Archive for the ‘Clarence Ashley’ Category

Clarence Ashley

November 26, 2012

from Tom Clarence Ashley: An Appalachian Folk Musician (Masters Thesis: East Tennessee State University)
by Minnie M. Miller, August 1973

When there was not enough demand for music to make a living in Johnson County, Ashley set out on a career of ‘busting’ (commonly called ‘busking’ in the British Isles), singing in the streets, on the edge of carnivals, outside of the main building of mines on pay days, etc.” During that time, he played a great deal with Banman Grayson, an accomplished fiddler from Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. Also, he played with the Cook Sisters from Boone, North Carolina, and with the Greer Sisters. In these trios, Ashley played guitar while the sisters played mandolin and fiddle. Ashley formed a band with Dwight and Dewey Bell known as “The West Virginia Hotfoots.”

It was with the band known as “The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers”, however, that Tom did his first recordings. This band consisted of Tom Ashley, guitar; Clarence Green, fiddle; Gwen Foster, harmonica; Will Abernathy, autoharp and harmonica; and Walter David, lead guitar. Ashley did not record any solo records until he was a member of a group called “Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots.” This group consisted of Byrd Moore, finger style banjo or lead guitar; Clarence Greene, fiddle or guitar; and Clarence T. Ashley, guitar or banjo.

In October, 1929, after the group had finished a recording session with Columbia, Ashley volunteered some “lassy-makin’ tunes,” one of which was “The Coo-Coo Bird.” The recording company was most impressed with Tom and later wired him to come to New York to make further recordings. They offered him a contract but his friends were not included. Ashley rejected the offer because he felt that they should take all of them or none of them. Tom’s son J.D. thinks that his dad might have become a famous recording star if he had accepted the offer of that contract.

In 1925, Ashley met Dock Walsh at a fiddlers’ contest in Boone, North Carolina; and shortly after that, “The Carolina Tar Heels” was formed. The group consisted of Tom Ashley, guitar and usually vocal lead; Dock Walsh, banjo and occasionally vocal lead; and Gwen or Garley Foster, second guitar and harmonica. The entire group recorded eighteen records with Victor in the late twenties and early thirties. In the early thirties, Ashley and Gwen Foster recorded for Vocalion. Gwen Foster was a musical genius in those days; however, he drank too heavily at times. Tom would laugh and tell about sobering him up on cider and moonshine before they went to play.

After 1933, Ashley did not record again until 1960. There are two possible explanations for the abrupt ending of his recording career in the thirties. One explanation is that Ashley was the kind of man who would not take orders from anyone. He did not like the idea of having to follow the orders of the recording companies, therefore he quit. Another possible explanation is the great depression of the thirties. Recording companies, like many other businesses, were operating under grave financial circumstances. Many artists had to turn to other means of making a living.

Peg and Awl

September 28, 2012


Carolina Tar Heels
“Peg and Awl” (Victor V-40007, 1928)

“Peg and Awl” is a song about making shoes, and while that may seem like a mundane subject, it is executed in a way that is marvelously entertaining. The song is sung from the perspective of a shoemaker who toils away year after year making shoes by hand with the tools of the day: peg and awl. When a new machine is invented that makes it possible to make shoes much faster and easier, the shoemaker rejoices, because “Peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun.”

Historically, the song gets the timing wrong: shoemaking machines weren’t in use until the late 19th century, not the beginning. But that’s really not the point; the real strength of the song is its presentation, which is catchy and subtly comical. The song is played on guitar and banjo, with harmonica added at the beginning and end. A rustic, nasal voice sings the verses, while another voice periodically interjects, “Peg and awl!” The word “awl” is always stretched out into an almost hound-dog like howl. At the end of the song, it is a howl of triumph when that second voice finally says, “Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!”


The song itself is what I would consider an example of Deep Craft. Though presumably written by an anonymous cobbler almost two hundred years ago, its message remains relevant, like an early 19th century version of Moore’s Law, and the song’s survival both transcends and acknowledges the passing from a craft-based to an industrial production paradigm. Yet it manages to romanticize neither.

The origin of the word ‘toil’ has two Latin derivations. As a verb, it derives from ‘tudes’, to hammer; as a noun it derives from ‘tela’, a web.

