, after the longstanding old-time festival in Galax, Va. began picking on long-hairs. “There were animal stalls the hippies usually stayed in,” and when organizers razed them, she said, that sent a message. “We wanted a festival that was comfortable and welcoming. We are the anti-Galax,” said one participant.
“Old time is the counterculture version of Appalachian mountain music,” agreedJimSkelding, who served as country star Martina McBride’s fiddler for four years and now plays with several Virginia-based bluegrass bands. He doesn’t mean that as a compliment.Mr.Skelding is the mirror opposite of Mr.Stagmer: close-cropped, deeply Republican, and bored stiff by old-time music, whose practitioners may be politically progressive, he said, though “they are more conservative in their musical approach than any other musicians, playing only old period tunes where the fiddle plays very structured repetitive solos that offer no creative space to the supporting instruments.”
Mr. Skelding, who would no more join an old-time jam than the Howard Dean Fan Club, also dismissed the sartorial disposition of old timers, calling their omnipresent sandals “Jerusalem cruisers.”All of which is music to the ears of the old timers. “We’re pre-bluegrass,” boasts Mr.Stagmer, and many songs popular with jammers definitely reflect a pre-modern sensibility, including “Squirrel Heads and Gravy” and “Nail the Catfish to the Tree.”Old timers also claim the high ground in the family-friendly competition. Mr. Stagmer asserts that there is much less smoking at old-time festivals, while Ms. Gillespie says that “Galax got to the point where you couldn’t let your kids go to the Porta-potties by themselves,” citing alcohol-fueled fights as a chief concern. Other ambiance differences: no Confederate flags at Clifftop, save on the hats of a couple of trash haulers. Nor is there a noticeable police presence, while officers at Galax patrol through the night.

“Clifftop has probably the most self-policed crowd I’ve seen at a music festival,” said Mr. McClain. Indeed, Mr. Zepp left his entire banjo inventory out overnight, protected only by a thin tarp. Couldn’t someone easily drive off with all your stock? “I guess I have more faith in the human race,” he said, adding that word would get back to him if stolen instruments started popping up at jam sessions. “They are easily traced.”

No festival is without drawbacks — rain, heat, marauding insects, and even a tragic death.  “If you’ve got to go,” noted camper Joseph “Joebass” DeJarnette,  “this is a pretty good place to do it.”


December 9, 2014 by


WHEN FIDDLE WAS KING by Ron Yule (Northwestern State Univ. Press, 2006) 246 pp, softbound

Louisianan Yule—who also wrote a recent book on the legendary Cajun fiddler Iry LeJeune—has done an amazing and admirable job in gathering data and photos of musicians and groups who played music in Louisiana in the first half of the 20th century. His list (which he actually limits to the north and west regions of the state)—includes old-time, Cajun, country and even some Bluegrass groups.

Some of the brief write-ups are drawn from Yule interviews, others put together from Newspaper accounts or from other writers. There’s a chapter on Louisiana Country Dances, and about 60 pages are devoted to “Fiddle Tales” of various musicians & local fiddle contests. I had not heard of most of the musicians and bands in this book, but there are names that some (specially record collectors) ill recognize.

Some of these include the Hackberry Ramblers, Anatole Credeur, Taylor-Grigg Melody Makers, Miller’s Merrymakers and the Pelican Wildcats—long a mystery old time band, they put just one fine tune on a very late Columbia 78 which was mis-titled “WALKIN’ GEORGIA ROSE” (it should have been WALKING GEORGIA ROADS). There’s a nice little section on fiddlers of the KWKH Barn Dance—some of these included Paul Warren, Cousin Emmy, Ralph Mayo, Curley Fox and Clayton McMichen.

In the way of Bluegrass, there is mention of Jimmy Martin, Luke Thompson’s Green Valley Boys, and Buzz Busby. Others mentioned include Rusty & Doug Kershaw, and the well traveled mandolinist Clyde Baum (who played with the Bailes Brothers, Johnnie & Jack, Charlie Monroe, the Sullivan Family and even Hank Williams). A nice feature of this book is the photos—there are dozens, and most are fairly sharp for their age. Although the scope of this work is very limited, there’s a lot of good information here that fans of the older days will appreciate.

Worshippers of the Horse Hair

December 8, 2014 by


from http://bluegrassmessengers.com:

Berea Citizen ~ August 21, 1919
“Old Fiddlers Night”

Under the auspices of [the] Progress Club the people of Berea were given the greatest treat last Friday night that they have had in many moons. It was the Old Fiddlers’ Contest, given for the benefit of the citizens of Berea and the Graded School—the money to go to the school and the fun to the folks.

Fifteen royal fiddlers, the pick of the covey, were in the ring. They were culled from the whole tribe of worshippers of the horse hair, from Pine Mountain and Hell-fer-Sartain to Joe’s Lick and Pilot Knob. Berea turned out en merry masse to hear the fiddling, and they were not disappointed. No one except those whose musical sense has been revolutionized by a course in a conservatory could have failed to see the fun.

Hiram Botner, an artist of the first water from the Sturgeon and Wild Dog country, set all the toes a-wiggle with “Billy in the Low Grounds.” After that for more than two hours scarcely a foot could be kept still. E. L. Cox, who knows more hornpipes than a highland piper, followed with “Jurang’s Hornpipe.” Then came M. A. Moody, our neighbor from Big Hill, the man with the delicate touch and exquisite tone, who did the “Irish Gallop” as few can. Alec Lunsford, from Hog Skin Creek, a prince among the old-timers, who never plays a piece badly, touched a responsive chord in everybody’s heart with that fine old fiddleized Negro Melody, “The Ways of the World.”

By this time feet had begun to slow down a little, but were all set a-wiggle again in high glee by Millard Ramsey with the crack dance tune, “Adeline,” on his famous Black Nancy. When the people of Clay want a fiddler with pep—and some of them are the finest dancers and the merriest ever—Millard is usually their choice—either Millard or Alec Lunsford.  Millard is a bit recless with Black Nancy, but the old instrument is a queen among fiddles, and when she speaks, corns cease to ache and a merry thrill creeps into every toe.

Dude Freeman appeared next and gave us “Forked Deer”—did it well, too. Dude wants no “fotch-on” fiddle, thank you, but made his own instrument. And he made a good one. It sounds better in the parlour than in a large hall for the tone lacks carrying power, but only a first class man could master a fiddle as good as that. Chester Thomas, second to “Monkey” John Gadd followed with “Waynesburg.” Then came another neighbour, John Will Johnson, who flung out on “Forked Deer” on Old Bill Cates’ fiddle. The jolly old instrument has caused more people to dance into a merry old age than any other in many miles around.

Bev Baker made all the old folks feel young again with that old favorite of our grandparents, “Nigger Inch Along.” Chester Nolan, second to E. L. Cooper, from Big Splash Dam, on Buck Fork, sent all our thoughts to the barnyard with “Cacklin’ Hen.” James Daugherty made all the corns dream dreams of sweet peace with “Calahan.” This is one of the famous shindig tunes of the countryside. Whenever a band of highland lads and lassies come together at a neighbor’s house to go a-tripping it “Calahan” is most likely to be on the boards.

Doc Roberts, second to S. F. Wright, the man who wins, drove away the rheumatism with “Wagoner.” This is one of the difficult old breakdowns and only trained fingers can execute it well. Big Hiram Begley, noted for his fiddling at house-warmings in the Hell-fer-Sartain country didn’t arrive. His place was taken by C. H. Agee with “Billy in the Low Grounds.” Nor did Anderson Bowling who fiddles for the Teges dance folk appear. John Hicks sat in his chair and played “Nigger Inch Along.”

…  “Black Jack Grove,””Shortnin’ Bread,”  [and] other choice selections follwed fast. “Waynesburg”  rarely sounds so well as it did when Dude Freeman played it. If Dude were to play in some Grove of Daphne he would be certain to start all the satyrs a-dancing with the nymphs and dryads. “Sally Ann” at the touch of Alec Lunsford’s fingers took us all to an old Negro plantation where ebony face, ivory teeth and flying heels drove away cares and brought respite to the sorrows of an overburdened race.

“Liquor All Gone” bespoke the fact that we are living after July 1st, and that not even a drop of mountain dew was in the ring. Green and his superb instrument with “Sourwood Mountain” made all nimble heels fairly shriek for action. I heard a shuffling of leather throughout the audience in which event the preachers’ soles joined.

Then the third round with its succession of thrills. Few of the old-timers ever did or ever will excel Botner in “Calahan,” Ramsey in “Waynesburg,” Roberts in “Turkey in the Straw,” or Green in “Lost Girl.” Every one of these pieces was a hum-dinger. So was Lunsford’s “Hogskin.” The audience never before heard “Turkey in the Straw” as it was done by Doc Roberts.

