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.

Victor 19149 – Henry C. Gilliland–A. C. (Eck) Robertson – 1922

This disc bears the distinction of being one of the first records (though not the first) whose contents could be considered “country” music.  However, the pair of musicians responsible for producing these tunes—Henry C. Gilliland and A.C. “Eck” Robertson—almost certainly were the first old time musicians from Texas to make a record.  What you’ll hear here is some of the finest rustic fiddling what am.

Henry Clay Gilliland was born on March 25, 1845 in Jasper County, Missouri.   His family relocated to Texas when he was eight years old, settling in Parker County (home of peaches).  He learned to play the fiddle at a young age from his older brother Joseph, and the two rose to prominence around Weatherford.  When the South seceded, Gilliland enlisted and served in the Arizona Brigade of the Second Texas Cavalry.  After the war was done, he returned home and became known as an Indian fighter and small-time politician.  Alongside talents such as Moses J. Bonner, Gilliland became one of the most prominent Texas fiddlers of his day.

Eck Robertson (back row center, with fiddle) and family. As pictured in 1930 Victor catalog.

Alexander Campbell Robertson was born in Delaney, Arkansas on November 20, 1887 (though his tombstone says 1886).  Like Gilliland forty-some years his senior, Robertson’s family moved to Texas in his early childhood, making their home near Amarillo in the panhandle of the state.  His father was a fiddler-turned-preacher, and many of the other men in his family were also skilled on the instrument.  Unsurprisingly given such a heritage, the young “Eck” soon took up the fiddle himself.  At sixteen, he took off to join a medicine show, hoping to win fame as a musician.  After marrying and settling briefly in Amarillo as a piano tuner, he went on the road once again to play in fiddle contests and vaudeville shows throughout the Southwest.

The two men crossed paths at a Confederate reunion in 1922 in Richmond, Virginia; Robertson was the son of a veteran, Gilliland was a veteran himself.  Together, they played before a crowd of some four-thousand at the convention.  The two fiddlers evidently hit it off, and, with aid from a friend of Gilliland’s in a high place, very soon after traveled to New York to make a record for the Victor Talking Machine Company.  On June 30, 1922, the duo cut four sides, starting with “Arkansaw Traveler”, which, coupled with “Sallie Gooden” (Victor 18956) is often credited as the first “country” music record (though it is debatably not).  The following day, Robertson returned to the studio alone to make six more solo recordings.  Six of those ten sides saw release, only two of which featured Gilliland.  Henry C. Gilliland died on April 21, 1924 in Altus, Oklahoma at the age of seventy-nine, and was thereafter memorialized as the “greatest fiddler in the world.”  Eck Robertson on the other hand continued to perform and record.

In 1929, the Victor company twice ventured into Dallas to record the local talent, and Eck returned to the studio, this time bringing his family along: wife Nettie, son Dueron, and daughter Daphne.  In four sessions that year—one in August and three in October, the last of which was only nine days before the stock market crash that would all but kill off such recording field trips —Robertson recorded a further fourteen sides, five solo, nine with his family, and two with fellow fiddler Dr. J.B. Cranfill (seemingly the same man as the noted Dallas prohibitionist James Britton Buchanan Boone Cranfill, though I can’t find definitive confirmation), which altogether yielded a total of ten issued sides.  From then on out, he maintained that Victor had given him the short end of the stick.  Robertson also performed on Fort Worth’s WBAP from time to time, and he made a reported hundred non-commercial recordings for the Sellers transcription company of Dallas in September of 1940, which appear to be lost today.  Eck Roberton died on February 15, 1975 at age of eighty-eight, in Borger, Texas.

Victor 19149 was recorded on June 30 and July 1, 1922 in New York City, the former being their first session.  It was released on November 30, 1923, and remained in the catalog until 1936.  I found this record in Mineral Wells, Texas, not far from Gilliland’s home town of Weatherford; perhaps it was his own personal copy.  Unlikely a prospect as that is, it is conceivable that it could have been owned by someone personally acquainted with him.

