Archive for the ‘Charles Wolfe’ Category

Country Music Goes to War

December 27, 2014


Country Music Goes to War edited by Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson (University Press of Kentucky)

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Country Music Goes to War, in its 14 chapters, covers a great deal of ground, including Australia and Northern Ireland. Domestically, its authors look at the Civil War, the early years in commercial country music (from 1923 on), several examinations of the impact of World War II , Korea, the Cold War, the threat of the atom bomb on country music, the Toby Keith-Dixie Chicks era of Gulf War II, and 9/11 and its impact on country music. The Vietnam War, a fertile battleground of war songs, is not examined here and deserves its own book (as the authors note in their introduction).

The essays in Country Music Goes to War demonstrate that country musicians’ engagement with significant political and military issues is not strictly a twenty-first-century phenomenon. The contributors examine the output of country musicians responding to America’s large-scale confrontations in recent history. They address the ways in which country songs and artists have energized public discourse, captured hearts, and inspired millions of minds.

Andrew K. Smith and James E. Akenson catalogue a number of country songs and albums that invoke the Civil War. Charles K. Wolfe traces the emergence of the war song in early country music, and in a second essay combines original interviews with solid textual analysis and an awareness of historical context to fashion a solid overview of the short-lived atomic bomb genre in country music.

Entries chronicle the World War II experiences of Kentucky entrepreneur John Lair,  the “Hayloft Gang” of Chicago’s National Barn Dance, and Gene Autry.

Hollywood wanted to punish cowboy singing star and actor Gene Autry for joining the military and serving in World War II. The head of his movie studio, Herbert Yates of Republic Pictures, threatened to “break” Autry and to promote Roy Rogers (who had a deferment as a father) over Autry if he refused Yates’ offer to have Republic engineer a deferment for Autry — as Yates had done for John Wayne. Republic Pictures felt that the studio’s success was more important than the war effort. Autry became a pilot in the Army Air Corps, and Yates did everything in his power for years to scuttle Autry’s career.


Charles K. Wolfe Audio Collection

September 22, 2014

Charles Wolfefrom

The Charles K. Wolfe Audio Collection:  An Overview

In February, 2012, the family of the late Dr. Charles K. Wolfe (1943-2006) signed a deed-of-gift donating Dr. Wolfe’s collection of sound recordings to the Center for Popular Music (CPM).  This was a major bequest, for not only was Dr. Wolfe a prodigiously productive scholar, he was also an obsessive collector of the nation’s popular and vernacular music.

The Charles K. Wolfe Audio Collection contains in total 2,601 cassette recordings, 719 open-reel recordings, and an uncounted number of commercial tape releases.  Among these are:  interviews and field recordings made by Dr. Wolfe and other scholars; small label/vanity pressings of music; field recordings and transcriptions that are commercially available or that can be found in other institutional collections; dubs of rare recordings; and more.

The Charles K. Wolfe Audio Collection consists mainly of audio tapes relating to the vernacular musical styles of the American south from ca. 1929 to 2006.  Styles represented in the collection include:  country/old time/string band music, fiddling, blues, classic jazz, folk ballad, blues, western swing, Hawaiian, folk song, shape note singing, the singing school tradition, gospel quartet singing, and rockabilly.

The Wolfe Audio Collection contain oral histories and interviews with many pioneering country and gospel musicians, singers, songwriters, producers, and publishers.  Among them are:  Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Sam and Kirk McGee, Dick Rutherford, Sid Harkreader, Alison Krauss, Art Galbraith, Clyde Davenport, Frank Walker, Ernest Stoneman, Kitty Wells, Maybelle Carter, James D. Walbert, Benny Williams, Louise Woods-Woodward, Clarence Myer, Poplin-Woods Tennessee String Band, Hack’s String Band, Skillet Lickers, Georgia Yellowhammers, Doc Roberts, Dykes Magic City Trio, Perry County Music Makers, Jess Young, Smith’s Sacred Singers, Vaughan Quartet, Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, Uncle Dave Macon, Burnett & Rutherford, Byrd Moore, the Tweedy Brothers, Red Fox Chasers, Stamps Quartet, James D. Vaughan, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and more.


The interviews tend to focus regionally on Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee, North Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Western North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Wolfe’s interviews include information on musician’s impressions of other musicians, details of recording sessions, individual performance styles and techniques, influences, memories of other musicians, travelling, songwriting, business aspects, gospel publishing, discographical information, autobiographical and genealogical information, and first-person information on the early histories of the Grand Old Opry, the National Barn Dance, and Renfro Valley Barn Dance.

