Posts Tagged ‘Clarence Ashley’

Invisible Republic

April 25, 2012

“Invisible Republic,” by Greil Marcus (Holt, 1998)


edited excerpt from Greil Marcus’ commentary on Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird”:


“Oh, the coo coo, she’s a pretty bird, she wobbles as she flies,

She never hollers cuckoo, ’til the fourth day of July.”

“We Americans are all cuckoos,”  Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1872.  “We make our homes in the nests of other birds.”  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.  Depositing its orphans, leaving its progeny to be raised by others, to grow up as imposters in another’s house, as America filled itself up with slaves, indentured servants, convicts, hustlers, adventurers, the ambitious and the greedy, the fleeing and the hated, who took or were given new, imposters’ names.

If this is the theme of the song, what is present in Clarence Ashley’s performance — the axis on which Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seems to turn, or maybe the proud anthem of Smithville, sung every night at sundown — is a master narrative of American willfullness and fatedness, a narrative implied but altogether missing, replaced instead buy hints and gestures, code words and winks, a whole music of secret handshakes.

What is Smithville? It is a small town whose citizens are not recognizable by race.  There are no masters and no slaves. The prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another. Here, both murders and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend. The town is simultaneously a seamless web of connections and an anarchy of separations:  who would ever shake hands with Dock Boggs, who sounds as if his bones are coming through his skin every time he opens his mouth?  And yet who can turn away from the dissatisfaction in his voice, the refusal ever to be satisfied with the things of this world or the promises of the next?

This is Smithville.  It’s limbo, but it’s not bad; on the fourth day of July you get to holler.

Clarence Ashley


Ralph Rinzler, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Watson

March 26, 2012

Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson

John Herald, quoted in the notes to “Friends of Old Time Music,” Smithsonian Folkways CD SFW40160:

Ralph came down to help me paint my apartment, and he brought down all these old-timey tapes. It was my introduction to old time music. One of the people he played me was Clarence Ashley. We wanted to study the real McCoy, and we went to a place called Union Grove, which was one of the oldest and the biggest fiddlers’ contests in the South.  What they would do at Union Grove is they would assign each act to a classroom at the Union Grove High School to warm up. When we had warmed up, I said to Ralph and Bob, “I’m going to go see some of the other players.”

We were at one end of a long hallway, and I went from classroom to classroom until I finally got to the other end of the school. And I walked into this room, and there was a crowd of people watching this banjo player sitting in a chair. And I asked them who it was, and they said, “It’s Clarence Ashley.’”

Now I remembered—from Ralph helping me paint my apartment—he had told me about Clarence Ashley. I went back to Ralph and I said, “Was Clarence Ashley one of the guys that you played for me?” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well I think he’s down at the other end of the school.” Ralph’s jaw dropped, and he said, “Really?” and he went just tearing down to the end of the Union Grove school, and made a date with him immediately.

I guess he had carte blanche with Folkways Records to record whatever he might have wanted to, and he came back later to record Clarence, and that’s how Doc Watson was discovered in Clarence Ashley’s band. Ralph came back from that recording session, and said, “John, I found a guitar player who’s going to set the world on fire, who the world is not going to believe.”

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.