Archive for the ‘music history’ Category

Joe Wilson

May 19, 2015
 The American Folklife Center is very sad to pass on news of the death of Joe Wilson, Library of Congress Living Legend, NEA National Heritage Fellow, and longtime director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA).  Here is an article written about his work co-founding The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, and excerpts from Wilson’s book about it.
By April Wright (
“Europeans, Tidewater African-Americans and Anglo-Americans met in the Blue Ridge and became more comfortable with each other…,” said Joe Wilson in his book, “A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Trail.”

“All brought music with them. Violins were expensive and rare, but all these people were singers. The travelers from Ulster had ballads and ditties galore, and the Germans had a rich tradition of religious singing. Musical concepts from many places met, and new blends emerged.”

Virginians of all classes danced to fiddle and banjo for the first two centuries on these shores, he said.
Hillbilly music started from contributions made by people right here in the Twin Counties [Grayson and Carroll], Wilson believes.

Wilson gives the example of Al Hopkins, a musician from Gap Creek, who with his brothers organized a vocal quartet with string instruments. In 1924, Al was in Galax assisting his brother Jacob, a physician, with office work.  Al, Jacob and banjoist-fiddler John Rector met in a barbershop — located next to where Barr’s Fiddle Shop is located today — where the babershop’s proprietor and fiddler Tony Alderman, held jam sessions.

Earlier that year, Rector traveled to New York with Fries mill worker Henry Whitter to record. Whitter had become the first musician from the region to record when he traveled to New York.
Rector thought that his barbershop band could do better, so the band, the Hill Billies, made a trip to New York to record.

So, the first band to be a major commercial success in what was to become country music was organized in a Galax barbershop, and “hillbilly” music was named for it.  The band performed at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge and became a household name from touring and performances on the radio in New York and Washington, D.C.

Hill Billies leader Al Hopkins began broadcasting in 1922 when radio signals reached all over the nation.
The famous Victor recording sessions were held in Bristol. Among those recorded there for the first time were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, founding icons of country music.  But those sessions also recorded an array of other musicians from the Blue Ridge area.

No one knows how many musicians this area has produced, Wilson said, but the small community of Coal Creek, which is only 12 miles in length, has led to noteworthy recordings from 31 bands.  People in Southwest Virginia, Wilson said in his book, still prefer homemade music to the mass-marketed music.  The Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, he noted, draws as many as 50,000 people without hiring a single star and with little advertising.

Mountain music is now “best kept by people who play at the fiddlers’ convention,” Wilson told the crowd. “This area has more musicians per acre than any other place.”

Wilson, a founding member of the Crooked Road — Virginia’s heritage music trail — said the organization started with just nine counties and is now up to 19 in Southwest Virginia, including Grayson, Carroll and the City of Galax.
Musicians in this area “keep the spirit and values of a place better than its historians,” Wilson said in his book. “They are participants in a musical community, not spectators, and music is a part of their lives, not an industry controlled from some distant place. Most of these artists make no speeches, but they are the keepers of the true vine.”

The music that was developed by poor immigrants, slaves and indentured servants, Wilson said, has survived the movements of time and has resisted becoming an international fad.

“Now, nearly 400 years old, it is still influencing America and is in a state of vigorous health,” he said. “In seeking to explain the popular culture of this nation and how it came to dwarf European popular art, the deepest musical roots are found in fiddle and banjo music.  Old Europe and Old Africa are combined in it. It may be the constant combining and recombining of black and white culture in American musical arts that keeps them so vigorous and vital.”

Guy Carawan

May 12, 2015



In the summer of 1953, folk singers Guy Carawan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Frank Hamilton lit out from New York City to take a trip through the South. Over six weeks, they traveled from the North Carolina coast to New Orleans, spending much of their time in the Appalachian mountains, hearing a lot of music and making some themselves.

Carawan, at the time 26 years old and based in New York, wanted to visit a coastal farm in Mesic, N.C., where his father had grown up. From there he would explore the South, the source of so much of the music he loved and performed. He invited his 18-year-old friend Frank Hamilton along. While in a Harlem bar to hear Knoxville-born blues singer Brownie McGhee, they met Jack Elliott, who was also soon on board for the trip.

Stopping in Merry Point, N.C., they met union organizer Bill Levener, who convinced them to leave town immediately. A fish factory had been burned down recently and the three outsiders made good suspects, even though it was widely suspected that the owners, losing money because of a fishermen’s strike, had burned the factory themselves. This was not the last time they would be met with suspicion.

Low on funds, they tried busking in most towns they stopped in, but frequently police stopped them. At a revival, they were singled out by the preacher, threatened with damnation if they did not turn to Jesus. “We’ve been taken for everything from mountain hillbillies, Texas cowboys, country farmers, dust bowl refugees, to hoboes and sometimes city fellers,” Carawan wrote. They would often sleep on the ground or in their car, occasionally put up for the night by farmers or townspeople in barns or homes.

In Naces Springs, Va., they stayed with A.P. Carter in his “old torn down shack—full of old pictures, song sheets and books,” sleeping in a “bug-eaten bed.” It was a pitiful sight, but they had a splendid time making music with the “grand-daddy of all mountain and country folk singers.”

Then on to Asheville, where they met with singing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who had launched the Asheville Folk Festival in 1928. Lunsford was an influential figure for Carawan, but on meeting him, Carawan thought him a “reactionary aristocrat.”

Lunsford wanted to know if the three men were Communists; he was galled to see that vocal leftist Pete Seeger wrote the liner notes to his just released Folkways album. They did play music with him and seemed to enjoy the experience, Lunsford singing “like an old mountain reprobate, full of glee and friendliness.”


Music of Surry County

May 8, 2015

The Mexican Accordion

May 5, 2015

from and

The accordion is a very important instrument in various Mexican musical genres, especially in norteño music in the northern region of Mexico. Exactly who first brought the accordion to Mexico still remains a point of contention. But it is generally agreed that German settlers in the Rio Grande Valley introduced the instrument to the region in the mid-19th century, on both sides of the river in Southern Texas and Northern Mexico.

Some argue that these accordion-bearing Germans were in Mexico as miners, and some others also note that they were there for the beer-brewing industry. Together with the accordion, Germans also brought with them musical and dance forms such as waltz, polka, mazurka, and schottische—some of which have influenced the development of norteño music that we hear today. (The norteño accordion pioneer Narciso Martínez learned tunes from German and Czech brass bands.)

German immigrants came to Texas around the mid-1800s and settled in Central Texas in towns like Fredericksburg, Gruene, and New Braunfels–better known as the German Belt. Bringing their language, culture and musical traditions, they made contact with the Mexican Americans.

In Texas, there were several substantial waves of German immigration. The first, when Friedrich Ernst, “Father of German Immigration to Texas,” arrived in Texas in 1831 and received a grant of more than 4,000 acres in what is now Austin County. He set about encouraging other Germans to join him. This tract of land formed the nucleus of what is now known as the German Belt.

The next wave came in 1842, when a group of German nobles formed the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, also called Adelsverein. Their intention was to create a new German fatherland in America where German workers could prosper, and which would open new markets for industry and commerce in Germany. Between 1844 and 1847 more than 7,000 Germans reached Texas and founded towns such as New Braunfels and Fredericksburg.

Eventually, lured by work on railroad lines, among other work opportunities, the immigrants moved farther south to South Texas and Northern Mexico, and they brought with them the accordion and their tradition of waltzes and polkas. By 1890, the accordion was fairly common in Mexican groups in the Texas-Mexico border region.


Ry Cooder and Sleepy John

April 23, 2015

ry cooder boomer's story excerpt from Jas Obrecht’s Music Blog:

Ry Cooder Reminisces

Ry: for me, the big deal was to see Sleepy John [Estes] because I liked his records so much. When I got mobile, I got a little older, I went down South to see him, and we used to sit with him. I’d go see him in his house up in Brownsville, Tennessee. Take him money and things. By that time I was kind of doing things. But as a teenager, I used to see him come through here. I had these records, although they weren’t easy to get in those days, but people had given me tapes or some 78s. I used to listen to these things and think, “Well, what could this all be about? Who are these people? What are they saying?”

It’s a mysterious journey here, like Alice in Wonderland. And then, not understanding anything about the historical, social, economic conditions that produces music – there again, being pretty young and all – all of a sudden, in the folk boom, on the scene in Hollywood, in this folk music club, appears these guys. And they walk to the stage, walk through the audience. I was thunderstruck I couldn’t breathe, you know. They got up onstage, sat down, and commenced to do whatever it was they were able to do. And of course that really killed me, because I thought, “This is beyond my understanding.” After a while I began to gather up courage and go up and talk once in a while. You could sit down and say, “Can I understand this?” or “Can you show me this or that?”

It was hard for me, but I did. And then I found out it was good, because they didn’t mind. They liked talking; it was not unpleasant for them. I didn’t bother anybody or badger them, like people do these days. But I was always curious and always trying to understand. Then it became obvious that it wasn’t so much the music as it was the people. If you could figure out where the people were and how they were as beings, why when the music was very clarified. Because what’s totally mysterious on record and inexplicable, why, in five minutes of watching a guy play, you got it. You understand body rhythm and how the instrument is approached, which is entirely different than how I’d seen it done. It was not linear, it was not patterns – they’d play out of patterns.

“The potlikker of human living”

April 20, 2015

Robert Cook (with camera) and Stetson Kennedy (with recording equipment) documenting Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy, Ybor City, Florida, 1939

Stetson Kennedy, one of the pioneer folklore collectors during the first half of the twentieth century, was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1916.  He left the University of Florida in 1937 to join the WPA Florida Writers’ Project, and was soon, at the age of 21, put in charge of folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies.

By Stetson Kennedy (

Whenever anyone asks me what it was like, working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and recording Florida folksongs back in the 1930s for the Library of Congress, I tell them we were as excited as a bunch of kids on a treasure hunt.

None of us had ever gone hunting for folksongs before, but we were soon able to recognize one the moment we heard it, and to realize that it was truly a bit of cultural treasure that we were discovering and preserving for future generations to enjoy.

And sure enough, here we are, more than a half century later, able to pick and choose in a split second, on our computer screens, from among thousands of items it took us five years to collect. In the 1930s, we traveled backroads the length and breadth of the Florida peninsula, toting a coffee-table-sized recording machine into turpentine camps, sawmills, citrus groves, the Everglades, out onto railroad tracks, and aboard shrimp trawlers — wherever Florida folks were working, living, and singing.

“The Thing,” as we called the machine, looked like a phonograph, and cut with a sapphire needle directly onto a 12-inch acetate disk. Every time we shipped off another batch of disks to the Archive of American Folk-Song (now the American Folklife Center) at the Library of Congress, the newspapers would report, “Canned Florida Folksongs Sent to Washington.”

And now all you have to do is select a can from the Web site shelf, open it up, and enjoy!

The voices you hear singing, talking, laughing, joking, and telling tall tales are those of Floridians who have almost all gone to Beluthahatchee (an Afro-Seminole name for Happy Hunting Ground). As for the songs they sang and tales they told, many are still to be heard, having been passed along as hand-me-downs from one generation to the next, while others survive in the “cans” we put them in — and now on the World Wide Web!

Happily, many of the folksongs recorded by the WPA have also been preserved in books such as A Treasury of American Folklore, as well as Southern, Western, and other regional “Treasuries,” all edited by the man who served as national director of the WPA’s folklore collecting, Dr. Benjamin Botkin.

We are all indebted to Ben Botkin for teaching us, in his seminal treatise entitled “Bread and Song,” about the inter-relationship between life and culture.  A bit later on, another outstanding folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston, gave us a definition that will stand for all time: “Folklore is the boiled-down juice, or potlikker, of human living.”

From Congo to Cuba to Congo

April 17, 2015


excerpt from Bob W. White (

How it is that Afro- Cuban records actually made it to African urban centers during the colonial period—this is a history that remains to be written; even specialists of ethnic recordings in the early years of the international record industry lament the lack of information available for the Caribbean and Africa.

Preliminary findings, however, do point in certain directions. We know, for instance, that as early as the 1890s record companies such as Edison (U.S.) and Pathé (France) were recording local artists in Havana. By 1904, larger record companies such as Columbia and Victor (both based in the U.S.) were sending field agents and engineers to Havana on a biannual basis, but as the companies that came before them, they were primarily interested in recruiting and recording classical music, opera, military bands and ballroom dance orchestras .

It was not until later that record companies expressed interest in local popular music: Victor first recorded the legendary son group Sexteto Habanero in New York in 1920 and Sexteto Nacional, their primary rival, was picked up by Columbia in 1926. In 1928 Victor discovered the Trio Oriental in Santiago, Cuba and brought them to Camden, New Jersey to record as the Trio Matamoros. (more…)

American Epic

April 14, 2015


 Two British filmmakers, Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, and American Producer Duke Erikson have pieced together this extraordinary story set in the late 1920s when record companies toured America with a recording machine and for the first time captured the raw expression of an emerging culture. It democratized music and gave a voice to the poorest in the nation.

The filmmakers follow the machine’s trail across the United States to rediscover the families whose music was recorded by it, music that would lead to the development of blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music – without which there would be no rock, pop, R&B or hip hop today.

