Archive for the ‘classic old time recording artsts’ Category


August 2, 2015

> Incidentally, the family pronounces “Giggers” with a hard G — referring
> to the habit of the members of the band, who lived in the Missouri
> bootheel near the Mississippi River, going into the shallow backwaters
> in
> the spring and “gigging” with old three-pronged forks the grinnell fish
> they found. “Grinnell’s not exactly a game fish,” one of the sons
> laughed.
> “It’s considered a junk fish, but back in the Depression, when times
> were
> hard, we were glad to get them.” The term “grinnell giggers” was a local
> phrase that roughly meant the equivalent of “white trash.”


Hoyt Ming (#2)

June 5, 2015



Choctaw County fiddler Hoyt Ming (1902-1985) led the lively string band recorded as “Floyd Ming & His Pep Steppers” at a Memphis Victor session in 1928. His “Indian War Whoop,” with its fiddling “holler,” became an old-time country music standby. Potato farmer Hoyt, with his wife Rozelle on guitar and brother Troy on mandolin, regularly played at fairs, fiddling contests, and rallies before World War II. Rediscovered in 1973, Hoyt and Rozelle Ming returned to recording and live appearances.

Born in Choctaw County on October 6, 1902, into a musical farming family of German-American extraction, Hoyt began teaching himself to play fiddle at fifteen, after admiring a string band that played for his father Clough at the Mings’ house. At least three of Hoyt’s seven brothers and one sister learned to play string instruments at about the same time; his brother Troy took up the mandolin and joined him in forming a family band that played for local dances and parties.

By 1928 Hoyt had married guitarist Rozelle Young; they relocated to rural Lee County and appeared as a trio, with Rozelle’s sister on mandolin. Hoyt heard that Victor Talking Machine record producer and scout Ralph Peer, who was already overseeing Jimmie Rodgers’ rise to stardom, was about to hold auditions in nearby Tupelo. Hoyt, Rozelle, Troy, and square dance caller A. D. Coggin auditioned as a quartet, and became one of the first acts from this area to get the go-ahead to record.

Their February 13, 1928, recording session at an auditorium in Memphis produced four instrumental recordings, typical of Mississippi string band music of the time in repeating musical phrases and showing subtle blues influences—but with particularly driving rhythms and Hoyt’s specialty “war whoop” fiddle inflection on the most celebrated record.

Rozelle Ming tended to stomp her foot on the beats. Atypically, Ralph Peer not only chose to leave that sound in, but named the band the “Pep Steppers” after it. The record label proceeded to transcribe Hoyt’s name as “Floyd Ming,” leading to inevitable confusion later.

The brief initial recording experience led to Pep Stepper appearances at fairs, political rallies and fiddler’s contests through the 1930s, but with their focus on raising a family, Hoyt and Rozelle kept music a sideline, and Hoyt tended to his main occupation, potato farming. Infrequent gigs made it hard to keep a band together, and by the 1950s, they’d essentially given up playing for audiences.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, Harry Smith included “Indian War Whoop” in Folkways Records 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and the tune became a favorite in the 1950s-’60s folk revival. In 1973, David Freeman of the “old time” music label Country Records approached Hoyt about appearing again, having tracked down the mysterious “Floyd” Ming by searching around the Tupelo area one Victor record had pointed to.

By that summer, Hoyt, Rozelle and new young accompanists began playing at large-scale folk festivals and recorded a full album, “New Hot Tunes!” for Freeman’s Homestead imprint. “Monkey in the Dogcart” became a frequently played instrumental from that album. In 1975 they contributed to the soundtrack of the motion picture “Ode to Billy Joe,” based on Bobbie Gentry’s song. Hoyt Ming passed on in 1985, two years after his wife.

See also here.

Arkansas at 78 RPM

May 28, 2015


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

excerpt of review by Mile Yates (

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.

West Virginia Gals

April 28, 2015

hillbillies poster


Born in Watauga County, North Carolina in 1889, Albert Green Hopkins was one of the first true country musicians and one of the originators of “hillbilly” music. Hopkins was born to John Benjamin Hopkins, a state legislator, and Celia Isabel Green Hopkins. Both parents were musical. Hopkins’ father repaired organs as a hobby and played fiddle, piano and organ. His mother sang ballads and church music. Hopkins primarily played piano.

The Hopkins family relocated to Washington D.C. in 1904 when Hopkins was fifteen. In 1910, he and his brothers Joe, Elmer, and John formed the Old Mohawk Quartet, a group that played around D.C., frequently appearing at the Majestic Theater. In the early 1920s, Hopkins moved to Galax, Virgina where he worked for his older brother, Jacob, was a doctor with an established practice. He also entertained his brother’s patients.

In 1924, Hopkins and his brother Joe formed a band with fiddler Alonzo Elvis “Tony” Alderman and banjo player John Rector. After an aborted recording session in 1924, the group recorded six selections for Ralph Peer in New York City on January 15, 1925. At that session, Peer asked the still-unnamed band what they were called. Hopkins modestly replied that they were “just a bunch of hillbillies.”

Peer named their group “The Hill Billies,” much to the musicians’ consternation (none of the members of the group conformed to the “hillbilly” stereotype). Alderman would later say that to them the word “hillbilly” was a “fighting word.” Nevertheless, Hopkins and his group were associated with the word hillbilly and they tried for a time to control the word’s use, at least as far as it was applied to music. Eventually, they were forced to accept that hillbilly had become a genre of music.

Scenes from a Marriage (The Peers and the Carters)

March 31, 2015


edited from Barry Mazor (“Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music”):

The act that represented the very image of rural domesticity for so many was being privately pulled apart by domestic tensions.  Sara Carter was tiring of A.P. Carter’s constant absence on song-hunting trips, and his remoteness and lack of involvement in everyday farm and family life when he did come home.

A.P.’s more fun-loving, naturally affectionate, and present cousin, Coy Bayes, had increasingly been attracting he attention, until the worried extended family forced Coy to leave the area entirely.  A despondent Sara absented herself from the farm and her children, moving in with relatives.

A.P. and Sara were now very much separated, as Peer would learn when he brought up getting music and family members together for recording in April 1933;  Sara was refusing to join in, preferring to avoid A.P. altogether.

Anita Peer [wife of Ralph Peer, who recorded the Carter Family for the Victor Talking Machine Company] wrote to Sara Carter,

“Of course it is really none of my business, but I just wondered if there was anything I could do to help things along.  I realize it would be distinctively awkward for both you and A.P. to work again, but on the other hand, the ‘Carter Family’  has become well known and there is the chance to make some more money, even in these days of depression.

I have been divorced once myself, as I think I told you, so I can sympathize with you perfectly…Even if you never live together again you could get together for professional purposes like the movie stars do.  Practically all of them are divorced, or should be…”

In 1936 Ralph Peer wrote to Sara Carter,

“What are your plans now as to A.P.?  He has written me that you are suing for divorce…He apparently wanted me to exert some pressure upon you, but I told him that this was a matter that people had to settle for themselves, and something in which I did not want to interfere…From a business standpoint, it is important that the Carter Family should not be too broken up.”



Allen Bros. on JSP

March 8, 2015

By the early 1920’s, already professional musicians, they settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga would feature in a number of their titles to the extent they were dubbed the Chattanooga Boys.

In Chattanooga the Allen’s got on radio once or twice a week – a bonus because radio was then the most effective form of publicity. The result was lucrative bookings as far afield as Georgia. They also performed for medicine shows – the musicians gathered a receptive audience for the show owner to exploit.

The Allen’s seem to have entered the recording studio fairly seamlessly and they had decent record sales. They recorded regularly – most years twice or more. Their sales were sufficient for them to continue to record well into the 1930’s – many musicians were discarded because of the depression.

The Allen Brothers were the first of the brothers groups that cut popular Country records in the late 1920s and 30s. The were followed by other blues-based brother acts like the Callahans, Sheltons and Delmores. The Allen Brothers created a unique sound based on fast-paced, upbeat blues and ragtime influenced songs. Their bawdy, humorous good-time lyrics, mixed with up-tempo renditions and Lee Allen’s delightful kazoo leads are reminiscent of the early jug bands. They were one of the first Country groups to base their sound on the blues and ragtime styles found in African-American groups. In fact the Allens’ second recording for Columbia was mistaken for an African-American group and release on Columbia’s “race” label, used only for African-American groups!

See also here.

Albert Hunt’s Mongrel Eccentricities

January 20, 2015

painting by John Flaming

Excerpt from Christopher King (

“Prince” Albert Hunt, born Archibald Hunt, was delivered unto the world on December 20, 1896, in Terrell, Texas, the youngest of four children. His mother was a full-blooded Cherokee from Alabama, his father a full-blooded Irishman, and the fiddle music their son played was an amalgamation of the lilting bow figures of the Celts and the untamed war whoops of the Indians.

The raspy forcefulness of Hunt’s violin tone reflected the coarse huskiness of his singing, making it easy to imagine his music as the soundtrack to barroom knifings and shoot-’em-ups in dance halls throughout the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas.

The drunken swagger of his voice seems to infect the rhythm in his 1928 and 1929 recordings for OKeh records in San Antonio and Dallas. On “Blues in a Bottle,” the guitar accompaniment stalls, elongates the beat, and then spreads the measure so Hunt can drawl out the verse, in effect both capturing and modifying, or marring, time.

Hunt learned to fiddle by stealing his father’s violin and sneaking away to play in graveyards late at night, cousins and bottles of whiskey in tow. His recorded music is perfectly consistent with this autodidactic approach: teach oneself while drunk in the cemetery such that one must be wasted and wading in death in order to play. One could scarcely anticipate something bad resulting from this methodology.

Prince Albert recorded only nine sides (one remains unissued and is presumably lost), about a decade after he was discharged from serving in the Army during the Great War. Most are vexingly rare—I only have one: “Wake Up Jacob,” with the flip side being “Waltz of Roses,” in “E” condition—and they are fiercely sought after due to their forceful, bluesy nature.

Though his recorded repertoire contained the usual suspects—the medicine show tune “Traveling Man,” a Jimmie Rodgers–influenced “Waltz of Roses,” the breakdowns “Wake Up Jacob”and “Houston Slide,” and the show stopper “Blues in a Bottle”—none of his performances were slavishly imitated by others.

Even so, Harry Smith thought enough of Hunt to include “Wake Up Jacob” in his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music (Social Music, Dances No. 1, Band 30). Rich Nevins issued “Blues in a Bottle” in his masterful series Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be, Volume 1, and Marshall Wyatt included “Traveling Man”in his Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937.

Hunt’s best pieces, in their best sound, are anthologized in Texas Fiddle Music, Vol. 1, on County Records. Although Hunt didn’t alter the course of vernacular folk music, and his influence on Western swing is minimal, he did leave a testament etched in the shellac grooves of his few recordings to an idiosyncratic sound that reflected the mongrel eccentricities of his time and place. Hunt played exactly what the people of Deep Ellum wanted: uninhibited fiddle dance pieces and an occasional waltz. 

See also here.

Peer and Rodgers

December 12, 2014


Thanks to Peter Feldman ( for this:

The following article was written by Ralph Peer ca. 1953:

The best things in life seem to occur by pure accident. We strive to accomplish something worthwhile; success finally comes to us, but usually from an unexpected source.

In 1927, after serving as an executive of Okeh Records for a number of years, I decided to go into business for myself as a music publisher. At that time a business alliance was started with the Victor Talking Machine Company which continued for many years. The arrangement was that I would select the artists and material and supervise the hillbilly recordings for Victor. My publishing firm would own the copyrights, and thus I would be compensated by the royalties resulting from the compositions which I would select for recording purposes.

During the spring of 1928 I made a survey of various Southern cities and determined to make initial recordings for Victor in Atlanta, Savannah, Bristol, Tenn., and Memphis. A recording crew of two men was assigned to me, and I set about the business of finding talent and repertoire.

In Bristol, the problem was not easy because of the relatively small population in that area. The local broadcasting stations, music stores, record dealers, etc., helped me as much as possible, but few candidates appeared. I then appealed to the editor of a local newspaper, explaining to him the great advantages to the community of my enterprise. He thought that I had a good idea and ran a half column on his front page. This worked like dynamite, and the very next day I was deluged with long-distance calls from the surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains, or on foot.

Jimmie Rodgers telephoned from Asheville. He said that he was a singer with a string band. He had read the newspaper article and was quite sure that his group would be satisfactory. I told him to come on a certain day, and promised a try-out.

First Meeting
When I was alone with Jimmie in our recording studio (a very old warehouse which had not been in use for many years), I was elated when I heard him perform. It seemed to me that he had his own personal and peculiar style, and I thought that his yodel alone might spell success. Very definitely he was worth a trial. We ran into a snag almost immediately because, in order to earn a living in Asheville, he was singing mostly songs originated by New York publishers—the current hits. Actually, he had only one song of his own, “Soldier’s Sweetheart,” written several years before. When I told Jimmie what I needed to put him over as a recording artist, his perennial optimism bubbled over. If I would give him a week he could have a dozen songs ready for recording. I let him record his own song, and as a coupling his unique version of “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep.” This, I thought, would be a very good coupling, as “Soldier’s Sweetheart” was a straight ballad and the other side gave him a chance to display his ability as a yodeler. In spite of the lack of original repertoire, I considered Rodgers to be one of my best bets.

Georgia Yellow Hammers on Document

October 6, 2014


We have been working with Tony Russell, Harry Bolick and others to expand the series and we are delighted to present the first two volumes in a series of four of The Georgia Yellowhammers: Bill Chitwood and Bud Landress, with their friends Phil Reeve, Ernest Moody and Clyde Evans, and associates such as Andrew and Jim Baxter, the Harper brothers, Gus Boaz, Lawrence Neal and others, would represent and promote the musical culture of their region for most of a decade. Thanks to them, Gordon County, Georgia, has come to be held in high regard by lovers of old-time Southern music.

Today we can see it as a prism, its facets reflecting the different forms of Southern music: old-time fiddling, quartet singing, stringband ensembles, rustic comedy, yodelling, blues.”

Aided by this collection (and the music of the Baxters, available elsewhere on Document), we can hold a magnifying glass over a map of Gordon County, so that towns and communities leap into large-print life.

We see the streets of Calhoun and Resaca and Sugar Valley, hear the rattle of wagon wheels and the distant whistle of the railroad train, the massed voices from the singing convention in Calhoun’s City Auditorium, the strains of contesting fiddlers at the Courthouse, of the Baxters playing for picnickers at Dew’s Pond, and of Bill and Bud and their cronies serenading the townsfolk in Gentlemen’s Park.








Kirk McGee video

September 23, 2014


Roll ONE of a four-roll interview session with KIRK McGEE (b. David Kirkland McGee, November 4, 1899, d. October 24, 1983) interviewed by folklorist CHARLES K. WOLE (Aug. 14, 1943 — Feb.9, 2006) shot by Sol Korine and Blaine Dunlap for the for the documentary “The Uncle Dave Macon Program,” (1979) by Wolfe and Korine-Dunlap.

This and other analog video recordings by Blaine Dunlap and Sol Korine are archived at the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, Mufreesboro, TN,

Uncle Dave Macon video

September 19, 2014

View entire 58 minute video here.

Uncle Wade: the last 15 years

August 16, 2014


by Eric Davidson and Jane Rigg (from notes to “Uncle Wade” FA 2380):

In 1956 and 1957, Wade Ward was visited by Michael Seeger and myself and this began a phase of widening contacts and ever-increasing fame which lasted until his death.    In contrast to the old days of the pre-war Lomax visits, electricity was now available in the mountains, and it was now possible to make a thorough study of the whole of Wade’s repertoire.

