Rambling Reminisces of How I Came to Play Old-Time Music

Chirps Smith (FRC608)

By Lynn “Chirps” Smith – November 15, 1995

I was born October 11, 1952 in Pekin, IL. I am the fifth generation of my family in Illinois. My great-great grandfather Mervill A. Smith moved to southern Illinois, from New York state, in the late 1830’s and settled around Mt. Vernon in Jefferson County. When I was very young our family moved to Granite City, near St. Louis, MO. I lived there until 1963 when we moved to Charleston, IL.

While growing up, I was exposed to both classical and folk music. Like many of my generation, I liked rock music the most in my junior high & early high school years (I remember watching the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, Wow!), but I also enjoyed classical, blues, jazz, folk, etc. I sort of played flute in junior high school and enjoyed marching in the Eastern Illinois University Homecoming parade. As I entered high school, I dropped the flute (unfortunately), but I was in vocal chorus in high school (under the direction of Don Decker, who later moved on to Champaign, IL & taught Alison Krauss how to sing). In high school I really liked the growing acid-rock scene: Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, etc., but also enjoyed hearing blues by folks like John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and wonderfully weird and wild stuff by Frank Zappa. I was intrigued by the liner notes that told me of earlier performers and started trying to search out recordings of them as well.

About this time I met up with Dan Baird. He was playing guitar and enjoyed the same types of music that I did. I had started trying to play the guitar also. We would listen to everything from Black Sabbath to Dave Brubeck. We hung out a lot together and listened to lots of music. I graduated from high school in 1970 and left for Southern Illinois University in the fall. Throughout the next years my musical horizons really stretched and it’s hard to keep it all straight, but it goes something like this.

Down there I met up with some singer-songwriter folks, very influenced by Neil Young. I began to listen to more acoustic music mixed in with the rock. I was also really enjoying older blues music. I would go to record stores and find stuff by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry, BB King, Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins, and Sleepy John Estes; stuff I had read about on the backs of other recordings. I went to a Captain Beefheart concert and Ry Cooder was appearing there also. I loved the stuff he did and was intrigued with his mandolin playing. I think that was the first time I had heard someone play a mandolin. That concert got me even more interested in older music.

I would make trips home and Dan and I would get together and play guitar or listen to stuff. About this time, Dan told me about some brothers in Charleston that were very good guitarists and took me over to meet Garry and Terry Harrison. My musical tastes, while already fairly broad, expanded. I had been finding that whenever I heard an earlier performer, I generally liked their music better. These guys were great! They played stuff from the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, etc. I was blown away! Right around this time, some friends of ours invited us to go along with them to a bluegrass festival in Renfro Valley, KY. I was very impressed, especially with the mandolin, and decided to get one. I got an incredibly poor Harmony mandolin (I think it was made of pressboard) and started to try to learn.

One day, over at the Harrison’s, Garry was playing me some good old Robert Johnson and Django Rheinhardt recordings. He pulls out another reissue record and slaps it on the turntable. It was my earliest contact with old-time country, Da Costa Woltz & his Southern Broadcasters. Incredible! I was hooked and still am. Soon we had sort of a band forming. Garry was playing fiddle, Terry was playing banjo, Dan was playing guitar, and I was trying to play mandolin. Others starting around that time included John Bishop and the Grigoroff brothers Mark & Chris. We also met up with Dave Miller, a professor at Eastern, that used to teach in Iowa and played banjo with Art Rosenbaum. This became the core for the Indian Creek Delta Boys.

We would all hang out together all the time; playing, listening, raising hell. The name for the group came from the Harrison’s river camp on the mighty Embarass River. It was located where Indian Creek emptied into the Embarass and formed a delta of sand & gravel. We would hang out down there and fish, pick, drink, etc. One evening we decided to go to one of the local Charleston taverns and play. This place was a real old time place, last of the “whiskey row” bars. The college bar scene hadn’t taken it over yet. It was called Chink & Kate’s. We went in with our instruments and got some beers. Finally one of the older patrons asked if we “played them things.” We took them out and played some good old fiddle tune and these folks loved it! They couldn’t seem to get enough and bought us gobs of beer. Needless to say, we kept coming back every Friday.

