Georgia Yellow Hammers

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from http://www.myspace.com/georgiayellowhammers/blog/440029199

By 1926, the success of The Skillet Lickers (another string band from Georgia in the 20’s) was proving to America’s record companies that the hard-driving North Georgia fiddle band sound could be a commercial commodity. All kinds of string bands paraded through the studios in the late 1920’s, each seeking a piece of The Skillet Lickers’ action, and many bearing wild, extravagant names such as Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, Seven Foot Dilly & his Dill Pickles, and the West Virginia Snake Hunters. Many of these groups made a handful of records and then faded away.

One that did not, though, was an outfit from Gordon County, Georgia, called The Georgia Yellow Hammers. Unlike many other bands, the Yellow Hammers generated a distinct style of music that was uniquely their own, and they recorded extensively & successfully. To a casual observer, the Yellow Hammers may seem merely another imitation of The Skillet Lickers.

After all, both bands were from  North Georgia, and both were built around a preexisting fiddle & banjo team. Both presented images of hard drinking, carefree rustics, and in both cases these images were the products of records company executives. both recorded comedy skits, as well as vocal & fiddle tunes. Both contained musicians who wanted to transcend the narrow confines of the old time string band. Both were in a sense studio groups, with personnel shifting from session to session, and both shared a common repertoire of north Georgia fiddle tunes.

Yet there were some important difference too. The Yellow Hammers were based not in Atlanta, but in rural Gordon County, some sixty miles to the northwest. The Yellow Hammers stressed singing more than the Skillet Lickers (their records are full of fine quartet work), and boasted among their ranks two formally trained musicians who were adept at reading and composing all sorts of music. Yellow Hammers members were more ecumenical in their music, recording gospel quartets, sentimental songs, blues, pop, fiddle breakdowns, and even a couple of sacred harp tunes.

At one session they recorded with the fine Afro-Cherokee fiddler Andrew Baxter, in one of the first integrated sessions of old-time music. While the Yellow Hammers “covered” several Skillet Lickers hits during their first year as a band (1927), they soon moved out of this shadow and established their own identity. Indeed, by November 1927 the Skillet Lickers were themselves having to record cover versions of the Yellow Hammers hit “Johnson’s Old Gray Mule.”

The History of the Yellow Hammers begins on a chilly November day in 1924 when banjoist Bud Landress and fiddler Bill Chitwood boarded a train at Resaca, Georgia for a trip to New York. Bud Landress was forty two years old; he had been born in Gwinnett county, but since 1905 had lived in Gordon County. Bud was versatile on all stringed instruments, but preferred banjo & fiddle; he was also a songwriter & singer and was often an officer in the Gordon County singing conventions.

His partner, Bill Chitwood, was thirty three years old, lived in Resaca, and was known locally as a fiddler; he could also sing a passable bass. Both Chitwood and Landress had played for years in Gordon County. They were not necessarily known as a team, though they did sometimes play together, occasionally being joined by another luminary, Fate Norris, later to be banjoist for The Skillet Lickers. Now the duo was going to New York to record twelve numbers for a recording company just discovering country music; the results included the versions of “Whoa Mule” and “Pa, Ma, and Me” on the Brunswick label. They were the first fruits of the two most traditional members of the yellowhammers.

Meanwhile two other key members of the Yellow Hammers were making music of a different sort in nearby Calhoun, the county seat of Gordon County. One of these was Charles Ernest Moody, who had the good sense to trade a shotgun for his first fiddle, and who also played banjo and harmonica. Moody came from a family of church singers, and recalled his father and uncles debating whether the “new” seven shaped notes would ever replace the older Sacred Harp four shape variety.

In 1916 he attended an intensive singing school in Asheville, North Carolina, where he studied formal music-harmony, voice, and even directing. Soon he was himself writing hymns, and by 1924 he had produced two of the most popular sacred songs of the 20th century, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore” and “Kneel at the Cross”. Bob Dylan recently cited that “Drifting Too Far From the Shore” as being an early inspiration to pursue music. One of Moody’s local friends was Phil Reeve, a piano tuner, manager of the local music store, and director of the local brass band.

Reeve, though, was interested in other music as well; as early as 1916 he was yodeling, and by 1925 he was organizing radio programs for Atlanta’s WSB that featured old time musicians from Gordon County. It was Reeve, in fact, who was to become the central figure in the Yellow Hammers; he got them their first recording contract, maintained rather close contacts with recording executives, and looked after copyrights and royalties.  Reeve also served as manager for The Baxters, Jim and Andrew, the Afro-Cherokee fiddle-guitar team from Gordon County.