And that number of Doc’s convinced the judges that he was entitled to the first prize of $50. The second prize was awarded to Dude Freeman and his “own make” and the third to the hornpipe man, E. L. Cox. The decision of the judges came as a surprise to the audience who would doubtless have voted for other favorites. But every player deserved a bouquet and a smile.

The night had approached the witching hour when the audience went away, happier and months younger because of the soulful melodies it had heard.

Thanks to you men whose skill and native musical ability keep the world about you young. You keep alive a class of music that is great and thrilling, and as native to the soil as the dogwood blossom and the wild rose. Your music makes up the foundation on which many of our greatest musical themes have been developed. Your message is a gospel of merriment, and we’d all be poorer in spirit without you.

Everybody is surprised and delighted with the financial success of the Big Fiddlers’ Meeting last Friday night.

OTM in Alaska

December 7, 2014 by
Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 9.36.50 AM
by Peter Bowers (excerpt from “Old Time Music in Alaska: Then and Now”):
It may surprise some that Alaska has a long-lived history of fiddle music that
dates back more than one and a half centuries–almost as long as the music from
the hills of the old-time motherland in the Eastern US.
It is a vibrant musical tradition that first appeared in the sub-arctic with the early
traders, trappers, gold miners, fishermen, and missionaries, then spread to the native cultures,
saw a major resurgence in the 1970s, and thrives today in bush cabins, villages,
and towns throughout the forty-ninth state.
According to several accounts, the first fiddler on the Yukon River was a Hudson’s Bay
Company employee named Antoine Hoole, who was among a trading party who established
Fort Yukon in 1847. His French Canadian influence likely helped spread the Anglo-Celtic
music and dance tradition to the local Indians, a rich tradition that continues today as a
unique style of old-time music known as Athabascan fiddle music.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fiddle music blended with aboriginal
singing and dancing and melodic choral singing of hymns introduced by missionaries. This music
developed largely in isolation, with only occasional injections of new influences, and today is its
own unique style.
Today, Alaskans have a reputation of being among the wildest, most intense players on the
old-time scene. In many ways, it’s still the wild west: few roads, few rules, no sheriff.
Our brand of old-time and bluegrass music is different than back East because of the intensity
of the place we live.
The other part of the experience is the cabin music scene. People get “cabin fever” in the
long darkness of winter and desperately need to socialize with others at the bars or visiting
other cabins. We danced and played in small cabins. We cooked, ate, took
saunas, jumped in the snow.
The dancing and music also reflected that Alaskans are participants, not observers.
Lots of people played instruments, or danced. The music was — and still is-  crazy, raw,
intense and exciting. It is really alive.

Long Gone Sound

December 6, 2014 by

from http://www.oxfordamerican.org:

For County Records, Chris King has produced scads of compilations of old-time music for a whole new audience. As a restoration engineer, he makes analog-to-digital transfers of 78s that render the nearly century-old recordings accessible to modern ears. His work on Revenant’s seven-CD Charley Patton box set, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, earned him a Grammy.

“Chris has the knowledge, he has the ear, he has the equipment and the technique,” says Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat, a North Carolina–based label, who worked with King on a compilation of black fiddlers from the ’20s and ’30s. “But he’s more than a technician, he’s an aficionado, a lover of the music. It’s not just, Bring me a stack of records and I’ll transfer ’em, it’s, Let me help you find the very best copies.”

Even for a fan of the music, this is painstaking work. Many of the most prized blues and country 78s survive only in the most wretched condition, gouged as they are by the steel needles of the old Victrolas. For the Patton project, King transferred over a hundred sides, mostly Paramounts, which are notorious for their inferior pressing and beat-to-hell copies; he managed to salvage crisp, clear transfers from all but the most battered copies.

“There are spots in the groove that, for whatever reason, haven’t been tapped,” says Dean Blackwood of Revenant. “If you view it as a relief map, part of the terrain hasn’t been traveled on and Chris can get to it. He knows where to go in the groove to find music that’s still coded in there, that hasn’t been ground down to nothing.”

The entire operation, which King calls Long Gone Sound, is crammed in a tiny record room: a fancy pre-amplifier and soundboard mixer, a pair of ’50s-era tube amps on milk crates, and some high-end speakers that can rake the wattage King pushes through them. He likes to play these records loud. He has a few dozen styli that he uses to eke out some half-buried fiddle break from a worn shellac groove.

Dropping the needle on an old 78, again and again and again. He calls this meticulous process “cracking the code.” What might seem tedious is for him an intricate communion. “It’s all in the whole ritual. As naive as it sounds, when I play a 78 on my turntable, it makes me feel closer to the music than playing it on a CD. It takes a special breed—there’s only so many weird, whacked-out eccentrics who get a big kick out of that three-minute experience.”




Maintaining the Mountains

December 5, 2014 by

The United States of Appalachia

December 4, 2014 by
Book jacket of "The United States of Appalachia," by Jeff Biggers

by Jeff Biggers (excerpt)

Beyond its mythology as a quaint backwater in the American imagination, Appalachia also needs to be embraced for its historic role as a vanguard region in the United States.  Would you believe me if I said an Appalachian preceded, led or influenced every one of these historic events or gatherings? That years before Jefferson completed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, a backwoods settlement had already stunned the British Crown with its independence as a “dangerous example for the people of America.”

That an alliance of Southern Appalachian insurgents orchestrated their own attacks on British-led troops and turned the tide of the American Revolution. That a humble band of mountain preachers and writers published the first abolitionist newspaper in the nation and trained the radical Garrison. That a Cherokee mountaineer invented the first syllabary in modern times. That a back-hills young woman astounded the Boston literary circles in 1861, with the first American short story of working-class realism to be published in the Atlantic Monthly.

That a young publisher from Chattanooga actually took over the New York Times and set its course for world acclaim. That the “high priestess of soul” put a spell on an audience at the Village Vanguard in 1959, with her blend of folk, jazz, gospel, country, and Bach-motif riffs she had learned in her Southern Appalachian hamlet. That a self-proclaimed “radical hillbilly” galvanized the shock troops of the civil rights movement and returned an African spiritual and labor song as its anthem. That the first American woman ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was recognized for her family memoirs of West Virginia as much as for her literary contributions to the Far East.

This is Appalachia’s best-kept secret: Far from being a “strange land with peculiar people,” the mountains and hills have been a stage for some of the most quintessential and daring American experiences of innovation, rebellion, and social change.

This book is an attempt to enter another part of Appalachia, or, in fact, we should say Southern Appalachia, that mountain spine and its valley tributaries that trundle along the eastern and Southern states from northern Alabama to southwestern Pennsylvania. (The Appalachian Regional Commission actually defines Appalachia from southern New York to northern Mississippi.) It is not a definitive history of the region; instead, it is a portrait of a hidden Appalachia on the cutting edge, full of revolutionaries and pioneering stalwarts, abolitionists, laborers, journalists, writers, activists, and artists overlooked among the lineup of conventional Appalachian suspects.


Return to Coahoma County

December 3, 2014 by


excerpt from Nathan Salsburg (www.oxfordamerican.org):

Alan Lomax visited Texas Island, Mississippi twice, once in 1941, and again in August 1942, toward the end of his second summer documenting black vernacular song in Coahoma County, in the heart of the Delta.  According to legend, Lomax came calling at the plantation’s big house to seek permission from the patriarch, Guy Telford Mohead, to make his recordings. Placing a foot up on one of the porch steps, Alan made his case to Mr. Mohead, likely explaining his Library of Congress affiliation.

It’s said that G.T. then told Lomax to take his goddamn foot off the porch and his person off the property. That Alan, likely with his wife, Elizabeth, and Fisk professor Lewis Wade Jones, proceeded to surreptitiously drag his disc-recording machine into the church service (or, perhaps, that he had already done so, and was merely offering the polite tribute of a post-facto formality) is a testament to his boundless pluck. And his good luck. Somehow Lomax managed to never get himself shot.

Neither pluck nor luck—or any degree of secrecy, for that matter—was necessary for the four of us who compose the staff of the Alan Lomax Archive to visit the Mohead plantation this past October, after several heady days spent in the Mississippi Hill Country. We had gone to the Hills to donate Lomax’s original fieldwork from the region to the public libraries of Senatobia and Como.

We had met dozens of family members and friends of musicians whom Alan recorded on his trips there—musicians such as Sid Hemphill, Viola James, Miles and Bob Pratcher, Otha Turner, Napoleon Strickland—and we had marched with them down Como’s Main Street behind Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, arguably the last of the Hill Country fife-blowers to learn via oral tradition, who leads the current iteration of Otha’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.

