Teodar Jackson – Texas Fiddler

Teodar Jackson – African-American Fiddling from Texas – FRC728

by Dan Foster

Teodar Jackson (1903-1966) was an old-time fiddler with deep roots in Texas. He was born in Gonzales County where his family had farmed since his grandfather came there from Mississippi sometime after the Civil War. African Americans numbered roughly a third of the county’s population in the 1880s. Communities like Wesley Chapel, Monthalia and Canoe Creek were small rural sanctuaries where many young musicians came of age to the sound of old-time fiddling at dances and country suppers. By the 1940s the family had moved north to the Austin area where Mr. Jackson remained a fiddler known to all as “T-olee” and to family as “Papa-T”. Familiar dance tunes, blues and rags made up a large part of his repertoire, but in addition he played a number of set-pieces that hint at something perhaps older, otherwise lost to our ears, until his playing was recorded by Tary Owens in Austin in 1965.

Teodar Jackson 1965

Teodar Jackson 1965 (George Lyon)

Gonzales County and the surrounding area in south Texas is known to have long been home to a number of African American musicians from before the 1850s. Tommie D. Wright, a noted member of what has been described as “an enormous clan of Texas fiddlers”, learned the music from his father and grandfather, Jack Wright who was born in Gonzales County in 1845. As indicated in the book Blues Come to Texas, Jack Wright used to fiddle and call set for eight men and women all “out on the floor dancing squares”. He fiddled tunes like Sally Goodin, Old Hen Cackle, Pick the Meat Off the Devil’s Backbone, Sally in the Wildwood, Green Corn and others.

Little is known of Teodar Jackson’s early years. By 1880 census records indicate that his father, Caldwell Jackson was living with his parents Nep and Peggy Jackson in Gonzales County. Caldwell had five brothers and two sisters. His son Teodar was born September 6, 1903. By the time the Jackson family left Gonzales County, there were eight children.

By 1942, Teodar’s family was living near Round Rock, Texas. Later they moved to the St. John’s area then in northeast Austin. By 1944, they were living at 2008 Concho Street, the present site of the Red McCombs Field baseball stadium. The surrounding area had a troubled history. Fifteen years before the Jackson’s moved to there the area, anchored by a black orphanage founded in 1907, had been targeted by the City of Austin in 1928 as part of a master plan to relocate African American families from parts of Austin where many had lived in semi-autonomous “freedman” communities such as Wheatville, Clarksville, Robertson Hill, and Masontown since emancipation. The 1928 plan legally segregated a largely rural area near the site of the old orphanage across East Avenue, now Interstate-35. The city had decided as part of its plan not to provide sewer lines or paved roads to the established black communities in West Austin, forcing citizens in those communities to relocate to East Austin, a “negro district” with at least some basic city services provided. Over time, the plan largely had its desired effect. The refugees did the best they could to build a new community in the fractured, artificial district despite red-lining and continued discrimination by the City.

“It’s like they dropped us off here and forgot about us.” —Eva Lindsey

The artificial nature and difficult circumstances in the area, a well-known problem, caused it to be shunned by some long-time residents of the few remaining free communities like Clarksville who refused to be displaced. The area’s difficult circumstances resulted in chronic instability and frequent violence. The new neighborhood must have been a challenge to the Jackson family. Their roots had been in the rural area of Gonzales County about 70 miles to the south of Austin where, like other centers of rural population during and after Reconstruction, blacks were driven to the margins by legal proscriptions and tended to populate smaller, outlying satellite communities for safety and some measure of self-determination. From Shankville in deep East Texas’ Newton County to Kendleton in Fort Bend County south of Houston, or Coxes Providence near present day Rockdale, African Americans managed to build and maintain communities apart from the white power structure.

We can barely imagine what life must have been like in these islands of normalcy, or how everyday life, courtship, house-building, the rearing of children, cooking, preaching, hunting, farming or music were done.

“Saturday night Country Suppers. Sometimes they were called “country balls.” Often times, just to get to the country ball, some packed their dress-up clothes in a waterproof slicker and swam the Yegua or Brushy creeks or the San Gabriel River. When the fiddler, the guitarist, banjo and piano players struck up a sad blues tune, or jazz number, those who wanted to dance did the “barrelhouse”, Charleston, tap dance, buck dance, two-step or wopsy were popular. Music was more or less a natural for many of these musicians were self-trained and played by ear, or according to their feelings, cares and woes.”
—Miss Susie Piper, Principal of Aycock School, Rockdale, Texas

Susie Sansom Piper (1921-2019) was Principal of Aycock School in Rockdale, a devoted educator and local historian. She recounted stories about “country suppers” often held near free black communities like Coxes Providence, Griffin Chapel and others in Milam and Cameron Counties. Miss Piper’s father, Paul or Julius Moultry, was a blacksmith. He operated the oldest black-owned business in Rockdale. He and his sons were also musicians. The Moultry Brothers Orchestra played music for many years in the area, sometimes being joined by Austin piano player Roosevelt Williams, known as “Grey Ghost”. Like many others they often played Saturday night country suppers.

After World War II, Teodar is known to have been playing with Alfred “Snuff” Johnson and harmonica player Ammie Deaver around Austin. Johnson was later recorded by Tary Owens. The Eighth of January, Drunken Hiccups, and Whoa Mule are all titles familiar to old time fiddlers across the country. Other tune-names like Old Aunt Jessie or Golden Slippers share a generally familiar place in the vague lexicon of common memory. But as each of these titles and others that came to life under Teodar Jacksons’ bow are heard they impel an appreciation of something unique and not found elsewhere. Played again here, they reveal echoes from a different and all but unknown realm of expression, part of our fiddling heritage restored. Growing appreciation in the 21st century for the foundational aspect of African American fiddlers in old-time music fuels the search for understanding, but always runs up against a hard barrier in the attempt to find anything meaningful to say about how the music actually sounded.

June-teenth. Eastwoods Park, Austin, Tx 1900

June-teenth. Eastwoods Park, Austin, Tx 1900 (Austin History Center)

Noted record collector Marshall Wyatt states, “Black fiddlers, still common in the South throughout the 1920s, were not entirely ignored by the record industry, but they were sadly under-represented”. Thus one important avenue of discovery was largely and purposefully closed to us. By the 1920s the almost mythic “negro fiddler”, still integral to the notion of a richly imagined, grotesquely romantic Southern past, was even then wearing thin. Commercial interests and social prejudice in the early 20th century combined to set aside a large part of our musical heritage just at the time technology was beginning to enable the possibility of capturing something of its nature. Many of those who did know and understand the music best, with fondness and\or fatigue, were at long last able to begin thinking about making the turn toward a future in which nostalgia would have little part. The thirst for nostalgia was almost completely owned by white culture and catered to by the industry even while its primary focus shifted toward sounds at the birth of new musical forms across the board, blues, country, swing, and jazz. The beauty of old-time African-style fiddling “in the rural” went largely unnoticed as it began to disappear.

“The State Fair grounds are illuminated by over 1,000 torches, and the grounds are lighted from the north inclosure to the race track. Five hundred ladies and gentlemen are attending the dancing going on in the State Fair Pavilion, and three hundred are at the dance in the main exhibition hall, where two Negro fiddlers and one prompter are officiating.”
—Galveston Daily News 5 May, 1874.

Given the history of African people working, building, creating and living in North America from at least the mid-17th century, it is not unreasonable to fix the beginning of their deep influence on its music at a date not much later than that. In the American slave-based economy, the services yielded by bonded peoples were economically integrated at most levels of the social hierarchy. From field hands, house-servants and overseers to master carpenters and masons, decorative artists and musicians, bonded people provided for a wide range of needs their masters were unable or unwilling to supply themselves. Coerced into providing musical services, Africans soon managed to become masters of all they saw in that realm as their efforts began to largely redefine popular music in America. While accompaniment to dancing might often have originally been supplied by a single fiddler, it is natural and obvious that an ensemble of musicians would be preferable. According to Dena Epstein in her seminal work on the origins of banjo music, slaves were combining the fiddle and banjo at least as early as 1774. So we might hazard that the groundwork for much that has followed dates to a time at least contemporary with our national beginnings if not considerably earlier.

