Strawberry’s Folk Festival Autobiography

Robert Lee “Strawberry” McCloud – Bloomington Breakdown – FRC749

Provided by Gary Stanton, 2021

When Strawberry McCloud was hired to perform at the 1978 Kent State Folk Festival, he was asked to provide his “bio” for festival publicity and programming. In response, he wrote this autobiographical letter to Kerry Blech, one of that year’s festival organizers. The letter was probably typed by his partner, Ren Oschin. We’ve left the text as it was written, including typos, misspellings, and Strawberry’s references to Gid Tanner as “Gib.” Also, it’s likely that his account of encountering the Skillet Lickers on the streets of Nashville in 1925 and then playing with them for a couple of years is a case of “resumé enhancement;” two younger-generation musicians recall that a few years before this was written (about 1974), he told them he had played bass fiddle with the Georgia Wildcats but, asked if he had played with the Skillet Lickers, responded that he had not.”

Dear Kerry

I was born 1907 the 11th day of November in Bourbon County, Kentucky. I had 2 older brothers, 2 older sisters and one younger sister. I started learning how to play the fiddle when I was 8 years old. I used to sneak under the bed and steal my brother’s fiddle out. My dad got tired of whipping me for it so he made me a fiddle out of a cigar box. The first tune I ever learnt was Liza Jane. And my dad liked it so well he didn’t care if I played on the old fiddle then.

The fiddle I have now my mother’s grandfather found it hanging on the wall during the civil war. It’s an old German Hopf. I promised my poor old mother on her death bed I’d never sell it.

I used to play for square dances with my brothers when I was 12 years old. I played the little fiddle and the bass fiddle.

In 1923 I met the famous Doc Roberts at a fiddler’s contest. I got 3rd prize–it was the first prize I ever got–and we got to be real friends. He sure learnt me a lot about playing the fiddle.

I met Gib Tanner in 1925. I met him coming down the street at Nashville, Tennessee. He seen me carryin my fiddle and he stopped me and introduced hiself and asked me how long I’d been playin. And I told him I started learning when I was 8 years old. He said well you ought to be pretty good by now, let’s go up to the Grand Old Opry and we’ll play a little in the practise room. He liked the way I played and asked me would I be willing to travel around with him and play for dances and shows. Well I was wanting to play music so I told him yes. I played with Gib Tanner and The Skillett Lickers till 1929.

I met Clayt McMichem, he was in the band. He was from Georgia. One afternoon after we performed he asked me would I like to join him with his band–he was going to name it The Georgia Wildcats. I told him I hated to leave Gib but he offered to pay $65 a week and that was good money in them days. Gib said he couldn’t pay me that much so I went with Clayt. Gib said he was glad to see me do better.

With Gib I played with John Carson, Bert Layne and Clayt was the fiddlers; Riley Pucket and Sturtz was guitar pickers.

So in 1930 I went with Clayt. We played for dances and a lot of big celebrations at the parks and we played for commercials over the radio. Arm and Hammer and Harold Furniture Company in Louisville Kentucky every morning at 7. I met Paul Sap and Slim Bryant, both of them guitar pickers. Riley played some with Clayt too. We played in a lot of contests in those days and I met Natchi the Indian in Cincinati Ohio. He was awful good.

I stayed with Clayt til 1934 and it seemed like the old fashioned music was changing into more modern with Clayt bringing in saxaphones and drums which I didn’t like. It was too classy a music for me. Also we went as high as 5 days and nights and never see a bed, just sleep in the car a traveling.

I had a chance to go to operating heavy equipment with my brother. It was a lot better money and I could stay at home more. I was married then and had a little girl and I liked to be at home a lot. So I quit music, only just playing on weekends in a jam session.

I got my hand smashed flat in 1936 running a crane working on the United States gold vault in Fort Knox, Kty. And they wanted to take my left hand off and I wouldn’t let them. I’m thankful to god I didn’t let them take it off. I carried it in a cast for 16 months.

My friend Doc Roberts heard about me gettin hurt and he came to see me. I told him I lost the use of my little finger. It was hurtin my music awful bad. He told me not to let that worry me. He said he’d show me how to slide my music and he’d show me a good bow action. And I’ve got that today. He said that’s half of the battle was a good bow action. He said the 2 most important things in music is bow action and good timing. I thank him very much, bless his old heart, to this day.

I went and visited him twice last year and we was crying like babies about old times. He never was beat in a contest and now he can’t play a lick. He’s paralyzed in his bow arm–he had a stroke.

I never went back to music but I never gived it up either. I always played it a couple times a week.

I never could play no note music, just all by ear.

When I retired in 1972 we got a little band and we play as past time. The name of the band is Strawberry McCloud and the Bloomington Ramblers. Strawberry is my nickname I got operating heavy equipment. Otherwise I was knowed by Bob McCloud.

I can’t use my hand like I used to cause it gives me a little trouble by going to sleep. I have an artificial tube in my arm.

This summer a friend gave a fish fry and a friend and me played for 11 hours one day and 6 hours the next day and never played the same tune twice except one by request.

I’d rather play music than anything else in my life–almost. I really like music–old fashioned music.

I have 7 kids and none of them are interested in the fiddle but I have 2 grandchildren that really like music. I think one will really make a fiddler, he’s only 11 now but he’s got all the signs of making a good fiddler. He’s got the right time and the right bow action. He don’t know how to play yet but he’s got it in him. I got a great-grandson who is only one year old and he likes to pat his hands and tries to dance when he hears music.

This is about all I can think of now Kerry. I guess I’ll sign off.

Kent State Folk Festival Poster, 1978

Kent State Folk Festival Poster, 1978. Courtesy Sue Goehring