Archive for the ‘articles/profiles’ Category

Eli Smith

April 22, 2014
The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen at the Brooklyn Folk Festival (Down Home Radio)

The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen at the Brooklyn Folk Festival (Down Home Radio)


It seems like 31-year-old banjo player Eli Smith was destined to play old-time folk music. He grew up in Greenwich Village–the epicenter of the 1960s folk revival boom. His parents–who are left-wing political activists–exposed him to the folk sounds of giants like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But it wasn’t until he listened to music by the likes of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt and The New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time string band,  as a teenager that he started to seek the sources behind that old-time roots sound.

“It was the first music that really spoke to me,” he says. “I never heard any folk music on the radio and never saw it on TV. But when I started to finally find it for myself and hear the authentic sound of the vanished rural American music, that was the sound that really spoke to me, the feeling that I was looking for. That was the music that I loved.”

Smith is one of the members of the Brooklyn old-time string group, the Down Hill Strugglers, along with fellow multi-instrumentalists Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch. Formerly known as the Dust Busters, the Down Hill Strugglers perform traditional authentic roots music. Their latest album, Show Me the Way To Go Home, was released in October; and their performance of the traditional folk tune, “The Roving Gambler,” appears on the soundtrack of the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, Inside Llewyn Davis.“I’m personally hoping to reform the notion of folk music,” says Smith. “I think it’s become very corrupt where people think folk music is just singer-songwriters or somebody idly strumming on a guitar. So what I want to bring people [is] some culture that really has deep roots and is very rich and diverse.”

If the music on Show Me the Way to Go Home sounds authentically rustic as if it was coming from a 78 RPM record, it was intended that way. The album was produced in a field recording style at Red Hook’s Jalopy Theater. “We’re big fans of field recordings,” says Smith. “It’s what folklorists do when they go out into the country and locate musicians in their homes or wherever they may be and just record them there. That’s the sound we were going for. I think we got some really good old-time music there.”

Smith and Shepard met each other through Peter Stampfel, a member of the 1960s New York City folk group the Holy Modal Rounders; it was also through Stampfel that they met John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers. “He’s somebody that I had admired since I was in high school,” Smith says of Cohen, “so it was amazing finally to get to meet him and really learn from him in a personal way. I’d never thought that would happen and it’s been a real honor.”

The Down Hill Strugglers considered their bid to appear on the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that was inspired by the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene to be a long shot. Both the band and Cohen collaborated on “The Roving Gambler,” a song the Strugglers first recorded on their previous album as the Dust Busters.

“We sent in a demo and didn’t expect anything to come of it,” recalls Smith. “But then we got a call from [producer] T Bone Burnett’s office telling us to come to this recording studio. We recorded songs for possible inclusion on the soundtrack. We did the session and didn’t hear anything for quite a while. We figured, ‘Well, that was fun but nothing’s gonna happen.’ But then we got a phone call saying that in fact one of our songs was going to be used on the soundtrack. We were very pleased about that.”

In addition to playing with band, Smith is the host of the Down Home Radio Show and a banjo instructor at the Jalopy Theater. He is also founder of the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival and the Washington Square Festival. Through his band and his projects, Smith seems like he’s on a mission to bring back this old-time music for this generation and beyond.

“We’re trying to find our own voice within the realm of the old rural America,” he says, “which is a society that is pretty much vanished now but left this great legacy of sound and this great aesthetic that was created by rural working-class Americans over hundreds of years. We don’t want to see that sound go away. The music has a lot of meaning…the lyrics have a lot of history and they’re really laden with meaning. To us it’s very powerful music.”

Ali Farka Toure (#2)

April 21, 2014

edited from Banning Eyre ( and Ali Farka Toure (notes to “Radio Mali”)

Ali Farka Toure, of Niafunke, Mali,  set aside his family’s noble heritage to take on the lower-status work of a musician, not to pursue rock ‘n’ roll dreams or transcend wretchedness, but because he wanted to educate people about the rich but neglected cultures of the Malian north, the Sonrai, Songoy, Peul, and Tuareg peoples.

In one hauntingly melodious song from his CD Savane, “Machengoidi,” Toure asks, “What is your contribution to the development of society?” and then answers, “I am a teacher.”

Ali Farka Toure: The spirit who gave me the gift, I knew him very well.  And I remember that night in Niafunke.  A night I’ll never forget.  I was about thirteen years old.  I’d been chatting with some friends. I had the monochord  [single string guitar] in my hand.

I was walking and I was playing just ordinary songs, just like that.  It was about 2 a.m. I got to a place where I saw three little girls like steps of stairs, one higher than the other.  I lifted my right foot.  The left one wouldn’t move.  I stood like that until 4 a.m.

Next day I walked to the edge of the fields.  I didn’t have my instrument with me.  I saw a snake which had a strange mark on its head.  One snake.  I knew the color right away.  Black and white.  Not yellow, not another color, black and white.  And it wrapped itself around my head.  I brushed it off, it fell and went into a hole.  I fled.  It was then that I started having attacks.

I entered a new world.  It’s different than when you’re in a normal state; you’re not the person you know anymore.  Whether it’s fire, water, whether they beat you, you won’t feel a thing.

I was sent to the village of HomborI to be cured and I stayed there for a year and when I was well again I returned home to my family.  There I began playing again and I was very well received by the spirits.

Pat Conte, pt. 1

April 19, 2014

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The venerated Long Island country blues & roots musician Pat Conte is a New York cultural institution, a virtual powerhouse of the oldtime American string music. Every city in America has or used to have someone like him, the obsessive 78 rpm record collector, the passionate preservationist or the record-store musicologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Whatever his day job, he (it was almost always guys) lived and breathed obscure trivia, seemingly knowing every detail about every musician’s life and times. These are the folks who can tell you exactly who played on each record and will argue with fellow musicologists for hours over just about any topic they can find to debate about. That’s the fun of it. It’s not just music, it’s a way of life.

Pat Conte, folklorist, promoter of traditional music and muscianer, may not be well known outside of the local sphere, but in New York he is the most important blues musicologist. There are not many folks left like Pat Conte. Larger than life. Passionate, almost manic about their music. These folks were the teachers who made it their mission to turn as many people on to the oldtime music as they could. You used to find folks like Conte in record stores, the great “record store musicologists” who seemingly had an infinite knowledge base, the people of whom you could ask anything and they would know…

Today, sadly, there are fewer and fewer dwelling places for these great minds. You can find Pat Conte playing regionally around New York, most likely in the Jalopy Theater.

Pat Conte collects records, with a vast library of 78s. He performs it and acts as a self-appointed preservationists of old time blues and roots music. These are the folks who truly celebrate the legacy of the golden era of the blues, the great country blues artists of the 1920s and Depression era music of the ‘30s. Pat Conte and the other devotees have made it their single-handed mission to preserve, promote and play this music.

Together with his former musical partner, the late, great Bob Guida, he was part of the amazing duo “The Otis Brothers” a blues & roots duo who specialized in truehearted preservation and performance of obscure and esoteric country blues, which they performed so close to the original 78 rpm recordings that if you listened with your eyes closed you would think you just time traveled back a half a Century or more. They were immortalized by fellow collector and musical preservationist Robert Crumb in his famed record cover collection.

Conte has produced “The Secret Museum of Mankind” series for Yazoo Records and released five wonderfully eclectic compilations. He is active in Brooklyn’s famed Jalopy Theater, a venue and music school that features the commercially unappealing, obscure roots music that we all love.

In addition to being a walking cultural treasure as historian and musicologist, Pat Conte is a superb musician with a vast repertoire of roots & blues. He plays and sings it in the authentic fashion, tightly close to the original and always focused on keeping songs alive that may otherwise be lost in the annals of folk music, never to be played again.

Changing Lives with Recorded Sound

April 17, 2014


excerpt from Anthony Seeger (

For 12 years I was director of Smithsonian Folkways recordings at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Folkways Records was an independent record company founded in New York City by Moses Asch in 1948. When it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 it had a catalogue of 2,168 titles in print, including the music of many genres, many countries, and particular strength in “unpopular” recordings—recordings issued for reasons other than sales alone.

The Folkways recordings had been published as long as forty years previously, and were all carefully kept in print during that time. This gave them a long time to influence people—in fact to influence generations of listeners.I discovered the existence of a whole genre of stories that might be called “My Influential Folkways Record.” People would tell me about a certain Folkways recording they could remember and how important it was to them. They would usually describe how they happened to acquire it.

They often would say, “I never imagined such a thing existed.” Then they would go on to tell me more about the music or sound. Often their descriptions included the phrase “and it changed my life.” Some of these stories came from well-known musicians—Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Mickey Hart all remember such recordings. Most of the stories came from people I had never heard of, but whose lives had been equally affected.

Some people wrote about their experiences. From the author Jon Pankake: “In the case of my own questing youth, my discovery of the Anthology [of American Folk Music] at the age of twenty-one quite literally changed the course of my life”

My e-mail files at the Smithsonian were erased in a change of platform, but one of my assistants filed some of the query letters we received. Here are a few:

From Denver, Colorado: “I would like your assistance in locating and purchasing an old LP record. Mormon Pioneers is the title.… I know it existed because I had a copy, probably about 30 years old.”

From Garland, Texas: “I have been searching for years for a particular recording of American Revolution era songs….. Song titles I recall are: To Anacreon in Heaven, The Women All Tell Me….”

These stories of an important recording in the person’s life sometimes passed directly into another genre of recorded sound story that I also found to be extremely widespread. This is the genre of “How I Lost My Folkways Recording.” People would tell me that they lost their treasured recordings to fire, or divorce, or in a flood, or a sudden move. Here is an example:

From St. Louis, Missouri: “Some time ago a number of my records were stolen from my car. I have been able to track down copies of some of them, but two of my most cherished records, both Folkways, have proven impossible to find…. I would give anything to have them back in their original format again….I realize this may sound a bit unusual to you, but I am really quite serious about it; those records were incredibly special to me. The two in question are: The Music of New Orleans: Music of the Dance Halls; and The Music of New Orleans volume 5: New Orleans Jazz—the Flowering.”

These stories of loss were often followed by my revelation that every single Folkways recording ever released was still in print and available directly from the Smithsonian so they could retrieve their past, replace their lost recording, and do so assured that artists would receive royalties and my staff would get paid. But before I got to that point in the conversation, the vivid impact that these recordings had on people was always forcefully brought home to me.

Another important group of stories recounted that hearing the recording “made me want to play the music.” This is one of the most significant groups to me, because that is precisely what we as music educators hope people want to do—becoming self-motivated scholars and learning to play the music are two things some listeners resolved to do after hearing recordings. Some of the recordings influenced scholars: Marina Roseman, who has published books and recordings of the Temiar of Malaysia, became interested in the Temiar through an old Folkways recording of their music (Roseman, personal communication).

Peter Stampfel (a member of the Fugs and many other groups) wrote of the Anthology of American Folk Music: “Hearing all these people for the very first time, it was as if a veil was lifted…. ‘That’s what I was born to do,’ I thought. ‘Play and sing like those guys.’”

Not all of the people who talked to me spoke only about the sounds of Folkways. A recording is more than sounds—it has a look, cover art, and liner notes. They often spoke about the look and feel of the package, which in the era of LP records was made of heavy black cardboard with simple two-color slicks glued to them and a heavy piece of cardboard inside separating the long play records from the liner notes—often a thick pamphlet of them.

The Folkways look and the extensiveness of the enclosed notes were mentioned over and over again by people who recalled them, and also by the founder of Folkways, Moses Asch. He said he developed that heavy look because he wanted to show people that this was music to be taken seriously. It was important music. There was the look and feel of Folkways records that in itself had an impact on people. Sometimes, however, it was just the cover image that was remembered as in this letter:

From Middlesex, England: “I am looking for a Fred Gerlach recording. All I can remember is that on the record cover it portraited the strings of the guitar, and I believe the color was orange. So could you possibly let me know if it is still available?”


April 15, 2014


by Matthew Asprey (

THE DIGITAL AGE has coincided with the widespread excavation of stunning sounds from the past. Just check out the compilations released by such labels as Tompkins Square, Dust-to-Digital, Old Hat Records, Soundways, Now-Again, Mississippi, Sublime Frequencies, Arhoolie, and the Numero Group. The cavalcade indicates the staggering diversity of cultural expression in the twentieth century.

The best of these archival compilations do more than simply make great music available again. Radio presenter (and sometime protest singer) Bob Dylan said of Marshall Wyatt’s Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937:

“I got nothing against downloads and MP3s, but getting this CD with all the pictures and liner notes, well, it’s not as good as having it on the big 12” record, but at least there’s a booklet there, and believe it or not, folks, you can even read it in a power failure—as long as it’s daytime.”

The art of the music anthologist involves the sequencing of tracks, extensive annotations, the inclusion of archival photographs and historical documentation. The final package can be myth-shattering. The most ambitious compilations upset the complacency that creeps into our historicisation of the musical and social past, our desire to lock in definitions and musical genealogies.

Some provide an urgent counter-history by alerting us to an obscured genre or style or school of musicians; they can sometimes sketch in the till-now missing explanation for what came later. Others avoid definitive statements altogether, reminding us that the practice of music is too messy to be reduced to a dominant historical narrative, that music-making has always been a promiscuous activity, the fruit of numerous encounters and migrations, and as the decades pass it becomes more and more difficult to assess its true origins and connections.

