Archive for the ‘recordings’ Category

Howard Armstrong and Willie Sievers

June 13, 2012

Howard Armstrong

Willie Sievers

Terry Zwigoff, the director of “Louie Bluie” (about fiddler Howard Armstrong), recounts a chance meeting between Armstrong and Wllie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers (edited from

My original intention was to write an article about Louie Bluie and “State Street Rag” for an English magazine called Old Time Music.  It was just a little thin publication, maybe 500 people subscribed to it. It had photographs of rare record labels, photographs of musicians from the ‘20s, discographies and a little bit of whatever info or stories they could find out about their lives.

I set out to do that with Louie Bluie and I assumed the guy who was using the pseudonym “Louie Bluie” was long dead since this record was recorded half a century before. But when I tracked him down still alive, living in Detroit, I was rather amazed. It turned out his real name was Howard Armstrong and he was originally a member of a great band called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops in the 1920s. I went out there to meet him and sat down with a tape recorder. He told me to bring along fifty bucks to pay for his time, and I recorded an oral history over three days. After hanging out with him I thought he’d be a great subject for a documentary.

We went down to La Follete, Tennessee, where Howard was born. He was thinking, “Ah, there’s probably a lot of old friends of mine still alive, and relatives that are really good musicians. Let’s go back there and film them.” And, of course, we get there and everybody’s dead or moved away, and there’s nothing to film. And I’m like, “Oh, Jesus, what are we going to do now?”

So, we’re sort of aimlessly driving around trying to figure out what to film, and there’s a nearby town called Clinton, Tennessee, I think it’s about eight miles away from La Follette. It’s just a little town with a little main street. We’re going through there looking for something to eat for lunch, and we see a banner that says “Music at the Big Barn every Saturday. Bring your fiddle.”  I said, “Oh, let’s go over there.”

I go inside and this woman comes up to me, looks vaguely familiar, and welcomes me.  She says, “Hi, my name is Willie. What’s your name?” And I tell my name is Terry and I’m from California. And she says, “Oh, what are you doing here?” I start to explain to her, and about that time I realize she looked really familiar. And I flash back to this cover of an old issue of Old Time Music, the magazine I was going to write the Louie Bluie article for. But I remembered it because it had her photo on the cover when she was 18-years-old, holding a really rare Gibson guitar!

It was a striking photo, not only for the fact that she’s holding this guitar, but because she’s strikingly beautiful, which is something you rarely see in old-time musicians. I, of course, was very interested in the story, which had other pictures of her, including one from just a few years before when she was in her 60s.

So it all came back to me, and I said, “Are you Willie Sievers from the Tennessee Ramblers?” And about that time Howard Armstrong sticks his head in the door and she spots him from across the room, gets all excited and yells for her brother who played banjo on her family band’s records. She knew exactly who he was, and the last time they had seen him was 50 years before that, at the one time their paths had ever crossed, in Knoxville at the St. James Hotel recording session for Vocalion Brunswick. Both their family bands recorded like two tunes on the same day.

Back then, the Sievers were very knocked-out by Armstrong’s fiddle playing. Armstrong and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops did a tune called “Vine Street Drag” and he’s just unbelievable. And even though in the film I capture him at age 76, trying to play the same tune he’s not quite all there, it’s still like 10 percent of his former talent, but that talent is up there with somebody like Michelangelo. So it’s still pretty prominent, it’s still pretty important.

“Vine Street Drag,” played by the Tennessee Chocolate Drops (Howard Armstrong-fiddle):

Lonesome Luke and His Farm Boys’ $2.26 Royalty

June 10, 2012

Lonesome Luke and His Farm Boys


By the early 1930s, the Gennett Records division of the Starr Piano Company was barely clinging to life. In the late 1920s Gennett had stayed afloat in part by pressing records for Sears and recording on commission for Paramount, Q-R-S, and other labels. By 1930 those deals were no more. At the end of that year the Gennett label was discontinued, leaving Starr with just the cheap Champion and Superior lines.

Sales of those labels dropped disastrously as the Depression deepened. The extent of the damage is clear in the early 1930s royalty statement sheets, many of which have survived.

Luke Decker provides as good an example as any. Lonesome Luke & his Farm Boys recorded four titles at the Richmond Indiana studio on February 12, 1931. All were issued concurrently on Champion and Superior (the latter under the pseudonym of “Tommy Gordon & his Corn Huskers”).

The royalty sheets tell a sad tale. For the twelve-month period ending September 1932, these record sold a total of 668 copies, and Decker earned a total royalty of $2.26. Amazingly, that was far better than many of the 1930s Champions and Superiors; sales of some of the last Champion issues never broke out of the two-digit range.

$0.30 royalty was earned for “Wild Hog in the Woods,” surely one of the greatest recordings from the era of the classic string bands.

Lonesome Luke and His Farm Boys play “Wild Hog in the Woods”:

Blacks, Whites, and Blues

June 3, 2012


“Blacks, Whites, and Blues,” by Tony Russell (Stein and Day, 1970)

The man whose efforts crystallized the blue yodel, and the white blues form, and ensured its future in country music was Jimmie Rodgers.  Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1897, the son of an M&O gang foreman.  Rodgers’ musical environment has often been described; how he fetched water for the black gandy dancers in the Meridian yards; how he heard their songs and slang, and was taught the banjo by them.  Rodgers’ career on the tracks was curtailed by tuberculosis in 1925, and he took up, full time, the musical life which he had for some years enjoyed as an amateur.

The blue yodels were a foundation upon which countless white country singers built.  David Evans has suggested, very reasonably, that the blue yodel synthesized Swiss (yodelling) and African (falsetto) traditions; the falsetto “leap” was established among blacks since the days of the field holler — consider Vera Hall’s “Wild Ox Moan” — and (Jimmy) Rodgers, hearing it, thought it analogous to the yodel and inserted both into his blues.

“The identifying characteristics of the ‘blue yodel,'” John Greenway has written,” are (1) the slight situational pattern, that of a ’rounder’ boasting of his prowess as a lover, but ever in fear of the ‘creeper,’ evidence of whose presence he reacts to either with threats against the sinning parties or with the declaration that he can get another woman easily enough; and (2) the prosodic pattern, the articulation of Negro maverick stanzas dealing with violence and promiscuity, often with double meaning, and followed by a yodel refrain.”

Jimmy Rodgers sings “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel,” recorded May 18, 1933, NYC:

Jimmie Rodgers

“Barking Like Dogs”: The Camp Meeting

May 27, 2012

edited from and

Before old time music festivals there were camp meetings.

“During the Second Great Awakening, people from all sorts of backgrounds—Irish, Native American, African—met and had these experiences in the wilderness with a new kind of American music,” Tim Eriksen recounts. “The camp meeting songs are the hidden grandparents of just about everything we listen to right now.” Eriksen evokes and tweaks that sound on tracks like “The Golden Harp,” (listen below) an early shape-note hymn with a beat that reminded Eriksen of the pounding pulse of good banjo tunes.

In these Great Awakening revivalist services music played a significant role.  Black and white music found a common ground in these services, especially in the outdoor camp meetings which functioned as religious, social, and recreational gatherings.  The sheer exhilaration of participating in a  revival with crowds of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people inspired the dancing, shouting, and singing associated with these events.  Sound familiar?

Camp meetings lasted up to five days and lasted through the day and night. Whites, blacks, men, women, and persons of all denominations took turns exhorting would-be converts. Attendees anticipated and had emotional experiences, with crying, trances, and exaltation.  Camp meetings induced sensational results: some observers described participants laughing out loud, barking like dogs, falling down as if dead, and experiencing “the jerks.” (Similar phenomena have been reported at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W. VA, particularly “falling down as if dead.”)

Tim Eriksen plays “The Golden Harp”:

At A Georgia Camp Meeting

May 21, 2012

At A Georgia Camp Meeting (1897 )

Composed by Kerry Mills, played by The Leake County Revelers (click below to play).


Written as a “two-step, polka or cakewalk” it is in reality a perfect characteristic cakewalk. Kerry Mills, born in Philadelphia in 1869, was perhaps the most popular composer of popular American music in his lifetime, stated: “This march was not intended to be a part of the religious exercise, but when the young folks got together they felt as if they needed some amusement. A cakewalk was suggested and held in a quiet place – hence this music.”

Mills’ career reflected the changing trends in American popular music in 1897 to 1915. He was a skillful and prolific composer, capable of writing in any popular idiom. His most lasting composition might be “Red Wing.” [He also composed “Whistling Rufus.”] Mills’ compositions were the antecedent of classic ragtime and they indicate a bridge between the old two-step danced to Sousa’s “Washington Post March and Two Step” and the emerging styles of black-derived dance called the cakewalk.

In Mills’ music, unlike the grotesque ‘coon’ songs of the era, the African-American is a medicum of dignity and individuality. Mills’ sheet music covers are carefully conceived, executed and designed to emphasize the title without resorting to a complex apparatus of symbolism. “Georgia Camp Meeting” in its time was the biggest of hits and is based on the Civil War tune “Our Boys Will Shine Tonight.” In “Georgia” one can see the influence of the cakewalk ancestor – the march, and it is band music, not written for the keyboard idiom.

“At A Georgia Camp Meeting,” played by The Leake County Revelers.

Recorded April 16, 1929, Atlanta, GA

“I’m Going Down To North Carolina: The Complete Recordings of The Red Fox Chasers [1928-31]”

May 19, 2012


I’M GOING DOWN TO NORTH CAROLINA – The Complete Recordings Of The Red Fox Chasers 1928-1931 (2 CD SET), Tompkins Square (TSQ2219 )



The Red Fox Chasers began when a bunch of mountain boys from the north-west corner of North Carolina met at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in 1928. Fiddler Guy Brooks, banjo picker Paul Miles, guitarist AP Thompson and harmonica player Bob Cranford quickly developed into a solid unit with a wide repertoire of songs and tunes and one big burning ambition – to make records.

Paul Miles fired off letters to Columbia and Victor etc with no luck until Gennett came back with an offer and the boys scooted up to Richmond, Virginia to record a total of 32 sides over three sessions during the next couple of years. Those sides are on this 2CD set alongside 10 songs recorded in 1931 by Cranford and Thompson after the Red Fox Chasers disbanded. The records sold well on Gennett and on their budget labels Champion, Supertone and Conqueror where they were, for some unknown reason, released under pseudonyms such as The Virginia Possum Tamers and The Boone County Entertainers.

