Sunday, February 11, 2018

Remembering Josh White

Happy birthday to Josh White!
(February 11, 1914 – September 5, 1969)
I saw him on the old ABC Hootenanny TV show, and soon scraped together the price of a couple of his LPs. (Ones whose album covers weren't too risque to bring into the house; it was years before I got "Empty bed blues," and I don't think I ever let my mother see it.)
I also bought a 191-page Josh White Song Book to show my guitar teacher, who had started me on classical lessons because my first guitar had nylon strings. (Nylon was recommended by the Oscar Brand book I had started teaching myself out of a year earlier. I got a new guitar, with steel strings that Christmas after convincing my parents I was going to stick with it more than I had with the accordion a few years earlier. It was a long time before I could afford a Martin OO 21 like the one Josh played on his albums, but I got it eventually.)
Unfortunately, Josh's book wasn't a guitar instruction book. The $2.95 volume (pricey in 1963; my first Dylan songbook was $1.95) featured piano transcriptions of the songs, not his original guitar arrangements. 
I did learn something about music watching my teacher try to work things back to the guitar at my novice level. And I learned other things from the text by Robert Shelton, folk music critic at the New York Times (yes, that was a job then!), who provided song commentaries and a biography of Josh.
It wasn't as thorough as Elijah Wald's "Josh White, Society Blues" several decades later, but it made me feel like a folk blues insider... and, come to think of it, those song book introductory chapters were probably the only biography of a black person that I read in high school, two years before Alex Haley published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings shared a link to a Spotify playlist with a birthday post today, inspiring my reminiscence..
Rather than using Facebook to share a Spotify playlist, why doesn't Smithsonian Folkways just share a link to its own web page that sells a classic Josh White album, and lets you download its 14-page LP size booklet as a free PDF? I hope it's because Folkways makes some money from Spotify. Curiously, when I tried to post that question to the Smithsonian account on Facebook, Facebook marked my comment as spam! That reminded me to put my thoughts out here on the more open web, not just in Facebook's controlled space.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Heavyweight Tiple

A few years after starting to play the tiple, an unusual 10-string ukulele-tuned instrument, I am still curious to learn who played tiples during the 50 or so years that the Martin Guitar Company made them. 

I have found recordings by jive bands in the 1930s and '40s and an old-time string band from Virginia in the late 1920s.

Today, I stumbled on the biggest surprise yet: this YouTube clip of boxing champ Jack Sharkey singing and playing tiple -- and saxophone -- with Abe Lyman's Orchestra at a 1932 training camp. 

Was the instrument his or something regularly used by one of the band members? 

Now I guess I'll be listening to other Lyman recordings to see whether I can hear that distinctive jangly sound in the band when the boxer isn't around.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fishing Blues

My friend Richard loves to sing this song, and I noticed a while ago that I could pick it out on my Firefly banjo uke in his key... so at least a couple of times a month we inflict it on folks at one or another of the local jam sessions.
Last night someone asked where the song came from, but my voice doesn't carry well enough to give the 1911, 1929 and 1952 answers in a noisy restaurant... 
So my department of compulsive research spent the morning  aggregating some bookmarks about the song to post here and reference on Facebook.
(Most of the links below are to YouTube copies of the recordings by the folks named.)

The "root" source for most of us seems to be Henry Thomas's 1929 78rpm Vocalion record -- reissued decades later as part of the still available Harry Smith "Anthology of American Folk Music" collection on LPs (and later CDs) by Folkways records starting in 1952.
From the Smith album, which I remember taking out of the library when I was in high school, Thomas's version of "Fishing Blues" was learned by the sixties' generation of jug bands and folk singers, including Mike Seeger, the Jim Kweskin band (who inspired me to figure it out on the guitar), the Lovin Spoonful, Taj Mahal (who added more verses and seems to have spread it the farthest), Doc Watson (who also had new lyrics), and many more.
Mike Seeger and Dom Flemons, 21st century American songster, are the only folks I have met who learned to play it like Thomas did, with a rack of pan pipes called "quills."
Elijah Wald, music historian and performer, explains the 1911 Chris Smith song that preceded Thomas's version, and had a somewhat different message, a "feminist ragtime cheating song." Sam Chatmon went back to that 1911 original in the 1970s.
I've also read many discussions of the song over the years at, the Web's venerable "Digital Tradition" folk music forum and lyric archive:

Monday, October 02, 2017

Pipeline's greatest hits

Songwriters have added their voices to the campaign against natural-gas pipeline construction in the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Since they have put copies of their songs on YouTube I've started this page to bookmark them...

This first draft was made with my phone. When I get to a real computer I'll add more text and links.

Carol Denney

Leslie Brooks

Michael Kovick

Douglas Hendren

Non-musical pipeline videos

Appalachian Trail Conservatory

Dominion Energy (maps and "view simulation")

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Alcyone, Dr. Bate' s ukulele-playing daughter

How many biscuits can you eat this morning?

Terrific breakfast music...  making me wonder whether the steel resonator I recently saw on a picture of an old banjo ukulele could be used as a biscuit tin... or vice-versa.

