By Julia Underkoffler, Collection Specialist at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Fiddle me this: What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? One has strings, and the other has strangs!
East Tennessee is known for its music, and in particular, it was home to several well-known and influential old-time and bluegrass fiddlers. The museum is fortunate to have three fiddles on loan that were owned and played by Charlie Bowman, Edd Vance, and Benny Sims, all of which are currently on special display in our permanent exhibits. Instruments – and other objects – like these help us to tell the stories of the music, people, and cultural heritage that make our region so special.
Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman was born on July 30, 1889 in Gray Station, Tennessee. Bowman started playing music from a young age – he started recording as early as 1908 on a neighbor’s Edison Cylinder phonograph, and by the early 1920s, he was regularly being hired to play at square dances and political rallies. When Bowman started to enter fiddling contests around the area, other local fiddlers got quite mad because Bowman just kept on winning!
In 1928, when the Columbia record label came to Johnson City, Tennessee, to do a location recording session, Bowman and several other musicians, including his daughters, recorded six songs. He also traveled the East Coast vaudeville circuit with his daughters and his band – in 1931 alone, they played 249 days of the year. Bowman was later hired to perform by B. Carroll Reece, who served as representative for the first district of Tennessee. They stayed lifelong friends, and Bowman even wrote “Reece Rag” for Congressman Reece. Alongside his solo career, Bowman was also a member of the Hill Billies and the Blue Ridge Ramblers.
The museum has two Bowman family instruments on loan: Charlie’s fiddle and his daughter Jenny’s accordion, which is currently on display in the museum’s special exhibit,I’ve Endured Women in Old-Time Music.
Edd Vance – more commonly known as Red – was born on November 19, 1923 in Sullivan County, Tennessee. Red became recognized in East Tennessee for his old-time fiddling skill, and he performed at The Down Home, a well-known musical hub in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Red followed in the footsteps of his father, Dudley Vance, who was born on March 12, 1880 in Bluff City, Tennessee. During the second week of May 1925, Dudley played at the first Mountain City Fiddlers’ Convention, held at a local high school. This event featured famous fiddlers Charlie Bowman, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, Charlie Powers, and G. B. Grayson. Dudley famously beat everyone with his rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Two years later, Dudley and his brother traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to record three records for Okeh Records, under the band name Vance’s Tennessee Breakdowners. These were the last professional recordings done by Dudley. The museum has Edd Vance’s fiddle and several other items related to Dudley and Edd Vance on loan from their descendants.
Benny Sims was born on August 4, 1924 in Sevier County, Tennessee. Sims was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and was stationed in Foggia, Italy during World War II. While in Italy, Sims played with the U.S. Air Force Orchestra. He played fiddle with the Morris Brothers, but he is best known for his time performing with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Sims recorded with Flatt & Scruggs over 25 times as part of the Bluegrass Boys, including on their famous “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
After Sims left Flatt & Scruggs, he went to work for WNOX in Knoxville and WJHL-TV in Johnson City until he retired in the early 1960s. When he retired from the music industry he worked at Life & Casualty Insurance Company and gave private fiddle lessons. Just months before Sims’ death in 1995, the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance held a tribute to him at the Paramount Center for the Arts. Today, East Tennessee State University awards the Benny Sims Scholarship to one Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Student each year.
“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Several questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk to Blind Alfred Reed’s fiddle:
First, can you tell us about Blind Alfred Reed?
Sure, I love to talk about him! Blind Alfred Reed was born in Floyd, Virginia, on June 15, 1880, though he spent most of his life in West Virginia, especially around the Princeton area. He was born blind, possibly using a slate and stylus to help him with writing, and he learned how to play the fiddle at a young age.
He was well-known in his area as a talented fiddler and songwriter, and his family remembers him as a multi-instrumentalist who might have also played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and even the organ! Alfred played music anywhere he could – churches, parties, night clubs, political rallies, and dances, and he recorded twice with Victor Talking Machine Company. He gave music lessons and wrote his own compositions, often selling broadsides of his songs.
As with many people during the 1920s and 1930s, Alfred relied on his garden and subsistence farming to help support his family. He also worked as a Methodist lay preacher – he didn’t have his own church, and often preached on street corners instead. Alfred passed away on January 17, 1956.
How did Blind Alfred Reed’s blindness affect his daily life and his musicianship?
Alfred and his sister were both blind from birth, and because they had grown up blind, they had a whole host of different tricks to help them negotiate daily life – from loudly ticking clocks, a wire leading from the house’s door to the outhouse, and memorizing the number of steps it took from different places in the house. Alfred also learned New York Point and American Braille, both tactile reading and writing systems for the blind.
As for music, Alfred’s blindness didn’t hamper his playing and performing. In fact, playing me brought him a lot of pleasure each and every day! He often busked on the streets of Princeton, walking three miles between our home and the city. However, a 1937 statute in the area where he lived banned blind street musicians, and this took away some of our musical money-making opportunities.