Comparison with the earlier recordings shows that at this time he had lost none of his famous precision and speed. Later this was no longer routinely true, though on occasion, particularly in the excitement of playing with others, he could still summon his old brilliance.

In 1962, Wade was featured on two records assembled by the writer and others: Traditional Music of Grayson and Carroll Counties”, FS 3811 (Folkways, 1962), and “The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward”, FA 2363 (1962).    Half of the latter album was devoted exclusively to his music. In 1963-66 we made an attempt, in which Wade enthusiastically cooperated, Wade together with Glen Smith, a very excellent old time fiddler from Hillsville, Virginia. For some of these sessions Fields Ward, who happened to be in his home country at the time, was also present. “Band Music of Grayson and Carrol Counties, Va.” (1967) includes some of the pieces then recorded. Wade exulted in the pleasure of playing the old time banjo-fiddle music, and his performances were often as good as in the best of his younger days, though he was already well over 70.

Wade’s years with Mollie, a sweet and generous woman, were happy ones, and he was devastated by her death from cancer on August 4, 1961. While Mollie was alive, and for several years thereafter, her mother, Granny Porter, then in her 80’s, also lived in the Peachbottom Creek house. Granny was as pithy, sharp and humorous as Uncle Wade, and together they made a memorable pair. Once a banjo picker herself, Granny Porter too had deep roots in old time music, having come of the family of a legendary old time fiddler, Van Sage. Occasionally Granny and Wade made music together. Wade accompanies Granny on a striking rendition of “Barbr’y Allen” in “Songs and Ballads of the Blue Ridge Mountains”, (AH 3831, 1968) Asch Records (Folkways).

As the 1960’s wore on Wade was invited to visit the great urban centers of the Northeast to perform there. This he was reluctant to do, finally being persuaded to come to the Smithsonian Festival at Washington in 1967. On the way he stopped in Richmond and performed for the governor, Mills Goodwin. He was 75, and it was virtually the first time Wade had taken his music out of his native hill country.

Thereafter he made several other trips to Washington and on one trip in 1969 performed with Fields in Maryland.  Recognition was his finally, and as a recent article by John Cohen put it, “the trip to Wade’s house was part of the homage to old time music that one paid.”  But it was very late in his life. By now Wade had outlived not only his two wives and all his brothers, and the two generations of old time musicians he had played with during his long career, but also the isolated mountain culture from which he and his music grew. He died on a chilly, late May day, a day on which he had done just what he always did, picked the banjo at the land sale, stopped in to see Katy Hill, and gone home to sit on his porch and look out over Peachbottom Creek

Worried Blues

July 29, 2014

MI0002325159Worried Blues (JSP 4 CD set)

edited review by Steve Leggett (

Frank Hutchison of Logan County, West Virginia recorded the slide guitar piece “Worried Blues” for Okeh first in 1926 and again in 1927. The date and place of origin of “fretting” the strings with a hand-held metal bar or glass bottle is unclear, but this was a technique widely used by African American musicians by the early 20th century. A couple of such musicians, Bill Hunt and Henry Vaughn, were important local sources for Hutchison’s music.

This method of noting the strings with a steel bar, sometimes called ”slide guitar,” was also popular amongst late-19th- and 20th-century Hawaiian guitar players, who used it to make very different music that eventually spawned the many hillbilly and country music steel guitar styles still popular in the South.

Hutchison’s timing is representative of many West Virginia and eastern Kentucky musicians who add or subtract phrases in very individualistic ways.  Sherman Lawson, a fiddler who recorded with Hutchison in the late 1920s, remarked to me that Hutchison didn’t keep time very well. Lawson and Hutchison both had their own concept of time and phrasing, not necessarily the same.

In photographs Hutchison played what looks like a small Martin guitar on his lap. He used a thumb pick and probably one or two finger picks and most likely used a small extension nut device over the regular nut in order to raise the strings up high enough off the fingerboard to play with a metal slide.

“Worried Blues” is an intriguing four-disc set that collects the complete recorded works of  Frank Hutchison and singer Kelly Harrell, then splits the final disc between two very different mountain string bands, the Tenneva Ramblers and the Blue Ridge Highballers. All of these artists were active in the Virginia/West Virginia area in the 1920s. (more…)

Down South Blues, pt. 2

July 25, 2014


Dock Boggs Recorded Live at Appalachian State University – November 11, 1966 (from

Dock Boggs:  It’s a pleasure for me to have the opportunity and honor of coming over to this college and get to play here. Since I’ve started playing music in the last three and a half, four years, why I’ve visited eighteen to twenty different colleges besides the festivals and [?] I went to.

I didn’t know whether I’d start playing, but I decided for old time’s sake I’d get my old banjo back. I bought it in 1928, so when I went back to get it, I’d let a fellow keep if for me that was a single man, and when I went back to get it he was a grandfather. His wife’s a teacher too. She teaches school at Hayman, Kentucky. Been teaching for the last thirty years, or longer.

We don’t, I don’t conduct my programs I put on like a lot of people do. We just mix ‘em up. Play. And my way of playing, I’ve got my own style of playing music and I have to tune sometimes, change tuning of my banjo, in order to play it in the old traditional time style.

So, this piece I’m fixing to play you is a piece I tried out on when I got my first opportunity to make phonograph records in Nineteen and Twenty-seven. In Norton, Virginia, I was working on the coal machines at [?] Virginia. I started to play this piece and they stopped me—I played about a verse of it—there’s three of them, papers on their knees, and they took down the number of the piece and they marked “good” on the end of it. I started to play “Country Blues,” and I’ll tell you, I played about a couple of lines of that and they marked “Good” on the end of that, and the next thing was a contract.

I was on my way to New York to make phonograph records in about three weeks. It surprised me because I was working in the mines. After that my wife she didn’t care too much for me making music. In order to keep her, keep the family together—I didn’t have nobody but her—I quit play music for twenty-five or twenty-six years. After I retired I said, just for sentimental reasons, I’m going back and get my old banjo. When I went back and got it, it cost me a hundred and ten dollars to have it fixed up, but it’s in good shape now and I’ve played and made several hundred dollars with it since.

And I’m going to play you “Down South Blues.”

Charlie Poole’s 13 Week Bender

July 23, 2014


edited from “Linthead Stomp” by Patrick Huber:

Charlie Poole extolled the raucous, wild life of society’s outcasts on his famous reinterpretation of the great African American composer W.C. Handy’s 1917 blues composition, “Beale St. Blues.”  It remains unclear whether Poole actually visited Memphis’ famed Beale Street during his travels.  But what is certain is that he fully participated in the raucous subculture he depicts in “He Rambled” and “Ramblin’ Blues,” drinking bootleg whiskey, gambling, getting into fistfights and close scrapes with the law, sobering up in small-town jails, and perhaps even soliciting prostitutes.

Far from a homebody himself, Poole may have recorded songs about life’s seamy underside because their antisocial ideology so closely corresponded with his own.  Both of these selections elevate the selfish pursuit of excitement and pleasure over steady productive labor and responsible citizenship.  As such, they promote immediate gratification rather than a New South capitalist ethos of industry, self-discipline, and thriftiness.

And unlike the North Carolina Ramblers’ sentimental ballads, neither of these songs expresses any regret for or guilt about someone or something left behind or lost.  Nor do the colorful characters within them aspire to a respectable working-class life of family, home, steady jobs, and church attendance.  These gamblers and rounders clearly prefer instead to live a shiftless, nomadic life on the margins of “decent” southern society.  Like Poole, they found their own social and cultural niche outside of the American mainstream.

Several of Poole’s biographers have stressed the correlation between what is know about Poole’s life and the many rounder songs that he and the North Carolina Ramblers recorded.  “If any old-time country music singer ever ‘lived’ the words he sang,” writes Kinney Rorer, “then surely it was Charlie Poole.  One could almost string together a biography of Poole from the words to the seventy songs he recorded between 1925 and his untimely death in 1931.”

In February 1931, a Hollywood motion picture company hired him to bring his band to California to perform in a low-budget western.  Poole celebrated by assembling a crew of his hard-drinking buddies and embarking on a marathon thirteen-week bender, part of which he spent carousing in southwestern Virginia and playing music when the mood struck him.

On May 21, 1931, less than two weeks before he was to leave for California, Poole collapsed from a heart attack on the front porch of his sister’s home in Spray, NC.  He was thirty-nine years old. His death certificate listed his occupation not as a musician or recording artist but as “mill worker” and noted that his heart attack was brought on in part by “intoxication 13 weeks.”

Fate Norris (#2)

July 12, 2014

Screen shot 2014-07-08 at 8.42.55 AM

Click here for PDF.

“The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

June 20, 2014

JIMMIE RODGERS: “The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

excerpt from Imogen Smith (

American popular culture has had few better days than July 16, 1930, when Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, went to the Victor Studio in Hollywood and recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” backed by none other than Louis Armstrong. Actually, “backed” is the wrong word; the recording is a duet, and you can hear Armstrong respond with delight to Rodgers’s vocals, and Rodgers drink up the fire of Armstrong’s trumpet. Satchmo went uncredited on the record, however, and his presence was only suspected until Nolan Porterfield finally tracked down hard evidence while researching his 2007 biography of Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers fully deserves his title as the “father of country music,” but it fails to capture his real nature as a one-man melting pot for country, blues, jazz and pop. His music was both urban and rural, blissfully indifferent to categories imposed later. He was accompanied at different times by fiddles and banjos, growling clarinets, jug bands, tubas, blues pickers, Hawaiian steel guitars and ukuleles, as well as his own rudimentary but effective guitar riffs. On “Blue Yodel No. 9,” his twanging, clarion voice—sharp and resonant as a locomotive’s bell—weaves dazzlingly with Armstrong’s bright, hard, leaping trumpet.

Racially integrated recordings were not uncommon at the time, though black and white musicians couldn’t perform together publicly, and when the great guitarist Eddie Lang (an Italian-American, born Salvatore Massaro) recorded with black artists like Lonnie Johnson for the Okeh label (producer of “race records”), he was credited as “Blind Willie Dunn.” Fortunately, microphones were blind. Piedmont bluesman John Jackson recounted how he cried all night when he learned that Jimmie Rodgers was dead, and was shocked the next morning when he saw the obituary and realized his idol was white. Rodgers himself defined country music as “the white man’s blues.”

Some time in the late 1940’s, the Kipsigis tribe of Kenya first heard recorded music courtesy of a windup gramophone. They were particularly taken with the performer they called “Chemirocha,” and wrote their own songs in tribute, inviting him to come and dance with them. Such a recording can be heard online; it sounds too good to be true, but all evidence points to it being legit. Alas, Rodgers could not accept the invitation, since he had died of tuberculosis in 1933, aged 35, in the Taft Hotel in Manhattan. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 1924, and he told us exactly how it felt in his macabre, angry lament, “T.B. Blues”:

When it rained down sorrow, it rained all over me,

                        ‘Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.

According to the veddy British announcer who introduces the ethnographic recording, the Kipsigis women insisted that Chemirocha was “no ordinary creature” but in fact a faun, half-man, half-antelope. It’s a fitting image, somehow. Bob Dylan, who produced a tribute album, called Rodgers “the voice in the wilderness of your head.” He seems a kind of American Pan, a deathless goat-hoofed spirit of cultural fertility, a ghost capering across the fields of American music.

See also here, here, and here.


Scottdale String Band

June 10, 2014


from and “Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta,” Georgia by Wayne Daniel:

Scottdale String Band – “Old Folks Better Go to Bed” (Arhoolie CD 7054)

In the first golden age of country music, from the mid-1920s until the early ’30s, the Scottdale String Band held one of the leading names in OKeh Records’ catalog of Old Time Tunes. The band took its name from the cotton mill village of Scottdale, located between Decatur and Clarkston in DeKalb County, Georgia. String bands without fiddles, groups of mandolins, banjos, and guitars, in varying combinations, were quite well represented on records in those years. But the Scottdale String Band’s extensive and diverse legacy of sparkling performances ranging from ragtime tunes and popular songs to waltzes, breakdowns, and blues, sets them apart from their contemporaries.


1. Chinese Breakdown
2. Carbolic Rag
3. Carolina Glide
4. Stone Mountain Wobble
5. Southern Blues
6. Old Folks Better Go to Bed
7. My Own Iona
8. Hiawatha Breakdown
9. Scottdale Stomp
10. Silver Bell
11. In the Shade of the Parasol
12. Green Mountain Polka
13. Kohala March
14. The Moonshiners’ Waltz
15. Coughdrop Blues
16. Scottdale Highballers
17. Sitting on Top of the World
18. Down Yonder
19. Japanese Breakdown

Natchee the Indian and Clayton McMichen

May 11, 2014
Cowboy Copas Natchee the Indian

Cowboy Copas, Natchee the Indian, and an unidentified bassist


Natchee the Indian was born Lester Vernon Storer around 1913 in Peebles, Ohio. He was an old-time musician whose tricks included loosening the bowstrings and playing with the bow on back side of the fiddle and the strings against the fiddle strings. The trick fiddler was popular in West Virginia and southern Ohio in the early 1930s before being hired by Sunbrock to play against the top fiddlers including McMichen, Curly Fox and Clark Kessinger.

In the mid-1930’s Natchee and guitarist Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas traveled with promoter Larry Sunbrock, whose staged fiddle contests were fixed (most of the fiddlers were paid a flat fee by Sunbrock regardless whether they won or lost. Curly Fox was paid a fee of $250). There is some doubt that Natchee, who dressed as an indian, was even an Indian; he was rumored to be either Italian or Greek.

To add to the confusion, he worked on radio with “Indian Bill and Little Montana” (Bill and Evalina Stallard). He also worked around Dayton and Cincinnati with Emory Martin and with Jimmie Skinner. Aside from all rumors, people who saw Natchee remembered him for his showmanship. By the 1950s was found living in Chicago.

Juanita McMichen Lynch, Clayton’s daughter knew him. When I asked her about Natchee she handed me a photo of him (see last blog) and related how Natchee turned up broke and dirty at Bert Layne’s door. Dooley (Bert’s wife, who was her mother’s sister) let him in- he hadn’t eaten or bathed in days. After he showered and ate they turned him loose, never to see or hear from him again.

Times were hard in the 1930s. Sometimes performers had to play anywhere just to survive. Maybe we should just let Merle Travis tell the story of McMichen and Natchee, after all he was there in 1937, playing with the Georgia Wildcats.

According to Travis in his The Clayton McMichen Story 1982: “We played lots and lots of major theaters, the biggest halls in many towns. A man named Larry Sunbrock was doing the bookings. They called them “Fiddlin’ Contests” but they were nothing more than today’s country Music Spectaculars.

They had worlds of people who were famous on the radio. Records didn’t mean alot they couldn’t be played on the radio. Records were something you did now and then. We would go to one big city, say Cleveland- Larry Sunbrock would buy an hour each day on two different radio stations.

One hour was taken by Clayton McMichen and his Georgia Wildcats. The other was taken by Natchee The Indian and his band which was fronted by a young feller who called himself Cowboy Copas.

“We were all friends but you’d never know it by listening to our radio programs. We’d play our show and all week this is the way things would go. McMichen would say in his nasal Georgian accent: Howdy, howdy howdy. I hear there’s an Indian in town playing on another station that thinks he can beat me fiddlin’. If that indian Natchee beats me Sunday, I’ll eat my fiddle on the stage.”

“On the other show Cowboy Copas, doing the talking for Natchee the Indian (Natchee never talked on the radio) would say: I’m just a country boy from Oklahoma. This Indian Natchee is my friend. There’s a man named Clayton Mcmichen that says he can beat my Indian friend fiddlin’ but come down Sunday afternoon and we’ll send this braggin’ Georgian back down south were he belongs.”