This music is classic old-time mountain stuff – minstrel tunes, murder ballads, folk songs, breakdowns, tin pan alley tunes, reels, country gospel and current ‘hits’ learned from the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the Carolina Tarheels. The band was particularly adept at re-jigging old numbers like Omie Wise, We Shall Meet On That Beautiful Shore and Devilish Mary but they also wrote some notable items like Mountain Sweetheart, Two False Lovers and the Gid Tanner inspired skit Makin’ Licker In North Carolina.

One of their most notable compositions is the ballad Stolen Love which sounds pretty advanced musically, thanks to its beautiful shift in meter between the verse and chorus. In fact, The Red Fox Chasers revelled in their instrumental skills as you’ll hear on numbers like the jumping Mississippi Sawyers with Bob Cranford displaying his amazing technique of playing two harmonicas as the band move from the D part to the A part. They even brought a new twist to the old warhorse Turkey In The Straw with Guy Brooks hot fiddle manoeuvrings and Paul Miles quirky banjo runs making this one of the Chaser’s best selling records.

The CD is completed by the ten sides recorded by Cranford and Thompson in 1931. These are a treasure trove of old-time tunes including murder songs like Pretty Polly, Lula Wall and Murder Of The Lawson Family, the great bad-man ballad Otto Wood and a blissful rendition of the Carter Family masterpiece Sweet Fern.

Up until now The Red Fox Chasers music has been very hard to find so fans will be thrilled that these precious vintage tracks have been painstakingly remastered for Tompkins Square by Grammy Award winning Christopher King – of County and Revenant Charley Patton box fame! And the notes are by that champion of old-timer music Kinney Rorrer. This package is unmissable!

Scott’s Return

May 18, 2012

by Jim Taylor, from “The Civil War Collection”:

Scott’s Return

Solo fiddle playing is a tradition that was well established at the time of the Civil War. Contests were often held to determine the best fiddler in a brigade, regiment, or even down to the company level. Old issues of Confederate Veteran magazine are filled with stories of fiddle contests and the exploits of fiddle players. For example, an article appearing in an 1894 edition speaks of treasure trove of entertainment granted to the boys of General A.P. Hill’s signal corps while stationed on Clark’s Mountain in Orange County, VA. “Down by the river,” an old veteran of the corps recalled, “was the regiment of Barksdale’s Mississippians. In one company of ninety men, ‘seventy-five were good fiddlers.’ We cultivated these fellows and they cultivated us. We had a dance three nights out of the week, and went courting two out of the other four.” Years after the war, fiddle contests were held at veterans’ reunions.

At the 1916 United Confedertate Veterans’ reunion in Birmingham, Dr. Lauriston H. Hill, former surgeon for the 53rd North Carolina Regiment, organized such an event where “old vets and their children can contest.” He urged them to come prepared “to do your best” for “the championship of old-time fiddlers.” And, after they’d done their best, Dr. Hill added, “if you don’t mind, these old Tarheels will show you how they play and put ‘the tar on you.’” These contests were fierce and serious affairs with bragging rights awarded to the winner. Thus, Dr. Hill closed his announcement with a bit of bragging of his own: “I will say, lastly, that when allowed to play, I have won the first prize.”

Scott’s Return on this recording is a good example of a contest tune played by a master fiddler in the Old-time tradition. And, Bruce Greene is one of the finest there is. Bruce learned this version from Milo Biggers (born around 1890) of Glasgow, KY. Bruce adds: “Mr. Biggers got it from Henry Carver, a legendary fiddler of that area and patriarch of a musical family that included the Carver Boys (recorded in the 1920’s), Cousin Emmy, and Noble (Uncle Bozo) Carver. Milo said it was a Civil War piece, but all he knew about it was something about an old soldier coming back from the war.”

Bruce Greene plays “Scott’s Return”:

Songsters and Saints

May 16, 2012

“Songsters and Saints,” by Paul Oliver (Cambridge University Press, 1984)

Peg Leg Howell (and others) play “Chittlin’ Supper” (1926):

“My Mother’s Hands”

May 13, 2012

George “Shortbuckle” Roark

“My Mother’s Hands,” by Shortbuckle Roark and Family

Recorded in Bristol. TN, Nov. 4, 1928.


Oh, those beautiful, beautiful hands

Oh, they neither were wide nor small

Yet my mother’s hands were the fairest and the loveliest hands of all

My mother’s dear hands, her beautiful hands

Which guided me safe o’er life’s sands

I bless God’s name for the memories of mother’s own beautiful hands

Oh, those beautiful, beautiful hands

I stood by her coffin one day

And I kissed those hands so cold and white,  as white and peaceful they lay

Oh, those beautiful, beautiful hands

I shall clasp them again once more

As my feet touch the banks of that heavenly land we shall meet on that shining shore

Johnson City Blues

May 10, 2012


Clarence Horton Greene was born in 1894 and died in 1961. A native of North Carolina, Greene had a long and distinguished musical career playing primarily fiddle and guitar from 1915 – 1955. Clarence Greene recorded for the Columbia, Victor, and Okeh record labels.

According to Greene’s son, Clarence Greene had heard a ragtime type tune titled Chattanooga Blues recorded by the Allen Brothers in 1927 and Clarence was in Atlanta at the time of the Allen recording. The tune actually originated with blues singer Ida Cox, who recorded the song for Paramount in 1923 and Greene’s version is much closer in style to Ida Cox who was accompanied by a piano. Webpage on the Chattanooga Blues.

In 1928, when Frank Buckley Walker auditioned and recorded Appalachian talent for Columbia Records in Johnson City, Tennessee, Clarence Greene, who performed Chattanooga Blues in his repertoire, adapted the Allen Brothers/Ida Cox tune to the lyrics above as Johnson City Blues.” In the recording for Columbia, Greene performs only with his guitar in a style reminiscent of Delta Blues. In 1938 another North Carolina recording artist, J. E. Mainer and His Mountaineers, recorded a tune for Bluebird Records titled Back to Johnson City that is virtually identical Greene’s arrangement of Johnson City Blues.

The Columbia recordings by Frank Buckley Walker became known as The Johnson City Sessions and in addition to Clarence Greene featured top performers Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman and Clarence “Tom” Ashley. Ashley’s recording of the Coo Coo Bird (from the 1929 Johnson City Columbia Sessions) is considered a clawhammer banjo classic. Ashley (1895 – 1967) was the last surviving star of the Johnson City Sessions, and was still performing at folk festivals and international tours with his friend Doc Watson shortly before his death.

According to Greene’s protege and travel companion, Walter Davis, Greene and Davis learned blues guitar from the legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, (October 26, 1894 — December 1929) who lived for a time in Johnson City, Tennessee performing as a street musician in the town’s hotel/railroad district. Both Davis and Greene also performed as “street musicians” in cities in both eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Clarence Greene sings “Johnson City Blues”:

Ernest Stoneman (#2)

May 9, 2012

Unsung Father of Country Music: Ernest V. Stoneman,” 2-CD Box Set; 44 Page full-color booklet,  5-String Productions (5SPH001)

By David Cantwell

One of 2008’s best country reissues, maybe even the best, is Ernest V. Stoneman: The Unsung Father Of Country Music, 1925-1934. The 46-track collection is smartly packaged, including a small hard-bound book with lots of photos. But it’s the savvy selection of some too-long-unavailable early sides of Ernest “Pops” Stoneman that excites. There’s his first recording and biggest hit, “The Titanic”; duets with his daughter; fuller string-band arrangements with the Dixie Mountaineers; short comic plays such as “Old Time Corn Shuckin’, Parts 1 and 2″; and even two versions (cut six years apart) of Stoneman’s “All I’ve Got’s Gone”, which remains among country music’s great poverty songs – and one of its catchiest tunes, too.

This is truly an essential, not to mention long overdue, collection. There is, however, the matter of that title. Not “An Unsung Father of Country Music” but “The Unsung Father” – a choice of article clearly intended to not so subtly dispute the long-since-established paternity rights of one Jimmie Rodgers.

The cover’s bold claim is fleshed out in a liner-notes essay by Henry Sapoznik (the man behind that amazing and essential You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole And The Roots Of Country Music set from a few years back). Sapoznik argues that it was only pioneering record producer Ralph Peer’s “post-mortem marketing of Rodgers that firmly established the Singing Brakeman as the putative Father of Country Music” and that “Peer crafted Rodgers’ legend…while having eschewed Stoneman’s, whose recorded output dwarfed Rodgers.” In other words, if Ralph Peer had chosen to mythologize Stoneman rather than Rodgers, or if he’d just let history take its un-manipulated course, then we would likely be hailing “Pops” as the father of the music, not Jimmie.

This is needless overreaching. It is well past high-time that fans and historians paid attention to Ernest Stoneman, and Sapoznik is to be commended for his efforts on Stoneman’s behalf. But to press the case for Stoneman by insisting upon a diminution of Jimmie Rodgers is merely to redress one injustice by perpetrating another.

No musical genre (not even bluegrass) can have a lone inventor. That caveat made, there are good reasons why Rodgers is considered the Father of Country Music and why Stoneman is not. The title of Father here has nothing to do with who came first, of course. If that were the case, we’d be calling John Carson daddy, or Eck Robertson, or, for that matter, Vernon Dalhart (if only we acknowledged the pop essence of even the earliest commercial country music). (more…)

Galax, VA Old Fiddlers’ Convention

May 8, 2012

From Folkways LP FA2435:

This CD consists of recordings made at the Galax, VA Old Fiddler’s Convention from 1960-1963.  Available here.

Forty Drops of Rye

May 7, 2012

OUT OF SIGHT: THE RISE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC, 1889 – 1895 by Lynn Abbott, Doug Seroff (University Press of Mississippi, 2003)

“At least two commercial recordings of “40 Drops” were made during the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1928, it was recorded by Andrew and Jim Baxter, a black fiddle and guitar duo. Andrew Baxter fiddles through a roughed-out country interpretation of the essential theme, struggling through a muddy variation or two, while Jim Baxter posits a verbal elucidation of the song title: ‘Now this is the “Forty Drops”.  Forty Drops of what?  Forty drops of rye!…Who’s gonna carry me home when the dance is over?  ‘Cause I”m getting about full of this rye”.

