Volume 1 of a series originally released on County Records 786 in 1980, ‘Gettin’ Up the Stairs’ is a collection of incredible old time music from the Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee and Kentucky. Featuring electrifying performances by a number of traditional musicians whose work was never released commercially, as well as classic old time numbers chosen from the extensive regional repertoire of master fiddler Clyde Davenport, this collection of rare and beautiful recordings compiled by folklorist Bobby Fulcher helps shed more light on the rich and underappreciated musical heritage of the region. As Charles Wolfe writes, “The Cumberland Plateau has kept alive the old traditions in music better than anywhere else in the mid-South, and the musicians on this anthology represent the best, purest, and toughest exemplars of that heritage. They prove that mountain music is not extinct; their product is rich, rambunctious, complex, and enthralling – vibrant echoes of a lost age”. These echoes still ring true more than 30 years after the original release of this fantastic two-album set.
This album is the result of independent fieldwork conducted from 1976 to 1983 bu Bobby Fulcher, originally released as County 786, with assistance from The American Folklife Center, Gar and Pete Blevins, Elmer and Lola Hurst, Lorene Davenport, Mabel Anderson, Bonnie Sharp, Evelene Sharp, Opal Wright, Jim and Floyd Sharp, Dr. Charles Wolfe, Janet Moore, Opal Lusk, Delta Hicks, Frances Cobb, Hazel Ferrill, Eula Mayton, Junior Sharp, Eric Olson, Rosie Hall, and family and friends. The original booklet production was supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Program.
Recorded by Bobby Fulcher and Barry Poss
Remastering by Wayne Martin, Rich Nevins, and Anna Frick/Airshow
Album Design, Illustration, and booklet design by Marcianne O’Day, Fred Carlson, Megan Lee Unthank and Mark Unthank
Web Design by Rachel Boillot
Additional thanks for Dave Freeman for support and cooperation
Traditional Music from the Cumberland Plateau
“The locality was Obedstown, East Tennessee. You would not know that Obedstown stood on the top of a mountain, for there was nothing in the landscape to indicate it—but it did: a mountain that stretched abroad over while counties, and rose very gradually. The district was called the “Knobs of East Tennessee,” and had a reputation like Nazareth, as far as turning out any good thing was concerned.”
Mark Twain never actually saw this community he seemed to despise. He considered it his good fortune that his parents left Jamestown, Tennessee, the model for fictional Obedstown, in 1827, three months before his birth in Florida, Missouri. His father, John Clemons, was Fentress County’s first court clerk and an aggressive land speculator. He prophesized from the courthouse steps in Jamestown that the 75,000 acres of wilderness he had purchased would someday be valued at $1000 an acre. The gamble never paid off for John Clemons or his children. Against the advice of a New Orleans fortune teller, Twain riddled himself of his Tennessee inheritance in the 1880s’s, with great bitterness and no financial gain. He was left with only his father’s negative impressions of the “groping, dumb creatures” that resided in the area, and very accurate accounts of the terrain.
The Cumberland Plateau abruptly rises 1000 feet above the surrounding countryside to separate East Tennessee from the other two-thirds of the state. This section of the Cumberland Range is quite distinct from other eastern mountain groups. It retains the true character of a plateau—its rise in elevation ending suddenly at 2000 feet above sea level, leaving no lofty peaks, but a deceiving flat plain 50 miles in width. The deception is the seeming gentleness of the topography, as much of the plateau appears as an unexciting stretch of logged-over thickets of pine, scrubby oak, and hickory. Where ancient rivers ran their course, though, deep gorges and canyons have been cut into the sandstone tableland, exposing mile after mile of steep, spectacular rock walls. Within these gulfs, lush forests of white ash, yellow poplar, big leaf magnolia, and hemlock support a flora of richness and diversity matched on this continent only in the Great Smoky Mountains and tropical Florida. Waterfalls pour over the bluffs, and hanging gardens of ferns and flowers reach down their walls in large pieces of wilderness hidden across the broad, level spaces of the plateau, and at its edge. Deep incisions into the rock at the base of the bluff line are commonly found, forming overhanging ledges with dry, sand floors. Known as “rockhouses,” these were homes to generations of Indians reaching back 8000 years, and to pioneer families in need of shelter.