We followed Thomas past the Mississippi Blues Trail markers erected for her grandfather and Fred McDowell (whose debut recordings were made by Lomax in 1959) to the unveiling of a new marker for Strickland, whose son and extended family had come all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, for the ceremony. A large crowd was gathered. Como’s mayor spoke. An impromptu photo session lasted twenty minutes. In the thirteen years I’ve been employed by the archive, I have never felt Lomax’s work—to say nothing of my own—resonate with so much vitality, or relevance.

Driving  back to Clarksdale, my foot throbbed dully with each depression of the clutch, and the road was covered, blanketed, by tiny frogs. From the upper right of the windshield, a huge, bright white form descended, fast, like a lantern being hurled from a branch high above, and smashed into the front passenger-side wheel. It was an owl, engorged on frogs, diving for more. It made an appalling thud, my colleagues screamed, I swore, and then I felt sick. I don’t consider myself susceptible to that goofy, ersatz brand of Mississippi Delta hoodoo—crossroads and all the rest—but this felt like the worst kind of juju.

Early Days

December 2, 2014 by


  A Brief History of Blue Ridge Music: Early Days
By Joseph Wilson and Wayne Martin (excerpt)

Settlers in the Tidewater region of the New World did not anticipate the flowering of new musical styles in the mountains that lay to the west. The powerful Cherokee tribe inhabited the southernmost part of the region and the Cherokee, Shawano and other tribes used the middle and upper areas as hunting grounds. Some colonists feared conflict with the Indians and dangers associated with isolation if they ventured into this frontier region. To those who sought land, however, the Blue Ridge represented opportunity.

Approximately one hundred years passed after the founding of Jamestown before colonists began to immigrateaen masse to the region. The Great Wagon Road-or Valley Road, as it was called in Virginia-proved to be the best way into the mountains. The Valley Road followed old Indian trails for some 700 miles, starting near Philadelphia and running down the Shenandoah Valley. Near what is now Roanoke, Virginia, some travelers turned south along the Carolina Road into the Piedmont of North Carolina and South Carolina. Others continued into the mountains of southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, and beyond.

In 1730 a community of Germans settled an area near what today is Luray, Virginia. The Germans were followed by English Quakers, who were followed by Scotch-Irish, French Huguenots, Irish, Welsh, and more English. African American slaves were brought into the Blue Ridge by some of these settlers. Other African Americans came with owners who moved into the region as Tidewater lands were worn out by the unrelenting planting of tobacco.

By 1805, a year in which the population of the entire nation was only two million, as many as 10,000 travelers passed through Abingdon in the far southwestern corner of Virginia. By some estimates, fully one-fourth of the present population of the United States has ancestors who used this route to move westward.population of the United States has ancestors who used this route to move westward.

Groups traveling the Valley Road brought cultural traits and skills from many homelands and from diverse sections of those lands. A few of these traditions have survived to the present day, but most cultural attributes blended with those from other cultures and changed into something altogether new as people moved and settled together.

The musical exchange among these groups proved particularly potent. Perhaps the Blue Ridge insulated its inhabitants from the more rigid class distinctions and elite cultural practices adhered to by planters living in the East. Settlers could see London from Baltimore or Richmond, but not from Gap Creek or the Meadows of Dan. The old authority did not reach that far. Fresh ideas, including ways of thinking about and playing music, flourished in this environment.

Georgia Yellow Hammers and Associates

December 1, 2014 by







from http://www.document-records.com:

The Georgia Yellow Hammers and Associates Vol. 3: (February 21 1928 – October 21 1928) “Warhorse Game”

The Georgia Yellow Hammers and Associates Vol. 4: (1929 – 1931) “White Lightning”

Volumes 1-4 now available on Document CD.
Informative booklet notes by Tony Russell.
Detailed discography.
Includes previously un-reissued recordings.

Bill Chitwood and Bud Landress, with their friends Phil Reeve, Ernest Moody and Clyde Evans, and associates such as Andrew and Jim Baxter, the Harper brothers, Gus Boaz, Lawrence Neal and others, would represent and promote the musical culture of their region for most of a decade.

Thanks to them, Gordon County, Georgia, has come to be held in high regard by lovers of old-time Southern music. Today we can see it as a prism, its facets reflecting the different forms of Southern music: old-time fiddling, quartet singing, stringband ensembles, rustic comedy, yodelling, blues.

No doubt many other counties in the South offered a similar diversity of music. What makes Gordon County special is that so much of it was permanently documented on phonograph records. Between 1924 and 1931, Gordon Countians created 104 issued recordings. These roused great interest among their fellow citizens and were frequently written about in the local press.

Together, the recordings and the reports constitute a legacy of extraordinary specificity: this was what was going on musically, at this time, in this section of northwest Georgia, and this is what the people who lived there thought about it.

Aided by this collection (and the music of the Baxters, available elsewhere on Document), we can hold a magnifying glass over a map of Gordon County, so that towns and communities leap into large-print life.

We see the streets of Calhoun and Resaca and Sugar Valley, hear the rattle of wagon wheels and the distant whistle of the railroad train, the massed voices from the singing convention in Calhoun’s City Auditorium, the strains of contesting fiddlers at the Courthouse, of the Baxters playing for picnickers at Dew’s Pond, and of Bill and Bud and their cronies serenading the townsfolk in Gentlemen’s Park.

Why I’m Neurotic About My Record Collection

November 30, 2014 by


Obray Ramsey

November 29, 2014 by

by Kenneth Goldstein (from notes to “Obray Ramsey – Blue Ridge Banjo,” Washington LP [WLP 707])

Obray Ramsey was born on the banks of the three Laurels at the edge of the Smokey Mountains in western North Carolina. His father’s people came from the highlands of Scotland, and his mother’s ancestors were Cherokee Indians. Most of his songs were learned from his mother and grandmother, both fine singers with extensive repertoires.

For most of his life he has sung his songs unaccompanied, though he had learned to play the guitar when still a young boy. After he married and settled down as a successful farmer near Marshall, North Carolina, he met Bascom Lamar Lunsford, folksinger, collector, and organizer of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival held annually in Asheville, North Carolina.

Lunsford recognized his fine singing talents and encouraged him to take up the 5-string banjo, which he believed would be perfectly suited to Obray’s style of singing. To show his faith in this belief, Lunsford gave Ramsey his first banjo in 1953. Now, Obray Ramsey is one of the finest banjo-pickers in the Southern Mountains. His style is a perfect compromise between old picking styles and currently popular modern styles.


Joe Coleman’s March

November 28, 2014 by


from http://nativeground.com:

The Hanging of Fiddlin’ Joe Coleman © 2012 by Wayne Erbsen

From the start of the trial, the evidence against Joe Coleman was circumstantial, at best. The case was based solely on the testimony of Coleman’s sister-in-law. Apparently, there was bad blood between Coleman and his wife’s sister, and the jury found him guilty in the first degree and sentenced him to die by hanging.On the way to his hanging, Coleman reportedly sat on his coffin and played his fiddle as a two-wheeled ox cart slowly carried him to the site where a hastily-built wooden gallows had been constructed. The slow, dirge-like tune that he played has since been known as “Coleman’s March.”

Even as the noose was being tightened around his neck, Joe Coleman maintained his innocence. Before his sentence was carried out, one legend tells how Joe promised to give his fiddle to anyone in the crowd who could play the tune better than he could. A fiddler named Franz Prewitt stepped forward and took Coleman up on his offer. Before he started fiddling, Prewitt tuned the instrument into what is called “dead man’s tuning” and managed to out-fiddle Joe Coleman.

Minutes before the trap door opened under Joe’s feet, the condemned man handed over his fiddle to its new owner, as the assembled crowd held their breath and waited for justice to be served. Although a little too late, Coleman’s claim of innocence was supported many years later by the deathbed confession of an old lady who admitted to the killing of Joe Coleman’s wife.

Immediately after the execution, several of Coleman’s relatives secretly spirited his body away, and somehow managed to bring him back from death’s door. After he regained his health, Coleman boarded a steamboat that took him down the Cumberland River toward Nashville, Tennessee. From there, Coleman headed out west, and from there, the trail grows cold.

Even though Joe Coleman himself was never again seen in Eastern Kentucky, the tune named after him lived on, and is commonly played today as “Coleman’s March” or “Joe Coleman’s March.” After all these years, the tune still retains its dirge-like rhythm and feel, which is rare in old-time and bluegrass music. Most instrumental tunes are either fast breakdowns, danceable reels, or waltzes. “Coleman’s March” is unique in that respect.

