Roger Cooper

Essence of Old Kentucky

MT Records MTCD510

Dance All Night;  Stonewall Jackson;  Old Kentucky Blackberry Blossom;  Wild Goose Chase;  Headwaters of Tygart;  Jim Woodward Tune;  Queen of the West;  Father Wheeler's Waltz;  Pond Creek Polka;  Gippy, Get Your Hair Cut;  Martha Campbell;  Hard Up Big Kanawha;  Nancy Rowland;  Lazy Bow Drag;  Shortening Bread;  Big Indian Hornpipe;  Dittany Tea;  Pretty Little Indian;  Golden Star Hornpipe;  Flannery's Dream;  Rough and Ready;  We'll All Go to Heaven When the Devil Goes Blind;  Birdie;  Paddy Bids Farewell to America;  Midnight Serenade;  Trot Along, My Honey;  Sally Growler;  Putney's Run;  Morgan on the Railroad;  Briarpicker Brown;  Soapsuds over the Fence;  Six White Horses;  Yellow Barber;  Katy Hill.
Cover pictureIn the early 1970s two collectors, Guthrie T Meade and Mark Wilson, began scouting around north-east Kentucky seeking out old-timey fiddlers.  And, boy, did they strike lucky! What they found was an active, living tradition, much of it based around the town of Portsmouth, just across the river in Ohio.  Many of the players that they found had started out at the beginning of the 20th century, learning, in turn, from other, older players such as Bob Glenn, Ed Haley or Clark Kessinger.

The fiddlers that Meade and Wilson found included the octogenarian Morris Allen of Portsmouth, George Lee Hawkins from Bath County, KY, Alfred Bailey, a Flemingsburg farmer, Perry Riley who was born in 1893, and Bob Prater, another farmer, this time from Foxport.  And, almost by chance, they stumbled across a much younger player from Lewis County who, that day, was playing in a bluegrass band at a small Kentucky folk festival.  This was Buddy Thomas.  I first heard of Buddy Thomas in 1976, when I came across one of the most exciting albums that I had ever heard, Kitty Puss - Old-Time Fiddle Music from Kentucky.  It was lucky that we had the album, because, a few months after making the recordings, Buddy Thomas died suddenly of a heart-attack.  He was 39 years old.  Buddy Thomas was an amazing musician.  He came from a quite remote part of Lewis County and seemed to have spent much of his short life with older musicians, from whom he picked up any number of rare, and sometimes quirky, tunes.  He clearly had a hard life - he once said of his childhood that he grew up, "so poor that even the poor folk said we were poor" - and yet, in many ways, he seemed to have had a very positive approach to life.  According to Meade and Wilson, 'The fiddle made Buddy many friends and, God knows, he had precious little to give away beyond his warm good nature and his talent.  Day and night cars would drive the impossible road to the cabin where Buddy lived with his mother to take him some place to play.  Most of his fiddling was not done on a stage but on a borrowed instrument in the home of friends or at little parties out through the countryside.  It was there that Buddy felt truly at home; in a better focus for his little jokes and his lonely fiddle music.  He rejoiced in company … and it is especially sad that this gentle and unassuming man never lived to receive the modest bit of recognition which this album (Kitty Puss) may bring.'

Kitty Puss was eventually reissued on CD (Rounder 0032), although while the tunes were the same, the compilers felt obliged to use alternate recordings for the CD, as the ones used on the LP did not sound as good when transferred to the CD format.  Later, a further six tracks were released on another Rounder CD - Up the Ohio and Licking Rivers: Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky.  Volume 1, CD 0376 - and then, in 2005, the Field Recorders' Collective issued yet another Buddy Thomas CD (FRC303), comprising thirty-three tracks that had been recorded by Dave Spilkia and Ray Alden.

I dwell on Buddy Thomas, because one of the things that Buddy did manage to do was to teach and support a younger player called Roger Cooper.  In fact, we can find Roger's account of his debt to Buddy Thomas in a recently published Mustrad article, one that I would urge all readers to have a look at.  In the early 1990s Mark Wilson returned to Kentucky and, following John Harrod's urging ('in the strongest possible terms'), he called in to see Roger.  'That first evening, Roger was a little nervous and played too fast, but what a thrill it was to hear Snakewinder again in its proper glory.  Roger's fiddle playing differs in quite a number of respects from Buddy's, but the basic commonality they share is the quality of thought that lies behind their playing.'  This meeting led to Roger's first Rounder CD Going Back to Old Kentucky (Rounder CD 0380), an album that included a number of tunes that came from Buddy.  I especially like the note to the tune Bear Creek Hop.  'When Buddy Thomas played this, he would always cross his eyes and roll his head around during the pizzicato passages, to the great amusement of nearby children'.  I think that many listeners to the album probably thought of Roger as some sort of Buddy Thomas reincarnation, even though he included several tunes that he had learnt from other local performers, but this would, I think, be wrong.  Yes, Roger Cooper is a part of a splendid local tradition and, yes, he does owe a debt to Buddy Thomas (and to all the other fiddlers that he has played with over the years) but Roger Cooper is far more than that.  To quote Mark Wilson again, 'Roger represents one of the last of our country players who have learnt to play the fiddle in an entirely traditional manner'.  But, of course, Roger is now living in a different era, one in which all forms of music can be heard at the touch of a button.  'Roger…greatly admires the music of Bob Wills and has become intrigued of late with classic swing fiddlers such as Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith (who was born in Portsmouth, as it happens).'  So, as in all living traditions, things will inevitably change, because, as I have observed elsewhere, a tradition that does not change is a moribund tradition.

