Archive for the ‘music history’ Category

Llewyn Davis’ Repertoire

April 14, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis 3

from and

Llewyn Davis’ repertoire as taken partly from the repertoire of Dave van Ronk and presented in the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is very interesting and with further examination into its sources shows in a nutshell many of the strands that came together to make the folk music world of that time and place.   “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (also known as “Been All Around This World) is a great banjo song originally field recorded by folklorists who located traditional banjo players Rufus Crisp and Justis Begley in Kentucky, and also recorded in a popular version by Kentucky banjoist Grandpa Jones.

How did it get to the Village?  Which was Dave van Ronk’s source?  I don’t know.  Rufus Crisp, a possible source for “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was also one of our sources for the song “The Roving Gambler” which my band recorded for the film’s soundtrack album.  Crisp was one of the very first Southern traditional banjo players to inform the playing and repertoire of New York musicians through his Library of Congress field recordings and visits by Pete Seeger, Stu Jamieson and others.

Death of Queen Jane” is a medieval English ballad collected by venerated folklorist Francis James Child and published in his seminal books of balladry.  The film gives scant coverage to rural folk songs in a rural “old time” style, and no coverage to blues music that was being learned and played in the Village at that time.   Only the woman who plays autoharp and sings a Carter Family song badly gives any nod to the presence of old time music, which was being played by a number of people at the time, including the New Lost City Ramblers.

Dink’s Song was collected by the great American folklorist John Lomax from a woman named Dink along the Brazos river in Texas in 1904 and published in his 1934 book, “American Ballads and Folk Songs.”  It was first recorded as “Fare Thee Well” by Libby Holman and then most influentially by Josh White, both in the mid 40’s and perhaps with some personal direction from Alan Lomax who helped them find material.

” As Lomax recounted in the book Folk Song USA, Dink was the wife or girlfriend of a skilled equipment operator for a levee-building company in Texas, and Lomax found her “doing her man’s laundry in the shade of their tent” near the Brazos. Her song began:

If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly up the river to the man I love
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
I’s got a man and he’s long and tall
Moves his body like a cannonball
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

Lomax recorded “Dink’s Song” on an Edison cylinder, which he brought with him to the Library of Congress when he joined the staff in the 1930s.  According to Folk Song USA, the cylinder had been broken for a long time by the late 1940s–quite possibly before it even arrived here. Nevertheless, Lomax popularized the song by singing it himself, publishing it in books, and passing it down to his children Alan and Bess, who both became professional singers and folklorists. From the Lomaxes, the song passed to such revivalists as Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk, and became a well-known part of the folk scene of the 1950s and 60s. As a result, Dink’s lines about “Noah’s Dove” can be heard in  Inside Llewyn Davis, where they are sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.



Cowboy Songs

August 5, 2013




A hundred years ago, a collection of folk music forever re-tuned the American songbook. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax introduced the country to the music of the American West, and helped propel the cowboy to iconic status. But a close examination of early cowboy music reveals details about some of the very first cowboys that don’t fit the usual stereotypes.

In the 1940s, a radio show made for the Library of Congress recorded Lomax talking about his earliest memories of cowboys. The pioneer folklorist had seen firsthand the great trail drives after the Civil War.

“I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old when I first heard a cowboy yodel and sing to his cattle. I was sleeping in my father’s cabin in Texas,” Lomax said. “As the cowboys drove the cattle along, they sang, called and yodeled to them. … They made up songs about trail life.”

But just who were these cowboys that Lomax saw? Where did they come from? These questions intrigue Mike Searles, a professor of history at Augusta State University in Georgia.

“There’s a popular notion that when you’re talking about the cowboy, you’re exclusively talking about white cowboys, which of course is not true,” Searles says. “Black men were involved in being cowboys very early in the history of our country.”

No one is sure how many African-Americans worked as cowboys in the trail drives, but estimates run as high as 1 in 4. (more…)

Down-Home Fiddling

August 3, 2013

Down-Home Fiddling the Way It Really Used to Be,” by MICHAEL HOINSKI (from

During the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, a distinctive form of fiddle music emerged in Texas. Known for idiosyncratic timing and phrasing, this style was commonly played with banjos or guitars on front porches or in living rooms, less for show than for social interaction. It reflected the cross-pollination in Texas after the Civil War, with touches of African-American, Appalachian, Cajun, Czech, German, Irish, Mexican, Polish and Scottish musical forms.

“And then it just evaporated,” said Howard Rains, an Austin musician and one of the few people in the state who performs this nearly extinct genre of fiddling. “It was just gone. Everything changed after the Depression.”

Mr. Rains, 43, has established himself as an authority on old Texas-style fiddling with his recently released album “The Old Texas Fiddle,” dedicated to preserving this hand-me-down music, which was rarely recorded or committed to sheet music.

Western swing and contest-style fiddling all but buried old Texas fiddle music. In the 1930s, the Texas bandleader Bob Wills took the fiddle out of its folk environs — the cotton fields near Kosse, where he grew up — and into dance halls and onto the radio. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a large band with multiple fiddles, played western swing, a mix of country and jazz that raised spirits dampened by the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Texas contest-style fiddling was undergoing an overhaul. In the late 1920s, Benny Thomasson, an acclaimed old Texas fiddler from near Gatesville, suffered a tough loss in his very first contest.

He went back to the woodshed and reworked older melodies into arrangements that required a virtuoso’s skills to play, then went on to win 15 state championships, evolving contest-style fiddling into today’s improvisational game of packing as many notes into a space as possible. Mr. Rains calls it “fiddling on steroids.”

“It’s the greatest fiddling ever known to man,” Mr. Rains said. “Or it’s this horrible aberration that’s overrun the old styles.” (more…)

True Vine Music

July 28, 2013


edited from article about record collector Christopher King by Eddie Dean (from Oxford American #45):

Pre-war blues and country records carry the weight of centuries in their sound, and bear the traditions of countless pockets of isolated, homegrown cultures wiped out by the spread of radio and, ironically enough, records. As performers throughout the South began to emulate the quality and effect of records, they sacrificed their own idiosyncratic styles, making way for the amplified, homogenized music collector Christopher King despises, which, besides bluegrass, includes pretty much everything recorded after World War II.

King’s ideal is sometime around 1870, when his house was built, and life moved at the easy pace of a horse’s trot, and songs were still handed down. This era was the heyday of what King calls “true vine” music, made by obscure performers whose repertoire dated back before the blues to murky, racially mongrel nineteenth-century origins, when blacks and whites in the South not only shared the same grab bag of songs, but often the same local styles.

The 78s he covets capture spontaneous, raw performances, when the only prodding from record-industry engineers was a bottle of whiskey and some pocket cash: Texas songster Henry Thomas, whose music can be heard on TV commercials via Canned Heat covers; Kentucky fiddler Jilson Setters, who made records well into his seventies; the black duo Two Poor Boys, whose songbook stretched back to the Civil War.

“True vine is music that’s not shaped or molded by crass commercialism,” he says. “It’s the stuff that would have been in the American vernacular before there were phonographs or music marketeers. They didn’t have someone telling them what to do, they were playing the way they’d always played.”

McTell, Puckett, and The Unfortunate Rake

July 21, 2013


edited from essay by Max Haymes (

The Unfortunate Rake is the Irish source of the Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, by Blind Willie McTell.  It crossed the Atlantic where it was ‘cleaned up’ by the cowboy fraternity and appeared as The Streets Of Laredo, while ‘respectable’ versions of St. James Hospital existed alongside it.

The first black recording of the latter title was by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker for the Library of Congress.  Together with St. James/Joe’s Infirmary and the more respectful Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner, the net result was the ‘unholy’ blues composition by Blind Willie McTell.

James ‘Iron Head’ Baker recorded his version in 1934  for the Library of Congress and was followed some two months later by another black singer, James Wadley who had his side titled St. James Infirmary, and was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia.  This was the first rural, solo example of this song by a black artist on record as far as we know.

Sometime between 1924 and 1934, a white hill-billy outfit going by the name of Gid Tannner and his Skillet Lickers recorded a song which had evolved out of The Flash Lad and The Wild and Wicked Youth, which they called Rake And Rambling Boy.  The title harking back to the beginning of this chronology, The Unfortunate Rake, would appear to have roots in the nineteenth century also, probably in the last decade.  The last verse closes with these lines:

“And on her breast he placed a dove,

To signify she died for love.”

Gid Tanner’s group were based in Atlanta amidst a strong white country music scene which rubbed shoulders with the equally strong black blues one.  Tony Russell quite rightly says that “Interaction between black and white musicians has been one of the most stimulating forces in American folk music.”, although Russell says this is not so common today because of “‘social reasons’’,… in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties they were frequent and fertile.”

Former Columbia Record A. & R.  man Frank Walker explained to Russell why this was so.  “In those days, in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, we’ll say, you had your colored section…and you had your white, but they were right close to each other.  They might be swinging round in an arc, the colored people, being the left end of the arc and the white the right, but they would pass each other every dayAnd a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so that you got a little combination of the two things there…They (the hillbillies) adopted little things that a colored man might be playing on his guitar, but he (the colored man) heard the white fellow across the way…and he adopted a little of that.” .

Russell also notes that a black group of bluesmen sometimes known as ‘Peg Leg Howell And His Gang’ with a line-up of a fiddle and two guitars, was similar to Tanner’s group and they even sounded similar on occasion.  Further to this, Tanner’s excellent blind guitarist, Riley Puckett, declares a the beginning of his version of John Henry, which he called Darkey’s Wail, “I’m gonna play for you this time a little piece which an old southern darky I heard play, comin’ down Decatur Street the other day. ‘cause his good girl done throwed him down”.

In this cross-fertilization process, McTell could have got some inspiration for Crapshooter from Rake And Rambling Boy as he probably heard it in person as “Puckett for some years attended the State Blind School in Macon, Georgia, and while there he may have encountered the black singer Blind Willie McTell, who was a pupil from 1922 to 1925.  It may have even been McTell from whom he learned his interpretation of John Henry.”  Decatur Street, along with Auburn Avenue, as Paul Oliver says: “…were the ‘main stem’ in Atlanta’s Negro sector.”


Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 2)

July 11, 2013


edited from Joe Gioia (

The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song.

Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.

This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent.

In 1901 the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.

Professor Peabody’s reactions to African-American workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.

Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work. (more…)

Okeh Record’s Historic Session in Asheville

July 7, 2013


Okeh Record’s Historic Session in Asheville, by Kent Priestly (

The guitarist, Henry Whitter, slid his chair across the floor to bring his instrument a little closer to the recording machine’s sound-gathering horn. A harmonica dangled from his neck on a wire truss; he made a tentative puff on it and looked over to the man behind the controls.

Next to Whitter sat Kelly Harrell, a singer who’d traveled down with him from the same part of Virginia. Harrell tugged absently at his shirt collar. He cleared his throat.

“You boys ready?” the engineer asked. The men nodded. They shouldn’t have been so nervous—they’d done live recordings before, after all—but then, you never got used to it. Making things worse was the fact that the room was so damn hot. They’d been in here for just a few minutes, but already their shirts were soaked through with sweat.

