Robert Lee “Strawberry” McCloud – Bloomington Breakdown – FRC749
Below is the text of an article that appeared in the Bloomington, Indiana, newspaper, the Herald-Telephone (now Herald-Times), based on an interview with Strawberry McCloud. It appeared probably in late 1977 or 1978, given that Strawberry was born November 11, 1907, and the article gives his age as 70. We can’t vouch for total accuracy, but much of it agrees with information in “Strawberry’s Folk Festival Autobiography” (included in the FRC749 online file) that Strawberry provided around this same time to Kent State Folk Festival organizers when they hired him as a performer (in Kent, Ohio, February 1978).
As we discuss in our introduction to “Strawberry’s Folk Festival Autobiography,” it’s likely that his account of meeting the Skillet Lickers and being part of that band in the late 1920s is a case of resumé enhancement. However, given his detailed memories, we find his friendship with Doc Roberts and experience of playing bass fiddle with the Georgia Wildcats in the early 1930s to be credible.
Also, whereas the article quotes Strawberry as saying he won fiddle contests at West Virginia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania locations, to our best knowledge the events he mentions were not contests but folk festivals where he performed: Augusta Heritage Workshop, Elkins, West Virginia; Indiana Fiddlers Gathering, Battle Ground; and New Harmony (Indiana) Festival of Traditional Music. The Brandywine, Pennsylvania, event also was a festival; as far as we know he did not perform there but may have attended. According to recent interviews with Strawberry’s two surviving children, he did win many fiddle contests in the south central Indiana area.
Other apparent errors in the article are: He was born not in Logan County, Kentucky, but Bourbon County; the reference to “Fayette” probably should be “Fayette County;” the crane accident probably occurred in 1936 (not 1939), before his move to southern Indiana; the tune listed as “Marcy Camel” is actually “Martha Campbell.”
“Once a Skillet Licker, now an art perpetuator
Strawberry McCloud—fiddlin’ and fishin’”
By Tom Ritchie, H-T Staff Writer
…McCloud is a local fiddle player who played with the Skillet Lickers during the early 30’s, and continues to ply his avocation whenever he can around Bloomington….
During the weekend and in an evening, visitors usually interrupt a jam session with friends or a lesson taught by Strawberry to younger musicians as the art perpetuates itself….
“I’ve made a lot of friends through music and we get together and have a good time.”
Fiddlin’ was Strawberry’s chosen profession. During the late 20’s and early 30’s he toured with some of the early “old-fashioned hillbilly music” bands lead by Clat McMichen and Gib Tanner. A long-time friend of the famous fiddler “Doc” Roberts, Strawberry is a self-taught musician, learning and teaching whenever the opportunity came along.
When Tanner turned his style to more popular music and became too “classy,” Strawberry opted for construction work as a heavy machine operator. Music became an avocation—a hobby that keeps Strawberry 70 years young.
Born in Logan Co., Ky, Strawberry spent his childhood years helping his father oversee a 900-acre tobacco farm. His two older brothers played fiddle and the younger McCloud was attracted to the sound…
McCloud’s music career began at eight.
He soon found himself a member of the family band. The group played for square dances, weddings and other local events in and around Fayette, Ky. At 17, he left the family band, and Ky, to pursue a professional career. After spending half a day in Nashville, TN, searching for the Grand Olde Opry building, he found it by an unusual quirk of fate.
“I met Gib Tanner, Clat McMichen, Bert Lane, and Riley Puckett coming up the street. Tanner stopped me and seen me carrying a fiddle, he said, ‘Buddy, you play the fiddle?’
I said, ‘Well, I try to.’
He said, ‘How long you been playing?’
I told him I started out trying to learn when I was eight years old.
He said, ‘Well, I believe you ought to be pretty good by now. Let’s go up to the Grand Olde Opry and we’ll play a lick or two.’ ”
McCloud had been looking for the building and suddenly found himself, not only within a half block of the Opry, but also in the company of some of the leaders of the “old fashioned music” industry.
After Tanner heard him play, McCloud was offered a job with his band. He traveled with Tanner’s “Skillet Lickers” from 1927 to 1929 at a salary of $60 a week. In 1929 he joined Clat McMichen’s band [for] $65 a week. He played with McMichen until 1934. He quit because Clat was getting into “bluegrass and rock and roll and getting away from old time music.”
Shortly after he left Tanner’s band, he went to work driving heavy equipment for various construction firms. His musical career almost came to an end in 1939 while working a crane at the Fort Knox gold vault construction site. When the sling on the crane broke, the boom swung over, crashing into the cab of the crane. McCloud’s arm was smashed by the boom.
For two weeks doctors told him they would have to amputate his arm. He refused to let them, and spent the next 16 months with a cast around the broken limb. The result was that he was forced to learn to play fiddle with three fingers. With an artificial tube in his arm, the little finger of his left hand is virtually inoperative.
His long time friend, “Doc” Roberts, came to see him in the hospital and encouraged McCloud to continue with his music.
“He said, ‘I’ll learn ya some new bow action and how to slide a little in your music, and you can play just as good.’
So I took his advice and went ahead and done it. I’ve won several fiddle contests since then. I won one last year in West Virginia, and one at Battle Grounds, Ind., New Harmony, and Brandywine, Pennsylvania.”
When he came to Indiana in 1937 he won 19 fiddle contests throughout the state and there have been scores since.
“New Money and Marcy Camel are my favorite pieces. I’ve won a lot of contests with both.”