John Dilleshaw

by

by Kerry Blech (Old Time Herald volume 6, number 6)

 
John DilleshawSeven Foot Dilly-1929-1930, Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order
Document 8002 (CD reissued from 78s) (78:10)

John Dilleshaw-guitar, speech, vocal; Pink Lindsey-fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass; Harry Kiker-fiddle; Shorty Lindsey-(tenor) banjo; Joe Brown-fiddle; Ahaz. A. Gray-fiddle, vocal; Archie Lee, Bill Brown, and Hoke Rice-speech; probably Lowe Stokes-fiddle.

While in Chicago in 1972 visiting a 78 collector friend in his basement apartment, decorated floor-to-ceiling with vintage musical artifacts, he put a disc on, having intuited some of my interest. The tube amplifier translated that signal: “All right boys, we come up here to play for these folks up here on Dog River; now let’s get started. What’ll be a good tune to get started with? ‘Lye Soap!’ ‘Lye Soap.’ Bust Down!!!” and that was my introduction to Seven Foot Dilly and His Dill Pickles, a breakdown band in the North Georgia fiddle band style, with hot flatpicked runs by leader John Dilleshaw that would make Riley Puckett envious, a pulsating bowed bass, a ripplingly rhythmic tenor banjo, and some of the finest country humor and commentary one will ever encounter. I fell in love with a band’s sound and didn’t rest until I had heard everything by them. Now, you too can be inspired by this reckless band, as all their recordings are contained on this one silvery disc.

What was it about the sound of the Dilleshaw ensembles? The rhythm section, for sure. They had a wonderfully effervescent dance beat, with a unique underpinning of that bowed bass, that lively tenor banjo, and the accents and counterpoint of Dilleshaw’s left-handed guitar-playing. And Dilleshaw had a talent (or his A&R men did) for attracting great fiddlers to his recording sessions. A.A. Gray, Joe Brown, and most of all, Lowe Stokes, were already legends in the southeastern part of the United States by the time these discs were cut. And Pink Lindsey and Harry Kiker were no slouches either.

The band mixed some chestnuts, usually with some little hook in them to make them stand out from the crowd, with rather rare tunes. “Streak O’ Lean” might fall into the former category, as it was a popular regional piece that was recorded under various titles by John Carson and the Skillet Licker circle, among others. But the A-minor section is almost jarring behind Gray’s rhythmic bowing. “Kenesaw Mountain Rag” should be easily identifiable as a version of “Cumberland Gap,” but with masterfully subtle variations from the standard melodic course.

And of course they had their own takes on “Chinese Breakdown” and “Wyzee Hamilton’s Breakdown” (also known locally as “G Rag”), but rather than telling you which of their fanciful titles overlaid these familiar tunes, I’ll let you discover that for yourselves. In addition to their personalized stamp on the familiar, their rarities included “Sand Mountain Drag,” “Bibb County Hoe Down” (perhaps the best breakdown ever recorded?), and “Hell Amongst the Yearlings,” among others. I’ve not heard these melodies elsewhere.

There were great vocals on the few songs, especially the duets by Gray and Dilleshaw. Add to that Dilly’s guitar prowess, illustrated on “Spanish Fandango” and his quaint, period singing on “Bad Lee Brown,” “River Shannon,” “Farmer’s Blues,” and “Walkin’ Blues,” well you’re getting close to having a whole entertainment package.

Their skits-ah-their skits. Most likely they were inspired by the ever popular “Corn Licker Still in Georgia” series from the Skillet Lickers, but in the opinions of many, yours truly included, the writing and execution is near perfect, as the listener can easily visualize and enjoy the varied settings of the skits. What an experience the “Square Dance Fight” becomes. From “All right folks, let’s get this square dance started up on Ball Top Mountain tonight; get your partners, boys, let’s go back; You ready, Music?” “Yeah! Bust Down!” up through “Between that fight and playing all night, I don’t want any more of Ball Top Mountain!” “Same here, brother!” The emotions become drained.

And the fiddling in “A Fiddler’s Tryout” is simply spectacular, with Fiddlin’ Joe Brown cutting it with “Arkansas Traveler” (“Wheeeee”), and “Blue-Tailed Fly” (“Wheeeee”) and A.A. Gray wowing them with “Buckin’ Mule” (“Wheeee”) and “Sally Gooden” (“Wheee”) and the two of them busting down on “Leather Breeches” (“Wheeee”) and “Katy Hill” (“Wheeee”). Simply exhilarating playing, folks. We get tutoring in barbeque and dismembering cooked meat in the “Barbeque” skit, but it’s more than the music, as all these players have a presence and delivery. We can feel their personalities shine through.

And speaking of personalities, the biggest attention-getter throughout their work is Dilly’s ease and fluidity in delivering his monologues over the spectacular music. He was the original Rap poet. And what phrases: “I told you I heard something cooking; turnip greens, sweetland ‘taters, cornbread, buttermilk. I sure have a bad cold . . . say, can you reach over here and pull my nose? Much obliged.” and “Look at that red-dressed gal over there yonder; Yeah, that’s her

. . . I know that old boy she’s with; I used to play baseball with him eight or ten years ago . . . we played down in Smith’s pasture; he was on base and I knocked a high fly . . . plumb over the fence . . . I slid into something that I thought was third base . . .” if that ain’t poetry . . . and all with some great accompanying music behind it. Or is it the rapping that accompanies the music?

Some musical “purists” wish that Dilleshaw wasn’t gabbing and flapping his jaw and interrupting the stellar fiddling going on, but it is all part of the ambiance. If such things disturb you, you might have to look elsewhere for your jollies, I’m afraid. I think their music is absolutely wonderful as is.

Tony Russell must be commended for an extremely superior job in writing the notes for the booklet, as he presents a decent history of the band members and properly sets their place in the milieu of North Georgia fiddle bands. He has intelligent statements about their approach to their performances and of the fiddlers themselves (I mean, when was the last time you saw the word “quotidian” in the notes for an old-time string band?). I also would imagine that he is responsible for the detailed discography. Huzzah, Tony.

The cover features a quite clear photo of one version of the band; it is quite stunning to see how much larger than the others Dilleshaw is. And finally, we come to the weakest part of the package, the sound quality. As with a lot of other Document recordings, it could be much better. I again suspect that this CD was assembled from tapes from a number of collectors and that extensive digital noise reduction and enhancement was not performed in the original mastering, if any, of the discs themselves.

The levels vary from cut to cut, though this is somewhat natural in 78 rpm record reissues, as some discs are rarer than others, meaning that if it is damaged or noisy, there may be no alternatives, short of quite expensive remastering, for it may be the sole accessible copy. This may be one of the negative aspects we’ll have to endure when we have a “complete recorded works” issue like this one. I for one am grateful that Dilleshaw’s entire oeuvre has been amassed and issued in one place. I strongly suspect that this trade-off will be an issue throughout the entire reissuing project by Document. We’ll have to live with it, but also, maybe put some pressure on them to “clean up the act,” like the American reissue labels are doing. Nevertheless, this is an outstanding recording.

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One Response to “John Dilleshaw”

  1. Nancy Says:

    I am a Dilleshaw….I wonder if we are related?

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