And now it was time. The engineer counted to three and tilted a finger their way. On the bed of the machine before them, a wax platter began spinning. As it turned, a metal blade sliced into it and trimmed a delicate rind from its surface. Whitter led the song off, puffing the melody out on his harmonica once around before Harrell squared his body to the horn and began to sing:

I was borned about ten thousand years ago
There was nothing ever happened I don’t know
I saw Pharaoh and his daughter shooting craps for a quarter
And I heard him say, ‘Oh girl I’ve won your dough.’

The voice was an odd quantity. Phrases spilled from Harrell’s mouth in a long and lagging way. He inserted dips and swoops in his verses, beating words that didn’t have an obvious relationship with each other into something like a rhyme. It was strange voice, but it sold records.

The next morning, the Asheville Citizen had the story: “There is a lot of respiration and perspiration connected with the making of phonograph records. This was demonstrated in the recording laboratory of George Vanderbilt Hotel yesterday when the Okeh Record Company began making a series of ‘hill country records.’”

“Today, a number of singers and players from the mountain country will be tried out before the reproducing device,” the Citizen newspaper story continued. “The first test is said to be one of the severest experiences the singer or player ever has to undergo and more difficult than an appearance before a large audience.” (more…)

Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 1)

June 27, 2013

Bo Carter

edited from Max Haymes (

The eastern territory in Oklahoma, the ‘Indian Nation’, was admitted to the United States in 1907, along with Oklahoma Territory. But because of lack of law and order and relative freedom from white oppression, which attracted working-class blacks, Blues singers up to thirty-five years later still referred to the “Territo” or “Nation”.

Another factor which would draw working-class blacks to the Nation, was that up until the middle of the 1920′s, cotton “…ranked above wheat as Oklahoma’s cash crop. It was grown throughout the southern half of the state, but the southwest was the real cotton section.” In the autumn, during the picking season, “…the towns were filled with happy Negroes rich with picking wages.”

Blues Singer State of Origin Tribe
Champion Jack Dupree Louisiana Cherokee
Scrapper Blackwell North Carolina Cherokee
Andrew Baxter Georgia Cherokee
Jim Baxter Georgia Cherokee
Sam Chatmon Mississippi Choctaw?
Robert Wilkins Mississippi Cherokee
Lowell Fulson Oklahoma Creek
Roy Brown Louisiana Shawnee?
Charlie Patton Mississippi Chickasaw or Choctaw?
Bo Carter Mississippi Choctaw?
Poor/Big Joe Williams Mississippi Cherokee
Leadbelly Louisiana Cherokee
Louisiana Red Mississippi Cherokee/Apache
Earlene Lewis Oklahoma Cherokee

Nearly two-thirds of the singers listed (again, the list is not exhaustive), have in fact blood-ties with the once large and powerful tribe Cherokee nation. For example, it is reported of pianist Champion Jack Dupree, that “As Jack’s mother had been a full­blooded Cherokee, he was permitted to bead himself, and belong to a Cherokee gang.”

Then there is Memphis-based guitarist, Robert Wilkins, who was born in Hernando, Miss. of whom Spottswood says: “His ancestry was Negro on his father’s side, white and Cherokee Indian on his mother’s.

Cherokee ancestry is also attributed to Scrapper Blackwell, erstwhile partner of Leroy Carr, who was “…of Cherokee descent.”

Slaven reporting on the origins of Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams (who often referred to himself as “Poor Joe”) says: “He was part-Cherokee, and his father John Williams was known locally as “Red Bone”.

The famous folk and Blues singer, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) was “born on January 29, 1885 on Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, the only child of farmer Wesley and part-Cherokee Indian Sally Ledbetter.”

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards said of Sam Chatmon:  “Sam’s grandmother ‘Creasie’ Hammond was herself ‘half-Indian and half-white,’ he reported.”  Chatmon being a guitar-picking member of the popular black string band, the Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded extensively in the early 1930′s. At least one of Sam’s brothers, Bo Carter, who left the Sheiks early on to pursue a solo career, is recollected as “A racial hybrid of Indian, white and black descent,”

For the most part, those blacks who aspired to a bourgeois, white, middle-class way of life (and its values!), were often in a parallel state to that of the red man. It is a significant and also a consistent fact that someone of mixed racial blood is identified with the “lowest” category. So part-Indian, Bo Carter, naturally sings as a full-blooded Negro, when he refers to the general situation as described above:

“Oh! the white man wears his broad-cloth,
An’ the Indian he wears jeans;

But here come the darky with his over-halls on,
Just a-scratchin’ o’er the turnip greens.”

Charles Faurot Reminisces

June 24, 2013

Screen shot 2013-06-13 at 12.10.40 AM

from “Making Round Peak Music,” by James Randolph Ruchala:

 Charles Faurot tells of how a record collecting trip led to the first records of Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins:

At the 1967 Galax Fiddlers Convention, Rich Nevins and Dave Freeman, both avid collectors of 78′s, ran into Oscar Jenkins. Because Oscar’s father, Frank, was one of DaCosta Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, they asked him if Oscar thought Tommy Jarrell, also a son of one of the members of the Southern Broadcasters, might have some 78′s.

Oscar replied, “I don’t know.”

They asked him, “Do you want to take a drive over there?”

He said, “Why not.”

And off they went. Shortly after arriving at Tommy’s house, Dave and Rich asked, “Got any 78′s?”

Tommy answered, “No. Say, Oscar, got your banjo in the car?”

“Sure do.”

“Get it and we’ll play some tunes.”

…. When Rich and Dave found me back in Galax, they were raving about the live music they had just heard. In the days that followed, Rich and I spent a lot of time recording Tommy and Oscar together….
During a break in one of the early recording sessions, one of us mentioned we knew Fred Cockerham. Tommy perked up and said, “You know Fred? I grew up with him.”

We wasted no time going to Fred’s house and bringing him back to Tommy’s. When they got back together again for the first time in a number of years, it was as if they had never been apart so tight-knit was their playing.

The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History

June 19, 2013


The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History, by Joe Gioia (SUNY Press)

from and

The primary thesis of the book, sure to be controversial, is that the Blues is mostly derived from Native American roots, rather than African.

The book includes a wide range of intriguing meanderings, book-ended by the hidden background of the author’s Sicilian and Napolitano ancestors, one of whom was an early guitar maker.  Along with the history of the guitar in Europe and 19th and early 20th century America, interesting histories of Western New York State and a presidential assassination appear.  But the book’s true subject is the fugitive nature of history itself.

Gioia’s investigation stretches from the ancient world to the fateful events of the 1901 Buffalo Pan American Exposition, across Sioux Ghost Dancers and circus Indians, to the lives and works of such celebrated American musicians as Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Patton, Eddie Lang, and the Carter Family.

At the heart of the book’s portrait of wanderings and legacies is the proposition that America’s idiomatic harmonic forms—mountain music and the blues—share a single root, and that the source of the sad and lonesome sounds central to both is neither Celtic nor African, but truly indigenous—Native American. The case is presented through a wide examination of cultural histories, academic works, and government documents, as well as a close appreciation of recordings made by key rural musicians, black and white, in the 1920s and ’30s.

Joe documents in some detail the fascinating history of how through the whole southeast including Appalachia but more, from the Florida Seminoles, West to Oklahoma, and up through the Northeast and upstate New York, there was not only large-scale inter-marriage but cultural interaction, especially musical.

Many Blues idioms, vocal and musical, go back to Native Americans, including “Hey Hey”. Howling Wolf claimed his Choctaw ancestry, but Muddy Waters is also an obviously Native American name.  Joe Gioia provides plenty of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, all that is possible after the erasures of official history, including insight into the realities of slavery.  One repellent but riveting example is how the term “Blues” derives from the toxic and nauseating indigo production.  But after fifty years of extensive searching in Africa, nobody from musicologists to Buddy Guy have found anything like Blues musical patterns in Africa.

Discussions include Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Patton, Eddie Lang, the Carter Family, Leadbelly, and many more, and Native American echoes appear in both Rock and Country music.   Fascinating and highly readable, this is an important book, revealing a major contribution of Native Americans to mainstream American culture

The Johnson City Sessions

June 5, 2013


“The Johnson City Sessions: “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” (Bear Family 4 CD and booklet)

edited from

In 1928, just as their fellow musicians had a year before in Bristol, men and women came in from the farms and down from the mountains to Johnson City. The lure was money, a chance at fame, or, at the very least, an opportunity to have their voices recorded on a 78 rpm record for posterity. The Johnson City sessions of 1928-29 that resulted may not have been the big bang of country music, but they were a major aftershock.

In 1928, Frank Walker of Columbia Records was hoping lightning would strike twice in the Tri-Cities area. The Bristol Sessions recorded by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company were tremendously successful, making stars of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

Walker put an ad in the Johnson City Chronicle asking “Can you sing or play Old-Time music?” “Musicians of unusual ability” were invited to “call upon Mr. Walker or Mr. Brown of the Columbia Phonograph Company at 334 East Main Street.” That address was the location of a defunct lumber company at what is now Colonial Way near WJHL.

“The Johnson City Sessions were better organized,” Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, said.



“There was more advertising, more scouting, more capital put into promotions up front.”
The ad ran three times in late September and early October. Olson said that more singers and musicians participated in the Johnson City Sessions than in the Bristol Sessions.


“They saw the ads and made it to the tryouts on Oct. 13, 1928, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The recording sessions were held over four days, Monday, Oct. 15 to Thursday, Oct. 18. A few of the musicians who saw the ad and heard it was happening had already recorded for Ralph Peer,” he said, “but most of those who recorded in Johnson City were not part of the Bristol Sessions.”

Among them were the Roane County Ramblers from the Kingston-Harriman area outside of Knoxville, who became one of the biggest bands to emerge from the Johnson City Sessions of 1928. Charlie Bowman of Gray — who recorded for Walker along with his brothers and sisters — was “a real success story,” Olson said.  While many of the musicians who recorded in Johnson City lived in East Tennessee, he pointed out, some of the musicians probably traveled from the Greensboro-Burlington area of North Carolina or from the Corbin, Ky., area. (more…)

Little Sadie

June 2, 2013
imagesby Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2002)

Outlaw as Folk Hero is an old theme in the Anglo-American tradition, probably dating from before the Robin Hood stories. America developed a second idea, that of Outlaw as Psychopath, a truly Bad Man. Stagolee and John Hardy come to mind, as well as Lee Brown, the narrator of today’s story.

Versions of this song were found throughout the south, particularly in Appalachia and the Ozarks. The tunes vary, but the story is remarkably stable. Lee Brown shoots his woman, runs away, is caught, tried, and gets a long sentence. He has no remorse, other than that he is jailed. One writer says this song was very popular as early as 1885, but I couldn’t find the source of that claim.

There are lots of towns in America with the names given in the song, but Thomasville and Jericho, North Carolina are only 60 miles apart, which make them prime candidates for locale. There’s no reason to believe this song is literal history, though. A cursory search shows no information on a real Lee Brown, or any evidence that the song describes an actual murder.