The Baxters were seperated for the source of ’40 Drops’ by more than a generation, so the accuracy of their explanation of the ‘forty drops of what’ is open to question.  It more likely referred to morphene or laudanum, popular recreational drugs of the 1890s, typically dispensed in drops [a footnote explains that the typical medicinal dose of laudanum was 50 drops, as per a medical text of the time].

“40 Drops” was also recorded by the Stripling Brothers, a white fiddle and guitar duo, in 1936.  In this version the initial theme is more distinctly articulated, but like the Baxters, the Striplings don’t attempt to execute every movement of “40 Drops” as preserved in the 1898 published edition.
In its published form “40 Drops” is a charcteristic early rag.  In places it resembles a standard country string band tune, but there is also an unmistakeble something “oriental’ or pseudo-Turkish, such as reverberated from the 1893 Word’s Columbian Exposition Midway.

“Forty Drops” played by Andrew and Jim Baxter:

Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers

April 28, 2012


During the height of the great string band era of the 1920s, one of the largest and most popular string bands in Arkansas was Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. Originally founded to promote tourism in the area of Izard County, the band went on to achieve a modicum of regional success before succumbing to the Depression.

Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers was founded by Dr. Henry Harlin Smith, a surgeon for the Missouri Pacific Railroad who lived in the Calico Rock (Izard County) area. On his travels with the railway, he found that he was often working to dispel the backward image that many people outside of Arkansas had of the region. Smith thought that if more people were to visit Calico Rock and enjoy the area’s natural beauty, it could change the negative misconception that was so prevalent.

As a way to promote the area and tourism, he organized a fiddle contest in Calico Rock. Smith was not a musician himself, but he knew that a rich crop of talented musicians lived in and around Izard County. The contest was held in January 1926. From the winners of the contest, Dr. Smith formed a band with the whimsical name of “Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers”—a unique but fitting name derived from the fact that fiddle bows are strung with horse hair. Smith also assembled a group of vocalists from the winners of the contest and called them the “Hill-Billy Quartet.”

Smith took the Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the Hill-Billy Quartet to Hot Springs (Garland County) as ambassadors of the Calico Rock area. As part of his introduction before each show, he proudly extolled the natural beauty of Izard County and promoted the virtues of the area as a vacation destination.

Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers enjoyed a couple years of popularity, which earned them several radio performances on KTHS in Hot Springs and a recording session in Memphis, Tennessee, for Victor during September 1928. Three 78 rpm records, a total of six songs, were recorded at this session. Members of the band for these recordings included James Clark Duncan and Bryan Lackey on fiddles, Leeman Bone on guitar, and Ray Marshall on mandolin.

Over the years, the band’s roster changed several times. Members of the various incarnations of Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the Hill-Billy Quartet included Leeman Bone on guitar and vocals, Graydon Bone on vocals, George Dillard on fiddle, James Clark Duncan on fiddle, Roosevelt Garner on vocals, Homer T. Goatcher on vocals, J. Odie Goatcher on vocals, Owen Hunt on fiddle, Bryan Lackey on fiddle, Ray Marshall on mandolin, W. P. McLeary on fiddle and guitar, Hubert Simmons on vocals, and Luther Walker on fiddle.

By late 1929, the Depression began to take a toll on the music industry as well as tourism. Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the Hill-Billy Quartet continued to play throughout Izard County until 1930, when Dr. Smith determined that the band no longer served its original purpose as ambassadors of tourism, and the group was disbanded.

Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers play “Going Down the River”:

Hobart Smith and Georgia Sea Island Singers

April 27, 2012

Ed Young and Hobart Smith

by Nathan Salsburg
Alan Lomax’s “Southern Journey” field recording trip ended in October of 1959, but by April of the next year Alan was back recording in the South, this time in the capacity of music supervisor to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s film, Music of Williamsburg. The aim was to recreate the sound of African American music as it might have been heard in Colonial Williamsburg, and, according to a strikingly progressive 1962 press release from the Foundation, “to portray the important contributions of the Negro race to the nation’s heritage.”

Lomax assembled a novel cast, comprised of many musicians he’d recorded several months earlier, and drawn from disparate locales. Ed Young came north from Como, Mississippi, to provide the necessary fife-blowing. Hobart Smith traveled east from Saltville, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with his four-string banjo and a clawhammer technique learned, in part, from an African American. Nat Rahmings, a Bahamian drummer and drum-maker, was brought in from Miami. And the Georgia Sea Island Singers were the vocal group at the ensemble’s core.

After filming was completed, Lomax wrote, the “musicians stayed on for what turned out to be a day of extraordinary music-making and musical cross-fertilization.” Alan had turned up this tune years before, having gone looking for the oldest published black dance songs in Virginia—-its references to the drinking gourd evince its slavery-time origin—-and he taught it to the group. “I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed material,” Lomax continued. “But the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.”

Hobart Smith, Bessie Jones, Ed Young, Nate Rahmings, and others play “Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rollin’ Under”(1960):

Diamond Joe

April 18, 2012

from and notes to “A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings”

Diamond Joe was a steamboat, and this is one more example of a roustabout (or wannabe roustabout) song: the narrator wants the steamboat to come and take him away. That’s only speculation, of course, but writing and conversation would be much shorter if we had to stick to known facts.

Here’s the steamboat evidence: Joseph Reynolds (1819 – 1891) was a Chicago grain dealer who devised a logo (JO inside a diamond) to distinguish himself from another Joseph Reynolds. Dissatisfied with the shipping situation, he built a steamboat, The Diamond Jo, to haul freight on the upper Mississippi (St. Paul to St. Louis). He later expanded the business to become the Diamond Jo Line, with all the boats sporting his logo. After the railroads began to carry more of the grain, the steamboats became mostly passenger vessels. There are only two remnants of the operation: the Diamond Jo name is now used by an unrelated riverboat casino in Dubuque, Iowa, and Reynolds Hall, the University of Chicago student union, was built with an endowment from Reynolds.

The song was recorded by the Georgia Crackers (Paul and Leon Cofer) for Okeh records in 1927 (re-released on Document DOCD-8021, Georgia Stringbands, Vol. 1), and Charlie Butler, a prisoner at Mississippi’s infamous Parchman “Farm,”  recorded by John Lomax in 1941 for the Library of Congress’ Folk Archive.

Born in Louisiana in 1896, Charlie Butler was discharged from Parchman prison in 1942.  The Archive wrote Butler a letter at Parchman’s prison to obtain his permission to issue this recording of “Diamond Joe.” The unopened envelope came back with a note on it, “Gone Free, Left No Address.”

Charlie Butler sings “Diamond Joe”:

Dink Roberts

April 16, 2012

Dink Roberts (left)

from “Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia,” Smithsonian CD SFW 40079

Dink Roberts plays “John Hardy”:

“Chemirocha (Jimmie Rodgers)”

April 13, 2012

Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac gives the background of the 1950 Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha” by a tribe that, after hearing Jimmie Rodgers’ music, were fascinated by his voice and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers).

I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers  were familiar with the incredible Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha,” which was captured by the South African ethnographer and recordist Hugh Tracey on his 1950 expedition across East Africa. If ever there was an early recording from Africa that could be described as infamous, “Chemirocha” is it. Decades ago, that recording was issued by Tracey on his long out-of-print Music of Africa LP collection (#2: Kenya), then later by John Storm Roberts on his groundbreaking and long out-of-print Nairobi Sound LP, and later, sounding clear as a bell, on the recent Sharp Wood CD Kenyan Songs and Strings.

“Chemirocha” is deservedly infamous because of it’s backstory. Tracey arrived in Kapkatet, Kenya, inland from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, to record the music of the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis were then known (and it seems still are) as a pastoral people whose livelihood, on the whole, depended on cattle, tea, and millet. Their language, interestingly, is not a Bantu language, and is part of the Nilotic language group, centered around southern Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda (Luo is also a Nilotic language). Anyway, Tracey discovered on his apparently rainy visit that the Kipsigis had heard numerous recordings by American country music star Jimmie Rodgers – likely purchased and/or brought to Kenya by the British, as Jimmie Rodgers discs were reissued in Britain on the Zonophone label. The Kipsigis, after hearing Rodgers’ music, were fascinated by his voice, which they deemed magical, and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers). According to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha, because of his prowess as a singer and player, had to have been half-man, half-antelope. The younger Kipsigis invented songs about him. This well known and beautiful version of “Chemirocha” can be heard, introduced by Hugh Tracey himself, here.

Read entire article here.

Jimmie Rodgers

Calypso at Midnight

April 7, 2012


Learning that Town Hall (in NYC) could be rented cheaply after regular theater hours, Alan Lomax produced a late-night concert series called The Midnight Special, which was thematically organized as Blues At Midnight, Ballads At Midnight, etc., and sponsored by the People’s Songs Collective.  A live recording was made of “Calypso At Midnight,” a concert held at Town Hall on December 21, 1946. The calypso concert recordings, made at Lomax’s request and later found by chance in a closet by Bess Lomax Hawes, may be the only extant record of this series. “This concert is a fascinating document of an American presentation of Trinidadian calypso at a time when interest in the genre was spreading from New York City into the mainstream of popular music in the United States” (Donald R. Hill and John H. Cowley, Calypso At Midnight [Rounder 1840]).

This material (newly available online) from Alan Lomax’s independent archive (over 17,400 digital audio files), begun in 1946, which has been digitized and preserved by the Association for Cultural Equity, is distinct from the thousands of earlier recordings on acetate and aluminum discs he made from 1933 to 1942 under the auspices of the Library of Congress.  Attempts are being made, however, to digitize some of this rarer material, such as the Haitian recordings, and to make it available in the Sound Recordings catalog. Please check in periodically for updates.



Goodbye, Old Paint

April 6, 2012
Charley and Laura Willis
Charley Willis was born in 1847 in Milam County, outside of Austin, Texas. Freed after the Civil War, he headed to West Texas at age eighteen and found work breaking wild horses at the Morris Ranch in Bartlett, Texas. In 1871, at age twenty-four, he rode the Chisholm Trail one thousand miles north into Wyoming Territory as a drover. Charley was musically knowledgeable and talented. He became known for the songs he brought back from the trail.

