by Jeff Titon
Kentuckian Clyde Davenport is a master old-time fiddler and banjo player. His large repertory of traditional tunes, many of them rare, makes him an important source musician. At 85, he still plays wonderfully well. For almost twenty years old-time fiddlers and banjo players have made pilgrimages to his home in Monticello, Kentucky, to share in his music. Clyde is amused and pleased by all the attention he has received but it hasn’t seemed to change him or his music.
Believing he received old-time fiddling as a gift, Clyde feels he should give his music to other musicians and he takes heart from knowing that his repertory, particularly the rare tunes and settings he has from his father, will survive him. I visited Clyde and his vivacious wife Lorene on many occasions beginning in the spring of 1990. We spent many enjoyable hours playing music together, and I recorded and video-taped Clyde playing more than 150 solo fiddle and banjo tunes. All are on deposit in the Appalachian Center Sound Archive at Berea College.
Clyde Davenport was born on Oct. 21, 1921 to William Francis Davenport (b. 1876) and Lucy (Boston) Davenport. He was raised on their 250-acre mountain farm near Mt. Pisgah, in Wayne County, in south-central Kentucky, on the Cumberland Plateau, near the Tennessee line. There was music in the family. Clyde remembers his grandfather, Francis Marion Davenport, in his 90s asking for his fiddle. Clyde’s father Will, a thrifty farmer, who played fiddle and clawhammer-style banjo at home for his own amusement, as a teenager learned most of his fiddle tunes from neighbors, old men born well before the Civil War, and from one in particular named Will Phipps. “You’d have to beg him to play the banjo,” Clyde said of his father, “but he’d pick up the fiddle without being asked.”
Aged nine, Clyde built a fiddle-like instrument from a white-oak shingle and a bow from a dogwood branch and a mule’s tail. At eleven he built a fretless banjo out of an iron band from a wagon wheel, a hickory hoop and neck, and a groundhog hide. He built his first real fiddle as a teenager and swapped it for an army saddle. He acquired a reputation as someone who could repair fiddles and make them sound better. He has built a number of fiddles as well, and in the 1970s operated a fiddle repair shop in Monticello.
Clyde never “learned” to play the fiddle; he just picked it up and, with his father’s tunes in his head, immediately started playing. He said he did have to “fool with a banjo just a little bit” before he could play it. Although neither his father nor anyone else ever showed him how to play, he was a careful observer and he paid close attention to getting a smooth and mellow fiddle sound, and to playing in tune.
Starting in his mid-teens, Clyde played for dances in the Mt. Pisgah region, traveling to play in homes for square dances every Saturday night. Often he went with one of his brothers and, because none of them played banjo, the job of banjo-playing fell to him. Clyde remained on his parents’ farm until he was drafted into the infantry during World War II. Like a disproportionate number of young men from Appalachia, he saw plenty of front-line combat. He emerged uninjured at the age of 24 and returned to his parents’ farm. A few years later he went north, to work in a Chrysler automobile factory in Newcastle, Indiana, stamping numbers on shock absorber covers. He began playing the fiddle daily on a 15-minute country-music radio show in nearby Muncie but decided against a musical career. It didn’t seem like work. “I wouldn’t never have had to work no more, but I wanted to work. I was stout and able to work, then. Well, I was raised to work. Worked ever since I was big enough to pick up a hoe. Love to work. I had a brother’d work day and night if he could get to it. It was all of us wanted to work all the time, and me too.”
Clyde stopped playing fiddle and banjo altogether for fifteen years. If he’d continued playing professionally, he would likely have become a bluegrass fiddler or Nashville session musician and set aside his older repertoire. In 1950 Clyde married Lorene Gregory and in 1957 they moved back to Wayne County and bought a farm, growing corn and tobacco and raising cattle. Later they moved to the county seat, Monticello. In the mid-1970s folklorist Charles Wolfe produced two albums in which Clyde returned to music and played banjo behind the fiddling of W. L. Gregory: Davis Unlimited 33014 (Monticello) and 33028 (Homemade Stuff). Later in the 1970s folklorist Bob Fulcher, a banjo player, began visiting Clyde, recording him extensively, and traveling with him to festivals. More of Fulcher’s recordings of Clyde are available on County 788, Clydeoscope, and on an anthology of music from the Cumberland Plateau, County 786, Gettin’ Up the Stairs.
