Track Notes for FRC738 – John Dee Kennedy of Pawnee, Oklahoma

John Dee Kennedy of Pawnee, Oklahoma – FRC738

By Brad Leftwich

John Dee Kennedy (1914-1997) was a self-effacing man who, in his prime, was considered by many to be the best breakdown fiddler in Pawnee and Osage counties, Oklahoma. In a generation where most of his contemporaries were playing Western swing, bluegrass, or Texas contest-style fiddle, John perpetuated an older family and community tradition that can be traced through the mountains of Arkansas all the way back to eastern Kentucky in the 19th century. These field recordings were made by Linda Higginbotham and Brad Leftwich at John’s home in Pawnee, Oklahoma, 1982-1985.

Track notes:

  1. The Fourth of July – We don’t know any other source for this tune. It’s similar to the Leake County Revelers’ “The Old Hat.” Key of G. (1:20)
  2. Hell on the Nine Mile – A local name for a tune played widely under many different names, including “Dubuque.” Key of D. (2:09}
  3. Spotted Pony – Tom Fuller, from southern Oklahoma, called this tune “Demijohn.” It also appears in The Fiddle Book by Marion Thede as “Creek Nation.” Key of C. (1:02)
  4. About Tom Adams – John admired “old man” Tom Adams’ (1880-1972) breakdown fiddling and considered him his mentor. Tom came from the vicinity of Le Flore Co., Okla. / Scott Co., Ark., and John thought of his fiddling as being an Arkansas style. (1:45)
  5. Old Man Adams’ Tune – John learned this from Tom Adams, and we know of no other source. Tom was especially insistent that John learn and remember this particular tune. John could play the tune, but never remembered its name. Key of D. (1:58)
  6. Polly Ann (Sally Ann) – An especially nicely crafted version of “Sally Ann.” John may have mistaken the name. He usually called it “Polly Ann,” but on one occasion called it “Sally Ann.” Key of A. (1:04)
  7. Fort Smith – This is different than “Fort Smith Breakdown” by Luke Highnight’s Ozark Strutters which is often heard in modern old-time jams, but it’s the more usual version of the tune played by older fiddlers in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri. Key of G. (0:45)
  8. The Arkansas Hollering Tune – We’ve never heard this tune anywhere else. John learned it from unnamed Arkansas musicians, probably of the Guthrie or Adams families. The musicians hollered along with the first part of the tune, which made it very popular with dancers. Key of A, fiddle tuned AEAC#. (1:50)
  9. Judge Parker – Other fiddlers play this tune, but John’s second part with its dropped beat is unique. It is named in honor of Judge Isaac Parker, the “hanging judge” who was the first US District Judge for Western Arkansas and Indian Territory during the late 19th century. Key of G. (1:05)
  10. Liberty – Very nice rendition of the tune popularized by Tommy Jackson. Key of D. (1:01)
  11. Sheep Shell Corn – John didn’t know a name for this modal tune, but other musicians in the area called it “Sheep Shell Corn.” It’s a relative of Eck Robertson’s “Cattle in the Cane” and Capt. M.J. Bonner’s “Yearlings in the Canebrake.” John mentions Toney Adams, who was Tom Adams’ nephew (see notes for tracks 4 and 5), known as a very smooth fiddler and especially good at waltzes. Key of A modal. (1:52)
  12. Possum up a Sycamore – John learned this raggy tune from his friend and number-one fan Sam Pim (1897-1986). Sounds to us like it must have had words, but neither John nor Sam sang any. Key of G. (0:53)
  13. Sugar in My Coffee – There are many versions of this widespread tune, but we’ve never heard one just like John’s, which he plays with three parts. Key of G. (0:37)
  14. Chicken Reel – Key of D. (0:49)
  15. Billy in the Low Ground – John’s rendition of this tune has extra beats and quirks that mark it as an older version than the standard one most often heard today. Key of C. (0:52)
  16. Bonaparte’s Retreat – John persisted in playing this tune as he learned it from the older generation of traditional fiddlers, in DDAD tuning and at two tempos to represent the army going into and coming out of battle. Most fiddlers in that part of the country had embraced the more modern song recorded by Pee Wee King and covered by other popular artists. – Key of D. (1:35)
  17. Flop-Eared Mule – John’s cousin Ed Guthrie, a former banjo player and critical listener, comments “Now that’s perfect. Couldn’t play it any better.” at the end of this track. In the keys of G and D. (0:53)
  18. My Pretty White Kitty – a waltz that John learned from his friend Sam Pim. Key of A. (1:12)
  19. Sally Johnson – Key of G. (1:25)
  20. Tom and Jerry – John played this as a three-part tune in the key of A. (1:13)
  21. Ten Cent Piece – A rare tune that came from Arkansas by way of the Guthrie family. Ed Guthrie discusses with John how it used to be played in a different tuning, probably AEAC#. John had reworked it to play out of standard tuning in the key of C. The only other source for this tune we’ve found is the recording by Reaves’ White County Ramblers from Arkansas, who play a related version in AEAC#. Key of C. (1:45)