“This was the way Larry Sunbrock wanted things to go. There’d be arguments, fist fights and hair pullin’ to show faith in their favorite fiddler. Pepole would line up for blocks, they wanted to get in and root for their fiddler to win. The way of judging was to hold a hand over each fiddler’s head and judge from the applause. McMichen got a nice response but when the hand went over Natchee the Indian they almost tore the house down- Natchee was the winner.

Clayton McMichen went to the microphone and delivered this classic speech: Ladies and gentlemen, all of you who applauded for me, much obliged.. and the rest of you can just go to hell.”

Eck Robertson Interview

May 7, 2014


from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 8, Part 4 Winter 1972 No. 28:

Interview of Eck Robertson by Earl V. Spielman

S: How old were you when you first started playing the fiddle? 

E: I've played ever since I was five 
years old. 

S: Did you learn at home? Did your dad play? 

E: I learned at home, mostly; I started with it. I'm 
just a natural born fiddler, I reckon. 

S: Where was that? Where was your home? 

E: My father was a real fiddler, and my uncles were real 
fiddlers, two or three of them, and my brothers. 

S: Was that in Texas at the time? 

E: In different states, some of them in Texas, mostly in Texas. 

S: Were you living in Texas at the time? 

E: I've been in Texas a long time, in and out. Of course, 
not in there all the time. In Oklahoma quite a bit. 

S: Were you born in Texas? 

E: No. I was born in Arkansas. 

S: Do you remember how old you were when you first moved to Texas? 

E: It's hard for me to remember that now. I don't know whether I could 
look it up. I can't remember everything that I know, and I 
don't try to keep up with it. A fellow will just forget things in spite 
of the world. 

S: Did you have any brothers and sisters that played the violin? 

E: Yes, I've got brothers and sisters living. Two brothers, two sisters. 

S: Did all your brothers play fiddle, too or were you the only one? 

E: One of them never did play to speak of. In a way he was a musician all 
right, but he never did follow it. He never did try to 
play it. He could have been a good fiddler as far as that goes. Some of 
them played different instruments, too. 

S: Guitar and banjo? 

E: Yeah, he played different instruments. I played nearly any of them myself. 
I had one brother died when he was thirty-six years old. He was one of the 
best fiddlers ever picked up a fiddle, nearly. My father was a good fiddler, 
but he was also a preacher. He was well-known everywhere, but he didn't 
believe in music in the church. 

So he restricted his playing, then. He's what they call a "Camelite" preacher. 
Church of Christ preacher. 

S: So how did it come that you started to play fiddle at the age of five? I 
inherited it some way or another. I just naturally wanted to play. 

E: Did your father show you how to hold it? He learned me a lot, of course. 
My brother, the one that died when he was thirty-six years old, I patterned 
after him a lot. I was more interested than they ever were. 

S: Did you get most of the early tunes you played from your father and from 
your brother? 

E: Oh yeah. I got lots of them from them and some of the older fiddlers in the world. 
I used to know every one of them, nearly. 

S: Do you remember any of the people? 

E: I've even contacted lots of violinists. I've had violinists tell me flat out in 
words I was the best fiddler ever to pick up a fiddle on that kind of music, 
hoedown music. 

S: Do you remember any of them? 

E: I played lots of it, but a fellow will just get out of practice, now, 
if he don't keep it up. 

S: Do you remember any names of the people other than your father who influenced you,
 who you heard play when you were a little kid? 

E: Yeah. Lots of times when people come to my mind that I've known for years and years, 
and they're fiddlers and musicians. Same way about violinists. I know men like 
Fritz Kreisler. 

S: Did you know Jimmy Thompson? 

E: Yeah. 1 think I did. 

S: He was one of the early fiddlers on the "Grand Ole Opry." 

E: Yeah, I remember him. He was already an old man by the I920's. 
I've had all kinds of musicians visit with me, come hunt me up, every 
kind you can imagine. Some of the violinists even hunted me up. I can't 
think of their names, some of them, though I know them well. 

S: How did you go about learning fiddle tunes and breakdowns? 

E: It was just natural with me to play them, I didn't have to learn them. 
I already knew them. I mean a tune like Sally Goodin.

S: Say, that was a tune that you first recorded. Do you like Sally Goodin? 

E: That's one of the first tunes I recorded for the Victor People. 
They sold millions of them. 

S: Did anybody show you how to play that, or did you work that out by yourself? 

E: I worked that out by myself. I mostly improved every old hoedown tune that 
ever was put out. I generally played better than anybody else, a better arrangement 
of tunes. I didn't skip nothing. I didn't leave out no part of the tune. 
I didn't put parts in there that didn't belong in there, things like that. 
I stuck with the tunes more than any fiddler. Had people compliment me a lot, 
people who knew how the 
tune was really supposed to go. 

S: Where did a tune like Sally Goodin come from? Do you know? 

E: I don't know just exactly who first arranged it. I don't remember about that. 
I done more arranging on it, I guess, than any other fiddler that could be thought of. 

S: Was it originally written to be played on the fiddle? 

E: Most old tunes had been in music. Somebody had written them and put them 
in music, but not very few of them have done that. Once in a while I'd run 
into a few that claimed he put out such and such a tune that was old, and I knew he 
didn't know what he was talking about. Somebody else put it out way before he did. 
He learned it from somebody he thought put it out. Lots of times fiddlers claim 
they composed a tune that's been out for years. Lots of times I've had old-time 
tunes, they'd think they'd composed them, but they didn't. 

S: Have you ever composed any tunes? 

E: Yeah. I've composed a few tunes, different kinds of tunes, different kinds of music. 
Amarillo Waltz is one of my tunes. I composed it. It went over big. It was a very fine waltz. 

S: Any breakdowns or reels? 

E: It's in the order of hoedown music, in a way. It's not old-timey music. 
It's more popular music in a way, the class of tune it is, and so on. I've had lots of 
compliments on it. I've dcme some work through a brother of mine. I put out some 
of his music. And he composed. He used to be quite a composer in the way of tunes, 
and I'd revise them for him. I've done things for him I wouldn't have done for nobody 
but him. Sometimes I put out some of his tunes that I wouldn't have done for nobody 
but him, nobody else. 

S: How old were you when you first played in a group, or professionally for money? 

E: I don't know. I guess around seven years old. I used to play at quite a lot 
of contests when I was just a little kid. 

S: Did they have a lot of contests? 

E: Oh yeah. They used to have lots of contests. 

S: Was there prize money? 

E: Some of the best money they ever put out was way back yonder. They used 
to put out good money on them contests. 

S: Did your grandfather play fiddle, too? 

E: Yeah. He was a great fiddler. 

S: They had contests then, too? 

E: Yeah. They had contests once in a while. 

S: What kind of instruments would back you up when you played at those 
early contests? 

E: Fiddle was the main thing I played. 

S: Did anybody play guitar behind you? 

E: They'd play with me. Lots of times I'd get somebody to play guitar with me, 
but sometimes I'd play by myself. Just alone with nothing else. Just alone, 
didn't even have an accompanist. 

S: That's the way you recorded Sally Goodin? 

E: Where they allowed an accompanist, I generally selected one myself that 
could play with me. Maybe if I contacted somebody I knew could play good, 
I'd try them out before I played in the contest. Mainly guitar, though. 
I paid them to play for me. I'd pay them so much to play for me, maybe 
it'd be in a contest where they'd win a prize. 

S: I was going to ask you about your recording of Sally Goodin '. 
You're alone on that. Nobody else is backing you up. Was that your idea, or 
was that their idea? 

E: When I first played it, I played it just by the request, really, that 
they wanted me to play it, and I played it alone. 

S: How was it that you were in New York then? 

E: I forget now. I was a young fellow then. I went to Newport, Rhode Island, 
played for a big occasion there, went over big. 

S: When was that? 

E: That's the same time I went to New York, but I can't remember now what 
year it was. I can't think of it. I've got it wrote down, of course. 
I've got letters and papers of all kinds, newspapers, stories about me.
 I've had more write-ups than any man that ever pulled a fiddle 
bow, and I bet I can show it in black and white. 

S: I mean how was it that you were in New York in 1922 when you made that recording? 

E: I went there on purpose. I went there to make some records. 

S: You went up there all on your own? Nobody asked you? 

E: Oh yeah. I voluntarily went on my own. I went to Newport, Rhode Island. 
I went from there over to New York. Well, I went to New York and 
then to Rhode Island, really. 

S: Did you get to meet somebody who was in the recording business? 

E: I met lots of musicians and lots of fiddlers and lots of lady musicians 
then, even. They all taken a liking to me like a hungry boy 
eating plums. Damn, I was the most popular dang fiddler ever was on 
the road. I could book any damn town I come to, didn't make any difference 
where it was. 1 could book a theater or anything 1 want- ed to. 
Every damn place I ever went, I could just book any of them. There were lots of places where 
they turned musicians down, but 1 come right along and booked them. 

S: When you booked a place like that, did they sell tickets, or did they 
just have people come in? 

E: They'd sell tickets. That was the main thing. I'd place a ticket amount, 
what they were supposed to get for my playing. 

S: Did you ever travel with a group? 

E: A few times I have, several people. I had a family of 
musicians once. Went on the road and take them with me, four of us. 

S: And you all played something? 

E: They was all musicians and all good singers. 

S: You were singing, too? 

E: I used to sing, made out as popular as the devil on singing, even. 
I used to sing songs for people that they'd even refuse to take them on 
records that somebody else would sing. I'd come along and book them. 
I done that lots of times. I don't know if I sound funny, but I should 
have been a millionaire instead of a pauper. I got beat out of everything 
I made, every- thing I was entitled to, really. 'Cause people 'd take advantage 
of me every dadgum time that I trust anybody. I got to where I just couldn't 
trust nobody. Every time I'd trust them, they'd beat me out of everything they could. 

S: How would you talk about the kind of fiddling that you play? 

E: It's different from a lot of other fiddling. It's not so different. 
It's just the execution I put out and the tunes I play. They don't 
ever play the tune. There's not one fiddler in a dozen that plays the 
tune like it ought to be played. You know the kind of fiddling, for example, 
that Bartow Riley plays. My uncle and grandfather and all my brothers, 
nearly every one of my kinfolk was all fine fiddlers. Every one of them. There 
wasn't just one now and then. Every dadgum one of them had a reputation 
that wouldn't quit. And there's people hunted me up that I never heard of before. 
They'd hear me play and contact me to make a record, or something. 

S: You know the kind of fiddling that Benny Thomasson and Bartow Riley play, don't you? 

E: Yeah, I remember. I've got Benny's picture here. 

S: Is that the kind of fiddling you'd call your own, too? 

E: It's the same kind of fiddling. 

S: Would you call your style Texas fiddling? 

E: I'd call it more that than anything else. I played more in Texas and done 
more business in Texas than any other state, I guess. I was under contract 
with the Victor people, the first man to ever record for them. I was under 
contract a number of years. And they got to where they cut me out of everything 
they could. I couldn't depend on them. In fact, I sold out to them, quit recording 
for them. I just had to do it. It got to where they'd beat me out of every damn thing. 
Every time I'd put out a record, they'd beat me out of hundreds of 
dollars on it. 

S: When you recorded for them, did you have the choice of the tunes you were 
going to play, or did they tell you what to play? 

E: No, they didn't tell me. I'd choose what I wanted to play. Of course, 
they'd pick out certain tunes. They'd ask me to play over a bunch of tunes, 
and they'd see where they'd like some certain tunes better than they did others, 
that-a-way, but it didn't make much difference what I played, they'd accept it. 

S: A lot of the tunes you play acre a lot faster than the way other people play them. 

E: It's different in a way. I've just a little bit better way of playing than the 
average fiddler has. That's one thing about it. 

S: How did you get to do that? 

E: I learned to play under some mighty good fiddlers, I mean patterned after a lot 
of good fiddlers. 

S: Who were some of those people? 

E: Pat Hooker was a good fiddler, one fiddler I patterned after when 1 was a 
little kid. I used to play after him a lot. Then came big programs and contests and 
places that-a-way. I got where I was so famous to where every dadgum fiddler come 
along got to where they'd show me in places, taking up with me. 
They'd keep on playing with me if they could. 

S: Were there any people other than Pat Hooker that you modeled yourself after? 

E: Yeah. There's other fiddlers. I can't think of every one of them. 

S: Where did Pat Hooker play, usually? Where did you meet him? 

E: He played everywhere around, different places, but he never was as popular a 
fiddler as I was. 

S: How much older than you was he? 

E: He was older than I am. He was grown young man at that time, and 
I was just a kid the first time I played with him. We was in contests together, 
and I beat him in 
contests, won over him at different times. 

S: Did he ever record for anybody? 

E: I think he had done some recording, but I don't remember now. 
It's been so long back. I don't remember. 

S: Did he aatually show you tunes and how to play them, or did you pick 
that up on your own? 

E: They all sold my records, every dadgum fiddler that come along. They'd 
buy my records and learn to play my tunes after me. Lots of them done that. 

S: For example, who showed you how to hold the bow or how to hold the fiddle? 

E: Oh, I don't know. I just naturally did that more than anything else, 
of course my father and my uncle. 

S: When you hold the bow, did you hold your thumb underneath the frog or inside it? '

E: Underneath the frog. 

S: All the way underneath? 

E: Caught it right cross the bottom with my thumb and with the finger on top. 

S: And you had all four fingers on top? 

E: Sometimes I might hold it a little above the frog. I just gripped the body 
of the bow. Sometimes I'd use it that way. There's something funny about my play- 
ing. I've attracted more attention than anybody everywhere 1 ever played, and 
I don't know why. I just couldn't figure it out myself. I have so many different 
people contact me in so many different towns and places. I used to travel and play 
the regular whole U. S., nearly. I played in every state in the Union, nearly, 
and I've gotten letters. I bet you I've gotten in my life five thousand 
letters, maybe. 

S: Did you save any of them? 

E:  Oh, I keep most of them. I've got stacks of them here. There are all kinds of letters. 

S: It would be fascinating to take a look at them. 

E: Oh, it'd take too much trouble to look them up. I've got them stacked around 
in different boxes in different places. In fact, I've got letters I 
don't even remember. 

S: What about your left hand? Did you hold the fiddle with the heel of your hand 
holding the body? 

E: Usually I hold it two or three different ways, lots of times. I hold it like 
a violinist does some- times when I'm playing. It depends on my hands and the 
condition they're in, and my fingers, what the tune I'm playing is. Lots of 
times it has a lot to do with that part of it. 

S: Did you learn one way, and then somebody told you another way is a better way? 

E: I naturally learned different ways to hold my fiddle. I had to, different tunes, 
different times I've played, I can't hold my fiddle now. This hand here, it doesn't 
hurt me like this one does. This one's out of fix, too. That finger wants to crook 
in under the other one. When I note my finger, I can't spread 
it out any. I cut a gash there between my two fingers one time, half an inch 
down that two fingers in two seconds. 

S: You did that by accident? 

E: Yeah, I fell. 

S: You cut the webbing between your tittle finger and your ring finger. 

E: I had a ring on that finger, and I fell sprawling on the sidewalk during 
a snow, ice-frozen street. 

S:How long ago did that happen? 

E: Oh, it's been a long time back. It cut a gash between them two fingers 
there and never did get well. I still have a funny feeling in there. This finger here's 
stiff, and that damn joint there, I can't never bring it down or to bring my 
hand that-a-way to note the fiddle like I used to. I don't have the strength 
there to pull it down any further than that. I can't get it down there. 
It wants to lean over against that one. I don't know why in the dickens 
I ever had the bad luck I have. I can't figure it out. It looked like 
it wasn't intended for me to make a fortune out of my playing. I had people 
to beat me out of profit on records and things like 

S: As far as your fiddling, you'd hold it and you'd play it differently 
depending upon the tune. 