The Allardt Gazette, promising settlement, described the region in 1821: “The chief attraction is our salubrious climate, with pure air and water. Our altitude… is sufficient to place us above malarial troubles, and yet not so high as to disturb persons troubled with pulmonary diseases. The average temperature of our summer days is below that of Michigan or Wisconsin, and our summer nights are delightfully cool and refreshing. Is it a rare thing to experience a night when a good think blanket or quilt is not requisite for comfort. Innumerable cascades on our mountain streams, pitching down into the the dark depths of the canyons where laurel and rhododendron grow in profusion, and whose blossoms are rich beyond comparison, form beautiful pictures. Immense “rock houses” with their vaulted roofs, line the sides of our mountain streams and are objects of great curiosity. There is one within three miles of Allardt that would shelter more people than General Taylor had in his army at the battle of Buena Vista, and out of which a stream of strong chalybeate water flows.”
While the natural features of this section of the Plateau are only now receiving widespread acclaim, as a result of the establishment of the Big South Fork National Recreation Area, a surprising number of familiar names turn up in the area’s history. Though Mark Twain just missed a Plateau birthright, his father was an important figure who, among other things, drew up the plans for the first county courthouse in Jamestown. Davy Crockett soon showed up at the courthouse to purchase land, as he lived in a hunting camp in a vast beech woods on the East Fork of the Obey River for two years. (His brother, Dumb Jimmy, stayed in the areas, and has many descendants.) During the Civil War Champe Ferguson, the most notorious Confederate guerilla, and his arch rival, Tinker Dave Deatty, shot it out on this courthouse square, and in every other corner of Fentress and Pickett County where they ran into each other. When the war ended, Ferguson, like Jeff Davis, was not granted a pardon by the Federals. Ferguson was found guilt of 56 killings in a military trial, thought tradition placed the figure over 100.
A better known military figure, Alvin C. York, reported to the Jamestown draft board in 1917 after much prayer and deliberation concerning the morality of war. A year later, this mountain youth, armed with a rifle and a .45 automatic pistol survived a one-man showdown with a battalion of machine guns in the Argonne Forest to win worldwide admiration. Behind enemy lines, he essentially silenced 35 machine guns, and captured 132 prisoners, killing 25 before he could force the surrender of the soldiers. The news of York’s fight brought immediate adulation and astounded military tacticians. Although he received the highest awards for valor from several Allied countries, was portrayed by Gary Cooper in an Academy Award winning motion picture, Sgt. York, and received hundreds of business offers, York remained a farmer and a blacksmith all his life in Pall Mall, Tennessee.
A few miles down the road, in Olympus, Tennessee, Cordell Hull was born, the son of a former guerilla fighter, and a river-raft pilot. He, too, soon found the courthouse steps in Jamestown, as he made campaign speeches in a rise from district judge, to U.S. Senator, to Secretary of State for F.D. Roosevelt. He was later credited as “the Father of the United Nations,” and accorded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the foundation.
Although these history-makers don’t entirely bear out Twain’s comments on the character of the people, a reputation that the region is rough and backwards has stuck through the generations. Children in the 19th century were said to be “rocked in gum logs and educated in thunderstorms, compelled to scratch for living among wildcats, raccoons and rattlesnakes.” Stories were told of “Fentress County people sending election returns in antebellum days, to Nashville marked on shingles with charcoal, and thrown into Obed’s River to float to the Capitol City.” In The Guilded Age, Twain describes his father’s effort to dissuade an unenlightened Obedstown native from building his chimney out of coal, copper, or iron ore, and accidentally discovering the wealth of the county: “I just stuck by him—I haunted him—I never let him alone till he built it of mud sticks like all the rest of the chimneys in this dismal country. ” On his walk to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, the great naturalist, John Muir, briefly noted his passing through “the poor, rickety, thrice-dead village of Jamestown, an incredibly dreary place.”
The lifestyle of many of the mountaineers in the 19th century was not particularly stable or materialistic. Soil on the Plateau is sandy and infertile, so that farming was not profitable without extreme effort. Families typically moved from place to place within the region every few years, many supporting themselves as “hunter-gatherers.” In 1880 Sir Thomas Hughes, an English author and idealist who founded the Rugby colony on the Plateau for the landless upper class of Great Briton, described the mountaineers:
Most, but not all of them, own a log cabin and a minute patch of corn round it, probably also have a few pigs and chickens, but seem to have no desire to make any effort at further clearing, and quite content to live from hand to mouth. The cannot do that without hiring themselves out when they get a chance, but are most uncertain and exasperating laborers… As soon as one of them has earned three or four dollars, he will probably want a hunt, and go off for it then and there, spend a dollar on powder and shot, and these on squirrels and opossums, whose skins may possibly bring him ten cents, as his weekly earnings… An Englishman who came here lately to found some manufactures, left in sheer despair and disgust, saying he had found at last a place where no one seemed to care for their money. I do no say this is true, but they certainly seem to prefer loafing and hunting to dollars, and are often too lazy, or unable, to count, holding out the small change and telling you to take what you want.