The survival of music is largely a matter of chance. Of course only a small fraction of the music of the past hundred years was actually recorded; an even smaller fraction has survived to the present; even smaller still is the fraction that makes the leap to a digital format and an audience. We should be thankful for the reappearance of these beautiful ghostly sounds.

Music collectors are often called ‘crate-diggers’, which evokes a romantic image of dusty-thumbed record hunters in stifling basements and filthy flea markets and swap-meets, obsessed characters seeking the eureka moment when the impossible nugget is unearthed—even if these days the most valuable records are often found on eBay. Collector-anthologists are fascinating figures on the fringes of the contemporary music industry.

The American Country Waltz

August 11, 2013

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excerpt from JEMF Quarterly VOL. V, PART 1, SPRING,1969, NO.13:

We all know the waltzes of art music, and many of us are familiar with the popular and folk waltzes of Germany, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Few folklorists know, however, that country dancers and musicians in our own Southern states are as fond of the waltz as they are of any of the livelier steps one usually associates with old-time fiddle music.

Few dances or old-time fiddlers’ contests pass without such favorites as “Over the Waves” and “Wednesday Night Waltz.” And yet even those few collectors who have carefully noted down the country reels and breakdowns have been content to let the waltz go with a passing mention, if indeed they mention it at all.

The typical “Wednesday Night Waltz” melody is a strain of 32 bars. Considered in the key of C, its range is from middle C up an octave and a fifth to G.  Its first three bars have three long notes; the first and third are double-stops on the high C chord, and the second is usually a half-tone below or a full-tone above the other two.

These are followed by a rapid descent to the low C.  At the fifth bar the melody jumps up to A, then drops stepwise to the E of the low C chord. The second 8 bars are the same except that the concluding bars form a G7 or dominant-seventh chord. The third 8 bars repeat the first 8 exactly. The final 8 can vary considerably, but nearly always end with a stepwise passage from the high E down to the high C.

Rather than going through that again, This is a recording made by the Leake County Revelers in 1926, which was in the catalog for over twenty years and is one of the all-time best-selling country records. 

The usual methods of classifying folk tunes—incipits, contours, emphasized and neglected pitches, and so on—are dependent on melody alone. And when we are studying music which is purely melodic, and not traditionally performed with harmony (such as Child ballads) we should certainly stick to these methods. But in the country waltz we are dealing with an essentially harmonic form.

We see this both historically and empirically: first by the historical connection of the country waltz with the obviously harmonic waltzes of Europe, and secondly by the inevitable presence in country waltz performances of a harmonic support
(usually a guitar or banjo) behind the melodic fiddle lead.

And if we can judge by the Leake County Revelers, the harmonic method represents not only a fast way of classifying tunes, but a way that agrees (at least subconsciously) with the folk attitude toward them.


Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone

August 8, 2013

7 Amede Ardoin Chris King

from “DRAGGED THROUGH THE FOREST: The Long-Gone Sound of Amédé Ardoin,” by Amanda Petrusich:

It’s possible most of Ardoin’s songs are about one person: the girl to whom he was betrothed, or about to be betrothed—the most profound romantic fascination of his young life. As far as I can tell, theirs was a shotgun-to-the-temple, unbearable, drive-it-like-it’s-stolen love, uncompromising and insane. Something went wrong. They never married.

According to “Valse Des Opelousas,” she left, crying. “Oh, tite fille, si tu m’aimerais comme t’as voulu me dire / Tu te sentirais pas déçue pour ça ils sont après te dire,” Ardoin sings after her. Oh, little girl, if you loved me as much as you said, you wouldn’t feel so disappointed by what they’re telling you.

“In my understanding of that culture, in that particular time period, because it was so intensely Catholic and superstitious, you got married, and you didn’t get a new wife or husband until the other one died,” compiler Christopher King explained. “The same stigma was attached to betrothal.” Ardoin’s romantic outlook, from then on, was grim.

Because he couldn’t have her, Ardoin sang to her, over and over again. She appears often as “Jouline,” which King suspects was a pet name, a variation of “jolie,” or “pretty young thing,” though her actual name was Maisé Broussard. I imagine her as the kind of beautiful that makes your stomach hurt: sweet-faced and long-legged and a little mischievous around the eyes, too smart for her own good.

King likes to think that Ardoin sang to her with the hope that she’d eventually hear his prayers and adjurations—that he believed he could, in effect, sing her back to his side. He was clearly ready to die trying. “Oh, tite fille, moi, j’ai dit je m’aurais jamais marié / Oh, c’est rapport de voir ça t’as fait avec moi,” he sighs at the end of “Valse Des Opelousas,” his body gutted, his voice tired. Oh, little girl, I said I would never marry. Oh, it’s because of seeing what you’ve done to me.

The story of Amédé Ardoin’s death is apocryphal, something he shares with the Delta blues singers Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Sometimes mythology supersedes fact for so long that it becomes its own kind of truth by virtue of our belief in it; or, as with Ardoin, the details vary but the arc stays the same, stays true. (more…)

Jimmie Rodgers (#2)

July 31, 2013


from “Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins,” by Tom Piazza, and

In the last three weeks of Jimmie Rodgers’ life, he traveled by train, in the company of a private nurse, from San Antonio to Galveston, and then by boat to New York City for an epic series of recording sessions, so that his wife and daughter would have a backlog of material to help out financially after he was gone. He stayed at the Hotel Taft and took the time to look at a few songs by a couple of young songwriters, whom he received while in bed, propped up on pillows.

At the Victor recording studio on East 24th Street, a cot was set up where Rodgers could lie down and regain his strength between takes. The first day, May 17, 1933, he recorded four tracks, an amazing effort under the circumstances; they included “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now,” a composition by one of the young songwriters who visited him at his hotel.

The next day he recorded three tracks, including the beautiful “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes” and a track released as “Jimmie Rodgers’s Last Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “The Women Make a Fool Out of Me.” Rodgers skipped a day and went back in on May 20, but he was only able to record two songs before quitting.

He rested for three days. On May 24 the Victor people had set up a session with two other guitarists, and Rodgers, hanging on by a thread, recorded three songs with them. Then, solo, he recorded his last song, “Fifteen Years Ago Today,” sometimes issued as “Years Ago.”

The next day his nurse took him for a tour of Coney Island. He suffered a terrible attack of coughing and spasms and had to be brought back to the hotel, and in the deep morning hours of May 26 he died.

At the recent  Mississippi Picnic  at New York’s Central Park the “Singing Brakeman’s’”  iconic guitar was  played for the first time in 80 years to record music.

Rodger’s custom-ordered 1927 Martin 000-45, has his name in pearl inlay on the neck and “Thanks” written upside down on the back. After his death, Rodgers’ widow loaned the 000-45 to Ernest Tubb, who played it for forty years. It was later donated to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum, in Meridian, Mississippi, where it is kept in a safe behind glass.

Tribute artist Britt Gully received permission to use the guitar for recording a tribute CD and played the guitar at a Rodgers tribute at the event.

“This guitar is magical,” Gully said. “There was never a time when playing it that I did not realize what I was playing, and who played it before me.”

Dom Flemons

July 18, 2013

AN AMERICAN REVIVALIST: Dom Flemons and the Return of the African-American String Band

edited from  Geoffrey Clarfield (

Dom Flemons: “So there I was, in the Phoenix folk scene, collecting old 33s of Lomax’s Irish and English ballads in the Camden Folksongs of Britain series, and also a great New World Records release called The Roots of the Blues. That’s where I first heard ‘Buttermilk’ by Bob and Miles Pratcher, which was my first black string-band song, and also the first fife and drum record I ever heard of, Ed and Lonnie Young playing ‘Jim and John.’

In 2004, I discovered that the Lomax Archive, together with Rounder Records, had started publishing CDs, including the “Deep River of Song” series. Sid Hemphill’s fife and drum and string-band music, along with the other recordings from black Appalachia, transfixed me. I was also blown away by the Black Texicans album, which features the wonderful recordings of Pete Harris playing square-dance music.

This opened my eyes to the concept of black cowboys, which I had never, ever heard about before. But this was all still on the edge of my interests until I was invited out to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. It included African-American performers, Mike Seeger, and scholars interested in black string-band music and its origins. This was the turning point for me.”

The Gathering was organized to raise awareness of black string-band music in the hopes that African-American musicians young and old could get together and form a community where everyone would know that they weren’t alone in the world. As Lomax might have put it, it was an exercise in cultural equity. (more…)

Christopher King: Sonic Archaelogist

June 29, 2013

Christopher King is a re-mastering engineer, producer, and author.  He specializes in pre-war rural American music (with an emphasis on Cajun) and various Eastern European, Baltic, and Mediterranean musics. He edited “Five Days Married and Other Laments” (shown below).  He started Long Gone Sound Productions in 1999.  He won a Grammy in 2002 and has been nominated four times since then.  Check out

Christopher King: As this modern age progresses, people become less and less engaged with each other, their friends, and their culture. People have become more engaged with their digital devices and social networking “tools”. They are removing themselves from passionate exchanges of ideas and becoming, frankly, banal and incurious, and bland by products of popular culture. So, most of my projects attempt to engage totally, if just fleetingly, with the listener.

In other words, I wish that for an hour or two, we can sit and listen to these recordings, read the translations together, gaze at the artwork or images, and arrive at some sort of plateau of understanding together. When I have friends over to the house, and we listen to 78s, look at the pictures of the artists, and talk about the meaning of the lyrics, it is a completely immersed experience with the music. It’s not listening to the music while you wash the dishes, or walk the dog, or try to impress the girlfriend.
All pretenses are relaxed, and for a very short time, we have the opportunity to commune with the long-gone past, to participate with something lost that perhaps we should still have. It is this dialogue that I wish to create with my collections: posing more questions rather than putting forth some rigid structure.

The purpose of the Long Gone Sound Series is not didactic in nature nor scholarly in scope.

Rather, the goal of this venture is to create a catalyst for musical and cultural transformation.

We are providing an aperture through which the curious can enter and emerge either famished or full.

This is an attempt to capture, if just fleetingly, a discrete frequency in the spectrum of our fading sounds.

Chris King Five Days Married

Delmore Bros. (#2)

June 20, 2013


from “Imitating Nobody,” by William Hogeland (

Tight picking on unamplified instruments, harmony singing that blends plangency with verve, a repertoire embracing folk, blues, and sentimental song: this rich mixture, which now seems the natural property of bluegrass, was concocted during the first boom of commercial country music, when male duos developed the athletic, stripped-down music that would come to be known as “brother duet.”

As early as the 1920s, these duos became almost indispensable to the crowd-pleasing variety formats of barn-dance radio programs and kerosene-circuit schoolhouse shows. The earliest of these pairs (who weren’t always really brothers) worked in sharply varying styles. Darby & Tarlton had a bluesy act, full of vaudeville flourishes, Hawaiian guitars, and yodeling.

The Allen Brothers were sometimes taken for “race” (i.e., black) artists, playing a string-band version of ragtime—jazz banjo as piano, kazoo as horn—and singing in a rugged kind of r&b unison. Mac and Bob went the other way, preferring a barbershop-influenced formality, in which Mac added tenor harmony to Bob’s lead vocal and backed up the voices with serene mandolin breaks.

In remote northern Alabama, around Sand Mountain, brothers Alton and Rabon Delmore were listening closely. The large Delmore family labored as sharecroppers. “It seemed we never got a good place and we moved nearly every fall or winter. Seldom did we ever stay in one house more than a year. I don’t believe I have ever seen so many rocks on top of the ground.”

This is Alton Delmore’s own description from TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN PUBLICITY, the autobiography he was still working on when he died in 1964. (Alton Delmore was a frustrated journalist and fiction writer. Most early country singers didn’t write autobiographies, so his book is an invaluable historical resource. It’s also fun, not least for the disarmingly direct prose, some of which evokes the folk-art leanings of Gertrude Stein. Writing about his uncle, he penned: “He could write songs and sing them too and they were in books and his name was on them and they were very beautiful.”)

Prater and Hayes

June 17, 2013


from and

In February of 1928, guitarist Napoleon “Nap” Hayes and mandolinist Matthew Prater, two black musicians from Vicksburg, MSi, recorded four instrumental tunes in Memphis. The tunes — “Somethin’ Doin’,” “Easy Winner,” “Nothin’ Doin’,” and “Prater Blues” — showcase the clean musicianship of both players, with Hayes’ guitar providing a steady rhythmic accompaniment for the skillful mandolin lead.

The performances, while comprising only a small body of recorded work, reveal a unique and carefully stylized repertoire, fusing elements of string band, ragtime, and blues forms: the first two sides directly borrow themes and phrasings from Scott Joplin rags, “Something Doing” and “The Entertainer,” respectively.

Little biographical information is known regarding Hayes and Prater, who recorded as the Johnson Boys and the Blue Boys. The duo also recorded two numbers with popular bluesman Lonnie Johnson on violin, but those sides were not issued (they have only become available in recent years). The four duet recordings of Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater are collected on Document’s String Bands (1926-1929).

Bob Eagle has dug into Prater a little with no concrete results. He found records that could have been for Prater but not at all certain. He found a record for someone named Matt Prater, black, born 1886, who was boarding with one Sam Harris in Beat 2 of Leflore County, MS in 1900. Matt and parents were born in MS.

He also found a record for a Nap Hayes. “The most likely Hayes is Nap Hayes, black, born 1885, residing in Lee County, MS in 1918. He was working for one Ben Whitehead and his nearest relative was Lucinda Taylor, of Tupelo.”