The Wolfe Audio Collection also features many field recordings, historic radio transcriptions, dubs (and originals) of small label/vanity label recordings and demo tapes as well as copies of similar recordings made by fellow scholars, musicians, and folklorists.

The Devil’s Box

January 30, 2013


by Kerry Blech:

Book Review: Charles WolfeThe Devil’s Box-Masters of Southern Fiddling
Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press-ISBN 0-8265-1283-6 248 pages, 18 illustrations

Here’s a fine volume that could fit most comfortably on the bookshelves of nearly everyone who reads the Old-Time Herald. The 1920s-vintage photograph of Eck Robertson on the cover might be the first clue. Then turn to the table of contents for the second clue. There one will find that this book contains chapters on some of the finest fiddlers America has seen: the aforementioned Mr. Robertson, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, Doc Roberts, Clayton McMichen, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith, Bob Wills, Slim Miller, Ernie Hodges, and Tommy Jackson.

There’s an opening chapter that tries to instruct us in the history of the oldest or earliest recorded fiddling styles. One chapter addresses the history of the tune “Black Mountain Rag.” Another chapter discusses the Mexican origin of the contest favorite, “Over the Waves.” There are a number of charts and tables as well interesting photographs to complete the package. Add to all of this mix Dr. Wolfe’s easy-to-read, accessible prose, and you’ve got yourself a nice table-top reference about the cream of old-time fiddling.

Charles Wolfe is one of the most tireless researchers of old-time music working today and he is quite the prolific author. The genesis of this book can be found with articles that he first published in the periodical, The Devil’s Box. In one sense, this is a collection of many of Dr. Wolfe’s articles on “commercial” old-time fiddlers that appeared in that periodical. Because some of these articles were published some time ago, Charles has updated them to include information that was not yet known at the time of first publication.

Other articles in this book appear as they originally did in the periodical. And a few others were written specifically, and only for, inclusion in this book. Note that above I have indicated “commercial” fiddlers. These essays are written about old-time fiddlers who played professionally or, at any rate, recorded commercially on 78 rpm disks. So you won’t find your Ed Haleys, or John Salyers, or Kenner Casteel Kartchners, legends all who only were recorded on home recording machines. They are for another day.

Delving into the first chapter, the one about the earliest or oldest recorded styles, we find a philosophical discussion. Are we looking for the fiddlers who were born the earliest and who recorded? Or are we looking merely for those who recorded the earliest? And what about the earliest styles, those honed during the 19th Century? Dr. Wolfe discusses all these paths of investigation. It’s pretty well accepted that Eck Robertson was the first country fiddler to record commercially, in 1922, and that Fiddlin’ John Carson followed suit in 1923. But in evaluating the older styles, or the oldest fiddler to record, one must do some additional ciphering and research.

Among the “19th-Century-Style” fiddlers discussed in this chapter are J. Dedrick Harris, Jilson Setters (whose real name was James William Day), Henry L. Bandy, John W. Daniel, Ted Markle, the mysterious Art Haines, Henry C. Gilliland (who played a couple fiddle duets with Eck), Blind Joe Mangrum, Uncle Am Stuart, Emmett Lundy, Jim Booker, the Morrison Twins, George and Andrew Carter, Ahaz A. Gray, and William B. Houchens. All are intriguing lights from the earliest days of commercial recording, so it is nice to get at least a little information on some of them.

The essay on “Black Mountain Rag” also is an interesting investigation on the oral passage of fiddle music and how technology came to influence it. I won’t go into detail, as that might spoil the mystery, but we do meet some interesting characters along the way, including Tommy Magness, Curly Fox, Leslie Keith, Charlie Stripling, and Pleaz Carroll.


Dykes Magic City Trio

August 23, 2012

excerpted from Charles Wolfe (from Old Time Herald, spring 1988):

Click here to read entire article.