Where did Blind Alfred Reed get you?
I have a label inside of me that notes the name Giovanni Maggini and the date 1695, and for a while, Alfred’s family though that I was made by an Italian luthier way back in the past. However, Giovanni Maggini actually died in 1630 so that turned out to not be correct!
A New York violin dealer and restorer took a look at me and determined that I am a commercial instrument, possible advertised and sold through a mail-order company like Sears Roebuck or even from a local music store. Commercial instruments were often made “in the style” of famous instrument makers and so will bear a label inside to reflect that. Alfred owned me by around 1905—1910 so I am probably not much older than that.
Were you part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions?
I certainly was! Ralph Peer personally invited Alfred and me to record at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and Alfred’s son Arville brought us down from West Virginia to do so. Apparently Ernest “Pop” Stoneman told Mr. Peer about us and the regional popularity of “The Wreck of the Virginian,” a song Alfred wrote about a train wreck that occurred in May 1927. This song was one of the biggest sellers from the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
Besides his train wreck song, Alfred recorded three others at the 1927 Bristol Sessions – “I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking in the Way with Jesus.” Soon after, he recorded several more songs for Peer and Victor in 1928 and 1929 for a total of 21 sides
As I noted above, a lot of our music-making together was at local events and through street busking. Mr. Peer did invite us – along with Alfred’s son Arville – to record several more songs in 1929 at the official Victor studios up in Camden, New Jersey and New York City. Sadly, after that recording session in December 1929, we didn’t record again, though Alfred kept playing music locally.
Looking back, Alfred probably would’ve been a more popular singer if the Great Depression hadn’t hit – not only did this affect the commercial viability of the music recording industry at this time, but Arville also went off to World War II and so Alfred didn’t really have the opportunity to travel to sing.
Did Blind Alfred Reed have a favorite song he played on you?
Alfred didn’t necessarily have a favorite fiddle tune, but he sure loved to play me and he loved writing his own songs. Everything he wrote about was real, based in life’s trials and tribulations, its moments of happiness and sad times. He’s get his ideas from a lot of different sources – through the newspaper stories his wife read to him, by listening to the radio, family and friends telling him the news and local stories, and by reading his Braille Bible.
Alfred has a lot of songs that are recognized as important or particularly interesting songs, and he certainly used music to say something. For instance, his song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” outlines the challenges of those living in poverty and thus was especially appropriate to the hard times of the Great Depression. This song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2020. Several of Alfred’s songs were aimed at social ills and other issues he saw as problematic in the 1920s – such as “Money Cravin’ Folks,” “The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl,” and “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines,” – and because of this socio-political commentary, Alfred is considered one of the early protest singers of the 20th century. However, he also injected some humor into his musical observations – his song “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?” made a to-do of women’s short hair styles in the 1920s, telling them to ask Jesus for forgiveness!
Despite his recognition as a skilled fiddler and talented songwriter though, Alfred often got his greatest pleasure later in life playing music for his grandkids and hearing them dance around and enjoy his music.
What are you doing now?
Alfred’s family values me and my connection to Alfred and his place in the history of early commercial country music. And so I still live with his grandson, another great musician!
Finally, what’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?
Oh, this is a good one! The difference between a violin and a fiddle is that one of them has strings and the other one has strangs!
* Dr. Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator of the Museum. Special thanks to Denny Reed and Jane Thompson for their time and stories to help make this “Instrument Interview” possible!
Today is the anniversary of Jimmie Rodgers’ passing on May 26, 1933, and therefore we wanted to celebrate him with this blog post by volunteer Ed Hagen – including a short lesson in Rodgers’ iconic guitar style! Ed moved to Bristol last summer, and he soon joined us at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum as a Gallery Assistant. He has played guitar for many years, mostly jazz, but he has been working hard on the rudiments of country and bluegrass since moving to Tennessee. As Ed says, “There is no better place to start than with the guitar style of Jimmie Rodgers!”
Jimmie Rodgers was born in 1897 in Meridian, Mississippi, and he learned to play guitar while working on the railroad as a water boy and brakeman. He was influenced by the music played and the songs sung by the African American railway workers he met at the railway yard and around town – their call-and-response singing style during work and the blues songs they sang made a distinctive mark on Rodgers’ sound. He also spent time in Meridian’s opera house, vaudeville theaters, and hotels where he heard jazz, parlor music, and popular tunes, all of which also provided inspiration.
In 1927 he moved to Ashville, North Carolina, where he started playing on the local radio station with a small band made up of three musicians from Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia. Later that year they heard about recording sessions that were going to be held in Bristol conducted by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and so they traveled up to audition. These were the famous “1927 Bristol Sessions” that we celebrate at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum today. After arriving in Bristol for their audition, Rodgers and the band ended up recording separately, with speculation attributing this to an internal squabble or a change made by producer Ralph Peer. For Rodgers, this led to a recording contract and huge success as a recording and performing artist – though for only six short years before his death from tuberculosis in 1933 – and he is now celebrated as the “Father of Country Music.”
Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar style is iconic and made a huge impact on country music musicians and beyond – numerous artists have copied and embellished it for their own music playing throughout the years. It is based within a traditional style of guitar playing, but he is one of the most successful and well-known performing and recording artists to play in this style, and he certainly knew how to make it his own!
For guitar players, it’s a great style to learn because it is so versatile. As the bartender in the Blues Brothers would put it, the style works for both kinds of music, country and western. You can slow it down for a Hank Williams’ ballad, or swing it hard for a Bob Wills’ two-step. You can use it to play Gene Autry cowboy tunes or just about any Merle Haggard or Buck Owens tune. And once you master it, the style gives you the foundation to play the related but more challenging guitar styles of Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and Chet Atkins.
Playing Guitar Jimmie Rodgers-Style
Before we can play this guitar style, we need to begin with short introduction on how to play traditional country bass, because that is the foundation of the style. For the most part, traditional country bass players play the root note of the chord on the first beat of the measure, and the fifth note of the chord’s major scale on the third beat. The fifth can either be played above or below the root. Playing behind a C chord, these notes would be C and G. This is called playing “one five.”
A triplet (that is, three notes played where a quarter note would ordinarily be played) can be played on the fourth beat of a measure, especially before a chord change. This triplet anticipates the chord that is played in the next measure, either ascending or descending to the root of the target chord. The three notes in the triplet are the three tones just above or below the root of the target chord. For example, if ascending from a measure of C to a measure of F, the triplet at the end of the C measure would be the fifth, sixth, and seventh tones of the F major scale.
If descending from a C measure to a G measure, the notes of the triplet would be the fourth, third and second tones of the G major scale.
Alternatively, a bass player will sometimes play a third on the third beat, especially if that note is a seventh of the target chord (the chord to be played in the next measure). If moving from a C to an F, for example, the third in C (E) is the seventh in F. Or sometimes, just to keep it simple, the bass player will play the root on the third beat.
Rodgers does all of this on the guitar rather than on a bass. He plays a bass line on his guitar by fingering a first-position chord with his left hand, which will typically have the first and fifth notes of the major scale on the bottom three (EAD) strings. Just like any country bass player, he’ll “one five” it, playing the first and fifth tones on the first and third beats of the measure, mix in triplets, and occasionally drop in a root or third on the third beat. While doing this, he’ll strum the treble strings on the other beats. This allows him to effectively play bass and guitar at the same time.
This is sometimes called a “boom chuck” rhythm, similar to a military band’s “oom pah” or a stride piano player’s left hand. The “boom” is the bass note, and the “chuck” is the strum. Sometimes, to spice it up, a down-up strum is added to the chuck, creating a “boom chucka” (sometimes called a “church lick”). So the last beat of a measure might be a “chuck,” a church lick, or a triplet.
A brief note about the strum: These first position chords typically include open strings, and no particular effort is made to dampen them. It is not essential to play every string on every chord; the treble top notes (the B and E string) are often omitted.
There are no strict rules about any of this, except that it all has to done with confidence and a swing feel. You should be able to sing, play the bass and chords, and drop in a triplet or church lick as the mood strikes you. This all comes with practice.
The exercise below will get you used to playing ascending and descending triplets. Start slow and play it until it becomes second nature.
Providentially, Rodgers made The Singing Brakeman, a short sound film released in 1930 where he plays guitar and sings three songs, so you can see exactly how he plays. The film is available on YouTube. You’ll need to take one precaution if you are playing along with the video. The guitar in the film is tuned a half step high, so to play along you’ll have to tune your guitar up a half step or put a capo on the first fret. When we talk about these tunes below, we’ll do so as if the recording was in standard tuning, that is, when he fingers something that looks like a C chord in the film, we’ll call it that, even though we are hearing a C# chord on the soundtrack.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the first song in The Singing Brakeman, “Waiting on a Train.” Rodgers begins by imitating a train whistle, and then sings some nonsense syllables over this short guitar opening:
The partial F chords in the first bar are played as four simple down strokes on the four beats. The second bar is a boom chuck, playing the root instead of the fifth on the third beat. The third bar is two church licks. He ends the fourth bar as a triplet leading into the first bar of the chorus, which is played “one five.”
I’m not going to tab out the rest of the song. It goes against the spirit of how these songs are played. Players are free to sprinkle triplets and church licks wherever they like. Jimmie Rodgers likely never played the same song the same way twice. But to get you started, the chords for the first verse go like this:
This is just a start for aspiring Jimmie Rodgers-inspired players, but it should give you a good place to begin as you explore the wonderful musical world of “America’s Blue Yodeler,” “The Singing Brakeman,” and the “Father of Country Music”!