  22. Twinkle Little Star – A widely played Texas-style tune probably popularized by recordings of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Key of G. (0:58)
  23. Peekaboo Waltz – Key of D. (0:49)
  24. Lone Star Rag – Another tune that John learned from hearing Bob Wills’ band play it on the radio. Key of C. (1:27)
  25. Sally Goodin (old-time) – John plays the older dance version of the tune rather than the Eck Robertson showpiece usually heard at contests. Key of A. (1:02)
  26. Hopping Lucy / Wednesday Night Waltz – The first tune is more often known as “Texas Quickstep.” It seems to have been common at old-time dances in the South to pair these two tunes, and we have heard several recordings of that combination. Key of D. (1:15)
  27. Carroll County Blues – This was popularized by the 1929 recording by Mississippi musicians Narmour & Smith, although there is some dispute as to whether Willie Narmour actually wrote the tune. It was widely played by fiddlers of that generation. Key of A. (0:49)
  28. Arkansas Traveler – Key of D. (0:46)
  29. Big Sweet Taters in the Sandy Land – John sometimes shortened the name to “Taters in Sandy Land.” If Oklahoma had a national anthem, this would be it. Every fiddler in the state seems to have played some version of it, and there are printed references to the tune going back well into the 19th century. Key of G. (0:56)
  30. Rye Whiskey – The classic waltz-time tune, key of A and played in AEAC#. (1:44)
  31. Fisher’s Hornpipe – Key of D. (1:22)
  32. Blues in A – This lovely tune is one of those quirky, irregular old-time blues pieces that John learned from Toney Adams. If you listen carefully you can hear the subtle ornamentation that shows off John’s artistry. Key of A. (1:03)
  33. Durang’s Hornpipe – John learned this from his mentor Tom Adams. John said it was Tom’s signature piece — whenever he picked up his fiddle it was always the first tune he played. Key of D. (1:28)
  34. Grey Eagle – Key of A. (0:46)
  35. John Bunney Waltz – This tune came from John Bunney (1914-1999), a “waltz fiddler” from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Key of D. (1:37)
  36. Chinese Breakdown – John played an unusual second part to this tune with sliding double stops. He learned it from a fiddler named Eb Alexander from south of Oklahoma City. Key of D. (1:03)
  37. Stony Point – John plays a nice variation on first part in the lower octave. Key of G. (1:16)
  38. Wagner – Key of C. (0:30)
  39. About “The Eighth of January” – John noted the differences between his older version of the tune and newer ones based on Jimmy Driftwood’s “Battle of New Orleans.” (1:17)
  40. The Eighth of January – Key of D. (0:55)
  41. Leather Britches – Key of G. (0:51)
  42. Bill Cheatham – Key of A. (1:03)
  43. Waltz in C – John had no name for this waltz, which turns up in different parts of Oklahoma. It’s called the “Oklahoma Waltz” in Marion Thede’s collection, The Fiddle Book, attributed to Ed Chastain of Pottawatomie County. Howard Bearden of Marshall County played a very similar waltz, also with no name. Key of C. (0:53)
  44. Rabbit Where’s Your Mammy – Again, John didn’t know the name of this one. He noted that he heard an old woman play it as “Hell Among the Yearlings” at a gathering in Pawhuska, Okla., but that title usually refers to a different tune. Tom Fuller and others called it “Rabbit Where’s Your Mammy,” but it goes by other names as well. Key of D. (1:13)
  45. Cackling Hen – Key of G. (1:14)
  46. Forked Deer – Key of D. (0:58)
  47. Sam Pim Waltz – Another unnamed waltz that John learned from his friend Sam Pim. Key of G. (1:09)
  48. Soldiers’ Joy – Key of D. (0:51)
  49. Blues in G (0:29)
  50. Blue Flame – Probably from Jesse Ashlock, who played fiddle with Bob Wills’ band. Key of A. (1:01)
  51. Rye Straw – Key of D. (1:02)
  52. Whiskers – John learned this rag from Dale Carothers (1915-1987) of Ripley, Oklahoma. This was a signature piece that Dale was known for playing. Key of C. (0:58)
  53. John Henry – Key of D. (0:44)
  54. Green Valley Waltz – Commonly played in Arkansas, this probably came to John through the Guthrie family. Key of G. (1:00)
  55. Ragtime Annie – Key of D. (1:19)
  56. The Arkansas Hollering Tune (solo) – see note for track 8. Key of A. (0:51)
  57. Pop Goes the Weasel – Many old fiddlers played this tune, but it’s not one you hear much anymore. Key of G. (0:35)
  58.  John Reflects on His Fiddling – John was a self-effacing man, so it’s hard to overstate how unusual it was for him say anything positive about his own music, even through the mouths of others as in this reminiscence. We loved his playing, but it was clear that he felt his skills were no longer what they once were, and it also clearly frustrated him that modern styles of fiddling had eclipsed in popularity the older music that he loved. He had his devoted supporters, though, and it was a proud moment when he once won the “People’s Favorite” award at a contest. (0:45)