In 1885 Willis taught his favorite song, “Good-bye Old Paint,” to Morris’s seven-year-old son, Jess.  As an adult Jess Morris became known as a talented fiddler, and though credited with authoring “Good-bye Old Paint,” he was quick to clarify that had he learned the song from Charley Willis as a child. In 1947 John Lomax, a pioneering musicologist and folklorist, recorded Morris singing and playing Willis’ song, “Good-bye Old Paint,” and later sent it to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress where it is preserved.

“Charley played a Jews-harp and taught me how to play it,” Morris said. “It was on this Jews-harp that I learned to play ‘Old’ Paint’ at the age of seven. In later years I learned to play ‘Old Paint’ on the fiddle, in my own special arrangement – tuning the fiddle accordingly.”

Jess Morris’ first fiddle lesson came from another black cowboy on the ranch, Jerry Neely.  Fiddlers recognize Morris’ arrangement as sophisticated and difficult, adding credence to rumors that he studied violin in Austin and at Valparaiso, Indiana. But Jess Morris always identified himself as a cowboy fiddler.

Jess Morris plays “Goodbye, Old Paint”:

Quince Dillion

March 31, 2012

from Alan Jabbour:

When I talk about my mentor on the fiddle, Henry Reed, I often mention one of his mentors, Quincie Dillion (born 1810) – or Quince Dillion, as Henry Reed called him.  Several Henry Reed tunes came from Quince Dillion, and one has come in recent decades to bear his name: “Quince Dillion’s High-D Tune.”  

People ask me about Quince Dillion and sometimes speak of him as if he were a legendary fiddler.  They debate about how to spell or pronounce his name.  And they occasionally even tease me that either I or Henry Reed might have just made him up as an archetypical fiddler and fifer from the Appalachian past.  Jim Costa, a great Monroe County fiddler and devoted collector of the artifacts of local culture, is in possession of an animal horn said to have been Quince Dillion’s hunting horn, which only burnishes the archetypical luster surrounding him.

“British Field March” is a tune Henry Reed learned from Quince Dillion. It was specifically identified as a fife tune, and a trill at one juncture–not a normal feature of Henry Reed’s fiddling–must be an echo of the fife original. In calling this piece “British Field March,” he said that it was the march used by the British to retreat in the Battle of New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson and his American forces routed the British contingent.

Henry Reed plays “British Field March”:

Haunted Road Blues

March 25, 2012

Clarence Ashley

from notes to “Oh  My Little Darling,” (New World Records)

The word “blues” is believed to stem from the Elizabethan “blue devils,” and English-language culture owns a long heritage of lament and melancholy. The “graveyard” poetry of William Collins in the 1750s explored despair and near-morbid introspection as means of poetic creation. From Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of the nineteenth century stems a literary tradition of confronting the void that at one level of culture yields Poe’s gloomy stories and poems and at another popular nineteenth-century songs, both religious and secular, that look despair and death unflinchingly in the eye. The Protestant hymn “O Lovely Appearance of Death,” for example, yields a chill worthy of Poe’s most spine-tingling stories.


One of the finest white blues singers, the Kentucky coal miner Dock Boggs, spoke of his melancholy “graveyard songs” and of a mood he called “getting in the graveyard” that becomes indistinguishable from “having the blues,” demonstrating a link between Afro- American and Anglo-American streams of poetry and aesthetic experience.White blues performers often tend toward the contemplation of death rather than the troubles of life that mark black blues. Clarence Ashley’s “Haunted Road Blues” combines elements of white “graveyard” and black blues traditions to exemplify the blues as a type of American song whose function is to enable the performer to emulate Trueblood, Ralph Ellison’s black sharecropper in Invisible Man, who looked upon chaos and was not destroyed.


Tom Clarence Ashley, from Mountain City, Tennessee, carried the musical heritage of his family and his community into his career as a busker performing music and comedy for carnivals, medicine shows, dances, and occasionally on street corners. Ashley needed to add to his inherited stock of music songs his audience demanded, and it is likely that his mastery of the blues dates from his travels as a busker. Along with the North Carolina harmonica virtuoso Guinn (or Gwen) Foster, Ashley recorded several examples of blues and old-time songs, of which Ralph Rinzler has said, “Here the perfect blending of voice and harmonica is unique among the varied sounds to be heard in recorded American traditional music.”

“Haunted Road Blues,”
by Tom Clarence Ashley, vocal and guitar; Gwen Foster, harmonica and guitar.
Recorded December, 1931.

Glen Smith

March 21, 2012

Glen Smith

from the notes to “Traditional Music of Grayson and Carroll Counties,” Folkways FW03811

Glen Smith plays “Fortune”:

A New Salty Dog

March 10, 2012

(From, liner notes to “Going Down the Valley,” CD 80236)

Even the folks back in the hills could not escape the lure of the jazz age. The Allen Brothers, of Franklin County, Tennessee, were so successful at assimilating the jazz and blues styles from the other side of the color barrier that Columbia decided to release two of their songs in its Race Records series. Some artists would have taken that as a compliment; the Allen Brothers, however, threatened to sue, and stopped recording for that label.

When they switched to Victor they rerecorded several of the numbers they had done for Columbia, including “Salty Dog Blues” which they renamed “A New Salty Dog.” Lexicographers have not provided a satisfactory account of the meaning and evolution of the phrase “salty dog.” As early as 1785, “salty” meant lecherous (or, literally, salacious); “salt bitch” was a dog in heat. In black slang of the twentieth century the phrase has been used with various implied meanings: sometimes, in the general sense of a sexually active person; other times, in connection with specific kinds of sexual behavior.

To Lee Allen a salty dog was a “common person…who had a good time and did it in the wrong way.” The earliest use in a musical context was in blues singer Clara Smith’s 1926 recording “Salty Dog,” a considerably more outspoken piece of bawdry than the Allen Brothers’ relatively tame lyrics. Two other locutions in the text deserve comment: in the penultimate stanza, “bum” may be used in the same sense that we use it today, but there was a more specific meaning in the 1920s- a cheap prostitute.

Quite likely there was a conscious attempt in the second recording to eliminate what some regarded as an offensive term. It should be noted, however, that these terms have not carried the same connotation at all times and in all areas. Many white mountain folk had used these terms without any intention of slurring, slighting, or offending. It is instructive to recall, in this connection, how much the connotative meaning of the word “colored” has changed in the past decade.

In lyrics, tune and instrumentation, “A New Salty Dog” is a good example of how much jazz and blues influences could alter string-band music. The partial circle of fifths chord pattern (I-VI7- II7- V7- I) has been used since the Baroque era, but to modern listeners it is perhaps more closely identified with ragtime music than any other style. In country music, almost every tune that uses a circle of fifths is labeled a “rag.”

Come here, mama, what’s on your mind?

Daddy wants to love you but you won’t give him time,

You ain’t nothin’ but a salty dog.

Oh, salty dog, ha ha ha, ha ha ha, hey hey hey.



Available here.

The Allen Bros. play “A New Salty Dog”:

John Specker

March 8, 2012

edited from,, and

John Specker (b. 1950) was born in Callicoon Depot, New York. He grew up in Astoria (Queens), New York spending summers on his family’s ancestral farm in the Catskills. At age 13 John began violin lessons. He would carry his instrument to and from his lessons in a guitar case so his peers would not mock him for playing the violin. John graduated from high school and attended Philadelphia College of Art. While attending P.C.A. he heard fiddle music for the first time. Before this he had never heard anything other than classical music on the violin.  As a sophomore, he got the notion to get out his violin again, this time to play old time music.  John dropped out of college at age 19 to play fiddle music.

From 1974 to 1977, Specker played with The Correctones in Ithaca, NY.  Correctone fiddler Danny Kornblum writes of that time, “We wanted to take ourselves and our dancing friends to another level where the droning buzz of the fiddle and the chunk of the Banjo…hung in the air like a ball of fire. We played into that fire to make it grow and burn brighter.”

Even when John’s daughters Lila and Ida Mae were babies, in a household isolated in the woods, John continued to hone his art. Always, at every available moment throughout the day and night, he fiddled and sang in his gritty, passionate baritone voice. In an unpremeditated feat of magic, he was tutoring his future dream band of a lifetime. As the two small girls nestled to sleep each night in the family’s drafty one room cabin, the floor joists vibrated to their Papa’s fiddle and banjo tunes. The two curlyheads absorbed their musical heritage painlessly, feeling it as just another evening breeze.

The Girls, now 26 and 23, have been on the road with John for several years now, touring as The Speckers.

John lives in Andover, Vermont.

John Specker and The Correctones play “Black Eyed Suzie”:

Santa Anna’s Retreat

March 7, 2012

Antonio López de Santa Ann

from Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection and Tom Faux (

Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876) was both general of the army and president of Mexico when Texas declared its independence from Mexico. He led the expeditionary force in 1836 that fought at the Alamo, and he was subsequently defeated and captured by Sam Houston, interviewed by U.S. President Andrew Jackson, and returned to Mexico. During the Mexican War in 1846-7, he again led the Mexican forces and was defeated by the United States.

Henry Reed said–presumably on the authority of his fiddling and fifing mentor Quince Dillon, who was a fifer in the Mexican War–that this march was used by Santa Anna’s army to retreat from Cerro Gordo and the American forces.  This was the decisive battle in which General Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg–a nobly crafted article of wood and cork fitted with a hand-tooled boot of fine Mexican leather–was captured by the 4th Illinois Infantry and carried triumphantly back to the Midwest (it now rests in the Illinois Military Museum in Springfield; see below)

Henry Reed plays “Santa Anna’s Retreat”:

Little Ola/ Aloha Oe

March 1, 2012

Queen Lili`uokalani

edited from

 Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarlton‘s classic 1930 recording of  “Little Ola” contains as an introduction and instrumental break the plaintive Hawaiian song “Aloha Oe.”  According to one legend, “Aloha Oe” was composed by Queen Lili`uokalani of Hawaii around 1895 while she was imprisoned in her own country.  Her monarchy had been overthrown by plantation owners with the cooperation of the U.S. government.

Queen Lili`uokalani had been determined to strengthen the political power of the Hawaiian monarchy and to limit suffrage to subjects of the kingdom.  Her attempt to promulgate a new constitution galvanized opposition from naturalized citizens and foreign nationals, many of whom were sugar plantation owners and businessmen. This group, with the support of the American Minister to Hawai`i, orchestrated the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the establishment of a provisional government.

