Greenback Dollar



Weems String Band
“Greenback Dollar” (Columbia 15300-D, 1928)

“Greenback Dollar” is one of only two songs – two sides of a single record – ever documented from this Tennessee family string band. That seems unfathomable considering how good it is, and how unique. The band played rural music unlike any other captured on record. Brothers Dick and Frank Weems played their fiddles with advanced fingering positions usually employed only by classically trained musicians. Another brother, Jesse, played cello, an instrument also typically reserved for classical music.

While all of this created a sophisticated sound, the band was still using these instruments to play “hillbilly” music, and the unexpected juxtaposition was exhilarating. The cello, for example, shifted between a thumping, staccato beat and a low, brooding drone. And brother-in-law Alvin Condor added banjo and down-home vocals for a clear mountain music touch.

The lyrics are simple and spare, but classic. Condor delivers them in a voice that starts as a yell and ends as a statement: “Over the hills and down in the holler / All I want is a greenback dollar.”

Adding to the excitement was the way the band members improvised variations and created a tapestry of interlocking melodies, all while keeping a steady rhythm. While everyone appears at first to be playing regular, repeating themes, as the song progresses, one notices frequent, subtle variations. At times, they add a few unexpected notes, and at other times an instrument will drop away completely, its presence still somehow felt as the rest of the band fills the gap seamlessly. Sometimes an instrument will even play out of key for a few notes, heightening the tension of the moment and then snapping back into the familiar pattern. All together, the band exhibits a tremendous sense of awareness; if they were playing jazz, you would call it “swing.”


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