As illustrated by the song ‘Peg and Awl’, making things offers an opportunity to elevate the ‘toil’ of handwork into something more timeless, like a memorable song, which might outlive any of the practical products of artisanry (shoes?). The cadence of the song and collaborative exchange of its interlocking parts hints at a kind of pre-machine logic. The low-energy instrumentation and light-hearted delivery captures a comic ambivalence and reluctant enthusiasm for the dawning Industrial Revolution. More so than shoes, ‘Peg and Awl’ is the exalted product of tireless handwork, and sounds like its authors knew exactly what they were doing.

Carolina Tar Heels

September 17, 2012


The Carolina Tar Heels recorded their first sides on Feb. 19, 1927 for Ralph Peer on Victor Records.  Atlanta was the first of three southern locations Peer brought his new portable recording system. The Tar Heels featured a cast of talented Country musicians revolving around three-finger banjo virtuoso Dock (Doctor Coble) Walsh. In 1925 Walsh made his first recordings for Columbia as a solo artist and formed the Carolina Tar Heels with harmonica wizard Gwen Foster and Tom Ashley. Ashley was not present at the first session so Foster played harmonica and guitar with Walsh playing banjo.

Eventually Garley Foster (no relation) replaced Gwen Foster. Coincidentally both men played harmonica (French harp) and guitar. One of the unusual things about the Carolina Tar Heels was the absence of a fiddler, standard fare for most early string bands. Gwen Foster has been recognized as one of the finest harmonica players in early Country Music. His  “Wilkes County Blues,” and the Tar Heel’s “Drunk Man Blues” or “My Sweet Farm Girl” showcase Fosters brilliant harmonica work.

The career of Walsh was rivaled by band member Clarence (Tom) Ashley who would record solo (banjo and vocal) and with Gwen Foster, also with Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots, The Blue Ridge Entertainers and later in the 60s with Doc Watson, Clint Howard, Fred Price and Gaither Carlton. Ashley also played an important role introducing songs like “Rising Sun Blues (House of the Rising Sun),” “Little Sadie,” “Dark Holler,” and “Greenback Dollar.” A new CD is out entitled Greenback Dollar which chronicles Ashley’s recordings with different groups from 1928 to 1933.
The Carolina Tar Heels featured a rotating group of four musicians from the North Carolina mountains: Dock Walsh (banjo and lead vocals); Gwen Foster (guitar, vocals and harmonica); Tom Ashley (banjo; guitar and lead vocals) and later Garley Foster (guitar, harmonica vocals) who replaced Gwen Foster (they are not related). Ralph Peer named the group (Walsh and Gwen Foster) at their first Victor session in Atlanta. According to some sources Walsh and Tom Ashley met at a fiddler’s convention in 1925. Later he asked Ashley to join the Tar Heels as a guitarist and singer (both vocal lead and harmony).

The Carolina Tar Heels made 18 records (36 songs) in seven sessions for the Victor label (Feb. 19, 1927 in Atlanta; Aug. 11-14 1927 in Charlotte; Oct 10-14, 1928 in Atlanta; Nov. 14, 1928 in Atlanta; April 4, 1929 in Camden, NJ; Nov. 19, 1930 Memphis and lastly Feb. 25, 1932 in Atlanta). The last two sessions were made after the Great Depression (Oct. 1929) which was largely responsible putting an end to the recordings of The Carolina Tar Heels. Most groups folded in the early 1930s and looked for suitable work outside the music business.

Ashley wasn’t present at the first sessions in 1927, which were made by Dock Walsh and Gwen Foster, or the last in 1932. Some of the songs recorded for Columbia by Walsh in 1925 and 1926 were recorded again for Victor with different titles (“Going Back to Jericho” became “Back To Mexico”) to avoid copyright infringement. Individual members of the group (Ashley with Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots and solo for Columbia at The Johnson City Sessions in 1929 and Gwen Foster with the Carolina Twins) would make records with different groups until the Ashley- Gwen Foster sessions for Vocalion in Sept. 1933.