Bowed instruments like the fiddle, at least in the western tradition, are reputed to be traceable back beyond the edge of human memory to mythic times on the Indian subcontinent to an instrument known as the Ravanahatha. According to the Ramayana epic, after a war between the Hindu deity Rama and the god Ravana, one of his consorts brought the instrument to northern India after the fight was over. From there it might have spread north through Central Europe and south to Africa spawning generations of fiddlers on an endless variety of bowed instruments in all directions.

Whether the Bulgarian gadulka or the rebab favored by Arab Bedouins owe their existence to a Hindu god or not is difficult to say. But from time out of mind musicians in the savannah and forest lands of West Africa have played bowed stringed instruments. From the nyanyeru and gondze in Gambia or the goge among the Hausa people of northern Nigeria. According to ethnomusicologist Jaqueline Cogdell Djedje, the family of “bowed lutes” has long served musical and spiritual needs as well as symbolizing political authority and ethnic identity in the region. The same areas from which the slave trade drew its human resource. It is not unreasonable to suppose that many of the musicians inevitably among the bondsmen were fiddlers long before they ever saw a violin.

The fiddle arguably would have been the instrument of choice for black and white country musicians alike from the 1600s until the early decades of the 20th century. In the first settlements of Texas, “[h]ornpipes, strathspeys, jigs, and reels”, as recalled by Noah Smithwick, were the music of choice played on the violin. That old stock of tunes was an integral part of Anglo-American social life for not tens, but hundreds of years, enduring like the community dances that survived on their own terms into living memory. In the 1920s, when the first recordings were made of African-American fiddling, this venerable tradition was still alive, supporting a stock of tunes that was still the common source as it had been from the earliest times.

Printed recollections and accounts from early days provide engaging if silent testimony. An account of the early days of Louisville, Kentucky from the family papers of Alfred Pirtle (1837-1926) relates the story of:

“…a house warming party on the night of December 24, 1778. In attendance was a dancing master from France, whose attempts to instruct the youthful party in the graceful steps of the latest Parisian fashion met with little success”. It is further recounted that there was present “…a Negro named Cato… [who] had learned of the fun going on in the blockhouse and was ready when the young men hauled him upon the floor. All were soon dancing to the music he had learned away back in old Virginia, and a merrier party never welcomed the coming of a Christmas day”.

Simon Bronner in his book Old-Time Music Makers of New York State concerning the history of fiddling and dancing in New York State, mentions Alvah Belcher (ca. 1819-1900), an African-American fiddler who played for dances in Delaware County, New York, through the late nineteenth century.

William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), who lived on Long Island and was himself a fiddler, painted many musical subjects. Among them are several now iconic portraits that attest to the interplay between black and white musicians in New York during the period. Paintings like “The Bone Player” (1856) and “The Banjo Player” (1856) and “Right and Left” (1850) have attained iconic significance in our time. Intervening years saw the wholesale appropriation and transformation of the banjo by white musicians and the problematic rise of the minstrel show phenomenon. By the late 19th century two strains of African music were at the heart of the American experience: one, largely the provenance of black people, was plowing new ground from the blues to ragtime and jazz, while the other adapted and beautifully refashioned, mostly by whites, re-invented a newly imagined past that was at once real and illusory, nostalgic and inventive.

After the changes wrought by rapid industrialization, with the horrors of the First World War in its wake, the early 20th century almost inevitably entailed an intrinsic need, an irresistible longing, attraction and nostalgia for “simpler times”. This illusory disposition left white culture open to a thinly veiled proto-fascist agenda on the part of wealthy industrialists like Henry Ford, an anti-Semite who sought to exploit this vulnerability in order to preserve class position and protect the ascendancy by vilifying the new trends and instead promoting what he called “wholesome American values” among the poor and middle class whites to ward off any prospect of revolutionary change.

African American mass culture, at least in the 20th century, seems to share none of this desire to look backward and identify with “the good old days.” Perhaps that is because for us, the old days were not very good. I grew up knowing relatives whose parents had been slaves. Nostalgia for the past seems not to be a major part of Black general culture, especially musical culture. This is especially true in regard to aspects of culture that symbolize the Southern rural past, the other racial side of the past that Country music and old time music folk look to.

African American folk fiddling disappears as part of this cycle. Black fiddling was fairly popular in the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th Century when string band playing and dancing were dominant in rural Black communities. Even when the blues and its own dancing replaced the older music starting at the turning of the century, fiddles, unlike five-string banjos, tended to be included in blues bands, and to accompany solo blues artists on records. Yet, in the 1940s when blues bands went from being acoustic band to electric, with the exception of a great few, Black popular fiddling disappears.  —Tony Thomas “Why Black Folks Don’t Fiddle”

Though Henry Ford, engineer, factory owner, and inveterate racist (not known for his sense of irony) did endeavor to co-opt the values of the waning traditional culture which his own industry was setting about trying to destroy, there was in fact still both a genuine and persistent if not vibrant musical heritage at the root of his misguided fantasy.

At the turn of the 20th century crowds numbered in the tens-of-thousands at events like the Old Fiddlers Carnival in Dallas April 6-7, 1900. The Fiddlers Carnival opened with a welcome from the trumpet corps to start off a full day of competitions and entertainments, closing out with tribute to “the old negro fiddlers”.   —El Paso Herald, March 1, 1900)

Despite Ford’s best efforts in the interest of racial purity, both black and white musicians continued to grow in largely undocumented association, cobbling together the roots of hillbilly, country, rhythm & blues and rock &roll. These musical forms are hopelessly entwined at the root, deeply frustrating hide-bound purists on both sides of the racial divide up to the present day.

Uncle Homer Walker used to play a lot with white fiddlers Henry Reed, Buddy Thompson, and Harrison White. He also talked about the music he heard and played in the coal-fields of West Virginia when he worked there in the teens; there were many musicians, black and white, and many different kinds of music.   —Robert B. Winans

As Paul E. Wells observed in his work Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange,

Slave owners used skilled bondsmen as musicians from at least the mid to late 17th century. While the economic advantage of unpaid labor might be a compelling reason, still the pay for free musicians would likely not have been a prohibitive factor. It is not unreasonable to consider that the novel, if not exotic renditions of the prevailing popular repertoire by Africans made them both the logical and artistic choice. “Negro Jigs” almost certainly did not conform to the stylistic expressions of white tradition, and might in the New World have had a special appeal to Americans as they sought to differentiate themselves from an oppressive past.

African stylings and the near magical bowing patterns black musicians brought to the fiddle, driven by the compelling rhythms of the banjo, would go on to become the bedrock of a distinctly American sound. As time passed the minstrel show phenomenon arose to artificially codify in popular culture of the day the much older natural interplay between the European and African-based collaborations that set the stage for much that followed.

Across the southeast the continuing black fiddle tradition had a formative influence on white fiddlers and string bands. By the late 19th century black urban communities, with their piano-based innovations, horns and woodwinds, started to command more popular interest and overshadow the older fiddle\banjo dance music. The newer blues form exerted an irresistible influence on all southern fiddling and the commercial genres that grew out of it.

