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Across the Rocky Mountain has been called “Roscoe’s most famous composition” by Charles K. Wolfe, though it is a less an original composition than a composite reworking of older balladic material. Holcomb’s guitar playing in open G tuning is distinctly banjo-influenced. The banjo is a drum with strings, and Holcomb exploits this fact with offhand mastery as he provides finger percussion on the banjo head while performing Little Birdie. This was the song he opened with on the one occasion this writer saw Holcomb perform; I will never forget the sheer physiological power of that voice for which the “high lonesome sound” description was well coined.
Holcomb moved some men to tears; I felt my scalp prickle as if my hair was standing on end!
Graveyard Blues suggests the influence of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘blue yodels’ in Holcomb’s guitar licks and delivery, though the song’s source is a 1923 Bessie Smith recording, Graveyard Dream Blues. The song made an impact on white performers in various regions, witnessed by the 1938 recording of it as Graveyard Blues by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds, a Texas-based Western Swing group. African-American folklore is also the source of John Hardy, a “steel-driver, over six feet tall and two hundred pounds of muscle, ‘black as the kittle of hell,”’ according to John and Alan Lomax’s 1947 book, Folk Song U.S.A. Hardy shot a man in a West Virginia gambling dispute and was hung for the crime on January 19,
1894. Despite origins similar to the blues Stagolee, the Lomaxes wrote that John Hardy was “ordinarily sung by white singers in the Southern Appalachians, sung in the same pokerfaced style with a hard-hitting, fast-moving five-string banjo accompaniment.” Holcomb can also be seen performing Poor Wayfaring Stranger on Legends of Traditional Fingerstyle Guitar, Vestapol 13004.
Photo by Dave Gahr Ralph Rinzler’s 1960 discovery of Clarence Ashley was as momentous to ‘old timey’ aficionados as that of Mississippi John Hurt would be to country blues lovers only a few years later. Like Hurt, Ashley was legendary for his pre-War recordings (1928-1931). As a soloist and in the company of such stringbands as the Carolina Tar Heels and Byrd Moore’s Hot Shots, Ashley’s early recorded work set a high standard.
Songs like The Cuckoo bespoke a man rooted in the deepest soil of the Anglo-American folk song tradition.
Born in Bristol, Tennessee in 1895, ‘Tom’ Ashley spent his youth in Shouns, Tennesee, where his grandfather ran a boarding house. Musicians were frequent boarders, and Ashley had two maternal aunts who were singer-banjoists.
He was playing banjo by age eight and was on the road with a medicine show by age sixteen. For the next 30 years Ashley’s life, despite periods of farming and hauling goods, was primarily that of an itinerant musician, one who performed mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina but who reportedly ranged as far west as Oregon and Washington. “When not traveling with mediPhoto by George Pickow cine shows,” wrote Rinzler, “he sang in the streets, on the edge of carnivals and outside of the pay station of the mines on payday.” The songs he sang included those ancient ones he dubbed “lassey makin’ tunes” (The Cuckoo, The House Carpenter) from the habit of singing ballads to pass the time while preparing molasses to ones rooted in minstrelsy (Free Little Bird) to folk songs (Green Back Dollar, Rising Sun Blues) which Ashley subsequently passed to a younger medicine show entertainer, Roy Acuff, and which took on entirely new lives during the folk revival of the 1960s.
Despite appearances as a comic with Charlie Monroe’s band and the Stanley Brothers in the early 1940s, Ashley’s style and repertoire were deemed relics even within his own community by the outbreak of World War II. It was the ironic intervention of urban folk enthusiasts, spurred by the inclusion of three vintage Ashley recordings on the influential 1952 Folkways reissue, Anthology of American Folk Music, which rescued Ashley from oblivion. “All I can do and offer you,” he told his new audience a mite apologetically, “is the real oldtimey, on-back-to-the-horse-and-buggy days...I’m not the greatest musician in the world, just pick a little different in that old-timey way.” His onetime accompanist, Doc Watson, has said: “There was only one Clarence Ash-ley...His music had to be himself.” Ashley, who died in 1967, left a rich musical legacy which included his much-covered signature song, The Cuckoo (or The Coo Coo Bird, as the title appeared on his 1929 recording). Ashley’s ‘sawmill’ tuning was DCGDG (first to fifth string). Rinzler has noted the song’s probable British origins, likewise for Free Little Bird (“Derivative of the nineteenth-century British broadside, Kitty Clyde”). The footage of Ashley, in the company of fiddler Fred Price, guitarists Clint Howard, and Tex Isley was filmed by George Pickow circa 1963 in Morgan County, Kentucky. The interviewer is the late folklorist D.K. Wilgus.