During the period 2003 - 05 Mark Wilson produced Roger Cooper's second album for Rounder Records, Essence of Old Kentucky CD 0533.  And it is this album that Musical Traditions have now reissued here.  Following on from Mark Wilson's comment above we find the following additional statement, 'in the music heard here Roger adheres to Buddy Thomas' admonition to 'keep it original', which does not necessarily entail a slavish imitation of sources, but instead an insistence that ones performances maintain a stylistic 'old time' integrity at every level of detail … his time with Buddy and all of the (other fiddle players) instilled a deep love for the old fiddle music in his heart, as well as a robust appreciation of the skill required to make their evocative contours come alive.  But most of this grand heritage has now vanished from Lewis County and Portsmouth, having become displaced by bluegrass and other forms of modern music.'  If I have quoted Mark Wilson at length, it is because I believe that he has so much of value to say about Roger Cooper and about the musical tradition that dominates Roger's background.  It is a tradition that has 'become displaced' and yet, largely because of Mark's recording activity, this tradition may survive in one form or other because of the number of younger fiddlers who are now inspired by Roger's recordings.

So, just what do we get on Essence of Old Kentucky?  Well, out of the thirty-four tunes, about eleven came to Roger from Buddy Thomas and a further fourteen from other local musicians, such as Abe Keiber, Bob Prater, Morris Allen, Jimmy Wheeler and George Hawkins.  Jimmy Wheeler, it may be noted, can be heard playing on his solo Field Recorders' Collective album FRC401, while many other Portsmouth area fiddlers can be heard on the previously mentioned album Up the Ohio and Licking Rivers: Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky.  Volume 1. Rounder CD 0376.  One tune, Gippy, Get Your Hair Cut, was learnt directly from Clark Kessinger's influential 78 rpm recording (Brunswick 364, recorded in 1929) and a further seven tunes came from private recordings made of other fiddlers.  Interestingly, four of these tunes came from Jim Woodward, a fiddler from Jessamine County, KY, who, in turn, had learnt tunes from the black fiddle-player Jim Booker.  Booker, it will be remembered, played fiddle for the predominantly white band 'Taylor's Kentucky Boys' and their 1927 recordings of Gray Eagle and Forked Deer, which feature Booker's playing, have been reissued on a number of occasions.  (Try the Document CD String Bands, DOCD-5167, for example.)  And this leads us on to an interesting question.  It seems that all the fiddle-players known to Roger Cooper in the Portsmouth area were white.  Is this, I wonder, really the case?  I ask because there are a number of recordings available elsewhere by, say, black Tennessee fiddlers who, at times, sound uncannily like white players.  Listen, for example, to Cuje Bertram whose recordings often remind me of the playing of Leonard Rutherford, especially with tunes such as Billy in the Low Ground or She is a Flower from the Fields of Alabama (Document DOCD-5631 (Black Fiddlers) for Bertram and Document DOCD-8025 (Burnett & Rutherford.  Complete recorded works) for Rutherford.  Or compare John Lusk's Apple Blossom with the playing of Fred Cockerham, Tommy Jarrell or the other Round Peak, NC performers.  Lusk can be heard on the CD Altamon: Black Stringband Music Rounder CD 0238.  Cockerham and Jarrell are to be heard on various County CDs.)  So, was the Portsmouth tradition a purely white tradition, or did black players, people like Jim Booker, help create this music?

As to the tunes that can be heard on this album, for me the thing that stands out is their incredible beauty.  They really are a joy to hear.  Roger Cooper is a wonderfully talented fiddle-player.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is one of the very best old-time fiddlers playing today.  If we compare his playing of Martha Campbell with the seminal recordings that Doc Roberts made of the tune in 1925 and 1929 (reissued on Document CDs DOCD-8042 and DOCD-8043) then we find that the slurs and slides that Roberts employed have been replaced with a series of quickly played individual notes, giving the tune a somewhat 'fuller' feel.  No matter what the source of the tune, '(Roger) invariably integrates these melodies into the more propulsive and harmonically 'fattened up' style that he learnt from Buddy Thomas' (Mark Wilson).  In fact there is very little need for me to comment further on the tunes; because Mark Wilson's extensive notes are extremely detailed.  I must add a couple of things, though.  One tune, Queen of the West is of special interest to me, sounding, as it does, like a number of hornpipes that have been played over the years by English country musicians.  When I pointed this out to Rod Stradling, asking if he could identify it, he replied, "Well, not the tune as a whole, but there's bits of several English hornpipes in there: Soldiers' Joy; Rickett's; Greencastle and at least one other.  Maybe the melodic equivalent of 'floating verses'?"  I like that phrase, "the melodic equivalent of 'floating verses'".  And, perhaps I should also say that when Mark Wilson is discussing the oddly titled Soapsuds Over the Fence he could have mentioned the equally odd The Hog Went Through the Fence, Yoke and All, a tune that was recorded from Luther Strong (The Music of Kentucky 1927-37 Volume 2 Yazoo 2014).  What is it about fences in Kentucky?

When Scott Prouty reviewed this album a few years ago in Musical Traditions, he commented that very few people were now playing these tunes.  I can only hope that in the intervening years there has been a reversal of this, and that these pieces are once again enjoying the popularity that they deserve. We owe much to Mark Wilson for recording and issuing this album, but, above all, we owe a massive debt to Roger Cooper for keeping this music alive.  This is a stunning album and deserves to be heard by the widest possible audience.

Mike Yates - 24.11.10

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