Archive for the ‘Lewis Bros.’ Category

Lewis Brothers’ “Sally Johnson”: Southern Marvel #8

February 20, 2012

Dempson Lewis

The Lewis Brothers of San Antonio, Texas, recorded this version of “Sally Johnson” on July 11, 1929 in El Paso, Texas.

by Charles Faurot

Author’s note: This telephone interview with Denmon Lewis, made on November 18, 1969, was one of several made to obtain information for the liner notes of County 517, a reissue of Texas fiddlers who recorded in the 1920s. [The LP was reissued along with the volume 2 LP on County CDs 3524 and 3525.] I was put in touch with Mr. Lewis by Mr. A.J. Fisher, an old-time fiddler from Mayhill, New Mexico.

Denmon Lewis is now 75 years old, but still works daily on his cattle ranch in Otero County, New Mexico. He has been a rancher all his life—raising both cows and saddle horses. The section of New Mexico in which he lives is known as Crow Flat. His family moved there from a ranch near San Antonio in 1902. His grandmother on his mother’s side was raised in San Antonio while his father came from Louisiana. Denmon was born in San Antonio on August 2, 1894. His brother, Dempson, who played fiddle on the 78 records, was born about 3 years earlier. Denmon was the youngest of seven boys and five girls. Both he and Dempson learned many tunes from their mother, who sang a great deal.

“Her tongue was tied in the middle and loose at both ends.” Some of her favorite tunes were “Follow Me Up And Follow Me Down” and “Silent Graves”.

Denmon Lewis fiddles for an outdoor dance.Both Denmon and Dempson fiddled, especially at the many dances held nearby. [Denmon is shown fiddling with unknown guitar player at left.] The dancers especially liked “Mockingbird” and “Winter Flower” (a Spanish-American tune). Most of the dances were held in school houses. They also played for a number of dances held in Liberty Hall in El Paso.

It was through the help of a woman who ran these dances that the Victor A&R man was able to contact the Lewises to record. There weren’t very many fiddler contests at that time. One important that Dempson did enter was held in El Paso in 1928. After he had won first prize, a $300 saddle made by S.D. Myers, he placed it on the fender of a car, mounted it, and then had himself driven around town playing the fiddle. Mr. Myers was also helpful to the Lewises in getting them together with Victor. Mr. Myers’ son still runs the saddle making firm in El Paso.

The Lewises recorded in El Paso on July 11, 1929. They came down the day before to the Baptist Church building where the recordings were being held, but a man and woman were trying to play and sing and they took the whole day. Denmon and Dempson came back the next day and recorded four songs, all of which were released: “Sally Johnson”, “Bull At The Wagon”, “When Summer Comes Again”, and “Calliope Schottische”.

Denmon used a Washburn guitar which he tuned natural. His brother would neither cross-key his fiddle nor tune it up (for high-powered dances, Denmon would tune his up). Denmon used a straight pick, even though the A&R man wanted him to use a felt pick. When the session was over, the A&R man wanted them to go to Chicago with him and travel, playing full-time for a living; however, they both felt they shouldn’t leave their mother. They made no other recordings.

Denmon Lewis playing fiddle.Denmon [shown fiddling at right], first started playing guitar in 1917 when a friend won a Stella in a contest and he borrowed it. Soon, Dempson’s favorite tunes were “Sally Johnson” and “Sweet Honey In The Piney Wood”. He may have heard “Bull At The Wagon” from a record. Their favorite fiddler was a man named Schley(?), now deceased, who was from around Hot Springs (since named Truth Or Consequences), New Mexico.

Two approximate quotes from Denmon are a fitting close to this interview, which was transcribed from notes rather than from a tape recording. “We’d have our own fun around the community—that’s where we would have our fun.” Regarding good music, “That’s one thing that makes you forget your troubles.”

—Charles Faurot, Roseland, NJ, December 1969