Did you know that the summer of 1927 saw a whole host of important historic and cultural milestones, including Babe Ruth’s home run record and, of course, the 1927 Bristol Sessions? Author Bill Bryson’s book One Summer: America, 1927 explores that amazing summer in his usual charming and fact-fueled style, and – along with today’s celebration of Babe Ruth – serves as inspiration for this April 27 blog post, which goes down rabbit holes and tangents to explore other 1927 connections!
But first, what does Bryson’s book cover? Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis on May 20—21 is one of the topics, along with Calvin Coolidge’s presidency and his decision not to run for a second full term in 1928 and the Great Mississippi Flood, which had its beginnings in 1926 and ended up covering 27,000 square miles in water and displacing thousands of people from their homes and land. Bryson also tackles the controversial trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists accused of armed robbery and murder; the introduction of Ford’s new Model A car; and the release of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. And then, of course, Bryson shares the story of the New York Yankees’ achievements on the baseball diamond in the summer of 1927 – with 110 wins and 44 losses, a sweeping victory in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run of the season on September 30, setting a record that wouldn’t be broken for 34 years.
So what about country music? Well, of course, the summer of 1927 also saw the Bristol Sessions being recorded between July 25 and August 5. With performers like Ernest Stoneman – an experienced and prolific musician in the burgeoning hillbilly music industry – and hugely impactful newcomers like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, along with a host of other interesting artists and recordings, the 1927 Bristol Sessions became known as “the big bang of country music.” Sadly, the Sessions did not make it into Bryson’s book – maybe they’ll make an appearance in a later edition, fingers crossed! – though the Library of Congress has recognized them as among the 50 most significant sound recordings of all time.
But are there other country music stories to be found in 1927? Interestingly, we can connect Charles Lindberg to country music through two 1927 recordings by Vernon Dalhart: “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the USA)” and “Lucky Lindy!” Both of these records sold well, and a couple of other hillbilly performers also had big hits in 1927 – Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers with “John Henry (Steel-Drivin’ Man)” and Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers with “White House Blues.”
There were also several country and bluegrass stars born in 1927:
Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (February 25)
Carl Smith (March 15), known as “Mister Country” and once married to June Carter
Charlie Louvin (July 27), part of the Louvin Brothers and a member of the Grand Ole Opry
Nudie-suited performer and TV personality Porter Wagoner (August 12), who introduced Dolly Parton to the world in 1967 via The Porter Wagoner Show
Jimmy C. Newman (August 29), country music performer and Cajun singer-songwriter
Songwriter Harlan Howard (September 8)
Leon Rausch (October 2), known as “the voice” of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Patti Page (November 8), crossover pop and country artist
Bob Ferguson (December 30), a musician and producer who was instrumental in establishing Nashville as country music’s center
For a few more musical connections to 1927, first take a look at the pages from a 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog. While these catalogs were produced yearly and so this isn’t unique to 1927, it is a great insight into what kinds of instruments you could buy from Sears Roebuck and what the 1927 prices were! And then there were two milestones in American radio history that are tied to 1927. The U.S. Federal Radio Commission (later known as the FCC) began to regulate radio frequencies on February 23, 1927. And on September 18 of that year, the country saw the debut of CBS, which went on air with 47 radio stations, later becoming a powerhouse in the new technology of television.
These are just a few of the stories and historical or cultural moments from 1927 – there are many, many more beyond my primary focus here on music connections. And so to finish this post off, why don’t you go down your own rabbit hole? The Smithsonian, always a great source of information on any and all topics, can get you started with a trove of treasures that all connect to the year 1927, some discussed above, some more obscure, but all interesting. You can check out these objects and images here.
Murals are one of the oldest known forms of human artistic expression. What people decided to paint on the walls of their domestic and community spaces can tell us a lot about the time and society in which they lived. For example, in the first known cave painting made in Indonesia 45,500 years ago, humans depicted animals and other humans they interacted with every day. During the Renaissance, murals of great religious scenes were painted on the walls and ceilings of churches, underlining the political, cultural, and financial power of the church during the 16th century. And, within the 20th century, we have seen a dramatic rise in murals being made for arts-sake, to make a political statement, or to highlight local color and culture.
So, let’s take a look at some murals that are special for all of the aforementioned reasons and because they tell a story you’re probably interested in if you’ve found your way to this blog: the story of country music.
We’ll start with a mural that is a Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia must-see: Bristol’s Country Music Mural. The mural is located at 810 State Street, a public square that is used for the weekly farmers’ market, community events, and to host one of the stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The mural is 30 feet by 100 feet, taking up the entire side of a building, and features the big players and iconic images from the 1927 Bristol Recording Sessions: Ralph Peer, The Carter Family – A. P., Sara, and Maybelle, a Victor record and microphone, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, and Jimmie Rodgers. First painted in 1986 by local artist, musician, and radio DJ Tim White, the mural was recently refurbished to great effect during the summer of 2020.
