Ernest V Stoneman
The Unsung Father of Country Music 1925 - 1934
5-String Productions 5SPH001.  (2 CDs)
The Red Fox Chasers
I'm Going Down to North Carolina
The Complete Recordings of the Red Fox Chasers 1928 - 31
Tompkins Square TSQ 2218.  (2 CDs)

Ernest Stoneman CDs:
Goodbye, Dear Old Step Stone.  John Hardy.  The Resurrection.  West Virginia Highway.  The Titanic.  The Spanish Merchant's Daughter.  The Burial of Wild Bill.  Sweeping Through the Gates.  Long-Eared Mule.  The Religious Critic.  Possum Trot School Exhibition – Part 1.  Possum Trot School Exhibition – Part 2.  I Am Resolved.  A Message from Home Sweet Home.  The Wreck of the Old '97.  Old Joe Clark.  Mountaineer's Courtship.  No More Good-Byes.  The Raging Sea, How it Roars.  The Face that Never Returned.  Ramblin' Reckless Hobo.  Hop Light Ladies.  All I've Got's Gone.  Goodbye, Dear Old Stepstone.  The Railroad Flagman's Sweetheart.  There's a Light Lit up in Galilee.  Sourwood Mountain.  The Orphan Girl.  Too Late.  The Fate of Talmadge Osborne.  I Know my Name is There.  Flop Eared Mule.  The Lightning Express.  Old Time Corn Shuckin'- Part 1.  Old Time Corn Shuckin'- Part 2.  Are You Washed in the Blood? When the Snowflakes Fall Again.  The Wreck of the C & O.  Once I Had a Fortune.  The Road to Washington.  He is Coming After Me.  Say, Darling, Say.  The Old Hickory Cane.  New River Train.  Nine Pound Hammer.  All I've Got's Gone.

Red Fox Chasers CDs:
Arkansas Traveler.  Honeysuckle Time.  Jim & Me.  Wreck on the Mountain Road.  Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee.  Mississippi Sawyers.  May I Sleep in your Barn Tonight Mister? Pretty Polly.  The Blind Man and His Child.  Looking to My Prayer.  Little Sweetheart Pal of Mine.  Goodbye Little Bonnie.  Stolen Love.  What is a Home Without Babies.  Murder of the Lawson Family.  Twinkle Little Star.  Weeping Willow Tree.  Lula Wall.  Virginia Bootleggers.  Making Licker in North Carolina Pts. 1 & 2.  Turkey in the Straw.  Mountain Sweetheart.  Sweet Fern.  Naomi Wise.  Budded Roses.  Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe? Something Wrong With my Gal.  Otto Wood.  Two False Lovers.  We Shall Meet on That Beautiful Shore.  Put My Little Shoes Away.  Two Babes in the Wood.  Tell My Mother I'll Meet Her.  How I Love my Mabel.  Katy Cline.  Bring Me a Leaf from the Sea.  Under the Double Eagle.  That Sweetheart of Mine.  Devilish Mary.  Making Licker in North Carolina Pts.3 & 4.

The Spanish poet and philosopher George Santayana once said that “music is useless, just as life is”.  It is, of course, the kind of linguistic spanner that philosophers likes to sometimes toss into the world of academic debate.  And, philosophically speaking, I can see what he was getting at.  If life is useless, then any activity brought about by living beings must also be useless.  But, of course, we are now living in a Post-Modernist world, one far removed from the time when Ernest Stoneman or the members of the Red Fox Chasers were making records and entertaining their friends and neighbors in the late 1920s and early '30s.  Music was important to them, and to the people who listened to them, and to the people who bought their records.

It has always fascinated me that the Old-Timey record boom really took off in America just a few years after Cecil Sharp's paid his last visit to the Appalachian Mountains in 1918.  Sharp was certainly aware of recordings - he called then “Victrolas” - as this comment in 1918 shows:

What I want more than anything else is quiet, no children, no Victrolas, nor strumming of rag-time and the singing of sentimental songs.
His comment was, of course, made before the record companies began to record Appalachian Mountain music, such as that now found on these two outstanding double CDs, and I would love to have heard what Sharp thought of these recordings.  I suspect that he would not have been too impressed, because these performers did not carry Sharp's agenda with them when they visited the recording studios.  Sharp was there to rescue the old British songs and ballads.  Ernest Stoneman, the Red Fox Chasers and all the other mountain people who recorded in the '20s and '30s were out to entertain and, if possible, to make a living from their music.  If the audience, unlike Sharp, wanted sentimental songs, then so be it.