As it turns out, Joe Coleman did not compose the tune that now bears his name. Instead, he reworked an old Celtic tune known as “The Irish Jaunting Car.” No doubt inspired by his own looming execution, he changed the rhythm of the tune from a sprightly dance tune into a mournful dirge.
A few years later, at the start of the Civil War, a Englishman named Harry Macarthy was in Jackson, Mississippi at the signing of Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession. Macarthy took the very same Irish tune that Joe Coleman had played and used it as the melody for a new set of lyrics he recently composed to honor the Confederacy. The result was “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

Next to “Dixie,” it was the most popular tune of the Confederacy. But unlike Joe Coleman’s mournful melody, Harry Macarthy kept the lively and jaunty flavor of the original Celtic tune, which more accurately reflected the early and naïve optimism of the Southern cause. As for Macarthy himself, he didn’t stick around long enough to find out if his newly-composed song would help inspire the South to victory. Instead, he high-tailed it to Pennsylvania and then California, where he spent the rest of the war years far from the fields of battle that he helped to inspire with his song of Southern patriotism.


Nathan Salsburg

November 27, 2014 by

from http://www.cooperkenward.com:

Back in 2010, a friend tipped Nathan Salsburg  off about a box of records at the dump. He hurried to the scene and rescued what turned out to be a portion of the private collection of “hoarder” Don Wahle, a Louisville-native and collector of early country records. Wahle had died and his estranged family, eager to be rid of his squalor, ordered a purge of his entire home.

Nathan, with permission from the waste removal company, organized a full sweep of Wahle’s home and recovered the remaining 78s, many of which had never been reissued, and compiled Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard (Tompkins Square, 2012), an effort that would earn him a Grammy nomination and a seat at the round table of contemporary 78 record collectors.

As a 21st century archivist, he alternates working with old and new mediums, and must navigate between the romantic and pragmatic aspects of collecting. Curious how he does it, we asked him about the apparent juxtaposition between his vinyl collection and his digital collection. He explained to us that, when compared to the uniform appearance of digital track lists, vinyl has a usefulness in its physical form; the artwork, the label, the liner notes and the multitude of other visual details help one to contextualize and situate the music in its time and place. “Yet those four hard drives,” he said, pointing at the entire digitized Alan Lomax Collection, “are what pay my mortgage.”

Nathan has worn the title of curator for the Alan Lomax Archive for the last four years. It’s a position that he has worked up to after starting out as a twenty-two-year old gopher and admin assistant. “To give you a feel for the era,” he said, “my first task was writing accession numbers on DAT tapes.” Today, he oversees the digital iterations of Lomax’s vast collections and perpetuates the vision of the pioneering folklorist.

In addition to the 17,000 some audio files currently available through the online Lomax Archive (culturalequity.org), Nathan said, “We have fifty hours of ‘30s Kentucky recordings, forty hours from the 1954-55 Italian trip, fifty hours of 1937 Haitian recordings and three hundred some hours of video that are still being processed for inclusion.” The task, he explained, is to not only make this material available, but to present it in manageable formats. Just what the ideal format is for disseminating aural and visual material, however, is a global work in progress.

Allan Block Tribute: NYC, 11/30/14

November 26, 2014 by

Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 7.21.37 AM
Allan Block: A Celebration Of His Life And Music

Jalopy Theatre and School of Music
315 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn, NY 11231
Featuring Rory Block, Maria Muldaur, John Sebastion, Happy Traum, Kenny Kosec, Martha Burns, Stephan Grossman
Sunday, November 30th, 7pm – Call 718-395-3214 for Reservations

Bussard and Black Patti in 1966

November 26, 2014 by


edited from Amanda Petrusich (www.oxfordamerican.org):

In the summer of ’66, Bussard was on the road, running his usual Appalachian route in a Scout pickup. He thinks he must’ve had a buddy with him, but that bit of the legend is incidental, at least as far as Bussard is concerned. He got lost looking for a flea market. That sort of thing happened to him a lot. “So old dummy, old dumbass, I s’pose I made a right turn instead of a left turn,” he explained. There was a pause. “Best left turn I ever made.”

Bussard was getting into the story now, his blue eyes flashing like two synchronized traffic lights. “So I got down the road about a mile and thought, There’s no flea market down here. There’s an old man walking up the road, and so I ask him, and he says, ‘Yeah, it’s up there up the road.’ I said, ‘You goin’ up? Hop in!’ And I had a tape playing, some strange stuff. He says, ‘You getting that on the radio?’ I said, ‘No, it’s a tape.’ He said, ‘That figures,’ because, you know, he knew damn well there wasn’t anything on the radio any good. And we went up there and walked around and I didn’t find anything, of course. Then I told him what I was looking for.” Bussard was doing all the voices now: his, the old man’s. “He said, ‘I got a gang of them back at the house.’”

He drove the man the twenty-five miles or so to his house, a little shotgun shack behind a trailer park. “Sloppiest-looking place you’d ever seen—looked like a flood had hit it. And we went into this shack,” he continued, “and he goes down a hall, turns left, pulls a box out from under the bed.” Bussard felt that familiar churn of anticipation in his gut, but he knew deals like this could curdle quickly. The records might be garbage, or the man might decide at the last minute—when confronted with a stranger’s barely contained eagerness—that he didn’t want to sell after all.

“[The box] had so much dust on it—like snow, like a blizzard.” Bussard leaned in and mimed blowing the dust off the surface. His cheeks puffed up and deflated, like a cartoon’s. Bussard’s whole life would be changed—nearly defined—by the next five minutes, but he didn’t know that yet. “First record I hit was an Uncle Dave Macon. Average. Carter Family. Charlie Poole. And then the first Black Patti. I went down a little further. Three more! Phew! Finally I got to the bottom of the box, and there were fifteen of ’em. I said, ‘Where’d you get these records from?’ He said, ‘Oh, some guy gave them to my sister in 1927, we didn’t like ’em so we put ’em in the box under the bed.’ I said, ‘What do you want for them?’ and he said, ‘Ten dollars.’ And I said, ‘Ten dollars.’” Read the rest of this entry »

In the Tradition

November 25, 2014 by

Kilby Snow

November 25, 2014 by


excerpt from notes by Mike Seeger (“Masters of Old-time Country Autoharp”):
John Kilby Snow was born May 28, 1906, in hilly Grayson County in southwestern Virginia.
By about the age of 4 he had started playing autoharp (his first tune, like Pop Stoneman’s,
was “Molly Hare”), and at the age of 5 he beat his brother-in-law (from whom he had first
learned) in a Winston- Salem, North Carolina, contest. Although he played other instruments, the
autoharp was his first love.
For a few years in the 1920s he traveled around playing wherever he could. He told me
of spending a couple of days with the Carter Family and playing some music with them around
Bristol, Virginia, probably in the late 1920s. I’ve often wondered whether, if Kilby was sometimes
holding his instrument nearly upright (as he did for these recordings) and playing “drag notes”
back then, that possibly influenced Maybelle Carter.
About ten years later she started playing the autoharp upright rather than in her lap and sometimes even approximated the “drag-note” effect.  She held the instrument in her arms and unlike Kilby could play the instrument while standing.
Nevertheless, she certainly could have managed these innovations on her own.
Kilby worked mostly as a builder and carpenter and later for the highway department until
his retirement.
His use of drag notes certainly has been at the center of his adapting blues and modern country songs to his autoharp repertoire.  He first drew his repertoire from family and community and later from commercial recordings by early country artists such as Blind Alfred Reed and the Carter Family. In the late 1950s and 1960s he picked up songs from Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and country singers such as Carl Smith and Merle Haggard. He also composed several country-style songs of his own.
After the release of his first record, Kilby began performing at concerts, folk festivals, and in
coffeehouses, helped a good deal by the efforts of Mike and Ellen Hudak. He was great fun to
play music with, and accompaniment seemed to spur him on. I especially remember a time in the
early 1960s at Sunset Park near Oxford, Pennsylvania, where Bill Monroe was putting on a show.
Kilby played autoharp while I backed him on guitar in one of the parking meadows, and a crowd
gathered around to hear old favorites like “Budded Roses” as well as some of the more recent Bill
Monroe songs such as “Close By” or the Monroe classic, “Muleskinner Blues.” It was exciting to
feel the spark that came from his music at those times.
Later in the decade I helped him record a solo Folkways recording, and I arranged a concert tour for us on the West Coast where we recorded a few of his songs on videotape, now released commercially. Up to the late 1970s he played a
few contests and festivals, most notably the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, where he
was a regular.

Louisiana Fiddlers

November 24, 2014 by


from http://www.upress.state.ms.us:

Louisiana Fiddlers, by Ron Yule (University Press of Mississippi),368 pages (approx.), 6 x 9 inches, 165 b&w photographs

Louisiana Fiddlers shines light on sixty-two of the bayou state’s most accomplished fiddlers of the twentieth century. Author Ron Yule outlines the lives and times of these performers, who represent a multitude of fiddling styles including Cajun, country, western swing, zydeco, bluegrass, Irish, contest fiddling, and blues.