In 1895, an abortive attempt by Hawaiian royalists to restore Queen Lili`uokalani to power resulted in the queen’s arrest. Convicted of having knowledge of a royalist plot, Lili`uokalani was fined $5000 and sentenced to five years in prison at hard labor. The sentence was commuted to imprisonment in an upstairs bedroom of `Iolani Palace.

During her imprisonment, the queen was denied any visitors other than one lady in waiting.  Legend has it that the queen composed “Aloha Oe” for her people during this time.

In 1993, 100 years after the overthrow, President Clinton signed a Congressional resolution  in which the United States government formally apologized to the Native Hawaiian people.

Darby and Tarlton play “Little Ola.”

Recorded April 16, 1930, Atlanta, GA

“Southern No. 111”: Southern Marvel #9

February 27, 2012

The Roane County Ramblers, 1928
L to R: Luke Brandon, Jimmy McCarroll, Howard Wyatt, John Kelly


James “Uncle Jimmy” McCarroll, a Kingston area farmer, is remembered as one of the most outstanding area fiddlers of the last century, employing both inventive and time-honored techniques to form his unusual style, often compared to that of the great Georgia fiddlers Earl Johnson and Clayton McMichen of the Skillet Lickers.   Still an active and strong player until shortly before his death in 1985 at the age of 93, he performed with  The Roane County Ramblers and as a solo player at festivals in the area.

An early incarnation of The Roane County Ramblers with Jimmy McCarroll, Luke Brandon, John Kelly and Howard Wyatt , released twelve sides in the late 1920s, of which the most successful was Jimmy’s composition  “Southern No. 111,”   a virtuoso piece celebrating the rail line from Danville, Kentucky to Knoxville.

Folklorist Bob Fulcher had been searching for Tammie McCarroll and her father for some time when they had a chance encounter at a park festival.  ” He was passing a note to someone with a list,” says Tammie, “and I saw ‘Southern No. 111’ on the list.  I said to him “Excuse me — would that be the name of a song?”   He said “Why yes, it is.  Do you know anything about it?”   I said “I know the man that composed it.”   He said, “That man was a genius!”   It brought tears to my eyes to hear him say that, I was so close to my grandfather.  I took it all for granted when I was growing up you know.  I thought everybody played guitar every Saturday night with their family band.”

Luther “Luke” Brandon , a barber in Rockwood born in 1901, was the guitarist on the early recordings.  His guitar style was influenced by black bluesmen he met as a young man working in the coal mines.  He passed his musical skills on to his son, who started out playing with The Roane County Ramblers in 1930 at only five years old, the same age that Tammie McCarroll began playing with a later version of her grandfather’s band.  The younger Luke Brandon went on to become a professional musician in Nashville, playing everything from “hillbilly jazz” in the style of Chet Atkins to country and rock.

The Roane County Ramblers play “Southern No. 111.”

Recorded Oct. 15, 1928, Johnson City, TN.

Only A Miner

February 24, 2012

Coal Creek, northwest of Knoxville TN, is a tributary of the Clinch River, and mining led to the founding of a town with the same name.  The Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891 was the inspiration for Uncle Dave Macon’s “Buddy Won’t You Roll Down The Line,” as well as numerous versions of “Coal Creek March,” and several other songs. 

“Coal Creek March” by Marion Underwood.

Recorded April 27, 1927, Richmond, IN.



“Only A Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs,” by Archie Green (University of Illinois Press, 1972)

Under the Double Eagle

February 22, 2012

from and

“Under The Double Eagle” was composed as a march by Josef Franz Wagner in the late 19th Century as “Unter dem Doppeladler”. Wagner was an Austrian composer and bandmaster and the title of his composition refers to the “double eagle” on the coat of arms of Austria-Hungary under Emperor Franz Josef. Americans on the other hand, took “double eagle” to mean a slang term for the American $20.00 gold coin in common use at the time, which made it a more acceptable premise.

John Philip Sousa, American bandmaster and noted march composer considered this tune to be one of his favorites and his various recordings as well as public performances spread the song far and wide. It was easily adaptable to the rural groups and instruments of the day, especially the fiddle (violin), piano and many other instruments as well. The song is now considered a country music classic and has evolved into Bluegrass, Western Swing, and other Country music styles over the years. Where Herr Wagner got his original inspiration for the song is anybody’s guess.

The Double-headed Eagle is  associated with the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, which is why you find it so often on gravestones. Manly P. Hall says it’s an alchemical symbol of the union between the masculine and feminine principles in the individual, but as with most of his explanations to the public, there’s probably much more than meets the eye.

The symbol itself predates the Scotch-Rite Masons, the earliest written reference to which is 1733. The Hittites held the symbol in great esteem, and were carving representations of it as early as two thousand years before the birth of Christ (see photo above). Now that’s old time.

Tony Russell’s “Country Music Records”  lists 12 versions of “Under the Double Eagle” on 78 rpm. Here is a version from the 70’s by Fred Cockerham.

Fred Cockerham fiddles “Under the Double Eagle”:

Lewis Brothers’ “Sally Johnson”: Southern Marvel #8

February 20, 2012

Dempson Lewis

The Lewis Brothers of San Antonio, Texas, recorded this version of “Sally Johnson” on July 11, 1929 in El Paso, Texas.

by Charles Faurot

Author’s note: This telephone interview with Denmon Lewis, made on November 18, 1969, was one of several made to obtain information for the liner notes of County 517, a reissue of Texas fiddlers who recorded in the 1920s. [The LP was reissued along with the volume 2 LP on County CDs 3524 and 3525.] I was put in touch with Mr. Lewis by Mr. A.J. Fisher, an old-time fiddler from Mayhill, New Mexico.

Denmon Lewis is now 75 years old, but still works daily on his cattle ranch in Otero County, New Mexico. He has been a rancher all his life—raising both cows and saddle horses. The section of New Mexico in which he lives is known as Crow Flat. His family moved there from a ranch near San Antonio in 1902. His grandmother on his mother’s side was raised in San Antonio while his father came from Louisiana. Denmon was born in San Antonio on August 2, 1894. His brother, Dempson, who played fiddle on the 78 records, was born about 3 years earlier. Denmon was the youngest of seven boys and five girls. Both he and Dempson learned many tunes from their mother, who sang a great deal.

“Her tongue was tied in the middle and loose at both ends.” Some of her favorite tunes were “Follow Me Up And Follow Me Down” and “Silent Graves”.

Denmon Lewis fiddles for an outdoor dance.Both Denmon and Dempson fiddled, especially at the many dances held nearby. [Denmon is shown fiddling with unknown guitar player at left.] The dancers especially liked “Mockingbird” and “Winter Flower” (a Spanish-American tune). Most of the dances were held in school houses. They also played for a number of dances held in Liberty Hall in El Paso.

It was through the help of a woman who ran these dances that the Victor A&R man was able to contact the Lewises to record. There weren’t very many fiddler contests at that time. One important that Dempson did enter was held in El Paso in 1928. After he had won first prize, a $300 saddle made by S.D. Myers, he placed it on the fender of a car, mounted it, and then had himself driven around town playing the fiddle. Mr. Myers was also helpful to the Lewises in getting them together with Victor. Mr. Myers’ son still runs the saddle making firm in El Paso.

The Lewises recorded in El Paso on July 11, 1929. They came down the day before to the Baptist Church building where the recordings were being held, but a man and woman were trying to play and sing and they took the whole day. Denmon and Dempson came back the next day and recorded four songs, all of which were released: “Sally Johnson”, “Bull At The Wagon”, “When Summer Comes Again”, and “Calliope Schottische”.

Denmon used a Washburn guitar which he tuned natural. His brother would neither cross-key his fiddle nor tune it up (for high-powered dances, Denmon would tune his up). Denmon used a straight pick, even though the A&R man wanted him to use a felt pick. When the session was over, the A&R man wanted them to go to Chicago with him and travel, playing full-time for a living; however, they both felt they shouldn’t leave their mother. They made no other recordings.

Denmon Lewis playing fiddle.Denmon [shown fiddling at right], first started playing guitar in 1917 when a friend won a Stella in a contest and he borrowed it. Soon, Dempson’s favorite tunes were “Sally Johnson” and “Sweet Honey In The Piney Wood”. He may have heard “Bull At The Wagon” from a record. Their favorite fiddler was a man named Schley(?), now deceased, who was from around Hot Springs (since named Truth Or Consequences), New Mexico.

Two approximate quotes from Denmon are a fitting close to this interview, which was transcribed from notes rather than from a tape recording. “We’d have our own fun around the community—that’s where we would have our fun.” Regarding good music, “That’s one thing that makes you forget your troubles.”

—Charles Faurot, Roseland, NJ, December 1969

Happy One Step: Southern Marvel #7

February 11, 2012

Dennis McGee and Ernest Fruge

edited from

The Cajuns of Louisiana are the descendents of the earliest colonists from northern France who settled in Acadia, Nova Scotia, and devoted themselves with dogged persistence to their language, their culture, their Catholicism, their freedom. They had to, or lose it all in the welter of endless wars between France and Britain. England having won dominion over Acadia during Queen Anne’s War of 1713, the British were understandably alarmed at Acadians’ strong cultural identity. Oath after oath of allegiance was defied as the Acadians refused to bear arms against their French countrymen, refused to give over rich farmlands to the English, refused to feed British soldiers on their own precious fish, cattle, corn, etc.  When in 1748 they again refused to swear the English oath, their lands and possessions were confiscated and their men deported while the women and children watched their homes burn.

During the next 11 years, the British continued to exile Acadians, more than 8000 in all, 4000 of whom died at sea of smallpox and other diseases. The survivors were scattered in major cities across the Eastern Seaboard and west in Canada and the States… In time, they found their way to Louisiana, where they were welcomed by the already-established French and Spanish Catholic population. They settled in the southwestern corner of the state with the blessings of the French governor.

The Louisiana twin fiddling of Dennis McGee and Ernest Fruge (“The Complete Early Recordings of Dennis McGee, 1929-1930,” Yazoo 2012) is one of the great treasures of recorded southern fiddling, past and present.

An intricate tapestry effect is produced by Dennis McGee and Ernest Fruge, whose seconding reproduces more closely the highly ornamented melodic line played by the lead fiddle, complete with cascading trill after trill. No dead space: every square inch filled. No rests – just as there are no rests in certain traditional music of say, Sweden and Norway. The resemblance in fact of this archaic Cajun twin fiddle tradition to the older style of fiddle-playing in central Europe is striking, especially with respect to those cascading rolling trills one on top of another, like overlapping folds of surf, neither ending or beginning.