By the late 19th century there was an increasing use of the Plateau forests for rangeland. The growing population of free roaming livestock in the fenceless, open woods soon brought about the end of big game animals in the region. The number of small farms increased, particularly on the marginal lands in the hollows just at the Plateau’s edge and foot. Concurrently, industry was rolling in to take advantage of the vast, natural resources. In 1880 the Gernts, a German family in the logging business, moved from Michigan to found the Allardt community. In 1903, another Michigan industrialist founded Stearns, Kentucky, which was to become the base for extensive logging and coal mining operations By 1910, there were some 227 active saw mills on the Plateau, turning out lumber, railroad ties, mine timbers, and barrel staves.
In 1902, coal mines were opened in Fentress County by a former Union General, John T. Wilder, who had moved south following the Civil War. The Wilder mines quickly became the population center of the county. These large companies soon controlled ownership of the northern section of the Plateau and provided a livelihood to a majority of its residents.
Since that time, through periods of boom and depression, the means of making a living have changed very little. The economic base has rarely been strong enough to hold all the natives. Since the late 19th century these has been a pattern of migration from this region to several towns and cities in the Midwest and Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana for better farmland or factory work. This culminated with a mass exodus in the post-war boom of the late 1940’s, which created hillbilly colonies in the cities of the north-central industrial states.
Circumstances of culture and economics have left many without an inheritance of land and a quasi-nomadic family history. Their ancestors had followed wild game; they followed the timber works and mining operations; finally they followed the factory work—followed it right out of Appalachia, though most left intent on eventually returning. Others, fortunate enough to own small farms, never felt the urge for bigger and better things. Among both sorts are folks who feel that music making is an essential part of their lives.
This anthology and this record series is a collection of the secular music these mountain people play in their homes, at dances, or at family reunions. The general history given here outlines the family history of most of these musicians. Indeed, they have not only participated in this history, their generations have set it to music.
The music of this section of the Cumberlands shares much of the same history as the rest of the Highland South. The handful of ballad singers still living in the area believe that some of the earliest settlers were also singers. Hicks family history includes the claim that their singing great-grandfather John Hicks arrived in Jamestown in 1817, when only two families were settled on the town site. The art is now dominated by a few families, though there are still many singers, like Louie Jones, who only know a few songs. The suitability of the guitar for accompanying newer popular love songs was quickly recognized by young people in the 20th century, and the majority dropped the cumbersome old ballads and the unaccompanied singing style. Brothers Dee and Bessford Hicks, however, consider the old songs to be a part of their best memories and they each retained hundreds, to make a major contribution to our knowledge of Anglo-American folksong.
Instrumental traditions also reach back to the earliest settlement. The fiddle, played with accompaniment, was the most popular instrument before the Civil War, and remained the “leading music” when other instruments appeared. In 1876 a circuit-riding preacher wrote that he knew families on the tableland “who did not own a Bible, or take any religious newspaper, not any other kind, and did not have any books in their homes, and yet owned two or three fiddles and three or four rifle guns.” Will Phipps, born in Fentress County in 1829, was a skilled fiddler, well remembered for his habit of hooking his fiddle inside his shirt collar while playing his difficult and idiosyncratic solo tunes. Though he died in 1918 near Rock Creek, Tennessee, buried with the fiddle in his coffin, he passed along his musical tradition to John Sharp, Clyde Davenport, and Retta Spradlin.
Other instruments had a role in music making before the banjo or guitar with a common sight. Dee Hicks’ father played the mouth-bow, and John Sharp’s father-in-law played a homemade recorder-like instrument. Jew’s harps were universal, turned out by early blacksmiths, and the dulcimer was Dick Burnett’s first instrument, though few other natives new anything about them. Clyde and Ralph Troxell’s grandfather, Al Davenport, is said to have beat tunes on a pie pan using knitting needles, or with his feet while lying on his back.