Over three episodes the remarkable lives of these seminal musicians are revealed through previously unseen film footage, unpublished photographs, and exclusive interviews with some of the last living witnesses to that era, when the musical strands of a diverse nation first emerged, sparking a cultural revolution whose reverberations are felt to this day.

For AMERICAN EPIC SESSIONS the filmmakers have re-assembled the machine that allowed America to first hear itself. They have replicated the atmosphere of America’s seminal 1920s field recordings down to the smallest detail, with top American artists recording straight to wax, using all the original microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment from that era.

This is the first time that any performer has been able to use this machinery for over 80 years. Led by producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett, today’s legends are given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to relive the experience of the founding mothers and fathers, their idols, and remake the music that changed America and changed the world.

Producer and co-creator Allison McGourty said, “We traveled the length and breadth of America, from Cleveland, Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, and from New York to Hawaii, in our quest to discover the identities and stories of America’s earliest recorded musicians.  We captured testimonials from the last living witnesses and direct descendants of America’s musical pioneers. This is the last time their story can be told before everyone who was there is gone.”

Dan Emmett and “Dixie”

April 9, 2015



In 1859 Dan Emmett joined Bryant’s Minstrels. Known as one of the hottest minstrel groups, the Minstrels were the rage of New York. They performed at Mechanics Hall with a large and enthusiastic following from February 1857 until May of 1866. Emmett’s considerable talents were used to full advantage by Bryant’s Minstrels. He wrote tunes, songs, comedy sketches, and walk-arounds, or song and dance routines. He also performed on banjo, fiddle, as well as the fife and drum.

It was during his stint with Bryant’s Minstrels that Emmett composed “Dixie.” Although there were varied and often conflicting versions of how the song was composed, we can probably rely on Emmett’s own version of the song’s origin: “I always look upon the song as an accident. One Saturday night, Dan Bryant requested me to write a walk-around for the following week. The time allotted me was unreasonably short but not withstanding, I went to my hotel and tried to think out something suitable, but my thinking apparatus was dormant; rather than disappoint Bryant, I searched through my trunk and resurrected the manuscript of “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land,” which I had written years before. I changed the tune and rewrote the verses, and in all likelihood, if Dan Bryant had not made that hurry-up request, ‘Dixie’ never would have been brought out.”

On the evening of April 4, 1859, Bryant’s Minstrels first performed the song Dixie’s Land on the stage at Mechanic’s Hall. The song was an instant hit, and went on to become the most famous song produced in that era. In looking for reasons for the song’s phenomenal popularity (other than the fact it was a good song, we must remember that the Civil War was fast approaching. The song touched the very heart of the Negro question.

While Southerners and Northerners argued over the Negro’s place, the song affirmed that the Negro longed to be in “the land of cotton” and that he was happy and content there, just like in the old days when “old times there are not forgotten”. Besides allowing Southerners to believe the Negro happy in slavery, the song afforded both sides in the conflict the chance to laugh at the whole situation. As events leading up to the Civil War rapidly worsened, there was little enough chance to laugh.

When the Civil War did break out, “Dixie” played no small part. At the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18, 1861, “Dixie” was triumphantly placed. And as Southern soldiers marched into battle, they often marched as they sang “Dixie.” Although the song was intended as harmless entertainment, when soldiers sang, “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand To live and die in Dixie,” they doubtless meant something more than what poor Dan Emmett had intended.

Country Music in Africa

March 25, 2015


from Sam Backer’s interview with Uchenna Ikonne about the history of country music in Africa  (

Sam Backer: How popular is country music in Nigeria?

Uchenna Ikonne: Country music has been popular across Africa for a very long time. I don’t know when it became popular exactly, but I know that it’s been in circulation for at least the 1920s or 1930s, perhaps.

So, really the same time that it was coming into widespread popularity in the United States.

Exactly. So Jimmie Rodgers, for example. Jimmie Rodgers was probably the main pioneer of country music in general and he was also one of the first country music artists to find some popularity in Africa.

So his records were distributed and sold?

Not only him, but his records were quite popular. They were on 78s.

Somehow, in a lot of ways, Jimmie Rodgers makes some sense. He–I mean, he yodels! Jimmie Rodgers is kind of intense music. The thing that I find remarkable is that there’s a much smoother sound that was also very, very popular.

I would say that the style that probably achieved the most popularity and has remained popular is the Nashville sound. That is the sound that was pioneered by Chet Atkins and other Nashville musicians and producers and that was a lot smoother than the honky tonk style that had come before; it had rich background vocals and strings. I think that is the style that has endured most of all.

So when that style first came out in the ’60s, was there any particular segment of society that listened to it?

I think that everyone listened to it, because it was played on the radio and it was very appealing to the whole population.  The thing about country music though, despite the fact that its lyrical concerns were very similar to what you would find in 99 percent of Western pop music–which is basically the ups and downs of romantic relationships–people tended to ascribe a kind of spiritual quality to the music. I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

First of all, it’s probably the sound of it: country music always had very curious sounds–whether it’s the nasal vocal style or the yodeling, or whether you are talking about those very high pitched and keening instruments, like the pedal steel guitar or the string sections that came in during the Nashville period, a lot of these sounds had an otherworldly quality that I believe that African artists tended to interpret as spiritually reparative. So despite the fact that they were singing “You done left me and now I’m drinking,” people really felt that there was something about that music that was beyond sensual concerns.

A mix by Uchenna Ikonne  features Nigerian artists like musician/actress Christy Essien-Igbokwe and singer Henry Pedro playing in the folk, country, and rock genres that are typically associated with America and the U.K. Featuring tracks that recall Western classics like Simon & Garfunkel‘s “The Boxer” or Elvin Bishop‘s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” the compilation is at times melancholic, at others hopeful, but always engaging. Listen to it here.

St. James Sessions (#2)

March 20, 2015

st_james from

St. James Sessions is a very welcome website dedicated to the recording sessions held at Knoxville, Tennessee’s St. James Hotel in 1929 and ’30. It might seem obscure at first glance, but from this modest collection of dates came some of the greatest records of the pre-war period.

Curiously (and frustratingly), the best records to come from St. James were by artists who only made one record a piece: Alex Hood and his Railroad Boys’ “L&N Rag” and “Corbin Slide” and Hayes Shepherd’s (as the Appalachia Vagabond) “Hard for to Love” and “The Peddlar and His Wife.”

These records have more style and personality than 18/20ths of their hillbilly contemporaries. Also made here were the two sides of Howard Armstrong (Louie Bluie) and Carl and Roland Martin’s Tennessee Chocolate Drops: “Knox County Stomp” b/w “Vine Street Rag.” Carl Martin’s later records in the early ’30s don’t come close to comparing to the Drops’ tunes from St. James; Louie Bluie’s 1934 dates with Ted Bogan get closer, but we’d take these first.

See also: the four sides of the Perry County Music Makers – with Nonnie Smith Presson’s lonesome yodelling and autoharping – and the killer religious piano blues* of Leola Manning. Her “Arcade Building Moan,” about a fire which killed several children in Knoxville, was included on one of Dick Spottswood’s Folk Music In America volumes, and has long haunted us. This site gave us our first chance to hear her topical murder ballad “Satan Is Busy In Knoxville.”

See also here.

New Orleans String Bands at the Turn of the Century

March 14, 2015

New Orleans String Band. From Left: Youman Jacob, Coochie Martin, Unidentified, Wendell McNeil. Photo from University of Connecticut.

From Left: Youman Jacob, Coochie Martin, Unidentified, Wendell McNeil. Photo courtesy of Samuel and Ann Charters Archives, University of Connecticut.

edited from  Seva Venet (

During the last two decades of the 19th Century, string bands with skilled Creole musicians were in high demand all around New Orleans. They performed at various functions, including picnics, parlor room parties and balls. Between 1884 and 1917 there were major changes in how the music was played, brought on by the changing demands of dancers and the changing attitudes in response to the implementation of the Black Codes (U.S. laws limiting civil liberties of blacks) in the late 1800s.

There were three main types of ensemble performing around New Orleans from the 1880s to 1917: brass bands (for funerals), society orchestras and string bands. Being smaller and in demand in more diverse settings, the string ensembles had more flexibility and were expected to entertain with up-to-date songs and dancing music.

In 1897, the Storyville District opened, and at Tom Anderson’s Annex on the corner of Basin Street and Canal there was a string band that played every night that, over the decades, featured musicians such as Wendell McNeil (pictured above), Bill Johnson and, probably, Lorenzo Tio, Jr. The location of this venue, at the border of the uptown and downtown areas, is highly symbolic, as pioneers of the new musical concepts arose from the cultural interaction between uptown and downtown groups.

The concept of a swinging ensemble dominated by a rhythm section of strings was picked up in the 1920s by the Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and his peers. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Western Swing bands and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass groups followed suit in string bands tinged with New Orleans jazz.

It isn’t until the late 1940s that we have recordings of a New Orleans string band, a quartet formed around 1910 and modeled after the bands the players had heard in Anderson’s Annex. This band, Edmond “Doc” Souchon’s 6 7/8 String Band, with rhythm guitar, mandolin, “Hawaiian” slide guitar and bass, may be the best surviving evidence of a string band in the style of collective improvisation on early ragtime, society, pop and novelty tunes played around the turn of the century.

Hawai‘i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar

February 2, 2015

Screen shot 2015-02-01 at 10.36.18 PM


Blues prophet Robert Johnson (1911–38) and other early blues guitarists captivated listeners with a new way of playing their instrument. Sliding a steel bar or other hard object over the strings to change the guitar’s pitch, they created a sound eerily like that of a weeping or singing human voice. Later blues and rock musicians such as Muddy Waters (1915–83) and Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949) would further improvise on the sound.

Scholars have mostly agreed that the slide style was directly influenced by the “diddley bow” or “jitter-bug,” a single-stringed instrument they say was carried to America by West African slaves. The more likely story, John W. Troutman argues in Southern Cultures, is that the musical technique popularized in the Mississippi Delta came from traveling Native Hawaiian musicians. Tracing the proliferation of their playing style, writes Troutman, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and weekend steel guitarist, once again underlines just how many ethnic and racial groups have shaped southern culture.

In the 19th century, the American South was just one of a number of regions around the world experiencing an influx of newcomers. Half a world away, Honolulu harbor received a steady stream of “sailors, whalers, merchants, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and laborers from distant lands such as the United States, Portugal, Mexico, and Japan,” as well as cowboys from Latin America brought in to wrangle cattle. With all these foreigners also arrived — in the early 1800s, and likely via Mexico — the Spanish guitar, which quickly caught on as an accompaniment to the local hula song and dance.

A few decades after the first guitar appeared in the islands, Joseph Kekuku (1874–1932), a Native Hawaiian youngster, flipped his own instrument to lie flat on his lap and played it with a piece of metal he slid across the strings. Over the next seven years he honed the lap-steel style and hacked his guitar to accommodate it, raising the strings from the fretboard. “The effect, as described by all who first heard it, was transcendent,” Troutman says. It “sonically revolutionized every musical tradition it touched. … Vaulted in status from serving as a typically rhythmic, accompanying instrument to that of a much more dynamic and melodic, or lead, instrument, the guitar would never be the same.”

Kekuku taught other islanders to play as he did, and then left to perform elsewhere, touring North America and Europe for an eventual three decades. He was one of many Native Hawaiians who left their homeland after 1893 — the year U.S. Marines overthrew the government and ended Hawaiian self-rule — more than a few of them carrying guitars and igniting a steel-slide craze wherever they went. In American sales of recorded music in 1916, Hawaiian guitar tunes topped all other genres.

Oral testimony, newspaper clippings, and other evidence show that Hawaiian musicians frequented southern cities from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Memphis, to New Orleans, “working every small town, nook, and holler along the way.” They sometimes collaborated with black musicians. Walter “Fats” Pichon (1906?–67), a New Orleans jazz singer and pianist, hired Hawaiian guitarist “King” Bennie Nawahi (1899–1985) to accompany him, for instance. Louis Armstrong featured Hawaiian guitar on a 1930 track. Racial segregation in the South likely increased the islanders’ contact with black Americans, since they would have shared boarding houses and restaurants with other nonwhite traveling entertainers.

“Most of the earliest documented African-American slide guitarists, and certainly the most significant, understood their style as that of playing ‘Hawaiian guitar,’” Troutman notes, even as they perfected their own techniques. References to Hawaii showed up in song titles (“Blue Hawaii,” “Hawaiian Harmony Blues”), and some blues musicians, such as Huddie Ledbetter (1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, played Native Hawaiian ditties. Talking shop with an interviewer, Tampa Red, a popular blues guitarist of the 1920s and ’30s, recalled achieving a “Hawaiian effect” while using a bottleneck as a slide. In another interview, blues legend Eddie “Son” House (1902?–88) remembered first learning to play Hawaiian guitar, not the diddley bow — indicating that American pop culture rather than ancient African roots had the greater say in his musical development.

“If he played any tune whatsoever, I clean missed it.”