Next stop on our virtual tour of murals with a country music connection is the Knoxville Music History Mural. The mural is located at 116 East Jackson in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it was designed by Knoxville artist Walt Fieldsa in collaboration with local art teacher Tifanni Conner and her students at Laurel High School. The mural was then painted by local artists, including Fieldsa, Randall Starnes, and Ken Britton. The painting depicts several Tennessee musicians, including operatic singer Grace Moore, composer and pianist Richard Trythall, founder of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Bertha Walburn Clark, guitarist Willie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers, jazz pianist Donald Brown, rock singer Tina Turner, and bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin.
We come next to the Nashville Fences of Fame located on several fences surrounding Columbine Park in Berry Hill. The project of painting these fences of the musical greats began in 2016 by artist Scott Guion and was commissioned by The House of Blues. A wide array of musicians from incredibly different genres are painted throughout the area – for instance, one fence alone depicts Jim Lauderdale, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Greg Allman, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and Otis Redding.
In 2014, artist Jeff Pierson painted a wonderful mural depicting the 1927 Bristol Sessions artist Blind Alfred Reed on a brick wall on Mercer Street in Princeton, West Virginia. Pierson was commissioned by Princeton’s Community Improvement Committee to paint a series of important folks from Princeton on various walls around town. While researching Princeton local legends, he came across information about Blind Alfred Reed and was taken aback to learn his interesting story. When he proposed making Reed the subject of one of the murals, the committee didn’t even know who Reed was – but they were soon convinced of his importance and in due course his likeness could be found on one of the city’s walls as public art! Due to the demolition of the building, the mural is being moved to a new site in the town.
Next up is the San Antonio Gateway Mural, locally known as La Musica de San Anto. Located on the west side of San Antonio, the mural was painted in 2008 by local artist David Blancas after it was commissioned by San Anto Cultural Arts to bring awareness to the musical heritage of San Antonio. The mural features members of the country band “The Texas Tornados” and Tejano (a style of music derived from Mexican-Spanish vocal traditions and Czech and German dance music) musicians such as Lydia Mendoza, amongst others. A contemporary of Mother Maybelle Carter, Mendoza also played on the border radio station XERA. (Check out this fascinating article about the similarities between Mother Maybelle and Lydia Mendoza from NPR.)
Another great mural can be found at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, Tennessee, which also includes the Tina Turner Museum. In 2014 a mural of Brownsville natives Tina Turner and Sleepy John Estes was painted on the side of the museum by Union University art students. And while Sleepy John Estes is a well-regarded blues artist that influenced musicians like The Beatles, and Tina Turner is more well-known as “The Queen of Rock-n-Roll,” I would argue this is a bona fide country music mural because Tina Turner made her musical debut as a solo artist with a country album in 1974! If you haven’t listened to Tina Turns the Country On!, I highly recommend turning the record on now!
Last but not least on our grand country music mural tour is a painting of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2021 headliner Tanya Tucker. You can find the mural in Spirit Square in the “Country Music Capital of Canada”: Merritt, British Columbia. The wall-sized portrait of the singer was painted by local artist Michelle Loughery and members of the Merritt Youth Mural Project, a program designed to work with local young artists and “youth at risk.” Tucker was even there for the unveiling of the mural in 2006!
This post highlights just a few of the music heritage murals out there, but it’s a great introduction to this highly visible and community-driven public art. Murals are a fascinating look into our history and culture, and you can learn more about the history of murals with this article from The Community Rejuvenation Project in the Bay Area. And, I wanted to give an honorable mention to some local mural trails: The Mountain City Music Mile and The Appalachian Mural Trail.
If you are reading this blog post, you are probably familiar with why Bristol is considered by many to be the Birthplace of Country Music. During late July and early August of 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded several artists and acts at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building – two of these became known as the “first family of country music” (The Carter Family) and the “father of country music” (Jimmie Rodgers). And Rodgers also became one of the best-selling and most influential country acts of all time.
Eager to repeat the previous year’s success, Peer returned to Bristol in the fall of 1928 to record more regional artists. Though none of the recorded performers from the 1928 Bristol Sessions achieved the fame and influence of the The Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, these sessions yielded a fascinating body of work that is overshadowed by the storied 1927 sessions. Both casual and hardcore fans of country music owe it to themselves to check out the 1928 Bristol Sessions – and here are a few choice cuts to get you started:
“Angeline the Baker,” Uncle Eck Dunford
Uncle Eck Dunford of Galax, Virginia, came to Bristol with Ernest Stoneman in 1927. A comedian who recorded several spoken word skits, Dunford’s musical selections were lighthearted as well. A song from the pen of Stephen Foster, “Angeline the Baker” – often called “Angelina Baker” – has become a standard in acoustic music circles, but Dunford’s recording is the sole recording of the song in the pre-war country music discography.
“Unknown Blues,” Tarter and Gay
Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay were the sole African-American act to record at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. A rare glimpse into the scene of bluesmen who were active around Kingsport, Tennessee, before the Second World War, this record leaves me wanting more than the two sides the duo recorded. Featuring clear vocals and two guitars playfully intertwined, it is no surprise this duo was a hit with audiences across the Tri-Cities.