Photo by Dave Gahr Country music’s first notable guitarist was Sam Fleming McGee. He joined the Grand Ole Opry shortly after the program’s 1925 birth and lived to perform at the 1974 opening of Opryland. McGee’s lifelong proximity to the Nashville mainstream made him an exception to the ‘Rip Van Winkle syndrome’ which often characterized the repertoire of many old time musicians. Having never stopped performing, McGee never ceased to arrange new material (some as surprising as Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’) in his gregariously old timey way.
A fiddler’s son with sundry musical siblings and older relations, McGee was born in 1894 in Williamson County, Tennessee. McGee was surrounded by the sounds of fiddles
and banjos from boyhood, and once said of his musical clan:
“We had more music than anybody in the country. I was raised on string music.” With a talented fiddler in his father, Uncle John McGee, and likewise his younger brother Kirk, Sam took up instruments with which he could ‘second’ them, the banjo and later the guitar. “I Photo by Dave Gahr liked guitar so much better when I got one,” McGee recalled in an interview with Bob Krueger, “I quit playi n g t h e b a n j o...” Th o u g h McGee reckoned he was 11 when he first acquired a guitar from a white neighbor named Tom Hood, he also observed, “Black people were about the only people that played guitars then.” He heard black railroad workers perform blues and from them absorbed elements which characterized his often-bluesy fingerpicking.
Following his marriage in 1914, McGee worked as a blacksmith and farm-er before a fateful 1925 encounter with “the funniest old man I ever seen in my life”– Uncle Dave Macon – put him in rural show business (he nonetheless continued farming). Impressed by McGee’s skill on guitar, Macon invited him to join in his tours of school houses and such events as fiddling contests. At one such contest McGee was praised in a local newspaper for having “produced unheard of music from the guitar...and injected a comedy relief into the program with an infectious smile which won his audience and held them to the close of the program.” McGee’s stint with the flamboyant Macon is memorialized in an ebullient performance here on banjo of Mississippi Sawyer, a tune he knew long before meeting Uncle Dave: Uncle John McGee played it (along with about 300 other tunes) on fiddle. Despite his recollection here of a 20year association with Macon, the Macon-McGee touring team actually dissolved around 1931, when McGee began performing regularly with brother Kirk and the legendary Fidd-lin’ Arthur Smith in the Dixieliners. Mc-Gee was a strong presence in country music of the 1930s-early 1940s, both on the Opry (as musician and comic) and on the tent show trail with Roy Acuff or Bill Monroe.
By the 1950s, such old timers as the McGee Brothers were being phased out of Opry broadcasts; Sam was increasingly involved with farming. It was the interest of urban folk enthusiasts which revitalized his career: Mike Seeger recorded a reunited Dixieliners for Folkways in 1957, which led Sam to the folk festival circuit for much of the remainder of his life. If the 78 collectors were eager to hear the first important recorded country fingerstyle guitarist (John Fahey cites McGee as an early hero) pick one of the instrumentals from his legendary 1926 Vocalion session such as Buck Dancer’s Choice, McGee was himself no less eager to disprove the ‘old dog/new tricks’ adage. “Modern songs such as Wheels Sam stylized by deliberately injecting archaisms,” writes Charles K. Wolfe (Tennessee Traditional Singers: Tom Ashley, Sam McGee, Bukka White, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1981). “Wheels was normally played by modern guitarists with a sharp, electric pizzicato effect, but Sam played it with a smooth, open flowing sound, full of long, sinewy runs typical of his classic style. By putting the burden of tradition on form rather than content, Sam found an ideal way to survive commercially and yet maintain some artistic integrity.” McGee died in 1975 subsequent to a farming accident. He offered an epitaph of sorts in 1973 when he reflected: “I’ve got plenty of good friends, some good land, got three good sons and good grandchildren; I guess maybe my music helped with some of that.” Sam McGee can also be seen performing on Vestapol Video 13004, Legends of Traditional Fingerstyle Guitar.
