Friday, August 07, 2015

Oldtime Country Music at

The Internet Archive may not be the first place you look for old-time country sounds, but some old-time radio and 78 rpm record collectors have digitized an amazing amount of 20th century American  culture.

I'll come back and edit this, but wanted to put a few links out where new old-time music friends can find them today.

Sorry if there are spelling errors, and if you have to cut and paste the links into a browser. The first draft of this was done with my left thumb on a smartphone during a singing class at Augusta Heritage Center. (

Most of these are radio. Some are 1950s TV. The Delmore brothers sell their gospel song book, the Willis Brothers  swing "Hillbilly Heaven." All Star Western Theatre combines accordion and guitar western harmonizing with short dramatic productions with cowboy movie stars of the forties. Pat Daniels Hillbilly Boys sold Hillbilly flour with Texas Swing, while Hank Williams sold Mother's Best flour with his country blues. Plenty here to explore. Booklet PDF (Pat O'Daniel & the...), 74 episodes

Monday, April 27, 2015

It's a tiple

I finally made a short video of my other ukulele-family instrument, a 10-string "tiple." I'd like to think it was by popular request... usually phrased as "What the hell is that thing?"

The Martin guitar company made tiples for 30 years or more, but I see no immediate threat of a revival in tiple playing... although something inspired the Ohana ukulele company to produce this version. In Colombia there is a larger instrument by the same name, with some marvelous players. YouTube will find you examples of both.

I bookmark what I find about the instrument here:

The tuning is similar to a uke (or a guitar capoed at the fifth fret), but in four courses --
Gg-cCc-eEe-aa -- with the big letters indicating strings tuned an octave lower than the ones they are paired or tripled up with.

The second tune I play is one of my favorites ,"I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate," using a chord progression folks of a certain age will recognize as being pretty similar to Country Joe MacDonald's "Feel like I'm fixin' to die rag."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Speaking the old-time language

Heather Rousseau, a new photo journalist at the Roanoke Times, dove right into local culture with a photo and video story from the
Sunday afternoon old-time jam at the Floyd Country Store

It was the first Sunday that I'd made it to the jam in weeks of bad weather and/or bad timing. 

Surprises: Session leader Mac Traynham playing rhythm guitar instead of his usual fiddle or banjo, and my arriving in time to catch a seat between Mac and Radford neighbors Linda Frank & Chip Arnold.

I will send the photographer a note asking permission to "reprint" her close-up of the guy in the NPR cap playing a not-so-traditional banjo ukulele... But since it is property of the Roanoke Times, you might as well just go there and enjoy the whole presentation... if you haven't already been there via the flurry of posts on Facebook. 

(note: this is my first attempt to use an Android phone app to post to blogger. I may have to come back and fix the link, edit embarrassing autocomplete errors, or something.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In search of the mountain ukulele

UPDATED: Aug. 18, 2015

The announcement of each new New River Valley ukulele get together reminds me to tell ukulele playing friends that they will not necessarily be met with scorn and derision if they show up at other jam sessions in the area, as long as they attempt to match the style of the session. The ukulele isn't part of the traditional bluegrass band, but I've discovered it has quite a history in pre-bluegrass old time string band music... as well as popping up in what the folks at Clifftop have called Non-Trad or Neo-Trad bands. 
I first heard a banjo-uke playing old-time string band music from the Ithaca, N.Y., band The Horseflies some 30 years ago. But, in fact, ukes have been infiltrating old time  music since John Hopkins' strummed rhythm parts loud and clear in the original "Hill Billies" sixty years earlier:

That's Blue Ridge Mountain Blues by The Hill Billies, 1926!
Have some background information from...
"Al Hopkins ... was the leader of his own band called the Hill Billies (also known as the Buckle Busters). The band members consisted of Al Hopkins (piano), John Hopkins (ukulele), Joe Hopkins (guitar), John Rector (banjo), and Tony Alderman (fiddle).
"The Hill Billies had been discovered by Ralph Peer a year earlier and had made some records for Okeh (a forerunner of Columbia). When Ralph Peer asked Al Hopkins the name of his band, Al responded “We ain’t nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. You can just call us anything.” Mr. Peer appropriately named them the “Hill Billies”.
YouTube has a wealth of uploads by fiddler Charlie Bowman, Al Hopkins' Hill Billies and the Buckle Busters. from records made in the 1920s, many with an audible ukulele strum. In some, the uke is a banjo ukulele (also called banjolele), one of which also appears in a picture of the band in the UNC Southern Folklife Collection. (Admittedly, my ear might mistake a mandolin or banjo for a uke now and then.) 
Most of these tunes are still part of the old-time string band jam session repertoire, judging by my past couple of years sitting in with fiddlers and pickers in Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia. I'll bookmark a bunch of the YouTube players here, coded to open up in a new browser window. I hesitate to insert them all as "players" on the page, which might reduce your browser speed to a crawl.
Some of the kind folks who uploaded these things to YouTube may be less than precise in their notes, so the comments on each upload can make interesting reading. In some cases their sources may be old 78 RPM records; in others, re-issue LPs, or audio files uploaded to other song-sharing networks.

Of course, photos shown on the YouTube clips did not accompany the 78s, so whatever video collage is included with a tune was chosen by the uploader from later album jackets or other sources. One useful tip from a commenter: The book "Country Music Records" by Tony Russell can clarify some of the who-was-who.  There's also a book about Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman by Bob Cox. And you can look for information about the band in Joe Wilson, The Hill Billies (Floyd, Virginia: County Records, 1973), liner notes: Bill Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1968); and Burt Goldblatt and Robert Shelton, The Country Music Story (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle Books, 1966), according to some notes I've seen on Folkways records.

LPs, tapes or CDs of Bowman, Hopkins and friends have been issued over the years by the likes of Document Records and County Records or Smithsonian Folkways, which all have searchable online catalogs, but some of those recordings may be out of print.

Finally, in at least one case I've seen a picture of Hopkins' band accompanying a recording by an English group from the 1930s, also called "the Hillbillies," playing the popular song with a chorus of "In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the Trail of the Lonesome Pine" -- which I've written about elsewhere. That song was written to capitalize on the popularity of a novel, and was later featured in a Laurel & Hardy comedy. What sounds like the same group also does "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," also not exactly an old-time mountain tune.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Accidental Ukulele

I have been going to the wonderful twice-a-year Lake Eden Arts Festival ( for almost 20 years, off and on, and have several ancient T-shirts to show for it. (This commemorative-T-shirt thing may prove embarrassing at a contra dance when one's partner notices a year on a shirt, does the math, and realizes this guy is wearing underwear older than she is.)

This fall I decided to pass up the T-shirt stand and contribute to the support of LEAF by buying some raffle tickets instead. The decision was a very lucky one...
Jay Lichty of Tryon, N.C., ( built this one-of-a-kind ukulele and donated it to LEAF for the benefit raffle. He used all-recycled woods... a North Carolina mountain cabin's floor for the back and sides, a retired mahogany bedpost for the neck, and "sunken cedar" for the top.  Because of the instrument's North Carolina roots -- and the underwater cedar -- Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues" seemed an appropriate first tune to play. I gave it a try in the LEAF office when I showed up to claim the prize, and then played it again at home to make this rough little video.

Don't worry, I didn't think my singing would add anything to the ukulele demo. (Incidentally, this is my first experience with a "low-G" tenor ukulele, which seemed especially well suited to a slight adaptation of the guitar arrangement of this tune.) If you'd like to sing along, I found the "Deep River Blues" lyrics over at the Digital Tradition collection at the Mudcat Cafe, a great resource for folksong fans.

Jay himself recorded a few tunes with the uke and put them on his website. They give a much better indication of the range of this lovely instrument. They also may have been recorded with a much better microphone -- or the uke's built-in pickup, which I didn't even notice until I'd owned it for a few days. (Since that page of his was for the raffle -- which is now over -- I don't know how long he'll keep it around.)