“Goodnight Darling,” Clarence Greene
Cranberry, North Carolina’s resident master musician Clarence Greene made the trek across the mountains to record in Bristol in 1928. A fiddler who is often associated with Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Greene plays the guitar and sings on this side of his sole Bristol Sessions release.
”I’ll Be Happy,” The Stamps Quartet
The Stamps Quartet was established in 1924 as part of the Stamps Music Publishing Company (Dallas, Texas), a company that sold hymnals. It is a bit of an oddity that a non-regional group recorded in Bristol in 1928, but this recording highlights the beautiful gospel quartet singing that is often overlooked as a significant part of early country music.
“I Truly Understand, You Love Another Man,” Shortbuckle Roark and Family
The 1928 Bristol Sessions and Columbia’s 1928 Johnson City Sessions were recorded so close geographically and timewise that it is no surprise some artists appeared on recordings by both labels. George “Shortbuckle” Roark is one such musician, and both sessions yielded absolute classics in the old-time music cannon. I’ve also shared a bonus selection from the Johnson City recordings below – “I Ain’t A Bit Drunk,” George Roark
“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with the bones.
What are you?
I am a type of percussive instrument known as a “concussion idiophone,” which refers to me being made of up of similar objects that make a sound when struck together. I’m also called the “rhythm bones,” which gives you a clue to the role I play in music.
Where do you come from?
I’ve been around for a long time, and you can find versions of bones all the way back to several ancient cultures. Archaeologists have excavated bones (as instruments) from graves and tombs in prehistoric Mesopotamia and Egypt, and also discovered images of musicians playing the bones on Greek pottery. There is also evidence of the bones being played in the Roman Empire and ancient China. More recently – that is, in the 18th and 19th centuries – I came to North America with Irish and English immigrants, who used the bones as a way to keep a steady beat for their jigs and reels.
Are you really made from bones?
My original versions were made from animal bones, usually the rib or shin bones of sheep, cows, and sometimes horses. I’m often slightly curved, reflective of the natural shape of these bones, and I typically measure between 5 and 7 inches in length. While modern bones are still made from animal bones, you can also find ones made from wood and plastic. A variety of woods can be used, such as cherry, mahogany, walnut, and maple, with different woods producing different tones as is seen in other wooden instruments.
How are you played?
Players hold a pair of bones between their fingers with the convex sides facing one another; one is held fairly tightly and the other more loosely. By shaking the wrist, the bones hit one another, creating a loud “clack.” The connection between the two bones is carried by the momentum from the player’s arm and hand movements rather than any effort to force the bones to knock together. In North America, players tend to play with a pair of bones in each hand, while in Ireland the tradition is to play one-handed.
It’s hard to get a sense of what the movement looks like and the resulting sound by describing it, so check out Dom Flemons playing the bones. It’s actually quite amazing – and beautiful – to watch:
What type of music are you typically found in?
You can hear bones being played in a wide variety of genres, such as traditional Irish and Scottish music, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, French-Canadian music, and Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia) traditions.
Because bones were also often used by African American musicians, they became a common facet of 19th-century minstrel shows – where white performers appeared in blackface; later Black entertainers appeared in minstrel shows too – and the bones’ popularity in the United States grew within this context. One of the first bones-playing minstrel performers was Frank Brower, and the first documentation of him playing the bones in front of an audience are from 1841 in Virginia. He played with a much larger pair of bones than is usual today – two 12-inch lengths of horse rib bones!
Are there famous musicians associated with the bones?
There are many famous bones players! Freeman Davis, known by his stage name “Brother Bones” and also as “Whistling Sam,” was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1902. He recorded several songs in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in three movies, and performed at Carnegie Hall and on The Ed Sullivan Show. His most famous recording is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which became the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme tune in 1952. He took bones playing to an intense high of four bones in each hand and even playing knives like bones!
DeFord Bailey, best known for his wonderful harmonica playing and as a regular on the Grand Ole Opry in its early days, included bones playing in his performances along with yo-yo tricks and guitar picking. He was country music’s first African American star.
John Burrill learned to play the bones in his teens during the Depression. One viewer described Burrill’s style of bones-playing as looking like his arms were upside-down windshield wipers. Over the years, Burrill played with a host of other musicians and acts, including the Brattle Street Players, Steve Baird, Clifton Chenier, Spider John Koerner, Molly Malone, and even the Infliktors, a punk band. When asked what key he played in, his reply was “the skeleton key”!
Peadar Mercier was a percussionist in the Irish band The Chieftains, playing both the bodhran and the bones. He was with them from 1966 to 1976.
Dom Flemons, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now a solo artist, is known as the American Songster, whose “repertoire of music covers over 100 years of early American popular music.” Flemons is a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, quills, fife, and, of course, the bones. He has bones made out of cow rib and shin bones that he plays in the double-handed style.
I’ve heard of someone called “the Rhythm Bones King.” Who was he?
