Mississippi String Bands, Volume One and Two: Traditional Fiddle Music of Mississippi (County Records)
reviewed by Kerry Blech (Old Time Herald, volume 6, number 7)
One of the benchmark events in my lifetime of acquiring old-time records was the issue in the 1975 of the two LPs on the County label of Mississippi string bands. Up until that time, I had only heard a smattering of music from Mississippi here and there, and I had heard some of the artists included in the set, but had not known at the time that they were from Mississippi. Now we are ready to roll again with such excitement, for County Records has released a new and improved version with these two CDs.
All of the selections, save one (The Leake County Revelers’ “Been to the East, Been to the West”) that were on the LP are found here, as well as numerous additional cuts from the same artists that were issued on vinyl, and a couple of new artists to the CD medium at least Clardy & Clements and the Newton County Hill Billies. There was a wide variety in fiddling styles to be found in the Magnolia State at the time these recordings were made (1927-1935) and most of them can be savored between these two discs.
Let me stray from the music itself for a moment. Commendations must be given to the County production staff, Chris King in particular, for its selection of the music, as not one piece is a clinker – all are superb. Richard Nevins must also be commended for his excellence in walking the tightrope of 78 rpm record remastering. He has suppressed noise just enough to clarify a great deal of the music, without being heavy-handed and destroying some of the subtle music signal that is necessary to fully enjoy this material. Dave Freeman has written enjoyable and informative notes. The cover art, by graphic artist David Lynch, is stunning and attractive (and color-coded so you know which disc goes with what package – what a concept!) and the photographic reproduction of band photos in the booklet is stellar.
Volume One kicks off with the Mississippi Possum Hunters, who had two distinct sounds because they had two different fiddlers playing in different styles. Lonnie Ellis starts off this series on “Mississippi Breakdown” (a variant to the Leake County Revelers’ “Saturday Night Breakdown” and The Newton County Hill Billies’ “Nine O’Clock Breakdown”) with his breakdown bowing style (also heard on “Possum on a Rail”) that contrasts with the more raggy playing of John Holloway on “Rufus Rastus” (done here as an instrumental version of the Tin-Pan Alley ragtime song by Sterling and Von Tilzer, “Whatcha Gonna Do When The Rent Comes ‘Round?”) and “The Last Shot Got Him” (which is an instrumental rendering of a song John Hurt, who lived near them, recorded as “The First Shot Missed Him”).
Holloway bows the cello on the cuts where Ellis fiddles, and Ellis plays mandolin on the cuts that Holloway fiddles. One band, much diversity. The Carter Brothers & Son were one of the more raucous groups to record old-time fiddle music, with brothers Andrew and George on the fiddles and George’s young son Jimmie on a powerful guitar, with his bass runs often emulating the melodic structure of these tunes. The fiddles had a great rhythmic component, freeing the guitar to be nearly melodic.
The Carters sometimes played in standard tuning, as with “Nancy Rowland,” and sometimes in cross-tuning, like the rest of their pieces heard here, but always with lots of energy. They must have been enjoying themselves too, getting carried away so that George would sometimes forget lyrics and do a form of “lilting,” and other times where the fiddles, which played in octaves on some of these pieces, would go out of phase a bit, seeming to almost play in a round! None of this detracts from any of my enjoyment of the Carters, who are one of my favorite old-time ensembles of all-time. The rhythms they conjure with those fiddles should be enough to get anyone up and dancing.
Surely one of the oddest of old-time band names would be Floyd Ming’s Pep-Steppers. With a surname shared by the villain in a Buster Crabbe outer space serial of the time, these records must have enticed many a browser. Hoyt (his actual first name) Ming’s music must have seemed as alien to many old-time music fans of the era, and even by today’s standards. His “Indian War Whoop,” with its odd timing and gradual blend of a long-bowed fiddle drone into a vocal whoop still must reign as one of the great “spacey” tunes of all-time.
Roselle Ming supplied a shuffling foot scuff that caused the record company to come up with their band-name. When Hoyt and Roselle appeared at the National Folk Festival about 1973, they were still able to enthrall with that distinctive sound. Their “Tupelo Blues” also uses an odd timing device, which must also have contributed to their underground fame amongst the purveyors of crooked fiddle tunes.