Easy Winner and Somethin’ Doin’, like the recordings of Evans and McClain, used the mandolin guitar duet form widely popular among white musicians, such as the Callahan, Shelton and Monroe Brothers. Hayes was probably exposed to ragtime when working with the pianist Cooney Vaughn, and he ably supported Prater’s fluent mandolin runs.

Both The Easy Winners and Something Doing (to give them their exact names) are by Scott Joplin; and this version of the latter composition was the only one to appear on record between the piano-roll era and the Second World War. The same would be true of Easy Winner, were it not that Hayes and Prater do not play this tune at all, but assemble under its name two strains from Joplin’s The Entertainer and one from J. Bodewalt Lampe’s Creole Belles.

As it happens, this is the only record of The Entertainer from the cited period, too. Creole Belles was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, soon after his reappearance in the musical world in I963; his guitar treatment may be compared with a 1902 version, by banjoist Vess L. Ossman .

Prater and Hayes play “Somethin’ Doing”:

Snake Chapman

June 13, 2013


from “The North American Traditions Series: Its Rationale,” by Mark Wilson (General Editor):

One of the most intriguing musicians in our series is Owen “Snake” Chapman, a fiddler in his late ‘seventies from Canada, Kentucky. Snake knows as many melodies as any fiddler I have ever met, ranging from very old tunes learned from his father to modern “bluegrass” fare. Growing up in an isolated mountain hollow, Owen developed an astonishingly accurate ear for the nuances of a fiddle tune and can diagnose very sharply the manner in which the playing of certain popular fiddle tunes have evolved over his own lifetime.

Among all of the melodies Snake plays, the most astonishing are the tunes he learned as a boy from his elderly father, “Doc” Chapman, who had been born in 1850 (“Doc”‘s own father, according to family tradition, split logs with Abraham Lincoln before the family resettled in Kentucky). Snake can still picture his father’s playing in his mind’s eye and reproduce it, pointing out its many special features.

To hear Owen play an melancholy old melody like “Rock Andy” gives one the eerie sense of having a little window open before one directly onto the nineteenth century.  And the lyrics that have been passed along with “Rock Andy” only increase ones sense of historical penetration:

“Ole Massa sol’ me, Speculator bought me, took me to Raleigh to learn how to rock candy.”


“Rocking Candy” was an old slave dance; in Snake’s family, it has become transmogrified to “Rock Andy.” Verses like this were reported in antebellum reports of slave “corn huskings” (see Roger Abrahams’ “Singing the Master” for contemporaneous reports of these activities).

Musically, “Rock Andy”–and almost all the other tunes that “Doc” Chapman played–seem sui generis to nineteenth century America: they represent musical forms that unlike anything familiar in either Scots-Irish tradition or contemporary Southern fiddling. Rather we seem in “Rock Andy” to witness the emergence of a new transitional strain in music, born on American soil through the cooperation of black and white musicians.

Honest Jon’s/EMI Archive

June 11, 2013


EMI starting building factories in Middlesex, England in 1906, when it was still called The Gramophone and Typewriter Company. In the 60s, its factories covered 150 acres and it employed 14,000 people. Today, however, the factories and recording studios are gone or in the process of being demolished. EMI’s Hayes workforce is in single figures, all of them employed in the company’s last remaining building, a vast archive.

From the outside, the archive looks as melancholy as the rest of Hayes. Inside, it’s just bizarre, an apparently endless steel vault containing not just records and master tapes, but aged recording equipment, gramophones, memorabilia and files of press clippings. “They’ve kept everything,” notes Mark Ainley, co-founder of Honest Jon’s, the acclaimed record label born out of the legendary Notting Hill record shop.

Ainley estimates he has spent around 20 months working in the archive’s temperature-controlled environs, sorting through shelf after shelf of forgotten 78s, recorded across the world in the early years of the 20th century. Honest Jon’s has become famous in recent years  for digging up and releasing impossibly recherché music. However, even Ainley seems slightly overwhelmed by what was lurking on the Hayes archive shelves.

He has found recordings of Tamils impersonating motorised transport in 1906, Bengali beggars singing and utterly chilling records from the first world war, intended to inform the British public of the different bells that would be rung in the event of a poison gas attack. “It’s basically a load of records on a shelf without very much other information. They’ve never been inventoried, they’re not even stored by artist or country, but catalogue prefix, so there’s nothing for it but to just go through all of them, just listen to everything.” He sighs. “It’s daft.”


Robert Crumb Reminisces

June 9, 2013

crumb and saw


Robert Crumb: One of the bits of foolishness that I became involved in was the music business. After that brief interlude living in the ecstatic now of the late sixties, I returned once again to my maudlin nostalgia for the dear dead past — especially the music of the twenties.

I began again to collect old 78 rpm records in earnest. Collecting had always been my addiction of choice, and I became hooked again. I started spending a lot of time, energy and money hunting for those old jazz, blues and country records from the twenties. So while I had to force myself to keep drawing comics, what I truly enjoyed was going for adventures into uncharted territories and pawing through piles of junk and dank, dark second-hand stores.

The good records were few and far between, finding a stack of good ones all in one place was a euphoric, thrilling experience, but rare, of course. Mostly you found them one by one, through days and weeks of searching and asking around.

This love of old music led to friendships with other young musical idealists. There was the old time music scene; a lot of hippie types who played old American country fiddle tunes, blues, ragtime, and Irish music. I could plinkety-plink along on my little toy instrument, a quaint little 1920s banjo-uke I found at the Alameda Flee Market.

My music skills were very limited, but playing music with other people was very relaxing, generally, than just sitting around getting stoned, and every once in a while the music would sort of come together and sound almost like one a’those old records. That was always kind of exciting.

Over the next several years, this band developed a bit, took in a few more musicians, made three LPs for Yazoo in New York, played a lot of clubs, bars, folk festivals, weddings and parties and even went on a national “tour” of sorts in 1976. We settled on the name, “R.Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders,” and of course I was the front man. I had the name that would bring people to see us (Yeah, they stared at us more than they listened, I do believe.)

The clubs were the worst… it was excruciating for me… the only advantage was every now and then there’d be some friendly female who would let me maul her. Weddings and parties were better. The people all knew each other, and our music helped create a convivial social atmosphere, something you don’t get with loud rock music.

Another one of our “venues” in the early days was the street. Jeeziz that was a grim scene… Fisherman’s Warf, Union Square in San Francisco. Armstrong played the musical saw, and whenever the crowds of passerby were ignoring us too much, somebody’d say, “okay, Armstrong, get out the saw…” it never failed… it stopped them cold… they’d crowd around and gape with wonder at a guy playing a saw… they took snapshots, asked questions… they were highly fascinated… It was enough to make you very cynical… Armstrong could be playing the most beautiful ragtime or blues masterpiece with great feeling and they’d just walk on by… we were just so much shrubbery… but then he’d take out that saw, and you’d get fifty people tossing money. “Okay, Armstrong, get out the saw!” I mean, you had to get their attention somehow!

J.P. Harris

May 28, 2013

First memory of J.P. Harris is of him singing and playing the banjo on “Let Me Fall,”  around a bonfire in turn-of-the-century West Townshend, VT.  In a few short years he left his mountainside cabin in Halifax, VT for the honky-tonk life in Nashville, TN, and the road.  We miss you, J.P.

excerpts from interview with J.P. Harris:

Where are you from originally?

I’m from Montgomery, Ala. That’s where I was born. I grew up between there and a little town called Dadeville, Ala., which is where my family had been from for probably 200 or 300 years. They’ve been there since before the Revolutionary War… We moved away right before I turned seven and there was kind of a big economic downturn in Alabama; a lot of jobs lost and a bunch of big companies shut down.

My dad was in heavy construction and my mom was a teacher, and we ended up moving out to the middle of nowhere, this little town called Apple Valley in California, which I assure you had no apples whatever.

We moved out there, and my dad worked for a dirt-moving company, and then, in the summers and Christmastime and stuff when we were kids, for a couple of years, my folks would ship us back home. We kind of had this funny reality… We got transplanted abruptly out to the middle of nowhere in California, and then kind of chucked back and forth as kids.

Back to this teeny little town of Alabama and then back out to this weird little town in California and eventually we moved from there out to Las Vegas. My dad got a new job and [sighs] we were there until I was about 14 and then I decided it was time to split and I stuck a couple of T-shirts and I think, about $42, in ones, in my backpack and jumped on a Greyhound and took off and that was sort of the end of where I grew up officially.  [many years pass--ed.]

Eventually, deciding that I had never been to New England before, and an old girlfriend of mine had grown up there, and said, “Hey, let’s go. Let’s get ourselves up to New England for the summer and go check it out; Vermont is really nice.” “All right. Cool. Sounds like a plan.”

We rode trains and I worked my way through Texas and then rode straight up and over to Minnesota and over through Milwaukee, Chicago, whole bunch of other stuff, and got thrown off a train in New York by a couple of rail cops and hitch-hiked through the night the rest of the way and finally got to Vermont. We split about half a year later and then I just stuck around there until just recently, when I moved down to Nashville. I was there about 11 years.

Where was that in Vermont?

Down in southern Vermont. I lived in this little town called Halifax, which has a post office and a little elementary school and about 10 houses and that’s about it. It’s about 20 miles from the nearest city, which is a town called Brattleboro, about 20,000 people in it.

What did you do for a job down there?

Oh God, I did everything. I did all sorts of stuff in the first couple of years, just picking up work wherever I could. I was scrapping sheet metal, or I worked harvesting apples in a couple of different orchards, and running equipment, and I went from there. I eventually started getting into carpentry work when I was out in the Navajo reservation.

I just kind of worked my way up to that, working on old churches and barns and just got really obsessed with the old-fashioned way of building and doing all this. I was living in cabins that were way up on the logging roads… From the time that I moved to the Navajo reservation when I was about 16, until just this past September when I moved to Nashville, I hadn’t had any power or running water that entire time, so I was basically living in hunting camps the whole time.

But I made it work pretty good and I managed to get a business off the ground doing carpentry and restoration work. Did a lot of logging in the wintertime, running heavy equipment; basically anything people would pay me to do… I did pretty good for myself.

Henry Thomas

May 18, 2013


from via

Listening to Henry Thomas is like taking a journey in a musical time machine. With a probable birth year of 1874, this makes him one of the earliest-born African American musicians to release 78s in the 1920s. It is fortunate that the songster recorded so prolifically for Vocalion during this time for it is by listening to these performances that we are able to have something of an idea of what rural black music sounded like before the turn of the last century.

Assuming that Thomas developed much of his repertory during his teens and early 20s, it stands to reason that many of the tunes in his songbook dated from the 1880s and 1890s, if not earlier. Thus, with the singer-guitarist being approximately 53 years old during his first recording session in 1927, most of his material was already a representation of the folkways of a bygone era, when the steam locomotive was still opening up previously isolated corners of the North American continent.

This last detail is extremely significant because, according to Mack McCormick, Thomas was as notable a hobo as he was a musician and allegedly traveled on freight lines to the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where he performed outside of these events as a street singer. Furthermore, “Ragtime Texas” was apparently the nickname by which he was known by other transients who rode the rails. McCormick explains,

“It’s a hobo moniker. It isn’t so much a musical designation as it is an assumed title of the same order as “Chicago Red” and “T-Bone Slim” and other such celebrities. It’s a name to be written on water towers and box cars. Moreover it’s a moniker remembered in parts of Oklahoma and Louisiana and Texas, but known best along a 150-mile strip of East Texas. This is the area he came from and it’s here that fragments of his story have turned up.” (more…)

Ralph Rinzler

May 14, 2013

Woody Guthrie and Ralph Rinzler

excerpt from “The Music That Matters Part One: Bill Monroe and Ralph Rinzler,” by Juli Thanki:

Ralph Rinzler was born in 1934 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a doctor and of Russian-Jewish descent, perhaps making Rinzler’s foray into folklore and traditional American string band music as an adult a little unexpected. However, as a boy he was fascinated with the family’s phonograph; thus he learned at an early age to appreciate traditional and folk music thanks in part to his uncle Samuel Joseph, a lawyer who at one time was a student of folk studies pioneer George L. Kittredge.

This burgeoning interest in folk music led the young Rinzler to the Lomax Library of Congress field recordings as well as to other forms of traditional music when he was a preteen; this hobby would eventually become his career. Of Rinzler’s folk music leanings, Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith writes, “like many of his generation, Rinzler was entranced by The Anthology of American Folk Music.  While some folk revivalists began seeking out Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and other African-American blues players represented in Harry Smith’s collection, Ralph was among those who sought its southern white string band musicians.”

Before “finding” and remaking the faded legend of Monroe, Rinzler “discovered” two other string band musicians who would also prove essential to the American folk music canon: Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. Ashley, a clawhammer banjo player, was a medicine show performer whose early recordings were featured on Harry Smith’s The Anthology of Folk Music under the name Tom Ashley. This is almost certainly how Rinzler became aware of the musician before stumbling across him in the hills of North Carolina.

