1939 Library of Congress Recordings Collected in Mississippi by Herbert Halpert
Document DOCD-8071 (3 CDs in one package)
Disc: 1Some of the first recordings that I heard of American folk music were on LPs issued by the Library of Congress. I especially remember Enos Canoy's fiddle tune The Old Blue Sow and W E Claunch's Grub Springs, and there were one or two banjo tunes played by Thaddeus C Willingham. These artists were all from Mississippi and had been recorded in 1939 by Herbert Halpert, as part of Roosevelt's WPA arts project. Halpert had travelled from New York down to Mississippi in a converted army ambulance, nicknamed the "Soundwagon". He took with him a Presto 78 disc cutter, then one of the best portable recording machines available, and recorded some 147 tracks of mainly fiddle and banjo music. Unfortunately, a few of the recordings suffer from speed fluctuation, caused by variable electrical supplies. Thus, on one or two tracks, the pitch can sometimes begin to move around somewhat. The recordings were deposited in the Library of Congress in Washington and, it has to be said, were largely forgotten. However, the University of Mississippi Press has just issued a book, Mississippi Fiddle Tunes and Songs from the 1930s by Harry Bollick and Stephen T Austin, which contains transcriptions of the tunes, together with extensive notes, and Document Records, here in England, have brought out an accompanying 3 CD set of all the recordings that Halpert made during his historical field trip. I don't yet have a copy of the book, but I do have the Document set, and this review is limited to this set of fascinating recordings.
W. E. Claunch with Mrs. Christine Haygood: 1. Ol' Molly Hare;  2. Soldiers Joy;  3. The Eighth of January;  4. Grub Springs;  5. Give the Fiddler a Dram;  6. Mississippi Sawyer;  7. Black-Eyed Susie;  8. Wagoner;  9. Chicken Pie;  10. Bear Creek's Up;  11. Grey Eagle;  12. Pass Around The Bottle and We(')ll All Take A Drink;  13. The Great Titanic;  14. Walkin' in the Parlor;  15. Run Nigger Run;  16. Rabbit in the Pea Patch;  17. The Devil's Dream;  18. Sally Gooden;  19. Cindy;  20. Texas Bells;  21. Raise Big 'Taters in Sandy Land;  22. Miss Sally At The Party;  23. Wolves a Howlin';  24. Oh, Yes, Mammy, Look at Sam (or Oh, Yes, Mama, Look at Sam);  25. How Old Are You, My Pretty Little Miss;  26. Drunkard's Hiccups;  27. Arkansas Traveler. John Hatcher: 28. Soldiers Joy;  29. Eighth of January take 1 & 2;  30. The Arkansas Traveler;  31. Tishomingo County Blues;  32. Goin' Up to Hamburg;  33. Scott Number Two;  34. Black-Eyed Susie;  35. Old Miss Sally;  36. Grub Springs;  37. Baldin or Long-Eared Mule;  38. Tom and Jerry;  39. Pretty Little Gal All Round Town;  40. Farewell Whiskey;  41. Bonapart's Retreat;  42. Buffalo Girl;  43. The Little Danville Girl;  44. Up the Road, Fur as I Can See;  45. Down Yonder;  46. Leather Breaches;  47. Billy in the Low Groun. John Alexander Brown: 48. Git Along Home, Cindy;  49. Give the Fiddler a Dram;  50. Wolves A-Howlin';  51. Dusty Miller;  52. Sally Goodin;  53. Froggie Went a-Courtin';  54. Not a-Gonna Have No Supper Here Tonight;  55. Rats in the Meal Barrel.