During the 1960s folk revival Walsh reorganized the Carolina Tar Heels with his son Drake and former member Garley Foster. The new band recorded an LP for Folk Legacy produced by Eugene Earl and Archie Green. I interviewed Green briefly and obtained his permission to use the liner notes, which I received from Sandy Patton. Many of the original Tar Heel’s songs were covered on the 1962 recording. “Gene had an Ampex recorder and I was his assistant,” recalled Green. “I remember Dock telling me, ‘Wilkes County has a lot of moonshiners’, they claimed it was moonshine capital of the world. We recorded a bunch of songs and picked out what we thought were the most representative.”

Ralph Rinzler, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Watson

March 26, 2012

Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson

John Herald, quoted in the notes to “Friends of Old Time Music,” Smithsonian Folkways CD SFW40160:

Ralph came down to help me paint my apartment, and he brought down all these old-timey tapes. It was my introduction to old time music. One of the people he played me was Clarence Ashley. We wanted to study the real McCoy, and we went to a place called Union Grove, which was one of the oldest and the biggest fiddlers’ contests in the South.  What they would do at Union Grove is they would assign each act to a classroom at the Union Grove High School to warm up. When we had warmed up, I said to Ralph and Bob, “I’m going to go see some of the other players.”

We were at one end of a long hallway, and I went from classroom to classroom until I finally got to the other end of the school. And I walked into this room, and there was a crowd of people watching this banjo player sitting in a chair. And I asked them who it was, and they said, “It’s Clarence Ashley.’”

Now I remembered—from Ralph helping me paint my apartment—he had told me about Clarence Ashley. I went back to Ralph and I said, “Was Clarence Ashley one of the guys that you played for me?” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well I think he’s down at the other end of the school.” Ralph’s jaw dropped, and he said, “Really?” and he went just tearing down to the end of the Union Grove school, and made a date with him immediately.

I guess he had carte blanche with Folkways Records to record whatever he might have wanted to, and he came back later to record Clarence, and that’s how Doc Watson was discovered in Clarence Ashley’s band. Ralph came back from that recording session, and said, “John, I found a guitar player who’s going to set the world on fire, who the world is not going to believe.”

Haunted Road Blues

March 25, 2012

Clarence Ashley

from notes to “Oh  My Little Darling,” (New World Records)

The word “blues” is believed to stem from the Elizabethan “blue devils,” and English-language culture owns a long heritage of lament and melancholy. The “graveyard” poetry of William Collins in the 1750s explored despair and near-morbid introspection as means of poetic creation. From Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of the nineteenth century stems a literary tradition of confronting the void that at one level of culture yields Poe’s gloomy stories and poems and at another popular nineteenth-century songs, both religious and secular, that look despair and death unflinchingly in the eye. The Protestant hymn “O Lovely Appearance of Death,” for example, yields a chill worthy of Poe’s most spine-tingling stories.


One of the finest white blues singers, the Kentucky coal miner Dock Boggs, spoke of his melancholy “graveyard songs” and of a mood he called “getting in the graveyard” that becomes indistinguishable from “having the blues,” demonstrating a link between Afro- American and Anglo-American streams of poetry and aesthetic experience.White blues performers often tend toward the contemplation of death rather than the troubles of life that mark black blues. Clarence Ashley’s “Haunted Road Blues” combines elements of white “graveyard” and black blues traditions to exemplify the blues as a type of American song whose function is to enable the performer to emulate Trueblood, Ralph Ellison’s black sharecropper in Invisible Man, who looked upon chaos and was not destroyed.


Tom Clarence Ashley, from Mountain City, Tennessee, carried the musical heritage of his family and his community into his career as a busker performing music and comedy for carnivals, medicine shows, dances, and occasionally on street corners. Ashley needed to add to his inherited stock of music songs his audience demanded, and it is likely that his mastery of the blues dates from his travels as a busker. Along with the North Carolina harmonica virtuoso Guinn (or Gwen) Foster, Ashley recorded several examples of blues and old-time songs, of which Ralph Rinzler has said, “Here the perfect blending of voice and harmonica is unique among the varied sounds to be heard in recorded American traditional music.”

“Haunted Road Blues,”
by Tom Clarence Ashley, vocal and guitar; Gwen Foster, harmonica and guitar.
Recorded December, 1931.