Dennis McGee and Ernest Fruge play “Happy One Step”:

Steeley Rag: Southern Marvel #6

February 4, 2012

Red Steeley (September 10 – 1893 – December 16, 1969)


Red and Mildred Steeley play “The Steeley Rag,”

recorded Nov. 29, 1930, Dallas, TX.


edited from

Born in Scottsboro in the hill country of Jackson County in northeastern Alabama on September 10, 1893, Albert Lee Steeley began playing the fiddle at the age of five; he learned to play on a homemade instrument made by his seven-year-old brother. The Steeleys moved out to Texas around the turn of the twentieth century.

Steeley spent most of his life as a farmer near Arlington, Texas. He kept fiddling,  though, and became known as one of the finest hoedown fiddlers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Steeley and a fellow Alabaman, J.W. Graham began playing together in 1909. They played together on WBAP radio in Fort Worth  and  in 1928 and 1929, Steeley and Graham recorded for Brunswick Records in Dallas as the Red Headed Fiddlers. Graham’s old time five string banjo accompaniment was not common in Texas at that time.

Steeley’s daughter Mildred  became an excellent rhythm guitarist. The Steeleys played in many Texas fiddle contests and got to know some of the top Texas fiddlers including Major Franklin, Benny Thomasson and Norman Solomon, just to name a few. Steeley became known in Texas as an excellent fiddle maker.  He died on December 16, 1969. Steeley was inducted into the Fiddlers’ Frolics Hall of Fame in Hallettsville, Texas in 1982.

Red Steeley had very little education, but he was a very gifted person. Most of his life was spent in farming south of Arlington, Texas. During the Depression he worked as a fiddle-maker and repairman for Joe Stamp in north Ft. Worth. In1929, he almost turned into a professional fiddler. He made 10 double-faced records of fiddle music for Brunswick. He knew at least four hundred fiddle tunes. He especially enjoyed playing hornpipes, schottisches, waltzes and reels. His favorite breakdown was “Billy in the Low Ground”. His daughter, Mildred, played with him as accompanist on the guitar.

Mr. Steeley won Top Place in the Fiddling Contest at the Centennial Fair in Dallas. He was a good friend of Irvin, Vernon and Norman Solomon, Benny Thomasson and the Franklins-and they enjoyed playing many hours of fiddle tunes together. However, Mr. Steeley enjoyed making fiddles rather than playing them; and perhaps it is in this regard that the many fiddlers in this part of Texas best knew and remember him. Mr. and Mrs. Steeley had two children, Mildred (Mrs. Garth Watkins) of Carthage, Texas and Rev. Jim Steeley of Irving, Texas. Jim has two children and four grandchildren. Mildred has five children and 12 grandchildren. Of the seven grandchildren of Red and Mary Elizabeth Steeley, five have degrees from major universities.

Johnson Brothers and Son

February 3, 2012

“Itinerant Yankee Hillbilly Band” recorded somewhere in the northern territories by pioneering ethnographer Nikolai Fox, early 21st century (USA).


If anyone has information about any of the musicians in this photo, please contact:

Missing Persons, Photo Archive Division,


Here is their rendition of “Chewing Chawing Gum:”

Coal Creek March: Southern Marvel #5

January 28, 2012


Of all the early banjo players recorded for the Library of Congress’s folk music archive, none commanded as many techniques or employed as many tunings as Simon “Pete” Steele.  A dazzling array of frailing, two-finger, and up-picking styles defines his extensive repertoire of instrumentals, folk songs, and ballads. Born in Woodbine, Kentucky, on March 5, 1891, Steele gave few public performances outside his home community in Hamilton, Ohio, yet he had considerable influence on musicians of the urban folk revival during the 1950s and 1960s.

Steele began playing the banjo when he was six or seven on a fretless instrument made for him by his fiddle-playing father. While much of Steele’s instruction came from his father, other local musicians also passed along tunes. One of these, “Coal Creek March,” a parlor-based banjo instrumental with a series of ascending and descending arpeggios, commemorated mining troubles that occurred in the early 1890s in Coal Creek, Tennessee.

In 1938 Steele recorded “Coal Creek March” for the Library of Congress. With the tune’s publication in 1942, Steele’s playing came to be known to a wider audience, and by the mid-1950s, Pete Seeger had made the “March” an integral part of his concerts, urging his listeners to learn directly from the music’s authentic sources. This led to Steele’s 1958 solo album on the Folkways label, Banjo Tunes and Songs. In later years, those who traveled to his home were rewarded with his performance of “Coal Creek March,” which had become a sig- nature piece among the many he had mastered. Steele died November 21, 1985.

From notes to Folkways LP 3828:

Pete Steele plays “Coal Creek March”:

John Dilleshaw’s “Spanish Fandango”: Southern Marvel #4

January 21, 2012

John Dilleshaw (left)

John Dilleshaw and The String Marvel play “Spanish Fandango.”

Recorded March 22, 1929, Atlanta, GA.

Thanks to Jas Obrecht for permission to share his research on “Spanish Fandango,” excerpted below from his wonderful site

In times before radio, records, and electric lights, people often played music to amuse themselves after dinner and at social gatherings. “Parlor guitar,” a favorite European musical fare during the late 1700s, caught on in America. Played with bare fingers on small-bodied instruments, parlor guitar became immensely popular, as evidenced by the stacks of musical scores published during the 1800s.

Many of these compositions called for the guitar strings to be tuned to an open chord. The most common of these tunings, open C (with the strings tuned C, G, C, G, C, and E, low to high) and open D (D, A, D, F#, A, D), clearly had European origins. The origins of open G, a favorite banjo tuning, are more difficult to trace. Two parlor compositions in particular would play a crucial role in the development of the blues.

Our journey begins with Henry Worrall. Born in Liverpool, England, in 1825, Worrall moved to the United States in 1835 and eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a while he worked as a glasscutter’s apprentice, but his passion was guitar music. A skilled performer and composer, he became a music professor at the Ohio Female College. One of his prize guitar students, Mary Elizabeth Harvey, became his playing partner and wife. In 1856, he completed Worrall’s Guitar School, or The Eclectic Guitar Instructor, which remained in print through the 1880s.

On June 29, 1860, Worrall walked into the Clerk’s Office of the Southern District Court of Ohio and filed copyrights for two instrumental guitar songs. “Worrall’s Original Spanish Fandango” called for the guitar strings to be tuned to an open-G chord (D, G, D, G, B, D, from low to high), with the explanation that the music was to be read as if the guitar were in standard tuning. Some of the song’s flourishes sounded like watered-down versions of earlier nineteenth-century European music. Its little alle vivace finale, for instance, could have worked as a Rossini opera coda. But with its lilting melody and easy chord changes, this song is clearly the direct ancestor of one of the most common blues strains.

Two words stand out in Worrall’s title. “Fandango,” thought to be of African origin, first appeared in the English language in the 1760s, used to describe a “native ball,” or dance. Then the term was applied to a lively 3/4 time dance that originated among Spanish-speaking people. An April 1796 playbill for New York’s John Street Theatre, for instance, advertised a “Spanish Fandango” between the play and the afterpiece, listing four dancers and five singers who did not appear in the play. Eventually the word was used to describe the music itself.

A prime example of an early recording of “Spanish Fandango” is John Dilleshaw & The String Marvel’s 1929 version  Dilleshaw, a 6’7” giant of a man, had learned the song while growing up in north Georgia’s rural hill country. On the recording, one guitarist fingerpicks leads in open G while the other flatpicks basic accompaniment. The musicians have changed Worrall’s sedate 6/8 to a more swinging 2/4 and added alternating bass and bluesy bends, but the final chorus’ droning bass recalls the feel of older parlor guitar pieces.

John Durang’s Hornpipe

January 20, 2012

John Durang (1768–1822) was the first U.S.-born professional dancer of note, best known for his hornpipe dance.  The son of Jacob and Catherine Durang, he was born on January 6, 1768, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but grew up mostly in York, Pennsylvania.  He went on to spend much of the rest of his life as a dancer, acrobat, actor, mime, rope dancer, and blackface comic. He was a part of a group called Ricketts’s Circus, which traveled throughout the northeastern United States and into Canada.

For much of his career his hornpipe dancing was both his and his audience’s favorite.  He boasted in his memoirs that, around 1790, he danced “a Hornpipe on thirteen eggs blindfolded without breaking one.” Durang is also credited with popularizing the nautical-style hornpipe dance that is still thought of as the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’.  It is the hornpipe that bears his name for which fiddlers remember him, however, and, according to his memoirs it was composed specifically for him by one “Mr. Hoffmaster, a German Dwarf, in New York, 1785.”

Durang had taken violin lessons from Hoffmaster, who was all of three feet in height and who was married to a wife of similar stature.  Hoffmaster had “a large head, hands and feet,” yet must have been an accomplished musician. The hornpipe became famous in his own time, for Durang noted (again, in his memoirs) that it was written “expressly for me, which is become well known in America, for I have since heard it play’d the other side of (Pennsylvania’s) Blue Mountains as well as in the cities.”

Bruce Greene and Don Pedi play “Durang’s Hornpipe”:

Man of Constant Sorrow: Southern Marvel #3

January 14, 2012

Ed Haley

edited from and

Richard Burnett, of the duo Burnett and Rutherford, is sometimes credited as the composer of the “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which he called “Farewell Song.”   He was born in 1883, married in 1905, and blinded in 1907. The second stanza of  his “Farewell Song” mentions the singer has been blind six years, which would date it at 1913. In later years, Richard Burnett was asked about the song. He himself could not remember, at that time, if he had composed it, or copied it, or — perhaps most likely — adapted it from something traditional.

Charles Wolfe:  What about this “Farewell Song” — “I am a man of constant sorrow” — did you write it?’

Richard Burnett:  No, I think I got the ballet [sic] from somebody — I dunno. It may be my song…”

According to Charles Wolfe, the melody of  “Man Of Constant Sorrow” was based on an old Baptist hymn, “The Wandering Boy.”

Another recording artist Emry Arthur, who was friends with Burnett, also claimed to have written, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Emry was the first to record the song in 1928 for Vocalion.