Soon following the Civil War the banjo passed from the bands of the slaves and professional minstrel to the mountaineer. Two-finger picking styles now predominate among old musicians, although the clawhammer style had a following in earlier years. Local tastes leave room for very unconventional and showy techniques: all the banjo players on this anthology play a few traditional tunes using harmonics at the twelfth fret, and some occasionally fret the fifth string for melody notes. Al Davenport, born 1848 near Rock Creek in Wayne County, was playing complicated chording patterns, before the turn of the century, using three- and four- finger picking styles. Davenport performed dance tunes and popular music in a string band with other steamboat workers for passengers at landings on the Upper Cumberland River. He also entertained throughout the county for Dr. Medickle’s medicine show, sometimes picking the banjo between his knees or twirling it around his head while continuing the tune. Al Davenport may have introduced a more sophisticated approach to the banjo, but Dick Burnett’s success certainly reinforced the movement. Burnett, Monticello’s best known musician, is locally remembered for “acting the monkey,” novelty antics like thumping the banjo hide in the middle of a tune. Others at home and across the South appreciated his Columbia and Gennett recordings for his smooth mixture of clawhammer and two- and three-finger picking styles, accompanying the masterful fiddling Leonard Rutherford.
During the same time period, Joe Wheeler Gentry, born circa 1902, was intimidating his neighbors in Fentress and Morgan County with fancy two- and three-, and four-finger styles. Young Joe Wheeler, naturally left-handed, also learned to flip the banjo side to side, picking and noting with either hand. The adventurous attitude toward experimentation was taken up by some of the present-day musicians. W.L. Gregory, of Monticello, recorded a handful of beautiful, but irregular pieces in 1974 and 1975, using a syringe as a slide on one tune. Virgil Anderson, from the eastern edge of Wayne County, has developed a highly individual style, featuring difficult right hand technique, complete use of the fingerboard, unusual tunings, and much improvisation.
Fiddle and banjo, played note-for-note together, became the favored dance music in the late 19th century. Dee Hicks’ father teamed with Joe Wheeler Gentry’s father at dances in the English Rugby colony in the 1890’s. Andy Coffey, son of a slave fiddler, and Bled Coffey entertained Wayne County’s black and white communities with fiddle and banjo during the same period. Bled’s second cousin, Shell Coffey, joining his neighbor and cousin, Charlie Buster, in music making at turn-of-the-century dances while still in his childhood. White people often paid their way with food purchases to see the black dances, featuring fancy buck-dancing steps like “sifting sand,” and “the dog scratch,” “heading the steer,” “rocking the cradle,”and “counting the crossties.” Shell Coffey and Charlie Buster, both born in 1894, still meet to play their fiddle and banjo duets. Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford began their famous partnership in 1914, when Rutherford was still a young boy in knee-pants. When their fiddle and banjo pieces were first recording in 1926, the old-fashioned sound sold well. They dropped that format in 1928, adding a guitar to keep up with the trend toward a fuller sound.
The guitar made its first appearance in Wayne County just before 1900. Al Davenport quickly adopted the instrument, and a parlor-picking style, using three fingers and his thumb, known as “triple-timing.” Shell Coffey remembers the guitar as a primitive instrument with four strings, made from half-bushel size gourds, and sometimes played with a bow—probably a descendant of African instruments rather than a copy of the European guitar.
Mail-order guitars overtook the black and white musicians’ world by 1920, and ensembles soon included it. A red-hot string band named the Kentucky Wildcats played for scrip in the sawmill and coal camps along the Stearns Company’s railroad line during the Depression. Three musicians presented separately on this anthology made up the band: John Sharp, fiddle; Virgil Anderson, banjo; and Clyde Troxell, guitar. Cuje Bertram, a black fiddler from Pall Mall, Tennessee, also toured the coal camps with two white Carter Brothers during the 1930’s.
Cuje Bertram’s reputation as an outstanding fiddler had been established much earlier in Fentress and Wayne County. Born in 1894, Cuje was leading a full string band by 1915, with brothers Cooney on banjo, and Andy playing guitar. The Bertrams farmed throughout the week, and on weekends hauled moonshine to the backwoods logging camps, sponsoring a square dance when the last of their whiskey was sold. Cuje Bertram became tight friends with many white musicians, particularly Virgil Anderson and Leonard Rutherford, and was the source of their tunes. Cuje’s performances (documented on a ca. 1972 home recording) shared much with Rutherford’s: rich vibrato, triplets, smooth, sliding notes, and singing in unison with the fiddle.