The Rhythm Bones King is a man called Joe Birl. In 1945 Birl applied for a patent for his black molded plastic bones that bore a groove to help keep the bones from slipping out of a player’s hand. Birl produced and sold around 150,000 pairs of these plastic rhythm bones. After the plastic mold broke, he made wooden rhythm bones with his patented grooved design. He passed away in 2012, and Joe Birl Jr. continued to sell bones made in his father’s design.
Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?
I was! Black musician El Watson played me when he accompanied the Johnson Brothers on two recordings – “Two Brothers Are We” and “I Want to See My Mother (Ten Thousand Miles Away).” He also accompanied them on harmonica for their recording of “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy,” and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s two harmonica recordings, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” These are some of the earliest integrated country music and blues recordings.
Are there other instruments related to you?
There are many other types of percussive instruments that are used in a similar way to the bones. For instance, clappers – consisting of two solid pieces made of wood, metal, ivory, and even plastic that are slapped together – are found in a lot of musical traditions, from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand to medieval France and modern Western symphony orchestras.
Castanets are made of two concave shells joined with string at one edge. They are usually made of chestnut wood, and they are played two-handed. Castanets are also used in several musical traditions, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Swiss, Moorish, Ottoman, Sephardic, and Italian.
Playing the spoons is especially common in American folk music and often seen in jug bands. Like the bones, the spoons are held in one hand and played against each other as a percussive instrument. To see some amazing spoon playing, check out Abby the Spoon Lady.
Anything else you want to share with us?
Remember singing the nursery rhyme song “This Old Man” when you were a child? Well, that song is thought to refer to bones playing! The first verse goes like this (and so on):
“This old man, he played one,
He played knick-knack on my thumb;
With a knick-knack paddywhack,
Give a dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.”
A paddywhack is a ligament – known as the nuchal ligament – in the neck of sheep and cattle.
*Want some of your own bones? Then stop by The Museum Store where you can buy wooden bones (and spoons) made by local artisan Walt Messick of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.
For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol! This month’s “Pick 5” focuses on the songs of Blind Alfred Reed, a 1927 Bristol Sessions artist, who was born on June 15, 1880.
When one thinks of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, it easy to let the contributions of luminaries such as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers overshadow the contributions of lesser known figures. Blind Alfred Reed’s music is forgotten by many, but his simple yet eloquent songs are among the most socially conscious of the catalog of early country music. Born in Floyd County, Virginia, Reed relocated to West Virginia where he made his humble living as a street musician, playing for tips and selling broadsides. Perhaps his time on the streets during this time helped Reed to tune into the plight of his fellow humans, as his songs pose questions that were often swept under the rug during their day. Compared to the rough and rowdy ways of Jimmie Rodgers and the overly romanticized heart-and-home songs of The Carter Family, Reed’s music takes to task issues like poverty or dangerous working situations under an often-humorous guise. To pay homage to Reed’s songwriting, I’ve picked five songs that touch on these topics:
“How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”
“How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” is one of Reed’s most widely known tunes, made popular by Ry Cooder’s later rendering. The title of this one explains itself.
“Explosion in the Fairmont Mine”
Songs of disaster within the dangerous work environments where death too often lay in wait are an important part of the ballad tradition. To tell the story of a mining disaster in Reed’s home state of West Virginia, Reed rehashed the traditional song widely known as “Dream of the Miner’s Child.”
“Money Cravin’ Folks”
Exploring the old adage “money is the root of all evil,” Reed makes listeners think about their priorities.
“Fate of Chris Lively and Wife”
As Appalachia was modernizing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, old ways of life crossed paths with the new, sometimes leading to new dangers. “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife” tells the tale of a wagon ride that ends tragically when the wagon and its passengers meet their doom with an oncoming train.
“Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down”
In difficult times, it’s easy to overlook the needs of others while focusing on our own issues, but here Reed urges listeners to help others along the difficult road of life.
Today – May 10, 2020 – is both Mother’s Day here in the United States, and the anniversary of Mother Maybelle Carter’s birthday (May 10, 1909).
For so many of us, when we think of our mothers, it’s hard to look beyond the maternal. In other words, it’s hard for us to think of them as anything other than our mothers. But everyone’s mother has a life outside that – interests, stories, dreams, regrets, adventures, achievements, and so much more.
And that idea made us think about Maybelle. We all know about the significance and legacy of Maybelle Carter in the history of country, and American, music. That is a huge part of her story – but what about the other parts of her story? Some of you may know all about her, some may only know about her music, and some may not know much at all. And so let’s explore just a few of the lesser known aspects of this great woman!
First, we’ll start with a musical aspect: Why was she called Mother Maybelle?
Of course, Maybelle was a mother herself to Helen, Anita, and June, and after the original Carter Family stopped performing together in 1943, Maybelle and her daughters took to the road as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Maybelle was only in her early 30s at the start of this period – imagine performing on the radio and on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, traveling the country for performances, living out of hotels and eating at diners, all with three young girls in tow!