Clarence Ashley, from East Tennessee, recorded his version in 1928, but a later recording is on Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF40029/30, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962. Ashley tuned his banjo to gDGCD (5th to 1st), sometimes called “mountain modal” tuning. He called it “sawmill tuning,” perhaps because the unfinished sound of the resulting open-string chord sounds like a large circular saw cutting through a log.

Classical European music concentrated on major and minor scales, because they were amenable to easy harmonies when used with orchestral instruments. Other scales, generically called “modal,” which were on an equal footing with the classical scales in early music (such as Gregorian chants), survived in the remote mountains of America.

Bobby Patterson Reminisces

June 1, 2013


In 1972, Bobby Patterson built his first recording studio, created a record label and started recording and producing albums in Galax, VA, first as Mountain Records and later as Heritage Records. He recorded Tommy Jarrell’s “June Apple” LP.  Here are some of his memories from “Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge.”


Pete Seeger

May 21, 2013

pete and bob

edited from “The Incompleat Folksinger” by Pete Seeger:

In 1935 I was sixteen years old, playing tenor banjo in the school jazz band.  A good deal of song collecting was being done under the auspices of different government agencies such as the Resettlement Administration.  Such work was called boondoggling at the time, but through the work of these agencies, the famous Library of Congress collection was first built up.

My father, Charles Seeger, as an expert in several branches of musical scholarship, was involved in these projects.  And I accompanied him on one field trip to North Carolina.  We wound down through the narrow valleys with so many turns in the road that I got seasick.

We passed wretched little cabins with half-naked children peering out the door; we passed exhibits of patchwork quilts and other handicrafts which were often were the main source of income.  I first became acquainted with a side of America that I had never known before.

At the Asheville square dance and ballad festival I fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo, rippling out a rhythm to one fascinating song after another.  I liked the rhythms.  I like the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers.  I liked the words.



Charles Seeger

May 16, 2013



Pete’s father Charles Seeger and his wife composer Ruth Crawford Seeger were both musicologists, and she wrote musical notations for many of the songs that the Lomaxes published. Charles Seeger explains how he met Alan Lomax and his father John was when he and the composer Henry Cowell were asked by MacMillan Publishers “to advise them on a manuscript that had come in from a man named Lomax….Well they came in,…John and Alan, and the manuscript was there, and Alan was just like ready to punch either Henry or me in the face. ‘These God damned expert musicians, they don’t know anything about folk music. They don’t know anything about music, anyway!’

“Well, Henry and I opened the things and said, ‘My God, these are marvelous songs.’ This was about 1933 or ’34. ‘These are perfectly marvelous songs, and the notations are terrible. There’s practically nothing there that doesn’t have mistakes, wrong clefs, wrong accidentals, and everything else.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to have these notations made over, and the book is going to be very successful.’ Well, it was American Ballads and Folk Songs, and it was published. Alan softened up a little bit towards the end, and we presently became very good friends. In fact he became a member of the family.”

Charles Seeger continued, “So when Peter became interested in playing the banjo and singing songs that were accompanied by the banjo, I sent him to study the recordings in the Library of Congress, which is about the best school that there is. In fact, it’s the only ‘school’ that I know of. You just go in there and listen to recordings and after you get sufficiently saturated with them, you know something.”

“Ragtime 2: The Country”

April 10, 2013


from notes to “Ragtime 2: The Country” (Folkways RBF 18) by Samuel Charters:

Country ragtime in the 1920′s and 1930′s has some of the feel of an old farm house that was on the land for years, then was added-to and redone, until finally it wasn’t quite the old house any more – but it wasn’t quite a new house, either. It has some of the look of the old house and some of the look of the new house, and in some places it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

Ragtime seems to have been once a kind of style of playing that went on in the black slave cabins and the isolated country towns of the South. It had the melodic structure and the kind of harmonic patterns that characterized European dancing and march music, but it was different from it both in rhythm and scale.

Instead of the simple four beat or dotted accent of the European jigs and reels the ragtime melody was more subtly syncopated, perhaps as a reflection of some earlier time when African drums were still played surreptitiously along with the banjos and the violins.

The more complex, multi-layered, texture of African drumming could lead to a free-flowing sense of melody, which was more strictured in the European context. And some of the same scale patterns that characterize the blues also turn up in early ragtime – the ambiguous major-minor resolutions of James Scott’s rags, and the gapped scales in some of the strains of the early St. Louis rags.

“Lindy”  played by the Proximity String Quartet (from “Ragtime 2: The Country”):

Pre-War Revenants

March 21, 2013


by Scott Blackwood, edited from notes to “American Primitive II: Pre-War Revenants 1897-1939.”  Many thanks to for making this available.

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On the Road Again

March 8, 2013

A film by Sherwin Dunner and Richard Nevins.  See J.E. Mainer and His Family Band playing “Run Mountain” at about 14:30.


In 1963, a camera crew went on the road in search of traditional American music that was still as vital as it had been earlier in the century. The results of this odyssey are a fascinating slice-of-life portrait of the traditional music scene in America and the culture which sustained it. Musicians were located and filmed on their home soil – in the streets, churches, roadhouses and taverns of New Orleans, Houston, Nashville, and many other locales.

It was one of the last opportunities to document vestiges of the way of life that gave traditional music its power and immediacy. The rare eloquence of the music captured here, fueled and shaped on such turf, is forever gone from the American musical landscape today.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN opens in Texas with Mance Lipscomb singing “Goin’ Down Slow” on his front porch in Navasota, then follows piano player Buster Pickens as he leads the film crew through Houston dives and pool halls looking for other musicians. They locate Lightnin’ Hopkins in a garage partaking in a game of chance, and Hop Wilson playing bluesy steel guitar in Miss Irene’s Tavern. In Dallas-Fort Worth piano player Whistlin’ Alex Moore whistles along to a rolling boogie woogie, and B.K. Turner, who recorded in the 1930s as Black Ace, plays his signature tune on lap top National steel guitar.

In San Francisco, Lowell Fulsom, one of the foremost shapers of West Coast blues is filmed, then across the Bay King Louis H. Narcisse, the spiritual leader of the Mt. Zion faith, at his Oakland temple leads his congregation in stirring gospel rockers like “Let It Shine.” Heading east, Rev. Louis Overstreet brings the gospel to the winos, gamblers, and the down and out on the streets of Tucson, Arizona.

In the shadow of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the Blind James Campbell String Band, one of the few traditional black string bands ever filmed, plays “John Henry.” At the easternmost point of the journey, J.E. Mainer and his family band play the fiddle breakdown, “Run Mountain” in Concord, North Carolina.

Celebrated New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis is filmed at the newly opened Preservation Hall playing “Royal Garden Blues” and a plaintive version of “Burgundy Street Blues,” which is enriched by images of French Quarter street life. Piano player Sweet Emma Barrett gives a rough barrelhouse treatment to “I Ain’t Gonna give Nobody None of my Jelly Roll,” and the Eureka Brass Band plays at a funeral in the New Orleans tradition.

Early Hispanic Guitar

February 26, 2013

excerpt from David Bradford (

In antebellum United States, the guitar was principally a genteel instrument of the middle class. In Mexico the instrument was played by all social and economic ranks of Spanish colonists. Missionaries taught Native Americans to both play and to build the guitar. The Native American converts mastered not only Spanish music and performance practices, but also incorporated the guitar into their own style of music.

This encouraged a rich guitar folk music tradition – actually numerous regional traditions – and also the development of a diverse range of guitars and guitar-like instruments, from the small vihuela (not the six-course Renaissance vihuela, but a smaller guitar with eight strings arranged in five courses, and a rounded back), to the enormous guitarrón, to meet the needs of those folk music styles.

Spain once laid claim to much of the American South and virtually all of the American West. In Spanish California, where the land was rich and settlers quickly prospered, young people of the wealthy landowning class “seem to have a talent and taste for music,” according to one observer. “Many of the women played the guitar skillfully, and the young men the violin. In almost every family there were one or more musicians, and everywhere music was a familiar sound.”

Among the lower classes the guitar was seemingly a constant presence: “In the New Mexican village the sound the guitar is always heard, and the dance is continuous,” wrote a traveler to the Southwest. “Not alone in the evening, but at midday, beneath some shade, or in an open court-yard, the passer-by stops, dances as long as he chooses, and passes on.”

In the Southwest, itinerant professional singer/guitarists – known variously as trovadores populares, ciegos, cantadores and guitarerros – traveled from town to town. These footloose musicians typically were street performers, but also were hired to perform for dances and parties. Alan Lomax, in the 1930s, collected border ballads from a blind singer/guitarist in Brownsville, Texas named José Suarez who was a twentieth century incarnation of the type of musician who had been plying his trade for decades, if not for more than a century, in Mexican and Mexican-American communities:

“He has been blind since childhood, but is cane guides him everywhere through the city, to bars, to dances, to family parties, and everywhere his guitar and his ballads make him welcome. … He knows all the popular songs of the day, all the old border ballads, and whenever anything of excitement and import occurs, he makes a new historia for the information of his people. His songs concern the bandits of the border country, the troubles of the migratory cotton pickers, the disasters of the train wrecks, storms and wars and the pleasures of mescal.”

From Ed Haley to Benny Thomasson

January 22, 2013



Charles Wolfe put Ed Haley in a “creative” class of fiddlers that included Eck Robertson, Clark Kessinger, Arthur Smith and Clayton McMichen. These fiddlers, according to Dr. Wolfe, felt that technique was just as important as repertoire – one of the trademarks of the Texas contest fiddling style so popular today.

“I like to flavor up a tune so that nobody in the world could tell what I’m playing,” Haley once told Skeets Williamson.

For creative fiddlers, writes forensic musicologist Earl Spielman in The Devil’s Box, “a fiddle tune is not just an ornamented melody; a melody is merely the raw, undeveloped, unprocessed material out of which a tune can grow and reach maturity. In Texas, instead of playing a repetition of the melody, the fiddler plays a variation of the original material. Each new variation can be radically different from the preceding one. The object of the fiddler is to avoid duplication and to be as innovative as possible within the limits of what is acceptable. As might be expected, any regular pattern of bowing is avoided. The bowing characteristic of Texas fiddling consists of fairly long bow strokes executed very smoothly with the bow rarely leaving the strings and with the number of notes played on each stroke varying from a single note to as many as seven or eight.”

Creation of the Texas contest style is accredited to Benny Thomasson, who competed with rival Major Franklin to such a fierce degree that he started improvising tunes and adding new parts onto them.

“Back when I started they had only two part tunes, and that was it,” Thomasson said in a 1982 interview. “In the older days when I began to come up I took these old tunes and began to build different sections to them. Like there would be two parts. Well, I’d add another. It would be the same part but in a different position. The old-timey fiddling that they try and hang onto nowadays, it’s all right. It’s good to listen to but we take those same tunes and just weave a web around them and make it come out real pretty.”

Many fiddle scholars agree that Benny Thomasson got his ideas about adding onto tunes from Texas fiddler, Eck Robertson. He was inspired enough by Robertson’s multi-part version of “Sally Gooden” (recorded in 1922) to say that Eck played it “better than anyone else in the world.” Haley was also proficient at adding parts; his “Forked Deer” had four parts, while his “Cacklin’ Hen” had eleven.