First, both Robertson and Gilliland play a fiddle duet on the classic “Turkey in the Straw”.  Listen closely to the end for a little artifact from the recording studio: a small “bump”.  Could be one of the men setting down his instrument, could be something else entirely.

Turkey in the Straw, recorded June 30, 1922 by Henry C. Gilliland–A. C. (Eck) Robertson.

Next, Eck plays solo on another old time classic, the traditional Texas fiddle tune “Ragtime Annie”.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is truly old time fiddling.

Ragtime Annie, recorded July 1, 1922 by A. C. (Eck) Robertson.

Melotone M 12181 – Stripling Brothers – 1928

Thanks a million, Mr. Bussard!

This record features a pair of top-notch fiddle and guitar duets—so top-notch in fact, that it is regarded as one of the finest old-time records of all time—played by the Stripling Brothers, Charlie and Ira, of Pickens County, Alabama; two of the most talented and outstanding artists of that genre.  Today, I’m posting this fantastic disc in honor of one man who’s done more for the preservation of these old shellac records than most anybody else, the legendary King of Record Collectors, Mr. Joe Bussard, who has for many years used it for the theme of his radio program.  I’ll dedicate a post to the Striplings later on sometime, but this one here’s for Joe.  This is one of a number of fairly hard to find and generally excellent records that I had the great fortune of uncovering in the backroom of one of my favorite record stores.

Melotone M 12181 was recorded on November 15, 1928 at the Bankhead Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama by the Stripling Brothers: Charlie on fiddle and Ira on guitar—the entirety of their first session.  It was originally issued on Vocalion 5321, which was their first record, this issue dates to 1931.

This fine fiddlin’ tune, titled “The Lost Child” is used as the radio theme song for the esteemed collector (that’s an understatement) Joe Bussard’s radio show “Country Classics” on WREK 91.1 FM in Atlanta, and it also appeared as the first track on his compilation Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s, 1926-1937 (Old Hat RCD-1004), in which it is described in Marshall Wyatt’s liner notes as a “brilliant showpiece.”  The melody also served as a basis for the bluegrass staple “The Black Mountain Rag”.  It’s a masterpiece of hillbilly fiddle music, one of the best pieces I (and many others) have ever heard, ranked number one by the Old-Time Herald in their top one-hundred Essential Hillbilly Commercial Recordings on 78s.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child, recorded November 15, 1928 by the Stripling Brothers.

Like the previous side, the reverse of this disc is a musical masterpiece, yet in spite of the outstanding musical content, I had some reservations about posting this record because of fears that its rather unsavory title, “The Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot”, might not go over so well nowadays.  Offensive as it is, such things come with the territory of ninety-plus year old music; my recommendation is just enjoy the music and pay little mind to the title.  It really is a beautiful melody, with outstanding fiddling by Charlie Stripling.

The Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot

The Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot, recorded November 15, 1928 by the Stripling Brothers.

Updated with improved audio on June 23, 2017, and on May 1, 2018.

Okeh 45313 – Frank Hutchison – 1928

Born on this day (March 20) was Frank Hutchison, one of the outstanding players in early recorded music, and one of the earliest white musicians to record blues.

Hutchison was born in 1897 (per his birth certificate, though some sources suggest an 1891 date, see Mr. Scott’s comment below) in Logan County, West Virginia.  He made his living working in the coal mines, but was also a versatile musician, skilled in guitar, which he frequently played using a slide, harmonica, and vocals.  In September of 1926, Hutchison made his first recordings for the Okeh Phonograph Company, starting with one of his most famous numbers, “Worried Blues”.  From 1926 to 1929, Hutchison cut forty-one sides, all for Okeh, and appeared on Okeh’s “Medicine Show” a set of records highlighting Okeh’s top hillbilly artists, much like Columbia’s “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia” series, and so forth.  After making his records and ending his work in the coal mines, he opened a store and served as postmaster of Lake, West Virginia.  Tragically, Hutchison lost everything and became an alcoholic when the store burned down.  He later relocated to Ohio and worked as a musician on riverboats.  Hutchison died of liver disease in 1945.