“Take my old daddy. When he’s playing the fiddle in slavery time, he wouldn’t want to play, but he had to play!”   —Sam Chatmon

Jefferson Davis “Dave” Dillingham was born 1866 in Florence (then Brooksville) Texas. He moved with his parents Bruce and Sarah to Georgetown when he was six-years old, and later a few miles up to Merrilltown, now extinct. Dave started work as a freighter with his brother Brice, driving four mules and an ox team between Austin and Brownwood, then farming and eventually working as a brakeman on the narrow gauge A&NW railroad between Austin and Granite Mountain, west of Marble Falls.

“Here a tribute must be paid to a very humble individual of Williamson County, of the Florence neighborhood…an old Negro named Wash Hubbard who could play the banjo like it was part of his body…. Dave first heard Wash Hubbard play that old banjo when he was a mere boy. On the instant he was wild to learn to play but he had no money and could not buy a banjo. Finally he found an old gourd. He stretched a piece of hide across it…and fashioned strings from a horse’s tail. He listened to old Wash on every dance occasion and it is said that at some times his nose got into the way of Wash’s banjo strings. He learned nearly all the old tunes from Wash Hubbard, like “Green Corn,” “Turkey in the Straw”, “Arkansas Traveler,” and “Buffalo Gals…”
—Jefferon Davis Dillingham as quoted by T.U. Taylor, Frontier Times May 1937

The interplay between black and white musicians, while largely undocumented, can certainly be viewed as yet another exploitative appropriation on the part of the ascendant power structure. But I would offer and feel that it is justified to hope that the relations out of which so much beautiful music has come were at times more humane, personal, genuine and ordinary, in as much as it was possible under the oppressive regime in place at the time.

“Ten miles, as the crow flies, from McDade, Pat Earhart, a noted fiddler, lived. In June 1877, a dance was scheduled at Pat Earhart’s home. It was known that the suspects would attend the dance, and the prediction was verified. The Blue Branch Guards were organized and laid their plans with deliberation and care. Pat Earhart wielded his fiddle bow part of the time, but most of the time a Negro, Steve Hawkins, did the fiddling and called the figures.”
—In and Around Old McDade, T.U. Taylor Frontier Times Vol 16-No 7 May 1939

But what did it sound like? It is possible to speak exhaustively about relatively well-documented traditions like Round Peak fiddling, Bluegrass or Cajun music, but what if, contrary to fact, no recordings existed to inform us about these? Could we conjure up anything at all meaningful about the “High Lonesome Sound” or “fais do-do” if these forms had come and gone and left no audible record? Words alone can convey almost nothing about the music itself.

The recordings of Teodar Jackson have much to teach us about the sound of African American Music in its own right, not through the lens of commercial product but on its own terms. The new music, the liberating phenomenon of the blues, might be tracked back to the crucible at Okeh, Gennett, or Victor studios, but its beginnings are more likely to have been found somewhere deep in the lost memory of country suppers in or near countless small, hidden, rural fortress communities. What was that music like?

Assumptions about what it might have sounded like are crosscut by the effects of location, time, place, and circumstance. There was African American fiddling in the Cumberland Plateau, the Missouri Ozarks, even Manhattan Island. Field recordings of noted fiddlers like Cuje Bertram in Kentucky or Bill Driver in Missouri are radically divergent examples of what we might expect to find. Sid Hemphill, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942 and again in 1959 in Mississippi, Belton Sutherland & Clyde Maxwell, John Bishop, and Worth Long at Maxwell’s farm in Madison County, Mississippi. All provide a chance to listen back to the lost sound at the heart of the music that got us here. But how did the music sound in Texas?

‘Couldn’t put the saddle on’ –Sam Chatmon

In a previous issue for the Field Recorders Collective (fieldrecorder.org), I helped to document and publish the 1941 recordings of P. T. Bell, an early white settler and fiddler from Carrizo Springs, Texas who was recorded at the age of 76. Mr. Bell was a second generation Texan born in 1869. Characteristic of many southern whites, his family had emigrated from England in the 1600s, and followed the wave of migration into Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama before coming to Texas. Mr. Bell was an old-time fiddler who learned from his father. Even after the advent of electricity, radio, and telecommunications, Mr. Bell maintained his skeptical derision with respect to these as impertinent annoyances which he adamantly chose to do without. Still to our ears his rendition of the tune “Ladies Fancy” is undeniably Scottish in both execution and effect. Yet, Mr. Bell had doubtless not been within 200 years of hearing any representation of fiddle styles from that distant, foreign country! How generational transmission alone was able to bring to modern ears evidence of this deep, fundamental connectedness that is both apparent and certain is almost inexplicable, at least in terms we can understand.

“There used to be some mighty good musicians among the old setters, but that is something like the old setters themselves, they are but few left.” —Peter Bell

Similarly, I would suggest that there is a remarkable affinity between the fiddling of James “Butch” Cage (1894–1975), from Mississippi, and that of Teodar Jackson, whose grandfather had come from Mississippi in the middle of the 19th century. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that both, though widely removed from one another in space and time, may share somewhat in a common regional style and possibly repertoire. There is no way to be sure, but Teodar Jackson’s rendition of Whoa Mule included in the selections on this album is distinct from the other commonly heard “Mule” tunes popular among old-time fiddlers across the South. There are countless variations on Whoa Mule Whoa, Johnson’s Old Grey Mule, and Flop-Eared Mule, none of which appear musically related to Mr. Jackson’s version of the tune. Among the similar versions I have been able to identify are those of Butch Cage and another fiddled by Bill Chitwood with the Georgia Yellow Hammers on a 1924 recording for the Brunswick label.

On August 9, 1927, in the Hotel Charlotte, 237 West Trade St., Charlotte, NC, The Georgia Yellow Hammers, consisting of Phil Reeve (guitar), Clyde Evans (guitar), Charles Ernest Moody (banjo/ukulele), Bud Landress (vocal introduction), and Andrew Baxter (fiddle) recorded G Rag. It is thought that Andrew Baxter took over the fiddling on that side so that Landress could perform the spoken introduction to the tune. As such, that recording is likely one of the earliest racially integrated recordings of southern string-band musicians. C. P. “Phil” Reeve, who was born in 1896, also came to be business manager of both the Georgia Yellow Hammers and the African American father-son duo, Andrew and Jim Baxter, who made five or six discs for Victor, 1927-1930. Might Baxter have provided Chitwood with the distinctive version of Whoa Mule the Yellow Hammers recorded?

The versions of the tune Whoa Mule as played by Teodar Jackson, Butch Cage, and the Georgia Yellow Hammers each seem to be musically related to the tune Whoa Mule, Couldn’t Put the Saddle On as recalled by Sam Chatmon who, along with his brothers Lonnie Chatmon and Bo Carter, was a member of the much loved Mississippi Sheiks. The fact that each instance of that tune seems to have some contextual connection to African American tradition, could hint at the possibility of evidence for a trans-regional repertoire shared among black musicians.

Elijah Cox

Elijah Cox (True West Historical Society)

Remarkably, a version of Whoa Mule was also played by Texas fiddler, Elijah Cox (1842-1941), who was recorded by John Lomax in San Angelo at the age of 93 for the Library of Congress (AFS-547-A2). His parents, Jim and Kizzie Cox had lived in bondage near Memphis, Tennessee, but managed to escape to Quebec, Canada where Elijah was born in 1842. His early years were most likely spent in Michigan, a free state. Sometime after his military service with the 6th Illinois Cavalry he came to Texas and served on the Texas Frontier in the 25th Infantry starting in 1870. And that was just the beginning of his adventures! Mr. Cox was perhaps the oldest fiddle player ever recorded, black or white. The recording of his Whoa Mule bears hallmarks shared by Teodar Jackson’s version. As noted by Stephen Wade, the tune may echo Old Joe as played by Frank Patterson (fiddle) and Nathan Frazier (banjo), who were recorded at Nashville, Tennessee in 1942. (AFS-06679-B02).

