Vol. 1 - Fiddle Music Along a Great River
Kenny Roth Tune #1 - Harold Zimmerman. Texas John - Emma Lee Dickerson. Pumpkin Vine - Forrest Pick. Old Flannigan - Tommy Taylor. Shelvin' Rock - Alfred Bailey. Lead Out - Ray Hilt. Blackjack - Hobert Bowling. Hell Up the Holler - Sam McCord. Portsmouth Hill Winder - John Lozier. Chillicothe Beauty - Forrest Pick. Forked Deer - Bob Prater 01:43 Listen Listen. Billy in the Lowground - Buddy Thomas. Briarpicker Brown - Morris Allen. Blackberry Blossom - John Lozier. General Lee - Roger Cooper. Grecian Bend - Forrest Pick. Birdie - Forrest Pick. Susan's Gone - Emma Lee Dickerson. Run, Boy, Run - Tommy Taylor. Dad's Schottische #2 - Ray Hilt. Berry Station - John Kinman. Kenny Roth Tune #2 - Harold Zimmerman. Flannery's Dream - Emma Lee Dickerson. Hog Ears - Forrest Pick. Charleston #2/Stonewall Jackson - Buddy Thomas. Medley of Ed Haley Tunes - Ray 'Curly' Parker. Muddy Road to Charleston - Charlie Kinney. Gray Eagle - Bob Prater. Cacklin' Hen - Shirley Cline. Belvedere Hornpipe - Lem Isom. Hog Skin - Hobert Bowling. Old Coon Dog - John Lozier. Lazy Drag - Ray Hilt. Old Flannigan - Harold Zimmerman. Chicken Reel - Buddy Thomas. Martha Campbell - Alfred Bailey. Portsmouth, Ohio Airs - Forrest Pick. Little Liza Jane - Emma Lee Dickerson.Mark Wilson and John Harrod have once again teamed up to produce this excellent release, part of the North American Traditions (NAT) series as well as the Rounder Archive series. In some ways, it is a successor to their earlier Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky, Vols. 1 and 2 (Rounder CD 0376 and 0377) in that there is some overlap of performers and complete overlap of general aesthetic. This present project features their recordings of a variety of fiddlers (and one harmonica player) made in collaboration with Guthrie 'Gus' T Meade and separately by Barbara Kunkle, who provided unique recordings of fiddlers otherwise undocumented. The CD contains a generous 38 tracks of 18 different musicians, most but not all lasting under three minutes. The liner notes are available via a PDF file on the CD, saving in printing costs and allowing Rounder to more easily make these and similar recordings (i.e. those not likely to make a lot of money) available. However, potential purchasers may miss having the booklets to leaf through.
The bulk of the liner notes are written by John Harrod, who helps to provide insight and context into the music and lives of the fiddlers that made it, such as tune history and the relationships some musicians on the CD had to each other . Despite the impression one could take from its title, Harrod states that this release does not claim to document any one 'Ohio River Valley' style of fiddling, only a sampling of the music that can be found in the Ohio River Valley between Ashland, Kentucky and Madison, Indiana. That no one single style of fiddling dominates this large region is due to several factors that will be explored in reviewing this recording.