When Rinzler first discovered Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, also in rural North Carolina, the musician was at the time supporting his family as a rockabilly electric guitarist. It was with “the utmost difficulty” according to Bluegrass Breakdown author Robert Cantwell, that Rinzler persuaded Watson, a blind musician who played with a unique flatpicking style that would soon be known to aspiring guitarists nationwide, to revert to playing the old style folk music with an acoustic guitar.  (more…)

Clayton McMichen (#2)

May 8, 2013


from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 11, Part 3 Autumn 1975 Number 39:

By Norm Cohen 

In the fifteen or so years of intensive rekin- 
dled interest in old time hillbilly and blues music, 
dozens of elderly musicians who made recordings 
in their youth during the 1920s and 1930s have been 
traced down, visited, interviewed, recorded, and 
then, perhaps, forgotten again. 

Our appetite for such rediscoveries seems to be insatiable; yet what 
of the many ethical questions posed by such acti- 
vity? Sometimes, indeed, an old timer such as 
Clark Kessinger or Mississippi John Hurt is found 
who can slide back into the musical limelight grace - 
fully and happily, enjoying a second career as a 
popular and successful performer. 

Other times a performer is encountered whose musical skills 
have diminished considerably with the passage in 
time; nevertheless, in a confusion of historical 
values with esthetic ones, he is urged to take to 
the college /festival circuit, perhaps frustrating 
himself as much as he disappoints his audiences.

But more often we find a singer or musician who 
never was quite the success that he had wanted to 
be (indeed, most are not); to be sought out thirty 
or forty years later may suggest to him that at 
long last someone has recognized his long -hidden 
talents; that now, fortune will be his if only he 
manages himself a little more carefully and is not 
taken advantage of. 

Other times we find a performer whose musical career was a brief fling of his 
youth; perhaps an embarrassment to him now, and 
certainly nothing to rehash in dreary detail, picking 
out names and dates and facts from the cast-off 
detritus of an aging memory. 

Or, another possibility, the rediscovered artist turns out to be 
intensely hostile to the music business and his for- 
mer associates, never able to forget the fact that 
the success he sought eluded him, and hardly in 
a mood to sentimentalize over old scars and wounds 
that time had failed to heal. Clayton "Pappy" 
McMichen fell into this last category.  (more...)

Guthrie Meade

May 4, 2013



Guthrie “Gus” Turner Meade, Jr., was born in Louisville, Ky., on 17 May 1932. He worked at the Indiana University Folk Music Archives and, later, as an assistant at the Indiana University Press. He avidly collected 78 rpm country music records, partly to help him learn fiddle tunes. Meade’s correspondents included record collectors, discographers, and music scholars around the world, including folklorist John Edwards in Australia, Archie Green, Eugene Earle, D. K. Wilgus, Fred Hoeptner, Willard Johnson, and Dan Mahoney.

In 1965, Meade began working at the Library of Congress Folk Music Archives as a programmer/analyst, automating the vast collections. Each summer, Meade went to Kentucky to research Kentucky fiddlers, who had recorded on some of the early 78 records. At this time, he worked with John Harrod and Bruce Greene, who were also researching Kentucky fiddlers. Meade became close friends with Charlie and Noah Kinney, fiddling brothers from Lewis, Ky., and recorded their music on many occasions. He also spent a great deal of time conducting personal interviews with traditional fiddlers.

He recorded Kentucky fiddler Buddy Thomas and arranged for Mississippi fiddler Hoyt Ming to record and play at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. During the 1970s, Meade and Mark Wilson produced three albums of Kentucky fiddle music on the Rounder label: J. P. and Annadeene Fraley’s “Wild Rose of the Mountain” (Rounder 0037), Buddy Thomas’s “Kitty Puss” (Rounder 0032), and Ed Haley’s “Parkersburg Landing” (Rounder 1010). The Buddy Thomas recording became particularly important given the young fiddler’s sudden death only months after the project’s completion.

In 1980, Meade and discographer Richard Nevins compiled an important three-record set of rare Gennett recordings of early Kentucky fiddle music. The Morning Star releases (45003, 45004, and 45005) include biographical information on the musicians and represent an important contribution to traditional music scholarship.

Meade’s most significant achievement may have been his annotated discography of early traditional country music, begun in 1956. This comprehensive work includes some 14,500 recordings of 3,500 songs organized into four categories: ballads, religious songs, instrumentals, and novelty songs. In 1986, Meade received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to prepare the discography for publication. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Kentucky, where Meade worked long hours on the project. He was working on the introduction to the discography at the time of his death. His wife Mary has indicated that she will work toward the project’s publication, with the help of her son Doug and discographer Richard Spottswood.

On 8 February 1991, Meade suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at his Franklin County, Ky., home. He died the next day at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington at the age of 58.

John V. Walker: Corbin’s Finest

May 1, 2013


 from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 8, Part 3 Autumn 1972 No. 27:

excerpt from JOHN V. WALKER: CORBIN'S FINEST by Donald Lee Nelson 

In 1930, in the company of four other musicians, John Walker went to Knoxville 
to become a part of a rather strange incident. The four others included Alex Hood, 
Clyde Whittaker, Emory Mills, and another guitarist named Bert Earls. 

Under the sponsorship of a Middlesboro piano company, the group, called Alec 
Hood's Railroad Boys (since all were employed by the L § N) were to record ten 
numbers for the Vocalion Company. 

When they arrived at the recording studio they were told that a group which 
included Lowe Stokes and Slim Miller were working on a skit called "The Hatfield-
McCoy Feud." The Hood musicians were pressed into service as actors in the skit, 
which was practiced all day before satisfactory takes were made. 

Mr. Walker recalls them sending out for yards and yards of calico to tear for 
simulated fighting, and using pads and paddles for sounds as gunfire and running. 
His own line was "Stand back boys, I'll shoot." 

It was not until late evening that the "Feud" session was completed, and the 
Railroad Boys were told to cut two numbers, and then there would be a supper break, 
after which they were to return and do the other eight pieces. 

Since they had a train to catch they were unable to work on the after-dinner 
session. Hence, only two sides were put on wax. "L § N Rag" was a popular fiddle 
tune of the area which was usually called "Sleeping Lulu." It was recorded under 
this title by fellow Kentuckians Richard D. Burnett and Oscar Ruttledge. 

The other side of the disc was "Corbin Slide." Originally titled "The Last 
Old Dollar" it was frequently heard around Corbin as the mainstay of another 
good local fiddler named Tom Grugg. Grugg was very jealous of the tune, however, 
would immediately stop playing it if he saw another musician trying to learn 

The record had some impromptu talking on it, and this was done by Mr. 
Brown, the man in charge of the recording studio--probably the talking itself 
was to break up the straight instrumentalism of the number. The band returned 
to Corbin that night, and was never recorded again. Their namesake. Alec Hood, 
a yard foreman, died in 1954. 

The best known group to which John V. Walker belonged, however, was the 
one which bears his name. Walker's Corbin Ramblers was formed about 1930, 
and consisted of local musicians and railroaders Mack Taylor, guitar and vocal; 
Johnny Hampton, fiddle; Charley Ellison, fiddle; Mr. Walker, fiddle; and his 
brother Albert, tenor guitar and vocal. 

In January of 1934 Walker's Corbin Ramblers journeyed to New York City 
to record. According to W. R. Calaway, Vocalion's A & R man, the total outlay 
for the group, which included Taylor, the Walker Brothers, and Larry Hensley, 
a mandolinist who was brought along for the session, was between four and 
five hundred dollars. This included train fare, hotel bills, and food. 

Hensley was a miner from Wallin's Creek, in Harlan County, Kentucky, and 
brought along several of the numbers that were recorded by the band: "Stone 
Mountain Toddle," "E Rag," "Scottdale Stomp," "Mandolin Rag," and of course 
"Wallin's Creek Blues." 

After a four day session, the Corbin Ramblers returned to their home town 
and railroading, and never recorded again.

Tennessee Fiddlers

April 26, 2013

Allen Sisson


Joseph Decosimo: Tennessee can lay claim to some pretty amazing and diverse fiddle styles. Arthur Smith’s slicker, notey fiddling influenced a whole generation of fiddlers throughout the South and beyond. Down where I grew up, around Chattanooga, it seems like a lot of the older fiddlers were influenced by the wild and wooly North Georgia sounds. Gid Tanner, Lowe Stokes, and Clayton McMichen spent some time hanging out in Chattanooga back in the 20s.

Maybe a lot of what gets labeled a North Georgia sound could also be called a Southeast Tennessee sound. At the same time, I hear a lot of influence from African American musicians in the music that was played around Chattanooga. One of my favorites fiddlers from around Chattanooga, Bob Douglas, played an incredible raggy piece called the “Maybell Rag.” It came to him from a black guitar player who was working on barges on the Tennessee River.

One of my other favorite fiddlers from down there is Blaine Smith. His playing swoops and slides in a way that reminds me of the syncopated and swooping rhythms from African American fiddler John Lusk. They also shared several tunes in common.

Allen Sisson lived further east, up in the mountains along the North Carolina and Georgia lines. His playing sounds totally different from the others. It’s filled with triplets and complicated melodic lines. It sounds really old to me. JD Harris who was from further north in Flag Pond Tennessee had a similar sound. Their music has an austere and composed beauty.

Then there’s Charlie Acuff [second cousin to the famed Roy Acuff], who plays with an incredibly sweet touch, employing vibrato and playing stately tunes that he learned from his grandfather.

One of my favorites lately has been Jimmy McCarroll from the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. He recorded his driving and totally sophisticated and blues-inflected fiddling in the late 20s. So I guess there’s no way for me to describe a Tennessee style. Each of these fiddlers had their own sound, and I’ve only scratched the surface. I guess there are some similarities. Folks in Tennessee tend to play a lot of tunes in the key of G, but they play in plenty of other keys too.

Read more here.

Earl Johnson (#2)

April 19, 2013
Screen shot 2013-04-18 at 8.57.12 AM

Earl Johnson, Gid Tanner, J.T. Wright (late 1950s)

from JEMF Quarterly, vol. 10, part 3, #35, autumn 1974:

By Donald Lee Nelson 

[Note: The author wishes to thank Mrs. Earl 
Johnson of Lawrenceville, Georgia for her co- 
operation in the preparation of this article. ] 

Perhaps nowhere was the tragic aftermath of 
the Civil War more fully experienced during the 
quarter-century following Appomattox than in 
the state of Georgia. Inexhaustable volumes have 
been compiled that deal with virtually every facet 
of that portion of the Southern panorama. Yet, 
out of this dismal setting emerged many of the 
South's leading musicians, most of them from the 
northwestern part of the state. 

Into that environment and era were born to 
Gwinnett County farmers William and Mary (Davis 
Johnson six children. Two did not survive in- 
facy but the remaining four, Albert, Robert Earl, 
Ester (son) and Alma, grew to adulthood deter- 
mined to remain on their beloved native soil. 

Named for a signer of the Declaration Of 
Independence, the axe-head shaped Gwinnett 
County is just south of the Chattahoochie River, 
and its cotinty seat, Lawrenceville, reposes se- 
dately within a half-hour's drive of Atlanta. 

Robert Earl, the second son, who came into 
the world on 24 August 1886, was to grow from a 
family and neighborhood musician in the mould of 
his contemporaries into a lifelong professional 
performer. His father, William, was a renowned 
old-time fiddler whose infectious playing style 
permeated the boy.  (more...)

The Stripling Bros. (#3)

April 11, 2013


excerpt from JEMF Quarterly Vol. IV, Part 1 — March 1968 — No. 9:

On September 2, 1963, collector Bob Pinson interviewed Charles and Ira Stripling at Charlie’s farm just north of Kennedy, Alabama. Pinson had been informed by blues collector Gayle Dean Wardlow that the Striplings lived near Gordo, Alabama. A service station attendant at Gordo told Pinson that they lived in Kennedy in Lamar County, some twenty-five miles north of Gordo.

That first contest was in January of 1913, and Charlie Stripling had just begun fiddling in the spring of 1912.    Ira had been playing the guitar only since the previous November.  Their father, Thomas Newton Stripling, owned a local Pickens Co. store and ordered Ira’s first guitar. The guitar, bought wholesale, cost Ira $6.00.

“Six dollars didn’t grow on bushes like they seem to now!” Their mother was Sarah Stripling and both parents were born in Pickens County. Neither played any instruments; the brothers assert that they were the only musicians in the entire family.

After the Kennedy contest, they received invitations from fiddlers’ contests in Millport (Lamar County), Fayette (Fayette County) and places even further away.  The further they went from Pickens County, the less they felt they could win, but soon changed their minds.

Charlie recalled, “the further off away from home I got, the easier it was to get the prize.”

“At this time, Uncle Bunt made an appearance at Millport and Charlie went up to hear him. (During the mid-1920′ s the industrialist Henry Ford had been sponsoring fiddle contests in the North and South. His hand-picked champion was a Tennessee fiddler, Uncle Bunt Stephens.)

A man was there who was representing a big fiddle contest to be held in Memphis, Tenn., the weekend of June 2, and he asked if Bunt would enter. Bunt explained that he was tied up for that weekend, at which point a friend of Charlie’s suggested that Charlie, who had gained quite a local reputation, might take his place.

The man accepted and Charlie traveled up without Ira, as no accompaniment was allowed. The contest lasted three days and there were very large crowds each day. The final night, on which the prizes were given, was a Saturday and 600 fiddlers were present.

“I realized I had competition,” Charlie recalled. Bunt finally showed up and Charlie learned later that the contest was probably fixed in favor of Bunt. Charlie still received second prize, which consisted of twenty dollars in gold.

