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.