Archive for the ‘Narmour and Smith’ Category

Narmour and Smith Marker Unveiled

October 11, 2014

Many thanks to Susie James for these photos.  Read her article on Narmour and Smith here.

Narmour and Smith Marker unveiled

The unveiling of the Narmour and Smith marker was done by Chip Narmour and sister Laura N. Oakes, both children of Willie’s son, the late Coleman Narmour, who shared his dad’s story of how “Carroll County Blues” came into being.

Note hand whittled tuning peg Willie Narmour made

Hands carefully removed Willie Narmour’s fragile old fiddle with its hand-whittled turning peg out of its carrying case to show the public on Narmour & Smith’s big day in their county seat of Carrollton, Mississippi.


Narmour and his partner, Shellie Walton Smith, were “Narmour & Smith,” who in 1929 recorded a rousing tune they had created, “Carroll County Blues.” The duo made other recordings as well, but the Depression stunted the growth of the recording industry for years. Like John Hurt, Narmour and Smith were poor farmers — though talented musicians.

John Hurt was first recorded in the late 1920s after a neighbor, fiddler Willie Thomas Narmour, recommended him to a traveling record producer. Had it not been for these early recordings, which were found and enjoyed by some men from the Northeast during the folk music revival of the 1960s, it’s unlikely Hurt would have been “rediscovered.”

As people from that era often observed: Nobody had any money back then. Hurt would at times “spell” other musicians, including Narmour & Smith, at house parties, which comprised much of the entertainments throughout the countryside.

As it was, the late Tom Hoskins had, through listening to a number of “78s,” learned of several early talents from Carroll County around Avalon. Hoskins determined to see if some were still kicking. He came through the area in early 1963 trying to find one of them in particular: John Hurt, whose output had included “Avalon Blues.”

A soft-spoken farm worker who at the time lived in the same shotgun cabin that in July 2002 was dedicated (in a different location than from when the Hurts lived in it up on the Perkins place a bit east of the Valley Store) as the Hurt Museum, John Hurt had kept busy during the intervening years playing guitar and singing mostly for neighborhood events.


John Hurt and Willie Narmour

April 3, 2012


Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues, by Philip R. Ratcliffe
(University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 272 pages

“Narmour and Smith: A Carroll County Story,” pt. 2

December 27, 2011

This is a part 2 of a newspaper article, begun here.

Several tunes bear the root, “Charleston”, referring not to the type of tune, but to a town in neighboring Tallahatchie County, Miss., and “Carroll County Blues” came because Narmour and Smith thought it appropriate to name one of the tunes for where they lived.  To Carroll Countians Narmour and Smith were true, and at home their fame never waned. It would be the connoisseurs and the record collectors in decades to come, however, who would rediscover the old Narmour and Smith recordings and assure their niche in American music history. Among those are Joe Bussard of Frederick, Md., whose 25,000-piece collection includes most of the N & S records as well as early records by the partners’ neighbor, John Hurt, who became internationally known after a blues historian named Tom Hoskins found him in 1963.

Narmour and Smith were responsible for Hurt’s first brush with the record industry, recommending their neighbor when talent scouts asked them if they knew any good black guitarists.  In 1963 it was too late for Narmour’s second chance. He had a minor stroke in the mid-1950s and a massive stroke killed him March 24, 1961. He was born March 22, 1889.

During his exploratory trip into Mississippi in the 1960s Hoskins spoke with Smith, who had been working as custodian at nearby Valley High School, a country school that closed in the late 1960s. It was also too late for Smith, whose “boomchang” guitar underscores his and Narmour’s now-precious recordings. Smith, born Nov. 26, 1895, died Aug. 28, 1968.  Their graves are marked by modest headstones in cemeteries along the road from Valley.

Narmour, whose day to day work included driving a school bus, farming, and in the 1930s, running a mechanic’s garage at Avalon, is buried in the old Pisgah Cemetery alongside his widow, Velma Carroll Narmour, who died in 1978. Smith is buried in Moore’s Memorial Cemetery behind Pisgah Church. His widow, Lillian Kirby, died April 17, 1985 and is buried next to him.

“Narmour and Smith: A Carroll County Story,” pt. 1

December 26, 2011


by Robert Crumb

“Narmour & Smith: a Carroll County Story,” written in November 1997, revised in February, 1999

Thanks to Harry Bolick for finding this and making it freely  available.


