Memoirs of a Musical Eden: Lonnie Austin, Lewis McDaniel, and Norman Woodlief

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Memories of a Musical Eden (1984)

 

By Arthur Menius (from The Spectator Magazine of the Triad – April 5- April 11, 1984):

Outside the auditorium of Morehead High School in Eden, the night air chills. Inside, the mostly middle –aged audience is warm and friendly. They have gathered to share their rich heritage of old-time music, one that has survived in the Eden area for almost a century.

The current embodiment of that sound provides back-porch music. The Rockingham County Sheriff executes a clog dance while the band plays rhythmically along. One of the three fiddles usually takes the lead; the banjo, guitars, mandolin, and piano surge forward in unison. No jazzy bluegrass solos, no smooth Nashville pop, no honky-tonk songs about cheating husbands.

`This is the sound of country music’s earliest commercial period, the 1920’s and 1930’s. Then it was called hillbilly music, and it was made by rural Southerners for rural Southerners. Piedmont North Carolina, especially the mill towns of Leaksville, Spray and Draper – now called Eden 1 – formed a hotbed for such entertainers.

Although the Sweet Sunny South is made up mainly of second- and third-generation musicians 2, tonight two old-timers, Lonnie Austin and Lewis McDaniel, join them. Austin, mainly a fiddler, 3 traveled and recorded with Charlie Poole, Piedmont North Carolina’s most successful hillbilly musician. In 1930 and 1931 McDaniel cut records for three major manufacturers of hillbilly waxings, Columbia, RCA Victor and the American Recording Company, and he had several regional hits.4. A singer, guitarist and songwriter, McDaniel often worked with Walter “Kid” Smith. Also from the area, whose success and popularity was exceeded only by that of Poole.

McDaniel and Austin provide a living link to the early days of commercial country music. So do Tyler Meeks and Norman Woodlief, two more old-time musicians from the Eden area.

Only Woodlief, now eighty-two, has been forced by bad health to quit playing music. Austin, now seventy-eight, mostly plays the organ with the musicians who gather regularly at his home, and Meeks, ninety, still plays a mean blues guitar to accompany the songs the learned seventy years ago. Ruddy-faced McDaniel, seventy-six, now lives outside Ridgeway, VA, where he has formed an otherwise all-female string band.

Although the men live very much in the present, they reminisced about the heyday of hillbilly music.

By the end of the Civil War, the banjo had made its way into the Southern Appalachians from the slaves of the Deep South. It may have been carried by circus minstrel shows, black railroad workers or returning soldiers. The fiddle had already been carried into the hills by emigrating Scots and Irishmen. Soon the earliest two-instrument string bands were being heard at dances and “play parties”

As the nineteenth century neared its end, life in the mountains changed dramatically. Mining and logging operations disrupted the century-old tradition by acquiring land, exploiting the resources of the region, and forcing many farmers and their families to move on. Many hill folk headed for the booming Piedmont cotton mills in search of employment. 5

For these displaced persons, music became a lingering touch of home. The mill owners, realizing the importance of music to their employees, sponsored company string bands. At after-hours picking sessions, mountain musicians such as Lewis McDaniel, who was originally from Floyd County , VA, mingled with flatland artists such as Charlie Poole. Because of such mixes, new styles emerged in each town, in Leaksville, Danville, Mt. Airy and Galax. The pattern survives to this day.

“They’ll play the same tune I call ‘Flop Eared Mule’ “, says the well-traveled Lonnie Austin, “and they’ll call it something else. They never heard of ‘Flop Eared Mule’. I notice different styles, the way people play the same tune.”

Austin, now seventy-eight, played Sousa marches on the pump organ when he was five, and he followed the prevailing trends all the way to playing rock in bars during the 1970s. He recalled the musical climate of his youth in the Eden towns; “Back then anybody that could play music, why they were something. They’d meet and have dances. Used to take the furniture out of one room and have a square dance somewhere. They located enough musicians to play for the dance. They’d call Kid Smith or Norman Woodlief, whoever they could find, and say ‘Hey ,let’s get a band together. We’re going to have a dance tomorrow night.’”

The dancers prized the players because a musical education of even the simplest form was hard to acquire. Working in a Danville cotton mill, McDaniel learned that one of his co-workers, Lonnie Griffin, had recorded for Columbia with a group called the Blue Ridge Highballers.6 “So I took my guitar and asked him would he learn me to play it,” said McDaniel.

“He said, “How much do you know about it?’”

“I said, ‘ Three or four chords.’”

“He said, “Let me see you make them.’ Well, I went ahead and played a little.”

“He said, ‘You’ll never play. You don’t use your fingers right.’”