Next up are the Ray Brothers, Will on fiddle and Vardman on guitar, from Choctaw County. (A photo of the earlier five-member Ray Brothers band graces the cover of the booklet for Volume One). Their tunes also tend to eccentricity, with a strong cant towards a raggy yet bluesy feel. Will has some wonderful bowing action during the string transitions, smooth and articulated at once. Tony Russell in his magazine Old Time Music (issue 20) compares some of Will’s fiddling style with that of Gene Clardy (about whom we’ll hear more later) who lived for a time in Choctaw County.
“Jake Leg Wobble’s” odd meter most likely is a musical re-creation of the odd gait that afflicted those who suffered from the side effects of partial leg paralysis, attributed to prohibition-era imbibing of Jamaica ginger extract, a legal beverage then with a high alcohol content. “Choctaw County Rag” is a distant variant of the ragtime piece “At a Georgia Camp Meeting.” “Mississippi Echoes” is a lovely C tune with much blues feel, rather reminiscent of some of the Stripling Brothers material from that era.
One of the most popular groups in Mississippi, and among the earliest to record, were the Leake County Revelers, renowned for their waltzes and for their multi-part vocals (rivaling the vaunted Georgia Yellow Hammers in this category, in my opinion). One of the questions raised by Dave Freeman in his notes is a seeming lack of vocals by Mississippi string bands. I think if one looks at the entirety of the Revelers output, one might not bemoan that, for they recorded many, many songs, with lush harmony treatments. We do not get a chance to hear that in this collection however. The compiler of this collection may be partly to blame for that. [The Document label recently has reissued the entire recording output of the Revelers on two CDs (8029 and 8030).]
The Revelers aside, I would agree with Mr. Freeman’s assessment that not many Mississippi bands issued vocal recordings, but I surmise that this had a lot to do with the wishes of the record labels and their A&R men. Perhaps the songs that many of these bands knew were already issued by other groups on other labels. It also is obvious that the instrumental repertoire from this state that did make it onto shellac is rather special, so perhaps the labels then had decided that would be their strong suit? In any case, many of these musicians were known to sing, but did not do so for posterity.
But back to the Revelers. “The Old Hat” is a nice variant of “Lynchburg Town,” featuring guitarist Dallas Jones’ strong lead vocal and the vaunted fiddling of Will Gilmer. Jim Wolverton’s five-string banjo and R.O. Mosley’s banjo-mandolin (and sometimes mandolin) round out their usually easily-recognizable sound. “Dry Town Blues” is a ragtime-influenced instrumental. Their “Mississippi Breakdown,” hardly a breakdown at all, is a stately parlor-like piece, highly reminiscent of their “Texas Fair,” which was recorded at the same 1930 session (though not heard in this set).
The Revelers also appear on Volume Two, with their first cut there being “Molly Put the Kettle On,” a fiddle tune with intermittent singing (Dallas Jones here, too, I believe). “Lonesome Blues” has a melody that does its title justice. “Wednesday Night Waltz,” their only waltz in this set, was their biggest seller and one of their first two records issued in 1927. It was covered by many, many other artists and has become a staple at dances. Its opening strains of third position double-stops is instantly recognizable.
Their sudden segue into “Texas Quickstep” may seem jarring to us in this time and place, but may have been representative of dance tunes that changed tempo from that era, such as “The Rye Waltz.” Many have recorded wonderful versions of this, but I do not feel that anyone has fully surpassed the beauty and elegance of Will Gilmer’s gem. Their final number on Volume Two is “Johnson Gal,” a rousing breakdown in the key of G that features a rare solo vocal by fiddler Gilmer. “See those girls / dressed so fine / ain’t got Jesus on their minds; Want to go to heaven / want to go straight / want to walk through those pearly gates” sort of tells it all.
If not the most popular string band from Mississippi, Narmour & Smith certainly had one of the biggest sellers and most-covered in “Carroll County Blues.” Willie Narmour and Shel Smith were from Carroll County and were rather prolific. What is most interesting is that very few of the tunes they committed to wax sound much like other pieces that were recorded (except for those covered by other artists after N&S cut them). “Carroll County Blues” has a rather odd meter that must have made it quite appealing to their contemporaries and still entices fiddlers and audiences alike even today. It can be heard on Volume Two here.
Another odd meter piece, “Avalon Quickstep,” is found on Volume One. And speaking of Avalon, it was home to the great songster and bluesman, John Hurt, who was a friend of Narmour & Smith’s; in fact they are the ones who recommended to the recording company that he be signed to a contract. Another of their fine but odd-timed pieces also is caught on Volume One, “Sweet Milk and Peaches.”
