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

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Some songs from Augusta

After singing along with these songs in Paul Brown's workshops at Davis & Elkins College's Augusta Heritage old-time music week,  I compulsively went off looking for alternative versions, additional lyrics,  and YouTube videos.

Cumberland Gap

Deadheads and suckers

Tempy Roll Down Your Bangs

Railroad Bill (with brakemans vest, nancy hanks verse)

Trouble in Mind

My home is across the blue ridge mountains

Walking in my sleep

Poor Ellen Smith
murder case, Winston Salem c.1897

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, using the same  combinations of woods they used for guitars -- all mahogany models, or mahogany or rosewood tiples with spruce tops -- 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.

(Video oops... for some reason, when I talk about the tuning and play the four open notes, I say "from top to bottom" while picking the strings from bottom to top! Sorry if that confuses anyone. More on tuning below.)

They were also made by companies from Regal and Harmony to D'Angelico. I haven't retrieved a copy of Mike Longworth's Martin Guitar history recently, but the folks at Mandolin Brothers did -- when they had a tiple for sale some years ago -- and said, "The Martin Tiple, Longworth says, was designed around 1920 from a somewhat larger prototype imported from Argentina by Mr. William J. Smith who owned a New York City music company that bore his name." They also included more details about the specific model, a rosewood-and-spruce T-28.

For a couple of years while the bookmarking service "Delicious" was in regular operation, I saved almost 50 bookmarks to Web pages about the instrument (including parts of the blog and YouTube videos of tiple players including the Spirits of Rhythm, the Cats & the Fiddle, Ed Askew, and more (at but the service has changed hands and has gone in and out of operation, while the internet archive preserved only a few of the links. So I have added a few more links below and will write other blog posts about interesting tiples now and then.

How "The Cats and the Fiddle" kept their instruments in tune with all the flipping and twirling in this movie clip amazes me. Perhaps Ohana needs to study 1930s Martins a bit more

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."

So far the high point of my tiple career is introducing Nellie McKay to the instrument in a southwest Virginia theater lobby after a Mountain Stage concert recording session. (Be still my heart.)

In 2017 I added a few links to a Southern Virginia band with a rhythm tiple in a separate post here:

Here's another knowledgeable post about tiples, with some interesting discussion:

And a reissue of recordings by "Big Boy" Teddy Edwards, Chicago blues singer who recorded some solo tiple-accompanied vocals in the 1930s:

Here's a sample of Edwards' style on YouTube:

A couple of decades later, Timmie Rogers recorded a couple of TV scenes with a tiple that probably has been seen and heard by thousands, maybe millions, thanks to years of syndicated reruns of "Sanford and Son," where he played Smiley Rogers, a friend and singing duet partner of Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx)...

Finally, here is the only classical piece of music I've heard orchestrated for an ensemble that includes a tiple: GymnopĂ©die No. 1 - Eric Satie, arranged and performed by Russick Smith for cello, double bass, mandolin, tiple, resonator guitar, and banjo:

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. She caught me playing the Firefly banjo-ukulele I've already written about here.

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 autocorrect errors, or something.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In search of the mountain ukulele

This page has been updated many times since 2015, when the announcement of a Blacksburg and New River Valley ukulele get together inspired me to look into the past of ukulele playing in the region's oldtime music communities... My goal was to tell uke players that they didn't need to look for uke-only events, that they would not necessarily be met with scorn and derision at mixed jam sessions in the area, if they were willing to listen, learn some traditional old time string band tunes -- and keep within the style.
As I eventually learned, while they took a minor supporting role, ukes appeared to have been infiltrating old time music recordings in a small way even before John Hopkins' started strumming his triplets on a banjo ukulele loud and clear in the original "Hill Billies," 1926:

Blue Ridge Mountain Blues - The Hill Billies 1926!
Background 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”.
More Hillbillies and Buckle Busters tunes...

(I could be wrong. You have to listen hard to be sure the uke is there, especially if the 5-string is playing rhythm on high notes)
Other Oldtime uke players...
Ada Powers (notice her central position, with uke,  in this great old fiddlers convention photo)
The Four Virginians (with a uke-tuned 10-string tiple)
Price Goodson of Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters was only 12, according to the notes at YouTube, when he accompanied himself on uke and harmonica on Be Kind to a Man When He is Down in 1927, and provided uke rhythms behind the two banjos and fiddle on other songs. I'm keeping my eye open for the 1998 CD compilation of their recordings.

Contemporary Neo-Oldtime Power Uke
I first heard the banjo ukulele played with a  fiddle and 5-string banjo in the late 1970s or early 1980s by a more contemporary band, the Horse Flies from Ithaca, N.Y. 

Alternating between guitar and banjo uke, depending on the tune, Jeff Claus provided a rock-solid rhythm for the band. I have seen an interview with him somewhere referring to the instrument as "a drum on a stick."

Another contemporary player, John Kelley, headed his web essay and instructional page about the instrument, "Banjo Uke -- the Tommy Gun of old time music!"

However, not all old time Fiddlers will appreciate having a Tommy Gun in their local jam session. It is best to ask, or be very sensitive to icy stares!

My Firefly & Clawhammer Banjo-uke

First flights with Firefly banjo-uke

Update, August 2021:

This picture turned up in an oldtime radio discussion forum... I had no idea George Gobel started out as an adolescent radio-barn-dance ukulele player during his "Georgie" days! By the 1950s when I first saw him, he was much better known as Ernie Ford's "little bitty buddy" strumming orchestral jazz chords on an oversize Gibson Super 400 guitar along with the jokes and songs on TV.

That big Gibson was almost part of the joke itself, looking out of proportion strapped around the diminutive crewcut Goble. Result: Gibson even named a custom smaller, slimmer jazz guitar after him. (I haven't seen any archival clips showing him going back to the ukulele, but wouldn't be surprised if that didn't turn up in one of Gobel and Ford's TV comedy skits.)

But that's not all... Continued research (OK, a five-minute browse with Google) led to this fascinating claim about the ukulele as a way to dodge musicians' union dues:

"He was one of the favorites, as well as the youngest performer at the time on WLS' National Barn Dance, a homegrown program which was hugely popular from its inception in 1924 and enduring for over 50 years. George's era started with his debut in 1933. George played the ukulele, which was not a union instrument, thereby avoiding paying union dues."
(Or maybe that was just a punchline in George's transition from mostly-musician to mostly-comedian?