Decca 5018 – Stripling Brothers – 1934

The two Stripling Brothers have had the Old Time Blues limelight shined at them once before, when they played for us their tour de force breakdown “The Lost Child”, but, with that article dedicated primarily to the honor of the great record man Joe Bussard, I have yet to delve deeply into the duo’s history.  Fortunately, the time has now come to rectify that oversight.

The story of the brothers Stripling began in Alabama, in the county of Pickens, on the eighth of August, 1896, with the birth of Charlie Melvin Stripling.  His brother Ira Lee followed him into the world almost two years later on June 5, 1898.  As a youth, Charlie learned to fiddle from a neighbor called “Uncle Plez”—properly Pleasant C. Carroll, born circa 1850—who imparted the old-time traditions of the middle nineteenth century on the young man.  Soon, brother Ira took up the guitar to back Charlie up, ordering a six dollar instrument from a catalog.  Soon the pair was taking on fiddle contests and conventions, competing for cash prizes.  Not content with his meager earnings as a sharecropper, Charlie Stripling set out to win the first prizes to help bring the bacon home to his wife and six kids, and so was bent on becoming the finest fiddler in the region.  Like quite a few fiddler of his time, he supplemented his old-time repertoire with more modern “fox-trot” melodies to please a less geriatric audience.  The team played dances and functions around the area, and began performing on Birmingham radio station WAPI.  When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company ventured down south to Birmingham late in 1928, the Striplings cut their first record for the company’s Vocalion label.  Subsequently, the pair went on to record quite prolifically for regional old-time artists of their day, traveling to Chicago the following year to make a further sixteen sides for Vocalion.  Five years later, they traveled all the way to New York to record for the newly founded Decca company, making a total fourteen more sides.  When Decca came to New Orleans in 1936, the Striplings had their fourth and final session, rounding out their discography with another fourteen sides.  By the end of their recording career, the Stripling Brothers netted a total of twenty-one records, with four sides unissued by Decca.  Though the vice grip of the Great Depression took the brothers off of records, and Ira retired from music to dedicate his time to managing the store he owned, Charlie Stripling continued fiddling for the rest of his life.  He was joined sometimes by his sons Robert and Lee, and later formed a band when his sons went off to war, but he never made another record.  Charlie Stripling died on January 19, 1966.  He was survived for a little more than a year by Ira, who passed on March 11, 1967.

Decca 5018 was recorded on September 10, 1934 at the Pythian Temple on 135 West 70th Street in New York City, and is the Stripling Brothers’ first released record on the Decca label.  As with all of the Striplings’ records, the instrumentation consists of Charlie on fiddle and Ira on guitar.

First, the brothers break it down on the lively “Possum Hollow”.

Possum Hollow, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.

Next, they play that ubiquitous fiddle melody, the waltz known as “Wednesday Night”.

Wednesday Night, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.

Okeh 4890 – Fiddlin’ John Carson – 1923

If there is a figure more deserving of the title of “Father of Country Music” than Jimmie Rodgers, one such contender is Fiddlin’ John Carson, who, while not the first to make records of what could be called “country music,” was undoubtedly one of the first to find great success doing it.

John William Carson was born in the north of Georgia—county of Cobb or Fannin—on the twenty-third of March, though there is dispute as to which year, probably 1874, though some sources suggest 1868 (earlier census documents, as well as his death certificate, agree with the later date, while later ones support the earlier year).  Before turning to life as a musician, Carson found work on the farm and railroad, as a jockey, making moonshine, and in an cotton mill.  In 1913, Carson participated in the first Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming in fourth in the fiddling contest.  He went on to take home first prize from the Convention a total of seven times between 1914 and 1922, earning him the nickname “Fiddlin’ John”.  In the cradle days of radio broadcasting, Carson made his debut on the Atlanta Journal station WSB on September 9, 1922 to great public acclaim.  Soon after, he was noticed by Atlanta furniture dealer and Okeh record distributor Polk C. Brockman, who spotted Carson in a newsreel of a fidders’ convention, and persuaded Okeh record man Ralph S. Peer to record the fiddler.  On the fourteenth of June, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first record at 24 Nassau Street (now 152 Nassau Street NW) in Atlanta, cutting only three sides, the first of which was unreleased and presumably destroyed.  Peer reportedly thought the two tunes were “plu-perfect awful,” but released the record nonetheless, and was surprised when sales took off like a skyrocket.  Whatever Peer’s personal taste, he was too smart to pass up a sure thing, and it was clear that the people wanted what Carson had to offer.  Before Carson’s recording career began, fiddlers Don Richardson and A.C. “Eck” Robertson had made records of “country” music, in 1914 and 1922 respectively, but both did so only sporadically and without enormous success.  Carson, on the other hand, began recording prolifically in the wake of his debut session.  Five months after cutting his first two sides, Fiddlin’ John traveled to New York City for another session, this time laying down a total of twelve sides, a number of which, like “You Will Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” and “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down”, achieved considerable success.