“Charleston #1” might be related to a showpiece of the era, “Done Gone,” but it certainly plays well in Narmour’s smooth and bluesy style. Like its flip side, “Carroll County Blues,” “Charleston” seems to have been covered by everyone and his fiddling brother. Such was the compelling nature of their music. A couple more oddities from their vast repertoire of same are included on Volume Two: “Captain George. . .” and “Mississippi Breakdown” (which is not the same tune as the Mississippi Possum Hunters have on Volume One).
The piece that kicks off Volume Two is hands-down my favorite tune from Mississippi, “Sulllivan’s Hollow” (to learn more about the legend and lore of that rough parcel mostly in Smith County, I highly recommend you delve into your local public library’s collection and read Sullivan’s Hollow by Chester Sullivan, University Press of Mississippi, 1978). Freeny’s Barn Dance Band was a two-fiddle affair that recorded six sides in 1930 (only “Leake County Two-Step” from that session is not included here). Leslie Freeny’s elegant and fluid lead fiddling on “Sullivan’s Hollow still gives me the shivers.
Guitarist Fonzo Cannon provides the vocals on the “anguished titled,” “Croquet Habits,” which also features some fine fiddling. He also provides calls on the two Mississippi Square Dance sides (I now forget which one is Part 1 and which is Part 2). One of them is also known as “Sally Anne,” the other seems to be a tune that has one part resembling “Fire On the Mountain” and the other reminiscent of “Little Brown Jug.” Carlton Freeny, the tenor banjoist, also was part of the group that recorded five years later as the Freeny Harmonizers.
Deeply into a bluesy sound were Lincoln County’s Nations Brothers, Shelton on fiddle and Marshall on guitar. Of the 10 sides they cut in 1935, 8 were issued and half of those are found here on Volume Two, all gems. “Magnolia One-Step” is nothing short of being a precious jewel, with some complex bowing licks. Shelton executes similar technique in “Negro Suppertime.” The timing idiosyncrasies some say delineate much of Mississippi’s golden age of fiddling are brought to a head in “Sales Tax Toddle.” Great bowing, left hand slides, eccentric pauses and timing. . . wow, the whole nine yards. “Bankhead Blues” is simply one of the most beautiful and most slippery blues pieces ever recorded.
I had not heard Gene Clardy (fiddle) and Stan Clements (guitar) until I received this recording. They only cut four sides in a commercial career abbreviated by the Great Depression. Clardy hailed from Carroll County and was older than most of the others on this recording. He is said to have taught Willie Narmour and may well have been the creator of “Carroll County Blues,” according to Tony Russell.
I previously had heard the Nations Brothers rendition of “Little Black Mustache” and thought it grand, but it really pales next to Clardy’s phenomenal rendition. I surely wish we had more of his playing to savor. It is abundant in ornaments and intricacies not found in the playing of the other fiddlers in this set, hearkening back more to a style that was more prevalent in the 19th century. Tony Russell adds: “Clardy died at a dance during the mid-’30s or thereabouts. One of his audience asked him to go on playing after he’d finished for the night, and, when Clardy refused, killed him.” Let this tragedy be a lesson to us all. . . don’t stop playing.
At the time the Mississippi LPs came out, not one of the Newton County Hill Billies’ six OKeh recordings had been located by collectors of old-time music, I believe. Fiddler Alvis Massengale was located and visited about this time by several researchers, who interviewed and recorded him. They got him to play several of the pieces he had committed to 78s in 1930 by requesting titles found on the OKeh ledgers, which greatly astounded him.
Soon afterwards, in 1974, he was invited to play at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. And then the recordings started to surface. And what beautiful numbers. “The Little Princess’ Footsteps” is a gorgeous little C tune and “Going to the Wedding” is a dandy dance tune in G, with the guitar making some surprising chord changes. What an ensemble, as Massengale’s fine fiddling meshes so nicely with the mandolin of Marcus Harrison and Andrew Harrison’s solid guitar playing.
That covers the musical content, but this is an excellent package all around, with great sound reproduction, fine graphics, nice notes and photographs. It is not as earth-shattering an event as the issuance of the original LPs, but this reissue is still one of the great musical projects of the year, or even the decade. For those who crave something a little out of the ordinary, you cannot do any better within the old-time genre. And for those who simply like great old-time music, well, here it is.