Clydeoscope is a collection of beautiful tunes and songs from the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau, music barely escaping extinction, taken to a new age by the rare character, Clyde Davenport. Previously-released through County Sales, Clydeoscope is Clyde Davenport’s first full-length album, featuring tunes and songs from Clyde’s unique and engaging repertoire. Clyde has had a powerful influence on a number of extraordinary fiddlers who came to know him through this vinyl record, now re-mastered and available on CD for the first time.
Born in 1921, Clyde Davenport preserves a repertoire heavily laden with baroque log cabin music from frontier times, but also sleek, racing breakdowns and sly blues from the 1920s. Recorded between 1977 and 1980, Clyde’s first album of fiddle music and solo banjo fully introduced his flawless and clear old-time sound, and a long list of tunes that would become common currency in traditional music circles.
Since the 1980s, Clyde Davenport’s mastery has been acknowledged and emulated by the best musicians of the string band revival. In 1992, he received a National Heritage Fellowship, the most esteemed award for excellence and influence granted to tradition bearers by the National Endowment for the Arts. Clydeoscope announced the age of Clyde, an onset of coast-to-coast attention for the Kentucky fiddler, and a pilgrim’s path taken by hundreds of young fiddlers to his door.
This compilation of independent fieldwork conducted by Bobby Fulcher was originally produced by Barry Poss and Bobby Fulcher, mastered by Wayne Martin, with original artwork by Fred Carlson. This release was re-mastered by Anna Frick and Airshow. Album design by Marcianne O’Day with Megan Lee Unthank and Mark Unthank.
County Records Release 788
Bobby Fulcher, 1986
Clyde Davenport previously appeared before traditional music enthusiasts as an excellent clawhammer/finger style banjo picker, sharing tight melody lines with Monticello fiddler, W.L. Gregory. The banjo – fiddle tune duets called back the style of the renown Burnett and Rutherford twosome, also from Monticello, who recorded several popular pieces for Columbia and Gennett between 1926 and 1928. Davenport, though, has been better known locally—and now worldwide—as a gifted fiddler with several distinctive styles within his abilities.
Davenport is one of a handful of American fiddlers with a large repertory of “solo” fiddle tunes, played in an archaic style characterized by cross-tunings, elaborate bowing, and eccentric melody lines. These droning, exotic, richly flavored tunes were not to be danced to, or accompanied by other instruments, but just made interesting listening. “Kittypuss,” “Callahan,” “One-Eyed Rosie,” and “Jenny in the Cotton Patch” are melodies long forgotten by the rest of the world, probably dropping from general circulation at the turn of the 20th century, as an ensemble sound became increasingly popular. Davenport’s father picked them up from Will Phipps, an old timer from Rock Creek, Tennessee, who has buried with his fiddle in his coffin. East Kentucky fiddlers W.M. Stepp and Luther Strong recorded several pieces in this genre for the Archive of Folk Song in 1937. Davenport also plays the smooth, bluesy tunes of his favorite fiddler, Leonard Rutherford, a dominant influence in the Monticello area. Rutherford’s style incorporates many sliding notes, with an absence of bow shuffling or any extraneous bow rhythms, while pulling the bow smoothly and gracefully. In Davenport’s words: “Boys, it was just like it was greased. There wasn’t a scratch or noise of no kind. Just clear as a bell, just as smooth… I never have heard the man beat.”
While Davenport does not imitate Rutherford, the similarity of their values and virtues can be heard on “Flower from the Fields of Alabama,” a 1928 Gennett release for Burnett and Rutherford. Also associated with the duo, “Ladies on the Steamboat” has become a standard for Wayne County musicians, the banjo head usually getting rapped in remembrance of Dick Burnett’s wild performance of the piece. Clyde developed some more progressive phrasing while playing in a country/bluegrass group, The Radio Pals, in Muncie, Indiana in the late 1940’s. Interestingly, this never shows up in his breakdown numbers, where his approach is very clean and traditional, with good drive and flawless noting. “Five Miles,” “Roses in the Morning,” and “Flatwoods” are unfamiliar tunes outside Wayne County, though the names have some currency. “Boatin’ Up the Sandy” only occasionally appears in Kentucky fiddler’s repertories, and “Meriweather” less often. “Rye Straw” is a more common tune, sometimes titled “Unfortunate Pup” or “Joke on the Puppy.”
Davenport is equally versatile as a banjo player, and can choose from clawhammer, two and three finger traditional styles, or Scruggs style to accompany a fiddle tune. “Polecat’s Den” and “Old Mister Rabbitt,” songs that were never considered fiddle pieces, are played in the “knocking” (clawhammer) style. “The Old Cow Died in the Forks of the Branch,” as a floating verse and tune name, has been heard in North Carolina and Alabama. This version has a slow, flowing nonchalance well suited to two finger picking. “Coal Creek March” was a Dick Burnett showpiece, on which he included more rapping on the banjo head, this time to represent the drumming of militia. Burnett was vaguely aware of the connection of this piece to the 1890 coal mining war in Anderson County, Tennessee which it commemorates.
Although his father lived to be 85, Clyde claims he never once played music with him. There were very few instances when Clyde joined in with Burnett and Rutherford in the weekly entertainments at the Wayne County courthouse, though he often stood within the large circle of admirers. Clyde, it seems, is an awful good listener. Beyond that, he has always been comfortable playing by himself, where for himself or large groups. Add to this a reputation he mischievously cultivates as being mildly eccentric, and we have a shred of explanation for the six dozen tunes in Clyde’s repertory that neighboring musicians never picked up. He may well have the largest repertoire of solo fiddle tunes among any living southern mountain fiddler. This fact, along with the excellence of his technical skills, places Clyde Davenport among the most important—if not the most significant himself—living traditional musicians.
Photo by Rachel Boillot
All photographs by Bob Fulcher and courtesy of Bob Fulcher unless otherwise noted.
To see more photographs of this fiddling treasure, visit our Flickr gallery here.
Design by Rachel Boillot