Stripling Brothers (#2)

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by Kerry Blech (Old Time Herald, volume 6, number 5)
The Stripling BrothersComplete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume 1 and 2, 1928-1936

From the very first time I heard a tune played by one of Alabama’s best musical exports, The Stripling Brothers, I was totally enamored. It was so long ago, that I can’t now place the time or place, but it probably was on an LP anthology. Not long afterwards, County Records issued their wonderful set of Stripling Brothers fiddle and guitar duets. Eventually I obtained a discography and learned that they had 42 sides issued commercially (on the Vocalion and Decca labels) in toto. Thus started a search that took years to complete-my own quest for the grail-finding all the Stripling recordings.

I found a few 78s, but primarily I traded tapes with 78 collectors until I had all but a couple in my collection, in various media formats. I pooled resources with Joyce Cauthen a few years ago and I finally had the complete recordings of the Striplings, after 20 years of searching. It was about that time that Joyce told me that she would be writing the liner notes for a CD reissue of the entire Stripling commercial output. Rather than being disheartened or depressed by my seemingly wasted effort, I was overjoyed that all their material would be found in a more permanent medium, and placed on two compact discs, the better for all to behold.

As many of you now know, Document, led by Johnny Parth, is methodically issuing complete works CDs of old-time music artists. As of this writing, they have 28 CDs for sale. It is a valuable service to researchers, discographers, and fans of the so-called “Golden Age of Old-Time Music” (or “first golden Age” as some might have it). With the Stripling set, they have made easily obtainable some of the finest fiddling ever committed to shellac.

The Striplings were talented enough and sold well enough that they had a longer recording career than most of their contemporaries. Lasting from late 1928 through early 1936, they kept their careers going through the teeth of the Depression, and all this with only two vocal numbers, the rest being instrumentals. Charlie Stripling (1896-1966) was one of the great old-time fiddlers, with myriad contest championships under his belt.

In her wonderful book about Alabama fiddlers, With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow, Joyce Cauthen writes about Charlie as being a “Brag Fiddler,” one of the best. And he certainly was. How else could one explain his rise to prominence, coming from an obscure location-the town of Kennedy in Pickens County, in West Alabama? Charlie had a unique style, though it can be somewhat pigeonholed as a “Deep South style,” similar in some ways technically to some of the fiddlers of neighboring Mississippi (cf., the Ray Brothers, the Nations Brothers, Willie Narmour, et al), but he played differently enough that I’d hesitate to categorize him with those fiddlers. Similarities would include the “bluesy” notes and the phrasing.

In an interview with Bob Pinson shortly before he died, Charlie was asked from whom he had learned. He essentially said that he had taught himself, that there were no other fiddlers in that area at that time (his childhood). Interviews with two of his children, Robert and Edwin Lee, have echoed that statement. And what a repertoire Stripling possessed! We have a slightly skewed image of his play list, as he was subject to the whims of the labels’ A&R men. Loathe to allow their charges to duplicate the tunes and songs that other artists had recorded, Charlie dug deep for some rather obscure melodies, all exceedingly well-played, many haunting. He also composed many of the pieces he recorded, all in “the traditional style” of the region. Charlie was not averse to playing in the more obscure keys, with a number of his best-liked pieces falling in the key of F.

We hear a lightly different side of his music when one listens to the 1952 Library of Congress recordings Charlie and Ira made for field collector Ray Browne, as he was free to play whatever he chose, so there are some more “common,” or standard titles there, but as you may have guessed, he had quite a unique presentation for them. Some of the tunes that his sons Edwin and Robert have played for me are rather unique settings for standard tunes, nothing “generic” in the Stripling oeuvre, no sirree.

And lest you think I am forgetting Charlie’s younger brother Ira (1898-1967), well, I’m not. He was a masterful accompanist, choosing appropriate runs coupled with rock-solid rhythm, the perfect back-up guitarist in the opinion of many, including me. They only sang on two sides: “Railroad Bum” and “Weeping Willow,” but those two examples showed they had mellifluous singing voices and a gift for harmony. Had circumstances been otherwise, they probably could have risen to a higher level of popularity had they been allowed to sing on records. Statistics have shown that vocals in the ’20s and ’30s vastly outsold old-time instrumentals. Perhaps one thing that helped spur their sales are their lovely renditions of some stunning waltzes. They were among the best in executing that form.

Volume One features a variety of styles, including three raggy numbers and a couple of bluesy pieces, as well as their two vocals. Of particular interest will be one of the earliest pieces Charlie recorded, the showpiece “The Lost Child,” replete with discord tuning (AEAC#), pizzicato, and stunning bowing. This of course was the precursor to the bluegrass warhorse, “Black Mountain Rag.” The pedigree, lineage, and evolution of this tune family is addressed in Charles Wolfe’s fine book, The Devil’s Box (reviewed on page ** ).

Volume Two contains most of their raggy material, 10 pieces in all, with that characteristic phrasing and chording, including the extremely slippery-sounding “Pallet On the Floor.” The three blues tunes on the second volume are among my favorite Stripling tunes: “Coal Valley,” “Forty Drops” (an F tune perhaps distantly related to that waxed by Andrew & James Baxter in Atlanta nine years before the Stripling’s final 1936 session where their rendition was preserved), and “California Blues.” But for me, from start to finish, the musical quality and musicianship is stellar.

Joyce Cauthen, whom I mentioned above, wrote the splendid liner notes for both discs, filling in personal information, discussing their careers, and describing their music beautifully. Discographies are provided as well. The graphics are rather simple, with a bit of unappealing cropping (on Volume 2’s cover) of Charlie’s photo. Normally, with all this gushing, you’d probably expect me to order you to run out and purchase these discs, but there is a bit of a “dark” side. Some of the sound quality is a bit less than it could be.

There is a strong suspicion that Document did not use original 78s in the mastering of these CDs, in fact, the start of “June Rose Waltz” is clipped much in the way that a tape dub of another tape often sounds. There is noticeable tape “wow” on “Weeping Willow.” And had the best available 78s been used, I feel that “Whiskers,” “Get Off your Money,” “Lost John,” and “Midnight Waltz” would not suffer from what I deem unacceptable sound quality. I’ve heard superior copies of all these pieces. And, you must remember, that I’ve spent most of my adult life listening to beat up 78s and hissy field recordings, so it will take a lot to provoke me into such a statement about sound quality. These could be better, and other labels are proving it.

But, that said, I would still recommend these discs. The musicianship is of such high quality, that they belong in every serious old-time music fan’s collection.

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