Archive for the ‘Southern Marvels’ Category

“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.


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.

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.

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.

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…)