The interaction between black and white musicians, described as very important in central Kentucky, was common in this south-central region. Cuje insists there was no racial tension: All was one. Wasn’t no colored, wasn’t no white. The only way I knowed I was colored was to have to go to the looking glass. He and Rutherford both learned much from an older black man, Willie “Rabbit” Taylor, born ca. 1889 in Somerset, Kentucky: That’s where we got it, from Rabbit. He’d play that “Easy Rider” and “All Night Long” and pat, pat, pat both feet at the same time, playing the guitar. Leonard, raised in Somerset, treated Taylor like an older brother. According to Cuje: Leonard just made his home there. He just laid there, day and night, and stayed there. When he went across in Cumberland (Co.) and got in trouble, he wrote Rabbit a letter. Rabbit send him the money and paid his fine, and sent him the money to come home on. For many, a music education could be had each Saturday at the Wayne County courthouse in Monticello. Dick Burnett had lost his eyesight in 1907, and turned to music for his sole income. Burnett would strap a cup around his knew and play and sing all day with any musician that wanted to join him. Leonard Rutherford became Burnett’s steady partner in 1914, and for the next 35 years, they reigned over the courthouse gatherings, and every other place they appeared. Smooth fiddling became entrenched as the ideal with the spread of Leonard Rutherford’s fame. Clyde Davenport, W.L. Gregory, Oren Spradlin, Ralph Troxell, Cuje Bertram, and Shell Coffey all testify to the superiority of his approach, and speak about his abilities with reverence. This is as close as the area’s musicians come to a common aesthetic. Another factor holding them together, though, is bloodline and marriage ties: for instance, Louella Sounders, of the Rocky Toppers, is the niece of John Sharp; Ralph Troxell, also in the group is a brother-in-law to Virgil Anderson, and is grandfather was “double first cousins” with Clyde Davenport’s grandfather. As the musicians represented on this anthology all lived within 25 miles of Jamestown, Tennessee, it is no wonder that most of them were well acquainted with one another, if not related. But, while it should be no surprise to find good music in the region that produced old-time artists like Burnett and Rutherford and Emory Arthur, one cannot help but feel excited by the excellence of these musicians, whose talents had gone unrecognized outside this small region.
Surrepta (Retta) Spradlin, like her two sisters and brother, never married and never left the home of her parents. She lived with her brothers and sisters from birth to death (1903 to 1978) in the tiny community of Bell Farm, Kentucky, which eventually became no more than six homesteads surrounded by miles of undeveloped wilderness, as farms were abandoned and the Stearns Railroad line was pulled out of the area. The Spradlins were proudly old-fashioned: they refused to have electricity in their house because they did not want to get “above their parents,” and always set their clocks by “sun time”—and, they were generous to visitors. Their house became a way station for travellers, particularly musicians. Burnett and Rutherford, the Kentucky Wildcats String Band, and Al Davenport were often overnight guests, creating music-sharing opportunities for Retta and her smooth-fiddling brother, Oren. The CCC camp at Bell Farm brought further musical attention to Retta and her beau, Hertzel Bell, the fiddling grandson of Will Phipps. After Bell died in 1949, Retta played only at home, behind Oren or alone for visitors that requested a tune.
The banjo was used on these recordings, a Silvertone purchased new by her father in 1918, was the only banjo Retta ever owned. Retta was entirely comfortable with the thudding, percussive sound, which beautifully set off her striking, clear voice.
“The Peafowl” is a lovely version of “Roll on Buddy,” or “Take This Hammer.” An old travelling peddler from South Carolina entertained the Spradlin family with this song during one of his stays, just as Retta was learning to play the banjo. The first verse refers to the folk belief that peacocks had warn of bad weather. “If that peafowl goes to hollerin’, You’d better pull the chimbley in, because the sky is fixin’ to fall,” according to Oren Spradlin. Retta tuned her banjo to gDGBE for “Wild Bill Jones.” Her lyrics are not typical – all lamentation, without the usual story of a weekend-night slaying. Retta’s father worked with Dick Burnett in the Tennessee/Kentucky oil fields before Burness lost his eyesight and became a full-time musician. He remained a good family friend, and was Retta’s source for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” which he published in his 1913 songbook.
