There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse). Names like Washington Phillips—who played what he called a “manzarene”, possibly two modified zithers played simultaneously, to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind. In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.” While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.
The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa. Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois. Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple. Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats. Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger. They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations. They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released. Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west. Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California. As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.
Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois. The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin. Demps provides the vocals. It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068. Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.
“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.
On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between. Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.