Okeh 45313 was recorded September 10 and 11, 1928 in New York City by Frank Hutchison.  These were Hutchison’s only sessions in 1928, and the latter was his second to last session overall.

As were a great many of Hutchison’s recordings, the humorous “The Burglar Man”—an old time song also recorded by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon—is nothing short of a guitar masterpiece.  This side was recorded on the latter date.

The Burglar Man, recorded

The Burglar Man, recorded September 11, 1928 by Frank Hutchison.

On his rendition of the old minstrel song “Alabama Girl, Ain’t You Comin’ Out Tonight?”, Hutchison is joined by Sherman Lawson on fiddle.  This one is one of three issued Hutchison sides to feature Lawson.  This side was recorded on the September 10 date.

Alabama Girl, Ain't You Comin' Out To-Night, recorded

Alabama Girl, Ain’t You Comin’ Out Tonight, recorded September 10, 1928 by Frank Hutchison.

Updated with improved audio on September 11, 2017, and on October 29, 2017.

Recordisc Home Recording – Jess & Frank – c.1941

I tend to pick up home recordings and lacquer discs when I see them, providing the price is right.  Sometimes, the quality of sound on them is surprisingly decent, but often, they sound terrible.  What you’ll find on those discs is also a crapshoot, oftentimes I’ve found families marking a special occasion, or the ubiquitous child’s recital of a song or instrument.  Once I even found a bawdy comedy skit.  However, rarely do I ever turn up anything musically exciting.

Recently, I picked up about five lacquer discs.  One of them was a recording of a local family’s Thanksgiving in 1944, one an unintelligible recording of children’s voices, another was an unusual cornet performance.  One completely unmarked disc contained a pair of very enjoyable piano solos that I’ll post here at a later date.  Then there was this one.  When I came to this one, I put the needle on the record, curious to hear what secrets it had concealed for so many years, I was thrilled to hear a great old time fiddle and guitar duet burst to life.  Then, after about five seconds of play, the stylus skated all the way across the disc to the label.  Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps because of) the record’s excellent musical content, the lacquer surface of the home recording disc was in absolutely dismal condition, bubbled and cracked, with large worn passages.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to figure out a way to coax those tunes out of these shallow old grooves.  Eventually, I wound up using two methods to transfer the two sides of this eccentric disc.  On the first one, I rigged up a very unconventional method of tracking the grooves by tying a string to the tone-arm and guiding it by hand.  On the flip, I managed to get it to track with an LP stylus at 45 RPM, and changed the speed to 78 RPM on the computer.

On this presumably unique metal based lacquer disc, a fiddler and guitarist play two classic old time tunes.  Given the nature of this record, I know nothing of the identity of the artists.  It would stand to reason that they were based in North Texas, as I found the disc in Dallas.  My estimate for the date comes from the copyright date on the label, but it could have been made much later.

Please take warning, these transfers are not for the faint of heart, while the music is superb, the condition of the record is awful, making these a very noisy and distorted pair of transfers.  Since the record is virtually unplayable through normal means, I think they’re pretty decent under the circumstances.  If at any time in the future I figure out a way to get a better transfer of these, I’ll update this post.

First, J.L. Cosslly (?) and “Frank” play it slow and easy on “Saving Up Cupons [sic]“.  This side plays a bit more respectably than the next, and I find it quite listenable for the most part, though it begins to break up near the end.

Saving Up Cupons, recorded ? by .

Saving Up Cupons, recorded ? by J.L. Cosslly and Frank.

On the other side of the disc, “Jess and Frank” play “Give Me Back My 15¢”.  This side unfortunately has more than its fair share of skips and jumps, the worst being a passage from about twenty-five to thirty-five seconds that is greatly interrupted by a severe crack in the lacquer surface.

Give My Back My 15¢, recorded ? by Jess & Frank.

Give Me Back My 15¢, recorded ? by Jess & Frank.