January 22, 2015

A.A. Gray (2nd from left) and his String Band

excerpt from “The Georgia Old Time Fiddlers’ Conventions Revisited” by Wayne W. Daniel:

Perhaps the most quarrelsome dispute among the old time fiddlers occurred at the 1917
convention. The controversy erupted when a fiddler from Union County allowed that he would
be playing a tune from a copy of sheet music that he had brought to the convention.
According to a newspaper report, “two dozen fiddlers were on their feet in a moment, vigorously
protesting against the introduction of any tune which ever had been printed and the admission
of any fiddler who pretended to be able to look at a lot of black spots on a ladder and play them
on a fiddle.”
There arose considerable debate between two groups –those against the use of printed music
and those who were brave enough to admit that they could convert to meaningful sound such
erudite symbols as key signatures, flats, sharps, eighth notes, quarter notes, and whole notes.
Alec Smart intervened with a compromise. Printed music could be used for exhibition purposes,
but would not be allowed in the auditorium during the contest.


“I had the pleasure of hearing one of these fancy violinists last year,” said Mr. Jackson.
“He came a pesterin’ around through the mountains on the trail of what he called folk music. He
got three or four of us fiddlers together and prevailed on us to play for him, and he put down
little crooked notes in a black book.
Every time I’d get good started on a tune, he’d stop me while he caught up, and then tell me to start over. When he got through I asked him to play us a tune and he took my fiddle and [tinkered] with it a little bit and then sawed the bow up and down and seemed to be huntin’ around for something he never could find, and then he quit.
Uncle Jim Watson asked him why he didn’t go ahead and play something.
“’Why, I’ve just played it,’ this fellow said.  But I don’t know but what he was joking. If he played any tune whatsoever, I clean missed it.”

Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention: Chattanooga, TN 3/14/15

January 21, 2015


by Marc Michael (

In 1925, auto magnate Henry Ford, a fan of “Old Time” music, had been hosting fiddlers and square dancers at his home in Michigan for some time. This attracted a fair amount of talent, including Mr. Mellie Dunham of Maine who was soon being hailed as the “champion fiddler” of the U.S. Tales of a Northern usurper claiming such a title without first having faced the best of what the South had to offer incensed local promoter J.H. Gaston, who was quoted in the Chattanooga Times as saying, “How can a Yankee claim to know as much about fiddling as a ‘born fiddler’ from here in the Tennessee Valley where the art of old time fiddling originated?”

Gaston’s plan was simple. He would sponsor a competition to determine the best fiddler in the South and then send him up against Mr. Ford’s boy from Maine. That first event was held at the court house and Harrison resident “Sawmill” Tom Smith emerged the victor. Soon after that, Gaston dispatched a telegram to Ford asking him to tune in to local radio station WDOD at a particular time and date to hear Smith and learn what “real fiddling by a real fiddler” sounded like.

Ford’s reaction to that may not be known, but the local reaction was nothing short of astounding. A mere two years later the event had grown to more than 5,000 attendees and moved to the newly constructed Memorial Auditorium.  By this time, the event had been renamed the All Southern Championship and was essentially THE contest of note, the big daddy of them all. The winner was crowned Champion Fiddler of the South and the biggest and best names of the day made it a point to attend and compete.

The event continued for more than a decade until the fuel rationing of World War II put an end to it and events like it across the country. That would be the end of our story if it weren’t for the efforts of a fellow named Matt Downer.

Matt is best known as half of local duo The Old Time Travelers, reviewed in this very column some months back. At the time, my impression of Matt and his partner Clark Williams was that they were nothing if not authentic, the living embodiment of the music they play. I stand by that assertion and if the proof is in the pudding, then here’s a particularly large helping of it:  In 2010, Matt took it upon himself (in partnership with the Crisp family and Lindsay Street Hall) to revive the Fiddlers’ Convention here in Chattanooga. The feedback from the community (including scholars, historians, musicians and listeners) has been wonderful.

The event continues to grow annually, attracting more and more spectators and competitors every year. True to his nature, Matt has taken great pains to ensure the event is as faithful to its historical predecessor as possible. There are no amplifiers, no electrified instruments; the playing styles and tunes must be “old time.” Competitions will be held for fiddle, banjo, string band, dance and traditional singing.


“The non-southern strain of early country music”

January 17, 2015


edited excerpt from Paul L. Tyler (“Hillbilly Music Re-imagined: Folk and Country Music in the Midwest”):

America’s contemporary culture wars between Red States and Blue States yield regional maps that echo the old sectional divide of slaveholding versus free soil territories. While not an arena of political or social strife, folklore scholarship has also been visited by sectionalist mischief, particularly with regard to the study of the benign art form of American country music, once widely referred to as “hillbilly music.”

D. K. Wilgus asserted that “early hillbilly performers came not only from the lowland and upland South, but from the Great Plains and the Midwest.” His wisdom, that the music’s “essence was of rural America,” was ignored. Most country music historians equated the term “hillbilly” first with musicians from the upland South, and quickly expanded that symbolism to reflect on other regional styles contained in the section of the United States identified as the South.

I contend that alternative readings of the hillbilly symbol disclose similarities between the southern mountains and other socially and culturally distinctive places occupied by non-southern rural Americans. There are other rural music scenes and musicians whose stories should be considered in writing the full history of American country music.

The non-southern strain of early country music has been ill-served by the postwar recording industry. Most of what people know today about the sounds of early country music is from 78 rpm phonograph records re-issued in the modern formats of LP and CD. These projects have had a decidedly southern bias.

I have been fortunate to hear the sounds of hundreds of 78 rpm recordings of midwestern artists that have not been re-issued, and thus are not widely accessible to modern fans or scholars. To fully understand the scope and range of country music in the first half of the twentieth century, it is necessary to take a larger sample than was offered by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (SFW 40090) or by County Records 500 series of LPs.

The many titles in Yazoo’s re-issue series on CD, subtitled Early American Rural Music: Classic Recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, have provided only a few hints at what has been overlooked by other editors.


The New York Sound

January 15, 2015


excerpt from Patrick Huber (“The New York Sound: Citybilly Recording Artists and the Creation of Hillbilly Music, 1924–1932″):

The studio system of hillbilly record production that flourished in New York in the mid- to late 1920s actually emerged from a long-standing industry practice. Since at least 1900, talking machine companies had employed a small roster of two dozen or so freelance studio singers to record the bulk of the selections for their popular catalogs.

In the 1920s, this production model fell out of favor in the pop music field as a result of rising public demand for recordings by vaudeville and radio stars, but the fledgling hillbilly recording industry embraced the studio singer system, particularly before 1927. After all, as Charles K. Wolfe reminds us, most of the singers and musicians discovered in the South, “were basically amateurs who, though often highly gifted and innovative folk artists,” had a limited repertoire of only four to six marketable songs and had little, if any, formal musical training.

Professional studio singers, on the other hand, offered talking machine companies several distinct advantages over supposedly more “authentic” and “traditional” southern singers and musicians.  First, New York studio singers were experienced professionals who had proven themselves capable of successfully negotiating the rigorous, sometimes nerve-racking demands of making phonograph recordings.  This was particularly true during the pre-1925 era of acoustic recording, when new artists facing the intimidating recording horn for the first time often suffered what industry insiders referred to as “horn fright”.

Second, these veteran recording artists were able to handle an array of musical material in a variety of musical styles, even to the point of being able to closely imitate the vocal nuances and phrasing of other hillbilly singing stars such as Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, and even Vernon Dalhart himself.

Third, unlike most southern hillbilly artists, many of these studio singers were formally and sometimes classically trained artists who could read a lead sheet and then, with little rehearsal, quickly master new material assigned to them by A&R men, sometimes in the studio on the very day of the recording itself. Such efficiency enabled record companies to finish studio sessions in a minimum amount of time and thereby reduce overhead costs such as having to pay musical accompanists for an additional session.

Studio singers’ high level of professionalism and musical literacy also allowed record companies, ever alert to shifting musical trends and changing public tastes, to rush onto the market both newly published songs and cover versions of competing companies’ hit records before such numbers peaked in popularity.

Finally, and most obviously, these New York-based studio veterans were easily accessible and available to work with minimal advance notice. As a result of these distinct advantages, studio singers served as the “workhorses” of this system of hillbilly record production, and their steady output, particularly prior to 1927, provided a significant percentage of the recordings in hillbilly catalogs.


Sodom, NC

January 9, 2015

Dellie Norton and Sheila Kay Adams

 from “The End of a Long Song?” by Tony Scherman and

Sheila Kay Adams is the seventh-generation bearer of her family’s two-hundred-year-old ballad-singing tradition, and is the mother and teacher of the eighth generation. Her own teachers were her great-aunt Dellie Norton, cousin Cass Wallin, and other kinfolks in the Wallin, Chandler, Norton, Ramsey, and Ray families of Sodom, North Carolina, who have so long been admired by ballad singers and collectors. In 1998, folklorist Dan Patterson wrote in the North Carolina Folklore Journal that “These families have made Sodom famous, out of all proportion to its size.” The tiny community is a giant in fostering the folk traditions of North Carolina.

What was it about Madison county, NC, that made it such fertile ground for ballads? For author/singer/storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, it wasn’t Madison County per se, but Sodom, where she was born and remains, that nurtured the ballads so well.

“If you talk about Madison County preserving the love songs (another southern mountain term for ballads),” says Adams, “it was mainly Sodom. Because people in Sodom stayed put. My however-many-greats-back grandfather Norton got a land grant in the eighteenth century and we’ve been right there ever since. People in other communities moved around, left Madison County, came back, whatever. In Sodom, people never moved.”

When I talked to Lee Wallin’s son Doug at the Wallins’ Craine Branch cabin way back in ‘84, he gave me the same answer. “Well, I guess it’s really because there’s so many people from the old countries that settled right in here. And a lot of them stayed and didn’t move out.”

Why not? “Love of family,” says Adams. “In my community, everyone was family. There wasn’t anybody else. That was it. Gosnells, Gunters, Nortons, Wallins, Chandlers, Sheltons, Rices, Rays—when Cecil Sharp (song collector and author of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians) talked about the Laurel section, that’s us. Everyone he mentions, I’m related to.



Slack Key Guitar

January 7, 2015

Ledward Kaapana playing a slack key lullaby

from “A Short History of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar” (


FDR’s Folk Revival

January 6, 2015


excerpt from “FEASTS OF UNNAMING,” by Robert Cantwell (

The New Deal brought the most concerted and multilateral documentation of American life and culture we have ever known. The Federal Writers’ Project sent reporters into every state to record cultural life as it was actually lived, to collect not only what Ben Botkin, director of the project’s folklore section, called “living lore,” but also to take the testimony of living European immigrants and former slaves, as well as to depict, journalistically, the entire sense of life in given regions and urban districts.

The Farm Security Administration sent writers and photographers into stricken agricultural areas to record the lives of men and women and children, and the circumstances in which they lived, in literary and photographic documents such as James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which remain touchstones of America’s image of itself as an agricultural, popular, and folk society.

The Resettlement Administration engaged musicologist Charles Seeger to find ways, through the encouragement of indigenous musical resources, to foster the consolidation of communities around the project of economic and social self-help. Muralists glorified the working life in countless public buildings, and a vast pictorial record, in photographs and drawings, of American folk crafts, The Index of American Design, was initiated under government auspices.

The Roosevelts themselves opened the White House in a series of nine concerts between 1934 and 1942, on one occasion with the king and queen of England in attendance, to traditional singers and musicians, including the North Carolina Spiritual Singers, organized by the Federal Music Project; a mountain string band called the Coon Creek Girls; an old sailor from Virginia, Dan Hunt, who sang sea chanties; and, because he and his father were the foremost collectors of them, Alan Lomax to sing cowboy songs.

The folk revival began in the 1930s, then, under “the man who couldn’t walk around,” as his friend Josh White called him in a blues song.  Well, not really. The Roosevelt administration had simply reached out into what by the 1920s had already become a brisk trade in the representation, as well as the commercial, political, and social exploitation, of folk culture.

Pioneer record-company advance men such as Ralph Peer and Art Satherly, beginning in 1923, had begun to tap the immense resources in nineteenth- century social and display music, folk and commercial, still flourishing in southern folklife: now-familiar figures such as the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, and Jimmie Rodgers won fame as performers and recording artists playing and singing traditional songs, of which they were both collectors and creators, to regional audiences.

A parallel development was occurring on the vaudeville circuit, where singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith supplied the urban and rural African American marketplaces with a newly introspective blues and jazz music, opening the way for many black rural singers and guitarists such as Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson who left behind them on “race” records documents of prodigious musical and poetic genius.

Commercial broadcasting, with its institution the radio barn dance, initiated by Nashville newspaper humorist George Hay’s “Grand Ole Opry,” brought traditional dance fiddling, minstrelsy, and the Saturday night play party, in performers such as Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Dave Macon, and Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters, to parlors urban and rural throughout the South and Midwest, recalling, with gentle satire, the old times before the First World War. This was a “folk revival” too.

Wayfaring Strangers

December 22, 2014


Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr  (includes a CD with 20 Tracks)

from and

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin.

Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. In Wayfaring Strangers, Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.