While there is no documented evidence that Ed Haley ever met Eck Robertson or Benny Thomasson, there is a link between Thomasson and Ed through Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim Rutland. Benny borrowed heavily from Kessinger’s Haley-like early records, particularly “Tug Boat”, which Kessinger had gotten from Haley’s “Ladies on the Steamboat”. Likewise, Georgia Slim Rutland – one of radio’s top fiddlers in the 1940s – “allegedly spent one year in Ashland listening to Ed Haley play,” according to Parkersburg Landing, and was personally acquainted with Thomasson.

Because of Haley’s connection to Clark Kessinger and Georgia Slim, and their subsequent influence on Benny Thomasson, I began to formulate a theory that Haley was a “grandfather” of the Texas contest fiddling style. I must have been onto something because when I later mentioned it to J.P. Fraley, he said, “Well see, I knew Benny Thomasson and he knew about Ed Haley because I was playing at the National Folklore Festival and he wanted to know about that fella.”


January 10, 2013



The corrido in its usual form is a ballad of eight-syllable, four-line stanzas sung to a simple tune in fast waltz time, now often in polka rhythm. Corridos have traditionally been men’s songs. They have been sung at home, on horseback, in town plazas by traveling troubadours, in cantinas by blind guitarreros (guitarists), on campaigns during the Mexican Revolution (1910–30), and on migrant workers’ journeys north to the fields. Now they are heard frequently on recordings and over the radio.

These ballads are generally in major keys and have tunes with a short—less than an octave—range. Américo Paredes, the preeminent scholar of the corrido of the lower Rio Grande border area, remarked: “The short range allows the corrido to be sung at the top of the singer’s voice, an essential part of the corrido style.” In Texas this singing has traditionally been accompanied by a guitar or bajo sexto, a type of twelve-string guitar popular in Texas and northern Mexico.

In its literary form the corrido seems to be a direct descendent of the romance, a Spanish ballad form that developed in the Middle Ages, became a traditional form, and was brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors. Like the romance, the corrido employs a four-line stanza form with an abcd rhyme pattern. Paredes surmised that corrido is ultimately derived from the Andalusian phrase romance corrido, which denoted a refrainless, rapidly sung romance. With the noun dropped, the participle corrido, from a verb meaning “to run,” itself became a noun.

The corrido, like the romance, relates a story or event of local or national interest—a hero’s deeds, a bandit’s exploits, a barroom shootout, or a natural disaster, for instance. It has long been observed, however, that songs with little or no narration are still called corridos if they adhere to the corrido’s usual literary and musical form.

Besides its music, versification, and subject matter, the corrido also employs certain formal ballad conventions. In La lírica narrativa de México, Vicente Mendoza gives six primary formal characteristics or conventions of the corrido. They are: (1) the initial call of the corridista, or balladeer, to the public, sometimes called the formal opening; (2) the stating of the place, time, and name of the protagonist of the ballad; (3) the arguments of the protagonist; (4) the message; (5) the farewell of the protagonist; and (6) the farewell of the corridista. These elements, however, vary in importance from region to region in Mexico and the Southwest, and it is sometimes difficult to find a ballad that employs all of them. In Texas and the border region, the formal opening of the corrido is not as vital as the balladeer’s despedida (farewell) or formal close. Often the singer will start the corrido with the action of the story to get the interest of the audience, thus skipping the introduction, but the despedida in one form or another is almost never dropped. The phrase Ya con esta me despido (“With this I take my leave”) or Vuela, vuela, palomita (“Fly, fly, little dove”) often signals the despedida on the first line of the penultimate or ultimate stanza of the song. (more…)

Santa Anna and The Yellow Rose of Texas

January 6, 2013


“The Yellow Rose of Texas” took on a new and entirely different meaning in 1961 when the song was first publicly linked to an anecdote about the battle of San Jacinto. This anecdote, recorded by Englishman William Bollaert during a trip to Texas (1842–44), stated that the 1836 battle was lost to the Mexicans because a mulatto girl named Emily, who belonged to Col. James Morgan, was closeted in Santa Anna’s tent at the time the battle commenced.

According to this account, Emily detained Santa Anna so long that he was unable to restore order as the Texans attacked the Mexican camp. The story would have been unknown today except that Bollaert’s papers from his Texas trip, including the anecdote buried in an unpublished essay, were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1911.

The story was discovered from those papers and initially appeared in print as a footnote by Joe Frantz in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas (1946) and subsequently in the published version of his dissertation, entitled Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (1951). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler, in William Bollaert’s Texas (1956), transcribed Bollaert’s papers and mentioned the story again, also in a footnote.

The mulatto girl, known in this anecdote only as “Emily” who belonged to James Morgan, was referred to during the 1960s and 1970s as Emily Morgan under the belief she was Morgan’s slave, but a passport record in the Texas State Library in Austin, first associated with Emily’s story in 1976, and an employment contract found in 1991 in a private collection and held since 2004 at the University of Texas at Arlington Library Special Collections, substantiated that she was a free woman named Emily D. West. She was hired by Morgan in New York City in 1835 to work for him for one year at his place called New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Both names are often conflated today, as evidenced by the inaptly-named Emily Morgan Hotel which opened in 1985 across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio.

In the late 1950s R. Henderson Shuffler, head of the Texas A&M office of information and publication and subsequently the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures, was bothered that this “unsung” heroine of Texas was not better-known or appreciated. Shuffler was determined to associate her with a song and initially felt that Emily should be connected with “Will You Come to the Bower?”—a bawdy tune that was played at the battle of San Jacinto.

But by July 1959 he focused his attention on “The Yellow Rose of Texas” instead. He wrote to folklore singer John A. Lomax, Jr., the oldest son of famed folklorist John A. Lomax, seeking confirmation of his latest “hunch” that this song “grew up around the stories of Emily.” Shuffler later wrote Lomax in February 1960: “if there is not, as I still suspect, a remote connection between the story of Emily and the original folk song version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ there should be.” (more…)

Little Sandy Review

January 3, 2013

Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson launched their vernacular music journal,
The Little Sandy Review, in 1960.

by David Lightbourne (from

Toward the end of 1959, from an off-campus rooming house at the University of Minnesota, in a strange little corner of Minneapolis across the Mississippi from Saint Paul called Dinkytown, came a small magazine without money or a marketing plan, ready to begin printing articulate monthly record reviews and pithy cultural commentary to a tiny readership. Initially quite inauspicious and eccentric-looking – a loving or caustic survey of current LPs from the rapidly accelerating folk, country, and blues Revivals – over the next half-decade The Little Sandy Review would gain recognition, influence, and notoriety in gross disproportion to its size – and even acquire near-scholarly authority – without ever losing its links with the main currents and common currencies of early-60s bohemia.

From the first mimeographed, pamphlet-size pulp issue in the winter of 1960, The Little Sandy Review brought its readers a new and refreshingly provincial overview of the commercial folk music establishment, a subculture of colorful and odd little record labels, mainly in the East, with inchoate and Quixotic strategies for promoting this new category of record albums – 10” and 12” 33 1/3rpm records that were just beginning to impact the 78 and 45rpm singles dominant market. Writing with one voice and co-authorship for their shared enthusiasm and mutual evaluation of the best traditional American music on vinyl over the previous five or ten years, co-editors Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson began their journey forward into the new decade shaped by the immediate past.

As the late Paul Nelson remembered in a January 2000 interview, “Jon and I had gone to see Pete Seeger at a concert in Iowa that previous summer, and we talked to him afterward and told him about our plan to start a folk music magazine, and asked him what he thought of the idea. When Seeger talked to you it was like he was looking right through you the whole time, as if addressing the masses or something. It was very disconcerting. We didn’t get an answer.” Jon Pankake, a longtime Seeger admirer, remembers the conversation slightly more charitably. As he recalls, “Pete said, ‘Hey, it’s a free country. You can print anything you want in America.’ We followed Pete’s advice.”

A tiny speck on a remote, distant, icy cusp, Pankake and Nelson, along with Tony Glover and Barry Hansen, had no idea where their modest expression would lead as they moved inexorably, rapidly, and individually from that obscure cusp to the epicenters of newly-dawning 1960s social ferment, political turmoil, radical movements, and cultural revolution. (more…)

Border Radio

December 23, 2012

Border Radio
Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters

of the American Airwaves, Revised Edition

By Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford


The term “border radio” refers to the American broadcasting industry that sprang up on Mexico’s northern border in the early 1930s and flourished for half a century. High-powered radio transmitters on Mexican soil, beyond the reach of U.S. regulators, blanketed North America with unique programming.

Mexico accommodated these “outlaw” media operators, some of whom had been denied broadcasting licenses in the United States, because Canada and the United States had divided the long-range radio frequencies between themselves, allotting none to Mexico. Though the “borderblaster” transmitters were always in Mexico, studios (especially in the early 1930s) were sometimes in the United States, and the stations were often identified by the American town across the border.

For instance, in his classic poem, “Clem Maverick, the Life and Death of a Country Singer,” R. G. Vliet has Clem reminisce: “We was on the radio at Del Rio.” Early on, hillbilly music proved to be one of the most effective mediums for pulling mail and moving merchandise; in turn, the border stations played a significant role in popularizing country music during the genre’s crucial growth years before and after World War II.

The stations also familiarized American listeners with Mexican and Mexican-American artists. Lydia Mendoza’s future husband first heard the “Lark of the Border” from Piedras Negras station XEPN in 1937. “The highlight of the [XER] program, for me,” recalled a South Dakota listener in 1995, “was the beautiful voice of the ‘Mexican Nightingale’ [Rosa Domínguez], especially when she would sing ‘Estrellita’—this farm boy thought that must be how the angels would sound in heaven.”

The first border station, XED, began broadcasting from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in 1930. Owned for a time by Houston theater owner and philanthropist Will Horwitz, XED hosted occasional performances by Horwitz’s friend Jimmie Rodgersqv. Horwitz, who dressed up as Santa Claus each year and distributed Christmas presents to Houston’s underprivileged children, was sent to prison by the U.S. government for broadcasting the Tamaulipas state lottery over XED.

Dr. John R. Brinkley, originator of the “goat gland transplant” as a sexual rejuvenation treatment, opened XER (later called XERA) in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, in 1931. Brinkley later bought XED, changing the name to XEAW. In 1939 he sold XEAW to Carr Collins, Dallas insurance magnate and owner of Crazy Crystals, a laxative product derived from the fabled Crazy Water in Mineral Wells. According to Collins’s son Jim, Texas governor (and later U.S. senator) W. Lee “Pappy” O’Danielqv was part-owner of the station. The Mexican government confiscated XERA in 1941 and tried to confiscate XEAW shortly thereafter, but Collins moved his equipment north of the border.   (more…)

Yellow Rose of Texas

December 20, 2012

edited from

 “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” one of the iconic songs of modern Texas and a popular traditional American tune, has experienced several transformations of its lyrics and periodic revivals in popularity since its appearance in the 1850s. The earliest published lyrics to surface to date are found in Christy’s Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published under the authority of Edwin P. Christy in Philadelphia in 1853. Christy was the founder of the blackface minstrel group known as the Christy’s Minstrels. Their shows were a popular form of American entertainment featuring white performers with burnt cork makeup portraying caricatures of blacks in comic acts, dances, and songs.