Featuring over 150 photographs, this volume provides insight into the “fiddlin’ grounds” of Louisiana. Yule chronicles the musicians’ varied appearances from the stage of the Louisiana Hayride, honky tonks, dancehalls, house dances, radio and television, and festivals, to the front porch and other more casual venues. The brief sketches include observations on musical travels, recordings, and family history.

Nationally acclaimed fiddlers Harry Choates, Dewey Balfa, Dennis McGee, Michael Doucet, Rufus Thibodeaux, and Hadley Castille share space with relatively unknown masters such as Mastern Brack, “Cheese” Read, John W. Daniel, and Fred Beavers. Each player has helped shape the region’s rich musical tradition.



2nd South Carolina String Band (#2)

November 23, 2014 by

Music starts after 1 minute.

Kasse Mady Diabate

November 22, 2014 by

0.48316500 1414071657

from http://www.theguardian.com and http://www.kassemadydiabatemusic.com:

The Manding Empire was founded in the 13th Century by the emperor Sunjata. It swept from one end of West Africa to the other, from Casamance on the Atlantic coast all the way to Burkina Faso, thousands of miles to the east. Sunjata used a hitherto unheard of weapon to bind all his disparate peoples together: music. Music became a formidable political tool and turned the hereditary Manding musicians or djelis (griots) into a powerful caste.

Today, having survived centuries of change and turmoil, that caste is still flourishing. Drawing on themes as old as the Empire itself and melodies learned in childhood, the modern griots still mediate for social order. It explains how an artist such as Kassé Mady Diabaté can rise to such a degree of excellence and become a national treasure in Mali.

 Kassé Mady was born in 1949 in the village Kéla. His aunt was the great griotte Siramori Diabaté, while his grandfather was known as ‘Jeli Fama’, which means ‘The Great Griot’, thanks to the gripping quality of his voice. When Kassé Mady was 7 years old (a significant age in Manding culture), the elders of the family, including Siramori, realised that he had inherited his grandfather’s vocal genius. They schooled him and encouraged him, until he was able to launch his own career. He would go on to play a role in the most innovative moments in Malian music over the next five decades, first in his own country and later with landmark international collaborations.

 In 1970 he became lead singer of the Orchestre Régional Super Mandé de Kangaba. Kassé Mady’s remarkable singing won the group the national Biennale music competition in the Malian capital Bamako. The festival had been set up by the government, as part of a Cultural Authenticity initiative across all of the newly independent West African states, encouraging musicians to return to their cultural heritage.

In 1988 Kassé Mady left Mali and the Badema National behind and moved to Paris, where he recorded his first solo album for the Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla. He spent the next ten years in Paris, recording Fode, then Kéla Tradition, an acoustic album of Kéla jeli songs.

Moving back to Mali in the late 1990s, several collaborations followed, many of which have become landmark recordings: Songhai 2, the album he made with the flamenco group Ketama and Toumani Diabaté, and Koulandjan, on which he collaborated with Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté, an album which was famously cited by Barack Obama as one of his favourite albums of all time. Both of these albums were produced by Joe Boyd and released on his Hannibal label. Collaborations with Toumani Diabaté continued and he starred in Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra and Afrocubism projects, both recorded by World Circuit.

Now he has gone back to his roots, with some crucial outside help. This is an immaculately recorded, intimate set in which Kassé Mady is backed by a classy acoustic band of n’goni, balafon and kora (from the celebrated Ballaké Sissoko). The ancient African instruments are joined, sometimes surprisingly, by delicate cello work from producer Vincent Segal.

Listen here.

“His Wife Looked Right Through Him”

November 21, 2014 by


excerpt from “Dock Boggs in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia”
by Greil Marcus
Representations, No. 58 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-23

Dock Boggs was twenty-nine when agents of the Brunswick company-a major New York label with separate lines for “hillbilly” and “race” records-arrived in Norton, Va. to audition mountain talent. Boggs showed up at the Norton Hotel on Kentucky Avenue with a borrowed, second-rate banjo.

Even with a half-pint of Guest River whiskey in his stomach he was intimidated by the crowd of pickers and fiddlers: “I stood around and pitched them high as a dollar, dollar and a half at a time-I mean nickels, dimes, and quarters-to hear them play. They wasn’t doing nothing but playing and I was working on a coal machine.” A. P. Carter of the Carter Family failed the audition; Boggs passed.

He cut eight sides, four 78s, in New York City; the company wanted more but he demurred. Before traveling out of the Virginia mountains for the first time, Boggs went to the Norton haberdashery for a new suit, shoes to hat, socks to underwear; determined to walk the city streets with pride, he insisted on clothes that would draw no northern smiles.

Dock Boggs quit the mines after his records were released, drew crowds to schools and houses, formed the Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, and signed a booking agent, but the records sold mostly where he carried them. Boggs recorded only four more songs in the 1920s-generic blues and sentimental parlor lyrics written by a Richlands, Virginia, variety store owner named W. E. Myers.

Myers would send his “ballets,” or poems, to musicians he liked, hoping they would put his words to music. He’d release the results on his own Lonesome Ace label, which featured both a picture of The Spirit of St. Louis and the slogan “WITHOUT A YODEL,” because Myers loved Charles Lindbergh and he hated yodeling.

Boggs cut “Will Sweethearts Know Each Other There,” “Old Rub Alcohol Blues,” and two other Myers efforts in Chicago in 1929; then the Depression destroyed the southern economy and Myers went bankrupt. Boggs pressed on, writing to record companies, traveling to Atlanta for a session with Okeh, which shut down just before he arrived, finally surrendering when a recording date with Victor in Louisville fell through because Boggs, knocking on the doors of his now penniless friends and relatives, could not raise the train fare.

He drank hard, leaving home, even leaving the state for a week at a time, running to where no one would recognize him on the last day of a ten-day drunk, always returning home, where his wife looked right through him.  Again and again his wife gave him the same ultimatum: she refused to sleep with him unless he gave up his music, and finally, not long into the 1930s, he did.


November 20, 2014 by



We stepped out of New York into the life of the frontier settler of Daniel Boone’s time! Here are people who know naught of the advance which has been made in the world outside of their mountains. It surpasses belief. Many of them neither read nor write, and their knowledge is summed up in the facts of their daily life. In woodlore they shine, in planting and cultivating their corn, raising “razor back” hogs, carding, spinning, weaving and the distilling of their white ”moonshine.”

The next day a young matron, perhaps some twenty-five years old, sang for me the beautiful old ballad of “Sweet William and Lady Margery” the while she unconcernedly suckled a tiny babe. Here again both tune and intonation were perfect and the text but slightly altered. It is intensely interesting to hear these people sing of things which lie entirely out of their ken.

Had they the power of reading, one could not wonder at anything, but to hear these mountain folk born into the frontier life of the eighteenth century and spending their days amongst these isolated hills, sing of “ivory combs,” of lords and ladies, of castles and moats, of steeds and knights, is an astonishing matter.

It brings home to one the whole process of transmission, stretching back through the generations into the period when such things were of the Present. One old man had sung a ballad which contained the word “steed.” He was asked what the word meant. He scratched his head for a moment and slowly replied, “Wall, I reckon hit is some sort o’ hoss animile.” The context had assured him of that!  We were told in answer to a similar query as  to a certain word: “Shucks! Hit jus’ comes that way.” These people are the real simon-pure Americans!


November 19, 2014 by

from oldbluerecords.com:


Larry Richardon And The Blue Ridge BoysAt first glance, the cover photo may look like an RV convention. But die-hard Old-Time and Bluegrass fans know that every year in early August, the nooks and crannies of this crowded field are a hotbed of the best traditional music you’ll ever hope to hear. Though many inspirational performances occur on the stage of the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia, some of the finest musical gems can be heard behind the stage, in this maze of RVs, cars and tarps. This CD captures some of those magical performances played in 1967 and 2010. As you listen, you’ll notice that the quality, talent and musicianship have remained consistently high throughout this 33-year span.

The Greater Galax area has long been a hot-bed of great rural music. In the 1920s musicians like Ernest Stoneman; his brother, George; the (original!) Hillbillies; Wade, Fields and Crockett Ward; Ben Jarrell; Frank and Oscar Jenkins; to name just a few, traveled afar to Richmond, Indiana, Asheville, New York, Bristol to record. Even the Carter Family falls within that 60 mile radius circle. Many of these musicians played at the early Galax Old Fiddlers Conventions and are certainly one of the reasons that those contests got off to standing room only starts.