E: Well, naturally I would play different to what I have played than I do now. 
I can't hold it just 
exactly like I used to. 

S: I mean when you used to play. 

E: When I used to play, before I was crippled up any about my playing, 
I could hold my hands correctly. 

S: Now I was wondering whether anybody came up to you and said, 
"No, you 're holding the fiddle wrong. You should be holding it another way," 

E: Yeah, I've had them tell me that, but it wasn't 
because I didn't know how to hold it. 

S: So that didn't influence you? 

E: I held it according to the way I had to. That's all there was to 
that. I couldn't play, maybe, like a violinist did. 

S:  Did you ever aross-tune the fiddle? 

E: Yeah, I played lots of tunes cross-tuned. 

S: But you didn't aross-tune it to play Sally Goodin ', did you? 

E: No, not Sally Goodin ' . 

S: What were some of the tunes you aross-tuned the fiddle for? 

E: Oh, I don't remember them all. It's been so long since I tried to keep up 
with it. I used to play lots of tunes in the cross-keys I call it.  

S: Did you feel when you played tunes that there was a aorrect time to play 
them, that if you played them any other way, it's too slow or too fast? 

E: Well, I just had a certain way to play them. It was just different to 
the average fiddler. Some way or other, they didn't seem to have the art 
about them I had. I've taught lots of fiddlers how to play a fiddle, 
lots of boys and young fellows, especially. Some old ones. 

S: How did you teach them to use the bow right? 

E: Well, you show them. I'd have them sit down in front of me, look at me, 
and tell them how to place their fingers and the bowing, how to use it, and 
different things that way. It takes a lot of time and trouble to show--about 
playing a fiddle. 

If they learn it, it sticks with them. I wouldn't fool with it no more, though. 
It makes me too nervous. It'll ruin your nerves. I couldn't hold up at it at all. 
My nerves were just ruined. I can't play any more like I used to. I can play when 
I'm not nervous pretty good, but in just a little while, I get nervous again. 
I can't keep it up at all. I haven't tried to play a tune on the fiddle in several days now.
 I haven't tried to show anybody how to play. I've been in bed two-thirds 
of my time lately. I just can't stay out of the bed very long at a time. 
I can't rest at all. I can't sleep at night or nothing. I'm wide awake all the time. 

S:  Did you ever have a favorite fiddle? 

E: Oh yeah. I've got a fiddle ever since my brother died, his fiddle, 
one of the best fiddles I ever pulled a bow on. 

S: Is it an American instrument? 

E: Steiner. 

S: A Steiner? 

E: A Jacob Steiner violin. 

S: A wonderful instrument. Do you still have that instrument? 

E:  Yeah. I made the top on it. I got the top ruined. Another fiddler, 
a damn fool, got it mixed up with some other guy's fiddle in his 
shop. I left it in there, and damn it if he didn't take the top off 
of it and ruin it. He didn't think he'd be working on somebody else's 
fiddle in place of mine. Whether he done it on purpose or 
not I don't know. I never could find out. I had to make a top for it, 
and got it busted up after that. I still repaired it and made it as good 
as it ever was in tone, ever. 

S: What kind of strings did you use on that? 

E: Well, I used to use a certain kind of steel strings. I used gut strings mostly 
for a long time, and I got on them steel strings. Got a special wire on 
them and so on. 

S: Do you remember the strings you used to have on the instruments you used 
to play when you re- 

E: I can't think of them now. 

S: Did you prefer gut to steel? 

E: Yeah, I had the wrapped guts, D and A and G, and steel E, of course. 
But I just can't remember like 1 used to. My mind gets off to a certain extent. 

S: What about the bridge on it? Was it a flat bridge? 

E: That was just like any other. Take any new bridge and redress it. 
I had to refit it to the top accordingly. 

Shave the legs dawn. Sometimes it'd be too thick or too thin, I'd put a 
thicker one on or something. You've got to be a judge of anything like that 
to get the tone, hunt the tone. You've got to hunt it out. 

S: Did you work with the soundpost, too? 

E: Oh yeah. That's the main thing, knowing how to set a soundpost. Search it out. 
You got to search it out. You can't just set them up. 

S: So you searched it out on your own. 

E: Oh, I set it different places, hunting for the tone. That's 
the way I do it. Yeah. You've got to hunt for it. You've got to find it. 

S: What about bows? Did you re-hair your awn bows? 

E: Oh yeah. I re-haired bows. 

S: Did you like a heavy baw? 

E:  1 didn't like a too heavy one. but I liked a pretty heavy bow, 
one that's got enough strength in it not to bend too limber or nothing like that. 
It's got to have strength enough in it to tighten the hair reasonably tight. 

It's a pretty tight bow, then. I don't make it too tight. 1 don't let it be too loose. 

S: Did you use a lot of rosin? 

E:  Yeah. I always keep them rosined good. 

S: Did you put it on quite a bit at one time, or did you keep putting a little bit on? 

E: Oh, yes, 
rosin it every little bit. I'd keep putting it on. 

S:  What would happen if the rosin got on the strings or on top of the fiddle? 
Did that make any difference?

E: Oh, sometimes you get too much rosin on your strings, and it covers them. 

S: Are you careful to keep them clean, or did you let it collect? 

E: Kept them clean. 1 cleaned them off quite a bit. Every once in a while you have 
to clean them off, you use lots of rosin. Ain't best to let it get too much on top 
of the violin, collect too thick.  

S: When you pulled the bow across the strings did you keep the hair flat, 
or did you turn the hair away from you or toward you? 

E: I generally keep it pretty well straight up and down. I hold it level, 
don't let it lean over too much. 

S: Were you careful where on the string you drew the bow, and how close to the 
bridge or how close to the fingerboard? 

E: You've got to find out where to put your bow on the fiddle so you can get the 
correct tone. It ain't best to have it too close to the bridge, or it ain't best 
to have it too far away. Find the best tone by searching it out. 

S: What's the most important part of fiddling? Is it the bowing, or is it the fingering? 

E: It's important you you know how to do both of them, more than anything else. 
You've got to know both ways, how to note your fiddle and how to pull your bow. 

S:  Is one easier than the other? 

E: Either one's natural with you when you get it figured out. If you keep it up, 
you'll have more advantage. 

S: From your experience with teaching kids and other people, what did they learn more easily?

E: I don't exactly know how to explain the things you ask me--to give you 
the correct answers to it. If I was in shape, I could play the fiddle for 
you and show you better. It'd be a lot better for you. 

There's lots of boys that never do get it. In their heads they're wrong about 
their playing. Lots of times they don't even know how to play a fiddle, 
how to stroke the strings with the bow, or how to note the fiddle correctly, 
or anything of the kind. 1 used to do trick fiddling to beat the dick- 
ens. Yeah, I used to do that a lot. 

S: What kinds of things did you do? 

E: Throwing the fiddle in the air and all around me. I'd throw the sun-of-a-gun 
over and over, turn it over two or three times and never miss a note. 

S: And bow it while it's being thrown? 

E: Hell yeah, throwed it in the air, even. Done damn different things to it. 
Turned the bow over while in the air even. Done damn different things like 
that there and never missed a note. 

S: Did you ever do somersaults? 

E:Yeah, and I'd make it talk even, make the damn fiddle speak a word just 
as plain as you can. 

S: That's wonderful. 

E: It's wonderful.' There ain't no question of that.' I'm the only man that 
ever done that, that I heard of. I've heard people tell of a fellow trying to do it, 
but he never did do it as plain as I did by any means. I made it talk plain enough, 
you'd understand the word it was 
saying even. 

S: What were some of the words you'd get it to talk? 

E: I can't remember now everything I made it say. I'd just figure out some talk I'd make, 
and then I'd imitate it with the fiddle bow and the fiddle. 

S: What's happened to trick- fiddling today? 

E: There's not many people that does it. There's a few that's good at it and 
some that ain't. 

S: Did you learn trick- fiddling from your father? 

E: Oh, I learned it from them experts, not from any particular one. 
I learned from different ones, for that matter. They didn't many of them have 
me bested first time I ever tried it. 

S: Who was one of the guys you learned it from? 

E: I don't remember. I used to know every one of them. Now I can't remember 
their names anymore. I had to be with different fiddlers different 
times at different places in different towns to ever remember who they 
were and what they could do and everything and like that. It takes a long time 
to remember everything that way. 

S: What about your experience in playing with twin fiddles — two fiddles, double fiddles? Where 
did you learn that from? When did that practice start? 

E: I don't know what you mean. 

S:  Two fiddles playing at the same time, one playing tenor above the melody. 

E: That's not hard to do if you've got two fiddlers playing. 

It's a little different, though, because you've got two fiddlers playing who've 
got to plan exactly what they're going to do. You've got to play different methods 
of that. It isn't like playing the same tune together. That's more hard to do than 
it is to play tenor, really. I used to play tenor fiddle quite a bit with some 
other musicians. They'd play in nearly any key they wanted to 
play, and I'd follow them. I've had them some that could play with me that way, too. 

S: Was there a trick to learning haw to play tenor? 

E: Nothing especially tricky about it. You had to have an art. That's all there is to it. 
You've got to have something about you that's different than the average fiddler does.
Do everything there is in music. And show yourself up as being an expert. I've had 
people gather around me in crowds, where there'd be fifty people in one damn bunch 
in little towns I'd be in. I'd be playing the fiddle sitting out on the sidewalk, 
and god damn, they'd just keep gathering and gathering together till there'd by maybe a 
hundred there. Quit their damn business, lots of them did, just to come and stick 
around me while I was playing, watching and listening to me play. Making records 
of my playing, some of them would. Things like that. But 1 let them. I've had all 
kinds of experiences. And just on account of pleasing so many different kinds of people, 
I've done the wrong thing about it. I just shouldn't have done it. I gave myself away, 
in other words, and didn't get nothing out of it like I should have got. 

S: What's your real name? 

E: My real name is Alexander Campbell Robertson. 

S: Alexander Campbell?

E: A.C. 

S: Right, And how did you get the nickname "Eck"? 

E: Well, my father and mother, I guess, gave it to me, more than anybody else. 
I was named after a man by that name. Alexander Campbell was a noted preacher 
and a noted speaker, and I guess he was of the same denomination, belief, and so on. 
And he named every child he had after some prominent person. My oldest brother was 
named Joseph Larimore, but he's been dead for a number of years. 

S: What was his name? 

E:  Joe. They called him Joe Robertson all the time. Quince Robertson next to 
him in age. Dead, too. Quince was a great fiddler. Joe never did play the fiddle. 
He was kind of an artist in a way. Different maneuvers, but there was something 
about every one of us kids that was different than the average person. Every damn 
one of us, even my sisters, were great people. 

S: What year were you born, Eck? 

E:  '87, the twentieth of November in '87. 

S: So you must remember quite a few of the early contests. 

E: Way back yonder, I remember things that happened, some I haven't yet forgotten. 

S: Do you remember the name "Fiddling" John Carson? 

E:  Oh yeah, I remember him. I played with him. 

S:  Did you ever play in a contest with him? 

E: Yeah, I played against him in contests. 

S:  Where were some of these contests where you played with him? 

E: I never did play very many times against him, that I know of, but I played 
against him several times. Beat him in contests. 

S; What about Clayton MoMiahen. Do you know him? 

E:  Yeah, I know him too. I know them all. I know every damn fiddler ever
 pulled a fiddle bow nearly. Contacted me when they heard of me. I 
hadn't even heard of them at the time, some of them. 

S: These fiddlers played in a really different style from your style. 

E: Yeah, some of them were. 

S: Even though they played the same tunes, how would you describe the difference? 

E:They could play Sally Goodin ' or Done Gone. They just didn't play it like it 
ought to have been played. My people that played it played it more correct than 
anybody, and I even improved it myself. 

S: Do you remember any unusual experiences that you've had with your fiddle? 

E: I've had all kinds of experiences, but I can't remember any certain, unusual 
experiences right now. My mind is bad now. 

At times I can get to thinking, and things will pop into my mind that I hadn't 
thought of in years. And I don't know why in the dickens every time that I forget, 
but sometimes I forget things that I would have liked to have kept remembering. 
I can't keep it on my mind. I've had lots of friendships with fiddlers that I've 
plumb forgotten. Can't even think of their name anymore. Used to buy every 
man's record that was put out. Remembered a lot of different names of fiddlers and 
tunes that they played. They learned tunes that I didn't even know, some of them, 
and I got to where I could beat them playing the same tune. I had that experience a lot of times. 

S: I guess a good deal of your fiddling was aimed at playing in contests. Did you ever play for 

E: Yeah, mostly square dances. 

S: Could you call at the same time? 

E: I have done it. I used to call quite a bit. 

S: When you're calling a square dance and fiddling at the same time, it's kind of 
difficult, isn't it? Or do you have to drop the fiddle down or hold it differently? 

E: No, not necessarily. I'd play the fiddle for a dance and done the call at the same time. 
I have done that, yeah. That's been back years ago. I haven't done that lately at all. 
I used to charm everybody I played around. Not only just outside people, but musicians 
that thought they could play a fiddle. They didn't feel like they could strike a tune 
around me. Some of them would even express themselves that way. They'd 
make out like they thought they was the best fiddler they ever heard. Then when 
they heard me, they seen they wasn't. That's the way they talked to me about it. 

S:  Well, Eck, thank you very, very much for letting me talk to you about your experiences.

E: Well, you're welcome--anything I can help you on by talking to you.


Jimmie Rodgers (#2)

July 31, 2013


from “Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins,” by Tom Piazza, and

In the last three weeks of Jimmie Rodgers’ life, he traveled by train, in the company of a private nurse, from San Antonio to Galveston, and then by boat to New York City for an epic series of recording sessions, so that his wife and daughter would have a backlog of material to help out financially after he was gone. He stayed at the Hotel Taft and took the time to look at a few songs by a couple of young songwriters, whom he received while in bed, propped up on pillows.

At the Victor recording studio on East 24th Street, a cot was set up where Rodgers could lie down and regain his strength between takes. The first day, May 17, 1933, he recorded four tracks, an amazing effort under the circumstances; they included “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now,” a composition by one of the young songwriters who visited him at his hotel.

The next day he recorded three tracks, including the beautiful “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes” and a track released as “Jimmie Rodgers’s Last Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “The Women Make a Fool Out of Me.” Rodgers skipped a day and went back in on May 20, but he was only able to record two songs before quitting.

He rested for three days. On May 24 the Victor people had set up a session with two other guitarists, and Rodgers, hanging on by a thread, recorded three songs with them. Then, solo, he recorded his last song, “Fifteen Years Ago Today,” sometimes issued as “Years Ago.”

The next day his nurse took him for a tour of Coney Island. He suffered a terrible attack of coughing and spasms and had to be brought back to the hotel, and in the deep morning hours of May 26 he died.

At the recent  Mississippi Picnic  at New York’s Central Park the “Singing Brakeman’s'”  iconic guitar was  played for the first time in 80 years to record music.

Rodger’s custom-ordered 1927 Martin 000-45, has his name in pearl inlay on the neck and “Thanks” written upside down on the back. After his death, Rodgers’ widow loaned the 000-45 to Ernest Tubb, who played it for forty years. It was later donated to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum, in Meridian, Mississippi, where it is kept in a safe behind glass.

Tribute artist Britt Gully received permission to use the guitar for recording a tribute CD and played the guitar at a Rodgers tribute at the event.

“This guitar is magical,” Gully said. “There was never a time when playing it that I did not realize what I was playing, and who played it before me.”

Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity

July 8, 2013


from “Truth is Stranger Than Publicity,” by Alton Delmore (Country Music Foundation Press):

Alton Delmore writes about the 1930 fiddlers’ convention in Athens, AL:

“There was a big crowd there and everything was decorated and all fixed up like the president of the United States would be there. It was by far the biggest and most important contest in the entire country. People who had never been to a contest before gathered with the contestants at the Old Athens (Alabama) Agricultural School. My mother had made (guitar) cases for us out of cotton sacks we used during the picking season and we had our names on them spelled out in full. I painted them on the cases with pokeberry juice.

“You know how it feels to be a combatant in any kind of contest so we rightly felt proud of the sack cases and we were primed to go for the first in the prizes in each case. I entered the contest for the best guitarist and we also entered the contest for the best band. There were some bands there that would have given Bob Wills some strong competition if Bob had been there. We didn’t think we would win that one. By then we had ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ down pretty pat-in fact we could play it then just as good as we ever did.

“When it came our time to play we sang just as soft as we could and just as loud as we could but we put the music in there, too -and that counts as much as anything I can think of to help put an act over. You can analyze music and record hits, I mean the legitimate ones, and you will find that there is a synchronization between the voice or voices and the instrumentation.

“We got tied for the first place with three pretty girls. Nothing worse could have happened because we knew the crowd usually takes sides with the singer if it happens to be a girl and those three girls could really sing. The rules were that they were to play two songs and two for us. The girls went out first, and I could tell they had lost something of their quality on their very first song. Their second one was not any better but they still got a tremendous hand from the audience. I knew we had something to beat. Rabon did, too, but it just made us work harder. We could feel the challenge in the air.

“For our first number we used the old song ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’ It was written by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarltor It is a plaintive prison and love song combined  and when we got through singing men threw their hats into the top of the house and everybody screamed like the had really never before. We thought had it won then and we did but we still had the ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ for them and when we did it the people really went wild and we won that contest without any question or any doubt. And that started us on our way to the Grand Ole Opry and the big record companies. Incidentally, I also won the first place for guitar playing with an instrumental rendition of ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Our names came out in the paper and it was really swell. Of all the days of triumph in my life, there were none any greater than those.”

Delmore Bros. (#2)

June 20, 2013


from “Imitating Nobody,” by William Hogeland (

Tight picking on unamplified instruments, harmony singing that blends plangency with verve, a repertoire embracing folk, blues, and sentimental song: this rich mixture, which now seems the natural property of bluegrass, was concocted during the first boom of commercial country music, when male duos developed the athletic, stripped-down music that would come to be known as “brother duet.”

As early as the 1920s, these duos became almost indispensable to the crowd-pleasing variety formats of barn-dance radio programs and kerosene-circuit schoolhouse shows. The earliest of these pairs (who weren’t always really brothers) worked in sharply varying styles. Darby & Tarlton had a bluesy act, full of vaudeville flourishes, Hawaiian guitars, and yodeling.

The Allen Brothers were sometimes taken for “race” (i.e., black) artists, playing a string-band version of ragtime—jazz banjo as piano, kazoo as horn—and singing in a rugged kind of r&b unison. Mac and Bob went the other way, preferring a barbershop-influenced formality, in which Mac added tenor harmony to Bob’s lead vocal and backed up the voices with serene mandolin breaks.

In remote northern Alabama, around Sand Mountain, brothers Alton and Rabon Delmore were listening closely. The large Delmore family labored as sharecroppers. “It seemed we never got a good place and we moved nearly every fall or winter. Seldom did we ever stay in one house more than a year. I don’t believe I have ever seen so many rocks on top of the ground.”

This is Alton Delmore’s own description from TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN PUBLICITY, the autobiography he was still working on when he died in 1964. (Alton Delmore was a frustrated journalist and fiction writer. Most early country singers didn’t write autobiographies, so his book is an invaluable historical resource. It’s also fun, not least for the disarmingly direct prose, some of which evokes the folk-art leanings of Gertrude Stein. Writing about his uncle, he penned: “He could write songs and sing them too and they were in books and his name was on them and they were very beautiful.”)

Short Film of Gid Tanner

May 29, 2013

Gid Tanner performing at his home, 1955. Original film and audio recorded (seperately) by Joe Young, 1955. Video/Audio sync by Matt Downer, 2013. Only known footage of this legendary entertainer.

We are extremely grateful to musician, scholar, and archivist Matt Downer of Chattanooga, TN for tracking down this footage and doing the work to make it widely available for the first time in history.

by Matt Downer:

I was working on the “Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention” documentary and contacted Russ Tanner to see if their family might have any photos of Gid I could use. We talked several times and I asked him about if there were any home recordings that existed of Gid fiddling. He told me there were…… and there was also a video.

This blew me away – video of Gid Tanner fiddling sounded too good to be true. He said it was originally filmed on 8mm and had no audio. No matter, I say, I’d love to have a look at it.

A couple of weeks later, the dvd is delivered. Like a child on Christmas morning, I tore into the package and sat transfixed as one of the finest entertainers ever in the business silently sawed, laughed and clowned around in his living room one afternoon back in 1955. Earl Johnson was on there as well, with his sons beside him on guitar and banjo. Earl (Johnson) even backs Gid up on banjo on one tune.

The speed of the video was an issue – it played very fast. I had nothing to go on and originally just estimated what I thought looked right for the playing speed. I called Russ again when I thought I might have it pretty close to real-time speed. He had some more news for me – there was a seperate audio recording from that same day. He said some folks had tried to match it up with the video in the past, but had no luck. I asked him to send me the audio and I would do my best to sync it up.

The song “Tanner’s Boarding House” (labeled on the disc as “Birmingham Special” and featuring a healthy dose of “G-Rag”) was a logical place to start. I’ve played that one a bunch and knew the words, so knew what singing to look for on the video. When I found the video segment where I could tell he was singing the chorus, I knew I was in business.

Once I got the video speed altered and audio matched up it was truly special to sit there and watch and listen to Gid perform. It was honestly something I never thought existed, something I never expected to see. It was a very special experience to be the first person in more than 50 years to watch and listen to Gid perform live. It is an honor to share the video with friends, fiddlers and fans of old time music everywhere.

Thanks to Russ Tanner and the Tanner family for the materials and inspiration. Thanks to Gid Tanner for keeping the right energy in his music right up to the last time around.

Clayton McMichen (#2)

May 8, 2013


from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 11, Part 3 Autumn 1975 Number 39:

By Norm Cohen 

In the fifteen or so years of intensive rekin- 
dled interest in old time hillbilly and blues music, 
dozens of elderly musicians who made recordings 
in their youth during the 1920s and 1930s have been 
traced down, visited, interviewed, recorded, and 
then, perhaps, forgotten again. 

Our appetite for such rediscoveries seems to be insatiable; yet what 
of the many ethical questions posed by such acti- 
vity? Sometimes, indeed, an old timer such as 
Clark Kessinger or Mississippi John Hurt is found 
who can slide back into the musical limelight grace - 
fully and happily, enjoying a second career as a 
popular and successful performer. 

Other times a performer is encountered whose musical skills 
have diminished considerably with the passage in 
time; nevertheless, in a confusion of historical 
values with esthetic ones, he is urged to take to 
the college /festival circuit, perhaps frustrating 
himself as much as he disappoints his audiences.

But more often we find a singer or musician who 
never was quite the success that he had wanted to 
be (indeed, most are not); to be sought out thirty 
or forty years later may suggest to him that at 
long last someone has recognized his long -hidden 
talents; that now, fortune will be his if only he 
manages himself a little more carefully and is not 
taken advantage of. 

Other times we find a performer whose musical career was a brief fling of his 
youth; perhaps an embarrassment to him now, and 
certainly nothing to rehash in dreary detail, picking 
out names and dates and facts from the cast-off 
detritus of an aging memory. 

Or, another possibility, the rediscovered artist turns out to be 
intensely hostile to the music business and his for- 
mer associates, never able to forget the fact that 
the success he sought eluded him, and hardly in 
a mood to sentimentalize over old scars and wounds 
that time had failed to heal. Clayton "Pappy" 
McMichen fell into this last category.  (more...)

John V. Walker: Corbin’s Finest

May 1, 2013


 from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 8, Part 3 Autumn 1972 No. 27:

excerpt from JOHN V. WALKER: CORBIN'S FINEST by Donald Lee Nelson 

In 1930, in the company of four other musicians, John Walker went to Knoxville 
to become a part of a rather strange incident. The four others included Alex Hood, 
Clyde Whittaker, Emory Mills, and another guitarist named Bert Earls. 

Under the sponsorship of a Middlesboro piano company, the group, called Alec 
Hood's Railroad Boys (since all were employed by the L § N) were to record ten 
numbers for the Vocalion Company. 

When they arrived at the recording studio they were told that a group which 
included Lowe Stokes and Slim Miller were working on a skit called "The Hatfield-
McCoy Feud." The Hood musicians were pressed into service as actors in the skit, 
which was practiced all day before satisfactory takes were made. 

Mr. Walker recalls them sending out for yards and yards of calico to tear for 
simulated fighting, and using pads and paddles for sounds as gunfire and running. 
His own line was "Stand back boys, I'll shoot." 

It was not until late evening that the "Feud" session was completed, and the 
Railroad Boys were told to cut two numbers, and then there would be a supper break, 
after which they were to return and do the other eight pieces. 

Since they had a train to catch they were unable to work on the after-dinner 
session. Hence, only two sides were put on wax. "L § N Rag" was a popular fiddle 
tune of the area which was usually called "Sleeping Lulu." It was recorded under 
this title by fellow Kentuckians Richard D. Burnett and Oscar Ruttledge. 

The other side of the disc was "Corbin Slide." Originally titled "The Last 
Old Dollar" it was frequently heard around Corbin as the mainstay of another 
good local fiddler named Tom Grugg. Grugg was very jealous of the tune, however, 
would immediately stop playing it if he saw another musician trying to learn 

The record had some impromptu talking on it, and this was done by Mr. 
Brown, the man in charge of the recording studio--probably the talking itself 
was to break up the straight instrumentalism of the number. The band returned 
to Corbin that night, and was never recorded again. Their namesake. Alec Hood, 
a yard foreman, died in 1954. 

The best known group to which John V. Walker belonged, however, was the 
one which bears his name. Walker's Corbin Ramblers was formed about 1930, 
and consisted of local musicians and railroaders Mack Taylor, guitar and vocal; 
Johnny Hampton, fiddle; Charley Ellison, fiddle; Mr. Walker, fiddle; and his 
brother Albert, tenor guitar and vocal. 

In January of 1934 Walker's Corbin Ramblers journeyed to New York City 
to record. According to W. R. Calaway, Vocalion's A & R man, the total outlay 
for the group, which included Taylor, the Walker Brothers, and Larry Hensley, 
a mandolinist who was brought along for the session, was between four and 
five hundred dollars. This included train fare, hotel bills, and food. 

Hensley was a miner from Wallin's Creek, in Harlan County, Kentucky, and 
brought along several of the numbers that were recorded by the band: "Stone 
Mountain Toddle," "E Rag," "Scottdale Stomp," "Mandolin Rag," and of course 
"Wallin's Creek Blues." 

After a four day session, the Corbin Ramblers returned to their home town 
and railroading, and never recorded again.

Earl Johnson (#2)

April 19, 2013
Screen shot 2013-04-18 at 8.57.12 AM

Earl Johnson, Gid Tanner, J.T. Wright (late 1950s)

from JEMF Quarterly, vol. 10, part 3, #35, autumn 1974:

By Donald Lee Nelson 

[Note: The author wishes to thank Mrs. Earl 
Johnson of Lawrenceville, Georgia for her co- 
operation in the preparation of this article. ] 

Perhaps nowhere was the tragic aftermath of 
the Civil War more fully experienced during the 
quarter-century following Appomattox than in 
the state of Georgia. Inexhaustable volumes have 
been compiled that deal with virtually every facet 
of that portion of the Southern panorama. Yet, 
out of this dismal setting emerged many of the 
South's leading musicians, most of them from the 
northwestern part of the state. 

Into that environment and era were born to 
Gwinnett County farmers William and Mary (Davis 
Johnson six children. Two did not survive in- 
facy but the remaining four, Albert, Robert Earl, 
Ester (son) and Alma, grew to adulthood deter- 
mined to remain on their beloved native soil. 

Named for a signer of the Declaration Of 
Independence, the axe-head shaped Gwinnett 
County is just south of the Chattahoochie River, 
and its cotinty seat, Lawrenceville, reposes se- 
dately within a half-hour's drive of Atlanta. 

Robert Earl, the second son, who came into 
the world on 24 August 1886, was to grow from a 
family and neighborhood musician in the mould of 
his contemporaries into a lifelong professional 
performer. His father, William, was a renowned 
old-time fiddler whose infectious playing style 
permeated the boy.  (more...)

The Stripling Bros. (#3)

April 11, 2013


excerpt from JEMF Quarterly Vol. IV, Part 1 — March 1968 — No. 9:

On September 2, 1963, collector Bob Pinson interviewed Charles and Ira Stripling at Charlie’s farm just north of Kennedy, Alabama. Pinson had been informed by blues collector Gayle Dean Wardlow that the Striplings lived near Gordo, Alabama. A service station attendant at Gordo told Pinson that they lived in Kennedy in Lamar County, some twenty-five miles north of Gordo.

That first contest was in January of 1913, and Charlie Stripling had just begun fiddling in the spring of 1912.    Ira had been playing the guitar only since the previous November.  Their father, Thomas Newton Stripling, owned a local Pickens Co. store and ordered Ira’s first guitar. The guitar, bought wholesale, cost Ira $6.00.

“Six dollars didn’t grow on bushes like they seem to now!” Their mother was Sarah Stripling and both parents were born in Pickens County. Neither played any instruments; the brothers assert that they were the only musicians in the entire family.

After the Kennedy contest, they received invitations from fiddlers’ contests in Millport (Lamar County), Fayette (Fayette County) and places even further away.  The further they went from Pickens County, the less they felt they could win, but soon changed their minds.

Charlie recalled, “the further off away from home I got, the easier it was to get the prize.”

“At this time, Uncle Bunt made an appearance at Millport and Charlie went up to hear him. (During the mid-1920′ s the industrialist Henry Ford had been sponsoring fiddle contests in the North and South. His hand-picked champion was a Tennessee fiddler, Uncle Bunt Stephens.)

A man was there who was representing a big fiddle contest to be held in Memphis, Tenn., the weekend of June 2, and he asked if Bunt would enter. Bunt explained that he was tied up for that weekend, at which point a friend of Charlie’s suggested that Charlie, who had gained quite a local reputation, might take his place.

The man accepted and Charlie traveled up without Ira, as no accompaniment was allowed. The contest lasted three days and there were very large crowds each day. The final night, on which the prizes were given, was a Saturday and 600 fiddlers were present.

“I realized I had competition,” Charlie recalled. Bunt finally showed up and Charlie learned later that the contest was probably fixed in favor of Bunt. Charlie still received second prize, which consisted of twenty dollars in gold.

When they recorded, they were told by the A and R man in Chicago, that many of the old-time tunes had been recorded and that they didn’t need any more versions, so the brothers were forced to search for new material. “Big Footed Nigger” they had learned from a local fiddler, Henry Ludlow, at a contest. Charlie, after hearing it, only remembered the first half. After going to sleep that night he awoke very late, remembering the second part, which he proceeded to immediately try on the fiddle.

Charlie recalled a contest in Fayette that he had won year after year. One time, the man who ran it gave him twenty dollars not to enter the contest because Charlie was discouraging the other fiddlers. Though he was popular and played many dances and contests it was never enough to make a living.