Ed Haley recorded a sublime fiddle version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Haley was born in 1883 on Hart’s Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. He was a blind professional fiddler, and never recorded commercially during his lifetime; he was afraid that the record companies would take advantage of a blind man. However, there were recordings made by Haley’s son Ralph on a home disc-cutting machine. When Ralph died, the recordings were evenly divided among the five remaining children. It is believed that the 106 sides which remain are only about one third of those recorded.

Ed Haley’s solo fiddle version of the tune can be heard here:

Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies: Southern Marvel #2

January 7, 2012

Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies

Edden Hammons plays “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies”:

by Andrew Kuntz (

The melody was recorded by West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons (1874-1955) for visiting folklore professor Louis Watson Chappell in 1947.   Hammons was a member of a family of back-woodsmen, who, in addition to being adept at living off the land (their pursuits included poaching and moonshining), were also musically talented. Edden learned to play on a home-made gourd fiddle and, still a boy, acquired a manufactured instrument as a gift from a musician. He became an accomplished fiddler, and according to local lore, did little else. His first marriage failed because of this, but his second, to a more compatible (and tolerant) spouse, lasted over fifty years.

“Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies” is one of the few slower, crosstuned and slightly ‘crooked’ pieces of the 51 that Hammons recorded for Chappell, over three recording sessions. Alan Jabbour (in his 1984 notes to the Edden Hammons Collection, vol. 1) identifies the melody as a piece called “The Blackbird,” one of the most famous and enduring airs in the British Isles. Several versions were collected in south-western Pennsylvania, but with the generally agreed upon function was that the tune was a “dead march,” i.e. one to be played at funerals.

The Irish versions of the “Blackbird” are Jacobite in nature whose lyrics indicate loyalty to the cause of the Stewarts, and Bayard says the song, referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie, was still being sung in south-western Pennsylvania in the early 1930’s. Although most Pennsylvania fiddlers seemed to know the melody by the “Blackbird” title, other titles existed: Bayard himself heard it called the “Lady’s Lamentation” by an Indiana County (Pa.) fifer in 1951—the title of the original broadside printed in London in 1651.

How it came to be known by Hammons, and how it acquired the title he knew it by, is a mystery.  The line “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies,” however, is known to be from American shape-note singing (popularized so recently in the film “Cold Mountain”). It is similar to a line from a shape-note hymn called “Star of Columbia” (also called simply “Columbia”), found in the Social Harp (1855) and other hymnodies, which begins:

Columbia! Columbia! to glory arise,

The queen of the world and the child of the skies;

Thy genius commands thee with raptures behold,

While ages on ages thy splendors unfold:

Thy reign is the last and the noblest of time,

Most fruitful thy soil, most inviting thy clime;

Let crimes of the east ne’re encrimson they name,

Be freedom and science and virtue thy fame.

Words are credited to “Dr. Dwight” and music to “Miss M.T. Durham” (although the melody employed is a traditional fiddle tune called “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine”). Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was one of the “Hartford Wits,” a group of Connecticut men associated with literary work during and after the American Revolution. Dwight would go on to become president of Yale College, but he was a young man when he wrote his lyric “Columbia” in 1778, when he was a chaplain in for George Washington’s Continental Army. Dwight’s song suggests that America would be the seat of God’s kingdom and Americans its saints, and it was popular for a long time. So popular, in fact that some of the lines were incorporated into another shape-note hymn, “Murillo’s Lesson,” which can be found in the 1844 Sacred Harp and the 1848 Sacred Melodeon. It begins:

As down a lone valley with cedars o’erspread,
From war’s dread confusion I pensively strayed,
The gloom from the face of fair heaven retired,
The winds hushed their murmurs, the thunders expired.
Perfumes as of Eden flowed sweetly along,
A voice as of angels enchantingly sung,
Columbia, Columbia to glory arise,
The queen of the world and the child of the skies.

Later generations of the Hammons family played the tune somewhat differently, with Burl Hammons calling the piece “Old Man in the Woods” (which is also the name of an edible mushroom in the eastern US pinelands, one of the names for a Green Man or Jack-in-the-Woods, and the Native American term for a black bear). Sherman Hammons called it “Star of Bethlehem,” echoing the shape-note origins of the older title.

DeFord Bailey

January 4, 2012

(Thanks to Maz at 
and Andrew and David Morton at for this)

DeFord Bailey ’73 Recordings

In December 1973, David Morton recorded the late DeFord Bailey as a Christmas present for his father.
At there are 21 free tracks downloadable
– a must-have for every harp fan!

DeFord Bailey (December 14, 1899 – July 2, 1982) was a harmonica virtuoso, a blues singer, a guitarist, a banjoist, a composer and a founding member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry.

Bailey performed on WDAD, the first significant Nashville radio station, in 1925. Soon afterwards Dr. Humphrey Bate took him to play his harmonica on the new and much more powerful WSM station. At his first appearance on the “Barn Dance” DeFord immediately impressed the announcer, “the Solemn Old Judge” George Hay, who threw his steamboat whistle high in the air and declared that he was henceforth going to be a regular part of the show.

According to Judge Hay, DeFord was both the inspiration for the naming of the Opry, and the very first performer to play on the newly named show. This occurred in 1927 following a network program with a classical rendition of a locomotive by composer Dr. Walter Damrosch. After hearing the classical version of the train, Hay opened the program by telling the audience that they had been listening to “Grand Opera,” but would now hear “Grand Ole Opry” and introduced DeFord Bailey to play his harmonica version of the Pan American train.

Hay called Bailey the “Harmonica Wizard” and arranged for him to be in the very first recording session in the city that later became Music City USA. That was in the fall of 1928 when Victor came to Nashville at Judge Hay’s request. DeFord recorded eight tunes in this session that was held in the YMCA building. He had previously recorded tunes in Atlanta and New York City sessions arranged by Hay.

The “Harmonica Wizard” performed virtually every Saturday night on the Opry from 1926 until 1941, a record none of the other performers could match, and he was clearly one of the most popular performers on the show. During this time he also traveled extensively over the South and Mid-West with various Opry performers. These included Uncle Dave Macon, Alton and Rabon Delmore, Arthur Smith, Sam and Kirk McGee, Sarie and Sally, Lasses White and Honey Wilds, Paul Warmack and the Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, Curt Poulton and the Vagabonds, Clayton McMichen, Ken Hackley, and later Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe.

DeFord was always well received by the audiences when he performed out on the road; but traveling in the 1920 and 1930s, the hey day of Jim Crow, with the all white groups was exceedingly difficult. In the winter he always carried a wool blanket with him in case he had to sleep in the car when the other performers could not find a place for him to stay. Virtually none of the hotels or restaurants would knowlingly allow him to eat or sleep inside as a guest. Uncle Dave Macon would claim that DeFord was his valet in order to get him inside his room and then bring in a seat from the car for DeFord to sleep on. Some restaurants would let him eat in the kitchen, but usually he would eat outside or in the car.

Read entire article here.

George Booker

December 28, 2011

Josh and Henry Reed

edited from and

Alan Jabbour says the tune is a derivation of a Scottish strathspey called “Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell (The),” composed by the great strathspey composer William Marshall and appearing in his Collection of Strathspey Reels (c. 1781). The high part of this tune “is almost certainly a hornpipe,” states Miles Krassen (1973) in another opinion, “but the low part is not. (West Virginia fiddler) Henry Reed played a version with a low part that is much more characteristic of hornpipes.” Jabbour remarks that “George Booker” is “one of the classics of what Henry Reed called the ‘old East Virginia’ repertory.

The melody first appears under the “Booker” title in George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels, volume III (Baltimore, 1839), apparently in honor of a Revolutionary War leader and local hero from Virginia (according to Jabbour). Bruce Green thinks this tune may have been brought to the southern Kentucky region by a fiddler named John Gregory, originally from Virginia (in connection with similar Kentucky melodies, see Ed Haley’s “Grey Eagle Jig“).

The tune was recorded for the Library of Congress by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph in the early 1940’s from Ozark Mountain fiddlers (including Lon Jordan in 1941).  Alan Jabbour believes “George Booker” is similar to “Camp Chase” and speculates that the former may have been the tune originally played in the Civil War prison camp which gave West Virginia fiddler Solly Carpenter his freedom.

Also, there is the story about a fiddler, George Booker, and a tune entitled “George Booker,” that is occasionally performed by Texas fiddlers. George Booker was a well-known fiddler from Nacogdoches who was being held in jail there for murder. On the day before he was to be executed, he talked the sheriff into allowing him to play for a dance the night before with the sheriff as a chaperone. Booker performed well probably knowing this would his last time to play in the area. About three o’clock in the morning, Booker went out on the porch for some air and that was the last anyone had ever seen of him. The last tune he played at the dance was one of his favorites, “Fine Times at Our House,” is now performed as “George Booker.” This is a story that is told by J. B. Cranfill, (1858-1942) originally from Parker County who was a popular fiddler in the Dallas area.

The Highwoods Stringband plays “George Booker”:

Ernest Stoneman #1

December 15, 2011

The Stonemans is an eye-opening slice of Americana—a trip through nearly twenty years of country music history following a single family from their native Blue Ridge Mountains to the slums of Washington, D.C., and the glitter of Nashville. As early as 1924 Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman realized the potential of what is now known as country music, and he tried to carve a career from it. Successful as a recording artist from 1925 through 1929, Stoneman foundered during the Great Depression. He, his wife, and their nine children went to Washington in 1932, struggling through a decade of hardship and working to revive the musical career Pop still believed in. (from

Book available here.

Ernest Stoneman was the King.  Here is “The Pretty Mohea,” a two hour Hollywood epic distilled to  3:31.

Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls”: Southern Marvel #1

December 12, 2011

First in a series of Southern Marvels, recordings of southern music that combine both singularity and beauty:  Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls.”

In old time music, there are a number of tunes that stand alone; they have a haunting, almost mystical quality that transports the listener. I used to run down to the local record store and buy all the Davis Unlimited records as soon as they were released. I remember getting the Omer Forster record, not knowing who he was, or even what he sounded like, but it looked promising.  When Flowery Girls played on side one, cut one, I was floored by the beauty of the tune. It sounded made-up, maybe not in the “tradition” but it didn’t matter. The unique finger picking (two finger) gives it a great, syncopated feel. It is a lyrical masterpiece. Give it a listen: (from Michael Donahue)

FLOWERY GIRLS – Omer Forster, banjo
Featuring Houston Daniel and The Highland Rim Boy

Spring Fed Records SFR-DU-33037.  Available here.