The plaintive courtship-themed 1853 lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” fit the minstrel genre by depicting an African-American singer, who refers to himself as a “darkey,” longing to return to “a yellow girl,” a term used to describe a mulatto, or mixed-race female born of African-American and white progenitors. The songbook does not identify the author or include a musical score to accompany the lyrics:

There’s a yellow girl in Texas
That I’m going down to see;
No other darkies know her,
No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her
That it like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her,
We never more will part.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour
That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,
And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your Dearest Mae,
And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.

Where the Rio Grande is flowing,
And the starry skies are bright,
Oh, she walks along the river
In the quiet summer night;
And she thinks if I remember
When we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again,
And not to leave her so.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour, &c

Oh, I’m going now to find her,
For my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the songs together
That we sang so long ago.
We’ll play the banjo gaily,
And we’ll sing our sorrows o’er,
And the yellow Rose of Texas
Shall be mine forever more.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour, &c.

“Dearest Mae” and “Rosa Lee,” the only named females in the song, are the titles of two songs also appearing in Christy’s Minstrels songbooks. These songs were published earlier (1847–48) and are similar in style. Both are sung by a black man in a courtship setting with lyrics similar to those found in “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Dearest Mae, who was from “old Carolina state,” was described as follows: “Her eyes dey sparkle like de stars, Her lips are red as beet,” and “She cried when boff [both] we parted.” Rosa Lee lived in Tennessee and had “Eyes as dark as winter night, Lips as red as berry bright.”

The Christy’s Minstrels also included in their repertoire three other songs that reference attractive black women as “roses” who are associated with geographic places. These were “The Virginia Rose-Bud,” “The Rose of Alabama,” and “The Rose of Baltimore.” As such, the original lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” indicate that the song can best be understood in the context of its fictional minstrelsy genre and not for any incident authentically associated with the state of Texas.

The earliest stand-alone sheet music for “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was copyrighted in 1858 and published by the Firth, Pond & Company, a music store located at 547 Broadway in New York City. This company, owned by John Firth and William A. Pond, Jr., had published twenty-two of Christy’s songs by 1858. Mark Camann (2010) contended that Edwin Christy himself may have been involved in publishing the song sheet.

The cover of the sheet music states that the song was “composed and arranged expressly for Charles H. Brown by J.K.” Brown, who is identified on the cover as a resident of Jackson, Tennessee, appears in the 1860 U.S. census for that town as a twenty-six-year-old bookseller with a wife and two young children. No sources have surfaced to date to indicate Brown’s relationship with the composer or why the song was composed for him.

Breathed Fire Through His Nose: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt. 2)

November 29, 2012

Clarence Ashley, Jon Pankake, Tex Isley.

from “Chronicles,” by Bob Dylan:

Jon Pankake, a folk music purist enthusiast and sometime literary teacher and film wiseman, who’d been watching me for a while on the scene, made it his business to tell me that what I was doing hadn’t escaped him. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re singing nothing but Guthrie songs,” he said, jabbing his finger into my chest like he was talking to a poor fool.

Pankake was authoritative and a hard guy to get past. It was known around that Pankake had a vast collection of the real folk records and could go on and on about them. He was part of the folk police, if not the chief commissioner, wasn’t impressed with any of the new talent. To him nobody possessed any great mastery-no one could succeed in laying a hand on any of the traditional stuff with any authority. Of course he was right, but Pankake didn’t play or sing. It’s not like he put himself in any position to be judged.

“You’re trying hard, but you’ll never turn into Woody Guthrie,” Pankake says to me as if he’s looking down from some high hill, like something has violated his instincts. It was no fun being around Pankake. He made me nervous. He breathed fire through his nose. “You better think of something else. You’re doing it for nothing. Jack Elliott’s already been where you are and gone. Ever heard of him?” No, I’d never heard of Jack Elliott. When Pankake said his name, it was the first time I’d heard it. “Never heard of him, no. What does he sound like?” John said that he’d play me his records and that I was in for a surprise.

Pankake lived in an apartment above McCosh’s bookstore, a place that specialized in eclectic old books, ancient texts, philosophical political pamphlets from the 1800s on up. It was a neighborhood hangout for intellectuals and Beat types, on the main floor of an old Victorian house only a few blocks away. I went there with Pankake and saw it was true that he had all the incredible records, ones you never saw and wouldn’t know where to get. For someone who didn’t sing and play, it was amazing that he had so many.

Elliott, who’d been born ten years before me, had actually traveled with Guthrie, learned his songs and style firsthand and had mastered it completely. Pankake was right. Elliott was far beyond me.

I sheepishly left the apartment and went back out into the cold street, aimlessly walked around. I felt like I had nowhere to go, felt like one of the dead men walking through catacombs. It would be hard not to be influenced by the guy I just heard. I’d have to block it out of my mind, though, forget this thing, tell myself I hadn’t heard him and he didn’t exist. He was overseas in Europe, anyway, in a self-imposed exile. The U.S. hadn’t been ready for him. Good. I was hoping he’d stay gone, and I kept hunting for Guthrie songs.

View related post.

Hillbilly Blues Guitar

November 16, 2012


Included on this DVD are songs from Clarence Greene, known mostly as a fiddler, but an ace guitarist, Dick Justice, who in his one day in the recording studio waxed ten masterful performances, Frank Hutchison who excelled at lap slide, harmonica on a rack and conventional blues picking, Sam McGee, a banjo and guitar master who went on to star on the Grand Ole Opry, Hobart Smith, a musical powerhouse, Maybelle Carter, a rocksteady and beautifully lyrical player who may have been the most influential of the bunch and Emry Arthur, a soulful singer and player who recorded one of the earliest versions of Man Of Constant Sorrow.

excerpt from David Bradford  (

The guitar was largely ignored by rural white musicians until around the turn of the twentieth century. The sudden popularity of the instrument among white “hillbilly” musicians probably was due to the fact that – then as now – young whites were attuned to musical trends in the black community and eager to learn the latest black styles. The blues – which was just coming into its own as a distinctive new style – was probably the hottest, most exciting thing those white country boys had ever heard, and the guitar was a key part of that excitement.

“My daddy ran a little store, and these section hands would come over from the railroad at noon,” recalled early Grand Ole Opry guitarist Sam McGee of his childhood in Tennessee. “Well, after they finished their lunch, they would play guitars. …  That’s where I learned to love the blues tunes. Black people were about the only people that played guitar then.”

The guitar – and along with it the blues – was introduced to white Appalachia by African-American musicians, principally railroad workers, deckhands on river boats, and men coming into the mountains from other parts of the South looking for work in the mines and lumber camps in the early part of the twentieth century.

Frank Hutchinson,  (1898-1945), a white blues musician from Logan County, West Virginia, first heard a black guitarist with a railroad crew that came through the area when he was seven or eight years old. Norton, Virginia banjo-playing coal miner Moran Lee “Dock” Boggs (1898-1971), as a small boy, was fascinated with the music of a black man named “Go Lightening” who walked along railroad tracks playing his guitar. If Hutchison and Boggs’ memories are reliable, black guitarists were in Appalachia at least as early as the first decade of the twentieth century.

Plank Road Stringband

November 15, 2012

Plank Road Stringband plays “Going Down the River”:

edited from Odell McGuire (

’73 was the first summer of “The (Mongrel) Horde” as they called themselves. Musicians and their supernumeraries rented three large farm houses in various parts of the [Rockbridge] county. We traveled to festivals most every weekend and we entered three or even four bands with various personnel groupings and various names. For example, an all girl outfit, including Liz Shields and Becky Williams called themselves “The Leather Bitches.” Dave Winston and Brad Leftwich stayed in one of these houses near Fairfield until Al Tharp invited them to move into his little place on Plank Road. They did so, and the idea of a band called “Plank Road” probably dates from that time. Also, as many readers will be aware, Uncle Dave Macon once recorded a tune called “Way Down on the Old Plank Road.”

Almost from the start, they were joined by cello picker Mike Kott, who had never played with some members of the band before. Al Tharp tells that story on the back cover of the FRC Plank Road CD. I’d met Michael James the previous August at Galax. One night I crashed in a stall with Dave Winston. Early next morning I was awakened by horrible loud sounds from out-of-tune guitar and cello. My first thought was that we had died and gone to Hell and this was retribution for all those bad notes we hit on our banjers. I said as much to Dave. He said: “No! It’s only Michael James Kott.” We emerged from the stall. The guitarist was a rocker who called himself Johnny Bee. Michael James grinned and said: “I knew if we played the right tune it’d get y’ns up!” And we tuned properly up for a jam.

Plank Road quickly made a name for themselves on the road but it wasn’t til June of ’76, that they taped a cassette intended for public release. They used a very small studio at W&L University. There was no air conditioning and no windows and it was very hot and stuffy. Dave Winston engineered according to Al’s instructions. Michael James [Kott] was stripped to the skin playing his cello. The rest wore sweat drenched underwear. Some tunes were added in December in a more comfortable venue, and a few of those recorded in June were dropped. The product was released in April ’77 by Rounder. A second recording, “Plank Road 2″, same band, different tunes, was made in Doug Dorschug’s studio in August ’77 when we were all up to a Highwoods party. It was later released by Appalshop, I think. Also Plank Road , at some point during ’76-’77 played a gig in the White House.

Steve Gendron, Andy Williams, Brad Leftwich, Michael Kott, Al Tharp

Made Me Want to Gasp: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt.1)

November 11, 2012

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (guitar)

edited from “Chronicles” by Bob Dylan:

BOB DYLAN: I listened especially to The New Lost City Ramblers. I took to them immediately. Everything about them appealed to me-their style, their singing, their sound. I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and I especially liked their name. Their songs ran the gamut in styles, everything from mountain ballads to fiddle tunes and railroad blues. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days. At the time, I didn’t know that they were replicating everything they did off of old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn’t have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.

On this particular day, we were just sitting around talking and Flo Casstner asked me if I’d ever heard of Woody Guthrie. I said sure, I’d heard him on the Stinson records with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston. Then she asked me if I’d ever heard him all by himself on his own records. I couldn’t remember having done that. Flo said that her brother Lyn had some of his records and she’d take me over there to hear them-that Woody Guthrie was somebody that I should definitely get hip to. Something about this sounded important and I became definitely interested.

Flo told me about-a Woody Guthrie set of about twelve double sided 78 records. I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned-didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself . . . songs like “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” “Jesus Christ,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Jackhammer John,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” “This Land Is Your Land.”

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there-mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto.

He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.

That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, “So this is the game.” I could sing all these songs, every single one of them and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.

Cake Walk

November 9, 2012

reprinted with permission from The Ragtime Ephemeralist (

It has been suggested many times that the cake walk was an imitation of white plantation masters’ refined dances by their black slaves, either originating as, or developing into, a parody of the affectations of european high culture. Such a hypothesis certainly has some corroborating evidence; Robert Anderson, a slave who was born in Green County Kentucky in 1848, recalled an incident when the master’s family had left the plantation and so they “had a regular jubilee which lasted the greater part of the night. We danced the dances like the white folks danced them, and then danced our own kind of dances.”