Interestingly, there are recognizable similarities that tie this version of the tune to a Whoa Mule presently played in the modern Texas-Style fiddle tradition and associated with fiddlers like Major Franklin, Garland Gainer, Terry Morris and others!

“Not too fast.” –Teodar Jackson

Robert Shaw grew up on a 200-acre farm near Stafford, Texas. His parents, Jesse and Hettie Shaw provided for their family by raising cattle and hogs. They managed well. Their house had a Steinway grand piano, on which Robert’s sister practiced her lessons. Denied by his father, Robert nonetheless managed to “catch the musical strains” by crawling under the house during his sister’s lessons. Despite his father’s opposition, he was determined to become a musician and did so, with singular determination.

By the 1920s, he was a respected member of the itinerant sect of barrelhouse piano players who played the “Santa Fe Circuit”, named after the trains they hopped to make their gigs across East Texas, playing cotton picks, lumber camps, “chock houses” and bars as far distant as Chicago, Illinois. Shaw eventually settled down, married and ran a grocery store called the Stop and Swap on Austin’s east side. He was named Black Businessman of 1962 by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

In 1965, Tary Owens was a student at the University of Texas. As part of his study under the renowned folklorist, Américo Paredes, Tary sought out Robert Shaw and helped to reintroduce Austin to his wonderful playing. It was Shaw who led Owens to record Teodar Jackson, accompanied by his son T. J. Jackson on guitar. In Teodar Jackson’s fiddling we have our best chance to listen back across time to the music of distant generations, to hear some of the signal concepts at the core of country fiddling, black and white, here in Texas.

Old sow’d whistle and the little pig’d dance
I’m gonna help, me and a ol’ tin pan
Yellow-gal-yellow-gal git up in the cool.
—Teodar Jackson

The fiddling of Teodar Jackson arguably includes some aboriginal versions of widely known early blues. Well known songs like See-See Rider and Hesitation Blues as well as less often encountered Texas songs like Jack O’Diamonds, Alley Blues, West Texas Blues and Blood Red Rose. His repertoire also included rags like Silver Spoons and fiddle tunes like The Chicken Reel and Drunken Hiccups. But in addition there are a few that are less readily classifiable, at least in modern terms. To hear Teodar and TJ play Old Aunt Jessie Get Up In the Cool is to really encounter something, perhaps for the first time. Free rein is given to Mr. Jackson with the fiddle moving through several charming parts unrestrained by rote periodicity while TJ holds the guitar to a steady gallop. The Rabbit (or Poor Rabbit) and Whoa Mule are similar, freely linear in structure. No “course part and fine part” in these tunes. It might be imagined that they harken back to an older, less restrained approach to the music, one that arguably could be seen as having something deeply in common with formal structures and improvisational techniques that can still be heard today in some traditional African music.

The beauty of this African-style fiddling from what Miss Suzie Piper had called “the rural” went largely unnoticed as it began to disappear even before the early years of the 20th century. The vitality of the old sound persisted, but only in corners. We may well hear echoes of the old dance tunes in some of the few commercial recordings of artists like Jim Booker who cut sides with Taylors’ Kentucky Boys, or Bill Broonzy who grew up fiddling in Arkansas. What of field recordings of noted musicians, Frank Patterson and John Lusk of Tennessee, or Butch Cage of Mississippi? All provide valuable insight, but none of these musicians were from Texas. With the exceptions of cowboy fiddler Jess Morris of Bartlett or Coley Jones’ Dallas Sting Band, there are almost no recorded examples of early African American fiddling from the state where the fiddle is supposed to be as iconic as the Lone Star itself. These recordings of Teodar Jackson then may provide our best chance to claim any real insight into the early sound of old-time African American fiddling in the Southwest.

“One of the largest and finest arrays of Texas folk and blues talent will be presented here Sunday in the form of a benefit concert for ailing Austin blues fiddler TEODAR JACKSON.”   —Jim Langdon’s Nightbeat, Austin American Statesman, March 9, 1966

Coming out of retirement in 1965, Mr. Jackson was embraced by the young crowd at the heart of the nascent Austin music scene in the mid-1960s. Like his friend the Navasota songster Mance Lipscomb, he was idolized playing for many rapt, if largely white, audiences in venues like the Id Coffee House, where he was recorded by George Lyon. He and his son, TJ, were featured at the KHFI-FM Summer Music Festival in Zilker Park. According to Jim Langdon’s Nightbeat column in Austin American Statesman in 1966, Mr. Jackson was expected to be featured in the upcoming Newport Folk Festival up in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, a heart attack would intervene and send him off for a stay in the hospital instead. But for that lamentable setback, Teodar Jackson might now be as well known among folk music fans today as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, or Bukka White

Tary Owens recording Robert Shaw 1965

Tary Owens recording Robert Shaw 1965
(Austin American Statesman)

Mr. Jackson’s condition began to worsen and on March 12, 1966 the community came together for a benefit concert. The event was well publicized and reportedly a resounding success. It was standing room only at the Methodist Student Center when many now familiar performers took the stage for Mr. Jackson’s benefit:

Janis Joplin was there to take the stage just before leaving to join the new band Big Brother and the Holding Company in San Francisco. Mr. Jackson’s old friend Mance Lipscomb shared the stage with the 13th Floor Elevators, John Clay, Bill Neely, Kenneth Threadgill, Johnny Moyer, Powell St. John, Allen Dameron, Lanny Wiggins and others. —Jim Langdon, Nightbeat

Janis Joplin started off with three songs: Going to Brownsville, I Ain’t Got to Worry, and Buffy St. Marie’s version of Cod’ine. She also sang Turtle Blues, an original that she admitted was “semi-autobiographical”, according to Jim Langdon. She then joined the 13th Floor Elevators and sang backup vocals for a set. Janis had played a previous Teodar Jackson benefit at The Eleventh Door in Austin, on March 5-6, 1966. The 13th Floor Elevators also played this event. The benefit shows for Teodar Jackson were formative events in the early Austin music scene. Arguably it was also, thanks to an over-head projector, Pyrex pie plate, vegetable oil and several bottles of liquid food-coloring, the very first occurrence of a psychedelic light show in human history.

Like the P. T. Bell recordings that similarly provide a singular example of Scots-Irish fiddling in Texas, the tapes of Teodar Jackson thankfully have been preserved here and made widely available by the Field Recorders Collective. These recordings present for perhaps the first time an opportunity for the general public to listen back across time and space to hear echoes of the actual music about which much has been conjectured but almost nothing really known: the sound of African Texas fiddling from, as Miss Suzie called it, “the rural”.