Review of Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls” by Charles Wolfe

“There’s not many old-time musicians left up here in Humphries County,” said Houston Daniel during a break in this session. “Those of us that do still play it all know each other and keep in touch.” Humphries County, lying due west of Nashville in an arm of the Tennessee River, was once the stomping ground of musicians like Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Floyd Ethridge; these and other lesser-known musicians have left their mark in the music of the region though, and a small but devoted band of local musicians have kept the region’s distinctive styles and tunes alive. Two of the finest of these musicians are banjoist Omer Forester (from McEwen) and fiddler Houston Daniel (from Waverly).

76 year old Omer Forster has, through the years, quietly developed one of the most distinctive styles and repertoires of any old-time banjo player in the country. All his life Omer has played in an archaic two-finger style (thumb and index finger) which he can’t remember learning from anyone; “it’s always been natural with me.” Nor has he during his life been aware that his style was all that unusual; apparently his friends and neighbors in rural Humphries County accepted the style without much comment. But distinctive it is: soft, graceful, complex, different both from the classic three-finger vaudeville styles of the other middle Tennessee artists like Uncle Dave Macon, and different from the claw-hammer style of the eastern mountains. Rick Good of the Hotmud Family has called Omer’s banjo playing “mystic,” and Harper van Hoy, the founder of Fiddlers’ Grove, has called Omer “the best old-time banjo player in the country.” (more…)

Jolly Boys

December 8, 2011

The Jolly Boys, a trio of elderly Jamaican musicians who play a rollicking type of folk music nearly forgotten by time, are enjoying an unexpected revival after nearly 60 years of entertaining tourists on the island’s hotels.

Playing on acoustic, sometimes homemade instruments, the group’s forte is mento — a Jamaican dance music created by the descendants of African slaves in the late 19th century. It features banjo, maracas, a rough-hewn wooden box with metal prongs to pluck bass notes, and often bawdy lyrics.

For Albert Minott, the group’s 72-year-old guitarist and gravelly voiced frontman, preserving the once vibrant musical genre and expanding its possibilities is a lifelong mission.

“Over the years, mento has been locked down in a cooking pot by these guys with their big amplifiers, big soundboxes. So it’s been quietly cooking, simmering,” said the dapperly dressed Minott, his brown eyes brightening in his deeply lined face.

“But now,” he said, “we the Jolly Boys take off the pot cover, spoon out the mento and serve up the good taste to the young people who didn’t know it. Nobody else can do it.”

“We’d been down all those years. It was rough. The officials in Jamaica, they don’t step forward to the mento. I don’t see why they turn their back on it,” said Derrick “Johnny” Henry, the band’s “rumba box” player who has worked as a fisherman when gigs were scarce.

Joseph “Powda” Bennett, a veteran Jolly Boy who is a member of Jamaica’s Maroons, whose ancestors were slaves freed by the Spanish in the 17th century to repel invading British forces, said their recent international success has effectively made them the biggest Jamaican band around.

“Over the years, we’ve stayed in the hotels preserving this mento. It’s finally paying off now,” said the 73-year-old Bennett, who has played in various incarnations of the Jolly Boys group, which has had at least 18 members over the decades.

“There are places we go now that we didn’t expect that we would ever know. Places that as a boy you read about in a comic book — Russia, Germany, France, Spain, England. And now we go to all those places. Isn’t that wonderful? To do that at this age,” said Minott, grinning. “Our grandkids brag about it.”  (edited from David McFadden, Associated Press,

The Jolly Boys sing “Bitter Cassava Killed Joe Brown”:

Dennis McGee

December 4, 2011

For all fans of southern fiddling, a new Dennis McGee CD was quietly released last year called “Myself,” on Valcour Records.   Find it here.

Dennis McGee plays “Courtilienne” (Cotillion):

From Gerard Dole:

“Dennis McGee, who was Irish-American on his father’s side and French and Seminole Indian on his mother’s, was born January 26, 1893, at Bayou Marron (Evangeline Parish). He died in Eunice (Evangeline Parish) October 3, 1989. A fiddle player and singer, he recorded and performed between 1927 and 1934 with Sady Courville and Ernest Frugé, Angelas LeJeune, and with black Creole accordion player and singer Amédé Ardoin.

I had the chance and privilege to be introduced to Dennis McGee by Sady Courville in his Eunice furniture store during a field trip to Southwest Louisiana in the summer of 1975. My journal entry for the next day reads:

‘Wednesday, August 27, 1975: At around 3 in the afternoon, I went to Eunice to visit Dennis McGee in his little house. The old barber is so talkative that he almost immediately began telling me stories about his past and playing me old dances on the fiddle. He may very well be the only person who still knows them.’

With his consent, I opened my Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder, hooked up a mike, and recorded this legendary fiddler who, to tell the truth, had been nearly forgotten by most people at the time.

[Himself] is a lengthy excerpt from those field recordings, in which you will be able to hear Dennis McGee play 19th-century ballroom dances, with clarity and energy, in his specific old-time Cajun style: Contra Dance, Varsovianna (“Valsurienne”), Mazurka, Gallop, Polka, Waltz, Cotillion (“Courtilienne”), Reel and Two-Step. To the greater delight of the listener, Mr. McGee occasionally comments on the variety of fiddle tunings and about the tunes themselves.”


Smokey Valley Boys

December 1, 2011

To hear Benton Flippen in his prime (1973), check out     

The Smokey Valley Boys (Rounder 0029)

at the Friends of Old Time Music site.   (Need RAR Expander after downloading)
01 – Lost Indian
02 – Benton’s Dream
03 – Whoa Mule
04 – Fortune
05 – Breaking Up  Christmas
06 – Polecat Blues
07 – Salt River
08 – Grey Eagle
09 – Richmond
10 – Sally Anne
11 – June Apple
12 – John Brown’s Dream
13 – Liberty
14 – Fiddler’s Reel

Benton Flippen plays “Whoa Mule”:

Going Back to Dixie

November 30, 2011

by Bill Dillof

America’s  “Great Migration” of  blacks fleeing their southern homeland for the relative freedom and better life of the north and west lasted, roughly, from 1915 until 1970.  But life was not always better in the new lands, and a counter current, fueled by dissappointment and nostalgia, would bring a goodly number of migrants back south again. I’s Gwine Back To Dixie, written by C.A. White in 1874,  captures the spirit of reverse migration in song. Notable recordings were issued by, among others, Uncle Dave Macon (1927) and The Leake County Revellers (1929).



 I’s gwine back to Dixie, no more I’s gwine to wander

I’s gwine back to Dixie, can’t stay here any longer

I miss the old plantation, my home and my relations

My heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go



I’s gwine back to Dixie, I’s goin’ back to Dixie

I’s goin’ where the orange blossoms grow

I hear the children calling, see their sad tears falling

My heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go



I’ve hoed in fields of cotton; I’ve worked upon the river

I used to think, if I got off, I’d never go back, no, never

But times have changed the old man, his head is bending low

His heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go, etc.



I miss my hog and hominy, my pumpkin and red gravy

My appetite is fading, so says old Uncle Davy

If my friends forsake me, I pray the lord to take me

My heart’s turned back to Dixie, and I must go



Uncle Dave Macon sings “I’se Gwine Back to Dixie”:

Pete Sutherland

November 27, 2011

Vintage Vermont old time string band music from the Arm and Hammer String Band in 1978, with Pete Sutherland fiddling:  “Going Uptown”/”Avalon Quickstep” 

edited from an interview with Pete Sutherland by Brendan Taafe at

Pete Sutherland: Old-time music’s nuances are most apparent to me, and easiest to reproduce from listening. But I think if I was starting now I’d be playing more local Vermont music, which is a hybrid of Yankee, whatever that means, and Irish and French-Canadian. There were some lucky accidents that made me go southern. I was living in Vermont, where I’m from, and there was hardly anybody playing anything recognizably Appalachian. This was 1972, and there were these chance encounters with the right people— an old-time banjo player named Tom Azarian, going to the Fox Hollow festival and hearing the campground jams—that gave me a critical mass of repertoire and a jump start on the style.

In the beginning I was just a tune-sucker and trying to spit them all out, and David Green said to me, “You just have to pick one style and do that— I don’t care what it is, but you have to pick one. You’re never going to get anywhere if you try to play all of these styles.” And I’m sort of a stubborn guy and I said to myself, “No, I really want to get into all of them.” But I did take to heart that I would have to be careful if I didn’t want to make a hash of the whole thing.

I think I was as careful as I could be, and it paid off because those first few years are so important. It’s like being a kid; you set a lot of your patterns for your learning life right there. I learned to recognize the difference in bowing styles, even though I couldn’t necessarily replicate them. I tried to create all these files in my brain for the different ways that people use the bow. I didn’t spend as much time on the Quebecois thing, but I had that front-row seat in Louis’ kitchen to watch. I think the visual thing is really underrated; I learned to play guitar by watching as much as listening.

In as much as anybody tries to be multilingual and keep the styles straight, eventually you’re just going to wake up one day and you have a style that is distinct and identifiably yours. I don’t think I’d have the ability to keep the styles completely pure. I can try my damnedest to play exactly like Tommy Jarrell and probably there’ll be some Irish in there unintentionally. When I’m not in that head and not trying to be pure, and just play my way, I think it’s a hybrid of all the things that I like. To people that know Irish music I’ll play Irish and they’ll invariably say it sounds southern, and they always did, and to people that like hard-driving old-time music my playing sounds really northern. I’m sitting with my butt on the Mason Dixon line forever.

Old-time music is like this river; there’s never been that many people who play it, there’s fewer that play it well, there’s even fewer that understand it and fewer that are going to get to a position of some prominence or as a teacher where you’re going to be asked, as I am, to interpret for someone else, so that puts a lot of responsibility on you to be as savvy about the tradition as you can, and usually it boils down to a matter of listening.

We often don’t take the time to listen—we hear something and just want to play, but if you keep listening to your old scratchy tapes or whatever it was that turned you on in the first place, and really key into the subtleties of the style that you are the next generation of, then you’ll always dig something else out and deepen your respect and make you a better player.

K.C. Railroad Blues

November 25, 2011

                                                 Andrew and Jim Baxter

From “Long Steel Rail,” by Norm Cohen

Andrew and Jim Baxter play “K.C. Railroad Blues.”