Frank T. Kittrell: 1. Interview;  2. Indian War Whoop;  3. Corn Fiddle - take 1 & 2;  4. Goin' to the Weddin';  5. Little Boy Went A-Courtin';  6. I Want To Go To Meetin' And Got No Shoes;  7. Cindy Jane (Get Along Home) (Copyright reg: Get Along Home, Miss Cindy);  8. Rye Straw;  9. Hell After the Yearlings. Hardy C. Sharp: 10. Puncheon Floor;  11. Great Big Yam Potatoes;  12. Leather Breaches;  13. Liza Jane;  14. Eighth of January;  15. Mississippi Sawyer. W. A. Bledsoe: 16. Interview;  17. Prettiest Little Gal in the County-O;  18. Big Foot Nigger in a Sandy Lot;  19. Stoney Point;  20. Farewell Mary Anne (Constitution Hornpipe);  21. Old Molly Hare;  22. Bill Cheatham. Horace Kinard: 23. Interview;  24. Liza Jane;  25. Railroad Bill. Charles Long: 26. My Little Dony;  27. Hard Road to Texas;  28. Drunkard's He-Cups;  29. Sally-O;  30. Jones County;  31. Steamboat;  32. Fisher's Hornpipe;  33. Alabama Waltz;  34. Big Eyed Rabbit;  35. Little Willie;  36. Rock Candy;  37. My Ol' Dog's Trailin' Up a Squirrel. Stephen B. Tucker: 38. Cold Frosty Morning;  39. Bragg's Retreat;  40. Hog Eye;  41. (No Name Recalled);  42. Throw the Soap Suds In the Corner Of the Fence;  43. Soldier's Joy;  44. Mississippi Sawyer;  45. Fisher's Hornpipe;  46. Arkansas Traveler;  47. Run, Nigger, Run;  48. Raker's Hornpipe;  49. Texas Wagon;  50. Indian Eat the Woodpecker;  51. Devil's Dream;  52. Tom and Jerry;  53. Christmas Time in the Morning;  54. Pound Cake and Sugar;  55. Joke on the Puppy;  56. Haste to the Wedding;  57. (Jig. No Title Recalled);  58. Circus Piece;  59. Chippy Get Your Hair Cut;  60. Leather Breeches;  61. Calico.
Enos Canoy: 1. Possum and the Raccoon;  2. Eighth of January;  3. The Old Blue Sow;  4. Buck Dancin' Charlie;  5. Lost John;  6. Tim Canoy - introduction to Henry Holmes Holla (Cornfield Holler);  7. Henry Holmes Holla (Cornfield Holler);  8. Old Field Rabbit (with Jim Meyers);  9. Pickin' the Devil's Eye;  10. Where'd You Get Your Whiskey;  11. Pore Little Mary Settin' In the Corner;  Lola Canoy: 12. Pearl Brown. Thaddeus C. Willingham: 13. Interview;  14. Roll On the Ground, Boys;  15. Goin' On Down Town;  16. Rove, Riley, Rove;  17. Shake Your Little Foot, Sally Ann;  18. Black-Eyed Susie;  19. Run, Nigger, Run;  20. Oh, My Little Darling (same as My Little Dony);  21. Want A Little Water, Johnny;  22. Cross-Eyed Gopher;  23. Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet? / Mississippi Valley Waltz;  24. Cripple Creek;  25. Humpback Mule;  26. Old Dan Tucker;  27. Uncle Bud;  28. Liza Jane;  29. Old Joe Clark;  30. Miss Cindy - takes 1 & 2;  31. Sally Goodin.
It seems strange that, while there must have been thousands of recordings made of Mississippi blues singers, there are very few recordings of old-time musicians from the State. Document records list six CDs worth of material (Narmour & Smith - DOCD 8065 & 8066, Leake County Revelers - DOCD 8029 & 8030, and Mississippi String Bands - DOCD 8009 & 8028) which cover the major players from the 1920s. And now, at long last, we have this vast treasure trove available for all to hear. Sadly, the CD set comes with very sparse notes. There are six pages of discographical material and only three pages devoted to how the recordings came to be made. I suppose that listeners are expected to have the above mentioned book to hand for details of the performers and their tunes, which is a pity. But as the CD set only costs around £16 (about $24), then I suppose that this is understandable.
