By David Bragger
Three summers ago, I spent a day with legendary old-time Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport. A friend and I spent a day in his home and listened in awe to his fiddle and banjo playing. His smooth slippery bow style and reedy tone left us mesmerized the entire day. His wife Lorene’s surprise feast also contributed to the spell we were under. Homegrown supper, old stories and authentic fiddle playing are the recipe for old-time Heaven. An image that’s burned forever in my memory is of Clyde playing a certain tune that day. Slouched back on his crochet-covered couch and draped in his trademark overalls, Clyde effortlessly sawed through the classic fiddle tune Ladies on the Steamboat.
In just one story, Clyde demonstrated (1) his “supernatural” gift of playing fiddle without instruction, (2) his success in fooling a blind man, and (3) his ability to play just like his favorite fiddler, who is heralded by most as a virtuoso difficult to mimic. When you listen to Clyde you can hear distinct echoes of Leonard Rutherford. Not an easy skill. Interestingly, Clyde told me he couldn’t play the fiddle at all when I arrived. He played this joke for about an hour while I spoke to him and his wife about other things. Suddenly he left the room and returned with a homemade fiddle. Once he started playing, he didn’t put it down for about nine hours!! This was one of those rare occasions where I felt connected to an older time and an older music. For me, it was spending a day with Clyde. For you, I have found something different.
Master producer of vintage music Richard Nevins has assembled a compilation of old-time music that is nothing short of epic. Kentucky Mountain Music on the Yazoo label (http://www.yazoorecords.com/2200.htm) is a 7 CD box set featuring a sonic line up of biblical proportions. In fact, I’ve often told both students and friends that it’s my current bible of oldtime recordings. An oversized 32-page booklet offers beautiful photographs and two detailed essays. One essay, by Nevins, details the artists and tunes on the early commercial recordings in the set. Another essay, by late scholar Charles Wolfe, tells the tale of Alan and Elizabeth Lomax’s Library of Congress sponsored field recording trip in the Fall of 1937. Several field recordings in this collection come from that trip.
The set launches off with none other than Ladies on the Steamboat by Burnett and Rutherford. It is one of the finest recordings in old-time music. Burnett’s percussive banjorapping, weird vocalizations and Rutherford’s loose fiddling mesh into something wonderful and sublime. It’s clear why Clyde Davenport admired these guys. Also in this voluminous collection of old hits are commercial recordings by Jimmy Johnson’s String Band (featuring fiddler Andy Palmer), Taylor’s Kentucky Boys (featuring African American fiddler Jim Booker), Ted Gossett’s Band, Doc Roberts, the Crockett Family, the Walter Family, and Charlie Wilson & His Hillbillies. Nevins has tracked down beautiful clear copies of these recordings that he has re-mastered perfectly. In addition to these commercial recordings, we have the field recordings that probably capture some of the finest old-time performances I’ve ever heard. Just listen to the Lomax tracks by fiddler Bill Stepp and banjoist Walter Williams or banjo players Pete Steele, Justus Begley and J.M. Mullins. Pete Steele’s Payday at Coal Creek and Little Birdie changed my understanding of banjo playing when I first heard his recordings. They are deliberate, technical, and blistering with Kentucky mojo. In general, I can’t exaggerate how virtuosic the fiddling, guitar playing, banjo picking, and ensemble arrangements are. This collection offers a unique balance of various folk instrumentations, Kentucky regional styles, serendipitous studio magic, and superhuman musicality. It is the ultimate study for enthusiasts and students of old-time music
David Bragger is a Los Angeles-based instructor and player of old time fiddle and banjo music. He also photographs, films, and collects the lore of traditional artists, from puppeteers in Myanmar to fiddlers of Appalachia