“That’s what I wanted him to show me. That disgusted me and I just about gave my guitar away. “

McDaniel persisted, however, and learned Maybelle Carter’s revolutionary guitar technique from Carter Family Records. “Years later, I took the prize away from Griffin at the Ridgeway Fiddler’s Convention. That done me more good than earning a thousand dollars, even as tough as times were. “

In Leaksville and Spray music lessons were not so hard to come by, for the mills sponsored a community music program in the schools. Classically trained Germans,6 sympathetic to the regional music, gave instruction in guitar, violin and mandolin. Austin got his first musical training in that program. He caught on so quickly that he became a teaching assistant by the time he was ten or eleven.

In the days before radio and hillbilly recordings, even songs were at a premium. Blues, songs from Tin Pan Alley sheet music, and local compositions about current events joined ancient ballads and fiddle tunes in the supply from which the players drew. Tyler Meeks took advantage of any chance to learn songs. As a seventeen-year-old in 1911, Meeks sometimes went to a store in the black community of Blue Creek in hopes of learning from the bluesmen who gathered there.

“I carried my guitar down there. The store owner told me there was a colored man, living in New York, who could really play the guitar, and he might could learn some different ways to tune the guitar and play it…..so that I afternoon I went and he was might nice to me, said he learn me what he could.”

That guitarist, Charlie Blackstock, taught Meeks a number of tunes he still plays, including “Alabama Blues” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Meeks eventually taught “The Deal” to Charlie Poole, who recorded the song in 1925. It sold over a hundred thousand copies at time when twenty thousand signified a hit.7 The song is now a bluegrass standard.

A rambling natural humorist, gifted with a musical voice and a banjo technique fifteen years ahead of his time, Poole created a legend for himself in North Carolina, southwestern Virginia and West Virginia. For almost a decade, the puckish Poole roamed the area with the North Carolina Ramblers, and band of musicians from the Eden area, including Posey Rorer, and guitarists Will and Norman Woodlief. Norman, the younger Woodlief, played on Poole’s first recordings, including “The Deal,” which were made in 1925 for Columbia.

Norman, eighty-two, says he doesn’t know how Poole managed to get a recording session with Columbia. “I don’t know whether Charlie wrote ahead to them or not. We had to catch the ferry from New Jersey. We didn’t have to walk too long to get to the Columbia Recording building. Audition? Yeah, I think we played them one or two tunes.”

At seventy-five cents a copy, Columbia grossed about $150,000 from the sales of the two records; Woodlief, Poole, and Rorer earned only twenty-five dollars each, but they gained enormous recognition and credibility. Soon bands from throughout North Carolina and Virginia were approaching with a similar style and often the same songs.

Although Woodlief accompanied Poole on trips as far from home as Ironton, Ohio, he says life on the road did not agree with his health or nerves, so he did not continue to travel. “I just couldn’t stand to be going somewhere all day long, and be up so late at night.” He went back to the mill, but continued playing music in his free time.

Austin, who replaced Rorer as Poole’s fiddler by 1928, seemed to thrive on the banjoman’s roving ways. Austin, moreover, brought a smoother fiddle style that suited Poole’s more sophisticated later work. “I didn’t play country fiddle,” Austin recalls. “I just played background stuff to Charlie and that’s what Charlie liked. We were just traveling minstrels, Charlie and me. We’d play schoolhouses, pick up a few dollars, stay two or three days. Somebody there would want us to go home with them. The people didn’t even have a radio. We’d do all these tunes and we could play for dances, just on the side, while we were drinking, eating and having a good time. If we were playing a school, we just had one of the people set at the door with a row of tables and take up whatever the charge was, fifteen, twenty cents.”

The North Carolina Ramblers sometimes had handbills posted in advance. On other occasions they used a more simple publicity device, the party-line telephone. “ Ring somebody and about fifteen or twenty people would listen in,” said Austin. “You didn’t have to make but one call.”

Although he continued to record with Poole, Austin joined a New York-based vaudeville troupe called H.M. Barnes’ Blue Ridge Ramblers. He spent three years playing piano, fiddle and guitar for the group on the Loew’s Theatre circuit from New York to Atlanta. “Two pictures and six acts of vaudeville for thirty-five cents. We played the same programs of three or four shows a day for two or more years.”

With the Barnes outfit, Austin received twenty-five dollars a week fairly regularly, he remembers the life of a professional musician as an unstable one. “It was up one day and down the next. Sometimes you had a dollar and sometimes we were broke. I look through my diary now and find where Barnes still owes me money from one week to the other.”

Meanwhile, McDaniel was bouncing from mill work to music to enjoying life. After improving his guitar playing in the warehouses of Danville, he set out to find Charlie Poole. “I fooled around in Leaksville and Spray playing with him. About that time him and Posey Rorer split up.” Eventually Rorer and Kid Smith, who had previously recorded with Woodlief on guitar, asked McDaniel to join them in one of the several bands they formed in hopes of duplicating the successful Poole sound.