It was just as easy in the 1960s to go to the Galax and hear equally great musicians; even sometimes the musicians who got started in1920s.  Clark Kessinger, who recorded over 70 fiddle tunes for Brunswick between 1928 and 1930, is on everyone’s top five list of old time fiddlers. In the ‘60s whenever I asked a Texas fiddler where they got their tunes, they would mention Clark. He started fiddling again in the 1960s; his band took home the blue ribbon at the 1965 Galax convention. And he got the fiddle blue ribbon in 1970 when he was 74 years old! Buddy Pendleton was second and Otis Burris, Joey’s grandfather, third.

The three 1967 fiddlers, Leake Caudle, Oscar Jenkins and John Ashby, are sadly gone. The sixteen 2010 fiddlers, Eddie Bond, Bill Birchfield, Joey Burris, Andy Edmonds, Jerry Correll, Billy Hurt Jr., Corrina Logston, T.J. Lundy, Buddy Pendleton, Adrian Shepherd-Powell, Kilby Spencer, Kirk Sutphin and Betty Vornbrock, happily continue to make powerful, compelling music.

The bands heard here are equally important.  Their drive, tightness and imagination are necessary ingredients of every winning performance. The 34 tracks on OB 708 work out to over 73 minutes of music.  34 tracks; 16 different fiddlers – ages 20s to 70-plus; 39 different musicians!  If Clark were alive today, he would say something like: “Great job!  I’d enjoy playing with – or against – any of you.”

The Rare-Record Business

November 18, 2014 by


from http://www.nytimes.com:

The rare-record business is booming, despite the recession and the devaluation of music as a physical product. “Prices have been rising at a phenomenal rate, as people take money out of the stock market and out of different real estate investments and look for a place to put it,” said John Tefteller, a collector who makes his living dealing in rare records.

Although most collectors subspecialize by genre, whether jazz or classical or country, it’s early American rural blues — loose acoustic laments, recorded before 1935 and performed by artists who were born in or near the Mississippi Delta — that inspires the highest prices and the most fevered pursuits. “The early blues material from the ’20s and ’30s is the hottest material of all,” Mr. Tefteller said in a phone interview. He said that on average a rare jazz 78 might sell for $1,500 to $5,000, whereas sales for a comparable blues record would start at $5,000.

Blues music is in part mythological; its legend involves sweltering juke joints, homemade whiskey and Faustian bargains at rural crossroads. A furniture company in a largely white Midwestern suburb is rarely evoked in these reveries, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s Paramount Records — an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a manufacturer of wooden phonograph cabinets in Port Washington, Wis. — became an unlikely home for blues legends like Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Skip James. Paramount’s blues releases — especially its “race” records with label numbers in the 12000s and 13000s — are among the most coveted records in the world.

These particular records, he explained, are a finite commodity. “I would doubt that there are a hundred total Charley Patton records left in the world,” he said. Other artists’ discographies are even more limited: only eight copies of various 78s by Son House (who recorded eight sides, or four records, for Paramount) and 15 copies of discs by Skip James (who recorded 18 sides) appear to remain.

The stakes are high from a preservationist standpoint. If collectors weren’t tracking these records, the songs might be lost entirely, and speculation surrounding Paramount’s missing metal masters (the original transcriptions of a performance) has only amplified the significance of the remaining 78s. According to Alex van der Tuuk’s book “Paramount’s Rise and Fall” (Mainspring Press, 2003), in 1942 the bulk of the masters — by then corroded — were carted off by rail for reuse in World War II.

“The building where the metal masters had been stored didn’t have any insulation, and pigeons came into that building, and you can imagine what a bird does to a metal master,” Mr. van der Tuuk said by phone from his home in the Netherlands. Still, rumors — that they were hurled into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled former employees, or used to patch rat holes in chicken coops — persist. In 2006 the PBS program “The History Detectives” arranged for a team of divers to scour the bottom of the Milwaukee River. They came up empty-handed.


Dance of Death

November 17, 2014 by


Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, by Steve Lowenthal (Chicago Review)

reviewed by Steve Danziger (http://online.wsj.com):

John Fahey was a composer, musician and absurdist bard of the American suburbs. An acoustic guitarist who combined traditional finger-style technique with an avant-garde sensibility, he called his style American Primitive. He drew from blues, Indian ragas, Gregorian chant, hymns, musique concrète and seemingly anything else he heard to make music of great delicacy and often harsh beauty, infused with yearning and anguish.

Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore called him a “secret influence,” a designation that could be made by admirers from Pete Townshend to Sufjan Stevens. He was also a notorious flake, difficult to fathom in the best circumstances. Steve Lowenthal’s patchy biography “Dance of Death” offers the outline of his life but little insight, leaving Fahey impenetrable as he was influential.
Dance of Death

Fahey (1939-2001), lonely and meek as a child in Takoma Park, Md., eased his alienation by allowing his imagination to go berserk. He and his friends invented “a secret race of cat people” and a “local demigod, whom they named ‘the Great Koonaklaster.’ ” By age 13, his whimsy had teetered into darkness, beginning a lifelong preoccupation with death.

Records saved Fahey. Hearing Blind Willie Johnson sparked a “hysterical conversion experience,” so he bought a $17 guitar and fed his obsession with records from the 1920s and 1930s that he found by trolling thrift stores and by going door to door in black neighborhoods. In 1959, he started his own label and pressed 100 copies of his first album, “Blind Joe Death.” The imaginary bluesman of the title became an alter ego and an outlet for Fahey’s bizarre sense of humor. Later liner notes would include faux-scholarly histories of both Fahey, who “made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin,” and Blind Joe Death, “the old blind negro [he led] through the back alleys and whore-houses of Takoma Park in return for lessons.” Read the rest of this entry »

Jerron Paxton

November 16, 2014 by


by Frank Matheis  (www.thecountryblues.com):

Meet Jerron Paxton,  a modern day songster, minstrel and bluesman.  He is truly the living embodiment of the true blues in the 21st Century, but he plays it all in the true songster tradition: ragtime, hokum, old-time, French reels, Appalachian mountain music and blues and more – and whatever he plays sounds great .

The young bard was born in 1989, but his vast talent rivals the greatest in the genre. He is the whole package. He’s witty, fast rhyming, poetic, fun, exciting, wonderfully skilled as a musician and a fine singer, he is the continuation of a proud tradition, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to tell at times when Jerron Paxton, a consummate entertainer,  is putting on an act, when he takes his act to real life and when life starts and the act ends.

He seemingly appeals to  audiences into the old-times look and sound, but it could also be, as he told the countryblues.com “I just like wearing overalls.”  The artist has even reported to be the real-life son of Robert Johnson’s cousin. At first glance he looks like he’s playing the part of a bluesman in a Hollywood movie, dressed with theatrical retro-schtick, with some type of  various hats, from Derbies to Orthodox Jewish kippa.

The tall, corpulent young man almost looks like a young Willie Dixon, and he is smart to make hay when the grass is high, marketing himself directly to the segment of the blues community with a great nostalgic hunger for authentic musicians that accurately portray the image of the romanticized 1930s rural minstrel. It could be that for now, his closest local support group is the Jalopy Theater scene in Brooklyn, where there is an active old time community. Read the rest of this entry »

Revival Revival

November 15, 2014 by

Son House’s wife snapped this photo of Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, Son House, and Phil Spiro.

Department of Redundancy: the books mentioned below have previously been featured on oldtimeparty, but this essay is too good to pass up.

by Barry Mazor (www.newrepublic.com):

In mid-April, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story that might have been taken as a sign of a leap in interest in pre-World War II acoustic blues. It concerned the utterly obscure Depression-era singers Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. In fact, while John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” presented sensational aspects of the two women’s stories (a murder; closeted lesbian lives on the run), it had, at its heart, something else entirely.

The unpublished information about the duo was tracked down in the early 1960s by the fabled, troubled blues researcher and record collector Mack McCormick and then clandestinely poached from his files by a research assistant. Constructed to maximize suspense, that storyand the peculiarities of white, educated blues obsessiveswas the element that justified the article’s prominence in a publication not otherwise known for introducing forgotten music by minor artists of earlier eras.

The magazine’s editors are not alone. In the weeks since then,  new books have been published that take up related themes: stories of middlemen blues researchers and record collectors, often, of guys who’ve been both. What’s going on here?

Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, Elion Paz’s lavish new volume of photographs depicts obsessive record collectors and their shelves upon shelves of immensely prized possessions. The book offers colorful photos of fanatic young collectorsstanding in front of LPs with covers of certain colors, of all the David Bowie recordings, of private pressings with covers that are pure kitsch. And yet, articles about the book at Slate and Esquire have focused on the only pre-war singles collector in the 416-page volume, the jocular but cranky blues, early jazz and hillbilly specialist, Joe Bussard, age 76, possessor and caretaker of one of the largest private collections of 78 rpm records in those fields.