From ancient ballads at the heart of the tradition to instruments that express this dynamic music, Ritchie and Orr chronicle the details of an epic journey. Enriched by the insights of key contributors to the living tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, this abundantly illustrated volume includes a CD featuring 20 songs by musicians profiled in the book, including Dolly Parton, Dougie MacLean, Cara Dillon, John Doyle, Pete Seeger, Sheila Kay Adams, Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, David Holt, Anais Mitchell, Al Petteway, and Amy White. (more…)

Radio Barn Dances

December 21, 2014



Country music, by way of early “hillbilly” music, achieved its national and international status not through recordings or song publishing, but through its dissemination on the many barn dance programs that came to dot the US soundscape.
From the birth of radio in the 1920s, to its height in the so-called “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s, on through the post-war period, the onset of television, the birth of rock and roll, and the monumental cultural shifts in the second half of the twentieth century, the country music barn dance variety show, in its changing forms, has had a venerated place on the airwaves.

Starting in the mid-1920s, the radio barn dance genre provided many US listeners an appealing entertainment format through which to negotiate rapidly changing social and cultural circumstances. Amid revolutionizing “modern” technologies, this “down-home” representation, marked by traditional values and “old time” country music, proved popular with rural, urban, and newly urban audiences.

The genre thrived as powerful radio stations served swelling regional and national audiences. The airwaves that worked effectively to reduce distance, reconfigure place, and re-imagine communities often carried the rustic and comforting sounds of a barn dance. After World War II, as hundreds of new radio stations began to broadcast from small towns, a new wave of barn dance programs emerged, fashioned after national models like the National Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry.

These postwar shows returned the genre to local communities, providing an alternative to the mass-mediated, distant worlds aurally constituted on popular network broadcasts. Just as so many of the long-established programs had aided the creation of regional and national audiences so did these smaller barn dance programs of the 1950s and 60s project and construct a sense of local identification.

For historians, the negotiation by the “listener” of complex national, regional, and local identifications has been a central, contested issue in radio scholarship. Susan Douglas describes the condition:

[Radio’s] technologically produced aurality allowed listeners to reformulate their identities as individuals and as members of a nation by listening in to signs of unity and signs of difference. By the late 1920s “chain broadcasting” was centralizing radio programming in New York and standardizing the broadcast day. . . . Meanwhile, independent stations featured locally produced programs with local talent. Listeners could tune into either or both, and tie in, imaginatively, with shows that sought to capture and represent a “national” culture or those that sought to defend regional and local cultural authority.

Brother Duets

December 19, 2014

Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac and Bob)


 From the mid-1930s into the 1950s, harmony duos—often comprised of two brothers—constituted a major style in country music. Especially popular and influential in the Piedmont and Appalachian regions, such duos in the 1930s generally accompanied themselves on two guitars or on a guitar and a mandolin; by the 1940s, however, additional instruments were often added. Dozens of brother duos flourished via radio and recordings.

The first musicians to popularize the close harmony male-duo style were from Appalachia but were not brothers. Mac and Bob, the stage name of blind friends Lester McFarland, from Gray, Kentucky, and Robert Gardner, from Oliver Springs, Tennessee, won favor with Chicago radio audiences in the 1920s. Their recordings on the Brunswick and Vocalion labels featured traditional and popular ballads as well as hymns.

In the early 1930s, two Rockcastle County, Kentucky, natives, Karl Davis and Hartford Taylor, known as Karl and Harty, also attained radio popularity in Chicago and modest recording success nationally (on the Paramount and the American Record Corporation labels).

The first actual brothers to become major national figures as a duo were Alton and Rabon Delmore, from Elkmont, Alabama, who joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1933 and became widely known for their Bluebird recordings. The Delmore Brothers performed a variety of sacred songs, ballads, and blues-influenced numbers while popularizing such Alton Delmore–composed songs as “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” The Delmores’ career extended until Rabon’s death in 1952; their later repertoire included more modern-sounding material such as “hillbilly boogie” songs.

In 1934 the American Record Corporation introduced the Asheville, North Carolina–based Callahan Brothers. Featuring higher-pitched vocals than the Delmore Brothers, Homer and Walter Callahan recorded several widely popular songs, including “She’s My Curly Headed Baby.” The Morris Brothers (Wiley and Zeke), from Old Fort, North Carolina, recorded such influential original songs as “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog.”

The latter two duos were overshadowed—even within Appalachia—by the Monroe Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. Bill and Charlie Monroe were western Kentuckians, but they reached their height of popularity through radio broadcasts from Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, and Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and through recordings on the Bluebird label. Bill Monroe’s fast mandolin playing and high tenor distinguished the Monroes’ music.

The pair broke up in 1938 to pursue separate careers. The Blue Sky Boys—Bill and Earl Bolick, from Hickory, North Carolina—had a mellower sound than the Monroe Brothers, though the Bolick brothers’ instrumentation was less dynamic. Like the Delmores’, the Blue Sky Boys’ career on radio and Bluebird/RCA Victor Records extended into the early 1950s.

In the 1940s, the Bailes Brothers, from Charleston, West Virginia, were a favorite act on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, performing such original songs as “Dust on the Bible” and “I Want to Be Loved.” There were four Bailes boys, Homer, John, Kyle, and Walter. Until 1947 the duo was composed of John and Walter; thereafter, Homer performed with John.

The end of that decade brought the rise of perhaps the most popular brother duo of all, the Louvin Brothers. Ira and Charlie Louvin (born Loudermilk), from the Sand Mountain region of Alabama, recorded primarily for Capitol Records between 1947 and 1963, when they dissolved their partnership. As Grand Ole Opry regulars from 1955 until 1963, the Louvins represented a commercial peak in the brother-duo style.

A few non-brother harmony duos also had notable careers, including West Virginia’s Bill Cox and Cliff Hobbs, North Carolina’s Whitey and Hogan (Roy Grant and Arval Hogan), and, especially, Tennessee’s Johnnie (Wright) and Jack (Anglin), who were brothers-in-law. Many characteristics of the brother-duo style survive in the music of such bluegrass musicians from Appalachia as the Stanley Brothers, the Lilly Brothers, the Goins Brothers, Jim and Jesse (McReynolds), and the Crowe Brothers. Although the brother-duo style has had much less influence in contemporary country music, many contemporary folk musicians have attempted to recreate the sound.

The Everly Brothers—rock ’n’ roll pioneers from western Kentucky who worked on radio in Knoxville, Tennessee—displayed reverence for the brother-duo tradition throughout their careers. Their style of harmony singing—modeled on that tradition—proved influential to many subsequent rock and pop performers, including the Beatles.

Tin Pan Alley

December 17, 2014


edited from Tin Pan Alley’s Contribution to Folk Music by Norman Cohen
(Western Folklore, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 9-20):
Prior to 1880 music publishers were scattered throughout the country. In the years that followed, however, Union Square in New York gained ascendancy as the locus of song publishers. The magnet which drew them there was the presence of a major entertainment center boasting music halls, theaters, dance halls, and burlesque houses.

During this decade several publishers discovered that songs could be marketed like any other commodity. This meant manufacturing them to meet prevailing taste and “plugging” them, that is, prevailing on the singers to feature them in their public performances. In the next decade theatrical activity moved further uptown and the music publishers followed it, making Twenty-eighth Street the center of the music-publishing world for a quarter-century or so. This was the street that was dubbed “Tin Pan Alley” by journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld about 1903.

Why did these songs of Tin Pan Alley make such a dent in the repertoire of the American south? Perhaps the urbanization and industrialization of rural America left many persons with a sense of longing for a lost way of life so that the sentimental ballads of mother and home found a receptive audience in the hills after they had been driven out of the towns.

However, another factor less often considered is the predominant style of TPA songs of the 1880s and 1890s. The language used was simple and effective poetry, never rising to levels of great artistry but never sinking to the convoluted awkwardness of the broadside hacks of a century earlier.

On the other hand, American popular songs of the pre-Civil War period were, as indicated earlier, often flowery and stilted, and marked the unsuccessful attempts of their creators at romantic poetry. There were numerous sentimental songs of mother and home in the 1850s and 1860s, but they tended to be more descriptive and lyrical than the narrative ballads of the later years. These antebellum songs were, in effect, not memorable, and for this reason the songs of the last decades of the century achieved a place in oral tradition that their predecessors could not attain.

Mississippi Fiddle Resources

December 15, 2014



From the late 1927-36 white Mississippi fiddlers were represented on approximately 200 78rpm records. Though the number of bands and fiddlers recorded was small as compared to other southern states, the quality was high and a wide variety of styles were captured. Some of the recorded musicians were the Carter Brothers and Son, Narmour and Smith, The Leake County Revelers, Hoyt Ming and his Pep-Steppers, Freeny’s Barn Dance Band, Mississippi Possum Hunters, Ray Brothers, The Newton County Hillbillies and The Nations Brothers.

In 1923, Arthur Palmer Hudson began his ballad collecting in Mississippi, which culminated in his 1936 publication of Folksongs of Mississippi. Although his focus was on documenting the Mississippi textural variations of the classic Scots and English ballads, his fieldwork documented other songs and folkways. Unfortunately, only a handful of the songs were documented with musical notation and that was not until he published, in 1937 a small collection, Folk tunes of Mississippi.

In the Summer of 1936, the WPA Music and Writers’ Project in Mississippi, inspired by Hudson’s work, began collecting songs in the state. I am currently at work on a book about and containing the sheet music for the approximately 150 fiddle tunes that were collected.

The  state office of the Music and Writers Project arranged the recording schedule for  the Library of Congress field recording expedition of 1939. During that summer, Herbert Halpert’s 400 field recordings in Mississippi documented ballad singers, children’s songs and games, blues, gospel singing and fiddle and banjo players. Some of the musicians Halpert recorded were John Hatcher, W.E.Claunch, Stephen B. Tucker, Enos Canoy, Thaddeus C. Willingham, and John Brown. Of his recordings about 150 are of fiddlers.

Alan Lomax’s five LOC field trips from 1936-1959 focused on the black music traditions. Fiddlers that he recorded include Son Sim’s and Sid Hemphill.

The Smithsonian festival in Washington in 1974 featrured Mississippi fiddlers, notably Hoyt Ming and Alvis Massengale and the Six Towns Band attended. Around that time field recordings were made of Alvis Massengale, Hoyt Ming and Homer Grice. Additionally there are some “Home Recordings” of W.E. Claunch with his guitar player made in the 1950’s.

In lp record era there were 4 recordings of interest:
Hoyt Ming and his Pep-Steppers – New Hot Times -1973 a modern recording of the family band that made the classic 78’s
The Leake County String Band Led by Morgan Gilmer, son of the original Leake County Revelers fiddler Will Gilmer, they made a brief appearance in the movie “The ballad of BIlly Joe”
Mississippi Sawyers – 1980 – living fiddlers playing in a variety of state styles. Bluegrass, Old time, Celtic and Cajun
Great Big Yam Taters -1985 – a fantastic source of information and recordings from the 1939 Library of Congress trip to Mississippi.

Gott and Cohen in Madison Co.

December 11, 2014
from “Curious Tales and Captivating Voices: The Ballad Tradition of the Southern Appalachians” by Wendy Baker:
“Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound” examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott’s film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today’s ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O’Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner.

Peter Gott came to Madison County, NC, in pursuit of traditional banjo music.  He happened to hear a recording of Madison County banjo player Obray Ramsey playing “Pretty Polly” and the traditional tune “Little Maggie.” Gott, in turn, inspired musician and filmmaker John Cohen to come to Madison County.

Cohen’s interest in the singers of Madison County inspired him to produce a film entitled “End of an Old Song” about the legendary Dillard Chandler (1907-1992). Chandler, one of a long line of ballad singers, is said to have had one of the best voices for ballads in the world.

Cohen describes Dillard Chandler’s bewilderment when, in 1963, Cohen asked if he could record him singing ballads. “There was this big wall of silence–not resistance…I was there an awfully long time trying to explain to him why he should sing for my microphone…There’s something about this music–it would be so good if other people could hear it.”  From this account, we can see that clearly, Dillard Chandler had never anticipated the interest in his singing from a wider audience.

This outside interest in the people of the ballad and traditional music scene eventually led to some unfortunate misunderstandings about the use of the recordings. As singers began to perform for festivals, strangers told them about seeing or hearing a recording of them. This revelation led to the belief that others were making money from their talent, without sharing in the financial benefits.
Sheila Kay Adams explains, “Wherever they would go, somebody would inevitably come up to them and say, ‘I heard you on this record that John Cohen put out.’ To them, it started to sound like there were millions of these records out there because people would say, ‘Oh look, here I’ve got this record with your picture on it.’”
In fact, while Cohen’s work may have given the Madison County singers much deserved recognition and external respect, his efforts were focused on the documentary aspect of this culture and its traditions, rather than on reaping commercial profits.
The singers’ misconceptions continued to build. Singer Doug Wallin one day said to John Cohen, “That record you made of my parents [Lee and Berzilla Wallin]–that’s all over the place…it’s probably all over the country in jukeboxes everywhere, and you’re keeping our money.”
The conflict finally came to a head in one incident. Peter Gott and John Cohen frequently spent time at Doug Wallin’s house. One day Doug explained to them that they were welcome to come, but that he didn’t want any more recording.
In Gott’s words, “Well, John wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept begging until finally, Doug lost his temper and took a
swing at him. And he said, ‘Get outta here and don’t ever come back! And that goes for both of you!’…For me it was the end of a beautiful friendship not just with Doug but with his whole family. I never went back.”