Cover pictureErnest Stoneman was from Galax in Virginia, one of the most musical regions of the Appalachians.  He recorded dozens of tracks some of which, it has to be said, were of a rather poor quality.  When this set appeared a couple of my friends said, “Oh no.  Not more Stoneman!” And I can understand their feelings, were it not for the fact that the compilers of The Unsung Father of Country Music 1925 - 1934 have assembled possibly the best recordings that Stoneman ever made.  In fact, if he had only made these recordings, and no others, he would have long been regarded as a giant of old-timey music, standing equally alongside Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon and the Carter Family.  We may also say that, on these recordings, Stoneman was lucky in his choice of musical partners, such as The Sweet Brothers, Eck Dunford, Kahle Brewer, Bolen Frost and Frank & Oscar Jenkins, plus several close family members.

The Red Fox Chasers were also from another well-known musical area, the northwest corner of North Carolina.  There were four of them, fiddler Guy Brooks, banjo player Paul Miles, guitarist A P Thompson and harmonica player Bob Cranford.  They first met at the 1928 Union Grove Fiddlers Convention, where they found that they had the ability to play well together.  In 1917 Cecil Sharp had visited a Fiddler's Convention in Knoxville, Tennessee.  He had found it “A most interesting and amusing affair” and no doubt the Red Fox Chasers felt the same about Union Grove.  Shortly after their first meeting they drove to Richmond, Indiana, for their first recording session, where they cut eight sides.  They were to return to Richmond for two further two-day sessions in 1928 and '29, when they recorded another 28 sides.  The session in June, 1929, was to be the last for the band, although Cranford & Thompson, without Brooks and Miles, did record again in 1931.  All of their recordings, including those by Cranford & Thompson, are included on these two CDs.  Again, as with the Stoneman recordings heard on his double CD, the music of the Red Fox Hunters is of the highest quality.

One complaint against Cecil Sharp and his contemporary collectors was that they only noted down the songs and ballads that they deemed to be important.  The result is that we have always had a somewhat lopsided view of just exactly what it was that singers were actually singing.  Yes, Sharp's informants knew ballads and folksongs, but they also knew all manner of other things that, today, are lost.  George Stoneman and the members of the Red Fox Chasers also knew some folksongs (or, to put it another way, some songs that Cecil Sharp would have collected, and called “folksongs”, had he met them), but they too also knew many other types of songs and, thanks to these recordings, we can now get some idea of just what it was that Appalachian singers were actually singing.

To start with, there are a few old British ballads such as The Raging Sea, How it Roars (this one a Child ballad), The Spanish Merchant's Daughter and Mountaineer's Courtship, both of which were first reissued on the well-known Folkways 'Anthology' set, as well as a fine version of Two Babes in the Wood.  There are also a handful of British inspired fiddle tunes, some with accompanying lyrics.  These include two versions of the Scottish Miss McLeod's Reel, here titled Hop Light Ladies and Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe? and the well-known Arkansas Traveler.  Although sounding American in its title, this piece is actually based on a comic British song of the 17th or 18th centuries, which was titled The Broken Bridge.  Another tune, Flop Eared Mule, was originally well-known in Scandinavia.  And that is about it for British (not forgetting Scandinavian) material.  In other words, there is very little material on these two anthologies that can be easily traced to the Old World.  Indeed, the vast majority of pieces heard here can be traced to known authors and publishers.  Of course there are a few American songs here that many would call folksongs, such as John Hardy, Ramblin' Reckless Hobo, Old Joe Clark, Say, Darling, Say, Nine Pound Hammer, Naomi Wise, Devilish Mary and Pretty Polly (this latter being a lyrical song and not a version of the British murder ballad The Cruel Ship's Carpenter that is also known as Pretty Polly in America).

