Victor 19699 – Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler” – 1925

Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847.  The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age.  It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area.  Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County.  At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons.  After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth.  A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.  He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated.  He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing.  In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest.  On January 4 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”.  Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin.  Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again.  He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General.  At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.

Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.  Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.

Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”.  Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.

1. Yearling’s in the Canebrake 2. The Gal On the Log, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January.  The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.

1. Dusty Miller 2. “Ma” Ferguson, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

Okeh 45227 – Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band – 1928

Though one of the most prolifically recorded Texas fiddlers prior to 1930, precious little has been chronicled of the life and times of Oscar Harper.  With ten issued sides (one not) to his credit, Harper ranked behind only Eck Robertson, Bernard Cartwright of the Cartwright Brothers, and Daniel H. Williams of the East Texas Serenaders, and tied with Samuel Peacock of Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band and “Red” Steeley of the Red Headed Fiddlers, for number of recordings behind his belt (assuming my tallies are accurate).

Oscar Hamilton Harper was born on February 10, 1888, most probably in Ashdown, Arkansas, very close to the Texas border (though in later years, he claimed to have been born in Texas, and may actually have), one of the ten children of Robert and Mary Ann Harper.  Having lived in the state for a time prior to Oscar’s birth, the Harpers returned to Texas in the last decade of the nineteenth century, settling in the region to the east and north of Dallas.  Oscar joined in his family’s work as farmers in his youth, and by 1910 was working as a hired hand on a farm in Rockwall, Texas.  The circumstances surrounding his introduction to the instrument are obscure, but he presumable took up fiddle playing at some time during his formative years.  In 1918, Harper was drafted into the U.S. Army, but did not see action overseas, and was discharged as a private less than a year later following the war’s end.  No less than two months after his discharge, he married Alline Daisy Gaskey on May 10, 1919, in Kaufman County and had at least six children.  By the 1920s, he had settled in Terrell, Texas, where he was known to play with fellow resident fiddlers by the likes of Ervin Solomon and Prince Albert Hunt.  Some suggest that Harper worked as a barber, but no records appear to corroborate this.  In March of 1928, Harper traveled with his nephew Doc and Prince Albert Hunt to San Antonio to record for the Okeh record company, who were conducting a field trip there.  With the duo of Oscar and Doc dubbed “Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band”, the session resulted in three sides and one released record, featuring two popular waltz numbers.  Some sources suggest that he also sat in on Prince Albert Hunt’s “Blues in a Bottle” record, waxed immediately after his session.  Harper’s two man string band made another disc in October of ’29 for Vocalion, and again recorded for Okeh the following month, this time billed simply as “Oscar and Doc Harper”, both times in Dallas.  Among the melodies he recorded at the latter session were the original Texas-flavored pieces “Terrell Texas Blues” and “Dallas Bound”.  By 1930, Harper had retired from farm labor and was working as a full-time musician on the radio and at local dances.  At one such function in February of 1942, Harper was recorded by John A. Lomax for the Library of Congress playing traditional fiddle tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, with a band including Prince Albert Hunt’s old associate Harmon Clem on guitar.  In the second half of the 1930s, the Harpers moved from their farm in Terrell to Dallas, residing at 1913 Gano Street (now the site of Dallas Heritage Village).  Oscar Harper died from complications of uremia in Dallas on February 5, 1952.

Okeh 45227 was recorded on March 8, 1927, in San Antonio, Texas.  Harper’s String Band is Oscar on the fiddle and Doc Harper on the guitar.  It was Harper’s best-selling record.

The rough-hewn, rather slipshod, yet entirely melodic character of Harper’s playing heard in his “Kelly Waltz”, punctuated by Doc’s strong guitar rhythm, exemplifies the sound of early Texas fiddle music.

Kelly Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

The Harpers fiddle another upbeat waltz tune on the reverse: “Bouquet Waltz”.

Bouquet Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

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.