Worshippers of the Horse Hair

December 8, 2014



Berea Citizen ~ August 21, 1919
“Old Fiddlers Night”

Under the auspices of [the] Progress Club the people of Berea were given the greatest treat last Friday night that they have had in many moons. It was the Old Fiddlers’ Contest, given for the benefit of the citizens of Berea and the Graded School—the money to go to the school and the fun to the folks.

Fifteen royal fiddlers, the pick of the covey, were in the ring. They were culled from the whole tribe of worshippers of the horse hair, from Pine Mountain and Hell-fer-Sartain to Joe’s Lick and Pilot Knob. Berea turned out en merry masse to hear the fiddling, and they were not disappointed. No one except those whose musical sense has been revolutionized by a course in a conservatory could have failed to see the fun.

Hiram Botner, an artist of the first water from the Sturgeon and Wild Dog country, set all the toes a-wiggle with “Billy in the Low Grounds.” After that for more than two hours scarcely a foot could be kept still. E. L. Cox, who knows more hornpipes than a highland piper, followed with “Jurang’s Hornpipe.” Then came M. A. Moody, our neighbor from Big Hill, the man with the delicate touch and exquisite tone, who did the “Irish Gallop” as few can. Alec Lunsford, from Hog Skin Creek, a prince among the old-timers, who never plays a piece badly, touched a responsive chord in everybody’s heart with that fine old fiddleized Negro Melody, “The Ways of the World.”

By this time feet had begun to slow down a little, but were all set a-wiggle again in high glee by Millard Ramsey with the crack dance tune, “Adeline,” on his famous Black Nancy. When the people of Clay want a fiddler with pep—and some of them are the finest dancers and the merriest ever—Millard is usually their choice—either Millard or Alec Lunsford.  Millard is a bit recless with Black Nancy, but the old instrument is a queen among fiddles, and when she speaks, corns cease to ache and a merry thrill creeps into every toe.

Dude Freeman appeared next and gave us “Forked Deer”—did it well, too. Dude wants no “fotch-on” fiddle, thank you, but made his own instrument. And he made a good one. It sounds better in the parlour than in a large hall for the tone lacks carrying power, but only a first class man could master a fiddle as good as that. Chester Thomas, second to “Monkey” John Gadd followed with “Waynesburg.” Then came another neighbour, John Will Johnson, who flung out on “Forked Deer” on Old Bill Cates’ fiddle. The jolly old instrument has caused more people to dance into a merry old age than any other in many miles around.

Bev Baker made all the old folks feel young again with that old favorite of our grandparents, “Nigger Inch Along.” Chester Nolan, second to E. L. Cooper, from Big Splash Dam, on Buck Fork, sent all our thoughts to the barnyard with “Cacklin’ Hen.” James Daugherty made all the corns dream dreams of sweet peace with “Calahan.” This is one of the famous shindig tunes of the countryside. Whenever a band of highland lads and lassies come together at a neighbor’s house to go a-tripping it “Calahan” is most likely to be on the boards.

Doc Roberts, second to S. F. Wright, the man who wins, drove away the rheumatism with “Wagoner.” This is one of the difficult old breakdowns and only trained fingers can execute it well. Big Hiram Begley, noted for his fiddling at house-warmings in the Hell-fer-Sartain country didn’t arrive. His place was taken by C. H. Agee with “Billy in the Low Grounds.” Nor did Anderson Bowling who fiddles for the Teges dance folk appear. John Hicks sat in his chair and played “Nigger Inch Along.”

…  “Black Jack Grove,””Shortnin’ Bread,”  [and] other choice selections follwed fast. “Waynesburg”  rarely sounds so well as it did when Dude Freeman played it. If Dude were to play in some Grove of Daphne he would be certain to start all the satyrs a-dancing with the nymphs and dryads. “Sally Ann” at the touch of Alec Lunsford’s fingers took us all to an old Negro plantation where ebony face, ivory teeth and flying heels drove away cares and brought respite to the sorrows of an overburdened race.

“Liquor All Gone” bespoke the fact that we are living after July 1st, and that not even a drop of mountain dew was in the ring. Green and his superb instrument with “Sourwood Mountain” made all nimble heels fairly shriek for action. I heard a shuffling of leather throughout the audience in which event the preachers’ soles joined.

Then the third round with its succession of thrills. Few of the old-timers ever did or ever will excel Botner in “Calahan,” Ramsey in “Waynesburg,” Roberts in “Turkey in the Straw,” or Green in “Lost Girl.” Every one of these pieces was a hum-dinger. So was Lunsford’s “Hogskin.” The audience never before heard “Turkey in the Straw” as it was done by Doc Roberts.

And that number of Doc’s convinced the judges that he was entitled to the first prize of $50. The second prize was awarded to Dude Freeman and his “own make” and the third to the hornpipe man, E. L. Cox. The decision of the judges came as a surprise to the audience who would doubtless have voted for other favorites. But every player deserved a bouquet and a smile.

The night had approached the witching hour when the audience went away, happier and months younger because of the soulful melodies it had heard.

Thanks to you men whose skill and native musical ability keep the world about you young. You keep alive a class of music that is great and thrilling, and as native to the soil as the dogwood blossom and the wild rose. Your music makes up the foundation on which many of our greatest musical themes have been developed. Your message is a gospel of merriment, and we’d all be poorer in spirit without you.

Everybody is surprised and delighted with the financial success of the Big Fiddlers’ Meeting last Friday night.

Early Days

December 2, 2014


  A Brief History of Blue Ridge Music: Early Days
By Joseph Wilson and Wayne Martin (excerpt)

Settlers in the Tidewater region of the New World did not anticipate the flowering of new musical styles in the mountains that lay to the west. The powerful Cherokee tribe inhabited the southernmost part of the region and the Cherokee, Shawano and other tribes used the middle and upper areas as hunting grounds. Some colonists feared conflict with the Indians and dangers associated with isolation if they ventured into this frontier region. To those who sought land, however, the Blue Ridge represented opportunity.

Approximately one hundred years passed after the founding of Jamestown before colonists began to immigrateaen masse to the region. The Great Wagon Road-or Valley Road, as it was called in Virginia-proved to be the best way into the mountains. The Valley Road followed old Indian trails for some 700 miles, starting near Philadelphia and running down the Shenandoah Valley. Near what is now Roanoke, Virginia, some travelers turned south along the Carolina Road into the Piedmont of North Carolina and South Carolina. Others continued into the mountains of southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, and beyond.

In 1730 a community of Germans settled an area near what today is Luray, Virginia. The Germans were followed by English Quakers, who were followed by Scotch-Irish, French Huguenots, Irish, Welsh, and more English. African American slaves were brought into the Blue Ridge by some of these settlers. Other African Americans came with owners who moved into the region as Tidewater lands were worn out by the unrelenting planting of tobacco.

By 1805, a year in which the population of the entire nation was only two million, as many as 10,000 travelers passed through Abingdon in the far southwestern corner of Virginia. By some estimates, fully one-fourth of the present population of the United States has ancestors who used this route to move westward.population of the United States has ancestors who used this route to move westward.

Groups traveling the Valley Road brought cultural traits and skills from many homelands and from diverse sections of those lands. A few of these traditions have survived to the present day, but most cultural attributes blended with those from other cultures and changed into something altogether new as people moved and settled together.

The musical exchange among these groups proved particularly potent. Perhaps the Blue Ridge insulated its inhabitants from the more rigid class distinctions and elite cultural practices adhered to by planters living in the East. Settlers could see London from Baltimore or Richmond, but not from Gap Creek or the Meadows of Dan. The old authority did not reach that far. Fresh ideas, including ways of thinking about and playing music, flourished in this environment.

Joe Coleman’s March

November 28, 2014



The Hanging of Fiddlin’ Joe Coleman © 2012 by Wayne Erbsen

From the start of the trial, the evidence against Joe Coleman was circumstantial, at best. The case was based solely on the testimony of Coleman’s sister-in-law. Apparently, there was bad blood between Coleman and his wife’s sister, and the jury found him guilty in the first degree and sentenced him to die by hanging.On the way to his hanging, Coleman reportedly sat on his coffin and played his fiddle as a two-wheeled ox cart slowly carried him to the site where a hastily-built wooden gallows had been constructed. The slow, dirge-like tune that he played has since been known as “Coleman’s March.”

Even as the noose was being tightened around his neck, Joe Coleman maintained his innocence. Before his sentence was carried out, one legend tells how Joe promised to give his fiddle to anyone in the crowd who could play the tune better than he could. A fiddler named Franz Prewitt stepped forward and took Coleman up on his offer. Before he started fiddling, Prewitt tuned the instrument into what is called “dead man’s tuning” and managed to out-fiddle Joe Coleman.

Minutes before the trap door opened under Joe’s feet, the condemned man handed over his fiddle to its new owner, as the assembled crowd held their breath and waited for justice to be served. Although a little too late, Coleman’s claim of innocence was supported many years later by the deathbed confession of an old lady who admitted to the killing of Joe Coleman’s wife.

Immediately after the execution, several of Coleman’s relatives secretly spirited his body away, and somehow managed to bring him back from death’s door. After he regained his health, Coleman boarded a steamboat that took him down the Cumberland River toward Nashville, Tennessee. From there, Coleman headed out west, and from there, the trail grows cold.

Even though Joe Coleman himself was never again seen in Eastern Kentucky, the tune named after him lived on, and is commonly played today as “Coleman’s March” or “Joe Coleman’s March.” After all these years, the tune still retains its dirge-like rhythm and feel, which is rare in old-time and bluegrass music. Most instrumental tunes are either fast breakdowns, danceable reels, or waltzes. “Coleman’s March” is unique in that respect.

As it turns out, Joe Coleman did not compose the tune that now bears his name. Instead, he reworked an old Celtic tune known as “The Irish Jaunting Car.” No doubt inspired by his own looming execution, he changed the rhythm of the tune from a sprightly dance tune into a mournful dirge.
A few years later, at the start of the Civil War, a Englishman named Harry Macarthy was in Jackson, Mississippi at the signing of Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession. Macarthy took the very same Irish tune that Joe Coleman had played and used it as the melody for a new set of lyrics he recently composed to honor the Confederacy. The result was “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

Next to “Dixie,” it was the most popular tune of the Confederacy. But unlike Joe Coleman’s mournful melody, Harry Macarthy kept the lively and jaunty flavor of the original Celtic tune, which more accurately reflected the early and naïve optimism of the Southern cause. As for Macarthy himself, he didn’t stick around long enough to find out if his newly-composed song would help inspire the South to victory. Instead, he high-tailed it to Pennsylvania and then California, where he spent the rest of the war years far from the fields of battle that he helped to inspire with his song of Southern patriotism.



November 20, 2014



We stepped out of New York into the life of the frontier settler of Daniel Boone’s time! Here are people who know naught of the advance which has been made in the world outside of their mountains. It surpasses belief. Many of them neither read nor write, and their knowledge is summed up in the facts of their daily life. In woodlore they shine, in planting and cultivating their corn, raising “razor back” hogs, carding, spinning, weaving and the distilling of their white ”moonshine.”

The next day a young matron, perhaps some twenty-five years old, sang for me the beautiful old ballad of “Sweet William and Lady Margery” the while she unconcernedly suckled a tiny babe. Here again both tune and intonation were perfect and the text but slightly altered. It is intensely interesting to hear these people sing of things which lie entirely out of their ken.

Had they the power of reading, one could not wonder at anything, but to hear these mountain folk born into the frontier life of the eighteenth century and spending their days amongst these isolated hills, sing of “ivory combs,” of lords and ladies, of castles and moats, of steeds and knights, is an astonishing matter.

It brings home to one the whole process of transmission, stretching back through the generations into the period when such things were of the Present. One old man had sung a ballad which contained the word “steed.” He was asked what the word meant. He scratched his head for a moment and slowly replied, “Wall, I reckon hit is some sort o’ hoss animile.” The context had assured him of that!  We were told in answer to a similar query as  to a certain word: “Shucks! Hit jus’ comes that way.” These people are the real simon-pure Americans!

Revival Revival

November 15, 2014

Son House’s wife snapped this photo of Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, Son House, and Phil Spiro.

Department of Redundancy: the books mentioned below have previously been featured on oldtimeparty, but this essay is too good to pass up.

by Barry Mazor (

In mid-April, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story that might have been taken as a sign of a leap in interest in pre-World War II acoustic blues. It concerned the utterly obscure Depression-era singers Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. In fact, while John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” presented sensational aspects of the two women’s stories (a murder; closeted lesbian lives on the run), it had, at its heart, something else entirely.

The unpublished information about the duo was tracked down in the early 1960s by the fabled, troubled blues researcher and record collector Mack McCormick and then clandestinely poached from his files by a research assistant. Constructed to maximize suspense, that storyand the peculiarities of white, educated blues obsessiveswas the element that justified the article’s prominence in a publication not otherwise known for introducing forgotten music by minor artists of earlier eras.

The magazine’s editors are not alone. In the weeks since then,  new books have been published that take up related themes: stories of middlemen blues researchers and record collectors, often, of guys who’ve been both. What’s going on here?

Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, Elion Paz’s lavish new volume of photographs depicts obsessive record collectors and their shelves upon shelves of immensely prized possessions. The book offers colorful photos of fanatic young collectorsstanding in front of LPs with covers of certain colors, of all the David Bowie recordings, of private pressings with covers that are pure kitsch. And yet, articles about the book at Slate and Esquire have focused on the only pre-war singles collector in the 416-page volume, the jocular but cranky blues, early jazz and hillbilly specialist, Joe Bussard, age 76, possessor and caretaker of one of the largest private collections of 78 rpm records in those fields.

