Music from Georgia: World Routes, An Appalachian Road Trip, Episode 3 of 3
Banning drops in to the converted chicken shack that is home to Phil Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, to hear them in their weekly session. Phil is the grandson of chicken farmer Gid Tanner who in 1924, with the original Skillet Lickers, became the first southern rural artist to record for the Columbia record label, and whose blend of music and comedy sold millions.
He meets 92 year old blind gospel legend Sister Fleeta Mitchell, who still sings and plays the piano alongside her musical companion the Revd Willie Mae Eberhardt, herself in her late 70s. Together they recall disturbing tales of life in the south, and the songs that gave people hope.
The Myers Family and Friends, a singing family of guitar playing ladies, recall the songs they sang as children for corn shuckings and bean stringings, and local artist and folk song collector Art Rosenbaum talks about the unique character of North Georgia, and picks a tune on one of his many banjos.
As well as the banjos and the ballads, Banning also attends the 141st Annual Alpharetta June Singing, and discovers that the 19th Century tradition of congregational ‘shape note’ singing still lives on in the south.
edited from “78 Blues,” by John Minton:
His musical success notwithstanding, Gid Tanner never gave up the homeplace, contenting himself with traveling to fiddle on the streets of Atlanta when it was too wet to plow. Despite his best efforts, Clayton McMichen could never pursue music as is sole profession, even after decades as a major recording artist and radio star. He ended his own days as a welder.
If the phonograph record enabled the Skillet Lickers to visit an audience beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations of southern fiddlers, the hillbilly record radically restricted that listenership. As Mac discovered to his lasting chagrin, New York violinists waxed hot jazz for mass consumption; Georgia fiddlers canned corn for folks downhome.
At their best, Skillet Licker records precariously balanced the coarse (epitomized by Tanner) and the fine ( what Mac wanted), crafting timeless art from the common-as-dirt dilemmas of the prewar South. The records are enduring portraits of their makers, especially of Clayton McMichen, who despite his aversion to corny fiddling, despite his affection for symphony orchestras, found himself relegated to the role of a miserable squatter, fiddling endlessly in a dismal swamp where even frogs were out of their element.
Years later, Mac dressed his feelings in that very idiom, dismissing his music as a ludicrous compromise of coarse and fine:
“I notice in my thirty-five years of show business that there’s 500 pairs of overalls sold to every one tuxedo suit. That’s why I stick to swamp opera.”
Part 2 of Gid Tanner’s (1885-1960) final 1959 interview features him doing some fiddling. Thanks again to Matt Downer, Itamar Silver, Dave Leddel, and interviewer Oscar Huff :
Listen to part 1 here
In later years when Gid had false teeth, he would take them out so he would look funny. The story goes that a lady walked up to him and after looking at his mouth shouted, “You haven’t got any teeth!” Gid replied, “No ma’am, I was born that way.”
Although Gid stopped recording, he remained active and attended fiddle competitions. As late as 1955 when he was 70 years old, Gid won the Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest in Atlanta. He died in 1960, just three weeks shy of his seventy-fifth birthday.
from “Down Yonder: Old Time String Band Music from Georgia (Folkways 31089):
Part 1 of 2 – Second part forthcoming. Sincere thanks to Matt Downer for sharing this interview, Dave Leddel and Itamar Silver for their help, Oscar Huff for getting there just in time, and Gid Tanner for his endless inspiration.
from The Southern Folklife Collection (UNC):
Gid Tanner, Anglo-American fiddle player, and member of the Skillet Lickers, a string band from north Georgia active in the 1920s and 1930s.
Oscar Huff’s 1959 recording of an interview with Gid Tanner (1885-1960), including a discussion about hunting and Tanner’s hunting dogs, his fiddles, and his early recording and musical experiences.
by Richard Matteson (http://richardmattesonsblog.blogspot.com)
The famous “Corn Licker Still in Georgia” series of fourteen skits (fourteen sides; seven 78s) originally recorded between 1927 and 1930 consisted of rural humor and social commentary at its best mixed with great fiddling by Clayton McMichen, Bert Layne, Lowe Stokes, and Gid Tanner, the popular crooning of Riley Puckett, and the banjo of Fate Norris and sometimes Gid Tanner. According Clayton from Clayton McMichen Talking: “The Corn Licker Still was Bert Layne and my idea. We had a brother-in-law down there in Georgia that did actually make liquor.”
According to Mac, Wilber C. “Bill” Brown, an A&R man with Columbia Records, took the idea and wrote our scripts for the band members. Another contributor was recording engineer, part-time vocalist Dan Hornsby, who appeared as Tom Sly. Frank Walker, head of the division, also had a hand in the scripts.
Corn Licker Still in Georgia became the Skillet Lickers biggest selling series, reportedly selling over a million units. Not only were the skits funny with great music but they were crafted on personal experience. Clayton McMichen and Bert Layne were two of the Skillet Lickers who actually made money from running moonshine. It must have been doubly funny to them.
According to Juanita McMichen Lynch (Clayton’s daughter) it was a family operation; her uncles would make it and Clayton would help with the supplies and sell it. Bert Layne told Stephen Davis in an interview, “Me and Mac would go out there (to the still) and buy it, you know. We’d give him $4 for a gallon and we’d take it to Cartersville and sell it for $8.” On one trip Clayton was forced to carry two one-gallon jugs to Cartersville under his sister’s large overcoat. One jug went to a restaurant and another to the 5-and-10 cent store!
According to Juanita, “Clayton used to even sell moonshine to the policemen. But they always had to worry about revenuers.” Bert Layne said one day their car, which was loaded with moonshine, slipped off the road and was stuck in the mud. A revenue officer happened by and Clayton, fearing the consequences of getting caught, lifted the car right out of the mud- by himself. Later Clayton remarked, “My boot tracks was in that clay for six months afterwards!” (more…)
GID TANNER AND THE SKILLET LICKERS: ‘Old Timey’s Favorite Band’ (JSP-77155-4-CD set)
One hundred songs and fiddle tunes are spread out over 4 CDs in this wonderful bargain set that features the music of probably the most popular old time string band of the “golden age” of country music. Rather than present the recordings in chronological order, the compilers have infused each disc with varying amounts of tracks from different stages of the group’s Columbia and Bluebird work. For example, the first CD starts with 7 of the group’s finest fiddle tunes like ROCKY PALLET, HELL BROKE LOOSE IN GEORGIA and SOLDIER’S JOY, then, after a CORN LICKER STILL In GEORGIA skit there are a handful of their popular and huge selling early pieces like BULLY OF THE TOWN and PASS AROUND THE BOTTLE (with Riley Puckett featured); then there are 6 cuts from their 1934 Bluebird sessions that featured Gid, son Gordon Tanner, Puckett and the fine mandolinist Ted Hawkins, and the disc finishes with 4 more multi-fiddle pieces like NANCY ROLLIN’ and DEVILISH MARY. The same formula is pretty much repeated on the other 3 CDs, and editor Pat Harrison has provided good notes (though hard to read) for each of the discs. Lots of wonderful fiddle work here, especially by the great Lowe Stokes and Clayton McMichen. Lovers of the Skillet Licker sound will have a field day here.
Mike Seeger interviewing Frank Walker of Columbia Records about the Skillet Licker skits of the 1920s:
HEAH HEAH presents “The Greatest 1920s String Bands,” produced by A.N. Baycu