A Good-Natured Riot

April 8, 2012

“A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth Of The Grand Ole Opry,” by Charles K. Wolfe (Vanderbilt University Press / Country Music Foundation Press, 1999)

Charles Wolfe on Humphrey Bate:

Like Most other performers on the early Opry, Dr. Bate did not make a living from his music.  For most of his career he was a full-time practicing physician who saw music as a hobby and as a means to relax.  He was born in 1875 in Sumner County, Tennessee, some forty miles northeast of Nashville and about halfway between Nashville  and the Kentucky state line.  His father before him had been a physician for about forty years at Castalian Springs, near Gallatin, Tennessee, and young Humphrey took over his practice at about the turn of the century.  He had graduated from the Vanderbilt Medical School just prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898, during which he served in the Medical Corps.  After the war young Dr. Bate reportedly turned down several offers to practice in urban centers, preferring the life of a country doctor and the rustic pleasures of hunting and fishing.

As a boy Humphrey Bate would perform on the steamboats that ran excursions up and down the Cumberland River, which wound through the Middle Tennessee highlands.  His daughter recalled: “At first it was just him playing harmonica solos.  Later I’m sure he may have carried others, but at first it was just him and his harmonica.  It worried my grandmother because he would go to the river.”  But an even more important influence on him than the riverboat experience was an old ex-slave who had worked for the Bate family for years.  Alcyone Bate Beasley remembered: “I have heard him say that most of the tunes he learned, he learned from this old negro who was an old man when he (Humphrey) was a little boy.”

It was (George) Hay who decided to call the band the Possum Hunters; before that, it was simply called “Dr. Bate’s Band,” or “Dr. Humphrey Bate’s Augmented String Orchestra.”  The two earliest photos of the band show the members in conservative, well-tailored business suits, but by 1930 Opry publicity was sending out photos of them that showed them dressed in sloppy felt hats, overalls, and suspenders.

Humphrey Bate

Kentucky Country

December 31, 2011

“Kentucky Country,” by Charles Wolfe (University Press of Kentucky, 1996, 224 pages)

Charles Wolfe on Burnett and Rutherford:

Available here.

Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls”: Southern Marvel #1

December 12, 2011

First in a series of Southern Marvels, recordings of southern music that combine both singularity and beauty:  Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls.”

In old time music, there are a number of tunes that stand alone; they have a haunting, almost mystical quality that transports the listener. I used to run down to the local record store and buy all the Davis Unlimited records as soon as they were released. I remember getting the Omer Forster record, not knowing who he was, or even what he sounded like, but it looked promising.  When Flowery Girls played on side one, cut one, I was floored by the beauty of the tune. It sounded made-up, maybe not in the “tradition” but it didn’t matter. The unique finger picking (two finger) gives it a great, syncopated feel. It is a lyrical masterpiece. Give it a listen: (from Michael Donahue)

FLOWERY GIRLS – Omer Forster, banjo
Featuring Houston Daniel and The Highland Rim Boy

Spring Fed Records SFR-DU-33037.  Available here.

Review of Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls” by Charles Wolfe

“There’s not many old-time musicians left up here in Humphries County,” said Houston Daniel during a break in this session. “Those of us that do still play it all know each other and keep in touch.” Humphries County, lying due west of Nashville in an arm of the Tennessee River, was once the stomping ground of musicians like Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Floyd Ethridge; these and other lesser-known musicians have left their mark in the music of the region though, and a small but devoted band of local musicians have kept the region’s distinctive styles and tunes alive. Two of the finest of these musicians are banjoist Omer Forester (from McEwen) and fiddler Houston Daniel (from Waverly).

76 year old Omer Forster has, through the years, quietly developed one of the most distinctive styles and repertoires of any old-time banjo player in the country. All his life Omer has played in an archaic two-finger style (thumb and index finger) which he can’t remember learning from anyone; “it’s always been natural with me.” Nor has he during his life been aware that his style was all that unusual; apparently his friends and neighbors in rural Humphries County accepted the style without much comment. But distinctive it is: soft, graceful, complex, different both from the classic three-finger vaudeville styles of the other middle Tennessee artists like Uncle Dave Macon, and different from the claw-hammer style of the eastern mountains. Rick Good of the Hotmud Family has called Omer’s banjo playing “mystic,” and Harper van Hoy, the founder of Fiddlers’ Grove, has called Omer “the best old-time banjo player in the country.” (more…)

Tennessee Strings

December 10, 2011

“Tennessee Strings,” by Charles Wolfe (University of Tennessee Press, 1989, 118 pages)

Available here.

Charles Wolfe: The Devil’s Box

September 26, 2011

The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling by Charles Wolfe (Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 2006)

Here’s a useful resource for exploring the oldest recorded southern fiddle styles, from Charles Wolfe.