Slave dances were generally held around the end of the harvest season, and there seem to have been two events about which slaves were permitted “celebration”: Christmas, and the so-called “corn-shucking.” The first celebration was of a fixed date, the second, changeable, and sometimes held more than once a year, depending on the individual “culture” of the plantation; the harvested corn would be gathered and piled extraordinarily high (“as high as a house” in many descriptions) and the plantation’s slaves as well as slaves from the surrounding area plantations would gather to shuck the corn. Sometimes the shucking would last long into the night, and on other plantations it would be over by dawn, the remainder of the evening spent dancing.

“Some of the masters would even go to town and buy music and, when the weather was okay, would let those slaves who wished come and stand outside the open windows of the house to listen. In that way they would catch on to the words and the tunes. Then, when company came to the big house, the master would send word down to the slave quarters for them to sing. The company would sit out on the verandah of the big house listening and, with the wind in the right direction, sweet and original harmony would be carried to their ears.

Sometimes, on pleasant evenings, boards would be laid down for an impromptu stage before the verandah so the guests could have a good view of the proceedings and a real shindig would take place with singing and dancing. The “cake walk” … at that time, was known as the “chalk line walk”. There was no prancing, just a straight walk on a path made by turns and so forth, along which the dancers made their way with a pail of water on their heads. The couple that was the most erect and spilled the least water or no water at all was the winner.”

The cake walk, perhaps due its origins as a burlesque dance done for the entertainment of white plantation owners, eventually became a part of the minstrel show, and a number of Afro-American performers were to capitalize on its popularity in the late nineteenth century, some couples like Charles Johnson and Dora Dean reinventing the dance as one of great grace and beauty. It was one of the few ways in which Black perfomers could find some measure of dignity in the theatrical world, and it was one of the means through which the public began to hear the new music being referred to as “rag time.”

The Mersey River Boys

October 29, 2012

edited from

Born of austerity and a love of American folk, Skiffle was basic, direct and thrillingly raw. A kind of ‘make do and mend’ pop. But then this was a make do and mend time. Post-war Britain was a drab, bankrupt and almost broken country. Cities were still littered with bomb sites and rationing was still in place until 1954.

The musicians who emerged from the skiffle scene read like a virtual who’s who of British pop music: The Quarrymen (which became The Beatles), The Detours (which became The Who), Cliff Richard,  Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin), Martin Carthy (later of Steeleye Span), Dave Gilmour (later of Pink Floyd), Mark Knopfler (later of Dire Straits) and Graham Nash (later of the Hollies) all found inspiration and nominal success in this new scene. .  Indeed, the skiffle movement, which started with “Rock Island Line,” prefigured both the British rock-and-roll scene and the English folk scene, putting guitars in the hands of numerous players and teaching them to love American blues music.

Lorna Skingley at the BBC is looking for help! She is currently working on a new radio documentary series called ‘The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records’ to be broadcast next year on BBC Radio 2.

She needs to chat to people with personal memories of the skiffle era, as part of her research.  From hanging out in coffee bars, listening to skiffle on jukeboxes or playing in bands, to memories of the end of rationing and day to day life in the post-war decade.  She wants to hear from skiffle fans, regular visitors to venues such as The 2i’s Coffee Bar and those with memories of the highs and lows of life in the post-war decade.

If you can help her email address is


October 17, 2012


The Quills are a early American folk panpipe, first noted in the early part of the 19th century among Afro-American slaves in the south. They are aerophones, and fall into the panpipe family. They are assumed to be of African origin, since similar instruments are found in various parts of Africa, and they were first used by 1st and 2nd generation Africans in America.

The “Quills” are a set of cane pipes, numbering from two to at least 8, with each piece of cane stopped at one end by a node, and open at the other. The pipes are often bound together and are played by blowing across the open ends of the tubes.

The Quills would probably be forgotten today if not for the excellent recordings by the entertainer and early bluesman Henry Thomas, made in the late 1920s.  Alec Lomax and others have recorded traditional players in the field as well.

Only a few players have been recorded playing an instrument called the quills prior to the folk revival.

  • Big Boy Cleveland, Gennet 1927.
  • Henry Thomas, Vocalion 1927 and 1929.
  • Sid Hemphill, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942.
  • Alec Askew, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942.

Big Boy Cleveland

Cleveland’s Quills Blues can be heard at this site: Document Records (search for “The Songster Tradition 1927 – 1935″.

It is likely that Cleveland is actually playing the cane fife (also called the quills).  For more information on the cane fife, see the following pages on

Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew

Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew were recorded by Alan Lomax, and their playing is included in the Alan Lomax collection, Southern Journey, Vol. 1.  A clip of Hemphill’s playing can be heard on’s page for this recording. Another interesting recording is Traveling Through the Jungle, which features a different performance by Hemphill.


There is another recording from Alan Lomax’s field recordings featuring Alec Askew playing the “4 hole quills” included on the Document CD Field Recordings Vol 15 (DOCD 5672), where Lomax asks Askew to play the individual notes–this makes analysis easy, and I’ve included the tuning of this set of pipes after the section on Henry Thomas below.

Rock Me, Shake Me: Field Recordings Vol. 15:... by Various Artists

Henry Thomas

By far, the most information we have about this instrument comes from the early blues recordings by Henry Thomas.  I became interested in the Quills because I study woodwinds, and some friends who listen to (and play) a lot of early blues played Thomas’s “Bull doze Blues” for me. That’s about all it took–Thomas’s music is so strong and vibrant, even through the medium of a 78rpm recording, that I was hooked. We started to discuss what it would take to build a set of pan-pipes as close to Thomas’s as we could.

Thomas left little in the way of documents about his life, and no sets of his instruments have survived. I’ve heard that some instruments cataloged as Quills can be found in small, southern museums, and I have heard a rumor that a set of quills was donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1800′s along with a dulcimer. The quill’s whereabouts are currently unknown however. (more…)

Jamaican Music Roadmap

October 9, 2012

This should clear up most of your questions.

Copyright 1999-2011

All rights reserved.

The Evolution of Western Dance Music

September 26, 2012

by Osman Khan (


The map shows the evolution of top level dance genres only, and does not delve into all possible sub-genres.

It is often difficult to pin-point the beginning of a genre to a single year, so we have placed the birth of each genre within 5-year periods (on the interactive map at the link above) .

When the explosion of dance music arrived in the 80s, many genres arrived in the same 5-year period as the genres they influenced. In this situation, the ‘influencer’ genre starts to fade in on the map at the time the influencing line appears.

Non-dance music genres which influenced dance music are also included, but their own influences are not shown.

Often where a genre was first born was not the location it eventually gained most popularity.

The Virginia Minstrels

September 25, 2012

In “Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924,” David  Wondrich discusses The Virginia Minstrels, “the first truly American band,” (formed in 1843):

Roots of Lomax’s Southern Journey

September 10, 2012

“I’ll Meet You on that Other Shore: Field Recordings from Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey” (Mississippi Records)


In 1958, Alan Lomax returned to America. He had spent the decade recording the traditional music of Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Italy; producing radio and television series for the BBC; and compiling the eighteen-volume “World Library of Folk and Primitive Music” for Columbia Records. In no small measure he’d also been beating the heat of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts, which had a particular hunger for Lomax’s folk-music peers.

But drink had killed the junior senator from Wisconsin in 1957, and when Lomax arrived back in New York City, he found an urban folk revival in full bloom. Crowds of young banjo players, guitarists, fiddlers, and fans were gathering in Washington Square Park to pick and sing traditional songs and tunes, many of which Lomax had recorded years earlier from the likes of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Hobart Smith, and Texas Gladden.

That year the Kingston Trio had a number-one Billboard hit with “Tom Dooley,” based on a version of the murder ballad that folklorists Frank and Anne Warner had recorded from North Carolina banjo player and singer Frank Proffitt in 1940. The young revivalists were becoming proficient on their instruments, and with the help of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, they had access to hundreds of songs in albums, books (among them Lomax’s American Ballads and Folk Songs and Our Singing Country), and burgeoning folk-music magazines like “Sing Out!”

It was in “Sing Out!” that Pete Seeger announced Alan’s return: “Alan Lomax, considered by many America’s foremost folklorist left the U.S.A. an ‘enfant terrible’ and returns a legend…. I welcome back Alan Lomax, not just because he is an old friend, but because he is more responsible than any other single individual for the whole revival of interest in American folk music.”

Seeger concluded with a description of the cultural moment to which Lomax had returned and the unique place Lomax held in it. “Well, of course, the folk-song revival did grow, and flourishes now like any happy weed, quite out of control of any person or party, right or left, purist or hybridist, romanticist or scientist. Alan Lomax probably looks about him a little aghast.”

Next summer, Lomax wrote his own article for “Sing Out!” – an astute critique of Seeger’s “happy weed.” The revivalists might pick a banjo fluently or boast of a large repertoire of songs, but, Alan pointed out, when those songs are “ripped out of their stylistic contexts and sung ‘well,’ they are, at best, changed. It would be an extreme form of cultural snobbery to assert, as some people do, that they have been ‘improved.’ In my view they have lost something, and that something is important.” Writing forty years later, Lomax was more blunt:

Some of the young folkniks, who dominated the New York scene, asserted that there was more folk music in Washington Square on Sunday afternoon than there was in all rural America. Apparently, it made them feel like heroes to believe that they were keeping a dying tradition alive. The idea that these nice young people, who were only just beginning to learn how to play and sing in good style, might replace the glories of the real thing, frankly horrified me. I resolved to prove them wrong.

Bristol Sessions Not the Big Bang of Country Music?

September 9, 2012

Ralph Sylvester Peer, record producerRalph Sylvester Peer


By Dave Tabler

In 1984, the Tennessee General Assembly recognized the town of Bristol, with one foot in Tennessee and one in Virginia, as the “Birthplace of Country Music.” The Commonwealth of Virginia followed in 1995, with both the State Senate and the House of Delegates passing identical resolutions honoring Bristol.

The Bristol Sessions of August 1927 are commonly acknowledged as the event that gave rise to the professional country musician and recording star. Releases from the Sessions put both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers on the country music map.

Ralph Peer, the Victor Talking Pictures A&R man responsible for organizing the Bristol Sessions, often gets the credit as the recording industry visionary who single handedly brought Appalachian music to a national audience. He was only too happy to promote that position himself; in a 1958 interview he stated bluntly “I went to New York and worked for OKeh Records. That’s where I invented the hillbilly and the nigger stuff.”(he didn’t join Victor till 1926.)

As it happens, three other records companies had held or were scheduling auditions to record musicians in Bristol concurrent with Peer’s trip.

Why Bristol? Along with Johnson City, TN and Kingsport, TN, it formed the Tri-Cities, then the largest urban area in the Appalachians. Ernest Stoneman, whom Ralph Peer had recorded on location in Asheville, NC in August 1925, was the one who’d recommended that Peer set up shop in Bristol; ironically from our point of view, Peer had blown through Nashville in 1927 before settling on Bristol, but had dismissed it as a location.

Nor was the Bristol undertaking the first attempt by the recording industry to codify and capture this (to the general public’s ears) new musical style.