***

Acknowledgements:
John Wheat, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin Texas
Carment Kiara, Carment Kiara Youth Organization
Joe Dobbs, University of Texas Libraries
Maryann Price, Musicia
George Lyons, Mount Royal College in Calgar
Christy Foster, Musician
Gary Lee Moore, Musician
Leo Sullivan, Producer, Sage
Robert Sacré, Charley Patton: Voice of the Mississippi Delta, University Press of Mississippi, 2018
Charles K. Wolfe, “The Georgia Yellow Hammers” in Classic Country: Legends of Country Music New York: Routledge, 2001.
Stefan Wirtz’ American Music, http://www.wirz.de/music/america.htm
Alan B. Govenar(editor), The Blues Come to Texas: Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s Unfinished Book, Texas A&M University Press, 201
Sharon Hill , The Empty Stairs: The Lost History of East Austin
Bonnie Tipton Wilson , Intersections: New Perspectives in Texas Public History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Texas State University , Spring 2012).
Robert Winnans, “The Black Banjo-Playing Tradition in Virginia and West Virginia”, Journal of the Virginia Folklore Society 1(1979)
Susie Sansom-Piper, On the Other Side of the Tracks, SERIES: Saturday Nights Back in the Day, Rockdale Reporter – February 3, 2011, Interview 2014 Milam County Historical Commission
Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records, http://www.oldhatrecords.com
Dana J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War,. University of Illinois Press, (1977, reissued 2003),
Tony Thomas, Why Black Folks Don’t Fiddle, http://bluegrasswest.com/ideas/why_black.htm
Paul F. Wells, Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange,
Black Music Research Journal Vol. 23, No. 1/2 (Spring – Autumn, 2003), pp. 135-147
Stephen Wade, The Beautiful Music All Around Us -Field Recordings and the American Experience, University of Illinois Press, 2012
Michelle M. Mears, And Grace Will Lead Me Home – African American Freedmen Communities of Austin Texas 1865-1928, Texas Tech University Press 2009
Jaqueline Gogdell Djedje – Fiddling in West Africa, Indiana University Press, 2008
The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle, Journal of the Society for American Music, Cambridge University Press, 2016
Noah Smithwick, Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days, University of Texas Press, 1983
Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall, Beale Black and Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Murray Montgomery, Texas Escapes Online Magazine, http://www.texasescapes.com
Weenie Campbell, http://weeniecampbell.com
Newspapers.com
Austin American Statesman
TheTexas60sMusicRefuge http://group.yahoo.com
TheGhetto (texasghetto.org)
PragueFrank’s Country Discography, http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.com
New Georgia Encyclopedia
True West Historical Society

Web Links and Videos for Jim Shumate

Jim Shumate: Pioneering Bluegrass Fiddler – FRC727

Jim Shumate

by Wayne Erbsen (photos courtesy of John Miller)

Jim Shumate: Pioneering Bluegrass Fiddler – FRC727

To die-hard fans of bluegrass music the name Jim Shumate is practically a household word. After all, he played with Bill Monroe in the mid 1940s and was the first fiddler for Flatt and Scruggs when they formed their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. The three tracks he Continue reading

Vernon Spencer & the Spencer Family of Big Springs, KS

Vernon Spencer of Big Springs, Kansas – FRC726

by Tricia Spencer

Vernon Douglas Spencer was born September 22, 1921, on the family farm in Big Springs, Kansas. He was the baby of 11 children born to his parents Harley and Cora and around the age of 4 or 5, he asked his daddy for a fiddle. He was given a fiddle and Vernon taught himself how to play learning tunes and songs that were popular on the radio as well as tunes that his daddy played on the harmonica. Music was a large part of Vernon’s life from an early age. Living off the land, hunting, and music were done daily. Vernon’s grandaddy left Louisville, KY, at the age of 15, and it was this generation that bought land in Big Springs and brought along a part of Kentucky with them.

Vern and Rod

Vernon Spencer was my grandpa. When I was about 5, my grandparents gave my dad 5 acres on the back side of their property. There were a couple of fields, ponds, and pastures between our houses. When I was about 9, I saved up enough money from fiddle contests to purchase myself a pony. On the weekends, my favorite thing to do was pack a lunch, hop on my pony, and ride to my grandparents’ home. While there, I would just join in what my grandparents were doing. Sometimes it was target shooting, playing cards, and often making music. I still have fond memories from when I was quite young falling asleep while they were still playing tunes or songs.

About a half-mile up the graveled road into the main strip of Big Springs was my grandpa’s gas station, Spencer’s Skelly. He would be there daily, sitting on his chair fiddling until someone pulled up for gas. He would hang his fiddle up and saunter out to pump gas. Most of the businesses left Big Springs long before I was born, so the gas station was really the only place to meet folks and get groceries that didn’t require a half-hour drive for locals. In the gas station there was a large meat case roughly 6 feet long which held mainly a big block of cheese and bologna. I can’t remember when it broke down and quit working, I might have been about 10. Instead of hauling out the meat case, he started putting fiddles in there that he accumulated from a friend who went to auctions. Each day, the bus dropped me at the gas station after school and I would immediately go to the meat case to retrieve one of the playable fiddles. Between customers, he would teach me tunes or back me up on the tunes I was working on. When my grandpa passed away, he had over 80 fiddles.

My grandma, Iona Spencer, told me that Grandpa loved fiddling. The first night they met, he played “Missouri Waltz” for her. She was smitten with him. He was with her as well, but he told her that if she wanted to marry him, she would have to learn how to play guitar. She went out and purchased a $5 guitar at a pawn shop and learned how to back him up. They were married in 1946 and that year, he took her out and bought a better guitar for $38 at a pawn shop. That guitar hangs on my wall and I and my children still play it.

Vernon & Iona Spencer’s wedding, 2/10/46

My grandparents were poor. Grandma talks about how they had almost nothing when they started out. My great-grandparents allowed grandpa to build a one-room shack near the main house on their property. They salvaged wood, cabinets, and other items from places being torn down nearby and added to the one room shack. Their house became a series of rooms that were added as they had children. The property was to be Grandpa and Grandma’s if they stayed and took care of his aging parents. I remember my grandma taking care of my great-grandpa Harley in their home for his final days.

Grandpa was a farmer and did some trucking for one of his brothers. I know most of my grandpa’s siblings made music. Great uncle Lloyd, Grandpa’s brother, enjoyed singing and playing guitar with Grandpa. We have some 78s that the family made back in the ’50s. I have never heard them as they are in poor condition, but I like looking at them and the titles. One that makes me chuckle is labeled “Goldon Slippers.” My dad, Rod Spencer, says that when he was young, he loved sitting around listening to his dad and uncle make music, his dad on fiddle or mandolin and his uncle Lloyd on guitar. Dad says they sang so well together and often had gigs in the community.

Uncle Lloyd early1940s

Uncle Lloyd early1940s

During the Vietnam War, Dad was in the Navy, and once he left home, he taught himself all of Grandpa’s fiddle tunes on the mandolin as well as teaching himself to play 3-finger banjo. Some of the reel-to-reel recordings were of my grandparents sending music and stories to my dad while he was stationed away. Once he came home, he and my mom, Pat Payne, started learning my grandparents’ repertoire as well as adding new material. Grandpa purchased the Skelly gas station there in Big Springs about the same time Dad came home from the Navy. Dad ran it while my parents were waiting on me to be born. Dad tells the story of how he wasn’t sure how he was going to pay for me. Grandpa told him to start fixing tires and put that money away. He did, and by the time I was born, they had enough to pay for me. After a few years, Grandpa took the gas station back over and it became my home after school.

Iona, Vern and Rod

Iona, Vern and Rod

The Spencer Family Band, Belton, MO 1981

The Spencer Family Band, Belton, MO 1981

Around the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were inspired to put together a family band. When I was born in 1971, the family band consisted of my grandpa (fiddle, mandolin, tenor guitar, and guitar), grandma (guitar and mandolin), dad (banjo, guitar, and mandolin), mom (bass), and Uncle Toad (Roger) (guitar). They played fiddle tunes and sang old favorites as well as what they liked from the radio. They never really labeled their music other than Country and Western. Also during this time, contest fiddling became important to my grandparents. Grandpa started looking for contests in neighboring states and attending them. Over the years, he developed friendships with Amos Chase (Grantville, KS), Pete McMahan (Columbia, MO), Cyril Stinnett (Fillmore, MO), Dwight Lamb (Onawa, IA), Lucy Pierce (Kansas City, KS), and other fiddlers from all over.