With the exception of two performers, banjo players Horace Kinard and Thaddeus C Willingham, all of the performers heard here are fiddle players. But, being a banjo player myself, I will annoy the fiddlers and start by considering Willingham and Kinard first! Thaddeus C Willingham, from Gulfport in Harrison County, was the archetypal southern banjo-player and singer. A number of his pieces, such as Roll on the Ground, Rove, Riley, Rove and Oh, My Little Darling, have already been picked up by revival singers and musicians and I am sure that many of his other pieces will soon be heard in sing-a-rounds and gatherings. I have read elsewhere that Willingham was originally from Alabama and was raised on his father's farm. There were, it seems, several ex-slaves working on the farm and they taught Willingham quite a number of songs. Oh, My Little Darling is the sort of thing that Negro singers would have been singing in the South in the late 1800s, the song comprising a selection of "floating" verses.
As to the fiddle players, ten in all, then it has to be said that Halpert did find some good performers. Many of their tunes are versions of very well-known pieces, such as Old Molly Hare, Soldier's Joy, Eight of January, Sally Gooden, Sally Ann, Black-Eyed Susie, Rye Straw, Mississippi Sawyer etc. But there are some tunes that I have never heard before and there are a number of items that show how a tune can change. Or, as the booklet notes put it, 'However, individual musicians have reshaped those common tunes into distinctive and original creations. Beats and phrases are dropped, added, or ignored more so than in other states, and then there is the influence of the blues.' To be honest, I have to say that I cannot hear many tunes that show a blues influence. Even Tishomingo County Blues played here by John Hatcher, sounds more like a printed jazz piece, rather than a tune learnt from a local blues singer. On the other hand, you can hear similarities between fiddlers. For example, fiddler W E Claunch, from Lee County, sounds similar at times to the Carter Brothers and Son, who were recorded in 1928, and who came from neighbouring Monroe County, and, to a lesser extent, to Hoyt Ming, also recorded in 1928 but under the name Floyd Ming, who was from Tupelo in Lee County. One other influence that I can hear in a number of these recordings is that of Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, whose recordings must, I would suggest, have once been popular in parts of Mississippi.
One problem here (and with any fiddle album, for that matter!) is that titles may, or may not, be what you expect. Frank K Kittrell's I Want to Go to Meetin' And Got No Shoes, for example, is clearly related to the tune Granny Went to Meeting with her Old Shoes On which can be heard played by Vernon and Zora Judd on MTCD 505-6, while Stephen B Tucker's Indian Eat the Woodpecker, which I thought might be related to Ed Haley's lovely Indian Ate the Woodchuck, is a different tune. And so too is Frank T Kittrell's Indian War Whoop, which is different from the same-titled piece that Floyd Ming recorded. Hopefully, we will find that problems such as this are solved in the accompanying book.
One interesting fact discovered by Herbert Halpert was just how many fiddle players were used to playing while another person beat a pair of straws on the fiddle strings, thus creating an extra sense of rhythm to the tune. I had previous heard recordings of the Kentucky fiddle player Alva Green playing to such accompaniment (Rounder CD 0376 - Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky, Volume 1), but Mr Green, who was recorded in 1973, seemed to represent a tradition that was then on the way out. Halpert, on the other hand, recorded three Mississippi players, Frank T Kittrell, Charles Long and Enos Canoy, who played with people who were used to beating a pair of straws on the fiddle strings. And, as the three players lived in different Mississippi counties, it would seem that this practice was well-known in 1939.
Before I end this review, I should point out that Herbert Halpert also spent time recording black singers and musicians while in Mississippi, and some of these recordings can be heard on a further two Document CDs: Field Recordings, volume 3, Mississippi 1936-1942 (DOCD 5577) and Field Recordings, volume 4, Mississippi and Alabama 1934-1942 (DOCD 5578).
This is an amazing set of recordings. All praise, then, to Herbert Halpert for making the recordings in the first place and to the musicians who can be heard here. And, let us not forget Document Records, who have issued the set. I cannot think of many other companies who would have done so.
Mike Yates - 29.12.15
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