But, as I say, the majority of pieces recorded by Stoneman and the Red Fox Chasers were all composed towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  If we look at the recordings of, say, Charlie Poole then we find more or less the same.  Interestingly, if we examine the 200 or so pieces that Uncle Dave Macon recorded, then we find that just about everything that he recorded, with a very few exceptions, can be traced to known authorship.  We could say that all this rather negates the idea that folk music is an oral tradition.  But, things are never that easy.  We know that singers, both British and American, learnt songs from broadsides and chapbooks, printed sources that were not readily available in America in the 1920s.  So what did the singers do? They learnt songs orally by listening to recordings made by other performers.  The Red Fox Chasers clearly listened to Charlie Poole's recordings and Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee, Budded Roses and What is a Home Without Babies (Poole's recording was titled What is a Home Without Love) are clearly based on the Poole originals.  Likewise the 1931 recording of Goodbye Little Bonnie is copied from a 1927 recording by the Carolina Tar Heels, while Bring Me a Leaf from the Sea was also originally recorded by the Carolina Tar Heels.  The Red Fox Chasers no doubt learnt The Murder of the Lawson Family from a recording that Walter 'Kid' Smith made in 1930.  Again, we can say that their version of Naomi Wise was lifted from Vernon Dalhart's recording.  And there are covers of some of the Carter Family's songs, such as The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee, Weeping Willow Tree (Bury Me Beneath the Willow) and Sweet Fern.  Surprisingly, the Red Fox Chaser's version of May I Sleep in your Barn Tonight Mister? - a big hit for Charlie Poole in 1925 - includes verses not recorded by Poole, and so was probably learnt from another source.  Ernest Stoneman also picked up songs from other recordings, although there are fewer examples on his anthology.  The Road to Washington is Stoneman's cover version of Charlie Poole's popular White House Blues and was no doubt issued in an attempt to cash in on the song's popularity.  His version of Nine Pound Hammer could have come from the recording made by The Hillbillies.  But, as they were also from the Galax area, Stoneman could just as easily have learnt the song directly from them.

Cover pictureOne thing that surprises me is the fact that the Red Fox Chasers only chose to record two religious songs, Looking to My Prayer and We Shall Meet on That Beautiful Shore, whereas six gospel pieces were selected to be on the Stoneman anthology.  These are The Resurrection, Sweeping Through the Gates, I Am Resolved, There's a Light Lit up in Galilee, I Know my Name is There and Are You Washed in the Blood? Alan Lomax once said that the majority of songs that he heard being sung in America were religious in nature, and so I suppose that I had expected to hear far more religious pieces on these albums.  I am not surprised, however, to hear a number of skits that were recorded by these artists.  The Red Fox Chasers give us a four-part.  Making Licker in North Carolina while we get two two-part examples from Ernest Stoneman and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, Possum Trot School Exhibition – Parts 1 & 2 and Old Time Corn Shuckin'- Parts 1 & 2.  These skits were apparently based on Ukrainian and klezmer 78's from the early 1920s (recorded in America) and became best known from the fourteen-part series A Corn Liker Still in Georgia that was recorded by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers.

In a way we might say that in 1920s America, recordings replaced the broadsides and chapbooks.  People, and not just other recording artists, learnt new songs by listening to recordings.  Some people went on to record the songs that they had learnt in this manner for commercial record companies.  Other people, who had picked up songs from records, passed then on to passing folklorists.  This certainly happened to me when, having returned to England from one Appalachian trip, I discovered that one song that I had recorded from a singer turned out to have been a song that the Carter family had recorded and which had been previously unknown to me.

Although broadside printers issued sheets bearing the texts of 'folksongs', they were also responsible for spreading the words of newly composed songs.  And, again, this is what happened with the early 78s.  Sentimental songs, The Orphan Girl, The Blind Man and His Child, Put My Little Shoes Away, Goodbye, Dear Old Step Stone, No More Good-Byes, The Face that Never Returned, for example, could be heard alongside quasi-historical ditties, such as The Burial of Wild Bill or The Titanic.  And there is hardly any need to add that newly composed songs about love, in all its forms, were also commonplace.  Here we get Honeysuckle Time, Stolen Love, Mountain Sweetheart, Two False Lovers and the charmingly titled How I Love my Mabel, among others.

So much for the songs, but what about the singing? Well, it may be said that these performances are just about as good as it gets.  Stoneman's singing on Say, Darling, Say fairly zings along to the Sweet Brother's accompaniment.  And The Red Fox Chasers' opening Arkansas Traveler is yet another gem.  These are two albums that come with the highest recommendation.  It may be worth mentioning that twenty-one sides by the Red Fox Chasers are already available on a British Archive of Country Music CD (CD D 108.  Classic Old Time Music from North Carolina) and that several of the Stoneman tracks are available on other reissue CDs (although twenty or so Stoneman sides are reissued on this anthology for the first time).  The Red Fox Chasers set comes with an introduction and short notes by Virginian expert Kinney Rorrer, while we get a superb forty page booklet of notes and illustrations with the Stoneman anthology.

Like I say, these anthologies are just about as good as it gets.  If you want to hear what Cecil Sharp missed, sit back, put these on the player and enjoy!  Both albums can be obtained from the good folk at Red Lick.

Mike Yates - 14.11.09

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