So then, what was the precise moment hillbilly music began? Was it with fiddler Eck Robertson’s 1922 New York recordings? These were done at Victor, quite likely produced by Nat Shilkret, who was head of Victor’s Foreign Department.

Robertson relates his first encounter with a Victor manager (though he doesn’t name Shilkret): “He said `Young man, get your fiddle out and start off on a tune.’ Said `I can tell that quick whether I can use you or not.’ Well, I said back to him just as honest as I could `Mister, I come a long ways to get an audition with you. Maybe I better wait and come back another time. You seem like you’re in an awful hurry.’ `No,’ he said, `Just start off a tune…’ Well, I didn’t get to play half of Sallie Gooden; he just throwed up his hands and stopped me. Said, `By Ned, that’s fine!’ And just smiled, you know. Said, `Come back in the morning at nine o’clock and we’ll make a test record.” (more…)

The Chain Store Blues

September 8, 2012


An energetic, if short-lived, protest movement of the late 1920s and early ‘30s flexed against the encroachment of chain-stores — evidence that the “buy local” concept is of some vintage. Although several chain-store blues were recorded in the pre-war recording era, however, only the Allen Brothers’ 1930 plea for support of independent “home stores,” entitled “I Got the Chain Store Blues,” was released.

Perhaps the labels assumed that the chains, many of which sold their records, wouldn’t take kindly to such sentiments. By 1930, Chattanooga, Tennessee — then the base of operations for the Sewanee-born Lee and Austin Allen — was home to a Sears Roebuck, a Montgomery Ward, and a McLellan’s five-and-dime. Other stores like Woolworth’s, J.C. Penney, and the A&P (“Where Economy Rules”) had infiltrated many smaller towns, prompting “trade-at-home” campaigns and legislation to limit what the chains sold and where they sold it.

W.K. Henderson, the sensational personality behind Shreveport’s radio-powerhouse WKHK, threw his considerable weight behind the movement: “We have attempted to bring to light the ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits of business out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street…. appealed to the fathers and mothers — who entertain the fond hope of their children becoming prosperous business leaders—to awaken to a realization of the dangers of the chain stores‘ closing this door of opportunity…. insisted that the payment of starvation wages such as the chain-store system fosters, must be eradicated.”

Allen Bros. play “I Got the Chain Store Blues”:

Minstrel Song Revival

September 4, 2012

“Civil War Events Feature Minstrel Song Revival”

With their slouch hats, whiskers and time-worn instruments, members of the 2nd South Carolina String Band look and sound like a Civil War camp band. And while they play “Oh! Susannah” and other familiar fare, they don’t shy from other historical songs with inescapably racist overtones that may offend some modern listeners.

The aim of these musical re-enactors is to accurately recreate music that soldiers from both the North and South enjoyed around battlefield campfires at Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run. Along with “Buffalo Gals” and “Dixie,” they perform lesser-known songs in the exaggerated dialect of blackface minstrels from that tumultuous era when slavery was breaking apart.

“A-way down in de Kentuck’ break, a darky lived, dey call him Jake,” Fred Ewers sings on “I’m Gwine Ober de Mountain,” by “Dixie” composer Daniel Emmett.

“Angeline the Baker,” a Stephen Foster song in the band’s repertoire, begins, “Way down on de old plantation, dah’s where I was born.” It’s the story of a slave who was “so happy all de day” until his beloved Angeline disappears.

The camp bands don’t perform in blackface and typically shun the most offensive words and lyrics with cruel or violent imagery. Still, it’s a tricky business presenting such racially jarring songs.

Historically accurate? Certainly. The music comes from the minstrel shows that were the nation’s most popular form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. Usually featuring white performers with blackened faces, the shows included songs and skits that often lampooned black people and portrayed slaves as happy and care-free.

The minstrel shows produced some of America’s most beloved songs and contributed mightily to jazz, bluegrass, country and folk music. Blackface minstrels also helped popularize the banjo, an instrument with African roots.

Some scholars and musicians question whether a Civil War re-enactment is the best place to hear such songs performed. Some of these critics play similar material at banjo workshops and scholarly gatherings designed for discussion that they hope can help heal the wounds of American slavery. (more…)

British Ballads in the Caribbean

August 21, 2012

Excerpt from John Storm Roberts’ notes to “Under the Coconut Tree  - Music from Grand Cayman and Tortola,” (Original Music, 1982)

“Though recent music from both islands is heavy in calypsos… the traditional styles of both Grand Cayman and Tortola are fairly unusual in that they contain many purely British survivals and no purely African ones… In the case of Grand Cayman, this is presumably explained by the fact that there were no plantations on the island and only a fairly small number of domestic slaves, so that the percentage of people of African descent was relatively low.

The very strong British strain in Tortolan music is more baffling. Not only did the island have sugar plantations, and therefore a high African population, but a kind of ex-slaves’ revolt shortly after Emancipation caused virtually all the British settlers to leave. For almost 100 years, Tortola remained a de facto independent black state, British in theory but hardly at all in practice. Yet we found far more British survivals in Tortola than in Grand Cayman.”

“The Butcher Boy,” sung by Melcena Smith And Elias Fazer (from Tortola):

Milk ‘Em in the Evening Blues

August 19, 2012

In 1965 Jon Pancake asked Kirk McGee about the African-American music he was first exposed to.

Correctone String Band

August 8, 2012
By Bill Chaisson (

Fiddler John Specker came to Ithaca in 1973 after fiddler Danny Kornblum sought him out in the Catskills, where he was making an effort to farm. Together with Cornell student Bruce Molsky on banjo, Timmy Brown on harmonica, John Hayward on wash-tub bass, and Jim Wexler on guitar, the two fiddlers formed the Correctone Stringband.

The Highwood Stringband was already living in the Ithaca area, and Specker was in awe of them. “The Highwoods were the Lewis & Clark of the city kids who played old-time,” he said. “The alternative was the eggheads like the New Lost City Ramblers.” While Mike Seeger’s played in a style that was less sanitized than that of the Weavers, of which his older half-brother Pete was a member, the New Lost City Ramblers style – forged in 1958 – seemed to a younger generation to miss the point of the mountain music: it was a hell of a lot of fun.

The Correctone Stringband proved to be a crucial link in the chain of being that became “the Ithaca old-time sound.” The Highwood Stringband brought the hell-for-leather style to Ithaca from the Bay Area, and they found a receptive audience in the hippies who become the Correctones. In the wild simplicity of the Appalachian music they heard one of the sources of the rock and roll attitude.

Specker had been moving toward the mountains for a long time. He started in Astoria, Queens. “Our oldest brother Peter got the rest of us into music,” he said. “He had this little fold-out record player and he brought home everything: doo-wop, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the blues, and Dylan. At an early age I developed an RBA, a rural black attitude.”

He picked up the violin at 13 as part of mandatory school orchestra class. “I took outside lessons until I was 15,” Specker said, “which was when Dylan went electric.”

Three years later as a student at was then the Philadelphia College of Art in 1968, Specker took up the guitar. “I fell in love with Doc Watson, like a lot of people,” he said, “but everybody played the guitar, so I figured if you want to hook up with a female, you need something different.” That’s when he heard “that hillbilly music,” specifically the song “Old Dan Tucker.”

Appalachian culture was often satirized on television, in the movies and in cartoons. In the mid- to late 1960s the original 78 RPM records made in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were reissued in compilations in 12-inch LP format. “I was looking for trance music,” said Specker.

In addition to the reissued music, Specker was captivated by the Holy Modal Rounders combination of old-time and psychedelia. “They were right up my alley,” he said. Specker dropped out of college after his third year and went to Great Britain, spending several months in Newcastle, where he met members of the British folk revival, including Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and the High Level Ranters.

“And then [the Band's] Music From the Big Pink made all the hippies want to move to the country,” he recalled. He left a job as a maintenance man at the Frick Museum and moved to a house in the Catskills that his family had used as a summer home for many years.

During his years with the Correctone Stringband in Ithaca, Specker began to develop his distinctive style of playing, which is rife with double and triple stops and includes a certain amount of footstomping. Although he was playing a wash-tub, Hayward (who would go on to play bass with the Horse Flies) was executing complicated runs of single notes. Brown eventually added mandolin to his harmonica contributions. “He played like an Irish guy,” said Specker of Brown’s rapid-fire harmonica style, which does in fact resemble button accordion playing. All this plus the twin fiddles of Specker and Kornblum, and sustained commitment to having a good time, meant that the Correctones were following the lead of the Highwoods, but adding distinctive twists.

They recorded an album, Black Eyed Suzie, in 1976 with Phil Shapiro producing, but broke up later that year. At loose ends, Specker spent 1977 living with the Puryears and then moved to Vermont to pick apples.There he met and married Susan Leader, a potter.

See previous John Specker post and listen to the Correctones’ classic version of “Black Eyed Suzie.”

Dorsey Dixon and John Edwards

August 5, 2012

Edited excerpt from “Linthead Stomp: the Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South,” by Patrick Huber (University of North Carolina Press, 2008):

[Dorsey Dixon, of the legendary Dixon Brothers, was inspired at an extremely low point in his life by a correspondence with Australian record collector John Edwards in 1960.]

Homage to Fuzzy Mountain

July 27, 2012


1972: (seated) Bill Hicks, Vicky and Malcom Owen, (standing) Eric Olson, Blanton Owen, Tom Carter, and Sharon Sandomirsky  (photo by Russell Rigsbee)

Edited from liner notes to first two Fuzzy Mountain String Band LPs by Bill Hicks, Blanton Owen, and Sharon Sandomirsky:

Informal music making was a regular thing at Tommy and Bobbie Thompson’s house near Durham, NC, in the mid 1960s.  Alan Jabbour, Bertram Levy, Tommy and Bobbie eventually formed the influential Hollow Rock Stringband out of those jam sessions, and in 1967 another handful of regulars decided to form a band of their own which they called the Fuzzy Mountain String Band.  Dave Crowder and JoAnn “Claire June” Stokes provided guitar accompaniment to the fiddling of Malcolm Owen and Dick Zaffron, who also played mandolin on occasion.  Eric Olson played melody on the five-string banjo. 

In the spring of  1968, the Fuzzies played to no great acclaim at the huge Union Grove fiddler’s convention, but did appear on the LP recording issued of that year’s convention. By 1969, the band’s membership changed.  Bobbie Thompson joined as the sole guitar player.  Malcolm’s wife Vickie Owen played the fiddle tunes on mountain dulcimer, and Blanton Owen joined Eric as an additional banjo man.  Bill Hicks brought his fiddle to the group in 1970.

In the fall of 1971, we recorded our first LP, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band (Rounder 0010).  We set up a two-track tape recorder in either Bobbie or Eric’s living room.  Using several Rube Goldberg adaptations, we patched our shared microphones (some were only one step removed from tin cans with strings) into the recorder.