Perhaps the most valuable pieces in Clyde’’s repertory are those he overheard from his father Will and other local fiddlers and banjo players when he was a young boy. Some of these, such as “Iowa Center,” appear to survive only in the versions Clyde plays. Many are in standard tuning, in the key of G. Also in his repertory are many regional tunes, as well as unusually fine versions of more widespread tunes, as played in the Cumberland Plateau region. Some of these came indirectly from African American fiddlers: Clyde’’s settings of “Liza Jane,” “Sally Goodin,” and “Little Boy, Where’’d You Get Your Britches” show a strong black influence. Others he got directly from banjo player Dick Burnett and fiddler Leonard Rutherford, Monticello residents who had made recordings in the 1920s and were considered the best in the county. Clyde heard them in person, often in front of the county courthouse. Clyde admired Rutherford’s smooth bowing and clear noting and patterned his tone after him. A third part of his repertory consists of tunes Clyde picked up from records and radio. These include popular songs, waltzes, well-known breakdowns, religious pieces, and bluegrass tunes. Fourth, Clyde plays some old-time tunes he heard from people who visited him in recent years. But unless the tune was one his father played, Clyde seldom can identify the source. “It’s no use to ask me where they came from,” he says. Clyde also sings a few ballads such as “The Soldier and the Lady” and “Omie Wise.” More of his father’s tunes, particularly on the banjo, have come into his memory recently, and he has composed a few, two of which are on this album.
Clyde plays most of his fiddle tunes in standard tunings, particularly in the key of G. “The old-timers all played mostly in G,” he said. “Cross key” is Clyde’s next most common fiddle tuning, which he achieves by lowering his two high strings from e to d and from a to g, obtaining GDdg. (Most old-time fiddlers achieve the same result by tuning up the two low strings, obtaining AEae.) Like most banjo players, Clyde employs several different tunings to bring out the melody on the upper strings. Banjo tunings are given here as Clyde thinks of them; the actual pitch is sometimes a half or full tone higher.
Here is some information about tunings, keys and general facts of the tunes that appear on the two volume set FRC103 and FRC104, along with others from Jeff Titon’s recordings of Clyde that appear on cassettes available at Berea College in Kentucky.
- Jenny in the Cotton Patch. Fiddle: GDgd, key of G. Learned from his father, this mixolydian-flavored tune represents an archaic way of playing using drones, double stops, and the full resonant sound of the fiddle, all facilitated by the “cross key” tuning.
- Sugar in My Coffee-O. Vocal and fiddle: standard, key of G. Clyde’s setting of this play-party/minstrel piece has a great deal of syncopation. The lyrics suggest a mix of British and African American origin.
- Blackfoot. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A tune Clyde learned from his father. “A good dance tune, ain’t it?” he said.
- Puncheon Camps. Banjo: aDADE, key of D. Clyde’s father played a fiddle version of this tune, which has some variants locally. Virgil Anderson knows it as “Cold Nights a-Comin’.” Clyde’s “quadruplet” figure is a drop-thumb followed by a pull-off.
- Liza Jane. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A well-known minstrel tune, Clyde’s version is subtle and rhythmically complex.
- Cora Allen. Banjo: aDADE, key of D. Instrumental version of an old, regionally known song related to “Darling Corey” and “Little Maggie.” In another recording Clyde sang: “Here’s your ring, Cora Allen; Wear it on your lily-white hand; I’d rather see you dead and in your coffin than to see you with another man.” Clyde Troxell sings and plays a version (“Cora Ellen”) on Marimac 9025, Troxsong.