Clyde Davenport I was nine year old. My daddy wouldn’t let me have his fiddle—he’s afraid I’d break it. So, you seen these boards like they used to cover barns with, made out of white oak? I got me one of them. Just shaped it out like a fiddle, put me two keys on it. Got me two strings and put on it. I went to the barn, caught a mule’s tail turned to a crack—it was a log barn. I got what hair I wanted in my hand and I started that mule out, pulled the hair out of his tail. I went and cut me a dogwood stick, and just bowed it like the rainbow. I went to the woods and got me some pine rosum off a pine tree, those hard balls, you know? Rosumed my bow, and in two or three hours I was playing two or three tunes. And that’s the way I started. Clyde Davenport’s early instincts for fiddling and fiddle making have developed into superior ability in both respects. From his hand-crafted fiddles, Davenport can draw bold 19th century solo fiddle tunes, sleek blues in Rutherford’s style, or racing, dexterous breakdowns. He values “good clear notes, and good smooth bow usin’,” and the qualities are always present in his fiddling. A separate LP of Clyde’s fiddling, County 788, offers a more complete sampling of his fiddling. His banjo playing is featured on two other L.P.’s: Monticello (DU 33014), and Homemade Stuff (DU 33028), with the fiddling of Monticello veterinarian W.L. Gregory. Since his birth near Mt. Pisgah, Kentucky, in 1921, Clyde has served in the army, worked in Indiana factories, owned farmers in Barrier, and Stop, Kentucky, run a truck stop in Mayland, Tennessee, and operated an instrument building and repair shop in Monticello. While he rarely seeks the opportunity to play, his repertoire and musicianship substantially reinforce the reputation of Kentucky’s great musical heritage.
“Zolly’s Retreat” (fiddle tuning DDAD) came to Clyde from his grandfather, Frank Davenport, a Union veteran of the Civil War. Frank claimed to have taught his first cousing, Al Davenport, how to play the fiddle. Joe Wilson, of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, provides the background for “Zolly’s Retreat”: “Zolly’s Retreat” commemorates an event very important in the folklore of the Upper Cumberland region. Zolly was Confederate Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer, who, on December 1, 1861, invaded this part of Kentucky. Zollicoffer’s advance took his army through Jamestown, Tennessee, and Monticello, Kentucky, to Mill Springs on the Cumberland River. Like many other Southern mountain people the residents of these parts were largely supporters of the Union. Moreover, the battle which followed demonstrated that Confederate forces were not invincible, a fact not fully obvious this early in the war, and it involved substantial members of local men. The twelve regiments of Federal infantry which opposed Zollicoffer included four regiments of Kentucky and Tennessee men and of Zollicoffer’s eight infantry regiments, six were composed of central and east Tennessee troops. Despite the good advice of his commander, General Albert Sidney Johnson, Zollicoffer crossed the Cumberland and built fortifications. On January 19, 1862, he attacked the larger Federal force under General George Thomas as it was crossing Fishing Creek near its junction with the Cumberland in order to move upon his fortificiation. Both armies were untested and poorly trained and Zollicoffer’s men were poorly equipped, many being armed with flintrock rifles which were useless in the rain which was falling. Zollicoffer was killed by pistol shot when, in the fog, smoke, and confusion of the battle, he rode his horse into the 4th Kentucky Regiment of Union Troops. His force was flanked and routed and returned to its camp in disorder, trapping in a bend of the river. The appearance of a Confederate supply steamer, the Noble Ellis, saved his defeated army. It was transferred, bereft of supplies, equipment and horses, to the south bank of the river to begin an ignoble retreat to middle Tennessee. “Zolly’s Retreat” seems to echo in spirit the description of the retreat written by Dr. W.J. Worsham, chief musician and history of the 19th Tennessee Regiment, C.S.A.: “On January the 20th we took our last farewell look of beech Grove and Will Springs. We turned our faces sadly and sorrowfully Southward, and beheld in the distance a long journey, unparalleled, through a rough, barren and unfriendly country. We needed sympathy but received none, save from the heavens, which looking down upon our forlorn condition poured out upon us heavy showers… Though all the day long the rain continued to fall, when late in the day we passed through Monticello wet, muddy and tired, not only in body but in mind. We presented an appearance to excite pity rather than applause. One mile beyond the town we sat down to rest for the night. We did not pitch our tent for we had none, neither had we blankets to spread upon the cold, wet ground which to lie, and with naught but the leaky clouds for a covering. Having had nothing to eat all day long, we lay down with empty stomachs to dream of the plenty we had left in camp. The next morning we had issued to us an ear of corn to each man (as if we were horses) to parch for our breakfast… all day Tuesday we plodded our weary way…”
-Worsham, Dr. W.J., The Old Nineteenth Tennessee Regiment, C.S.A.; Press of Paragon Printing Co,, Knoxville, TN 1902.