Ernest Stoneman (#3)

April 7, 2013

Ernest and Hattie Stoneman

from JEMF Quarterly, Vol. Ill, Part 1 — September, 1967 — No. 7:

Notes from an interview with Ernest (Pop) Stoneman on March 27, 1964 at UCLA by Eugene Earle.

In 1924 Pop was working as a carpenter in Bluefield, West Virginia. He went down to the Warwick Furniture Company one day, and heard Henry Whitter’s first recording, Okeh 40015 {“The Wreck of the Old 97” and “Lonesome Road Blues”). Pop felt that Whitter sang “through his nose so bad” that he could do at least as well, if not better, than Whitter.

Pop claims that everybody thought a hillbilly sang through his nose as a result of Whitter’s vocal style.    (Pop makes it clear that he grew up with Whitter and worked in the textile mills with him and that his criticisms were not personal remarks.)

After deciding he wanted to record, Pop wrote both Columbia and Okeh in New York. He continued working in Bluefield, saving money for the trip while waiting for the companies’ replies. Early in the summer he received those replies, Columbia setting up a September first appointment, and Okeh telling him to “come up any time.” From July 4 through the rest of the summer he worked at Bluefield to sup- port himself, his wife, and two children. He built a rack for his harmonicas and practiced several songs using autoharp accompaniment.

Pop told Okeh’s Ralph Peer that “any song with a story will go to the people’s hearts, because they love stories. They love stories of tragedy, a wreck or something. And if it ain’t all there, it ain’t no good.”

In September, 1926, he made his first recordings for Victor.  Peer, who had left Okeh and was working for Victor, asked Stoneman to rerecord the songs that had been recorded acoustically by the Powers Family.    (By September, 1S26, Victor had shifted from Acoustic to electric recording.)

Peer gave Pop copies of the Powers’ records and a portable phonograph which Pop took back to the Camden Hotel in Camden, H.J. After listening a short while, Pop realized that they would need a banjo player for these sides. He sent home for his wife’s brother, fifteen-year-old Bolen Frost, and had him placed in the railroad conductor’s care. However, Bolen forgot to bring his banjo, and Peer had to borrow a vl50 Keystone Special banjo for him. Pop noticed that it had gut strings, so he had to go downtown to buy steel strings for it.

After recording for Edsion in 1926, the band went to a bank in New York to cash their check. They carried their instruments into the bank with them along with their luggage, and Pop went up to the teller while the rest of the members waited. At this moment, the police walked up to them and demanded identification. When the police realized that they were really musicians, they explained that they had been suspicious because, earlier in the week, a nearby bank had been robbed by a gang that carried their firearms in instrument cases.

Dock Boggs (#5)

March 30, 2013


from “Dock Boggs in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia” by Greil Marcus (Representations, No. 58 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-23):

On a long night in December 1969, troubled by a legal dispute over a cesspool, Dock Boggs suddenly broke out: “I’m going over to the hardware and have them order me a snubnose .38 Special, Smith. The Smith grip. Don’t want to kill nobody but if anybody fool with me, they encountering danger.”

Mike Seeger tried to turn the conversation in a different direction, but Boggs simply turned a corner, and began ruminating over a traffic dispute: “If they hoodoo me too bad, I’m liable to end it pretty quick. If they try to take my driver’s license away from me, and my rights, and my insurance, I may walk in that insurance office and clean it up, clean it out.”

“Don’t do it, Dock,” Mike Seeger said, sounding scared. “Don’t do it.”

“If I do it I’m a dead man, I know,” Boggs said, his words dropping like stones in a lake. “I know my life will be over.”

In 1942 Dock Boggs experienced conversion and joined his wife’s church, the Old Regular Baptists, the fifteen thousand or so self- named “peculiar people” who range from the southwestern part of West Virginia to the Boggs’s patch of Kentucky and Virginia.

Boggs became a community man. In the worst weather, in the worst times, he and others collected food and clothes for those who had none and carried them over bad roads in the dead of night; speaking of it, Boggs broke down weeping at the memory of the misery he served.

In later years, when Boggs returned to his music, members of the Free Pentecostal Holiness Church of God on Guest River, his church then, would send him un- signed letters condemning him for his apostasy.

Gid Tanner Interview, pt. 2

March 28, 2013


Part 2 of Gid Tanner’s (1885-1960) final 1959 interview features him doing some fiddling.  Thanks again to Matt Downer, Itamar Silver, Dave Leddel, and interviewer Oscar Huff  :

Listen to part 1 here


In later years when Gid had false teeth, he would take them out so he would look funny. The story goes that a lady walked up to him and after looking at his mouth shouted, “You haven’t got any teeth!” Gid replied, “No ma’am, I was born that way.”

Although Gid stopped recording, he remained active and attended fiddle competitions. As late as 1955 when he was 70 years old, Gid won the Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest in Atlanta. He died in 1960, just three weeks shy of his seventy-fifth birthday.

Moonshine Kate Reminisces

March 23, 2013


from JEMF Quarterly Vol II, Part 1—Novenber, 1966:

(On August 27, 1963, Archie Green and Ed Kahn interviewed Rosa Lee Carson Johnson, better known to record fans as Moonshine Kate, in her home in Decatur, Georgia. Here is an excerpt from their tapescript.)

Kate was not with her father at his first recording and it was not until later that she recorded with him. They had a group called the Virginia Reelers: Earl Johnson, fiddler; another Earl Johnson, blackface comedian, played the 1-string fiddle; she played banjo and sometimes guitar. Gid Tanner was with their band at one time and so was Puckett. Other guitarists with them were Peanut Erown and Bully Brewer. Brewer, Peanut Brown, Earl Johnson and Earl Johnson travelled with them. She doesn’t know how they got to be named after the state of Virginia, but they did a lot of playing there.

Early recordings of John Carson and Moonshine Kate were made on Whitehall Street and Brockman was in charge. She sat in the middle, the others stood on either side of the mike. She goes on to describe her recollections, she never used a horn, but her dad did. The man gave them a green light to start and a red light told them they had just a few more seconds left. They always practiced their selections at home before they recorded and timed it.

John Carson enjoyed hillbilly music most. He wasn’t ashamed of that word. What is hillbilly music? You don’t find any of it now. When she and her dad were making music it was good old mountain music; his favorites were “Old Joe Clark,” “Little Old Log Cabin,” and “Maggie.” He won his prizes playing “Sally Goodin.    Hillbilly is the way they played it years ago; it’s just old-timey music, and anything he would play was a hillbilly song, because he was a hillbilly.

Archie asked her how did her dad feel when the music began to change from the old time style. He used to laugh; said it was silly for those boys to play and call themselves hillbilly. She did hear someone on the Opry on TV play “Sally Goodin” just like her father played it. What makes the style? It must be the way you handle the bow. Like guitar-playing, if it’s electric isn’t hillbilly.    Hillbilly has to be in your bones, that’s all there is to it. When her dad was young, they were called fiddles; now they’re called violins, but a violin is different.

Bill Helms

March 9, 2013


from JEMF Quarterly, Vol. Ill, Part 2—December, 1967—No. 8:

On August 28, 1963 collector Bob Pinson interviewed Bill Helms at his home in Thomaston, Georgia. Helms had recorded for Victor in 1928 as Bill Helms and his Upson County Band. In 1931 he recorded for Columbia with the Hometown Boys.

Bill thinks he first met McMichen and Puckett at Manchester at a convention in 1926. Puckett had heard of Helms and asked him to come to the convention. A lot of people from Thomaston knew Riley, so someone probably told him about Helms. Two weeks after Manchester they went to a convention at Macon.

Fellow named Bud Silvey used to run a lot of conventions—had two sons, Paul and Hoke Rice. Most of the dances Helms played at were with a fellow named Vaughn Green, guitar player—this was in the early ’20’s before he started with the conventions and working with Riley.  He and Vaughn used to play six nights a week for months and months.

Remembers hearing some of Puckett and Tanner early records with Puckett on banjo on a phonograph owned by an old darkey out in the country.    After that Riley got a guitar and started to learn–learned by himself, no one showed him anything.

Then he and Puckett worked together, Helms often worked black-face.  His brother Cliff had a different style, McMichen taught Bill how to use a bow to get better results. Told him to hold it back at the frog so it wouldn’t bounce and squeak, and to take longer strokes. Met McMichen at that convention in Macon.  Bert Layne, Fate Morris Lowe Stokes and Gid were there also.

Recorded for Columbia with Riley and Gid.  Gid used banjo then, capoed down like a mandolin. Frank Walker chose the name Home Town Boys. Because they already had so many bands  “Riley Puckett and the something-or-others, ” didn’t want to use his name this time.

Met Jimmie Rodgers at a convention in Chattanooga, He needed a mike to sing. Sang with his head down—couldn*t face the audience. Helms thought he had stage fright. For the fiddle conventions, they would hire Helms and pay his way (e.g., to Chattanooga) .    Fellow in Columbus named Charlie Lodge hired him and Puckett and six others Fate Norris was there too, had a musical soap box–made out of soap boxes with a pocket knife, and strings from mandolins, guitars, fiddles, and autoharps.  Had pedals and knee pads.   Played two instruments with his feet, played a mouth harp.

Helms, Tanner and Puckett played a route through north Georgia which Gid had booked up for them. Adults payed 25 cents, children 15 cents admission to these shows. In some places they’d make as much as $300 to $400. Helms made his living as a musician for about fifteen years.

Sid Harkreader

March 6, 2013


by Eugene Chadbourne (

Sid Harkreader is mostly known as a sidekick to the old-time music legend Uncle Dave Macon. A latecomer to a music career, Macon chose Harkreader as his sidekick for his first road tour in the early ’20s. After a well-received jaunt through the South, the duo decided to try to lineup recording activities in New York City.

They got in on the first wave of hillbilly recordings being done, cutting more than a dozen sides for Vocalion in 1924. Both performers became associated with the beginning days of the Grand Old Opry and Harkreader was on-stage regularly at the Opry from the ’30s onward, both with Macon and in other combinations. Harkreader was one of the first historic country players to broadcast live over Nashville’s radio stations WDAD and WSM.

The number of musicians in Harkreader’s family was almost nil, a quiet contrast to the usual scenario with old-time players. Here was a great-great grandfather that had apparently been a fine violinist, and Harkreader’s father hoped that somehow this talent might be passed down to his offspring through the bloodline. His hunch turned out to be correct. The boy picked up most of his early musical knowledge from friends and neighbors at square dances and ice cream parties, taking great care not to get the sticky stuff on the fingerboard.

Once he had mastered the fiddle, he was delighted to realize he could make between ten dollars and 20 dollars per night playing at square dances, and this is how he began building his reputation. He first met Macon in 1923 in a barbershop. The afternoon evolved from haircutting to a musical cutting contest, the two players drawing a large crowd of amused bystanders.

Their playing combination was certainly one of the classic duos in country music, producing, among other sides, one of the great recordings of the standard “Soldier’s Joy,” an instrumental about morphine that dates back to at least the Civil War, which was no doubt used as a musical background for injections and amputations.

Following the first recording session with Macon, the fiddler was approached by a talent scout who offered him a cool grand to cut 24 sides for Paramount. He took along banjo player Grady Moore for the first set of sessions, returning the following year with Blythe Poteet because the former player was too sick to travel. Most of these tracks were reissued in the ’70s by County on their Early Nashville String Band series, and some material by Harkreader has also been released by the JEMF label, which also printed the delightful booklet Sid Harkreader’s Memoirs.

Harkreader was one of the white old-time musicians who openly acknowledged a heavy black influence in his playing. Perhaps it wasn’t in the best taste to acknowledge this musical debt by recording a tune entitled “Southern Whistling Coon,” but this track does demonstrate Harkreader’s enjoyable sideline as a skilled musical whistler and tends to show up in lists of great records involving whistling.


Gordon Tanner

February 27, 2013
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Gordon Tanner

from “Down Yonder: Old Time String Band Music from Georgia (Folkways 31089):


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Arcade Blues

February 19, 2013


by Stephen Wade (from “Banjo Diary):

In September 1926 Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, recorded this folk blues, performing it as a solo banjo song. He made it his own by localizing it to the Nashville Arcade, a nearby mercantile center (still in use), and dedicating it to two of its current tenants: “Mr. Charlie Keys and Mr. Hyde . . . who will play you records on both sides!”
One of Uncle Dave’s sources for “Arcade Blues” may have been Leroy “Lasses”White, a black- face vaudevillian who by 1928 began performing on the Grand Ole Opry. Long before Uncle Dave recorded the song, however, White copyrighted its prototype in 1912. The following year White published “Nigger Blues” and by 1919 saw it is- sued on four recordings as well as four piano rolls.

The song continued to proliferate on race and hillbilly recordings, bearing such titles as Ida Cox’s 1924 “Blues Ain’t Nothin’ Else But!” followed by Georgia White’s 1938 remake. Its white vernacular music performances count Jess Young’s “Old Weary Blues” (1929), the Brock Sis- ters’“Broadway Blues” (1929), and Milton Brown’s “Texas Hambone Blues” (1936).

What musically distinguishes Uncle Dave’s version from these re- leases, as well as from the original sheet music, is his omission of the characteristic blue note. In ef- fect, Uncle Dave performed a blues in structure but not in sound.

In August 1979, I visited with members of Uncle Dave Macon’s family, calling on his sons Eston and Dorris, the family of his eldest son, Arch, grandson David Ramsey Macon, and great- grandson Dave Macon IV. During that trip, I also investigated the Nashville Arcade.This building, a handsome two-story shopping center of an earlier age, seemed as haunted then by lost souls and illicit trafficking as it did by the figures appearing in “Arcade Blues” from more than a half-century earlier.

The song’s juxtaposing currents—its blend of blues and pre-blues, its combination of urban and rural milieus, and its upbeat treatment of forbidden attraction, prostitution, and death—seemed all the more striking in conjunction with some of Uncle Dave’s letters I read at that time. Hand- written by the famous showman during his travels, they echoed the creative tension in “Arcade Blues”—words indicative of a complex personal alchemy. Almost always he signed them, “Your loving father, Uncle Dave Macon.”

Dave Macon plays “Arcade Blues”:

Gid Tanner Interview: Part I

February 18, 2013


Part 1 of 2 – Second part forthcoming.  Sincere thanks to Matt Downer for sharing this interview, Dave Leddel and Itamar Silver for their help, Oscar Huff for getting there just in time, and Gid Tanner for his endless inspiration.

from The Southern Folklife Collection (UNC):

Gid Tanner, Anglo-American fiddle player, and member of the Skillet Lickers, a string band from north Georgia active in the 1920s and 1930s.

Oscar Huff’s 1959 recording of an interview with Gid Tanner (1885-1960), including a discussion about hunting and Tanner’s hunting dogs, his fiddles, and his early recording and musical experiences.


Kirk McGee

February 13, 2013
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Kirk McGee

by Stephen Wade (edited from “Banjo Diary”):

Rural Southern banjoists translated ragtime-era tunes and techniques into their own idiom. Perhaps the most obvious of these translations lies in banjo player and band leader Charlie Poole’s indebtedness to Fred Van Eps for his “Southern Medley” and “Sunset March”.

Grand Ole Opry patriarch Uncle Dave Macon likewise reworked city-based recordings—from “Eli Green’s Cakewalk” to his several laughing songs to his seemingly autobiographical yet pre-existing “They’re After Me.” The list of hillbilly artists drawing from earlier popular music goes on and on.

One of those individuals was Kirk McGee, my source for “Under the Double Eagle.” By the time Kirk played it, the piece had become well established in band shell and parade repertory, along with numerous recorded brass and string renditions. Austrian “March King” Josef Franz Wagner completed the piece in 1902. That year English banjoist Olly Oakley recorded it, and in a few months’ time, John Philip Sousa’s band began to popularize it in the United States via their recordings and personal appearances.