“I said,’ I’m not that good,’” McDaniel remembers.

“They said, ‘We think you are. You’re all right.’ So that’s where I started making records. We went up to New York and put out a bunch of them. Anything we could think of they accepted.I don’t know how many records we did cut up there under different names, Dixie Ramblers, Texas Mudsplashers. I was Roy Martin, and Walter Smith was Kid Williams.”

For Columbia, as the Carolina Buddies, Smith and McDaniel sang a topical composition by Smith called “The Murder of the Lawson Family”. “If we had got ‘Murder of the Lawson Family’ out on royalty, we would have got some money off that. It was a hit. I believe we got $150 for it. “

In May 1931 McDaniel hitchhiked to Charlotte and convinced RCA officials and convinced RCA officials there that he had previously recorded for them. He received an appointment for the next afternoon to record some tunes for Ralph Peer, who had discovered the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. McDaniel thumbed back to Spray, located his steel guitar man, Ollie Humphries, and the pair hitchhiked to Charlotte in time to cut McDaniel’s last record, “It’s Awful What Whiskey Will Do.”

By then the Depression had dried up much of the market for hillbilly recordings. When the economy improved in the mid-thirties, new styles moving in the direction of modern country music had by and large replaced the string band sound. Poole died about the time of McDaniel’s last session, and Rorer followed five years after. Both were weakened by years of chronic alcohol abuse.

McDaniel went back to work in the mills in 1937, and stayed. Woodlief formed his own band, the Four Pickled Peppers, which sometimes included Austin. Their 1939 recordings for RCA’s Bluebird label would be the last for either until the early 1970’s. By the end of the decade Woodlief had settled into work as a sign painter and cartoonist. 8 Upon his return from World War II, Austin, who had held out the longest as a professional musician, took a position at the Sears credit office in West Virginia.

Generally ignored by the outside world, string band music survived in Eden, as it did in Galax, VA and Mt. Airy. During the 1960’s young pickers rediscovered the sound and formed bands devoted to old-time music, Chapel Hill’s Red Clay Ramblers among them. Leader Records, an English label, released and album of new recordings by Woodlief and Austin, and 1982, Kinney Rorrer’s Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole appeared, providing a comprehensive portrait of Eden’s music during the first third of the century.

Today old-time musicians of all ages gather in Eden at the shopping mall, in people’s homes and at Doug Rorrer’s music store 9 for informal picking session like those of 60 years ago. The Rorrer brothers (nephews of Posey Rorer), Wayne Seymour, and Ted and Tim Currin form the core of the Sweet Sunny South. Named for one of the best-known tunes recorded by Poole, these young musicians, often joined by veterans like Austin, keep alive one of North Carolina’s oldest musical traditions.

Art Menius – with thanks to Kinney Rorrer

End notes by Wayne Seymour

  1. The three towns were merged into one municipal unit in 1967.
  2. At the time this article was written, the Sweet Sunny South consisted of Kinney Rorrer (old-time 3-finger banjo and vocals); Doug Rorrer (guitar and vocals); Tim Currin (fiddle and vocal) ; Ted Currin (clawhammer banjo and vocals); Wayne Seymour (guitar, mandolin and vocals); Fred Reynolds (dulcimer, guitar and vocals) . For the concert mentioned in this article, Lonnie Austin and Buck Easley, fiddles; along with Alice Easley and Kathy Rorrer (piano) were added. Lewis McDaniel and his son (???) were added after the intermission. Then program was closed with numbers by the whole group.
  3. Lonnie Austin’s fiddling with Charlie Poole was the thing he was most noted for; however, he was an excellent pianist and organist, and continued playing keyboards in bars and restaurants well into the 1970’s.
  4. These included “Evolution Girl” and “The Cat’s Got the Measles”
  5. Work in the mills was what drew Posey Rorer to the area. Once here, he met Charlie Poole.
  6. Otto Kirches is the only name that I can find in documentation. He taught music on the upper floor of the Spray Mercantile Building which is still standing.
  7. To put this in even deeper perspective, there were only between 500,000 and 600,000 Victrolas capable of playing Charlie’s recordings in the entire country.
  8. Woodlief worked as the layout artist and illustrator for the Eden News, a daily local until sometime in the 70’s.
  9. Doug’s store is now closed. Doug is currently the owner operator of Flyin’ Cloud Records, a studio that specializes in producing folk, old-time and bluegrass recordings.

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One Response to “Memoirs of a Musical Eden: Lonnie Austin, Lewis McDaniel, and Norman Woodlief”

  1. Jim Nelson Says:

    Thanks for digging this one up.

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