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Mountain Music Roundup

By John Lilly

Each year about this time, we take a look at the best of the most recent crop of recordings and reissues of mountain music from West Virginia. Times are apparently changing, however, and the steady stream of self-produced and small-label releases we have enjoyed these past several years did not materialize in 2011. Whether due to economics, emerging technologies, changing audience interests, or luck of the draw we likely will never know. But I would encourage performers and record companies to put us on their mailing lists for any new releases in the coming year so we can continue to promote and document these great recordings in our pages.

This year, in addition to the films highlighted on page __, we have one very large boxed set of CD’s to discuss, and two new books.

Everyone should know about the Bristol Sessions. Taking place in Bristol, Tennessee, in July and August 1927, these landmark recordings from Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company marked the birth of the country music recording industry. Country music’s first singing star, Jimmie Rodgers, and First Family, the original Carter Family, both got their starts there, and the ripples from that event – often called the Big Bang of Country Music – are still felt worldwide.

Bear Family Records of Hamburg, Germany, is known for its extensive, expensive boxed sets of historically significant recordings. Their 2011 release of the complete collection from the Bristol Sessions adds another feather in their cap and another must-have boxed set for fans of early country music.

The Bristol Sessions 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music includes five disks, 41 artists, 124 tracks, and more than 385 minutes of music. It comprises not only every surviving recording from the famous 1927 sessions, but also from the lesser-known 1928 follow-up sessions. A gorgeous 120-page booklet written by Dr. Ted Olson and historian Tony Russell includes discography, personnel, song lyrics, and expert analysis, as well as photographs of nearly all the artists. (GOLDENSEAL magazine was proud to contribute photos of the West Virginia Coon Hunters and Blind Alfred Reed.)

The Bristol Sessions were a big success not only from the standpoint of the burgeoning field of commercial country music, but they also provided a valuable and immensely entertaining look at the “musical Main Street” of central Appalachia at that time. In addition to yodelers (Rodgers) and harmony singers (Carters), there were fiddlers, string bands, banjo pickers, balladeers, preachers, choirs, children, and comedians from a five-state area.

West Virginia sent two acts to the sessions in 1927 and one in 1928. The first to arrive, on a personal invitation from producer Ralph Peer, was Hinton fiddler and songwriter Blind Alfred Reed [see “The Blind Man’s Song: Remembering Alfred Reed,” by John Lilly; Winter 2008]. Owing to a personal connection with Virginia singer and band leader Pop Stoneman and a topical song Reed had written called “The Wreck of the Virginian,” Reed was among the first to record. He cut two solo versions of the “Wreck of the Virginian,” both included here, on July 28. Reed also took the opportunity to record three of his original religious songs, as well, accompanied by guitarist Arthur Wyrick.

The West Virginia Coon Hunters string band, from Bluefield, were among the last to record. They cut two songs on August 5, the final day of the 1927 session. Singer/guitarist Clyde Meadows, fiddler W.B. Boyles, banjo player Joe Stephens, banjo-ukulele player Vernal Vest, and guitarist Fred Belcher played lively versions of “Greasy String” and “Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy.” [See “The West Virginia Coon Hunters: On the Trail of a Lost String Band,” by John Lilly; Spring 2003.]

The following year, Clyde Meadows returned to Bristol along with fiddler and singer Fred Pendleton, a member of the Coon Hunters Band who did not make the 1927 trip, to record once again for Mr. Peer. Their two performances on November 3, 1928, “The Young Rambler” and “The Last Farewell,” were never issued by Victor but are available for the first time in this new boxed set.

The Bristol Sessions 1927-1928 sells for $120 and is available from County Sales at www.countysales.com or by phoning (540)745-2001.

Interest in traditional fiddle music has never been higher, as indicated by the number of musicians playing these days and their growing attendance at workshops and festivals. Many younger musicians have discovered old-time music after taking years of formal training, such as the popular Suzuki method or involvement with school orchestras. This new generation of musically literate and technically savvy fiddlers in particular will welcome a new book of notated fiddle music called, Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes. Self-published by the pair’s own Mudthumper Music, this monumental work includes the written melodies of more than 1,400 tunes, as well as an introduction and several useful indices and appendices.

Authors Clare Milliner and Walt Koken are accomplished and award-winning old-time musicians from Pennsylvania and New York, and have spent most of a decade researching and compiling this work. Unprecedented in its scope and content, the Milliner-Koken Collection seeks to document the earliest or essential versions of the myriad fiddle tunes commonly played at festivals, dances, and music parties across the country today. The book also pinpoints the sources of particular versions of these tunes and offers brief biographical sketches of these source musicians.

Subjective as it may be, the 888-page large-format hardbound edition contains most of the tunes and information you might wish to find. “Turkey in the Straw” is included, along with “Turkey Buzzard,” “Turkey in the Pea Patch,” and “Turkey Knob.” There is a rather advanced version of “Boil Dem Cabbage Down,” along with five versions of “Black Eyed Susie” plus “Black Eyed Susan” and “Black Eyed Suzyanna.” Indeed, many unrelated or distantly related melodies share a common name, and many tunes have more than one name. Ten pages of Comments address some of these issues.

Colorful titles abound, such as “Duck’s Eyeball,” “Up Jumped Trouble,” “The Indians Are Over the Hill,” and “Starvation on Hell Creek.” Notation is in standard keys but is written without traditional measures or time signatures. According to the authors’ introduction, this is due to the irregular nature of many of these old tunes and the problems of correctly accounting for the “crooked” rhythms often encountered in this music.

West Virginia is well represented. According to the Artists’ Profiles appendix, there are 24 fiddlers and two bands cited from the Mountain State, including stalwarts such as Melvin Wine, Burl and Edden Hammons, Clark Kessinger, and Ernie Carpenter as well as lesser-known figures from West Virginia, such as Sam Hacker, the Red Brush Rowdies, and John Scotland Hannah. Brief biographical statements are provided as well as references to recordings, publications, and Web sites for each fiddler or group.

In such a huge undertaking, there are unavoidably areas where some might disagree with a few of the many decisions and choices that have to be made. Why, for example, are common tunes such as “Whiskey before Breakfast” and “Ashokan Farewell” not included while the book is filled with obscure numbers such as “Squalling Cats” and “Untitled #4?”

I was initially skeptical of the benefits and risks involved in creating a written document from what is essentially an aural tradition. Once I saw the book, however, I came to see the value of this work. By offering variants and multiple versions of tunes and by providing ample source and background information, this book becomes an important reference volume rather than a shortcut for lazy or disconnected fiddlers.

Mercifully large, heavy, and costly ($90, plus shipping), this book is unlikely to result in groups of old-time fiddlers sitting around the camp at Clifftop with their music stands and a conductor, playing sterilized and standardized versions of “Old Jake Gillie.” The far more likely result will be a wider understanding of the depth and complexity of traditional fiddle music and an appreciation for the collectors and authors who contributed to this wonderful volume.

The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes is available on-line at www.mkfiddletunes.com. For bulk orders, e-mail wkoken@comcast.net.

Speaking of fiddlers, a recent children’s book titled, Passing the Music Down, by Sarah Sullivan, of Charleston, offers a fictionalized account of Braxton County fiddler Melvin Wine and his relationship with young Indiana native Jake Krack. The 28-page hardbound storybook tells the tale of a young boy and an elderly musician who forge a friendship rooted in traditional music and wholesome values. It is illustrated with colorful watercolor and gouache paintings by Barry Root of Pennsylvania. The book is available for $16.95, plus shipping, from West Virginia Book Company; phone 1-888-982-7472, on-line at www.wvbookco.com.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.