Meanwhile, I have just been reading up on Dr. Humphrey Bate's daughter, Alcyone Bate Beasley, who played the ukulele (and piano) with Dr. Humphrey Bate & The Possum Hunters. I'm going back through YouTube videos made from their old records, trying to find some where I can actually hear her ukulele.

  I don't hear one on this recording, but I'm playing along on my own banjo-uke here at the breakfast table, so maybe I'm drowning her out. For anyone else who wants to play along, the tune is in C, a great key for the uke in clawhammer banjo style!

(This blog post is actually copied from a series of Facebook posts I made this morning, gradually becoming aware that I'm spending a lot of time writing things that get lost in the great Facebook Empire instead of being out here on the open web supported by applications and hosting services like Blogger and WordPress.)

Anyone have any suggestions of records where you can actually hear Alcyone's four-string?

Here's what All music says about Ms. Bate, who was part of the show at the age of 13.

"Bate’s daughter, Alcyone (b. 1912, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, d. 14 October 1982, Nashville, Tennessee, USA), first sang with his band as a four-year-old and by 1926, at the age of 13, she was the regular pianist who could also play ukulele. She is reckoned to be the first woman both to appear on and sing on the Grand Ole Opry."

Maybe my ukulele playing friends Marcy A. Marxer or Terri McMurray or Lightnin Wells will see this on Facebook and know the answer!

Speaking of Dr. Humphrey Bate & The Possum Hunters, I have two questions about this YouTube posting.

First, I think I actually might hear a ukulele in the background, but it's hard to separate out from the banjo.

Second, the picture accompanying this clip includes a gentleman in a cowboy hat holding what looks to be a tiple, my favorite 10 string member of the ukulele family, or perhaps a taropatch, the eight string version.

It's  too nice outside to stay online searching for a higher quality copy of the photo and some written histories of the band, but maybe I will get back to this.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How many times did you leave heaven?

A friend has been singing the song "When Did You Leave Heaven?" at a local jam session off and on for a year or so, and while he is on vacation another friend gave it a try last week, so I decided to let Google and YouTube show me who has recorded it over the years. Amazing.

One of the YouTube comment threads claims it was the first song ever broadcast on television, from a 1937 recording by Lilly Fryer, which I did not find on YouTube. From various web posts, it looks like the song was introduced by Tony Martin in the movie "Sing Baby Sing" in 1936.

I composed this blog post on my phone with the latest version of the Blogger app, a rather clumsy editing process that I belatedly discovered did not make links automatically. I finally came back with a  computer to make YouTube addresses actual links.  (I did make a few of significant names direct links until I started going cross-eyed from doing it on the phone.) Stauffer & Toffel's 1936 German-accented version on Telefunken is culturally and historically fascinating. The song certainly has a way of jumping back and forth across cultural lines.

The dates are according to whoever posted the item at YouTube, or from a search, but may not be the first -- or last -- time the person recorded the song. 

Tony Martin -- 1936
Guy (& Carmen, vocal) Lombardo -- 1936

Red Allen -- 1936

Frances Langford -- 1936

Teddy Stauffer (Billy Toffel, vocal) -- 1936

Mel Powell orch. (w. Benny Goodman) -- 1942

Louis Armstrong -- 1957

Hank Crawford -- 1967

Eric Clapton -- 1978

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Four Virginians with a Tiple

Recordings from the days of 78 rpm phonographs continue to find their way to YouTube, where my latest discovery touches three issues that interest me:  Old time string band music from Virginia (where I've lived for the past decade); the "Martin tiple," a 10-string instrument I have been playing for a few years, related to the ukulele and South American instruments, made in America for half a century and used for a variety of musical styles; and the black and sometimes racist minstrel-show roots of some one-time music. In this case, the latter is only in the form of a fiddle tune title, without offensive lyrics.

The "All Music" ( and "Martin Tiple" ( history blogs both have pages about the band in question, The Four Virginians, from the Danville area. They were active from 1925 to 1935 and reportedly recorded only six tunes, all for the Okeh record label.

Accompanied by a picture of the band, with the tiple used as a rhythm instrument, YouTube has five of the recordings: three square dance tunes with dance calls (one of them with a nineteenth-century Minstrel show "coon song" title), and two sentimental songs.

You can hear the jangling treble sound of the tiple (not as high or clean as a bluegrass mandolin "chop") on most of the recordings. It plays full chords while the fiddle plays the melody and the two guitars play rhythm and bass runs. Unlike many old time string bands, the four Virginians did not include a mandolin, banjo or bass.

"Two little lads"

"One is my mother"

"Promenade all"

"Swing your partner"

"New coon in town"

Jennings Leonard is identified as the tiple player by numerous websites, including a discography of historical records at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The other published sources identify the remaining band members as:
Fiddle – Richard Bigger
Guitar – Fred Richards
Vocals and Guitar – Elvin Bigger

A Google search reveals several books that mention the band, including these:

Title one : Virginia's Blues, Country, and Gospel Records, 1902-1943: An Annotated Discography, by Kip Lornell

Title two : Linthead stomp: the creation of country music in the Piedmont South, by Patrick Huber

(The first draft of this post was made with an Android smartphone and its Blogger app. I should eventually get back to edit it and make the web links more attractive and functional.)