Vernon and Iona, Ellsworth, KS 1981

Vernon and Iona, Ellsworth, KS 1981

Rod, Tricia & Uncle Toad, Topeka, KS c1981

Rod, Tricia & Uncle Toad, Topeka, KS c1981

From the moment I was conceived, this music was in my ears. Since we lived out in the country, making music was a prominent pastime. Around the age of 3, I had asked my parents for a fiddle. Since my grandma played a little mandolin, she taught herself enough of the fiddle to get me started. My grandma’s lesson in chords was something that I remember from a young age, and even though I had no idea which chords I was playing, I now understand finger complements from her little lessons. Grandma would go on and keep learning tunes and eventually competed in several ladies divisions at contests and placed in a few of them. When I was 8, my family traveled to Graham, MO, for a fiddling contest. I had never competed and only knew “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” There were two other junior contestants, so my grandparents signed me up. I was guaranteed third place, but I needed another tune. I will never forget Grandpa taking me out behind our camper and teaching me the third tune, “Go Tell Aunt Molly.” It was the first of many tunes I would learn from him. That day, competing on the same stage as Pete McMahan, Amos Chase, Dwight Lamb… I took third place and received a trophy and 35 silver dollars. From that day on, my grandpa was my buddy and I spent as much time as I could to learn his music.

Glen Woolaway, Amos Chase, Eldon Ray, Topeka, KS c1981

Glen Woolaway, Amos Chase, Eldon Ray, Topeka, KS c1981

Around the age of 11, I beat my grandpa at a contest. He got 6th and I got 5th. He was so proud, of me and of course, I felt like I had achieved one of the greatest feats of all time. He asked our good friend who lived across the river to start teaching me tunes. His name was Amos Chase. Once a week, my dad would drive me to Grantville, Kansas, and I would spend the evening with Amos and Ruby. There were cookies and more complicated tunes. Amos never charged my dad, and he never called them lessons, he just said he was going to show me something.

Tricia, Vernon and Lucy Pierce, Smithville Lake, MO.

In 1993, I graduated from college and moved to St. Louis. I hadn’t been fiddling much but decided to travel to Yankton, SD, with my grandparents and dad for the fiddling contest. I had never competed in the open division but I know it was a great moment for my family to watch me compete that year and win first place. My grandpa was a man of few words but standing there next to him after winning, he said, “You did good.” This was a pivotal moment in my life and it wasn’t about winning the contest. A few months later, my grandpa, knowing he wasn’t well, took a long walk. It was December 4th, 1993, and my dad and uncle found him out on the land where he had spent his entire life. Shortly after his death, my grandma gave me his fiddle and I have been playing it ever since.

Vernon Spencer Track Notes

FRC726

Track notes by Tricia Spencer

  1. Intro (by Wilbur Foss) (0:31)  Wilbur and Elizabeth Foss ran the Yankton, SD, fiddle contest where our family competed during the ’70s, ’80’s, and early ’90s. As a kid, I couldn’t wait for this contest. You would get your picture taken, record a tune for the album, receive goodie bags from the town, and see all of your worldly friends. I heard a lot of great fiddling at this contest from Canada to Missouri and beyond.
  2. Spotted Pony (Vernon) (1:45)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin. This was one of the earliest tunes I heard and learned from my grandpa and perhaps one of his favorites. This tune was comes from Kansas City, MO fiddler Carol Hascall. She learned the tune from her dad, who learned the tune from Bob Wills’ dad. Many folks confuse this tune with the D version which is actually a tune called “Snow Shoes.” Dad on guitar and Grandma on mandolin.
  3. Stony Point (1:05)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle.  An interesting take on “Stony Point” which also showcases my grandpa’s sense of timing if he was left to fiddling by himself.
  4. Please Papa, Don’t Whip Little Danny (2:35)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin, vocal.  I grew up to my grandma’s singing and remember all of the different songs she used to sing around the house. This was one of her favorites that she sang in the family band.
  5. Uncle Joe (1:04)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Iona Spencer: guitar.  This was a recording that my grandparents did for my dad while he was stationed in the Navy. This was during their electric phase. My grandma is playing guitar and my grandpa on fiddle.
  6. Wednesday Night Waltz (2:53)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Uncle Toad (Roger): guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin.  Another recording for my dad while he was in the Navy. My grandma is on mandolin and my uncle Toad, who was about 15, is on guitar backing my grandpa up on fiddle.
  7. Hooker’s Hornpipe (1:42)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin.  This was a tune that my grandpa recorded while we were at the Yankton, SD. fiddle contest. It might have been his contest tune for that year.
  8. Joys of Quebec (1:05)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle.  I can imagine that some of these recordings happened in between customers while grandpa was at the gas station. His wooden chair sat on a concrete floor and over the years, the combination of the old chair and his foot tapping wore holes in the floor.
  9. Banjo Signal (2:00)  Rod Spencer: banjo, Vernon Spencer: guitar,  Iona Spencer: mandolin.  This recording came from the Yankton, SD, fiddle contest. My family would often record a couple each year we attended. I grew up with my dad playing banjo, and I learned how to play guitar from him without him ever really teaching me. I asked my dad why he never learned how to fiddle. Without missing a beat, he said, “I don’t like fiddle.” He was serious about that as fiddling didn’t do much for him but he loved the sound of the banjo.
  10. Canary Waltz (2:02)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle.  My grandpa loved waltzes and had so many. His hands were so large that he didn’t use his third finger much. I remember him telling me that he wished his fingers could move like mine.
  11. Brilliancy (2:21)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: banjo.  A banjo and fiddle duet with father and son. I often think of how happy this must have made my grandpa to be able to make music with his son. I also love how my grandpa took notes out of this tune and inserted some interesting bowing in place.
  12. Big Springs (1:03)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin, Pat Payne, bass.  This could be my grandpa’s version of “Hell Among the Yearlings” but I have never been able to confirm that with my dad or grandma as they both had said remembering titles wasn’t important to them. Howard and I started calling it “Big Springs” and the title has stuck. This was the beginning of the Spencer Family Band with my mom, Pat Payne, on bass
  13. Twinkle Little Star (1:08)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Iona Spencer: guitar.  My grandparents making music and being interrupted by the phone. I can tell my grandpa didn’t want to stop as those high notes are hard to hit and he was hitting them well. Crazy to think that documentation of a rotary phone might be important.
  14. Red Fox Waltz (1:20)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle.  Another waltz with my grandpa doing what he loved.
  15. Salty River Reel (1:48)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin.  Another recording from the Yankton, SD, contest.
  16. A & E Waltz (2:06)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin, Pat Payne: bass.  Another night with the Spencer Family Band.
  17. The Old Bulldog (1:27)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Iona Spencer: guitar.  This tune is also called “The Jenny Lind Polka.” I’m not sure where my grandpa got his title. My grandparents recorded this on reel to reel to send to my dad while he was in the Navy. My grandpa nicknamed my dad “Jug” because as a baby, he didn’t want to give up his bottle.
  18. Coming Down from Denver (1:37)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin, unknown guitar.
  19. Fat Meat & Dumplings (1:08)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar. This seems to be a version of “Fat Meat and Dumplins” but no one in the family recalls that title. Grandma on typewriter.
  20. White Rose Waltz (2:31)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar
  21. Marmaduke’s Hornpipe (1:29)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, unknown guitars.  In my grandpa’s list of tunes typed out by grandma, he had this tune listed as “Mormon Duke’s Hornpipe.” This was from the Yankton, SD, contest but it might have been the year before my dad and I went with them. Whoever is backing him up doesn’t understand my grandpa’s timing.
  22. Tipperary (1:41)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: mandolin, Iona Spencer: guitar. This was one of my grandpa’s tunes that Dad learned while he was in the Navy
  23. The Old Man and The Old Woman (1:04)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar.  This Canadian tune made its way to the Midwest.
  24. Acorn Hill Breakdown (1:31)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Iona Spencer: mandolin, Pat Payne: bass.
  25. Clark’s Waltz (2:24)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: banjo, Iona Spencer: mandolin.
  26. Stone’s Rag (1:59)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Iona Spencer: guitar.
  27. Sail Away Ladies (0:57)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, unknown guitar player.
  28. Sailor’s Hornpipe (1:28)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Iona Spencer: mandolin, Rod Spencer: guitar.
  29. Golden Slippers (2:56)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: banjo, Iona Spencer: mandolin, Ira Ross: guitar.  I was pleasantly surprised when my grandma jumped in and took a little mando break.
  30. Swedish Waltz (2:29)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: banjo, Iona Spencer: mandolin.  Another waltz probably played on some Sunday afternoon. Grandpa on fiddle, grandma on mandolin, and dad on banjo.
  31. Oklahoma Redbird (1:17)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: banjo, Ira Ross: guitar.  My grandpa wasn’t afraid of B-flat and it was common in our area to have several tunes in that key. When my grandpa taught this tune to me, I spent half the time frustrated and the other half crying. I had no idea the difference between keys and scales and so nothing laid down as I thought it should. He was so patient with me. You can hear Grandma on the typewriter on this one.
  32. Vern’s Waltz in E (2:07)  Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar.  Grandpa and my dad playing a beautiful waltz in E
  33. Up Jumped the Devil (1:46) Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Pat Payne: bass. A tune originally recorded in the 1930s by the San Antonio, TX, fiddle band The Tune Wranglers.
  34. Woodchopper’s Breakdown (1:11) Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar, Pat Payne: bass. A very young Tricia confirms the key in the background.
  35. Steel Guitar Chimes (2:14) Vernon Spencer: guitar, Rod Spencer: banjo, Iona Spencer: mandolin. Another recording taken from the Yankton, SD, contest archives.
  36. The Jones Waltz (2:31) Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: banjo, Iona Spencer: mandolin, Uncle Jim: guitar.
  37. Durham’s Bull (Vernon) (1:24) Vernon Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar. Dad and Grandpa working up another one of grandpa’s contest tunes.
  38. Durham’s Bull (Tricia) (1:00) Tricia Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar. A young Tricia playing her grandpa’s tune at the Yankton, SD, contest.
  39. Spotted Pony (Tricia) (1:24) Tricia Spencer: fiddle, Rod Spencer: guitar. This is one of the first contest tunes I learned from my grandpa and this was recorded at the Yankton, SD, contest. This is me on fiddle and my dad backing me up. I was about 12 years old.