“Gettin’ Up the Stairs” and “Rattlin’ Down the Acorns” are two of the many solo pieces that Will Davenport, Clyde’s father probably learned from Will Phipps, a frequent visitor. The tune name “Rattlin’ Down the Acorns” is found in West Virginia, and Tennessee but not associated with the tune presented here. Clyde plays the tune in the key of G, with standard tuning, while “Gettin’ Up the Stairs” employs an open A tuning (AEAE). Clyde was a great admirer of Leonard Rutherford, and enjoyed Dick Burnett’s showmanship. Burnett is the source for “Wild Goose Chase,” a tune he had picked up from Tennessee Governor Bob Taylor. “Wild Goose Chase” is played in the key of B-flat with the fiddle in standard tuning, a very unusual setting for a tune of this vintage.
Clyde Troxell was born November 13, 1911, the grandson of medicine-show entertainer Al Davenport. His father, Jasper Troxell, a roughneck teamster for the oil and stave companies, and a lively fiddler, married Al’s banjo-playing daughter in 1907. Clyde’s first instrument, which he still owns and plays, was a homemade fretless banjo, just over two feet in length, that Al Davenport purchased in 1900. Clyde learned to play the guitar during his teenage years, with the help of Al’s son, Earl, using both a “knocking” strum and “triple timing,” a four-finger style. By the late 1920’s he was “riding the basses as good as Riley Puckett.” He joined his brother-in-law, Virgil Anderson, and John Sharp in 1931, pounding guitar back-up for The Kentucky Wildcats. Clyde also sang lead for the group, with Virgil singing the alto.
Clyde now resides in Rocky Branch, Kentucky. He was not active musically for twenty years, but still plays a wealth of tunes in his crisp, clean two-finger style.
“Me and My Old Wife” was one of Jasper Troxell’s favorite tunes. No other area musician has familiarity with the song, though the first part of the tune is identical to the second part of “Rabbit in a Log.” Clyde tunes the banjo to f#DF#AD for “Skipping Through the Frost and the Snow,” a variant of “Mole in the Ground.” A very unusual tuning, aCGCE, is required for the showpiece “The French Waltz.” Clyde’s source for the tune was neighbor Jeff Gregory, W.L. Gregory’s older brother. Gregory claimed he learned the tune during World War I from a banjo-playing Frenchman who also provided its name. The tune is not a waltz, of course, and probably an original piece rather than a serious effort to duplicate a French tune. The use of fretted 5th string melody notes is unusual. Virgil Anderson also plays the tune, but with an additional melody run on the 5th string.
Louie Jones sings to pass the time, as he lives alone on Chestnut Ridge in Morgan County. His unrestrained performance of “The Corn Song” contradicts the notion that traditional Anglo-American singers deliver their texts with detachment. This version of “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe His Corn” no longer tells the full story of the widespread original, an English import that humorously preaches against laziness. Louie delights in it nonetheless, remembering enough of the story to fire his enthusiasm. Born in 1922, he learned the song as a child, from a schoolmate.
The Rocky Toppers
The Rocky Toppers are now the only working old-time band in the region. Their followers appreciate both their familiarity with favorite breakdown tunes and their tempo is right for dancing.
Elmer Hurst: Well, you could hunt the world over and you couldn’t find any better square dance music. If you can’t dance to their music, you can’t dance. You might as well sit in your seat.
The groups personnel—Ray Souders, banjo; Louella Souders, guitar; and Ralph Troxell, fiddle—grew up together, but first formed a string band in 1975. The band repertoire is entirely Burnett and Rutherford pieces and prewar breakdowns, like “Sleeping Lulu,” and “Candy Gal” (associated with Rutherford). Each band member was well acquainted with Burnett and Rutherford, particularly Ray Souders. When Ray was age nine, his mother moved into a tenant house behind Burnett’s house, and a close friendship developed between the two families:
Dick Burnett, he wanted me to make a guitar picker. So I started out with it. And he taught me right smart stuff and I went from there picking it up.
By 1936 Ray was playing regularly with Monticello’s famed duo. As Rutherford’s drinking made him an unreliable driver, Burnett recruited Ray for the task, and to play guitar.
I went and got me an old Model A Ford, and we’d just go place to place. We’d leave Dick Burnett’s and we’d go to Russell Springs, Albany, and Jamestown, Tennessee, and Jamestown, Kentucky, and play music. Course, old man Dick was blind, you know, and he had that big cup on his knee. So they’d go to pitching them nickels, quarters, and things in there, and just tell us what they wanted to hear, and we’d start out on it.
