Arkansas at 78 RPM

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ark_78

Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers (Dust-to-Digital DTD-36)

excerpt of review by Mile Yates (www.mustrad.org):

For the traveling recording men of the late 1920s, Arkansas offered enticing pickings.  The region was thronged with vigorous, idiosyncratic stringbands.  This album carries the listener from the hillbilly music craze of the ’20s to the song-based country music of the late ’30s.  Scarcely more than a decade, but a period, in music as in all American life, of galvanic change – Tony Russell

 Actually, unlike the Appalachians and Georgia, Arkansas was, perhaps, just a tad too far away from New York and the other northern cities where the 1920s’ record companies were based.  And so recordings of Arkansas musicians from this period were never too plentiful, which is a pity, because judging by these few examples we can only suggest that, musically speaking, this was indeed a region which carried a rich musical heritage.

During the period 1928 – 30 the musicians had to travel out of the State to make recordings in such cities as Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago or New York, for the Okeh, Vocalion and Victor record companies.

Later, in 1931 – 32, Columbia Records also recorded a handful of Arkansas groups; but it was not until 1937 that the Brunswick – ARC record company sent a recording team to Hot Springs.  By then, of course, the music had begun to change and this fine CD covers both the early string band music that was captured in the late ’20s and early ’30s, together with a few later pieces.

I suppose that as there were so few recordings made of early Arkansas string band music we must expect some overlap with previously issued CDs and, sadly, this is the case here.  In 1995 County Records issued a 2 CD set – Echoes of the Ozarks CD-3506 & CD-3507) – which together contain forty-one cuts, and twelve of these tracks can be found on the Dust-To-Digital set.

But, that does leave us with fourteen tracks which are new to me, all of which, in one way or another, are of great interest.  Actually, it is not surprising to find duplication here, because many of the duplicated tracks are among the best old-timey recording ever made.  I am certain that tracks such as the Morrison Twin Brothers String Band’s Dry and Dusty, Pope’s Arkansas Mountaineers’ Jaw Bone, Luke Highnight & His Ozark Strutters’ Fort Smith Breakdown or the Arkansas Barefoot Boys’ Eighth of January can stand alongside any recordings made during the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Fiddling Bob Larkan’s McLeod’s Reel (also known as Hop High Ladies in the States) is reminiscent of some of the recordings that were made by the Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham and I was not surprised to learn that Bob Larkan was originally from New York.  According to Tony Russell, the high strain of Silver Nail, recorded by Bob Larkan, is related to Scott Skinner’s tune Arthur Seat (or should that be Arthur’s Seat?).

Bob Larkan’s set Paddy, Won’t You Drink Some Good Old Cider, an extremely well-played tune, is also interesting for being the first recording to be made of the piece.  The Georgia musicians Clayton McMichen and Riley Puckett later made a better-known recording.

Robinson County, played here by the little known L O Birkhead & R M Lane (although we are told that Lane may not actually be the second fiddler on this track!).  The tune was also recorded by Ted Sharp, Hinman & Sharp, (available on County CD-3506) and these are the only two known early recording; so was it originally a local tune, even though there is no Robinson County in Arkansas?  Drunkard’s Hecups (sic), from the Reaves White County Ramblers, is also of interest in that it is one of only a handful or early recordings where we can hear the fiddle strings being beaten by a pair of straws.

Lonnie Glosson (1908 – 2001) was a competent musician who can be heard on two tracks.  Lonnie’s Fox Chase highlights his ability on the mouthorgan, while Arkansas Hard Luck Blues, a talking-blues, shows that he was also an accomplished guitarist.  Glosson was one of those musicians who continued recording long after the 78’s had become obsolete and he cut several LPs in later life.  Other tracks also show how things were beginning to change.

Dr Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, led by a country doctor called Henry Harlin Smith, recording a number of sentimental songs and are especially remembered for pieces such as Picture on the Wall and Save My Mother’s Picture from the Sale, but here they can be heard singing a ‘coon’ song Just Give Me the Leavings, which was written by two Afro-Americans, James Weldon Johnson and Bob Cole, in 1904.  Many old-timey bands from this period broke up because there was too little interest in their music.

The Hoss Hair Pullers, on the other hand, became so successful that they were unable to keep up with demand for their public engagements, and so they folded.  Johnson and Cole also composed the song My Castle on the Nile, which was recorded by an obscure group of musicians known as the Wonder State Harmonists.  The Harmonists also recorded a version of another ‘coon’ song, Turnip Greens, which blues singer Bo Carter had previously recorded as Good Old Turnip Greens in 1928.

The group’s leader may have been one William Walden Shepherd (1890 -1979) a banjo-playing member of the Arkansas Bar Association, who practiced in the town of Little Rock.  The group also recorded an up-beat instrumental, Petit Jean Gallop, apparently named after Petit Jean Mountain which can be found in Arkansas’s Conway County.  One other group, George Edgin’s Corn Dodgers with Earl Wright & Brown Rich, give us another song, The Arkansas Hotel, a song recorded variously as All Go Hungry Hash House or Second-Class Hotel by other singers and musicians.

If, like me, you love old-timey music then you will have to get a copy of this album.  The music is superb and Tony Russell’s notes, aided at times by the fieldwork of the late W K McNeil, are both fascinating and faultless.

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