Lowe Stokes at Brandywine

Lowe Stokes, Georgia Fiddler – FRC723

By Joe LaRose

A previous version of this article served as liner notes for Heritage 048, Georgia Fiddle Bands, ©1983 Heritage Records.

Of the many legendary fiddlers from old time music’s “Golden Age,” the period of commercial recording from the mid-twenties to the early thirties, Lowe Stokes seemed to have an aura of myth that went beyond his superb fiddling on records by the Skillet Lickers and others.

Lowe Stokes

Lowe Stokes. Photo courtesy Bill Dillof

His raspy voice and no-nonsense delivery heard on the Skillet Licker’s spoken skit records suggested something of a scrappy guy. But when one considered that, at the height of his success, he lost his right hand to a shot gun blast only to go on fiddling using a hook to hold his bow, his reputation as—in fellow Skillet Licker Bert Layne’s words—“one tough fella,” was ensured. Continue reading

Ora Watson – Watauga County’s Senior Musician: “Music keeps me young.”

Ora Watson – Watauga County, NC Old Time Music – FRC720

Article courtesy of Old Time Herald, Volume 11, Number 1

By Mark Freed

Leaving my office in Boone, North Carolina, one afternoon in May, I drove to the western part of Watauga County for a visit with Ora Watson. I parked my car, grabbed a banjo from the back seat, and walked inside where I found my friend Cecil Gurganus visiting with Ora in the living room. Ora asked me to come closer so she could see me, so I got within a few inches of her face. Continue reading

Fred McBride: Going Across the Mountain

Fred McBride – North Carolina Fiddle and Banjo – FRC722

by Lucas Pasley

Article courtesy of the Old Time Herald, Volume 13, Number 10.

I remember the first time I saw Fred play down at a little jam around Wilkesboro. I was young and in search of a real old time sound, and when I heard Fred I almost fell on the floor. I drove straight up to Alleghany County and told my grandmother I’d found my hero fiddler. She smiled and said, well, what’s his name?” “Fred McBride.” I said reverently. “Fred McBride!” She yelled back as she sat up in her recliner. “Good Lord,” she said, “You’ve known him your whole life – you’ve seen him at every family reunion you’ve ever been to!” Continue reading

Memories of the Hammons Family: Maggie Hammons Parker

Maggie Parker – Hammons Family Songs & Music – FRC713

by Wayne Howard

Article courtesy of the Old Time Herald, April-May 2010.

I had gotten well acquainted with Lee Hammons by the summer of 1970, but I still hadn’t met Dwight Diller, who had indirectly led me to Lee.  At the end of his school year at West Virginia University, Dwight came home.  By the time of Pioneer Days, in mid-July, we were fast friends; and Dwight was rapidly acquainting me and my wife, Barbara, with the “mountain music” scene. Continue reading

Darley Fulks: Kentucky Wild Horse – Tune Notes

FRC716 – Darley Fulks – Kentucky Wild Horse

by  John Harrod, September 2015

Darley Fulks (1895-1990) in his long life worked as an oil driller, traveling both north and south from his native Wolfe Co., Kentucky, meeting other musicians, and learning tunes everywhere he went. But the greatest portion of his repertoire came from the older generation in his own county. Many of his tunes came from his grandfather and some he could trace to his great-grandfather. Consequently, his music represents both an exceptionally old collection of tunes, many pre-dating the Civil War and unique to him, and an exceptionally diverse range of styles Continue reading

Old Time Music of Alleghany County, NC

by Lucas Pasley

Despite having produced well-known fiddlers such as Guy Brooks, Art Wooten, and Tim Smith, Alleghany County’s rich old-time fiddling tradition has remained largely out of the spotlight. This CD attempts to capture not only the importance of Alleghany’s fiddling heritage, but also its own unique character. As with other mountain musical communities, the common threads of tradition met the innovative touch of the musicians to create a complex and powerful sound.

There was, however, a tremendous flow of exchange between Alleghany and bordering counties. According to Brad Leftwich, Tommy Jarrell learned his unique version of John Henry from Alleghany County, and prominent Alleghany fiddlers such as Huston Caudill traveled to Virginia for work and played with Grayson County fiddlers such as Luther Davis. State and county lines meant little to the flow of music and musicians, and Alleghany’s musical heritage is richly interwoven with the surrounding areas.

The recordings of Lawn Brooks, Mack Brooks, and some of the Howard Joines and Cleave Andrews cuts came from a musical gold mine that was brought to me in 2011. Cliff Evans was a well-known jeweler and guitar player in the area, and many old-time, country, bluegrass, and gospel musicians stopped by to play and be recorded on Cliff’s reel-to-reel player. Cliff recorded everything. He captured birds singing, friendships, parties, and an incredible musical heritage from the 50’s through the 70’s. The other tracks are a combination of field recordings gathered by me and Kilby Spencer, who has helped immeasurably with bringing this CD to fruition.

Overall, these five fiddlers offer a slice of the rich music of Alleghany County. As in other places, some of the fiddlers remained firmly rooted in their fiddling heritage while others purposefully and powerfully put their own innovation into the music.