What drives collectors of old 78s like Joe to organize so much of their lives around relentless searching for and organizing of coveted rarities? Those questions are central in the latest book by journalist Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, which looks in on the obsessive collector subculture, and blues 78 collectors in particular. To see what manic searching for rare records feels like, Petrusich goes hunting with the Grammy-winning engineer Chris King and brings us along. While more interested in the music than in collecting, King shows her where unaccounted-for blues sides might still be lurking. (Inside old Victrola cabinets for sale in the South, is one place.)

Like many of the hardcore blues collectorsand collectors of anythingPetrusich has idiosyncratic opinions and strong responses to the music on those venerable, scratchy original 78s. She’s graphic when she describes her own intense, agitated physical reactions: “I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up into my esophagus … I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it,” she says of hearing an original pressing of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues” for the first time. She also describes her strong predilection for blues records that are unremittingly bleak. That’s not an unusual preference for a member of a generation raised on the notion that caressing the texture of devastation and disconnection in art is profound, for whom lighter blues is unthinkably upbeat.

In the most colorful adventure in Do Not Sell, Petrusich dons a wet suit and searches for the legendary master recordings from Paramount that were, according to some accounts, thrown into the nearby Milwaukee River when the manufacturer went out of business. She doesn’t find any. The George Plimpton-style role-taking, intended to demonstrate how strong an obsession finding a rare record can be, perhaps better illustrates the lengths a writer might go to enliven a chapter.

She also reiterates the story of the “Blues Mafia,” the tight gang of white blues collectors of the 1950s and ’60s, some of whom turned into impresarios, some into recluses, who played such an influential role in changing the idea of which blues mattered. The specialists who coveted rarely heard records came to elevate rarely heard performers. If today people so often take Mississippi delta blues (Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton) for heart of the form, it’s in no small measure because the collector-researchers of the ’50s and ’60s, and the blues rockers who followed their lead, taught us to think that way. In fact, those edgy, relatively marginalized, rural guitar players had, for the most part, been little-known artists with limited sales among the black Southern audience, which generally saw blues as dance music. But they presented challenging sounds and images irresistible to the white collector specialists.

Blues radio veteran Steve Cushing’s new 355-page anthology, Pioneers of the Blues Revival, gathers together detailed interviews with 17 of the key collector-researchers, particularly those who became constructive blues activists (Sam Charters, Paul Oliver, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Dick Spottswood, David Evans). These collectors founded reissue and new issue labels, created detailed discographies and blues histories, and most productively, enabled late-in-life coda careers for performers they “rediscovered,” including Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. Cushing’s detailed discussions with significant blues revival researchers tell crisscrossing artist- and record-rediscovery stories, portraying a close-knit scene with its own rituals, famous incidents, lost heroes, and well-recalled ne’er-do-well connivers. One of the classic blues revival stories is the tale (recalled by multiple researchers) of how a number of leading lights of the Blues Mafiaincluding eventual guitar hero and label executive John Faheyraced to be the ones to locate Skip James in Mississippi.

Crucially, all the interviewees in Cushing’s book could still meet and talk with the blues originators directly. Fifty years after 1964, we’re a lot further away from the height of the mid-century blues revival than the revival was from the era of acoustic recorded blues. This points to one reason we’re hearing a lot about the blues collector revivalists now: The gents who had direct contact with the music-makers are themselves aging and dwindling in number.

 The aging of the blues collecting generation does not in itself fully explain recent fascination with that scene and its constituents. That this is an era in which music readily changes hands with no physical traces may be more to the point. It is hard to imagine future generations fetishizing hard-drive MP3 collections. Is there, perhaps, nostalgia or even envy at work here for fanatics who could actually collect, and possess their prizes in tangible physical form?

Nothing has yet made the middlemen more vital or interesting than the music they organized around and collected, howeverand nothing could. Attempts to find fresh stories may keep moving us, layer by layer, further away from the music itselfone more Russian stacking doll away from the music at the center.





Appreciating JSP

November 14, 2014 by


edited from Mike Yates (www.mustrad.org.uk):

JSP records were formed in 1978 by London-based blues promoter John Stedman.  (JSP actually stands for John Stedman Promotions.)  Over the past few years they have been slowly issuing classic box sets of early 78rpm recordings, not only of blues singers, but also of old-timey and country music, jazz, music-hall, and an assortment of so-called ‘ethnic’ recordings; the latter including Jewish Klezmorin, Greek Rembetika, Cajun and both Bulgarian and Slovenian singers and musicians.

The two volume set of Uncle Dave Macon recordings are, to my mind, amazing (JSP7729 & JSP7769), especially when you consider that a similar German re-issue set can cost you in excess of £200.  Likewise the outstanding Charlie Poole set (JSP7734), which is again far cheaper than the offerings of some other re-issue companies.  Some anthologies, such as Serenade in the Mountains –Early Old-Time Music on Record (JSP7780), contain really outstanding performances, although in one or two cases, Classic Field Recordings (JSP77131) springs to mind, some of the performers are not quite in the same league.

One other performer, Riley Puckett, whose sometimes eccentric guitar runs and vocals were a feature of the Skillet Licker’s recordings, surprised me when I heard his 4 CD set – Riley Puckett: Country Music Pioneer (JSP77138).  Here was a performer, I thought, who would not have enough good material to fill 4 CDs.  Well, I was wrong and I have to say that Puckett’s singing, even on songs such as Little Brown Jug, Red Sails in the Sunset, Moonlight on the Colorado, When I Grow too Old to Dream and South of the Border seems to get better each time I play these albums.

Three of my favourite old-timey sets are Worried Blues (JSP7743), which contains all the recordings made by Frank Hutchinson and Kelly Harrell (as well as recordings by the Tenneva Ramblers and the Blue Ridge Highballers), Serenade in the Mountains (JSP7780), with recordings by the likes of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Nation Brothers, the Carolina Tarheels and the Floyd County Ramblers, and Mountain Frolic (JSP77100), another anthology with superb recordings by Buell Kazee, Al Hopkins, the Crockett Family and many, many more.

I should also mention Appalachian Stomp Down (JSP7761) which contains the recorded works of two of my favourite performers, G.  B.  Grayson & Henry Whitter.  Grayson, a lovely old-time fiddler, was descended from the sheriff of that name who arrested the legendary Tom Dooley.

There are solo sets by the Delmore Brothers (JSP7727, JSP7765 & JSP7784), Cliff Carlisle (JSP7732 & JSP7768), Darby & Tarlton (JSP7746), and J.E.Mainer (JSP77118 & JSP77124).  If you are looking for early bluegrass recordings then I would suggest Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys: All the Classic Releases 1937 – 49 (JSP7712), the anthology Bluegrass – Classic Recordings Remastered.  Early Cuts from 1931 – 53 (JSP7731), another anthology Authentic Rare Bluegrass – Independent Label Sides 1951 – 54 (JSP77110), which contains some wonderful tracks, and Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers (JSP7724).  I really do like the Stanley Brothers’ early recordings, especially their version of the old English folk song Oxford City (here titled The Little Glass of Wine).


Ralph Peer (#2)

November 13, 2014 by



Ralph Peer in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Peer family archives

from http://www.pbs.org:

During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

Among the artists were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded hits like “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” there. These songs launched them to stardom and their successes were only the beginning for Peer, who popularized the genres of country, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin music.

Peer had already been recording “hillbilly” songs — what is now known as country — across the Southern United States for five years before the Tennessee recordings.

A new book by music journalist Barry Mazor, “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” follows the arc of both Peer’s life and the music industry.

His story begins in the era of the wind-up crank cylinder and ends in the age of color television. In that span of time, he navigated performance rights and recording contracts, emphasizing that songwriters and producers each received their share of the profits.

“I think Ralph Peer did more than anyone, any other one single person, to change the popular music we hear,” Mazor told Art Beat. “Yet people don’t necessarily know the name.”

But the names of artists he worked with are recognized as musical greats: Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Perez Prado, Buddy Holly. The list goes on.

While Mazor was working on his previous book, “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century,” he learned about Peer’s relationship to Rodgers. Mazor was fascinated by the man who recorded and produced so much of the music he personally enjoyed listening to and writing about. Read the rest of this entry »

Jean Ritchie Tribute

November 12, 2014 by


Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (Compass Records)

edited review by Donald Teplyske (http://lonesomeroadreview.com):

Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third.  It can also be exhausting.

Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children.  Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.”

While a handful of the performers on this CD have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so. Read the rest of this entry »

“Goodbye, boys, we’re gone”

November 11, 2014 by


edited excerpt from “The Southern Textile Song Tradition Reconsidered,”
by Doug DeNatale and Glenn Hinson
Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 28, No. 2/3

The conditions of cotton mill life had a dramatic impact on the shape and social context of Southern music in general. Mill musicians themselves perceived music more often as a means for self-advancement than as a vehicle for mass protest. The development of the fiddlers’ convention as a paying contest and the increased popularity of small travelling shows first suggested the possibility of an alternative source of cash to mill musicians.