Played at the courthouse [in Jamestown, Tennessee] right under them big shade trees. They’d come out there, lawyers and sheriffs, and everything close and listen to us. Ambeer half leg deep and shavings under them trees where they’d whittle—them old men. Some a ‘hollering’, some a ‘dancin’, and the law never interfered with us—they liked it.
When we’d get done playin’, divided up the money, we’d have right around ten dollars apiece. Nickels and dimes and quarters. Old Man Dick, he’d have his pockets full of that money, carryin’ it. Course, a lot of times, Leonard, he was awful bad to drink, Leonard was—somebody’d come around and give him a shot or two and the next thing you know, he’d be pretty well drunk. He’d get till he couldn’t play sometimes. Well, me and old blind man Dick Burnett, we’d have to leave him. Leave him in some town, you know. Come back, and old Leonard, then, he’d come driftin’ in, in a day or two. Say he’d got in jail sometimes. Course, old Dick, he didn’t like it, cause he’s a good musician, you know, a good fiddler.
Ray travelled with Burnett and Rutherford for the next two years, finally moving into a CCC camp at Bell Farm in 1939, and then into the army.
In 1947 he married Louella Sharp, who was no stranger to string music. Louella had been born and raised near Mt. Pisgah, in the Washington Young Place, like her uncle, Fiddlin’ John Sharp. Her father, Hugh Sharp, picked the banjo, as did all her uncles. In her fifteenth year, Louella cracked out enough walnut kernels to order a guitar from Sears, and “sat out in the tater bed” until she was good enough to play with the rest of the family.
Ralph Troxell, fiddler for the Rocky Toppers, also grew up in a music-loving family. His older brother, Clyde, and “his fiddling father, Jasper,” were his first partners and teachers when he began playing guitar as a child. Although he never met his grandfather, medicine show musician Al Davenport, he carries many of Davenport’s tunes, and according to his mother, has Davenport’s build and mannerisms. When he joined the Souders to form a string band, the chose “The Rocky Branch Travellers” as their name, after Ralph’s home community. It was changed to its present form a year later, but the owner/emcee of a square dance hall in Hanging Limb, Tennessee.
Elmer Hurst of Jamestown, Tennessee, is not a member of the Rocky Toppers, but is always close by when a square dance is held. Elmer began buck dancing as a young child at his father’s late-night fiddling sessions with Cuje Bertram. He was seventeen in 1924 when he went to his first square dance in Pall Mall. Elmer took up his traditional style of calling sets, sharply barking out the calls, in 1955, when there was a local need for more dance callers.
Bessford Hicks, like his older brother, Dee, inherited a vast knowledge of traditional songs from his father, Daniel Hicks. Daniel and his brother were raised in the Fentress County backwoods as hunters, rather than farmers, and made little effort in any other endeavor, except singing and tale-telling. Those also became Bessford’s greatest joys, and he raised his family on the stories, lullabies, “dang-devil” songs, and love songs that had given the Hicks a widespread reputation in earlier years. Bessford probably knew as many songs as his brother Dee Hicks, who recorded some 400 for the Archive of Folk Culture in the Library of Congress. The only recorded example of his singing, a cassette taped by his daughter in 1973, reveals a relaxed, smooth singing style. Bessford died in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1976 at age 65. Bessford and his brother, sisters, and children are featured on an album, The Hicks Family (TFS 104).
Few early American ballads vividly describe the wonders, concerns, and rigors of frontier life. “The Cumberlin’ Land” does so from a first-person perspective, the text ostensibly forming the lines of a letter. The ballad has an intriguing history, the earliest record coming from a ca. 1825 manuscript from western North Carolina. The text, partially printed in the Frank C. Brown collection as “The Cumberland Traveller,” has only five lines in common with Bessford’s version, but it tells the same story of a journey, is in letter-form, and is preoccupied with an Indian threat. The closing verse begins:
O if you want for to noe the time
These lines was Rought in 89
A West Virginian wrote in his 1904 recollections that, on the eve of the Battle of Fredricksburg in 1862, he penned a letter to his wife and children in song ballet form. His song is clearly a version of “The Cumberland Traveller,” incorporating Civil War images. Ada Graham, from Gillmore, Kentucky, recorded an unusual variant on her June Appal LP, and an Overton County, Tennessee version, almost identical to the Hicks’ text and tune, was collected in 1974. Bess Hicks’ tightly constructed version includes many striking images. The description of “five hundred human graves/ all walled in with Freemason sign,” probably refers to pre-Columbian Indian burials that intrigued early travellers in Tennessee, the composer confusing their burial decoration with the symbolism of the equally mysterious Freemason society.
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