The Fiddlers

Lawn Brooks and Cliff Evans

Lawn Brooks and Cliff Evans

Lawnie H. Brooks (1893-1964) was the older brother of Guy Brooks, fiddler for the Red Fox Chasers. Although he never made any commercial recordings, Lawn played fiddle his whole life, and Cliff Evans was one of his dearest friends. The two got together regularly to spend an evening playing and recording music. Lawn played on a Russian fiddle that he received in exchange for work with the Duncan family. It has a delicate sound that suits his fiddling well. The family describes Uncle Guy as more of a square dance fiddler and Uncle Lawn as more refined. One of his daughters described to me her fond memories of quietly sitting in the living room of their farmhouse after dark and listening to her father fiddle in the evening. Lawn was also a well-known craftsman: wagoner, blacksmith, and gunsmith.   Lawn dreamed of rising to greater heights with his music, but felt held back by an gunshot wound to his right arm that he felt caused him to lose his edge with the bow. I believe he would be proud to know that people were listening to his music and learning his tunes on this CD.

Mack Brooks and Maxine

Mack Brooks and Maxine

Mack Brooks (1902-1966) was from a different set of Brookses than Guy and Lawn and was widely known as T-Model Mack. Guy and Lawn did have a brother named Mack who played a little in his youth, but he was widely-known as a preacher. Fiddling Mack frequently played at the VFW square dance in Sparta, and as the recording indicates, his fiddling was powerful and perfect to move the dancers. He ran a convenience store and gas station off the Blue Ridge Parkway on Shawtown Road. His tremendous sense of humor was legend: one day a traveler from out of town stopped at the store and Mack noticed his Pennsylvania license plates. When the traveler stepped out and asked rudely where all the hillbillies were, Mack quickly responded, “Up in Pennsylvania teaching school.” In addition to music, Mack also loved to bowl and was proud to receive a trophy for being the oldest bowler at Sparta’s first bowling alley. In general, he lived life with a powerful joy that came out in everything he did.

Kilby Reeves (1898-1980) is a member of the musical Reeves family, and the grandfather of renowned bluegrass fiddler Tim Smith. Kilby was a hardworking farmer in the days before tractors and always worked for himself on his farm close to Twin Oaks. In the evenings after work, when Kilby wasn’t getting ready for a fox hunt, Art Wooten (Bill Monroe’s first fiddler) would come up to Kilby’s for help learning to play.   Kilby mostly played for local square dances at people’s houses but did compete and win at the Galax Fiddlers Convention. The family recounts a humorous story of a day when Kilby stepped outside in nothing but his overalls, literally, and stepped onto a yellow jackets’ nest. He didn’t hesitate to jump out of those overalls and ended up standing in the yard buck naked. Luckily, his wife was the only one to witness the spectacle.

Junior Maxwell and Cleve Andrews

Junior Maxwell and Cleve Andrews

Cleave Andrews (1895-1969) would certainly have grown up with the fiddle music of the area, but, according to his nephew, first learned to play the fiddle in a WWI prison camp in Africa when fellow inmate BILL BILL showed him some of the basics. To make a living after the war, he worked in the Dr. Grabow pipe factory and delivered milk while keeping up his fiddling playing regularly at the VFW square dance in Sparta and other local venues. He played with well-known banjo player Junior Maxwell in the Little River Boys, and while they would have called themselves a bluegrass band, Cleave’s old-time fiddling heritage comes through every note.

Howard Joines (1908-1981) was a virtuoso fiddler. Starting on a toy fiddle at 7 years old, it wasn’t long before the neighbors were coming by to hear him play. He left Alleghany when he was 18 to join Red Gay’s Brown Jug Fiddling Band but returned to work on the Parkway and raise beef cattle. He greatly admired the fiddling of Red Gay, Clayton McMichen of the Skillet Lickers, and Kenny Baker. He was a regular fiddler at the VFW square dance and would play with many others – Cliff Evans, Ed Atwood, Paul Joines, and Junior Maxwell to name a few. Howard was part of a generation of fiddlers that were both old-time and bluegrass, both deeply rooted in tradition and yet progressive and innovative in their fiddling and musicianship.   Howard’s repertoire ranges from timeless tunes like “Soldier’s Joy”, to contemporary jazz and pop like “Get Out and Get Under The Moon”, to bluegrass classics like “Pig in the Pen.”

For further reading, see Howard Joines article by TJ Worthington in the Old-Time Herald, April 2014.   Learned from Red Gay, Clayton McMitcheon,

Information from Strings of Life by Kevin Donleavy and interviews with Richard Joines (Howard Joines), Maxine Fender (Mack Brooks), Lawn Brooks’s children, Ray and Tim Smith (Kilby Reeves), Tom Edwards (Cleave Andrews) and TJ Worthington.

Carlton Rawlings

FRC718 – Carlton Rawlings – Bath County, Kentucky Fiddler

by John Harrod

INTRODUCTION

Northeastern Kentucky was still a hotbed of old style fiddling in the 1970s and ’80s when Gus Meade, Mark Wilson, Bruce Greene, and I began making regular visits to record and learn from the many interesting local fiddlers who were still going strong at the time. We were astounded at the sophistication and complexity of the styles, the level of performance, and the dramatic Continue reading

Vesta Johnson, Missouri’s Well-Kept Secret

FRC715 – Vesta Johnson with Steve Hall – North Missouri Dance Fiddling

by Bob Bovee

I’ve known Vesta Johnson since 1977, played tunes with her at her home and on stage, learned from her, and consider her a friend and mentor. She has likewise been a friend and teacher to countless other old-time musicians over the years. I interviewed Vesta at her house last winter, but our visit seemed more like a conversation with an old friend than a formal interview. Continue reading

Darley Fulks

FRC716 – Darley Fulks – Kentucky Wild Horse

by Jeff Todd Titon

Darley Fulks (1895-1990) was from Campton, in Wolfe County. He told John Harrod he was glad to have been alive when he was, early on, to learn the old tunes; he thought he was probably the last to know some of them. He felt most of the tunes he learned came to Kentucky from Virginia, but the bluesy tunes came from the lower South. Fulks’s grandfather and uncle played Continue reading

Ralph Whited: Oneonta, Alabama (1919-1994)

FRC717 – Ralph Whited – Old Time Alabama Fiddling
by Joyce Cauthen

Bio

Ralph Whited lived in one house in Oneonta, AL from the day he was born in 1919 until the day he died in 1994. Oneonta sits in the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains, below Sand Mountain and 35 miles north of Birmingham. The Whited home, inherited from Ralph’s prosperous grandfather, was large enough to comfortably house Ralph’s parents, Henry and Elizabeth Whited, and their 6 robust sons Coy, O’Dell, Ward, J.D., Ralph and Brady. When Ward and J.D. took up playing guitar, it became a musical gathering place. Continue reading

About the Old FRC CD Sets

A few of our long-time loyal customers were inquiring about the yearly sets we offered in the past. Please note that all of our CDs and DVDs are still available and with the capabilities of the new web site we are able to offer quantity discounts that allow you to make your own sets at the same lower prices.

In any case, we have attached a list of the past issues that were grouped  in sets. You can download the list here.

Tom Fuller: The Life and Times of a Fiddler from Indian Territory

FRC714 – Tom Fuller – Traditional Fiddling from Oklahoma & Texas

By Brad Leftwich

An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Old Time Herald, Volume 13, Number 11.

I stood in Jan Fitzgerald’s home recently in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, holding her father’s familiar old fiddle in my hands and trying to wrap my mind around the fact that it had been Continue reading

Poems by Dean Sturgill

FRC710 – Dean Sturgill – The Spencer Branch Fiddler

Dean Sturgill is an old-time fiddler and poet from Ashe County, North Carolina. For many years, he led the popular Grayson Highlands Band. In the early 1990s, he self-published these three books of wonderful poetry about life in the mountains (available for download in pdf below). He reads his poem, “The Fees Branch Fiddler” in the video.

An Old Fiddler’s Book of Rhymes
An Old Fiddler’s “Second” Book of Rhymes
An Old Fiddler’s Book of Rhymes III