What drives collectors of old 78s like Joe to organize so much of their lives around relentless searching for and organizing of coveted rarities? Those questions are central in the latest book by journalist Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, which looks in on the obsessive collector subculture, and blues 78 collectors in particular. To see what manic searching for rare records feels like, Petrusich goes hunting with the Grammy-winning engineer Chris King and brings us along. While more interested in the music than in collecting, King shows her where unaccounted-for blues sides might still be lurking. (Inside old Victrola cabinets for sale in the South, is one place.)

Like many of the hardcore blues collectorsand collectors of anythingPetrusich has idiosyncratic opinions and strong responses to the music on those venerable, scratchy original 78s. She’s graphic when she describes her own intense, agitated physical reactions: “I felt like every single one of my internal organs had liquefied and was bubbling up into my esophagus … I wanted to curl up inside that record; I wanted to inhabit it,” she says of hearing an original pressing of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Big Leg Blues” for the first time. She also describes her strong predilection for blues records that are unremittingly bleak. That’s not an unusual preference for a member of a generation raised on the notion that caressing the texture of devastation and disconnection in art is profound, for whom lighter blues is unthinkably upbeat.

In the most colorful adventure in Do Not Sell, Petrusich dons a wet suit and searches for the legendary master recordings from Paramount that were, according to some accounts, thrown into the nearby Milwaukee River when the manufacturer went out of business. She doesn’t find any. The George Plimpton-style role-taking, intended to demonstrate how strong an obsession finding a rare record can be, perhaps better illustrates the lengths a writer might go to enliven a chapter.

She also reiterates the story of the “Blues Mafia,” the tight gang of white blues collectors of the 1950s and ’60s, some of whom turned into impresarios, some into recluses, who played such an influential role in changing the idea of which blues mattered. The specialists who coveted rarely heard records came to elevate rarely heard performers. If today people so often take Mississippi delta blues (Skip James, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton) for heart of the form, it’s in no small measure because the collector-researchers of the ’50s and ’60s, and the blues rockers who followed their lead, taught us to think that way. In fact, those edgy, relatively marginalized, rural guitar players had, for the most part, been little-known artists with limited sales among the black Southern audience, which generally saw blues as dance music. But they presented challenging sounds and images irresistible to the white collector specialists.

Blues radio veteran Steve Cushing’s new 355-page anthology, Pioneers of the Blues Revival, gathers together detailed interviews with 17 of the key collector-researchers, particularly those who became constructive blues activists (Sam Charters, Paul Oliver, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Dick Spottswood, David Evans). These collectors founded reissue and new issue labels, created detailed discographies and blues histories, and most productively, enabled late-in-life coda careers for performers they “rediscovered,” including Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. Cushing’s detailed discussions with significant blues revival researchers tell crisscrossing artist- and record-rediscovery stories, portraying a close-knit scene with its own rituals, famous incidents, lost heroes, and well-recalled ne’er-do-well connivers. One of the classic blues revival stories is the tale (recalled by multiple researchers) of how a number of leading lights of the Blues Mafiaincluding eventual guitar hero and label executive John Faheyraced to be the ones to locate Skip James in Mississippi.

Crucially, all the interviewees in Cushing’s book could still meet and talk with the blues originators directly. Fifty years after 1964, we’re a lot further away from the height of the mid-century blues revival than the revival was from the era of acoustic recorded blues. This points to one reason we’re hearing a lot about the blues collector revivalists now: The gents who had direct contact with the music-makers are themselves aging and dwindling in number.

 The aging of the blues collecting generation does not in itself fully explain recent fascination with that scene and its constituents. That this is an era in which music readily changes hands with no physical traces may be more to the point. It is hard to imagine future generations fetishizing hard-drive MP3 collections. Is there, perhaps, nostalgia or even envy at work here for fanatics who could actually collect, and possess their prizes in tangible physical form?

Nothing has yet made the middlemen more vital or interesting than the music they organized around and collected, howeverand nothing could. Attempts to find fresh stories may keep moving us, layer by layer, further away from the music itselfone more Russian stacking doll away from the music at the center.





Ralph Peer (#2)

November 13, 2014



Ralph Peer in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Peer family archives


During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

Among the artists were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded hits like “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” there. These songs launched them to stardom and their successes were only the beginning for Peer, who popularized the genres of country, blues, jazz, gospel and Latin music.

Peer had already been recording “hillbilly” songs — what is now known as country — across the Southern United States for five years before the Tennessee recordings.

A new book by music journalist Barry Mazor, “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” follows the arc of both Peer’s life and the music industry.

His story begins in the era of the wind-up crank cylinder and ends in the age of color television. In that span of time, he navigated performance rights and recording contracts, emphasizing that songwriters and producers each received their share of the profits.

“I think Ralph Peer did more than anyone, any other one single person, to change the popular music we hear,” Mazor told Art Beat. “Yet people don’t necessarily know the name.”

But the names of artists he worked with are recognized as musical greats: Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Perez Prado, Buddy Holly. The list goes on.

While Mazor was working on his previous book, “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century,” he learned about Peer’s relationship to Rodgers. Mazor was fascinated by the man who recorded and produced so much of the music he personally enjoyed listening to and writing about. (more…)

“Goodbye, boys, we’re gone”

November 11, 2014


edited excerpt from “The Southern Textile Song Tradition Reconsidered,”
by Doug DeNatale and Glenn Hinson
Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 28, No. 2/3

The conditions of cotton mill life had a dramatic impact on the shape and social context of Southern music in general. Mill musicians themselves perceived music more often as a means for self-advancement than as a vehicle for mass protest. The development of the fiddlers’ convention as a paying contest and the increased popularity of small travelling shows first suggested the possibility of an alternative source of cash to mill musicians.

It is no coincidence that Henry Whitter and Fiddlin’ John Carson, the very first Southeastern musicians to make commercial recordings, were textile workers. Other mill workers such as G. B. Grayson, Ernest Stoneman, Kelly Harrell, Charlie Poole, J. E. and Wade Mainer, and many others soon followed their example. The number of mill workers who became significant recording artists in the 1920s and 1930s is impressive, and indicates the extent to which mill workers attempted to cash in on their musical abilities. The story told of Charlie Poole’s departure from the Spray mill captures the sense of optimism many must have felt:

They came early in the morning, before the looms started, to draw their last paychecks. Bringing their instruments into the mill with them, they sat down at the end of one of the rows of looms. As their fellow mill workers gathered around, they played Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. When they finished, Poole spoke up and said, ‘Goodbye, boys, we’re gone.'”

Louisville Jug Music

October 31, 2014




Louisville journalist and author Michael L. Jones has established himself as something of a jug music expert.  Jones wrote his most recent book, “Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to National Jubilee,” as a way to celebrate Louisville as the heart of a musical tradition that dates back to turn-of-the-century America.

I  interviewed Jones recently about the often misconstrued origins of jug music, its influence on current tunes, and how it continues to be an enduring part of Louisville’s music scene.

You mention in the book that “the main purpose of this book is to liberate jug music from misconceptions surrounding it.” What are some of those misconceptions?

In the 1920s, when the recording industry started, the record companies segregated white and black artists. Music by black artists was marketed as “race records” and music by white, rural artists was “hillbilly” music. But white, rural artists and black blues artists all drew on the same group of songs, which has come to be called the “common stock.” They are tunes likes “John Henry,” “Stagolee,” and “In the Jailhouse Now,” which was recorded by both country star Jimmie Rodgers and the Louisville Jug Band, among others. There were also more than 20 interracial recording sessions in the early days of country music, including a 1931 session between Rodgers and the Louisville Jug Band that occurred in Louisville. But when you see a discussion of jug music or country music in general, these black artists are totally ignored.

My point is the evolution of American music is not as cut and dry as people think. Much of what we think about its development is obscured by record company marketing plans. Even the Carter family had an African American collaborator.

You also say in the book that “jug music played a role in developing a lot of music people listen to today.” Do you have any examples of that correlation?

Gus Cannon had a jug tune called “Walk Right In” that was a hit in the 1960s for the Rooftop Singers. Jug music spawned a craze for skiffle music in 1950s England. The rock musicians that started out in skiffle bands include Jimmy Page, the Beatles and Van Morrison. On the American side, many of the bands popular in the folk revival of the 1960s got their start playing jug songs. John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful is currently a jug band musician, the Grateful Dead had a side group called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, and Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band was a popular 1960s act that actually recorded Louisville jug music.

How did our view of jug music become disenfranchised from the original African American influencers?

Jug music went out of vogue with the general public after the Great Depression. This also coincided with the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Basically, the jug music (and the banjo itself) was tied to Antebellum images in most people’s minds. African Americans wanted to move away from that image and that was reflected in the music they listened to. And, as I said before, the record companies were actually promoting that image of the good old days to white record buyers of country music.

During the folk revival, young white musicians could look back to an earlier America where a man had more freedom. That did not appeal to African American musicians, which is the reason that there were few African Americans involved in the scene although it was actually celebrating African American culture. Also, a lot of jug music songs were passed through the minstrel show or written during the “coon song” era, and that also did not appeal to a black audience.

Louisville, especially at the turn of the century, was home to a diverse population. How did that affect jug music?

After the Civil War there was an influx of ex-Confederates in Louisville. They brought along with them some of the Southern prejudices. Before 1900s, African Americans lived all over the city, but at the beginning of the 20th century we began to see all-black neighborhoods like West Parkland, modern Park DuValle, which was called “Little Africa.” This also impacted music.

Before the Civil War there were many interracial bands in the city. But after the war, most bands were either all white or all black. This forced professional African American musicians to form groups with African American folk musicians. It is the combination of the two that gave birth to Louisville jug music, which is different from other regional styles of jug music because of its use of jazz instrumentation. The other big jug band, the Memphis Jug Band, was more of a tradition string band because, being close to Mississippi, those musicians were greatly influenced by Delta Blues. Louisville musicians were more influenced by Dixieland Jazz because of the constant river traffic between Louisville and New Orleans. So, you see saxophones and other brass instruments along with the regular members of a string band.


Hee Haw

October 23, 2014


excerpt from Ted Olson (

Due to its broad scope of influence both within and outside the region, Appalachian music has been a powerful perpetrator of regional stereotypes. Although originating outside Appalachia, nineteenth-century minstrel show performances featuring white musicians derisively exaggerating black culture adversely affected the social standing of African Americans in the region after emancipation.

In the twentieth century, the barn dance—which achieved national popularity via radio and which sustained that popularity into the 1990s through such television programs as Hee Haw—provided steady work and significant exposure for many Appalachian musicians. But in order to represent rural culture, which held novelty appeal for main- stream audiences, producers directed Appalachian musicians to project a hillbilly identity.

The stereotype inevitably left far-flung audiences with negative and inaccurate impressions of Appalachian people. These barn dances particularly misrepresented two aspects of the region’s culture: Appalachian speech and Appalachian clothes. Musicians were encouraged to exaggerate their regional speech and to wear standardized hillbilly dress, including bib overalls and straw hats.

Likewise distorting general understanding of Appalachian regional culture during the twentieth century were attitudes toward Appalachian people of some of the musicians associated with the century’s several folk revivals, whose representations of Appalachian culture, whether earnest or intentionally exploitive, were rendered un- trustworthy by both positive and negative stereotyping.

Positive stereotypes included the revivalists’ romanticized portrayals of Appalachian musicians as mountain sages or noble savages; negative stereotyping involved the unfavorable characterization of Appalachian people as “rubes,” “hicks,” or “degenerates.”

Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

October 19, 2014


Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels, by James Revell Carr (University of Illinois Press)

Hawaiian Music in Motion explores the performance, reception, transmission, and adaptation of Hawaiian music on board ships and in the islands, revealing the ways both maritime commerce and imperial confrontation facilitated the circulation of popular music in the nineteenth century.

James Revell Carr shows how Hawaiians initially used music and dance to ease tensions with, and spread information about, potentially dangerous foreigners, and then traces the circulation of Hawaiian song and dance worldwide as Hawaiians served aboard American and European ships.

Drawing on journals and ships’ logs, Carr highlights the profound contrasts between Hawaiians’ treatment by fellow sailors who appreciated their seamanship and music, versus antagonistic American missionaries determined to keep Hawaiians on local sugar plantations, and looks at how Hawaiians achieved their own ends by capitalizing on Americans’ conflicting expectations and fraught discourse around hula and other musical practices.

He also examines American minstrelsy in Hawaii, including professional touring minstrel troupes from the mainland, amateur troupes consisting of crew members of visiting ships, and local indigenous troupes of Hawaiian minstrels. In the process he illuminates how a merging of indigenous and foreign elements became the new sound of native Hawaiian culture at the turn of the twentieth century–and made loping rhythms, falsetto yodels, and driving ukuleles indelible parts of American popular music.

78 RPM Record Collectors

October 8, 2014

Richard Nevins, who runs the 78 reissue label Yazoo Records, sits in his personal record room.

edited from

Amanda Petrusich: I think a lot of collectors end up turning to 78 rpm records because they feel alienated by modern culture or not satisfied by it in some ways. Your collection becomes a way of insulating yourself from the facets of modernity that you find distasteful, unsustainable, or not nourishing. A lot of these guys had no interest in modern or contemporary music at all.

