Swamp Opera

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edited from “78 Blues,” by John Minton:

His musical success notwithstanding, Gid Tanner never gave up the homeplace, contenting himself with traveling to fiddle on the streets of Atlanta when it was too wet to plow.  Despite his best efforts, Clayton McMichen could never pursue music as is sole profession, even after decades as a major recording artist and radio star.  He ended his own days as a welder.

If the phonograph record enabled the Skillet Lickers to visit an audience beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations of southern fiddlers, the hillbilly record radically restricted that listenership.  As Mac discovered to his lasting chagrin, New York violinists waxed hot jazz for mass consumption; Georgia fiddlers canned corn for folks downhome.

At their best, Skillet Licker records precariously balanced the coarse (epitomized by Tanner) and the fine ( what Mac wanted), crafting timeless art from the common-as-dirt dilemmas of the prewar South.  The records are enduring portraits of their makers, especially of Clayton McMichen, who despite his aversion to corny fiddling, despite his affection for symphony orchestras, found himself relegated to the role of a miserable squatter, fiddling endlessly in a dismal swamp where even frogs were out of their element.

Years later, Mac dressed his feelings in that very idiom, dismissing his music as a ludicrous compromise of coarse and fine:

“I notice in my thirty-five years of show business that there’s 500 pairs of overalls sold to every one tuxedo suit.  That’s why I stick to swamp opera.”

 

 

 

 

 

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