When they recorded, they were told by the A and R man in Chicago, that many of the old-time tunes had been recorded and that they didn’t need any more versions, so the brothers were forced to search for new material. “Big Footed Nigger” they had learned from a local fiddler, Henry Ludlow, at a contest. Charlie, after hearing it, only remembered the first half. After going to sleep that night he awoke very late, remembering the second part, which he proceeded to immediately try on the fiddle.

Charlie recalled a contest in Fayette that he had won year after year. One time, the man who ran it gave him twenty dollars not to enter the contest because Charlie was discouraging the other fiddlers. Though he was popular and played many dances and contests it was never enough to make a living.

Ernest Stoneman (#3)

April 7, 2013

Ernest and Hattie Stoneman

from JEMF Quarterly, Vol. Ill, Part 1 — September, 1967 — No. 7:

Notes from an interview with Ernest (Pop) Stoneman on March 27, 1964 at UCLA by Eugene Earle.

In 1924 Pop was working as a carpenter in Bluefield, West Virginia. He went down to the Warwick Furniture Company one day, and heard Henry Whitter’s first recording, Okeh 40015 {“The Wreck of the Old 97″ and “Lonesome Road Blues”). Pop felt that Whitter sang “through his nose so bad” that he could do at least as well, if not better, than Whitter.

Pop claims that everybody thought a hillbilly sang through his nose as a result of Whitter’s vocal style.    (Pop makes it clear that he grew up with Whitter and worked in the textile mills with him and that his criticisms were not personal remarks.)

After deciding he wanted to record, Pop wrote both Columbia and Okeh in New York. He continued working in Bluefield, saving money for the trip while waiting for the companies’ replies. Early in the summer he received those replies, Columbia setting up a September first appointment, and Okeh telling him to “come up any time.” From July 4 through the rest of the summer he worked at Bluefield to sup- port himself, his wife, and two children. He built a rack for his harmonicas and practiced several songs using autoharp accompaniment.

Pop told Okeh’s Ralph Peer that “any song with a story will go to the people’s hearts, because they love stories. They love stories of tragedy, a wreck or something. And if it ain’t all there, it ain’t no good.”

In September, 1926, he made his first recordings for Victor.  Peer, who had left Okeh and was working for Victor, asked Stoneman to rerecord the songs that had been recorded acoustically by the Powers Family.    (By September, 1S26, Victor had shifted from Acoustic to electric recording.)

Peer gave Pop copies of the Powers’ records and a portable phonograph which Pop took back to the Camden Hotel in Camden, H.J. After listening a short while, Pop realized that they would need a banjo player for these sides. He sent home for his wife’s brother, fifteen-year-old Bolen Frost, and had him placed in the railroad conductor’s care. However, Bolen forgot to bring his banjo, and Peer had to borrow a vl50 Keystone Special banjo for him. Pop noticed that it had gut strings, so he had to go downtown to buy steel strings for it.

After recording for Edsion in 1926, the band went to a bank in New York to cash their check. They carried their instruments into the bank with them along with their luggage, and Pop went up to the teller while the rest of the members waited. At this moment, the police walked up to them and demanded identification. When the police realized that they were really musicians, they explained that they had been suspicious because, earlier in the week, a nearby bank had been robbed by a gang that carried their firearms in instrument cases.

Bahamian Blind Blake

April 3, 2013


excerpt from Elijah Wald (

Blake Alphonso Higgs was the other Blind Blake–I assume his nom de guerre was in emulation of the blues guitarist, but it may just be coincidence. For many years he fronted the house band at the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau. His music was a unique mix of old island favorites, more recent calypso compositions and a quirky grab-bag of minstrel songs and ballads from the United States.

Minstrelsy was an especially important element of Blake’s work, evident both in his choice of the banjo and songs like “Watermelon Spoilin’ On the Vine,” “You Shall Be Free,” and “J.P. Morgan” (“My Name Is Morgan, But it Ain’t J.P.”).

Blake has none of the self-conscious dialect and overdone comedy that was typical of the minstrel genre, though, and his sidemen combined the jazzy guitar licks and harmonies of groups like the Ink Spots with West Indian rhythms, with the result that his recordings have an easy humor and swing that few musicians from any continent can match.

Of course, Blake also played lots of island songs, which he performs in a style that falls somewhere between the string-band calypso of Wilmouth Houdini and Jamaican mento, the slicker sound of tourist bands like the Bermuda Strollers, and the vocal group jive of American combos like the Cats and the Fiddle.

They range from folk ballads like “Run, Come See” to upbeat tourist favorites like “Conch Ain’t Got No Bone” and calypsos like “Love, Love Alone,” the comic saga of King Edward’s abdication to marry an American divorcee.

There is also a Joseph Spence connection: Blake knew Spence and provided his contact information to Fritz Richmond when Richmond went to Nassau to record what became the Happy All the Time album, and there are several overlapping numbers in their repertoires–which means that people who want to know what Spence was singing can often find out by listening to the Blake versions.

Moonshine Kate Reminisces

March 23, 2013


from JEMF Quarterly Vol II, Part 1—Novenber, 1966:

(On August 27, 1963, Archie Green and Ed Kahn interviewed Rosa Lee Carson Johnson, better known to record fans as Moonshine Kate, in her home in Decatur, Georgia. Here is an excerpt from their tapescript.)

Kate was not with her father at his first recording and it was not until later that she recorded with him. They had a group called the Virginia Reelers: Earl Johnson, fiddler; another Earl Johnson, blackface comedian, played the 1-string fiddle; she played banjo and sometimes guitar. Gid Tanner was with their band at one time and so was Puckett. Other guitarists with them were Peanut Erown and Bully Brewer. Brewer, Peanut Brown, Earl Johnson and Earl Johnson travelled with them. She doesn’t know how they got to be named after the state of Virginia, but they did a lot of playing there.

Early recordings of John Carson and Moonshine Kate were made on Whitehall Street and Brockman was in charge. She sat in the middle, the others stood on either side of the mike. She goes on to describe her recollections, she never used a horn, but her dad did. The man gave them a green light to start and a red light told them they had just a few more seconds left. They always practiced their selections at home before they recorded and timed it.

John Carson enjoyed hillbilly music most. He wasn’t ashamed of that word. What is hillbilly music? You don’t find any of it now. When she and her dad were making music it was good old mountain music; his favorites were “Old Joe Clark,” “Little Old Log Cabin,” and “Maggie.” He won his prizes playing “Sally Goodin.    Hillbilly is the way they played it years ago; it’s just old-timey music, and anything he would play was a hillbilly song, because he was a hillbilly.

Archie asked her how did her dad feel when the music began to change from the old time style. He used to laugh; said it was silly for those boys to play and call themselves hillbilly. She did hear someone on the Opry on TV play “Sally Goodin” just like her father played it. What makes the style? It must be the way you handle the bow. Like guitar-playing, if it’s electric isn’t hillbilly.    Hillbilly has to be in your bones, that’s all there is to it. When her dad was young, they were called fiddles; now they’re called violins, but a violin is different.

Charlie Poole

March 18, 2013


from JEMF Quartelry, Vol I, Part 3 — June, 1966:

On August 13, 1962, Eugene W. Earle and Archie Green interviewed Charlie Poole, Jr., son of Charlie Poole, in Mountain Home, Tennessee.  Here is an excerpt from their tapescript.



Peter Stampfel

March 12, 2013



Peter Stampfel: I revered Pete Seeger. I liked Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe, who I fetched coffee for in Indiana where he was working. He yelled for a cup of coffee and I ran out, burning and scalding my hand- what a thrill! Super Fan Boy. I still am. I think I enjoy being a fan boy. Fan boys can be completely awful but there’s something about the fan-ish attitude which I enjoy having and which I think is basically good, despite how crazy fans can get.

Then I heard the Lost City Ramblers and I was very much impressed by the fact that there was stuff before bluegrass that was really interesting. When I got to New York in ’59, I heard the Smith anthology. That was the first time that anyone got the 78 RPM records in LP form. Harry Smith was an alcoholic genius, multi-talented sort of a renaissance person who amassed a collection.

He was in Seattle in 1943 and he was walking down the street and he heard an Uncle Dave Macon record. “What’s this, I never heard… what is this?” He followed the music and found this guy using this wind-up victrola and he was playing these records which he was melting down for shellac. The shellac supply was cut off by the Japanese during the war and he was playing the records and melting them down.

So Smith started listening to this stuff and collecting the records. In ’52 or ’53, the same year rock’n’roll got started coincidentally, he talked Folkways records into releasing a six album set. 84 different cuts where I and hundreds of other people first heard country blues, shape note singing, the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Poole, etc..

The records were from 1927 when electronic record recording was developed which made for a quantum leap in fidelty and sound. The records went up until 1933, when the record industry went into total collapse because of the depression. So these records comprised all these genres from this time period.

It devastated me, it totally wiped me out. Hearing all this amazing stuff, enthralled and captivated me and I decided that I had to recreate this music because all of the people who did it were dead or dying. Once there were gone, by God if I didn’t grab that torch, the flame would be extinguished forever! I needn’t have bothered because thousands of other kids had the same identical response. So instead of it dying, there was a huge resurgence.

In Search of Blind Joe Death

March 11, 2013


edited from

“As a young man, he was in the Mississippi Delta looking for Skip James and Bukka White, and then, later, people went to Oregon looking for him. And there he was.”

Greil Marcus’s old, weird America had a second generation, one of its children being John Fahey, the “original American primitive,” and an untutored, finger-style adventurer on the steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

He is the subject of In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, a new documentary by James Cullingham.

As a musicologist, Fahey tracked down folk-blues pioneers Bukka White and Skip James, and helped revive their careers during the great American folk-blues boom in the 1960s. His essays on those sojourns into the Mississippi Delta were thoroughly journalistic, if somewhat fanciful.

In 1964, as one of the inaugural graduates of the University of California’s folklore curriculum, Fahey‘s master’s thesis was on the great country-blues artist Charlie Patton. In his own (mostly instrumental) music, he took the forms of Patton and others and developed his own melodies while introducing resonant syncopation, Eastern meditativeness and, later, found sounds.

What’s fascinating about Fahey is that he himself became the same source of intrigue as his folk-blues heroes. After a successful career of recording and touring, he wound up homeless in the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest. “As a young man, he was in the Mississippi Delta looking for James and White,” says Cullingham. “And then, later, people went to Oregon looking for him. And there he was.”


Bill Helms

March 9, 2013


from JEMF Quarterly, Vol. Ill, Part 2—December, 1967—No. 8:

On August 28, 1963 collector Bob Pinson interviewed Bill Helms at his home in Thomaston, Georgia. Helms had recorded for Victor in 1928 as Bill Helms and his Upson County Band. In 1931 he recorded for Columbia with the Hometown Boys.

Bill thinks he first met McMichen and Puckett at Manchester at a convention in 1926. Puckett had heard of Helms and asked him to come to the convention. A lot of people from Thomaston knew Riley, so someone probably told him about Helms. Two weeks after Manchester they went to a convention at Macon.

Fellow named Bud Silvey used to run a lot of conventions—had two sons, Paul and Hoke Rice. Most of the dances Helms played at were with a fellow named Vaughn Green, guitar player—this was in the early ’20′s before he started with the conventions and working with Riley.  He and Vaughn used to play six nights a week for months and months.

Remembers hearing some of Puckett and Tanner early records with Puckett on banjo on a phonograph owned by an old darkey out in the country.    After that Riley got a guitar and started to learn–learned by himself, no one showed him anything.

Then he and Puckett worked together, Helms often worked black-face.  His brother Cliff had a different style, McMichen taught Bill how to use a bow to get better results. Told him to hold it back at the frog so it wouldn’t bounce and squeak, and to take longer strokes. Met McMichen at that convention in Macon.  Bert Layne, Fate Morris Lowe Stokes and Gid were there also.

Recorded for Columbia with Riley and Gid.  Gid used banjo then, capoed down like a mandolin. Frank Walker chose the name Home Town Boys. Because they already had so many bands  “Riley Puckett and the something-or-others, ” didn’t want to use his name this time.

Met Jimmie Rodgers at a convention in Chattanooga, He needed a mike to sing. Sang with his head down—couldn*t face the audience. Helms thought he had stage fright. For the fiddle conventions, they would hire Helms and pay his way (e.g., to Chattanooga) .    Fellow in Columbus named Charlie Lodge hired him and Puckett and six others Fate Norris was there too, had a musical soap box–made out of soap boxes with a pocket knife, and strings from mandolins, guitars, fiddles, and autoharps.  Had pedals and knee pads.   Played two instruments with his feet, played a mouth harp.

Helms, Tanner and Puckett played a route through north Georgia which Gid had booked up for them. Adults payed 25 cents, children 15 cents admission to these shows. In some places they’d make as much as $300 to $400. Helms made his living as a musician for about fifteen years.

Cecil Sharp in America

March 7, 2013


edited excerpt from “Cecil Sharp in America” (

by Mike Yates

Cecil Sharp, the English folksong collector, made a remarkable collection of songs in the Appalachian mountains during the period 1916-1918.  I decided to seek out Sharp’s original diaries and extant correspondence, so that I could let Sharp himself tell me what had happened during his Appalachian forays.

Cecil Sharp: “The people are just English of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.  They speak English, look English, and their manners are old-fashioned English.  Heaps of words and expressions they use habitually in ordinary conversation are obsolete, and have been in England a long time.

Although the people are so English, they have their American quality that they are freer than the English peasant.  They own their own land, and have done so for three or four generations, so that there is none of the servility which, unhappily, is one of the characteristics of the English peasant. 