The Mother Maybelle name might have been part of their band persona, but she kept this moniker for the rest of her career. And everything she did underlined this role – as matriarch and mentor to so many. For instance, she took on some younger musicians as part of her act, musicians like Chet Atkins who played guitar as sideman with Maybelle and her daughters for a time – Maybelle seeing Atkins potential and talent before it was more widely recognized. She also looked after a host of other musicians in the midst of their personal struggles, including Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. And, of course, she influenced many with her extraordinary guitar playing and all-around musical prowess, including Earl Scruggs, and later, acts like the New Lost City Ramblers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who invited her to perform with them because of the legacy she carried with her from the early days of country music. When she appeared on stage with these bands or at the folk festivals of the 1960s, the 20-something audiences looked up at this maternal figure and saw greatness.
As Tift Merritt noted on NPR’s All Things Considered: Maybelle Carter “defined a genre with her musicianship and her grace. More than as the great mother of her craft, her contributions as a caretaker, female and exemplar human deserve our deepest admiration.”
Life in the Fast Lane
Maybelle may be revered as a musical legend, and she may have been a steadying force to her family and her surrogate family of young, and often troubled, musicians, but she had a bit of a wild side herself. When on tour, Maybelle often drove – and she put her foot down hard on the pedal. Apparently, her husband Eck was also known as a speed demon so one imagines that when either of them was behind the wheel, there might have been a lot of backseat driving going on from the girls. And Maybelle wasn’t only a lover of fast cars; she also rode an Indian-model motorcycle!
Maybelle also looked to Lady Luck as she indulged her love of bingo and cards, and when on tour in places like Las Vegas and Tahoe, she played the slots. She enjoyed horse races and also went down to the dog tracks frequently, looking to pick a winner. Her bets on all of these gambles were low-stakes but that didn’t take away the pleasure she got from playing.
The Everyday Life
With any famous person, it’s sometimes hard to imagine them out of the spotlight and living an “everyday life” – taking part in the day-to-day domestic tasks, having hobbies and interests, not performing but just living. But, of course, they do, and Maybelle was no different. She was quite a mean cook – from tomato gravy to chicken gizzard soup to other homestyle favorites, many of which are recorded in June Carter Cash’s Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook, along with a host of family stories. She also enjoyed hunting and fishing – grandson John Carter Cash has a photograph of her and Eck standing in front of a truck bed covered in fish they’d caught. And she let loose and had a good time bowling and playing pool with family and friends. And while music on the stage may have been Maybelle’s livelihood, making music at home was often just as important.
Maybelle’s kindness, generosity, and care for others – so much a part of her musical story – also came into play with her “second” job. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, though Maybelle was still performing at the Grand Ole Opry on the weekends and with other gigs, her daughters began to go their separate ways with families and their own careers (plus the music world was changing), and so Maybelle needed to supplement her income. Therefore, for a while, she worked at a local hospital as a certified practical nurse at night, helping to sit with and care for the elderly.
And so…Happy Mother (Maybelle)’s Day
These are just a few of the things that both define Maybelle Carter as the matriarch of a genre and also take us beyond her life in music to see her as an everyday person too. In Maybelle’s story, we can find inspiration, good memories and stories, and a continuing influence down through the ages. Once again, Tift Merritt sums it up well, defining Mother Maybelle not only in relation to her musical legacy but also in terms that define so many of our own mothers: “A woman of craft rather than of spectacle, Maybelle Carter was more than a great guitar player: She was a perfect bandmate. Deep in the House of Music, down the halls of life-long practice, Maybelle Carter, the unspoken Great Mother of rhythm guitar, blends in with her harmony singing, steps out when asked and breezily holds down the rhythm and the lead on her instrument as if it were no big deal.”
Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!
This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Ronald Kidd’s Lord of the Mountain, a middle-grade historical novel. The story follows 13-year-old Nate Owens as he struggles with the restrictions in his family and runs away to pursue his love of music. Set in the area around Bristol, Tennessee, in the 1920s, part of Nate’s journey includes meeting The Carter Family when they are in town to record with Ralph Peer and then later finding respite in their home after a near-tragedy with his little brother. Weaving together historic details from the 1920s and the “big bang of country music,” the trials and tribulations of adolescence, and Nate’s quest to understand his family, all while discovering the power of music, Kidd does a wonderful job of creating an adventure story that also explores the depths of family pain and redemption.
Ronald Kidd has worked as a writer for many years, producing entertaining juvenile and young adult fiction, theatrical plays, and most recently, historical novels. Lord of the Mountain is his most recent historical fiction book, published in 2018, but others include Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, On Beale Street – about music, race, and Elvis Presley and set in Memphis in 1954, and Night on Fire – about the Freedom Riders in Alabama in the 1960s. Kidd also edits books and produces audio and video programming.
Make plans to join us for our on-air discussion on Thursday, March 26 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library and at The Museum Store so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of listening in. The librarians or museum staff will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deep and engaging novel.