It is no coincidence that Henry Whitter and Fiddlin’ John Carson, the very first Southeastern musicians to make commercial recordings, were textile workers. Other mill workers such as G. B. Grayson, Ernest Stoneman, Kelly Harrell, Charlie Poole, J. E. and Wade Mainer, and many others soon followed their example. The number of mill workers who became significant recording artists in the 1920s and 1930s is impressive, and indicates the extent to which mill workers attempted to cash in on their musical abilities. The story told of Charlie Poole’s departure from the Spray mill captures the sense of optimism many must have felt:

They came early in the morning, before the looms started, to draw their last paychecks. Bringing their instruments into the mill with them, they sat down at the end of one of the rows of looms. As their fellow mill workers gathered around, they played Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. When they finished, Poole spoke up and said, ‘Goodbye, boys, we’re gone.'”

Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country

November 10, 2014 by


R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country (Abrams Books, 238 pages, CD incuded))

by Terry Zwigoff (excerpt from R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country):

Robert’s original idea was to include a single music card with each Yazoo LP, in much the same spirit as the established trading card tradition that dates back over a century.  It was Nick Perls [Yazoo Records founder] who wanted to package the cards as a thirty-six-piece boxed set.  That gave Nick an additional item to sell rather than a bonus premium to give away with his paltry LP sales.

He also had Robert design beautiful point-of-purchase store displays for the card sets, which are rare and collectible items today.  I remember walking around the West Village with Nick as he tried to talk the local merchants into carrying the card sets.  He was pretty successful.  The cards were appealing and colorful and sold well right from the start.

Numerous printings were done over the years, and the rights passed from Nick to other publishers.  After Nick died, the original artwork for the cards was sold and today is owned by a successful film director in northern California.

Initially, Robert wanted to draw only the country string bands for the country set, but he was persuaded to include Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and a few more well-known entertainers.  Robert liked these artists, but he seemed to get a bigger kick out of celebrating the lesser-known bands.  Perhaps he wanted to give them a well-deserved bit of recognition after all their years of obscurity.

The existence of available photographs partly determined the musicians he chose to include.  It’s a minor miracle that someone had a photo of Mumford Bean and His Itawambians, a band so obscure that their one existing 78 has only been heard by maybe  dozen hard-core country collectors, and has never been reissued.




Will Slayden

November 9, 2014 by


from http://archives.nodepression.com:

Will Slayden: African-American Folk Songs From West Tennessee (Tennessee Folklore Society CD)

Recorded music can serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes it entertains, sometimes it empowers, and sometimes it merely documents the weaving of a particular thread in our cultural fabric. At various points in the last half-century these songs might have done all three. Of course, musically speaking, 1952 wasn’t so long ago. And the story of how these recordings came to be is central to understanding the document itself.

In 1952, Charles McNutt was a young anthropology student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was also a student of the banjo, and he developed an interest in the instrument’s African (and African-American) roots. Influenced by the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax, McNutt set out to locate and record an African-American banjo player near his home of Memphis, Tennessee. His journey led him to Will Slayden, a sharecropper in his 60s who had given up the instrument when he became a Christian some two decades prior. McNutt rented a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, loaned Slayden an $8 banjo, and captured an afternoon of history using a hand-held microphone.

Slayden’s style seems distinct from other banjo players. His banjo is tuned from a half-step to a full step below open G, and his drop-thumb or “drag-thumb” technique is largely percussive. Slayden consistently emphasizes the low strings, and he rarely plays up the neck or moves into higher registers. His sound bears little in common with the clawhammer style of old-time players throughout Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas.

This music was obviously a product of the Delta region. (To put Slayden’s life and music in greater context, one should note that he was born more than a decade before Robert Johnson.) His repertoire included a mix of folk songs, spirituals and blues. Religious numbers such as “When The Saints Go Marching In”, “God Can Use You”, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and “So Glad” are only slightly more prevalent than the more worldly “Spoonful”, “Ain’t Had None In A Long Time” and “Good Thing I Got More Than One”. Also included are such standards as “John Henry” and “The Old Hen Cackled”.

This disc contains twenty selections with fully transcribed lyrics, plus comprehensive liner notes by McNutt and musicologist David Evans. Ultimately, there are very few recordings of black banjo players from any time period. That fact alone makes this collection valuable.

In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music

November 8, 2014 by


In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music, by Ben Wynne (Louisiana State University Press)

from http://lsupress.org:

Born into poverty in Mississippi at the close of the nineteenth century, Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers established themselves among the most influential musicians of their era. In Tune tells the story of the parallel careers of these two pioneering recording artists—one white, one black—who moved beyond their humble origins to change the face of American music.
At a time when segregation formed impassable lines of demarcation in most areas of southern life, music transcended racial boundaries. Jimmie Rodgers and Charley Patton drew inspiration from musical traditions on both sides of the racial divide, and their songs about hard lives, raising hell, and the hope of better days ahead spoke to white and black audiences alike.
Their music reflected the era in which they lived but evoked a range of timeless human emotions. As the invention of the phonograph disseminated traditional forms of music to a wider audience, Jimmie Rodgers gained fame as the “Father of Country Music,” while Patton’s work eventually earned him the title “King of the Delta Blues.”
Patton and Rodgers both died young, leaving behind a relatively small number of recordings. Though neither remains well known to mainstream audiences, the impact of their contributions echoes in the songs of today. The first book to compare the careers of these two musicians, In Tune is a vital addition to the history of American music.

John Cohen Looks Back

November 7, 2014 by

The Blues House (pt.2)

November 7, 2014 by

photo_4_smfrom http://www.blueshouse.com:

In the early 1960s an unlikely audience latched on to the blues of the Depression era: college students and record collectors from New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Berkeley. “The blues mafia,” as they liked to call themselves, studied rare 78s, so rare that sometimes, as in the case of Skip James’s “Drunken Spree,” there was only one known copy of a record. And a few thought about driving south to locate the men whose voices they heard coming from their turntable. But where to start? There were no biographies, no press releases to consult or Wikipedia page. The songs were all they had.

In 1963, Tom Hoskins, a member of the so-called blues mafia, drove to a general store and post office in the southeast corner of the Mississippi Delta. On old maps this spot was labeled “Avalon,” and more than three decades before, Mississippi John Hurt, a figure revered by the blues mafia, had recorded a song called “Avalon Blues.” At the store Hoskins got directions to Hurt’s house. Hearing that he was from Washington, D.C., Hurt initially believed Hoskins was a revenue collector. Finally, Hoskins was able to convince Hurt of his true purpose, and was also able to convince him to come north and begin recording again. A few months later, Hurt, who had not made a recording since the 1920s, was appearing on the Johnny Carson Show and at the Newport Folk Festival.

That same year, a guitarist named John Fahey sent a letter to

Booker White (old blues singer)
c/o General Delivery
Aberdeen, MS

“I’m sitting down in Aberdeen, with New Orleans on my mind,” sang White in his 1940 song “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” When the letter was forwarded to him, White, who was now living in Memphis, replied to Fahey, and the following year Fahey decided to track down the most elusive bluesman of all, Skip James. In June of 1964 he left Berkeley with Bill Barth and Henry Vestine, friends and fellow guitarists. Read the rest of this entry »

Hunting for Old Records

November 6, 2014 by


Lead Kindly Light

November 5, 2014 by


from http://www.dust-digital.com:

Lead Kindly Light, by Sarah Bryan and Peter Honig

Description: 176-page hardcover, clothbound book with 2 CDs featuring recordings of Rural Southern Music: Old Time, String Band Music from Appalachia, extremely rare Country Blues and African American gospel singing from 1924-1939.

159 Photographs from the Collection of Sarah Bryan reproduced in full color
46 Audio Recordings from the 78 RPM Record Collection of Peter Honig

A portrait of the rural American South between the dawn of the twentieth century and World War II, Lead Kindly Light brings together two CDs of traditional music from early phonograph records and a fine hardcover book of never-before-published vernacular photography. North Carolina collectors Peter Honig and Sarah Bryan have spent years combing backroads, from deep in the Appalachian mountains to the cotton and tobacco lowlands, in search of the evocative music and images of the pre-war South.

The music of Lead Kindly Light presents outstanding lesser-known recordings by early stars of recorded country music, as well as rarely- and never-reissued treasures by obscure country, blues, and gospel artists. The photographs, mainly images of the rural and small-town South, are richly textured depictions of family life, work, and fun, and the often accidental beauty of the vernacular snapshot.


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