In July 1981, I visited Kirk (1899–1983), best known for having accompanied Uncle Dave Macon and having played with his late older brother, Sam McGee. Sam and the Skillet Lickers’ Riley Puckett were the two earliest players to record solo guitar breaks in country music. By then Kirk was the longest continually performing member of the Grand Ole Opry.

During our time together Kirk offered a breathtaking range of music: from his father’s Henry Ford contest fiddle tunes to his mother’s Civil War ballads, from singing-school hymns he learned as a youth to demanding arrangements he made up of “St. Louis Blues” and “Dill Pickles Rag,” from standards like “Old Folks at Home” to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” from songs he heard black section hands do as they laid rails near his childhood home in Franklin,Tennessee, to pieces he learned from itinerant players “just walking around from house to house”.



All Night Long Blues

January 20, 2013


Burnett & Rutherford
“All Night Long Blues” (Columbia 15314-D, 1928)

Guitarist and banjoist Dick Burnett became a professional musician around the age of 25 after being blinded during a robbery by a gunshot wound. A few years later, he took teenage fiddler Leonard Rutherford under his wing and the two Kentuckians became one of the most prolific and highly regarded country acts of the 1920s.

“All Night Long Blues” is a particularly good showcase for Burnett’s fantastic vocal delivery and the duo’s expert musicianship. Burnett’s down-home voice takes a number of different shapes on the record, and all of them are interesting. He leads with a clear mountain cry, transitions to a low, earthy moan, and then to a heartfelt, tremor-filled plea. Every time he sings, “All night long,” he lays his soul bare, his voice dripping with raw feeling.

As powerful as Burnett’s singing is, though, it is not the only thing on display here. With Burnett keeping a simple, pleasant rhythm on guitar, Rutherford is simply masterful on the fiddle. He never overpowers the vocals, keeping them the main focal point of the song, but he fills the spaces around the vocals with a sweet, pure sound that makes the record all the more gripping. Rutherford’s playing is some of the smoothest country fiddling you’ll ever hear, and a good reason to seek out more of his recordings with Burnett.

W.L. Gregory: “The first time I saw Leonard Rutherford was in 1923. He was sure a better fiddler than I was – – I was young, and he had me worsted by 7-8 years. When I got in with him, got to playing, me with the fiddle and him with the bow, playing tunes together on the fiddle, that’s the way I began. I began to step it up, stepped it up in his style.

I learned most of my style from him. Then I met Dick [Burnett] and travelled with him for a while about 1929-1930, sometimes sort of replacing Leonard; Dick would play banjo, I played violin. We would go out 75-80 miles, be gone a week at at time. We’d set up shows, sell tickets back at the door in those days; didn’t hand out bills, just advertised maybe in stores and restaurants.

Once I remember we was playing in King Mountain and they called out from the audience and asked up to play LADIES ON THE STEAMBOAT and we did, and Dick got in a big way, and slapping the hide you know and playing his juice harp (NOTE: Dick Burnett did and uncanny imitation of a juice harp with his throat). And he knocked the thumb screw out of the neck and hit the string loose and it wound around the neck and Dick, he just kept going through it on four strings and finally wound it up and he laughed real big and said, ‘Folks, I knocked my thumb screw out but I finished for you on four strings’, and the house, well, it went wild.

Dick was a showman, a real comic in his younger days. He was a great entertainer. And he’d fiddle ever once in awhile. He could play good breakdowns, but was a little rough. BUCKIN MULE, stuff like that. TRAIN 45. When me and Leonard played with him, out somewhere, we would always give him the fiddle on those number cause he’d cut up with it, you know, but come to a slick one that had to be slicked up, he’d hand it back to us then. But he could always attract a crowd.”

Moses Bonner

January 2, 2013

Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson was the first female Governor of Texas in 1925. She held office until 1927, later winning another term in 1932 and serving until 1935.


Moses J. Bonner (1847–1939), fiddle player, recording artist, and Confederate veterans’ advocate, was one of the earliest Texas country musicians to record and one of the first to play a radio “barn dance.” He was born on March 1, 1847, in Franklin County, Alabama, to M. M. and Mary (Nelson) Bonner. His family moved to Texas in 1854 and settled in the Dallas area. As a boy, Bonner reportedly learned to play the fiddle from an old black man. After the death of M. M. Bonner, the family moved farther west to what would be present-day Parker County.

Bonner joined Company E of the Twelfth Texas Cavalry in May 1864 and served as a courier under Gen. William Henry Parsons. After the Civil War, he established the Crowdus Hide and Wool Company in Weatherford. He married Susan Pounders, and in 1878 they  moved to Fort Worth. In the late nineteenth century he became active in the United Confederate Veterans and was a member of the Robert E. Lee Camp in Fort Worth. There in 1901, nineteen fiddlers, including Bonner, Henry Gilliland, James K. P. Harris, Tom Lee, and others, participated in a fiddling contest; Gilliland won. At this event, the group formed the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.

Bonner participated in local and regional fiddle contests during the early twentieth century. In 1911 he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts for the world’s championship in Midland. In 1916 he won the championship in Midland and beat out Jesse Roberts and J. K. P. Harris. In addition to his reputation as one of the top fiddlers, he was also known as an excellent jig dancer. On January 4, 1923, he broadcast a program of old-time fiddle music over WBAP in Fort Worth, thus becoming one of the earliest radio fiddle players.

His radio popularity led to a recording session with Victor on March 17, 1925, in Houston. Accompanied by Fred Wagoner on harp guitar, Bonner waxed medleys of “Yearlings in the Canebrake”/”The Gal on the Log” and “Dusty Miller”/”Ma Ferguson.” “Ma Ferguson” was a song about Miriam Ferguson, Texas’s first female governor. Bonner’s rendition of “Dusty Miller” has become a classic of old-time fiddling.

Bonner remained active in Confederate veterans’ affairs. He attended many reunions and other events throughout the country and lobbied for pensions for Confederate veterans. The pension bill was eventually approved in 1911. In 1930 he was made Commander of the Texas Division of the United Confederate Veterans and thereby received the rank of major general (though Victor identified him as “Capt. M. J. Bonner” on their records). In 1938 Bonner, at the age of ninety-one, led a Texas delegation to attend the seventy-fifth veterans reunion at Gettysburg. He died in Fort Worth on September 2, 1939.

British Archive of Country Music

December 9, 2012


Country Music’s history of the last 75 years is represented in the British Archive’s collection of over 500,000 recordings on all formats. The Archive not only houses US recordings but Country Music from all over the world where the media, record producers, or serious collectors may come and browse.

The foremost consideration is the preservation of old-time Country Music.This is not just the David Barnes collection, but includes collections of others who have dedicated their lives performing or collecting country music throughout the years. Many people spend their entire lives researching the various labels and artists only to find at the end that someone with no interest in what they have achieved throws it all away. This must not happen! All their work must be preserved. Magazines, fanzines, discographies, biographies, and photographs must be stored under one roof.


At present the British Archive one of the few places in the world outside Nashville providing a facility which preserves the heritage of country music. it is also very important that donors’ names are recorded so that they will be respected by future visitors to the premises.The British Archive of Country Music is here to preserve the music, so that future generations may benefit from the past efforts of so many devoted people.

Within the Archive there is a library of over 500,000 Country Music tunes, history and biographical works, plus magazines, publicity data, sheet music, song books, photographs, videos, and all manner of memorabilia and artifacts. In addition, we produce CDs for sale.

Here are some titles that may be of interest to readers of oldtimeparty (for artists and track listing see link above):

HENRY WHITTER Early Country Artist CD D 348
CROCKETT’S KENTUCKY MOUNTAINEERS Classic Old Time String Band Music — CD D 023
BUELL KAZEE Legendary Kentucky Ballad Singer — CD D 027
BUELL KAZEE Legendary Kentucky Ballad Singer Vol. 2 CD D 214
RILEY PUCKETT There’s A Hard Time Coming — CD D 040
RILEY PUCKETT Gonna Raise A Ruckus Tonight CD D 115
THE OKEH LABEL Classic Old Time Music — CD D 050
THE COLUMBIA LABEL Classic Old Time Music — CD D 057
GEORGIA YELLOW HAMMERS Johnson’s Old Grey Mule CD D 073
CLAYTON McMICHEN The Legendary Fiddler CD D 081
CLAYTON McMICHEN The Legendary Fiddler Vol. 2 CD D 142
RED FOX CHASERS Classic Old Time Music From North Carolina CD D 108
THE VICTOR LABEL Classic Old Time Music CD D 129
THE VOCALION LABEL Classic Old Time Music CD D 140
FIDDLIN’ ARTHUR SMITH Give Me Old Time Music CD D 215
BLUEBIRD LABEL Classic Country Music CD D 270
THE EDISON LABEL Classic Old Time Music CD D 308
OLD TIME TUNES & SONGS 1926 – 1937 CD D 340


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.

Clayton McMichen

November 10, 2012


Clayton McMichen: The Traditional Years, by Charles Wolfe

Between the two of them, Arthur Smith (who died in 1973) and Clayton McMichen (1900-1970) pretty much determined the direction of modern southern folk fiddling styles. A lot of the music of today’s fiddling contests, a lot of the bluegrass fiddling styles, and even notions of back-up fiddling can be traced back to these two men. Both reached their peaks of popularity in the 1930’s, and both lived to see themselves become “living legends” – – whatever that phrase means.

Smith, in his quiet, serious way, was bemused by all the hoopla; McMichen, in his fierce individualism, was on occasion outraged by it. Though the tunes and the styles of these two men are apparent at almost every serious southern fiddling meet today, little of their work has been available on LP. Generations of people know of them only indirectly, through the work of other fiddlers. To partially remedy that, we are proud to pre­sent the first reissue devoted solely to the fiddle music of Clayton McMichen.

McMichen’s career has generally been divided into two major parts: the music he made in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, when he was prob­ably the most frequently recorded old-time fiddler, and when he work­ed on countless records with traditional musicians like Riley Puckett and the skillet Lickers; and the music of the mid-and -late 1930’s, when Mac fronted his own band, the Georgia Wildcats, and moved out of traditional mountain style music into the newer, jazz-influenced west­ern-swing style. There is much rewarding music in each of these two eras of Mac’s career, but generally the music of the 1920’s appeals to a different audience than does the music of the 1930’s. For this reason, we have decided to concentrate on the “traditional” side of Mac’s music in this LP. A later album is projected to document the 1930’s music.

Clayton McMichen was born in Allatonna, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, on January 26, 1900; as a boy Mac learned to fiddle from his father and his uncles, some of whom were formally trained and on occasion played Viennese waltzes as a chaser for their hoedowns. Young McMichen won his first fiddle contest in 1914, the year World War broke out; he was to continue winning contests throughout his life, and in one incredible spell from 1925-1932 he won the National Old-Time Fiddling Championship for eight years in a row. During World War I Mac moved to Atlanta and started working as an automobile mechanic, and then for a time as a railroad fireman.

He met a number of other young local musicians who were interested in old time tunes as well as modern styles; Atlanta in the early 1920’s was a bustling city as interested in the new-fangled jazz styles as old time music. Mac met up with people like Mike and Charles Whitten, Ezra Ted Hawkins (man­dolin player), singer Riley Puckett, and fiddler Lowe Stokes. Stokes was to be a special influence on Mac; they roomed together in Atlanta, and Stokes passed onto Mac some of the fiddle style he had learned from the legendary fiddler from north Georgia, Joe Lee. Lee taught Stokes a form of long bow style, and showed him how to keep his strings run down to standard or lower pitch to give him a mellower tone and allow him to engage in fancy fingering. Stokes passed on much of this to Mac, and Mac eventually developed it into his own “superstyle.” It was a style characterized by adapting the finely-noted, high-precision long bow style to the drive and rhythm of the older southeastern mount­ain fiddling patterns.

By 1922 Mac had formed his first band, The Hometown Boys, and they were among the first acts to perform on Atlanta station WSB. The group made its first records in 1925, but they weren’t successful; they were fiddle standards played with a touch of dixieland jazz, and a bit odd for the day. Mac played in fiddling contests in Atlanta, and at one time helped start a new Fiddlers’ Association devoted to counteracting the predominance of John Carson and Gid Tanner in Georgia fiddling.

But a few years later, Mac joined forces with Gid Tanner to form the Skillet Lickers, the most famous old-time band of the 1920’s. Mac and Lowe Stokes did much of the lead fiddling on the nearly one hundred sides the Skillet Lickers made between 1926-1931. Mac also recorded with his own group, McMichen’s Melody Men, a series of more modern, sentimental numbers, but these seldom sold as well as the hell-for-leather breakdowns of the Skillet Lickers. (The one exception was the Melody Men’s “Sweet Bunch of Daisies.”) In fact, in the late 1920’s Mac was recording with as many as nine or ten “splinter groups” in addition to The Skillet Lickers.

McMichen felt confined by the more traditional music; he wanted to break out, experiment, push his music in the direction of pop. He finally broke with the Skillet Lickers in 1931, and joined forces with a young hot guitarist named Slim Bryant to form the Georgia Wildcats. He also worked with Jimmie Rodgers during this time, and Rodgers re­corded Mac’s “Peach Picking Time in Georgia” as one of his big hits. Mac began playing more and more around the Cincinnati area, and at times led a full-fledged dixieland band. Throughout the 1940’s he play­ed for WAVE in Louisville, and retired in 1955 to run a tavern. He was rediscovered by fans of the folk music revival in the 1960’s, and made several concert appearances before fans who remembered him primarily as a Skillet Licker. But even then Mac would not be confined to the old forms: on one occasion he brought along an accompanist who promptly plugged in a big electric guitar!

Some of the records on this LP were among the most popular old time sides ever recorded; others (such as those from the Depression years of 1930-31) sold so few copies that for all practical purposes they were never released to the public. However, they represent some of Mac’s finest music, and deserve wider exposure. In general, we have tried to present a cross-section of Mac’s music here: the traditional pieces (and make no mistake: in spite of his reservations about tradition­al music, Mac was one of its finest performers); the sweet, sentimental pieces; and the swing-styled pieces.

Gwen Foster

October 31, 2012


Besides being one of the finest early harmonica players Gwen Foster was also an excellent guitarist and singer. He played 2nd guitar or back-up guitar on the Tar Heel recordings. Foster used a “rack” to hold his harmonica so he could play guitar at the same time. His friend David McCarn (composer of “Cotton Mill Colic” and “Everyday Dirt”) recalled that with his dark skin, and an oriental look to him, Gwen acquired the nickname “China” pronounced “Chinee.”  McCarn worked with Foster at the Victory Mill in South Gastonia said Gwen “entertained them when the work slowed down and they thought his French harp (harmonica) was as powerful as a pipe organ. Gwen ruined a flour barrel full of harps by his constant playing” [Archie Green]. Although Gwen Foster was a musical genius, he drank too heavily at times. Tom Ashley would laugh and tell about sobering him up on cider and moonshine before they went to play.

Foster was a mill worker like many musicians (Charlie Poole, Henry Whitter) from the Gastonia, NC area. One of the favorite gathering places for Foster and other local musicians was in front of Lackey’s Hardware Store in Old Fort, North Carolina. Regulars at Lackey’s were Foster on guitar and harmonica, Clarence Greene on fiddle and Roy Neal on three-finger style banjo. Occasionally, musicians from out of town, like Will Abernathy, who played the autoharp, would join the mob assembled on the front porch of the store. The musicians left a hat out front for bystanders to pitch a penny but never made much money from it.