As we got better, we kept listening to lots of reissued stuff (thanks to County & Rounder Records). We noticed that everyone seemed to think that this music was only down south or in the Appalachians. We figured there had to be this kind of stuff around us, after all, the Harrison’s dad played fiddle and their mom played guitar. Some of their grandparents generation had played also. Their mom and dad had played on the radio in the 1930’s. Garry started to look around and we all joined in.

A friend of ours was a manager of a store at a mall in Effingham, IL and asked us to come and play outside the store. After we were done, he said that he knew about this older fiddler that played in a country group at a roadhouse just north of Effingham. We all went out to the Midway Tap and there we found Harvey “Pappy” Taylor. He was a fiddler in his late 70’s and we knew right quick that this was the fellow we were looking for. “Pappy” was the first old-time fiddler we found and he was one of the best. He knew thousands of tunes and remembered where he learned almost every one of them.

We began finding more and more old-timers throughout central and southern IL. It was really fun meeting and hearing their stories, songs, and tunes. Throughout the 1970’s the ICDB searched for Midwestern (particularly Illinois) music, played for dances & festivals. We didn’t have a lot of money to get very good recording equipment, but Vaughn Jaenike (Dean of Fine Arts at EIU) managed to get some grant money. This was used to get a fairly good cassette recorder, tapes, and to help pay for gas. We also got a Nagra from the Library of Congress for a brief time. Carl Fleischauer came out and we visited some folks with the Nagra. These recordings (or copies) are at the LOC and at the Tarble Arts Center at EIU.

The ICDB made three LP’s, all of which are out of print. Two were for Steve Davis’ Davis Unlimited label (DU-33029 & DU-33042) and one was for Peter Lippincott’s Prairie Schooner label (PSI-103). All of these records featured tunes that we had learned from the senior old-time musicians we had been meeting. Usually the band would learn the tunes from Garry Harrison after he had “reconstructed” them. Most of the musicians that we met were in their 70’s and 80’s and hadn’t played for 20-40 years, so were understandably a bit out of practice. Garry is a remarkable musician and has a great ability to listen to these older musicians “scratch out” a tune, and then play it as perhaps they might have played in their prime.

In 1978 I got married to Martha Murphy and moved up north to Chicago. I found out about the fledgling Chicago Barn Dance Company and started attending those dances. I started playing at the dances with Mark Gunther and others. I was playing mandolin mainly, although I had been learning fiddle (off and on) since around 1974. Eventually a band called the Polecats was formed. The band is Mark Gunther, fiddle; myself, mandolin; Fred Campeau, banjo; John Terr, guitar; and Tony Scarimbolo, bass. The Chicago dance scene developed a habit of various configurations of musicians playing for dances under varieties of names. During this time I was playing fiddle at home mainly.

In 1984 I got separated and moved to Grayslake, IL. My job at Baxter Laboratories had moved from Morton Grove, IL to Round Lake, IL so the move to Grayslake seemed logical. I was also longing to live in a small town again. Right about this time I met up with Dorothy Kent. We hit it off very well and were married in December of 1985, not long after my divorce. I was continuing to play mandolin with the Polecats and others and occasionally fiddle at some dances.

During this time, Fred Campeau was learning fiddle also. Sometimes we would play twin fiddle and that was lots of fun. Dot thought it would be fun to get me to play with her friend Steve Rosen. We put together a group that was myself & Fred Campeau on fiddles, Steve Rosen on banjo, John Terr on guitar, and Moe Nelson on bass. We enjoyed this group and also thought it would be fun to learn some songs too. On August 4, 1985 we played at a festival in Clayville, IL. I had come up with a name for the group (the usual practice in Chicago): The Volo Bogtrotters. The name is a combination honoring the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters and the Volo Bog near Volo, IL. The original Bogtrotters were from Galax, VA and composed of Wade, Crockett, & Fields Ward, and Eck Dunford. They were recorded in the 1940’s for the Library of Congress. The Volo Bog is the only sphagnum moss, acidic-type bog in Illinois. A couple of the names of groups I was in were/are, The Infernal Peckerwoods, and Jump Fingers.