With that praise, I should say that they are just exactly what the English peasant was one hundred or more years ago.  They have been so isolated and protected from outside influence that their own music and song have not only been uncorrupted, but also uninfluenced by art music in any way. 

This is clear enough in the character of the tunes I have collected, nearly all of which are in gapped scales (i.e., scales lacking two or more notes; e.g., the fourth and seventh), which is a more archaic form than that in which they are now being sung in England.”

Sharp noted a number of songs from Dad Blackard, the local ‘banjer-man’, whose family later recorded two 78rpm records in 1927.

When I met Dad Blackard’s daughter, Clarice Shelor, in 1980 she told me how Sharp and Maud Karpeles had arrived at her father’s house during a rainstorm.  They were both soaked through to the skin and so the family took the wet clothes off their guests and wrapped them in blankets while their clothes dried by the fire.

Clarice remembered her amazement at Sharp’s ability to harmonise her father’s tunes on the family piano almost as soon as he had noted them in his tune book.  She also remembers the fact that Sharp had a very prominent nose.  ‘I’ll never forget.  I was a little girl then.  I had a big nose and I’d always thought that with my big nose I’d never be famous, or anything, when I grew up.  And do you know …  Mr Sharp he had such a big nose.  And him being famous.  It just made me feel marvellous.’

Sid Harkreader

March 6, 2013


by Eugene Chadbourne (

Sid Harkreader is mostly known as a sidekick to the old-time music legend Uncle Dave Macon. A latecomer to a music career, Macon chose Harkreader as his sidekick for his first road tour in the early ’20s. After a well-received jaunt through the South, the duo decided to try to lineup recording activities in New York City.

They got in on the first wave of hillbilly recordings being done, cutting more than a dozen sides for Vocalion in 1924. Both performers became associated with the beginning days of the Grand Old Opry and Harkreader was on-stage regularly at the Opry from the ’30s onward, both with Macon and in other combinations. Harkreader was one of the first historic country players to broadcast live over Nashville’s radio stations WDAD and WSM.

The number of musicians in Harkreader’s family was almost nil, a quiet contrast to the usual scenario with old-time players. Here was a great-great grandfather that had apparently been a fine violinist, and Harkreader’s father hoped that somehow this talent might be passed down to his offspring through the bloodline. His hunch turned out to be correct. The boy picked up most of his early musical knowledge from friends and neighbors at square dances and ice cream parties, taking great care not to get the sticky stuff on the fingerboard.

Once he had mastered the fiddle, he was delighted to realize he could make between ten dollars and 20 dollars per night playing at square dances, and this is how he began building his reputation. He first met Macon in 1923 in a barbershop. The afternoon evolved from haircutting to a musical cutting contest, the two players drawing a large crowd of amused bystanders.

Their playing combination was certainly one of the classic duos in country music, producing, among other sides, one of the great recordings of the standard “Soldier’s Joy,” an instrumental about morphine that dates back to at least the Civil War, which was no doubt used as a musical background for injections and amputations.

Following the first recording session with Macon, the fiddler was approached by a talent scout who offered him a cool grand to cut 24 sides for Paramount. He took along banjo player Grady Moore for the first set of sessions, returning the following year with Blythe Poteet because the former player was too sick to travel. Most of these tracks were reissued in the ’70s by County on their Early Nashville String Band series, and some material by Harkreader has also been released by the JEMF label, which also printed the delightful booklet Sid Harkreader’s Memoirs.

Harkreader was one of the white old-time musicians who openly acknowledged a heavy black influence in his playing. Perhaps it wasn’t in the best taste to acknowledge this musical debt by recording a tune entitled “Southern Whistling Coon,” but this track does demonstrate Harkreader’s enjoyable sideline as a skilled musical whistler and tends to show up in lists of great records involving whistling.


Dick Spottswood (pt.2)

March 1, 2013



Dick Spottswood: I became fascinated with early hillbilly music when I heard the famous Harry Smith [An Anthology of American Folk Music] collection in the 1950s.  At the time I though country music was nothing more than honky tonk hits on AM radio, so I was really captivated by  music that sounded prehistoric in comparison.

Then, at a high school party – I think I was a sophomore that year, probably 1953 – I heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on a stack of records at a teenage party in Chevy Chase. That music stopped me in my tracks! (laughs) It was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and even Harry Smith hadn’t prepared me for that!

Lester and Earl were like nothing I’d ever heard. It was on one of those old record players that dropped the 78s down on the turntable one at a time, without breaking any if you were lucky. So I memorized their names and went to see what I could about finding some of their records.

I met Mike Seeger around that time, and he was already paying attention to that style of hillbilly music. It wasn’t called bluegrass then. He recommended a lot of names. I learned of Bill Monroe from him the first time, along with Jim and Jesse and all  those people whose names became household.

A year later I went with Pete Kuykendall, Lamar Grier and a few other people to uncover a huge stash of small label records in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was over Christmas break in 1955. We drove down icy roads in Tennessee and Virginia in a 1948 Buick . I don’t know how it was that we didn’t slide off the road on the ice sometimes. We loaded up that car with as many records as we could without shoving any of us passengers out and drove all the way back to Washington with them.  It was really where I became acquainted with bluegrass and the art of collecting.

It was like I was selling Fuller brushes, except that I was buying old records; knocking on the door and saying, “how are you today? I was wondering if you have any old records hidden back in the closet or in the attic or outdoors in the shed, because I’m looking for whatever I can find.”

I would pay people for records, and most of the time it wasn’t too terribly hard. The hard part was looking through worn out records of no interest…standard popular music, or the beat up rhythm n’ blues records…you know, things that were very commonplace at the time and of no collecting interest. It wasn’t easy to find the records I liked best, even 50 or 60 years ago.

Gordon Tanner

February 27, 2013
Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 1.42.01 PM

Gordon Tanner

from “Down Yonder: Old Time String Band Music from Georgia (Folkways 31089):


2Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 1.36.45 PM

Dick Spottswood (pt.1)

February 20, 2013

Folk Music in America Series: Edited By Richard Spottswood, 15 Volume LP Set


by Ian Nagoski (edited excerpt from

“…there’s exciting music to be found in obscure places, and those are the discoveries I still live for.”

Dick Spottswood has been personally responsible for the continued life of thousands of performances of American music from the first half of the twentieth century.

If you own any reissue collections of vernacular music from that era, there’s a good chance that his name is somewhere in the credits. For more than 40 years, he has been publishing research and producing collections covering an incredibly diverse array of music, including blues, bluegrass, calypso, gospel, the music of immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Poland and the Ukraine, the musics of the Texas-Mexico region, Cuba, India, Portugal, China, and elsewhere.

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1937 and raised just outside the district in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Spottswood joined an older generation of music enthusiasts when he was still an adolescent. During the 1950s,he was one of a group of record collectors who went searching for sound recordings that, although they were only two or three decades old at the time, were already forgotten, a process amounting to a pioneering music-salvage mission.

He began to disseminate the fruits of his listening and interests to the public in the 1960s and by the 70s had acquired a vast knowledge of 78rpm era recordings of a broad range of music. His taste ran strongly in the direction of what he calls “down home” music, and he sought out recordings in any language that seemed to fit that label.

He formalized his vision on a series of LPs produced for the Library of Congress (see above) and then produced his seven-volume Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942, which was published by the University of Indiana press in 1990 and has become an indispensible tool for anyone interested in any of the hundreds of thousands of non-English-language recordings made here during that half-century.

Spottswood highlights the many facets of folk culture in the United States on his two hour radio show. Reaching back to the 1890s and the beginnings of recorded sound, but concentrating on music from the 1920s through 1950s, each of Dick’s programs brings listeners a surprising collection of recordings – from cylinders through 78′s and LP’s.

Kirk McGee

February 13, 2013
Screen shot 2013-02-08 at 6.57.00 AM

Kirk McGee

by Stephen Wade (edited from “Banjo Diary”):

Rural Southern banjoists translated ragtime-era tunes and techniques into their own idiom. Perhaps the most obvious of these translations lies in banjo player and band leader Charlie Poole’s indebtedness to Fred Van Eps for his “Southern Medley” and “Sunset March”.

Grand Ole Opry patriarch Uncle Dave Macon likewise reworked city-based recordings—from “Eli Green’s Cakewalk” to his several laughing songs to his seemingly autobiographical yet pre-existing “They’re After Me.” The list of hillbilly artists drawing from earlier popular music goes on and on.

One of those individuals was Kirk McGee, my source for “Under the Double Eagle.” By the time Kirk played it, the piece had become well established in band shell and parade repertory, along with numerous recorded brass and string renditions. Austrian “March King” Josef Franz Wagner completed the piece in 1902. That year English banjoist Olly Oakley recorded it, and in a few months’ time, John Philip Sousa’s band began to popularize it in the United States via their recordings and personal appearances.

In July 1981, I visited Kirk (1899–1983), best known for having accompanied Uncle Dave Macon and having played with his late older brother, Sam McGee. Sam and the Skillet Lickers’ Riley Puckett were the two earliest players to record solo guitar breaks in country music. By then Kirk was the longest continually performing member of the Grand Ole Opry.

During our time together Kirk offered a breathtaking range of music: from his father’s Henry Ford contest fiddle tunes to his mother’s Civil War ballads, from singing-school hymns he learned as a youth to demanding arrangements he made up of “St. Louis Blues” and “Dill Pickles Rag,” from standards like “Old Folks at Home” to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” from songs he heard black section hands do as they laid rails near his childhood home in Franklin,Tennessee, to pieces he learned from itinerant players “just walking around from house to house”.



Interested in a Small Run of Custom LPs?

February 10, 2013
And you thought you liked records: Wesley Wolfe and his music-making machine
by Brian Howe

Wesley Wolfe has catalyzed the lathe-to-turntable movement of local music

There were wax cylinders and cassette tapes, compact discs and (at the very end) MP3s, but the 20th century’s music belonged to the vinyl record. Despite more portable formats and vast technological advancements, that romance continues and grows: Americans bought 4.6 million records last year, up from 3.9 million in 2011, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

At a time when music feels intangible and oversupplied through the Internet, satellite and streaming radio and through the speakers above the grocery store aisle, LPs maintain a tangible link between artists and collectors. The archaic crackle of a stylus dragging dust through a spiral groove supplies a resonance of its own, unlike translucent and pristine digital formats. It’s the difference between a silk purse and a Ziploc bag.

But like any other mass-consumed product, most records are duplicated in remote factories by the thousand, rolling from a large warehouse onto record shelves. But for locavores and similar connoisseurs, area musician Wesley Wolfe has a more rarified option. For the last three years, Wolfe’s one-person business, Tangible Formats, has cut 7-, 10- and 12-inch records in runs as small as one. It’s part of an obscure but evolving culture based around small-batch hand-lathed records, a laborious but potentially viable alternative to mass production in a fragmented music market. (more…)

Ed Young

February 8, 2013

Ed Young (fife)

Untitled fife tune played by Ed Young, cane fife; Bessie Jones and Georgia Sea Islanders, clapping:

from notes to “Old Mother Hippletoe: Rural and Urban Children’s Songs” (New World NW 291):

The late Ed Young was born in 1910 into a musical family. The whole family sang religious music together, and two maternal uncles were also banjo players. Though widespread and popular, the banjo was by no means the only musical instrument played in Ed Young’s home country, the Yazoo Delta of northwestern Mississippi. Fife and drum, originally instruments of martial music, were played in the Youngs’ community for dancing at picnics.

Of his first encounter with fife and drum at age eight or ten, Young recalled, “When that drum started playing, I didn’t know what to think of it…. I remember my mother holding me….I was just fixing to run.”

He and his brother Lonnie rapidly mastered the instruments and became favored performers at picnics. Other musicians “… didn’t want to see us around… drummers just fall out with us on that account…. …I was a pretty testible little fellow anyhow, and I liked to blow sort of fast pieces that people could get out there and clown some on…. I never tried to run no races or beat no one doing anything, but whatever I was going to do, I just loved to get out there and do whatever I can.”

Ed Young made his cane fife with six holes but played only five; the sixth improved the tone quality. He developed a unique style, playing some of the notes by either sliding his fingers on and off the holes or using his tongue to bend the notes and create a tremolo. “I always had a way of making [the sound] go this way this time, and the other way the next….I don’t care who’s playing fife, if I pick it up, everybody will tell you who got it.”

On this recording Bessie Jones backs up Ed Young with clapping. Clapping, stamping, and pounding a stick on a resonant floor constituted the basics of a polyrhythmic percussive accompaniment for songs on plantations, where slaves were not allowed to make and play drums . The slave owners feared the potential use of “talking drums” to send messages from plantation to plantation, so the percussion music of Africa was adapted to the mediums at hand – proof that you can deny a people their musical instruments, but you cannot take away their music making.

Tracy Schwarz

February 4, 2013

from (1989):

Southern California is not the most likely place to find a passkey into the world of traditional Cajun music, but life-changing discoveries often happen under unlikely circumstances.

Cajun music is rooted in rural Louisiana prairie towns that couldn’t be more remote in setting or spirit from the hubbub of a metropolis or a music business center. But when Tracy Schwarz came through Los Angeles back in the early 1960s as a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, an influential trio of folk music traditionalists, he had his first profound Cajun encounter.

“At the old Ash Grove (the seminal L.A. folk and blues club), I got an album by (Cajun musician) Austin Pitre for a dollar,” said Schwarz, who will play a solo show Saturday night at the Shade Tree in Laguna Niguel. “It was the best dollar I ever spent. It gave me a real good idea of what traditional Cajun music should sound like.”