Foster became known for his playing and drinking as well as his antics. At Lackey’s he first met talented guitarist Walter Davis. The two musicians became fast friends and frequently could be found playing on street corners for pennies all across North Carolina. Walter remembers one time in particular when they were together in Morganton, North Carolina:

“Me and Gwen were in Morganton one time broke, and looking for some way to make a little money. Gwen said he knew of a way to make some money fast. He was going to pretend that he was blind while we played on the street corner in front of the courthouse. He put on some sunglasses, and told me to pass the hat around. I told him, ‘no, you attach the tin cup to your guitar strap and people will sympathize with you more. I don’t want any part of this deal.’ So he played for a while and some lady came up and tried to put a fifty cent piece in his cup. But she missed the cup and the coin went rolling down the street. Gwen went right after that coin like a man who could see. That lady said something like ‘That boy don’t look so blind to me.’ At that point me and Gwen took off running, and I believe that was our last engagement in Morganton.”

Prince Albert Hunt

October 24, 2012

by Eugene Chadbourne (All Music Guide):

One of the finest musicians to emerge from the sleepy locale of Denton, TX (later the home of the eclectic polka band Brave Combo as well as the place where they jailed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas), historic fiddler Prince Albert Hunt packed a lot of significant events into his short lifetime. Many of these happenings were out of his control. He was shot to death outside a bar, putting him in the category of other innovative musicians that met their fates at the end of a gun barrel, including the exciting jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. Prince Albert’s death happened on the same date as that of guitar inventor Leo Fender, some 60 years later. Prince Albert also is considered an inventor, credited with fiddling up the style of Western swing, and although it is always a mistake to give a solitary individual total credit for a style, the recordings he made for Okeh don’t have a whole lot of company in terms of early sides that predict the Western swing phenomenon.

The Prince Albert style is also called “hot fiddling,” the groups who play it “hot string bands.” It developed in Texas and Oklahoma from the late ’20s onward, a bit like a hungry camper trying to set up a larder in the village grocery, grabbing at blues, ragtime, jazz, and old-time fiddle music as if these traditions were cans of beans, loaves of bread, and packs of wieners pulled off the shelves. It was music meant for dancing, before working up an appetite; it was also music that combined black and white influences to the point where terms such as “racial mongrel” have been used, although some may find this type of language distasteful. “Blues in the Bottle” was one of the great tracks cut by Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers, an amalgam of country blues, ragtime, and old-time that was so good that it was no wonder so many later recording artists wanted to take credit for writing it.

“Blues in the Bottle” sounded perfectly fresh when recorded by the Lovin’ Spoonful, a great folk-rock band of the ’60s, so it is safe to say that this artist had a long-range influence on the American music scene. Some of his records were released under the name of Harmon Clem & Prince Albert Hunt. Guitarist Clem was a frequent sidekick of the fiddler’s, and although he is certainly obscure, he also can be said to have done much better in the credit department than the third member of the Texas Ramblers, good ol’ “Unknown.” A survey of sides by this group seems a bit like a conversation with a travel agent. The tunes include “Canada Waltz,” the slippery “Houston Slide,” and a pretty oily “Oklahoma Rag.” “Wake Up Jacob” became a fiddle standard, frequently covered through the years, and sometimes known under other titles such as “Wild Horse” and “Wild Horse of Stoney Point.”

The prince of Texas fiddle was born Archie Albert Hunt in an area just south of Dallas. Besides developing his own group, which featured superb interplay between guitar and fiddle, Prince Alpert also played with his Terrell neighbors Oscar and Doc Harper. A television documentary was done on the fiddler in the ’70s by Houston Public Television, bringing to light many interesting aspects of his life. He was sometimes described as a kind of Texas version of the great North Carolina fiddler Charlie Poole, and like Poole, his real specialty was blues music. [CHARLIE POOLE ACTUALLY PLAYED THE BANJO -ed.] Both fiddlers may have found fame in different genres than pure blues, but their blues specialty is certainly one of the reasons both Western swing and Appalachian old-time music have such a completely solid blues feeling at their core.

Prince Albert sometimes performed in blackface and had a reputation as an ornery character, to the extent of inspiring hyperbole such as the following excerpt from a Texas music website: “The fiddler who was shot to death at the age of 30 for stealing another man’s wife. He growls through dirty teeth, rolls on the floor, punches his fist through his stovepipe hat, passes out, gets up, falls down, and after every verse kicks up a dance-call with a single down-stroke so fat and sweet you’re ready to hire him to clean up your yard.” If the image of the so-called inventor of Western swing raking one’s yard isn’t bad enough, Prince Albert Hunt has also been mistaken for a can of tobacco, in the case of a country music devotee hustling transcriptions of a ’50s Grand Old Opry production, the Red Foley/Prince Albert Show. Despite claims that the Denton fiddler is present, impossible unless he came back from the dead in some sort of weird collaboration with Henry Lee Lucas, the show’s title is surely a reference to its tobacco company sponsor.

Dock Boggs and David Grisman

October 20, 2012

by Jody Stecher (from notes to “Shady Grove – Old Time Music from North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia” –Vestapol DVD)

In 1966, Marc Silber was the proprietor of a shop and lively musical hub in New York’s Greenwich Village known as Fretted Instruments. It was like a rustic bar that served guitars and banjos instead of drinks. He had gotten word that Dock Boggs (along with Mike Seeger and Mississippi John Hurt) was going to visit his shop on a particular day. Silber and an imaginative young employee named David Grisman prepared for the event by tuning every banjo in the shop to the non-standard (and for that time and place – utterly mind boggling) tuning believed to be preferred by the legendary Boggs.

They were going to pretend they believed this was the normal way banjos were tuned. The visiting dignitaries arrived in due course and Dock Boggs did inspect the banjo stock as expected.

“He seemed puzzled”, said Silber when he told me this story recently, “and he retuned all the banjos! Do you know what he did for a living? He was a banker!”

Now I was puzzled. Wasn’t he a retired coal miner?

“I asked him what he did for a living at home in Virginia,” Marc continued, “and he told me, ‘Why, I’m a banker’”.

I thought about this for a few days.-Dock Boggs a BANKER?-Dock Boggs of the UMW who lived in a little community called Needmore?.– (the name says it all) – and I thought about the tuning and wondered if the New York pranksters had got it wrong somehow.

I phoned Mike Seeger who knows a zillion banjo tunings and who had been a close friend of Boggs. He laughed and said “You know I used to kid Dock Boggs about how he dressed when he travelled and performed up north. He always wore a serious looking suit and tie. I used to tell him he looked like a banker!”

So I reckon that Boggs knew pretty quickly that he was being kidded and quietly, deftly, played his own little joke that took 30 years to play out.

Dock Walsh

October 13, 2012


A Wilkes County, NC musician born on a farm in Lewis Fork (now named Ferguson) to Lee Walsh and Diana Elizabeth Gold Walsh on July 23, 1901, Doctor “Dock” Coble Walsh was one of eight children who played music. His first banjo, fretless and made out of an axle grease box, was given to him by his older brother when he was just four years old. As a teen he began playing banjo and singing locally where earned some money performing. Besides his trademark three-finger style, Dock played “knife-style” or slide banjo on some of his recordings by placing pennies under the instrument’s bridge and playing the strings with a knife, somewhat similar to bottle-neck slide guitar playing.

When Dock was in his teens he started playing at dance parties with his friends and alone; sometimes he earned some money. Soon he bought a good Bruno banjo in Lenior, which he used until his 1925 recording sessions.  In 1921 Dock became a public school teacher after receiving his teaching certificate at Mountain View. After he heard Henry Whitter’s recording of “Wreck of the Old 97” on Okeh Records, Dock became determined to make a record.

He wrote Okeh and then Columbia records but got no response. Undeterred, he quit his teaching position and moved to Atlanta where both companies did field recordings and got a job working in cotton fields. After six months he arranged an audition with Columbia’s Bill Brown. On October 3, 1925, he recorded four songs under the supervision of Frank Walker, who put pillows under his feet to “stop the racket” Walsh made keeping time with his shoe heels. His first single was “I’m Free At Last,” backed by “East Bound Train.” He next did a parody of “The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennessee” called “Bulldog Down In Sunny Tennessee” and “Educated Man,” a version of  “I’m A Highly Educated Man” known as  “I Was Born 4,000 Years Ago.” After his triumphant recording session he walked home from Atlanta to Wilkes County; a distance of over 300 miles!

No longer interested in teaching, Walsh devoted himself to being a professional musician. He traveled the highways and byways, entertaining lumber haulers and sawmill workers along the way. The Columbia catalogue for 1927 read: “Dock Walsh is hard to catch. So great is the demand for him at country-dances and entertainments in the South, that it’s mighty hard to tell where he’ll be next. However when you catch him, it’s worth all the trouble.”

He played primarily in the claw hammer style but along with Charlie Poole and Dock Boggs, was another forerunner of the three-finger style. On April 17, 1926 Walsh once again returned to Atlanta to wax “We Courted in the Rain,” “Knocking on The Henhouse Door,” “Going Back To Jericho,” “Traveling Man” and the very first recording of  “In The Pines” for Columbia. He met some of the musicians soon to be named the Skillet Lickers including Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner and Fate Norris.

In the summer of 1926 Dock was playing banjo and harmonica (on a rack) in Gaston County when a listener offered to take him to see a good harmonica player, Gwen Foster. Gwen, who was a doffer in a Dallas NC mill, began playing with Walsh. They teamed up with two Gastonia area guitarists, Dave Fletcher and Floyd Williams forming the Four Yellowjackets. A Victor talent scout heard them and they traveled to Atlanta where Ralph Peer recorded four duets with Foster and Walsh naming them the Carolina Tar Heels.

Dock Walsh billed himself as the “The Banjo King of the Carolinas.” Charlie Poole, a similar three-finger style mountain banjo picker who also recorded for Columbia in 1925, had a smash hit (selling 102,000 copies) with “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Walsh was well aware of Poole’s career with Columbia and covered one of his songs,  “The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennessee,” with his parody called “Bulldog Down In Sunny Tennessee.” It’s probable that Poole’s success with Columbia was a bone of contention for Walsh as Columbia boasted in their catalogue: Charlie Poole is unquestionably the best-known banjo picker and singer in the Carolinas.

Walsh never again recorded for Columbia. On one concert poster for the original Tar Heels, Dock Walsh was billed as the Banjo King of the Carolinas and Garley Foster as The Human Bird (for his bird calls). In his last solo session Walsh recorded the folk hymn “Bathe in that Beautiful Pool” for Victor on Sept. 25, 1929. The other songs from the session were: “Laura Lou,” “A Precious Sweetheart From Me Is Gone” and “We’re Just Plain Folks.”

Walsh married in 1929 and immediately began raising a family. To make ends meet he went “bustin” or “ballying” on the streets (playing for spare change) with Garley. On May 30, 1931 Walsh and Garley Foster also recorded under the name, Pine Mountain Boys, which curiously is the same line-up as the next to last Carolina Tar Heel session in November 1930. The five songs that emerged from the session were: “The Gas Run Out,” “She Wouldn’t Be Still,” “Roll On Daddy Roll On,” The Apron String Blues” and “Wild Women Blues.”

After his recording career ended in the early 1932, Walsh worked in the poultry business to support his growing family- two boys and two girls. Later in the 1950s he became an outside salesman for a North Wilkesboro auto parts firm, C.D. Coffee and Sons.
After decades of inactivity, Dock the group reformed in 1961. Walsh has been dead for several years but played at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention as recently as 1959. The second generation of the Carolina Tar Heels featured his son, Drake Walsh of Millers Creek, recently a member Elkville String Band as well as original member Garley Foster. They recorded an album for Folk Legacy in 1964. Drake, born on Dec. 28, 1930, played fiddle and guitar, played with his Danc-A-Lons at the North Wilkesboro VFW on Saturday nights.

Frank Hutchison

October 2, 2012



from Pat Harrison’s liner notes to “Worried Blues”, a JSP box-set that re-issued all Frank Hutchison and Kelly Harrell’s 78rpm records:

Frank Hutchison was born 1897 in Raleigh County, West Virginia; some sources quote 20th March 1897 as his date of birth. Soon after 1897 the Hutchison family moved to Logan County, West Virginia, a location commemorated by Hutchison’s classic guitar solo Logan County Blues. Prior to his musical and recording career Frank Hutchison had worked as a miner and according to a fellow Logan County musician, had a limp – one assumes this may have been due to an accident while working in the mines. He also worked at times as a cook, carpenter and general handyman. Photos show a serious looking man but by all accounts he was very friendly and an outgoing character. According to Ernest Stoneman, Hutchison was ”a big red-headed Irishman”, one who evidently had plenty of fun in him.

With regard to Hutchison’s contributions to the field of early country music (or if you prefer the term otm), it has to be said he was not only an innovative while country blues man but also someone who had a few ‘extra cards up his sleeve’ as compared to some of his contemporaries. Apart from his distinctive voice, albeit a trifle rough one, Frank Hutchison’s guitar playing was innovative, particularly in his use of the slide guitar on some of his recordings.
        In September 1926 he travelled to New York to make his first recordings for the Okeh company with whom he would remain for his three-year recording career. The two sides he cut were made using the acoustic method of recording, as distinct from the electrical process that would eventually consign the earlier method to the history books. In fact it appears that when Hutchison re-recorded these two numbers they may have been the first Okeh issues to use the then new electrical recording system.
         It seems obvious that the label must have been satisfied with the sales of his initial recordings because Frank Hutchison was called back for a 1927 date that provided nine fine performances. A two-day session in April produced five numbers, including the re-makes of Hutchison’s first two sides. Apart from them, two items are worthy of mention; The Last Scene of The Titanic is, as a song, a unique version about the Titanic disaster; an event that had occured fifteen years earlier but was still very much in the mind of the general public and record buyers. Hutchison’s version difters from all the many other ‘Titanic’ songs recorded by both black and white performers. The other piece of interest is Logan County Blues, a variation on the tune Spanish Fandango; it is played in open tuning and is a Hutchison ‘piece-de-resistance’. His picking makes the listener think it is a simple guitar solo – any would-be guitar player will tell you otherwise!

Bascom Lamar Lunsford

September 29, 2012


Known in his lifetime as “The Minstrels of the Appalachians” and “The Squire of South Turkey Creek”, Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a man of multiple endeavors, with a calling to preserve and entertain with the folk heritage of the Appalachian mountains where he spent all his busy life. Born in 1882 in Madison County, North Carolina, he was raised in a middle-class family which put education and arts above all things but stayed close to the soil and the traditional values of the Southern mountains.

Bascom would be at ease all his life both with urban and country people, making a bridge between both worlds, the old and the new, the entertainment and the scholarship, the stage and the living-room, the church and the dance floor. He claimed that he visited more homes in the mountains than anyone, and thanks to his early occupations of fruit tree seller and beekeeper, he knew well the backwoods people, who were the good musicians and singers and managed to collect hundreds of songs, tunes and tales from them.

Working officially as a lawyer, he nevertheless devoted most of his energy to promote musicians, organize festivals, record and collect folk music with a zeal and passion that was legendary. He “would cross Hell on a rotten tail to get a folk song”. His major achievements were the Mountain Folk and Dance Festival he created in Asheville in 1928 (and sill running today!) and the impressive number of folk songs and tunes he recorded for the Library of Congress (more than 300 items).

Through his work with the festival and his recordings, he had the ambition to restore the pride and dignity of Southern folks and their music and keep this traditions alive against all the threats of modernity . With his five-string banjo and his impeccable suits, his impressive memory and love of his fellow-man, he indeed managed to be an incredible promoter and entertainer of folk music, years before “Folk Revivals” of all kind. When young urban people from the northern cities became interested in Southern music in the 1950′s and 1960′s, his attitude was often conservative and suspicious of the “outsiders”. He had a strong and personal vision of what was “authentic” and what not, even if he had to accept some new trends and changes along the years. (more…)