The Volos added Jim Nelson on banjo-uke & guitar when he moved to Chicago and Tony Scarimbolo on bass when Moe moved to Washington, DC. John Terr left to play guitar with the Chicago Cajun Aces. The Volos played at festivals across the country and recorded three cassettes for Larry MacBride’s Marimac label (9024, 9022, & 9042). Also during this time I recorded two Midwestern fiddle projects for Marimac. The first was called Prairie Dog (9039) & the second was called Midwestern Harvest (9059). These recordings feature Midwestern fiddle tunes in a variety of settings from solo to big stringbands.

When Jim Nelson left to return to school in Bowling Green, KY, we added Larry MacBride on guitar. We were in the process of a fourth recording when Larry got sick with stomach cancer and died on August 17, 1993. This was quite a blow. It is very rough losing a good friend, especially one so young. Larry was only 48 at the time of his death. I was sad that Larry didn’t get to see the release of Midwestern Harvest on CD and cassette. He had wanted to start making Marimac releases “slicker” and we really went all out to make that release nice.

The Volos have carried on and have added Dr. Paul Tyler to the line up. Steve is now playing guitar, as well as banjo, Fred Plays fiddle & banjo, I’m playing fiddle & mandolin, Tony is playing bass & harmonica and Paul is playing guitar, fiddle & mandolin. We have had to make adjustments with this grouping, but we are finding our new sound. We recorded a couple of things for Ray Alden’s Young Fogies II project. One made it onto a CD entitled “A Tribute to the Appalachian String Band Music Festival” on Ray Alden’s Chubby Dragon label (1001) and another made onto Young Fogies II (Rounder 0369). A cut of myself, John Hatton (guitar) and Dorothy Kent (feet) also made onto the “Tribute” CD. The Volos are planning a new recording that will include some of the stuff we did with Larry.

In October of 1994, we were asked to play at Seattle’s Wannadance Uptown. Not all of the Volos could make it so Steve, Fred & I asked Dave Landreth of the Allen Street String Band to go with us. In the grand old Chicago fashion, we needed a name and Dave came up with The Combine. The name represents the combination of two bands and a “Midwestern harvest” of tunes. We have now played a few things together, including the Country dance and Song Society’s American Dance Week at Pinewoods camp near Plymouth, MA.

On another front, myself, Dorothy Kent, Fred Campeau, and his wife, Mitch Thomas joined forces with Paul Goelz, Phil Cooper, and Margaret Nelson to form a Christmas group called The More the Merrier. We have been playing at various Midwestern venues in December for the past nine years now. We play Christmas, solstice, and regular old songs and tunes with fiddles, banjos, guitars, hammered dulcimer, cello, “mandoid” instruments, percussion, and clogging. Phil, Margaret, Mitch, and Fred take care of most of the vocals. We have two cassettes on Phil & Margaret’s Porcupine label. Phil & Margaret have a bunch of great recordings out and some even have me and Fred on them.

Dot and I also do some things together. She teaches clogging and I play the tunes. We have done this at Folklore Village in Dodgeville, WI, David Adler Cultural Center in Libertyville, IL, Augusta Heritage Workshops in Elkins, WV and at the Buffalo Gap American & English Dance Week camp in WV. I usually do fiddle workshops/classes at these events also. Dot and I were also included on Mark Dvorak’s CD on a good Illinois song, “Going down to Cairo”; Dot on feet and myself on fiddle.

Lately I have been trying to help “spread the word” about old-time music. I am a member of the Folk Alliance and on the Steering committee of the Old Time Music on the Radio (OTR) organization. I helped get the first volume of Old-Time Music on the Air out (Rounder 0331). I am trying to maintain a database of old-time releases on CD for OTR. I am also building a database of radio stations that play old-time music from an OTR survey. I have “written” a couple of articles for the Old-Time Herald. I plan on helping out at the next OTR conference to be held in Mt. Airy, NC next June. The second volume of Old-Time Music on the Air (Rounder) should be ready by then also.