Coleman Narmour recounts this story his father, fiddler Willie T. Narmour, told him about the origin of his enduring hit tune, “Carroll County Blues”: “He said he was leaving Leflore one fall. He’d taken a wagonload of cotton to the gin that morning. You’d have to wait your turn in line, so between sundown and dark his cotton had been ginned, and he and his mules were heading on back home. A little black boy was sitting on a train depot with a jew’s harp, trying to mock a train. From that he got the tune, and got to fiddling the next day on the “Carroll County Blues.” Willie Narmour and his partner, Shell Smith, recorded the song in 1929 and went on to make a slew of other records before first, the Depression nearly squeezed life out of the recording industry; then, changing times altered the quality and tastes of it.

“Carroll County Blues” became legend and was subsequently recorded by many other musicians. Regionally at least, it’s in live repertoires, a rousing hillbilly, then redneck standard. Yet Narmour’s daughter, Hazel Wiggins of near Holcomb, will say quickly and decisively, “Nobody else can play  “Carroll County Blues”. And there wasn’t a ‘Carroll County Blues’ until they went to the studio and recorded it.” Sounds mysterious, doesn’t it?

Smith and Narmour, buddies, dirt poor farmers, played guitar and fiddled for country dances. They were a county item long before they were discovered by scouts from Okeh Records at a fiddling contest at Winona in 1927. Such contests, Wiggins recalls, “Daddy always won, until they wouldn’t let him enter anymore.” Neither wanted to go on tour. While stories of how they entertained their fellow passengers during train trips to recording sessions regaled their families and friends, the truth is, Narmour and Smith were home boys.

Narmour’s daughter shared memories of her father working out tunes, for which he and Smith had no names, and which they couldn’t commit to paper, because neither could read nor write music. Names of these nostalgic tunes were created simply because there had to be titles for the record labels.  Titles, such as “Captain George Has Your Money Come”, “Who’s Been Giving You Corn?”, “Where the Southern Crosses the Dog”, “Sweet Milk & Peaches Breakdown” and “Winona Echoes Waltz” were products of discussions between the recording people and the artists “on the spot”, Wiggins said.         


The Southern Waltz (#7)

October 9, 2011


The Southern Waltz #7

“Winona Echoes,” by Narmour and Smith

July 30, 1934, Atlanta,  GA

Born in Ackerman, Choctaw County, Mississippi on March 22,1889, it was not until seven years later that his family moved to Carroll County, where he remained until he died on March 24, 1961, at age 72. He was survived by his wife, his sons, Coleman and Charles, and daughter, Hazel.

Willie Narmour was one of the most influential early fiddlers from Mississippi, widely known for “Carroll County Blues” and his collaboration with guitarist Shell Smith. They played and recorded together from 1928 to 1934. Narmour and Smith remained rooted in their community and seem to have traveled little other than the recording trips to Memphis in 1928, New York in 1929, Atlanta 1929 and 1934, and San Antonio Texas in 1930.

Willie first learned to play on a cigar box fiddle that his father, John Narmour, made for him. Willie came from a musical family: his father also played fiddle, and his father’s brother, Henry, played fiddle, bass fiddle, beat straws, and clogged. Henry’s wife, Jimmie, sang. Willie is best known as a fiddler but he also played guitar (as on the recording of “Rose Waltz” which he played in the same style as Shellie Smith).

He did not read music and had little formal education. In an area where men tended to be taciturn, his personality was described as being as engaging as his music. He played music, drove a school bus, farmed, and ran an auto mechanic garage to support his family. He loved to hunt. Though not religious, Willie did occasionally attend the Pisgah church, which was very close to his home in Valley.

(Knowing that dances were rife with drinking and fighting and that Willie was of small stature, I asked Charles Campbell, the deputy sheriff in the area when Willie played for local dances, “Did he ever get into fights at these dances?” He answered, “No, he had friends…” implying large muscular friends, who protected him.)

He continued to play in public after his recording career ended in 1934, although not with Shell Smith. One site was the Alice Cafe in Greenwood, where he was known to play for admirers possibly as late as the 1950’s. He had other accompanists at earlier dates also, Lonnie Ellis of the Mississippi Possum Hunters recalls seeing Willie at the 1929 or 1930 Fiddlers contest in Kosciuskio with another guitarist.