- Peas in the Pot. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A tune Clyde learned from his father. “Peas in the pot, hoecake a-bakin’; step girls step, the day’s a breakin,’” says Clyde. “Yeah, it’s a song. You know, most of them old fiddle tunes got words to them? Of course, we don’t know them now. We just play them. But the old people knowed them, knowed the songs.”
- Sally Goodin. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A recognizable but unusual version of a common fiddle tune usually played in the key of A, this is a masterful construction of syncopation that displaces the keynote G (usually combined with B) onto various beats in successive measures. Clyde also plays a contest-styled version, in A, with many set variations. The G version is much older, Clyde believes.
- Prettiest Little Gal in the County-o. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A tune that has been collected throughout the upland South and midwest. “I misspoke the title,” Clyde said. “It’s ‘County-o,’ not ‘Country-o.’”
- Peckerwood. Fiddle: GDgd, key of G. Clyde’s version of a song popular in the Cumberland Plateau region. “I’ve been playing that since I was a boy. I heard my daddy play it.”
- Shortnin’ Bread. Banjo: fFGCD, key of F. A lovely and unusual version of this well-known minstrel tune, and a lovely F banjo tuning which Clyde learned from his father. “I never did hear nobody else play in that tuning.”
- Ladies in the Ballroom. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A regional variant of the better known “Waynesboro.” Shell Coffey, born 1895, learned it from an older African American fiddler, Bled Coffey, who came to Wayne Co. from Virginia before the Civil War.
- Bowling Green. Vocal and banjo: gDGBD, key of G. Apparently not related to the common tune of this title, this was recorded in 1977 by Bob Fulcher.
- Little Boy, Where’d You Get Your Britches. Fiddle: standard, key of G. A tune Clyde learned from his father. “Little boy, little boy, where’d you get your britches? Daddy cut ‘em out, and mammy sewed the stitches.” Similar to “Old Beech Leaves” collected by Bruce Greene.
- Lazy John. Vocal and fiddle: standard, key of G. “I heard this once on the radio and learned it.” He may have heard the recording by Johnnie Lee Wills.
- Sally in the Garden. Fiddle: GDgd, key of G. This tune and many relatives have been collected throughout the upland South. “Sally in the garden, sifting sand; Sal’s upstairs with the hog-eyed man.”
- The Old Cow Died in the Forks of the Branch. Banjo: gDGBD, key of G. From Clyde’s father who played it in this exquisite, two-finger, up-picking style.
- Iowa Center. Fiddle: standard, key of G. One of his father’s old, rare “listening” (rather than dance) tunes, some of its swooping cadences resemble “The Lost Girl.”
- Cornstalk Fiddle and a Shoestring Bow. Vocal and fiddle: standard, key of G. “That was one of my daddy’s tunes. Never did hear nobody else play it.” It is similar to “Open the Gate and Walk on Through,” which Clyde plays. The high part is like “The Grapevine Twist,” a minstrel tune printed in 19th-century collections.
- Paddy on the Turnpike. Banjo: gDGBD, key of G. Clyde’s version of this well-known tune of Irish descent.
- Johnny Come Along. Fiddle: standard, key of G. The high part of the tune is related to “Davy Dugger,” a tune Clyde also plays, common through-out the upland South.
- Billy in the Lowground. Fiddle: standard, key of C. “That was always my favorite tune,” Clyde said. He patterned his version of this very widespread tune after Leonard Rutherford’s.
- Black-eyed Susie. Banjo: aDADE, key of D. A well-known breakdown, learned from his father.
- Smokey Hornpipe. Fiddle: standard, key of D. This and the more common Fisher’s and Marmaduke’s are among the few hornpipes in Clyde’s repertoire. The first part is similar to “Rachel” or “Texas Quickstep.”
- Sandy Land. Fiddle: GDgd, key of G. “Big sweet taters in sandy land; sift this meal and save the bran.” Another highly-syncopated setting of a well-known tune in a family that includes “Sally Ann,” “Sail Away Ladies,” and several others.