Unfortunately, all I had handy was my MacBook with its built-in camera and microphone, which I figured would be fine a test drive at the uploading process. YouTube didn't want to accept the original file, so I uploaded it directly with Blogger -- which may only have a "Flash" player for videos, making the clip invisible to iPads and other discerning devices. Since then, I've tried some file-conversion software, which appeared to solve YouTube's problem with accepting the original file. Using Blogger's "insert from YouTube" setting still produces a rather small display window on this page and still seems to only offer a Flash video player, but the quality of the video itself seems better than the original. I've linked the still image above to YouTube for a larger-format display.
For any Web production students curious about my video problems, I've included both versions below. After years of mostly using WordPress blogs, I clearly have to refresh my knowledge of the current version of Blogger! But playing the ukulele is much more fun. If your device won't play the video in this window, just follow this link to launch the video in YouTube itself:

Earlier upload (Google/Blogger video player):


Saturday, March 08, 2014

Yes, it's a ukulele -- and a banjo

My "Firefly" banjo-uke raises a few eyebrows around old-time Appalachian music sessions, so I thought I'd put some links here... And maybe a YouTube video of myself when I get around to it. (This is also my first attempt at posting to this old blogger blog from an iPad, so some editing and correction of  links and players for other folks' YouTube videos may be necessary.)

It has four nylon strings (like a uke) and a drum-head (like a banjo). It also tunes uke style, g-C-E-a, with the two outside strings being the highest pitches. The high "g" is the string closest to the thumb, which is also true of the five-string banjo. That coincidence has inspired me to experiment with playing in a "claw hammer" oldtime banjo style, as well as more traditional uke strumming and picking styles.

In addition to playing it in Radford, Blacksburg and Floyd, I've inflicted it on that old gang of mine in Connecticut in December, strumming along on sea chanteys and drinking songs in the pub:

The Firefly is a modern design from a Massachusetts company called -- I bought mine from in Floyd, Va., so that I could try it first. I like it because it is incredibly light and, with an extra-long neck, can be adapted to play in more keys, using a capo for some tunes in the keys of A and D.

The first time I saw the banjo uke merging with oldtime tunes was 30-some years ago, in the hands of Jeff Claus of the Horseflies, providing a driving rhythm for the band's neo-primitive bug music. More recent example:

 There's no Firefly-Horseflies connection, as far as I know, but stranger things have happened. TheFirefly's  lightness I mentioned is the result of MagicFluke's buying the "drum" shell and its synthetic head already molded or cemented together. There are no metal mounting brackets (originally needed to adjust the tension of  humidity-sensitive natural skin banjoheads) and no wood and metal resonator like some 1920s models. As a result I can head for a jam session carrying a guitar, a mandolin, and the Firefly without needing a cart or pack animal, or feeling like one. And it is so much fun that I often wind up leaving the guitar at home.

Curiously, the razzmatazz strumming style banjo-uke (a.k.a. banjolele) has quite a following in the U.K. (No U.K./uke pun intended) because of a 1930s-40s comedian, singer, actor and pop star named George Formby, who never quite caught on in the States. The George Formby Society ( keeps his legend alive and active over there (

For a frighteningly modern development, explore the phenomenon called "chap-hop."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Appalachian Awareness at Radford U

Radford University Appalachian Awareness Day is Friday February 21, 2014... And I've had my awareness raised enough at previous years' versions to want to help get the word out with a plain-text barebones version of the schedule.

A day of 50-minute sessions, starting at 10 a.m. Free and open to the public, in the Bonnie Hurlburt  Student Center Auditorium (“The Bonnie”), on Jefferson Street between Fairfax and Clement Streets.

I'm especially looking forward to the two history-minded 5-string virtuosos speaking -- and, I suspect, picking a bit -- at 3p.m. 

Feel free to send this page to anyone else who can't easily read the colorful PDF flyer the sponsors have been sending around. I just wanted this here to link to my calendar... And I hope the school paper will dig up a little more about each event.

For more information, see the Facebook group for the Appalachian Events Committee:!/groups/104447406262763/
It should be listed here too...

Appalachian Innovation is the day's theme...

 10am: Putting Education In Its Place
     Roots with Wings: Floyd County Place-based Oral History Project
     The Floyd Story Center at the Old Church Gallery

 11am: Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards
      Dawn Hooper & Barbara Williamson

 Noon: Good People Good Food
     Tenley Weaver, Christie Pugh, & Dennis Dove

 1pm: Education Innovation: The Contemplative & Progressive Way
      Dr. Kristan Morrison of the Blue Mountain School

 2pm: The Crooked Road
       Jack Hinshelwood

 3pm: Banjo-Nation Innovation
    Stylistic & Structural Evolution of the 5-String Banjo
       David Wooldridge & Bud Bennett