For them, it ended with World War II, or with Hank Williams. Everything that came after that, they don’t even want to know about it because they think it’s garbage. It’s frustrating for me as music fan and critic, because I’ll be like, “Wait, there are all these amazing people making amazing records,” and they have no interest in them.

Most collectors are white men who started collecting in the second half of the 20th century and have enough money to travel and buy records. They’re coming from a place of extraordinary privilege for sure. It’s these privileged white people collecting this music from disenfranchised African Americans. There is something uncomfortable, I think, for a lot of people, myself included, about that exchange.

I always get nervous talking about this because these are such big generalities. But socioculturally speaking, just in my experience, I think women are more comfortable listening to music and having an emotional reaction to it. We have the vocabulary for that. We’re socialized that it’s okay for us to do that.

With men, it’s a little more complicated. For a man to hear a song and be moved to tears by it, I think it can be a frightening experience or maybe an experience he has not been socialized to find acceptable. So collecting and organizing is a way of trying to de-fang those intense emotions and also figure them out through meticulous research, learning as much as they can about the record, owning the record. There are all these different ways you can mediate a very emotional experience to make it more concrete, more digestible, or less scary.


Wax cylinder recording session

October 2, 2014


 from and

Wax cylinder recording session, Thursday, October 30 at 7:00 pm
WEST ORANGE, NJ –On October 30, visitors to Thomas Edison National Historical Park will have the opportunity to watch and listen as the Demolition String Duo makes recording history. Elena Skye and Boo Reiners are the featured artists at a wax cylinder phonograph recording session taking place on Thursday evening.
Elena Skye and Boo Reiners lead New York City’s “Demolition String Band”. They are currently celebrating the release of their recording of the Woody Guthrie song “Go Coney Island, Roll on the Sand” on the audio book “My Name is New York, Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town”. This new audio book is a collection of Guthrie’s New York City-inspired stories and music, produced and narrated by daughter Nora Guthrie.
The Demolition String Duo will record onto wax cylinders in the same way it was done in Edison’s time over a century ago. The method of capturing sound is non-electric. Like the artists who recorded for Edison during the 1890s, the Demolition String Duo will play in front of a large horn that will serve as their microphone. The duo hopes to release the recordings they make at the Edison Laboratory on a future album.


Hollow Rock String Band

September 28, 2014

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The original Hollow Rock String Band–Tommy Thompson on five-string banjo, Bobbie Thompson on guitar, Bertram Levy on mandolin and Alan Jabbour on fiddle–grew out of mid-’60s jam sessions that took place at the Hollow Rock Grocery on Erwin Road at New Hope Creek, just outside of Durham. As the surrounding circle of friends and players grew larger than the store could handle–sometimes up to 150 people–the sessions moved to the Thompsons’ house down the road.

The music they played grew out of Duke grad student Jabbour’s mid-’60s excursions through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to record instrumental folk music, folksong and folklore. Though he’d been a classical violinist from the age of 7, he began a new kind of apprenticeship with old-time fiddlers he met along the way, like Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Va. It was around the old-time fiddle tunes from Reed and others that the Hollow Rock String Band oriented itself. But because they were largely solo numbers, the group had to invent band settings for them.

“I can remember sitting together, and all of us sort of puzzling out what chords we would play,” Jabbour says. “Imagining how it might sound was part of the excitement of this enterprise: To us, it really was kind of an adventure into this unknown artistic world.” But that adventure was not only about music, it was about a way of life.

“Only later did we puzzle about it, and wonder what it was that lit us up,” Jabbour says. “It was beautiful to us; there was something magical about the music itself, artistically. But also, we were drawn–how shall I say–to certain social and cultural values that the music seemed to stand for. And we were proud to re-assert that, to sort of throw it into the face of the world.”

For Jim Watson, who played guitar and was learning mandolin, the Hollow Rock jam sessions were a musical turning point. “I had started going to fiddlers’ conventions in the summer of 1965 and learning a little bit about it,” he remembers, “but not until I got in the midst of this music scene at Tommy and Bobby’s did I really start learning how to play it.” Watson and musician friend Bill DeTurk became regular visitors to the Thompsons’ jam sessions.

“It’s really hard to overstate the effect that those parties had on me, and a lot of people, back then,” Watson says. “A lot of us were learning music, and learning it in a group situation–and in a party situation, too, where you would just go and play hard and have a good time, rather than sitting in your living room with one or two other people. You had to play hard to be heard–to hear yourself, even–in some of those settings.”

In 1969, Jabbour was appointed head of the Archive of Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, where he exerted a tremendous influence on scholarly and popular understandings of American vernacular music. Meanwhile, as the ’60s became the ’70s, Watson and Tommy Thompson played as a duo, and as a trio with “Fiddlin’ Al” McCanless. Bobbie went on to join the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, comprised of other jam regulars. She died in a car accident in 1972, before seeing the release of the group’s first album, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band.

When Rounder Records asked Jabbour to record a new album of fiddle tunes in the early ’70s, he asked Tommy Thompson to join him, and Thompson invited Watson along to play guitar. With Levy’s blessing (he didn’t participate in the session), they dubbed the recording The Hollow Rock String Band.

“It was exciting to make that record, as an effort to recapture the Hollow Rock energy,” Jabbour says. “But that energy was spreading in other ways beyond us. The truth is, you want to keep making music yourself, but it has its impact, and it goes on beyond you. Others continue, and they continue it in their own way.” (more…)

John Work

September 24, 2014


from and

Two years ago, the book “Lost Delta Found” criticized the American folklorist Alan Lomax for giving short shrift to the work of three black researchers with whom he made some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s. Maybe more important, the book argued that our appreciation of the black roots music of the era would have been greatly enriched had the writings of the researchers reached a wider audience. With the release of “Recording Black Culture,” an album consisting largely of newly unearthed acetates made by one of the collectors, John Work III, we now have the music itself to buttress this claim.

Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Work sought to document it as it was unfolding. Thus on “Recording Black Culture,” instead of spirituals harking back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what soon would become rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

As the story goes, the folklorist Alan Lomax was traveling around Mississippi with his recording equipment in the summer of 1941 when he came upon the house of a blues singer named McKinley Morganfield. Lomax recorded a few tracks for the Library of Congress and moved on, later mailing Morganfield a check for $20 and two copies of the record. What Lomax couldn’t have known at the time was that Morganfield, better known today as Muddy Waters, was to become one of the most famous blues singers of all time—the undisputed king of the electric Chicago sound.

Morganfield, along with Son House, went on to be known as one of Lomax’s greatest discoveries. And while it may be true that without Lomax, we might never have heard of these artists, it’s worth remembering that—despite what his own memoirs suggest—Lomax didn’t actually discover either of them. That credit falls to a little-known black folklorist named John Work III, who died 44 years ago this month.

The long history of famous men is haunted by forgotten heroes. There are those like Alfred Russel Wallace, the biologist who proposed the theory of evolution before Darwin did. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not so much as the man who first conceived of evolution by natural selection, but as the man whom history forgot to credit—a historical nuance not fit for high school biology texts. In Wallace’s case, Darwin attempted to give him credit, but history was intent on forgetting him. Work’s absence from the historical record is more suspect: Lomax devoted only one sentence to him in his own writings.

John Work III, born in 1901 in Tullahoma Tennessee, was a folklorist at Fisk University for almost 40 years. He attended Julliard and held music degrees from Yale and Columbia. According to music writer Dave Marsh, Work was Lomax’s partner and guide in the early 1940s. He led Lomax first to Son House and later to Muddy Waters, where Lomax recorded part of what would later be released as Down on Stovall’s Plantation. “Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax’s equal in the study,” Marsh writes.

Sacralizing Space

September 16, 2014


by Jeff Todd Titon:

It was in the 1990s when I visited the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky that I encountered people who spoke explicitly of sound transforming and sacralizing space, whether singing in the coal mine or the sound of the singing coming down from the mountains or echoing outside the churches on a Sunday morning, heard by the children playing up and down the creek beds.

Their words about sound may be heard on the first of the two CDs that Smithsonian Folkways released from my field tape recordings: Songs of the Old Regular Baptists. To close out the CD we chose to present excerpts from some of their statements about the singing, and many mentioned the sound and its “drawing power.”

Elwood Cornett, the moderator (head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, said: “When I came into this life there was that sound. I hope that when I leave here, that I leave the same sound that I found when I came here.” The Old Regular Baptists weren’t thinking about their music as music; they were talking about the power of its sound to open a communication channel in the co-presence of the divine.

Secular sounds sacralize place, memorialize people. The names of fiddle tunes–“The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” (memorializing the last battle in Pike Co., Kentucky, during the Civil War); “Bill Brown” (memorializing a peddler who was murdered); “They Swung John Brown from a Sour Apple Tree”–these are among tunes I play, and they invoke co-presence. Often an old-time string band fiddler will say the name of the person from whom he or she learned the tune, just before or after playing it, invoking the co-presence of the source musician.


September 10, 2014



from notes to “Hillbilly Wobble” by  Mick Kinney:

The term cracker has been around for centuries in reference to jovial storytelling or witty banter.  Shakespeare used it in that context, similar to the more modern wise cracker.  The resurrected Gaelic spelling craic meaning “fun times” is now common in hip Irish circles.

As far back as colonial times in America, cracker became a stereotype for rural white southerners.  In addition to the word’s Anglo origins, another one suggested is “So poor they had to crack their own corn,” that is, not able to afford the price of milling.

Although regarded nowadays as somewhat of a derogatory slur, Georgia was widely known, until fairly recently, as “The Cracker State.”  In a most ironic twist, before racial integration the capital city’s Negro League team was called The Atlanta Black Crackers, a spinoff of their Southern League counterpart.

During the early 20th century, quite a few musical acts went by some variant of “Georgia Crackers.”  Okeh records actually had two on their label: the Cofer Brothers, Paul and Leon, took the name for some of their cuts while Macon jazz singer, Emmett Miller, used it for his stellar studio side musicians.

Others in the hillbilly catagory include the Canova family band, “Three Georgia Crackers,” in 20’s Columbia catalogue.

Do the Modal

September 6, 2014


from Ken Perlman (

In the early 20th century an English collector of traditional songs and dances named Cecil Sharp published a book called “The English Folk Song: Some Conclusions.” Sharp, who about a decade later would also become the first serious collector of Appalachian music, made an impassioned plea in this book aimed at those who sought to perform the tunes he had collected.

He pointed out that quite a number of these tunes were not connected with the major and minor scales that had dominated both European classical and popular music for the previous few centuries. Instead these tunes followed older musical scales, or modes, and that consequently they were governed by different rules of tune organization and harmony.

Sharp then identified the scales he felt were actually in use among the folk tunes he collected, namely a set of diatonic scales often referred to as the “Church Modes” (you get a diatonic scale by starting on any white key of the piano and going up the white keys in sequence for a distance of one octave). These Church Modes have since become household names among folk-music aficionados: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Sharp argued persuasively that new performers of collected tunes should not change the melodies to conform to rules that apply to major and minor scales, and that they should also avoid applying to those tunes conventional harmony progressions from the major and minor world. All these were excellent points, and added considerably to the ability of later generations to understand and appreciate what British, Irish, and North American traditional music was all about.

The problem was that Sharp’s argument didn’t go far enough, and he in fact substituted a new set of unrealistic constructs for the old one. Although the Dorian and Mixolydian scales, for example, described the melodies of some folk tunes far better than had the labels “major” or “minor,” this still only represented part of the story.

Many folk tunes, for example, are made up of pentatonic or fundamentally pentatonic scales (you get a pentatonic, or 5-note scale by starting on any black key of the piano and going up the black keys in sequence till you reach the same note an octave up). Given that pentatonic scales have only five tones, they cannot be definitively assigned to any one Church mode. For example, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian modes in G is whether the seventh tone of the scale is F# or F-natural. Where then do you put a pentatonic tune in G that has no F in it of any kind?

Alternatively, there are many, many folk tunes that feature multiple “inflections” for a given pitch. For example, there are tunes in G that feature both F#’s and F-naturals at the seventh tone of the scale, and tunes in A that have both C#’s and C-naturals at the third tone. Again, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian G-modes is whether the seventh tone is F# or F-natural. In that case, where do you put a tune in G that has both these pitches? In the key of A, the difference between the Dorian and Mixolydian modes is whether the third tone of the scale is C-natural or C#. Where then do you put a tune in A in which both tones are present?

Further complication is presented by tunes which contain still more pitch inflections, namely those pesky pitches that fall between conventional scale notes. I’m talking, for example, about a pitch that is between C-natural and C#, or between Bb and B-natural. Sometimes I’ve heard such pitches referred to as “C-neutral” or “B-neutral,” but my favorite nickname for them comes from my fiddling friend Iain Fraser of Jedburgh, Scotland, who uses the term “C-supernatural.”

Roger Sprung

August 29, 2014



edited from

Roger Sprung: My brother used to go down to Washington Square to sing folk songs every Sunday. For years he wanted me to go down and I always said no. Well, I went down one time; I was seventeen and I saw all these people playing music, and it was nice; there were guitars, banjos, some fiddles, not too many basses—this was in 1947. I heard people like Tom Paley, Billy Faier and Pete Seeger, who didn’t come to the Park often. And I have to give credit to George Margolin for starting that whole Washington Square scene.