For Schwarz, who grew up in New Jersey and Connecticut, that album was the start of a musical love affair from which he has emerged as one of the few players to have made a mark in Cajun music without having been born into the French-speaking Cajun culture.

“The sound of the music was what got me first,” Schwarz recalled in a recent phone interview from Fresno, where he had stopped during his annual West Coast tour. “The songs were in a language other than English, but there was a lot of country music in there, too. These two things that are almost contradictory were mixed in Cajun music, and that’s what got me.”

For Schwarz, those seeming incongruities held unusual interest: Country and Western was his first musical love, and foreign languages were another leading passion (he has studied five, including French and Russian, and he holds a bachelor’s degree in German).

Schwarz’s next step on the road to being certified as an honorary Cajun (an award he received last year from the Louisiana-based Cajun-French Music Assn.) was encountering the music in the flesh at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. The festival marked the first time that traditional Cajun music had ever been played on a prominent, mainstream stage. Schwarz struck up a friendship at the festival with Dewey Balfa, an expert fiddler who would become one of the most effective and engaging ambassadors of Cajun music and culture. He also became Schwarz’s coach in things Cajun.

“Tracy was like a child that sees a toy and he grabs for it and he can’t reach it,” Balfa said over the phone from his home in Basile, La., where he still drives a school bus when he isn’t performing. But with enough patience, Balfa said, concluding the analogy, the child finally gets what he is reaching for.

After a decade of running into Balfa on the folk festival circuit, Schwarz’s involvement in Cajun music deepened in 1975, when, at Balfa’s invitation, he visited Louisiana for the first time. Balfa wanted to record a Cajun fiddle instruction album modeled after the “Learn To Fiddle” instructional LP that Schwarz had released in 1965. He asked Schwarz to produce the record.

“We did it back-porch style,” recording at Balfa’s home on equipment borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution, Schwartz said. Schwarz also took the tape machine out to area dance halls at Mardi Gras, where he captured Balfa and other local players for a second album.

Carl Sprague

January 29, 2013

(1895–1979). Carl T. “Doc” Sprague, one of America’s first singing cowboy stars, the son of William T., Jr., and Libby Sprague, was born on May 10, 1895, near Manvel, Texas, in Brazoria County. As a youth, he worked in the family cattle business and, from his uncles, learned many of the old cowboy songs while sitting around the campfire. Sprague went to College Station to study agriculture at Texas A&M but seems to have languished in the academic field, having only attained the status of sophomore by 1917.

During World War I he served in the United States Army Signal Corps and was stationed in France. He returned to A&M in 1920 and graduated in 1922 with a degree in animal husbandry. He was hired by D. X. Bible as an athletic trainer at A&M. This assignment earned him the sobriquet “Doc,” and he worked there from 1922 to 1937.

In 1925, impressed by the success of Vernon Dalhartqv‘s hillbilly recordings, Sprague wrote to Victor Records and suggested that they record his cowboy songs. On August 3, 4, and 5, 1925, at the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey, he recorded ten cowboy songs learned from his uncles on those cattle drives in South Texas. One song, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” about a cowboy killed during a night stampede, became the first cowboy song to achieve hit status.

As a result, the image of the singing cowboy was permanently established in American folk culture. Sprague recorded eighteen more songs at three other Victor sessions in 1926 in Camden and New York, in 1927 in Savannah, Georgia, and in 1929 in Dallas. He was the first artist to market himself in the image of a singing cowboy complete with chaps, hat, and guitar. His experience in ranching and cattle drives also made him among the first actual cowboys to record a cowboy song.

Sprague never opted to pursue a serious musical career but looked upon his singing as a hobby. In 1937 he left the employ of Texas A&M and began operating a filling station and grocery store and also worked as an insurance salesman. He returned to the army during World War II and achieved the rank of major, working as a recruiter in Houston and Dallas. He then returned to the insurance industry until the early 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s he experienced a resurgence in his musical career.

He was honored at several folklife seminars, notably at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Illinois, where he performed in Western outfits and spoke about the life of the American cowboy. Sprague returned to recording in 1972 and 1974 and made two long-playing albums for Bear Family Records of Germany.

Carl Sprague lived in Bryan, Texas, from 1920 until his death. He married Lura Bess Mayo in 1926. They had no children.

Carl Sprague died on February 21, 1979, in Bryan. In 2003 a collection of his twenty-four songs, including “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “Rounded Up in Glory,” “Last Great Round Up,” and “Utah Carrol,” was released in an anthology titled Cowtrails, Longhorns, and Tight Saddles: Cowboy Songs 1925–1929.

Earl Collins pt.2

January 26, 2013

Screen shot 2013-01-11 at 7.25.15 AM

from Earl Collins: Hoedown Fiddler Takes The Lead by Barbara LaPan Rahm:

(read part 1 here)

Earl Collins: I used to hold my Daddy’s arm while he fiddled when I was two or three years old. I just kept it loose and tried not to bother him. Oh, he had some of me awfullest bowing you ever heard, he could do licks that no one else could.  “Wrassle With A Wild  Cat”– Miss Buchanan couldn’t even write it he’d make so many notes that she couldn’t get them in there and she’d write it just the best she could. He had quit playing for about 25 or 30 years till that WPA project came along and he needed the money. You know, they paid those fellas, they got a check regular. Roosevelt give them a check. They just played, dances or anything that come up.

And Miss Buchanan taught them every day, this whole class of about 50 or 60 of them. Each of them, she’d tell them what it was going to be and she had her little motions, you know. And each one of them would turn to that page and she’d give– like Spade Cooley– one, two three, and everybody’d start. And they’d all play the same thing. Over and over. She taught them to read music, see. My father was the lead of the whole bunch. I’ll put him up at the top of the world. Not prejudiced because he was my father, but Clayton McMichen or Tanner or Eck Robertson, Georgia Slim—they couldn’t none of them beat him. In fact, I think he had them all topped.

We could have had a family like the Carter Family. There was four girls and five boys, and every one of them musicians. The girls could have played anything they would have tried. They had guitars and sang. Dad used to sing quite a few of those old hoedowns like Wolves A Howling when he’d play. I remember one line:

Don’t you hear those wolves a-howlin,  howlin round my pretty darlin , six on the hillside, seven on the holler, and they’ll get her, I’ll bet you a dollar…

But Max and I is the only two that really teamed up. I set him on an apple box when he was six and showed film G chord, and he never made a bobble. He was my guitar man, and right today. I’ll take him above anybody.

I stopped fiddling in 1950. I tried everything in the world. I tried every little gimmick that come along. I’ve been beat out of so much and cheated. Like I played the first television show that ever come to LA, in the western field—KFI. I played six weeks down there and never got one penny. Rehearsed three or four nights a week and then go down there and play thirty minutes. And a guy collected all the money and run off. And me and my brother, we was both working machine shop six days a week and playing two and three nights a week, sometimes four. We both just quit.

I give both my two boys fiddles—I’ve had fiddles, guitars, banjos mandolins– and I wanted one of them, both of them actually to make a hoedown fiddler, follow in my old Dad’s tracks and in my tracks. But neither one of them was interested. Too busy running around doing something else, see. But in 1965 they come in to me one afternoon when I got home from work, said, ‘”Dad we’re going to learn to play rhythm on the banjo and the guitar: I said, “Aw no you don’t.” They said, “Yes, we do.” So that’s how it come that I take the fiddle back. I got the banjo and the guitar and the fiddle out, tuned then all up and then I’d play a tune. I’d show them the chords on the banjo and then show them the chords on the guitar. Then we’d pick up all three and we’d try.

You know, I love old jam sessions better than I do anything. Just setting around someone’s house, and you play what you want to as long as you want to– this and that. I play awhile and you play awhile, then someone else will play. Then I’II go back and I’II play some and you play some…

Sheet music looks like puppy tracks to me. Scales won’t mean nothing to you in hoedowns won’t mean a doggone thing. You just pick up the fiddle get a tune in your mind, and you work on that tune and you play it. You’ve got it in your mind and you know just exactly how it goes. That’s memory. But if you go to school and they teach you notes you’re not going to play hoedown, you’re going to play violin. It’s hard to get an old hoedown fiddler’s tone. There’s not too many around that has the old fiddler’s tone to me. It’s a touch on the strings and smooth bowing that makes a fiddler. It’s the beauty that you get out of a fiddle. As long as you’re in the chord, making your true notes, running your smooth bow—you’re playing the fiddle.

Fraley on Haley

January 15, 2013

Ed Haley and family

edited from Brandon Kirk:

J.P. Fraley: “You know, Ed Haley fascinated me. When I was just a kid learning to fiddle, my daddy was a merchant. He’d take me into Ashland and stand me on the street just to listen to this blind fiddler and his boy play. I was about twelve or fourteen. Well, even earlier than that I was listening to him on the street – watching him – and I swear to god, his fingers, when he played the fiddle just looked like they was dancing. It was out of this world. Now, I don’t know which world’s fair it was, but they picked him up – I think it was Mr. Holbrook, the doctor – and took him to the world’s fair and the critics in New York – might have been ’35 or somewhere in there – wrote about him. Said he was a ‘fiddling genius.’ Just what I already knew, and I was just a kid.”

As for Haley’s technique, J.P. said he “leaned” the fiddle against his chest when playing and held the bow at its end. I wondered if he played long or short bow strokes. “He done it both. I know when he played for his own benefit he used more bow. But he played a lot for dances and as they used to say they had to play ‘quick and devilish.’”

I asked J.P. if he remembered Haley playing the eastern Kentucky version of “Blackberry Blossom” and he said yes – that he played it, too. He knew a little bit about the tune’s history: “Well, General Garfield was a fiddler. A lot of people didn’t know it. I guess it had to be in the Civil War. The ‘Blackberry Blossom’ – the old one – was General Garfield’s favorite tune. Ed – I never will forget it – he told me that that was General Garfield’s ‘Blackberry Blossom’.” This “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”, J.P. said, was a different tune entirely than the one made famous by Arthur Smith. J.P. said local fiddler Asa Neal also played the tune. “He was from around the Portsmouth area. He’s dead, and he was quite a fiddler. Now, he knew Ed. Fact of the matter, he learned a lot from Ed, but he was about Ed’s age.”

J.P. said Haley never talked about where he learned to play. “I have an idea that it was probably a lot like I learned. See Catlettsburg was a jumping off place, I call it, for loggers and coal miners and rousters and so forth, and they was always some musicians in them. And Ed had this ability – he couldn’t read – but he had an ear like nobody’s business. If he heard a tune and liked it, he’d play it and he’d just figure out his own way to do it.”

J.P. was on a roll: “See, Ed has become more or less of a legend now…and rightfully so. His range was from, say, Portsmouth, Ohio to Ashland, Catlettsburg, and up to Charleston, West Virginia. I think he was at Columbus, Ohio, and then he went to the world’s fair. He played consistently up and down the river. He made good money on the boats.”

Earl Collins (pt.1)

January 14, 2013

video excerpt and notes from “The Films of Bess Lomax”:

Earl Collins: Hoedown Fiddler Takes The Lead by Barbara LaPan Rahm

Earl Collins was born in Douglass County, Missouri in 1911. In 1917 his family moved to Oklahoma, where they sharecropped and Earl augmented their income by playing fiddle at square dances through the bitter early years of the depression. He married 1931 and he and his wife moved to Los Angeles, California in 1935 where Earl turned his hand to any lob he could get: hod carrier, truck driver, trash hauler, machinist, welder mechanic. He retired in 1969 because of his always fragile health.

For years he tried to convert his skill as a fiddler into a money-making occupation. He never made it, and in 1949, he put his fiddle away and did not play again until 1965, when his sons persuaded him to take it up again. Earl’s extraordinary technique and musicianship made him a star on the old time fiddlers circuit in California, almost every weekend until his death in 1975 he played at one or another local contest or jam session. In the following, Earl tells his story in his own words, which have been excerpted from a series of taped interviews conducted by Barbara LaPan Rahm.

“My grandfather fiddled, and his father fiddled. There’s been fiddling through the Collins’s since… I don t know how far the generation goes back. In the summertime my father always went out on the front porch and sat in a chair. I’ve heard people tell him “We heard you play fiddle last night, and we could tell just exactly what you was playing.” And they lived two miles away. That’s how far a fiddle would carry. Nice clear climate, you know.

Those springs in Missouri that come out of the hills are colder than the ice cubes you get out of that box. That water is so cold that can’t walk in it: Clean pure. You know the waters so clear down there that it can be 25 feet deep, you can throw a nickel in and tell which is up, heads or tails. But it is mostly just hills and rocks. Just rolling hills just up one hill and down, up another and down. You know, Missouri is made put of rocks. I don’t care what kind of rock you want what size, you can find it. Rocks seemed to grow up out of the ground. We’d load them in the wagon and haul them off so that we could farm the land next year and next year there’s the rocks back up there again. It you could find five acres that you could put a little corn on or a little wheat or something, why, you were doing pretty good. They don t farm any more down there.