Though far from the most skilled fiddler or talented singer, Carson appealed to record-buyers of the 1920s with his folksy manner and archaic sound that evoked memories of simpler times, which many longed for in the days of fast living, T-Model Fords, and New South industrialization.  Carson was also politically active within his state of Georgia, and used his music as a tool to further those ends, such as to promote the populist Democrat Tom Watson, or to condemn the accused Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan.  He continued to record for Okeh until 1931, producing a total of 155 sides, of which all but seventeen were released.  Many of those featured his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, and band the Virginia Reelers.  Three years after concluding his engagement with Okeh, Carson went to Camden, New Jersey, to begin a new series of recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, an arrangement which only lasted but two consecutive sessions in February of 1934.  In those two marathon sessions, Carson, with Moonshine Kate, guitarist Bill Willard, and banjoist Marion “Peanut” Brown, recorded twenty-four sides, all of which but four were released, many of which were re-dos of his popular Okeh recordings.  Thereafter, he retired from professional musicianship.  In his later years he worked as an elevator operator in the state capitol of Georgia.  Fiddlin’ John Carson died in Atlanta on December 11, 1949.

Okeh 4890 was recorded around June 14, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia.  These are takes “B” and “A”, respectively, both the earlier of two released takes of each side (only the latter of which are listed as issued in the DAHR).

Firstly we hear Carson’s history-making performance of the once-popular 1871 minstrel song by Will S. Hays: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Nextly, Fiddlin’ John delivers an equally rustic performance of “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow”.

The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Okeh 45317 – W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith – 1929

One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.

The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar.  Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives.  Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box.  He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions.  When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt.  At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record.  Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928.  Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia.  That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”.  Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers.  They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas.  After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings.  In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides.  Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively.  Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon.  Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday.  Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.

Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session.  Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar.  Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind).  Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.

“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”.  They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”.  The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.

Charleston No. 1, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right.  Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.

Carroll County Blues, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Columbia 15038-D – Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers – 1925

Unquestionably one of the foremost names in “old-time” music during the 1920s, as well as one of the leading figures in the development of what would become “country music” is the original North Carolina Rambler: Charlie Poole.

Charlie Clay Poole hailed from Randolph County, North Carolina, in the town of Franklinville, where he was born on March 22, 1892, the son of an Irish immigrant.   As did his parents before him, Charlie went to work in a textile mill, but his real interest was in making music.  Unable to afford a proper instrument, he fashioned his first banjo out of a gourd.  As the result of a childhood incident in which he bet friends that he could catch a baseball without wearing a mitt, he learned to play the instrument in a unique three-fingered style of picking.  In addition to his musical proclivities, Poole also had a reputation as a rounder and hell raiser supreme.  After years toiling away his youth in the mill, Poole saved up enough money to purchase a Gibson banjo, then quit his job to pursue a career as a musician.  Joined by his brother-in-law Posey Rorer, who played fiddle, and a host of other local musicians, he entertained at local functions.  With the addition of guitarist Norman Woodlieff, the trio traveled to New York City in July of 1925 to make their first records for Columbia as the “North Carolina Ramblers”, producing four sides for which they received seventy-five dollars pay.  Their first record turned out to be a hit, and Poole, along with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, helped to make Columbia into a powerhouse of old-time music in the genre’s earliest years on record, and he was one of the best-selling artists in their “Old Familiar Tunes” series.  Thereafter, the North Carolina Ramblers returned to New York once a year—twice in 1930—to make further records, with two excursions to Paramount and Brunswick on the side, ultimately resulting in a total of eighty sides cut, of which all but ten were released.  Membership within the band changed as years passed; Woodlieff was replaced with former railroad engineer Roy Harvey, and Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith came to take Rorer’s place, but Charlie Poole always remained constant as the North Carolina Ramblers’ nucleus and main attraction (though members of the group did make several records without him).  Aside from recording, the North Carolina Ramblers also toured Vaudeville and appeared on radio around the Appalachian region.  After his last recording session, Poole and band were invited to Hollywood to provide music for a Western movie in 1931.  Unfortunately, before leaving for the west, Poole suffered a heart attack and died at the age of thirty-nine on May 21, 1931.

Columbia 15038-D was recorded on July 27, 1925 in New York, New York.  Sales figures have been reported as an astounding 102,451 copies.  It is Charlie Poole’s first released record, consisting of his third and fourth recorded sides.  The North Carolina Ramblers are Posey Rorer on fiddle, Norman Woodlieff on guitar, and of course Poole on the banjo.

First, Poole sings what could probably be considered the definitive recording of the old folk song “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister”.

Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play the classic “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues”—my personal favorite of the North Carolina Ramblers’ recordings—referring to the card game called “Georgia skin”, a game of chance popular in the South in those days, both for playing and singing about.

Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.