These diverse influences were first brought together in a studio in Atlanta Febuary 1927; Landress recalled that a technician for the record company though up the name “The Georgia Yellow Hammers.” Soon the officers from the Gordon County singing conventions found themselves bellowing “Pass Around the Bottle and We’ll Take a Drink” as anxious engineers watched their dials. The Georgia Yellow Hammers were born.

One of the odd and delightful songs the band recorded in 1927 was “Fourth of July at a County Fair,” a wild, surrealistic account of farm animals and a balloon ride. One of the early best sellers was the old spiritual “Mary Don’t you Weep,” backed with the familiar “Goin’ to Raise a Ruckus Tonight,” later to become a favorite of the folk music revival and a featured song in the epic film how the west was won.

Another ersatz gospel song that became a big seller was “I’m S-A-V-E-D,” which had earlier been featured by Gid Tanner of the Skillet Lickers. But the real career song for the band came in the session on August 9th, 1927, at Charlotte. Here they recorded two sweet sentimental songs, “My Carolina Girl” and “Picture on the Wall.” It was the latter that propelled the record to sales of almost 100,000 copies.

Years later, in 1953, Bud Landress gave Atlanta newspaper writer an account of its composition: Landress who has spent a good deal of his life farming, said he was inspired to write the song one night after he had plowed corn one day. After going to bed, he became fascinated with a picture hanging on the wall of his bedroom and the idea to make a song about it was born. The picture, however, was not of his mother, about whom the song was written. He got out of bed, wrote the words, and sawed out the tune on his fiddle. Several hours later when the composition was finished, he awakened his wife and sang it to her for an opinion, which probably wasn’t very good at that time of night.

Throughout the next three years Phil Reeve booked the band into a bewildering variety of recording sessions for a number of different companies. There were several sessions for one company that were issued as Bill Chitwood and his Georgia Mountaineers, and another as Turkey Mountain Singers. Songs the group liked such as “Fourth of July at a County Fair,” How I Got My Wife,” and Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn,” were recorded two or three different times for different companies under different names. The personnel seldom remained constant from session to session, and the basic four of Chitwood, Landress, Reeve, and Moody were seldom all together on the same session.

In later sessions, Landress took over some of the fiddling (when Chitwood wasn’t present), and did a lot of the solo singing. Landress was not the fiddler Chitwood was; he was often restrained, almost polite, and pushed the group more in the direction of a Charlie Poole sound. Chitwood was a more typical north Georgia fiddler-hard driving, a bit rough, grabbing for wild, high harmonies. Two other regulars who often played with the band include guitarist Clyde Evans, probably from Atlanta, and guitarist Melvin Dupree, from Rome, who also recorded with fiddler Bill Shores and mandolin player Fred Locklear.

The Yellow Hammers were not as successful as the Skillet Lickers in selling records; most of their records averaged 10,000-15,000 copies each–certainly an impressive figure for the late 1920’s, where million sellers were almost unheard of. The one big hit the band had–“The Picture on the Wall”/ “My Carolina Girl”–sold well over 100,000 copies, and, significantly, featured well-mannered quartet singing. In fact, the Yellow Hammers in general had fewer traditional numbers in their repertoire than did the Skillet Lickers.

Reeve, Moody, and Landress were all good songwriters, and Reeve had enough business sense to see the value in using as many original compositions as possible. Thus the Yellow Hammers forte for strong singing, and for original songs. Most of the songs, to be sure, were cast in an old time style, but to some member, like the distinguished Moody, writing and recording pieces like “Song of the Doodle Bug” at the expense of “Kneel at the Cross” must have required considerable reserves of tolerance and humility.

The Depression ended the Yellow Hammers as a group; most of the boys “grew up” and went into other lines of work. The one exception was Uncle Bud Landress, who continued to play music in local groups up through the 40’s; one of his friends commented, “Bud had a hard time getting over show business.” Phil Reeve died in ’44, Chitwood in ’62. Researcher Bob Pinson got to Bud Landress about 1965, but Bud was too sick to talk very much, and he died the following year. Moody died in ’77, wryly amused and a little puzzled at the researchers who kept wanting to talk to him about his role in the Yellow Hammers rather than his life as a hymn writer.

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