One such factor is related to a complex theme running through the notes concerning the decline of individual expression in some current old-time music as compared against the example set by the musicians on this recording. This could be taken as a sharp criticism, or a simple demonstration of an alternative path of traditional music performance. An example of this path could be the group of fiddlers that gathered in Charlie and Noah Kinney's family barn in Lewis County, Kentucky (many of whom are heard here). All lived within a 15 mile radius yet each put their own stamp on their fiddle playing. Harrod describes these events:
Rather than the large free-for-all jam sessions that typify old-time music gatherings today, these deeply rooted and individualistic musicians sat in a circle inside the barn on wooden crates, ladder-back chairs, and old truck seats and passed the fiddle around, each one playing four or five of the tunes that they were most known for in that community of fiddlers, who all seemed to value the distinctive qualities of each others' playing.Harrod later elaborates on what he feels has been lost:
while the context of contemporary fiddling (the festivals, jams, and the availability of sound recordings both commercial and underground in a global marketplace) has tended toward the amalgamation of styles and repertoire, eclipsing the regional and individual styles we have been most interested in, the egalitarian setting of the Kinneys' barn in which each player performed as an individual doubtless helped to preserve the rich and eccentric diversity [of the fiddle tradition itself].To demonstrate this individuality of interpretation, there is the example of Roger Cooper (featured here and on his own recording reviewed here), brilliantly turning a Texas fiddle tune learned via cassette, General Lee, into a melody that fits right in with his other tunes stylistically. Interestingly, Mark Wilson points out that 'the tune itself is related to Old Dubuque which was traditionally played around Portsmouth'. A further example can be heard by listening to Ray Hilt's Dad's Schottische #2 (sound clip), which represents a remnant of Southern fiddling tradition in the form of a tune type that has not survived into the present day old-time tradition (although some recorded fiddlers of previous generations such as Ed Haley, Bob Walters and John Sharp were known to play them). Hilt's tune has a lonesome character in contrast to both the strident interpretation often given to the form by Scottish fiddlers and the vigorous treatments by Haley.
It has been observed that the closer one gets to the 19th century, the wider the kinds of tune types are encountered. Certainly radio and the availability of sound recordings played a role in the flattening the variety of fiddle music. In a small digression on this point, it is worth quoting Mark Wilson from another recent Rounder Archive reissue of the music of Graham Townsend (Rounder Records 82161-7007-2):
In the nineteenth century, an international fraternity of fiddlers flourished whose membership generously stretched across Britain and North America. The popular stage gave these musicians employment and mobility; musical publishing houses provided their means of communication. Looking over the tune collections of the period – Ryan's Mammoth Collection (known today as Cole's Thousand Fiddle Tunes), the various Kerr anthologies, Oliver Ditson's many publications – one is struck by the astonishing range of material presented, one where Irish jigs nestle with Scots strathspeys, diverse types of country dance music, minstrel clogs and sand jigs, popular selections from operatic works, an so on. Literate fiddlers of the period could commonly provide selections from this entire musical spectrum.The above given examples illustrate the point (as well more examples to come, such as Lem Isom) that something of this aesthetic of musically literate fiddlers lived in Portsmouth and environs. By musically literate, this includes other fiddlers (possibly the majority) who aurally learned repertoire and perhaps style from their music-reading colleagues. One reason for a variety of tune types would be the dances in vogue at the time. When fashions changed and certain dances went out of style, it's likely that so did the tunes to accompany them in most places (if not Portsmouth and similar milieus).
Perhaps the jewel in the crown among the fiddlers heard on this recording is Buddy Thomas, well known for his Kitty Puss recording (Rounder CD 0032) that was initially released by this group of collectors in the 1970s. No one else during his place and time was able to be so innovative yet also traditional at the same time. For instance, compare Morris Allen's rendition of Briarpicker Brown (sound clip) with that played by Thomas on Kitty Puss and you will hear that both are deeply traditional, yet Thomas was able to add a twist to the piece that brought out a completely different slant on the melody via his phrasing. The change makes Thomas's creativity of interpretation all the more striking once the listener is aware that Allen was Thomas's sole source of this rare melody (although strains of the Old World melody, The Rose Tree, can be heard in the low part of the tune). Able to play both bluegrass and the seemingly simplest of hoedown melodies (listen to his Chicken Reel here, which is anything but simple), Thomas covered a wide range of expression on the fiddle. Though he could add variations and improvise on a theme, such as in the masterful Billy in the Lowground (sound clip) heard on this recording, he always came across as deeply rooted in dance tradition and never one to play gratuitous 'hot licks' that wandered too far from the root melody. Harrod put it best when he writes that 'better than any fiddler we ever heard, Buddy exemplified how a master is creative within his tradition.'