When was seven, like I said, we moved to Wynnewood Oklahoma, stayed there a year and went to Shawnee. Shawnee’s an awful poor country. If it wasn’t for that Tinker Air Base up there, Shawnee would fold up the sidewalks and quit. See, they just farmed Oklahoma to death. Cotton and corn, cotton and corn, cotton and corn. The first thing you knew there was no fertile ground and you couldn’t make cotton or corn either. I picked cotton, hon. I would drag a sack 20 foot before I could find a boll of cotton: we’d be lucky if we got 1⁄4 of a bale an acre. That was before Roosevelt– ’32. You know how much I got? I got one day a month– $2.40. And that’s all the money I could make outside of this old fiddle. I’d play a square dance- play six or eight hours– and make 50 cents. I’d give Dad every bit of it but a dime and I’d go get me a soda pop and a candy bar.

I started trying to play when I was about three or four. But l couldn’t reach the fiddle you know; my arm was too short. So Dad glued up this little old cigar box fiddle and made the little cut-outs, you know. And I played that for four or five years. I guess I was about seven when I got big enough to reach, make a true note. I was making them sharp all the time. And l had a good ear and I could tell I wasn’t reaching high enough: my arm wasn’t long enough. See, I was a two-pound baby. Clark4 was telling you the other day that you could turn a teacup over my head and put me in a shoebox. That‘s the truth. When I was five years old I only weighed 15 pounds.

Anyway, going back to this fiddle, I had a full sized bow, but I had this little bitty old fiddle. Then I started stealing my father’s fiddle. He kept it under his bed. Boy, he’d spank my butt with a razor strop when he’d catch me playing his fiddle. (It didn’t hurt but it popped, you know, it was double: It had the leather finish on one side and fiber on the other. They always rough it up on one side and strop it the other way.)

Mother always watched for him. She’d say, “I see Daddy coming, and you can put the fiddle up.” So one day I looked up, and Dad’s standing in the door. I was about seven. Oh. I was just fiddling the hell out of Eighth of January or something; I don’t know what it was. Oh boy, sure going to get it now. He said, “You’re playing pretty good: well, come on to dinner.” So I was so scared and shaky I could hardly eat, but he started talking to me at the table said, “You really like the fiddle, don’t you?” I said “Oh I really love that fiddle.” He said, “Well, I’II tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it to you if you won’t fool it away.” And he said, ‘Why I been spanking you with that razor strop is to get you to play. Usually if you try to make a kid play, he won’t. Just like a hog, if he thinks you want him in the pen he won’t go in.” And that just the way he put it to me. And that’s the way I started playing the fiddle.


Dan Gellert (2)

January 11, 2013

excerpt from

Dan Gellert is a legend in the field of old time American music. As a result of the folk music revival of the 1960s and records he heard growing up in New Jersey, he began to master the banjo, guitar, and fiddle, and sing. At an early age he discovered the importance of taking the time to understand the music in a complete and detailed way, as if it were a language. Dan has given a lot of thought to what it takes to make the music sound and feel like the field recordings and old 78 rpm records he has listened to.

While Dan is playing, one gets the sense he has entered another world which combines all his influences, yet it is his playfulness and improvisational sensibilities which make his style powerful and instantly recognizable. Dan’s fiddling is bluesy and rhythmic and without regard for modern standards of pitch and tone. In other words, he follows his muse, which makes his music stand alone in a world of timid imitators. Not for the faint of heart, Dan Gellert is a commanding and uncompromising talent.

After raising a family and playing out mainly in his community (Elkhart, Indiana), Dan is hoping to retire and get out more and share his music. His recordings are few but excellent. Check out A Moment in Time with Brad Leftwich (Marimac cassette). He has cuts on a couple of compilations: A tribute to the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (Chubby Dragon), and The Young Fogies Vol. I (Rounder). He has a segment on the Fiddler Magazine video Carrying on the Traditions: Appalachian Fiddling Today (now out of print), as well as various cuts on the old County Records claw-hammer banjo compilations.

Give us your first experience hearing old time fiddling.

Wow. I don’t know what my first experience hearing old time fiddling was. It was hearing stuff on records. What, I don’t know in particular, although we had records of the folkies around. You know — Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, those people. I don’t know if there was any fiddle on any of that but I know I heard some of that. I grew up with all kinds of stuff. We had classical music, too, and Gypsy music.

Was it the Anthology of American Folk Music?

Yeah, that was there. Some of it was. I remember there was one store in New York where you could pick up unjacketed Folkways discs. I think the price was three for ten dollars, if I recall right, and I used to go there every once in awhile and get a few. But I think my mother got this one long before I started going in there. It was just that first disc I remember. We started going in the early ’60s to these “hootenannies.” (more…)

Othar Turner

January 7, 2013


 Othar Turner lived in the small Mississippi community of Gravel Springs, located not too far from the nearby towns of Senatobia and Como, about an hour south of Memphis. He spent most of his life within these same few miles, working his farm and playing his music. He was born in Rankin County, Mississippi in 1908. His parents had separated prior to his birth and it wasn’t until he was nearly four years old that he met his father. Othar always held an interest in music. As a young child he played the harmonica and would beat on a 50-gallon lard can for a drum.

    He first heard the sound of a fife at age 16 from a neighbor named R.E. Williams and was enchanted from his very first listen. The neighbor gave Othar his first fife and the boy would practice it constantly. His mother disapproved and told him to stop, but Othar continued whenever she was away from home. When she discovered that he had kept up the fife, she broke the instrument. Othar had studied the fife so intently, he was able to remember where the finger-hole positioning was and began to make his own fifes from the cane he found near his home, using a fireplace poker to burn the holes. Othar continued creating his own homemade fifes throughout his entire life.

    He had also heard the sounds of the fife and drum bands played at picnics and other social gatherings and eventually created his own band, known as The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. He performed with Sid Hemphill and later with the younger Napolian Strickland, both of whom considered Turner the patriarch of the style. Still later, Othar’s own family began to take part in his music, in particular, his daughter, Bernice, who played drums alongside her father.

    Othar Turner had been playing his music for many years when music researcher Alan Lomax made his way through Northern Mississippi in the 1950s. While seeking guitarist Fred McDowell, Lomax chanced upon Turner and received directions from him on where to locate the Bluesman, unaware that he had just met one of the most authentic roots performers of the area. (more…)

Snake Chapman on Ed Haley

January 5, 2013

Ed Haley

edited from an article by Brandon Kirk:

Snake Chapman said Haley held the bow “up a little in the middle, not plumb on the end” and usually played with the fiddle at his chest – “just down ordinarily.” He also said Haley “single-noted” most of his bow strokes, played frequently in cross-key, hated vibrato and used a lot of “sliding notes.” He seldom got out of first position, only occasionally “going down and getting some notes” that he wanted to “bring in the tune” and he definitely tried to play words in his music.

“The old fiddlers through the mountains here – and I guess it’s that way everywhere – they tried to make the fiddle say the words of the old tunes,” Snake said.

I asked Snake about Haley’s repertoire and he said, “He played an old tune called ‘Old Sledge’ and it was one of his good ones. He played tunes like ‘Trouble Among the Yearlings’, but when he was gonna play it he called it ‘Fox in the Mud’. He made that up himself. One of the favorite tunes of mine he played was the old-time way of playing ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and he played it in G-minor. Ed could really play it good. They was somebody else that made the tune. Uncle Ed told me who it was – Garfield. He said he was a standing fiddling near a big blackberry patch and it was in bloom at the mouth of the hollow one time and this fella Garfield played this tune and he asked this fella Garfield what the name of the tune was. He said, ‘Well, I ain’t named it, yet,’ and he turned around and spit in that blackberry patch with a big bunch of ambeer and said, ‘We’ll just call it ‘Blackberry Blossom’.”

Snake laughed.

“Yeah, Uncle Ed, he had tales behind every one of them like that, but that’s where he said he got the name of it. He said he named it there…spitting in the blackberry blossom.”

Snake said Haley used to play on the streets of Williamson, West Virginia where he remembered him catching money in a tin cup. In earlier years, he supposedly played on the Ohio River and Big Sandy boats and probably participated in the old fiddlers’ contests, which Snake’s father said was held on boat landings. These impromptu contests were very informal and usually audience-judged, meaning whoever got the most applause was considered the winner. Sometimes, fiddlers would just play and whoever drew the biggest crowd was considered the winner.

I asked Snake if he ever heard Ed talk about Clark Kessinger and he said, “Skeets was telling me Ed didn’t like Clark at all. He said, ‘That damned old son-of-a-gun stands around and tries to pick up everything he can pick up from you.’ And he did. Clark tried to pick up everything from Uncle Ed. He was a good fiddler, too.”

Snake said Clayton McMichen (the famous Skillet Licker) was Haley’s favorite fiddler, although he said he knew just how to beat him. This made me think of the line from Parkersburg Landing, “In regard to his own fiddling, Haley was not particularly vain, although he was aware that he could put ‘slurs and insults’ into a tune in a manner that set him apart from all other fiddlers.”

Moses Bonner

January 2, 2013

Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson was the first female Governor of Texas in 1925. She held office until 1927, later winning another term in 1932 and serving until 1935.


Moses J. Bonner (1847–1939), fiddle player, recording artist, and Confederate veterans’ advocate, was one of the earliest Texas country musicians to record and one of the first to play a radio “barn dance.” He was born on March 1, 1847, in Franklin County, Alabama, to M. M. and Mary (Nelson) Bonner. His family moved to Texas in 1854 and settled in the Dallas area. As a boy, Bonner reportedly learned to play the fiddle from an old black man. After the death of M. M. Bonner, the family moved farther west to what would be present-day Parker County.

Bonner joined Company E of the Twelfth Texas Cavalry in May 1864 and served as a courier under Gen. William Henry Parsons. After the Civil War, he established the Crowdus Hide and Wool Company in Weatherford. He married Susan Pounders, and in 1878 they  moved to Fort Worth. In the late nineteenth century he became active in the United Confederate Veterans and was a member of the Robert E. Lee Camp in Fort Worth. There in 1901, nineteen fiddlers, including Bonner, Henry Gilliland, James K. P. Harris, Tom Lee, and others, participated in a fiddling contest; Gilliland won. At this event, the group formed the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.

Bonner participated in local and regional fiddle contests during the early twentieth century. In 1911 he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts for the world’s championship in Midland. In 1916 he won the championship in Midland and beat out Jesse Roberts and J. K. P. Harris. In addition to his reputation as one of the top fiddlers, he was also known as an excellent jig dancer. On January 4, 1923, he broadcast a program of old-time fiddle music over WBAP in Fort Worth, thus becoming one of the earliest radio fiddle players.

His radio popularity led to a recording session with Victor on March 17, 1925, in Houston. Accompanied by Fred Wagoner on harp guitar, Bonner waxed medleys of “Yearlings in the Canebrake”/”The Gal on the Log” and “Dusty Miller”/”Ma Ferguson.” “Ma Ferguson” was a song about Miriam Ferguson, Texas’s first female governor. Bonner’s rendition of “Dusty Miller” has become a classic of old-time fiddling.

Bonner remained active in Confederate veterans’ affairs. He attended many reunions and other events throughout the country and lobbied for pensions for Confederate veterans. The pension bill was eventually approved in 1911. In 1930 he was made Commander of the Texas Division of the United Confederate Veterans and thereby received the rank of major general (though Victor identified him as “Capt. M. J. Bonner” on their records). In 1938 Bonner, at the age of ninety-one, led a Texas delegation to attend the seventy-fifth veterans reunion at Gettysburg. He died in Fort Worth on September 2, 1939.

Daniel Jatta

December 26, 2012
Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta plays the akonting, an African instrument that may be a precursor to the banjo.

Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta plays the akonting, an African instrument that may be a precursor to the banjo.
from (August 23, 2011):

“My father was born with this instrument,” Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta says. “This is part of our history.”

Jatta, 55, is from Gambia, a member of the Jola people. He’s holding an akonting: a three-stringed instrument with a long neck and a body made from a calabash gourd with a goat skin stretched over it.

Jatta’s father and cousins played the instrument, but he didn’t think much about it himself until 1974, when he was visiting the U.S. from Gambia, attending a junior college in South Carolina. He recalls watching a football game on TV with some of the other students.

“When the football ended, there was this music program from Tennessee, and they called it country music,” Jatta says. “I watched the program and saw the modern banjo being used. And the sound just sounded like my father’s akonting.”

That experience put Jatta on a journey to explore the banjo’s connections with the instrument he grew up with.

The banjo came to America with the slaves, and musicologists have long looked in West Africa for its predecessors. Much of the speculation has centered on the ngoni and the xalam, two hide-covered stringed instruments from West Africa that bear some resemblance to the banjo. But they’re just two of more than 60 similar plucked stringed instruments found in the region.

Over the next two decades, while he pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S., Jatta learned everything he could about the origins of the banjo. Eventually, he reached a conclusion.

“Among all the instruments ever mentioned as a prototype of the banjo from the African region,” he says, “the akonting to me has more similarities, more objective similarities than any other that has ever been mentioned.”

For one thing, the akonting looks like a banjo. It has a long neck that, like those of early banjos, extends through the instrument’s gourd body. It has a movable wooden bridge that, as in banjos, holds the strings over the skin head.

But for Jatta and other banjo scholars, most convincing is how the akonting is played. Players use the index finger to strike down on one of the long strings, and the thumb sounds the akonting’s short string as the hand moves back upward. When Jatta looked at early banjo instruction books from the mid-1800s, he found that they described an almost identical playing style.

“What struck me was when they mentioned the ball of the thumb and the nail of the index or middle finger, I knew straight away my father was using this same style,” Jatta says. “This was never a surprise to me, because I have seen this since I was 5 years old.” (more…)


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