Archive for the ‘Luther Strong’ Category

Luther Strong (2)

November 13, 2012

Here are some edited excerpts about fiddler Luther Strong from Stephen Wade’s  new book about the Library of Congress field recordings, “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” (University of Illinois Press):

When Luther Strong (1892-1962) awoke on October 18, 1937, he was in jail.  Arrested on a charge of public drunkenness, he had spent  the night in Hazard, Kentucky, lockup.  He didn’t know it yet, but in a few hours an with a borrowed fiddle, he would record his Library of Congress discs, the most celebrated documents he made in his lifetime.

Earlier that day, a man previously unknown to the family arrived at Luther’s house in Buckhorn, Kentucky.  [Luther’s daughter] Faye answered the door, and when the stranger asked for Luther, she hesitated.  Beyond her usual disavowal regarding his whereabouts, she felt embarassed about his confinement.  Recalling that moment sixty-one years later, Faye confessed, “I didn’t want to say that he was in jail.”

The stranger was Alan Lomax, who, along with his wife, Elizabeth, was in the final weeks of a two-month trip to eastern Kentucky collecting songs and tunes for the Library of Congress.

After seeing Fay at the door of Luther’s home, Lomax drove from Buckhorn back into Hazard, where he bailed Luther out of jail.  Luther then sent Lomax out for a pint of whiskey to get the session underway.  As his hangover lessened. Luther played twenty-nine tunes, a virtuoso survey of Southern fiddle repertory, all in the presence of his teacher, fiddler Bev Baker.

“Bev stayed with us a lot,” [Luther’s son] Jim Strong related. “He was a good fiddler.  And him and Pap got into a fiddler’s contest in Hazard.  There was a twenty-dollar gold piece for the prize.  Pap won the prize and Bev got kind of teed off.  He said, “Well, I guess I taught you a little too much, didn’t I, Luther?”

Sometimes in the background, near the microphone, Bev Baker’s craggy voice comments while Luther plays.  During “Callahan,” which in Luther’s hands sounds like several instruments at once, with the adjacent strings echoing and amplifying its piping drive, Bev approves, “That’s a good tune.”

Further back from the microphone, cars go by, a door closes, and someone comes into the room.  Then a women, presumably Elizabeth Lomax, utters a syllable before catching herself.  All the while the fiddle plows through uninterrupted.

Right after Luther played “Glory in the Meetinghouse” in that Hazard hotel room, he speaks for the one and only time on the recordings, saying, “I’ve won five hundred dollars on that tune.”


View Bruce Greene’s comments on Luther Strong in an earlier post here.


Luther Strong

October 21, 2011

Bruce Greene on Luther Strong, from Fiddler Magazine, June, 1997:

When I was first becoming aware of old time fiddle music, I heard some recordings of William “Billie” Stepp and Luther Strong, two of the finest eastern Kentucky fiddlers ever to be recorded. Their haunting and exciting renditions of classic pieces like “Ways of the World,” “The Hog Eyed Man,” and “The Last of Callahan” captivated me and surely were the beginning of my own romance with Kentucky fiddling. So of course I tried to find out more about them.

One evening I was visiting with Donald Goodman in Booneville, and he began to reminisce about Luther Strong. Donald had gone to school with Strong’s son and knew that family quite well. It seems that there had been a legendary Owsley County fiddler named Moab “Dude” Freeman, who was something of a vagabond. He wandered around eastern Kentucky like a hobo, even traveled out west and back, and was considered one of the finest fiddlers to ever live in that region.

Donald said Strong played more like Freeman than anyone he ever heard, and he was sure that was where Strong learned to play. He said Strong had an extra long bow “and used every bit of it.” Rumor had it that he put pennies under the feet of his bridge to get a keener sound, but Donald said he was there when Strong began that practice. He said they were at some local fiddlers’ contest, and Strong said he couldn’t compete because the bridge was too low on his fiddle and the strings rubbed on the fingerboard. So Donald suggested placing pennies under the bridge to raise it up. It worked well, Strong went on to play “Sally Goodin’” and win the contest, and he liked the pennies so much, that he just kept them there, saying, “It’s just like Baby Bear, it’s just right.” But who knows? They say he was bad to drink from time to time, and a tale went around that when the Library of Congress came around in 1937 to record him, he had no fiddle at all, and they had to haul him out of jail and have him play on a borrowed fiddle.

Luther Strong died in 1963. Twelve years later, I asked an elderly Knott County fiddler who had known Strong if he could play the “Hog Eyed Man.” He said, “I can play it, but if you want to hear it played right, you should go hear Luther Strong play it.” I said, “But I thought Luther Strong was dead.” “No, he lives down here on the river in Hazard,” he assured me. “Well, how long has it been since you’ve seen him?” He thought a moment and said, “It’s been about twenty years, I guess.”