CLINT HOWARD & FRED PRICEDiscovered as accompanists to Clarence Ashley in 1960, this trio toured with the rediscovered Ashley in 1961 and subsequently without the older man. Fiddler Fred Price was born in 1915 in Ashley’s hometown, Shouns, Tennessee, and as an adult worked a farm adjacent to that of his younger musical partner, singer-guitarist Clint Howard. Price, who died in 1987, was a master of fluid, economic bowing as witnessed by his spirited rendition of the G.B. Grayson classic, Lee Highway Blues. This trio shows its familiarity with the foursquare Photo by Dave Gahr harmony of the shape note hymnal in Daniel Prayed. In 1926, Uncle Dave Macon, accompanied by Sam McGee, had recorded the blueprint for Way Downtown as Late Last Night When My Willie Came Home. Doc is said to have heard Macon perform the song on the Opry but to have learned the verses of his version from a cousin, Dudley Watson. North Carolina’s Doc Watson was embarking on a remarkable career when he performed with Price and Howard.
PETE STEELEPete Steele had spent 18 years as a miner in Kentucky’s Harlan County before being recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in the late 1930s. Pay Day at Coal Creek and Coal Creek March were vestiges of turn-of-the-century music commemorating labor strife in the Tennessee coal fields of the 1890s. Writing in The Incompleat Folksinger (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1972), Pete Seeger called Coal Creek March a “ famous banjo solo around the turn of the century. It has been superlatively performed by Pete Steele, carpenter, of Hamilton, Ohio. His version is a folk fragment.” Seeger recorded a version of it in his celebrated Goofing Off Suite, and the tune became associated with him. “...when someone writes that they like the way I play Coal Creek March,” Seeger commented, “I write them and suggest that they listen to a man who really knows how to play it: Pete Steele of Hamilton, Ohio. He recorded it for the Library of Congress over 30 years ago, and I can’t imagine it ever being done better by any musician on earth.” Steele, who recorded an album for Folkways in 1958, is remembered by folklorist Ed Kahn as “one of the most important old time banjo players...Pete Seeger was heavily influenced by him.” Steele is joined by his wife Lily in singing Galilee.
SUMNER, YOUNG & HOLCOMBDespite the vehement objections of the pious, social dancing has been part of American life since pre-Revolutionary War days. We have come in recent years to separate the repertoire of old time music—the fiddle music especially— from its dance context at peril of wrenching it from its essential reason for being. All the more reason to treasure the glimpse George Pickow’s 1960s film footage offers of such music at a traditional square dance.
Given the Anglo-Celtic background of most of the Southerners who cultivated the square dance, it’s surprising to learn that the dance form itself has French roots. “The French cotillion, a dance for four couples arranged in a square, evolved into the American square dance,” asserts David Reiner and Peter Anick (“Old-Time Fiddling Across America,” Fiddler Magazine, Summer 1994). There were also round dances such as the waltz, schottische, and two-step which required a fiddler’s skill. The fiddlers themselves were often stereotyped as ‘rounders’ who would sooner drink than work, but many were actually adherents to the same tenets as the folk who disparaged dancing and the tunes played on “the devil’s box.” Sam McGee recalled that his fiddling father felt no qualms about accompanying an exhibition ‘buck dancer’ but drew the line at playing for square dances. If the pious feared such male-female mingling was little more than aerobic foreplay, a more realistic concern was the boozing and brawling that often attended square dances. Many were as genteel as the school house gathering depicted here (schools were popular venues for square dances in the South), but others were not. McGee, who often ‘seconded’ square dance fiddlers in his youth, recalled many rowdy dances which went from dusk to dawn, and at least one in which the spirited hoofing brought down the floor of a house!
Marion Sumner, who still lives and plays near Whitesburg, Kentucky, demonstrates a sophisticated swing-influenced fiddle style nicely augmented by Martin Young’s ‘sock’ chords.
(Roscoe Holcomb seems a mite out of place in such company, but then he had survived some of the Depression as fiddler’s ‘second.’) The dance caller and buck-dancing clown are one in the same, Corbett Grigsby.
TOMMY JARRELL Wh a t c o u l d b e