By the time we finished our first recording, Blanton had moved to Johnson City, TN to attend college, Eric had taken a library job at Cullowhee, NC, Malcolm and Vickie were making plans to buy land in western North Carolina, and Bobbie was on the verge of taking a new job as chief book designer at Princeton University Press.  In February, 1972, Bobbie was killed in an automobile accident while en route to her new job in Princeton, and her daughter Jesse was critically injured.  That winter was tough for us all.  Jesse finally began to speak again after spending a month in Duke University Hospital.
     Our record came out that winter and we all went to Union Grove again—this time with Sharon Sandomirsky on guitar and Tom Carter playing either banjo or mandolin.  We played Tommy Jarrell’s version of “John Brown’s Dream” and –lo and behold!—won first place in the Old Time Band competition.  The best “prize” Union Grove could give us came later, though.  The Union Grove organizers sent the 1972 festival recording with our “Brown’s Dream” on it to Tommy, not to us.  Not only did they think it was Tommy Jarrell playing the tune, so did Tommy—until he heard Bill’s singing.

     Rounder asked us to record a second LP, which we did in August, 1972.  This time we recorded in a radio station (WDBS, Durham) but still in live takes.  The album was titled Summer Oaks & Porch after the Bobbie Thompson intaglio print of the same name and which was used on the cover.  It shows Bobbie’s front porch, the site of many summer music playing sessions, and the huge white oak trees that shaded it.  We dedicated the record to Bobbie Thompson.

 The last major performance of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band was at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap in the summer of 1973.  By the fall of that year, the band members were fairly well dispersed.  Tom and Blanton were doing their historic “search for Henry Reed” in the Blue Ridge.  Bill had formed the Red Clay Ramblers with Tommy Thompson and Jim Watson.  Malcolm and Vickie were raising a family on a farm in Madison County, NC.  Eric continued his job at Cullowhee, NC.  Only Sharon stayed, the mainstay of old-time music for new groups of musicians in the Durham/Chapel Hill area.
  From the beginning, members of the FMSB ventured forth to visit and record old-time fiddlers and banjoists throughout the upland South.  And learning their tunes “right” was important.  We took great pride in the fact that virtually all of our repertoire was learned first-hand, most from traditional musicians we visited, recorded, and got to know.  Bobbie was especially critical; she was the one willing to tell any of us that we didn’t have a phrase quite right.
     As the 1970s and 80s wore on, we noticed that “our” tunes, the tunes we learned from the great old-timers in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, had taken on a new life.  They were no longer associated with Oscar Wright, or Tommy Jarrell, or Fred Cockerman, or Gaither Carlton, or Kyle Creed, or Taylor Kimble, or Frank George, or Burl Hammons.  In most cases, they were not even associated with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Playing the tunes very much like someone else was not considered necessary or even good.  The tunes were being played simply because they were good tunes, apart from who “originally” played them, or how.


John Lomax Radio Show

July 26, 2012


“One hundred years ago, a Texan named John Lomax published a collection of songs that introduced Americans to a musical patrimony that would influence popular song for decades to come. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads was the product of years of collecting by Lomax who early in the 20th century searched far-flung ranches, and dusty back alleys of Western towns in search of songs that were born on the frontier.

Living as we do in a time when you can tune in and share music from all over the world with the click of a mouse…it’s difficult to appreciate the importance of Lomax’s work. In his day, songs were local. They varied from town to town, and people in the big cities never heard the songs sung along the backroads and byways. American classics such as ‘Home on the Range’, ‘Git Along Little Dogies’, and later, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’…were unknown until John Lomax collected and published them for the rest of America to enjoy. He was the first folklorist to pay attention to songs that chronicled the American experience; other folklorists of his time focused almost exclusively on the great European epics and folksongs. The publication of Cowboy Songs in 1910 was a landmark in the history of America’s interest in its own folk culture, and it made Lomax a national figure. In addition to cowboy songs, Lomax had a lifelong fascination with African American folk songs, particularly the blues. These two passions drove Lomax to what many consider his greatest achievement, the collection of more than 10,000 recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.”

Steve Zeitlin, City Lore

In this radio journey, narrated by folklorist Hal Cannon, we retrace those back roads of Texas and Louisiana to discover why the folk music that John Lomax documented in the early 20th century still resonates with us today. Join Cannon as he follows Lomax’s path, listening to the original recordings he made, visiting some of the places where Lomax recorded, and talking with the grandchildren of those he recorded. With the help of cultural observers, folklorists and historians, Cannon demonstrates how the simple act of acknowledging the lives and music of ordinary working people changed history. From the Fort Worth Stockyards in Texas to Angola Prison in Louisiana this is a musical journey to the roots of popular music worldwide.

Listen here.

Barbary Ellen

July 24, 2012

 from Charles Seeger’s notes to “Versions and Variants of the Tunes of ‘Barbara Allen’”(AFS L 54) and Alan Lomax’s “Folk Songs of North America”:

A girl refuses a man who says he is dying for love of her.  He expires when she turns from him; then she, too, dies of remorse.  Barbara is glad to see her Willie dying because of a small misunderstanding which could have been cleared up in a moment.  Her remorselessness and Willie’s extraordinary demise are not really explained, but represent an undercurrent of powerful feelings which it is assumed the audience understands.  In fact, the song is the vehicle for the fantasies of woman and the frustrations of men, of which both the ballad singers and their listeners are unconsciously aware.

To investigate the problem of the identity of the ballad tune, it is necessary to select a ballad for which there is available for exam­ination a large number of specimens that are representative of the main stream of oral transmission as well in the British Isles as in North America.    For as far as this kind of material is concerned, the two areas have formed one sing­ing community for more than three centuries, maintained since 1620 by con­stant westward migration and now, by the eastward migration of the folk­ music revival movement.    The ballad of “Barbara Allen,” as it is known in the United States, seems to fulfill the conditions set forth above. Folk­lorists have frequently attested to the fact of its being the best and most widely known of all the “Child” ballads on both sides of the Atlantic.

The holdings of the Archive of American Folk Song (AAFS) in the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. are eminently suited to use for such a purpose. Of the total of seventy-six dubbings made available for the present study, most were recorded at or near the residences of the informants during the years 1933 to 1940 with what must be considered, at this writing, primitive equipment. For the most part, recording was made on aluminum blanks. Collectors were rarely experienced in field collection and few had had special training.    Few could make the adjustments and repairs of the machines inci­dent to wear and tear, rough handling, variation of electrical current, and obsolescence.    Some of the original discs show blemishes of such basic cha­racter that subsequent sound-engineering could not modify them without loss of essential features of the singing.    In spite of these hazards, some of the sound-tracks still project a luminous quality through the veil of imperfections. Recordings not only of exceptionally talented but even of ordinary carriers of the tradition often possess this quality, though to varying degrees.

Listen to Bill Cornett sing “Barbara Allen” in previous post.

The Mellungeons

July 22, 2012

“Mellungeons and Myth” from

Mountain people were at one time described as pure Anglo-Saxon. This was, of course, pure nonsense. Today some writers seem obsessed with describing mountaineers as mostly Celtic or Scots-Irish. The truth is that the mountain people have a varied ancestry, as do many people in America. I grew up among Gibson and Collins families in Knott County, Kentucky. Some members of a few families were very dark, with a distinctive Indian appearance, while some members had a more African American appearance. There were other local families that were said to have African American or Indian ancestry. Through genealogical research I have established that a very talented Knott County family of banjo players had a grandfather that was described as Mulatto in census records.

Gibson and Collins are common surnames among some remnant Indian populations. They are also the most common surnames among mountain families that are today described as “Melungeon.” There has been a lot of romantic nonsense written about Melungeons in various places, including the Internet. The Gibson and Collins families described today as Melungeon came originally from east Virginia to the border counties of Virginia and North Carolina. From there they migrated to southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and to other areas. I have found that several other families in eastern Kentucky also followed this general migration path. It was through this migration path, I believe, that banjos and banjo songs entered Knott County. (more…)

Appalachian Blues (pt. 2)

July 19, 2012

edited from Barry Lee Pearson’s “Appalachian Blues: Blues From the Mountains”

The blend of black and white tradition appears more prevalent in the mountains, probably due to the closer social interaction between blacks and whites in the region. Artists ranging from Howard Armstrong to Turner Foddrell make the point that despite the existence of Jim Crow, they grew up playing with white children of various ethnicities whose parents came to work the mines or railroad camps. This created opportunities for music to cross racial boundaries. In such camps blacks and whites often lived and worked in close proximity despite segregation.

The list of Appalachian musicians who played for coal camps is quite extensive. Carl Martin from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, north of Gate City, also worked the coal camps, as did his partner Howard Armstrong. Armstrong later recalled that integrated bands, whether impromptu or professional, were not uncommon in the region:

Music was one medium where blacks and whites seemed to meet on very nice ground, common ground. Even in the small towns in Tennessee and different places like that, they did integrate when it came to playing music. Because I know, right up there in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, there was five people in this band. I think there were two blacks and three whites, and they were together. Played well together and everything else, and nobody looked askance at them. The guy was head of it, we called him Smitty. He was a piano player, Smith Carson, and he had another guy that played with him, a black guy. And they played for everything. And I’ve known several black musicians, you know, just like a fiddle player and banjo player would play with these whites. Maybe [there would] be two of them or three of them, or what not, but nobody paid it any mind at all. [Armstrong 1990]

Read entire article here.

Dock Boggs and John Hurt

July 18, 2012

On Dec. 13, 1963, The Friends of Old Time Music in NYC presented Dock Boggs and John Hurt in concert at NYU.  These notes are by Peter Siegel, from Smithsonian Folkways CD SFW40160

The concert by Dock Boggs and John Hurt was an extraordinary event. Mike Seeger, who had recently rediscovered Dock Boggs in Norton Virginia, hosted the show and accompanied Dock gracefully on guitar. The evening highlighted some striking parallels and contrasts in the careers of Boggs and Hurt.

Each had visited New York once before, Boggs to record for Brunswick in 1927, Hurt to record for Okeh in 1928. Each was back in New York for the first time in over three decades. Hurt was a Black musician influ- enced by White country artists such as Jimmie Rodg- ers. Boggs was a White musician influenced by blues artists.  At the F.O.T.M. concert, Dock mentioned Sara Martin as the source of his “Mistreated Mama Blues.”

Decades earlier, both men had been contacted by W. E. Myer, a Richlands, Virginia, businessman and song- writer who sent song poems to each. Myer eventually signed Dock Boggs to his Lonesome Ace label, for which Boggs set to music and recorded several of Myer’s po- ems. His modal-sounding recording of Myer’s “Old Rub Alcohol Blues” includes the stanzas:

“Have never worked for pleasure Peace on earth I cannot find The only thing I surely own Is a worried and troubled mind…
When my worldly trials are over And my last goodbye I’ve said Bury me near my darling’s doorstep where the roses bloom and fade.”

At the F.O.T.M. concert, John Hurt performed Myer’s lyrics for “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” which he had set to the melody of the Jimmie Rodgers song “Waiting for a Train”:

“I do not work for pleasure Earthly peace I cannot find The only thing I can call my won Is a troubled and worried mind
When my earthly race is over Cast my body out in the sea Save all the undertaker’s bills Let the mermaids flirt with me.”



Dock Boggs and John Hurt collaborated on one piece for their New York audience: the evening’s final tune, “Banjo Clog,” featured banjo by Boggs and clog dancing by Hurt. The two then parted ways and pursued their new recording and performing careers.


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