Though it is not its stated primary goal, this recording allows the listener to hear a sampling of the old-time influences on Thomas's music, such as that of the Portsmouth, Ohio fiddlers. Among these was the lyrical and precise playing of Forrest Pick (one of the fiddlers recorded by Kunkle). Portsmouth is described as a 'a crossroads and melting pot for the fiddle styles that were brought into the area by the war-time economy of the 1940s', which resulted in a variety of musical expression. This can certainly be heard in the playing of Pick, who played tunes in 6/8 time as well as melodies containing some 19th century European influences by way of popular Victorian music 'which is characterized by heavy doses of German chromaticism', resulting in a complex blend of Northern and Southern fiddling styles. Listen to Pick's Portsmouth, Ohio Airs or Pumpkin Vine (sound clip) for examples of this kind of fiddling. Also from Portsmouth was the remarkable John Lozier, a harmonica player who learned to follow the fiddlers' melodies note for note, such as on the haunting Blackberry Blossom, not the well known Arthur Smith piece but a melody related to what is known in West Virginia as Yew Piney Mountain. Finally, Lem Isom learned several pieces out of a tunebook (likely the above mentioned Cole's 1,000 Fiddle Tunes), an additional source of repertoire which was passed on to non music-reading fiddlers in the community. Isom played in a laid back and sweet manner yet with an insistent rhythm. Another Portsmouth fiddler who was an influence on Thomas yet is not heard here was Jimmy Wheeler, who can be heard on a 2004 release (FRC401) by the Field Recorder Collective group. All of these fiddlers played in a more ornate style than their contemporaries to the South.
One of the influences on Thomas were the old style Lewis County fiddlers such as Joe Stamper (not heard on this release) and Bob Prater, who played with a unique, hard driving and highly danceable bowing style as is heard here on Forked Deer (sound clip). The aforementioned Charlie Kinney (first heard on Rounder CD 0376), also of Lewis County, had a loping rhythm is instantly recognizable and compelling. The strong fiddling scene that thrived in Portsmouth and Lewis County at least into the 1970s is insightful in explaining how a fiddler such as Buddy Thomas came to be and how tradition can change, yet keep its general character intact. To quote Harrod:
We believe there is hidden treasure in the old adage 'No two fiddlers ever play the same tune just alike'. Learning a tune from a single source is likely to result in mere imitation (not a bad practice early in one's career), but hearing the same tune elaborated by a number of different players opens up a wide world of possibilities from which one may pick and choose while adding one's own individual touches. The result is what traditional fiddling is all about: individual expression within the recognizable contours of a tradition. The tune is recognizable but so is the individuality of the performer playing the tune in their own way.These traditions as well as those of Lewis County all existed well before Thomas' time, yet Thomas had a knack for putting these influences together to create something new yet obviously sprung from the deep well of tradition. That does not mean that the music of the other fiddlers on this recording is any less valuable, only that here on this CD we can hear a bit of the process of tradition at work (in all honesty, a full sampling of Thomas' influences would need to include a healthy dose of bluegrass and well known 'radio' fiddlers such as Howdy Forrester).
Beyond the Portsmouth and Lewis County fiddlers, this recording also presents the music of other fiddlers not much heard in the present day, such as the remarkable Harold Zimmerman of Ohio, currently residing in Fort Thomas, KY in the Cincinnati area. He provides an instructive commentary on how fiddlers may interpret tunes spontaneously:
Most fiddle players learn a tune and they'll learn it a certain way and they'll play it for thirty and they won't change a note in it. Well, I never play a tune twice the same way. I'm not really thinking about what I'm playing at the time; I just got an image of what the tune's gonna be and all comes out. It goes ahead about a chorus or two in my ear, what I'm going to be playing. I don't never think what fingers gonna go where and all that. And if I have to discipline myself and the bow has to go a certain direction, just so far, I'm not there. I will have already left.Zimmerman's Kenny Roth Tune #1 appears to be a version of a melody often known as Miss Johnson's Hornpipe in both New World and Old World traditions (it makes appearances in several tunebooks, including Cole's 1,000 Fiddle Tunes). Other non-local influences on fiddling in this region come in the example of Hobert Bowling who, although long a resident of the Ohio River Valley, was born and raised in Southwestern Kentucky and retained a solo mountain style of fiddle playing.