I liked the music I’d heard at the Park a lot. I stopped playing the piano and took up the guitar. My grandfather owned a pawn shop and he got me a guitar. And then I heard people like Tom Paley, who used to be in the New Lost City Ramblers, and John Cohen, and other people, and I said, I want to play the banjo. So, I started ‘Pete Seeger picking’ a little, and just learned the banjo. Pete really was a big first influence.

Billy Faier [an early, highly innovative eclectic 5-string player] had a house rent-party where there was picking, and you pay a little money to help him pay the rent. I played there and he told me about Earl Scruggs. I went to Rosalie Allen’s record shop and bought Earl’s records, which started me on bluegrass. The record that I really tore apart to learn to play was My Little Georgia Rose, with a very nice solo by Earl. When I had that 78 record you could see the grooves where I kept repeating the banjo solo. I liked that song; it was clean and crystal; it wasn’t fast, so I tried to get the fingering.

To me there are four styles—there’s more, but there’s bluegrass, which is a roll, then there’s clawhammer or frailing, then there’s classical, or ‘classic’ on the nylon, and there’s Seeger style, which is half up and half down finger picking. Bascom Lamar had a style of his own, and Will Keys who used to go to Galax, had a style of his own—two-finger. There’s all kind of styles, and all kind of tunings too.

In 1950 I started heading south. Harry West and Jeannie West played at the Asheville Folk Festival that was headed by Bascom Lamar Lundsford, ‘The Minstrel of the Appalachians.’ He sang songs that I liked, because it was all mountain music and I liked mountain music. In the old days these mountain bands did not clawhammer, except for maybe one or two bands; most of it was finger-picking. Charlie Poole, you know, two fingered.

I combined them. I’d go to all the mountain festivals and pick and I haven’t had any complaints yet… I went to the Asheville Festival for about 25 years straight. I learned a lot, and met a lot of big people: Samantha Bumgarner, Bill Mecklreath, Obray Ramsay… Byard Ray, who taught me The Wild Goose Chase, which is my theme song. George Pegram, who played banjo, and Red Parham, who played harmonica.

They didn’t think much right away, but word got around; they labeled me ‘the big Jew from New York’—but without malice; just the novelty of it. Bascom said some nice things to me; he had private parties at his house. I recorded Dry Bones, one of his numbers that he taught me.

My first group was the Folksay Trio, around 1954; we were Erik Darling, Bob Carey [later of the Tarriers], who I met playing down in Washington Square, and I. Our first recording was on Stinson, and that’s where we did Tom Dooley. I was told that the Kingston Trio grabbed that one, and Bay of Mexico, for their own album five years later.

Playing in various places I had a chance to meet a lot of people, old timers:Buell Kazee and Dave Appalon, and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, and many more; it was fun. And thank goodness they all liked my playing. I teach, buy and sell, and perform… I teach in Manhattan as well as Connecticut and I have a way that if you have patience and you practice a little, you’ll play. It’s methodical. People say, ‘I can’t make my fingers go that fast’—well, I have ways that they will; it’s human nature to go faster once you know something well. And, playing the banjo is a love of my life.











St. James Sessions

August 28, 2014

edited from Jack Neely (

The St. James sessions of 1929-30 are a rare window onto a fertile time and place in the history of American popular music. The 1920s saw the dawn of music on the radio, and improvements to recording technology that saw the introduction of mass-market recordings of popular music. And the Roaring ‘20s was accompanied by a surprisingly worldly stew of folk music, blues, show tunes, jazz, Hawaiian, and vaudeville novelties that all played a part in the evolution of what we now know as popular music.

Knoxville, Tennessee, was in the thick of it. In the 1920s and early ’30s, it was a city of more than 100,000 blacks and whites. It was a teeming, dirty, lively, arrogant, complicated place with two railroad stations, two daily newspapers, three radio stations, a dozen movie theaters, a comprehensive electric streetcar system, and a small airport. Knoxville was one of the industrial centers of the South, a national center for textiles, marble, furniture, and railroad equipment.  Prohibition was still in effect, and Knoxville was a national black-market distribution center for moonshine, with connections to organized crime in Chicago and elsewhere.

But the city was also on the very fringe of the country, surrounded by some of the most remote hollers in America, where folk, blues, and country music were evolving Galapagos-like, in eccentric patterns. The Tennessee River flowed free and damless through Knoxville, and flooded every spring.

Knoxville’s interest in music was already deep. Before the Civil War, Knoxville had been a center for the otherworldly style of singing known as Sacred Harp. After the war, it was home to one of the South’s first orchestral groups, and by the early 1870s, the city had a European-style “Opera House.” In the 1880s and ’90s, Knoxville hosted major classical-music and opera festivals that drew some of the great talents from New York and Boston. But Knoxville was still in the middle of the South, where most new American forms of music were in various stages of gestation: blues, ragtime, jazz, hillbilly, bluegrass. By the turn of the century, young men playing new styles of guitar or fiddle, were making a living in the streets.

Many of those early musicians were blind. Musicians were mostly people who couldn’t do anything else for a living, because music wasn’t much of a living. Before the 1920s, which saw both the dawn of radio and the beginning of record companies’ interest in recording popular and folks music, the best a folk or country musician could hope for was a Mercury dime in a tin cup.

There were no real recording studios in Tennessee at the time—in the 1920s, Nashville had no reputation as a recording center, and most country-music recordings were still made in New York. So when one of the nation’s most famous record companies, the Brunswick/Vocalion label set up a temporary studio in the St. James Hotel in downtown Knoxville, hundreds of musicians came, from miles around, to take a turn behind the microphone. (more…)

Walter Vinson on Smelling Mules

August 13, 2014


from “Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow,” by Karl Hagstrom Miller:

Many working-class musicians, far from seeing their music as an extension of their labor, described their music as an alternative to it.

“I always felt I could beat plowin’ mules, choppin’ cotton, and drawin’ water,” the black artist Muddy Waters recalled.  “I did all that, and I never did like none of it.  Sometimes they’d want us to work Saturday, but they’d look for me, and I’d be gone, playin’ in some little town or some juke joint.”

Other musicians told similar stories.  The African-American musician Sam Chatmon explained why his brother Lonnie Johnson played music.  “All of ’em farming but one,” he stated.  “Lonnie didn’t like to work.  He always stayed on the road somewhere, him and Walter Johnson.  That’s the reason Walter was playing with us ’cause he didn’t want to work and Lonnie didn’t want to work and they’d stay gone, playing music.”

Bill Broonzy noted that when white listeners discovered his musical skill. “We would be playing and sitting under screen porches while the other Negroes had to work in the hot sun.”

The African-American youngster Deford Bailey was a domestic worker until his wealthy white boss learned that he could play parlor songs on his harmonica.  “From then on, she had me stand in the corner of the room and play my harp for her company,’ he recalled.  “Before she found out I could play, I had to work like the rest of thehelp.  From then on, I just fooled around…I never did no more good work.  My work was playing the harp.”

The black singer and guitarist Walter Vinson [of the Mississippi Sheiks] simply stated that he played music because he “got tired of smellin’ mule farts.”



Palm Wine Guitar

August 12, 2014
The History of the Palmwine Guitar by Ed Keazor (edited):

The Palmwine Guitar sound is a distinctive Folk sound, which originated in West Africa at the turn of the 20th century. As the story goes, the style emanated from Sierra Leone, where the Portuguese and Spanish sailors whose ships berthed on Merchant ships on the West African Coastal ports of Freetown (Sierra Leone) , Lagos (Nigeria), Monrovia (Liberia) and Accra/Tema (Ghana) lent their Guitars and style to their African shipmates who formulated a unique style fusing native rhythms with the Latin style bequeathed by their Latin benefactors and resulting in an expressive twangy, melodious Guitar sound.

The early African Guitar pioneers, primarily played on the ships in their spare time to entertain themselves, often raw and rudimentary, a revolution was nonetheless taking place. The Guitars were often played to accompany Native vocal renditions, varied in their content but often centred around themes of Love and peace , Native wisdom, satire and often times personal angst and social commentary.

As time went on the Guitar moved away from the exclusive preserve of the African sailors to the general populace and the local musicians adopted the Guitar, Violin, Mandolin, Banjo (and rather annoyingly that dreadful Instrument- The Kazoo) as elitist forms of expression. A word of note, West African musicians in general played in the Traditional form (using Traditional instruments) at Funerals, Weddings, Religious Feasts and Festivals and to entertain Royalty in Court and not much else- these were the elite.

At the lower end of the rung were the Bards and Minstrels, who would go round houses and local bars in the evening (when self respecting people had come back from work) and get a few cowries or pennies for their troubles, often walking several miles on this beat, kind of like Mobile buskers (this practice continues till today). Their Guitar heroics being accompaniment to tales of joy and pain and mostly praise singing of their often inebriated and mostly ego-possessed clients, they would often move around solo or accompanied by Native drummers or Thumb Pianists (Agidigbo in Nigeria) and a variety of other Native Instruments.

The Palmwine Guitar style evolved over the years and fused with various forms, became most popularly known as Highlife, being a fusion of Big Band Native rhythms and indeed the Palmwine Guitar style. one of the biggest superstars of this fusion was the Ghanaian Tenor Saxman- E.T.Mensah and his Tempos Band formed in the 30’s, whose popularity stretched far beyond Ghana.

However the purists have refused to be swayed and the old boys and young hawks have stayed faithful to the Sailors and Minstrels of yore.

“A cracked violin, a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol”

August 7, 2014



by Mike Seeger (excerpt from liner notes to “Early Southern Guitar Styles”):


The turmoil following the Civil War was transforming Southern life.

Industrialization was beginning, leading to urbanization and giving

former rural dwellers money in their pockets.


For those who remained on the farm, cash crops established their part

of the dollar economy.  Traveling salesmen and general stores were

becoming active in small towns. Towards the end of the century, railroads

and a postal system made possible mail order of almost anything,

including guitars.


Emancipation gave African Americans some measure of freedom of

movement and livelihood for the first time. It freed black musical creativity.

General consciousness of black music and singing could be less subject to

white interpretation than in the heyday of the minstrel shows…


Community-made music continued to be popular in rural areas, especially

throughout the South.  Musical tastes were evolving. Factory production

made possible the very inexpensive guitars that were offered by mail-order

houses and furniture or music stores from about 1890 onward.


The advent of the three-dollar guitar put the instrument into the hands of a player

for the equivalent of three or four days’ wages rather than the month’s required for

a Martin or Haynes. These instruments…could compete and mix with a banjo

or fiddle.


Evidence of working-class playing of these guitars is sparse during this

period.  I came across one intriguing, reliable report by writer Lafcadio Hearn

describing an African American string band consisting of “a cracked violin,

a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol” at a lively 1875 waterfront square

dance in Cincinnati.  I think it’s significant that this combination of

instruments appeared at an African American dance only a decade after


Knocking on Doors for 78s

July 30, 2014


edited from  Gayle Dean Wardlow (in “Chasin’ that Devil Music”):

Beginning to collect records in Mississippi in 1961: After about ten houses on two streets, I spotted an old, decrepit shack with flowerpots on the porch.  I knocked and said, “Anyone home?”

An old woman, about 80, came to the door, we talked, and she went back inside while I waited anxiously on the porch.  I never asked to come into homes.  I assumed that old people felt safer if stranges stayed on the porches, especially whites.  I only entered if invited.  Sometimes people would invite me in by saying,  “You can come look at ’em.  I can’t bend down that low to get ’em out of the Victrola.”

The woman brought two discs out to the porch.  “I found a couple,” she said, modestly.  “They ain’t no good to me.”

I concluded that here was a new and easy way to find records.  I enjoyed that day what turned out to be beginner’s luck.  I soon learned that one could canvas all day and find nothing.

All that spring I knocked on doors, spending from one to three hours each day looking.  I refined my sales approach to these words:  “I buy old Victrola records–you know, them old blues records by Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Leroy Carr.  All them blues singers.”  I had learned that old people used the term “Victrola records,”  though sometimes they called them”Grafonola records.”  They remembered Bessie and Blind Lemon better than other artists.

I usually paid a quarter for each record–sometimes less, sometimes 50 cents.  Normally I mentioned my price range as I mad my initial inquiry.  If I saw something especially desirable, I offered a dollar to be sure to get it.  Selling records at the door to a white man must have struck some as unusual.  Occasionally they asked if i was planning to reissue them–“You gonna make them over again?”

My standard reply: “I play guitar and piano.  I want to learn these old blues myself.  It’s illegal to put them out again.”

I learned from experience that women had the records.  Men moved around more, and they did not take records when they moved.  I had the best luck with older women who had flowerpots on the porch, so I learned to look for flowerpots and taught other collectors to look for the same.  The pots indicated that someone had laved at one location for a long time.  Records were often in these homes, but they were thrown away when people moved.

I canvassed for more than ten years and occasionally into the mid-1980s.  But most of the records were gone by that time, ending up in junk stores, flea markets, or trash bins.  By the mid-1980s the few records that turned up were not worth the effort in finding them.


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