Another factor that resulted in the prevention of a single Ohio River fiddle style by the time these recordings were made would be the influence of commercial music recordings such as those by the Skillet Lickers that influenced Tommy Taylor. Taylor also provides a wealth of intriguing commentary concerning fiddlers he knew that played 'Canadian' tunes, mentioning Frank Miller who recorded Old Flannigan (sound clip) (which Zimmerman plays here) and Old Voile with the Blue Ridge Mountaineers in the 1920s. This information dovetails nicely with the Richard Nevin's penned liner notes to the old Morningstar LP set, Old-Time Fiddle Band Music from Kentucky, Volume 3, Way Down South in Dixie, on which Frank Miller can be heard playing Old Flannigan. Nevins posits that a listener might hear a French Canadian sound in these recordings, while at the same time disclosing that Miller learned the tune from his uncle John Hall (who, incidentally, is the father of Jarvie Hall, heard on Rounder CD 0377), who had learned it from one Brock Flannigan, a fiddler originally from Texas. However, it is difficult to make any kind of connection between the fiddling of Miller / Taylor and Canadian fiddling. It is possible that the perceived connections, if any, are due to a transmission process (where written music may have played a role) that went undocumented. Mark Wilson comments, 'I believe that, at the present moment, we don't understand very clearly how fiddle tunes managed to get transported across the US and Canada'. He further expresses the frustration that a more systematic documentation of the oldest fiddling traditions in various regions was not undertaken as 'looking at the repertories of older fiddlers, there was some stock of tunes of the Lady Hamilton [played by older fiddles in Western North Carolina] class that were once fairly widely known and now show up in isolated pockets'.
Mention of a few other fiddlers is necessary: Emma Lee Dickerson of Elliott County (recorded by Kunkle) had an extremely infectious and a strong driving dance pulse to her playing. In light of earlier observations concerning individual expression within tradition, Dickerson's Susan's Gone (sound clip) is a case in point. It is a tune that has been played by other Kentucky fiddlers, but usually given a different treatment than it receives here, where Dickerson applies her vigorous dance-style bowing to deliver a powerful performance. Special mention must go to Dickerson's accompanist, her cousin Quentin Brickey, who played in a highly accomplished finger style manner on the guitar. Another notable fiddler was Ray 'Curly' Parker who, more than any other fiddlers these collectors met, 'had plainly absorbed more of [Ed] Haley's characteristic sound' and this is heard here in the impressive Medley of Ed Haley Tunes.
This project is valuable in that it documents the musical lives of these fiddlers and the tradition in which they learned and played music, refusing to be only a source of new repertoire for ever hungry fiddlers seeking new tunes (although it fulfills that function quite well). This release is just one of a piece that ties into several other projects recorded by this group of collectors (several of which have been released under the NAT series in recent years) and this can be seen by repeated reference in this review to other NAT recordings. Mention is made of a promised Vol. 2 throughout the notes, although none has yet to appear (this CD was released in 2005). I suspect that some of the recordings hinted at for Vol. 2 came out earlier this year on Musical Traditions own label as the 4 volume set largely featuring songs (but tunes as well), Meetings a Pleasure (see Volumes 1&2 and Volumes 3&4). Queried about this, Mark Wilson responds:
Yes, that was the original plan, but Rounder both delayed the release of this set for almost three years and stopped being willing to print booklets. I predicted (and was proved correct in the fact) that our artists would be unhappy to not see booklets with their records, for they often take great pride in these. So I decided to turn that part of the project over to Musical Traditions and expand the offerings. However, John and I do plan to eventually issue a second volume of Kentucky fiddle recordings on Rounder, if anyone is still buying CDs at that point.These projects produced by Mark Wilson and his partners (chiefly John Harrod, in the present case) have done much to make available the traditional music in several regions, giving a picture of tradition in these areas that would not exist otherwise. In Kentucky, during this time period, there were other collectors but none had significant government funding or backing from academics in the fields of Folklore or Ethnomusicology. May we hope that this striking flood of documentation that the NAT series provides continues to flow in the form of published product, despite the apparent lack of an audience that translates into sales of CDs. It would be a shame for projects such as these to be limited to being available only via download, as the documentation provided by the photos and text is needed to convey something of the tradition.
Scott Prouty - 18.6.07