Although you’d be hard-pressed to find much evidence of it these days, there was a time when the fiddle reigned supreme in all kinds of American vernacular music, among black as well as white musicians. Until the turn of the last century, the repertoires and playing styles of black and white country entertainers overlapped a great deal and shared what ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell has identified as a common stock of tunes and songs.
This situation changed somewhat with the advent of the blues, although many early blues performers continued to play in a variety of styles, thus maintaining an appeal broad enough to extend to both black and white audiences. But by the mid-1920s, the major record companies — Victor, Columbia, Okeh, and Brunswick-Vocalion — developed a system of marketing their products that, in essence, was the cultural equivalent of the Jim Crow laws. These companies aimed hillbilly records at a rural white market and marketed “race” records (blues, hot jazz bands, and black sacred music) toward blacks.
Although in reality there were a lot of crossover sales, one sad consequence of this practice was that the majority of black string bands (and evidence suggests there were plenty of them) were turned away by the record companies. The majority, but not all. A small amount of this music survived long enough to be committed to wax in the era of 78s, though little of it has been reissued on LP or CD. That, then, is the raison d’être for this CD, a powerful collection of blues, hokum, jug-band, jazz, and black hillbilly music.
The violin is unique among musical instruments in its ability to mimic human vocal expression. For that reason, it is especially effective as the lead voice in the various ensembles heard here. Hot dance music was the order of the day, and appropriately the collection roars into gear with “Rukus Juice And Chittlin”, a rollicking number by the Memphis Jug Band with Charlie Pierce on the fiddle. It glides to a halt 75 minutes later with the Mississippie Sheiks’ very pop-oriented “Lazy Lazy River”, sung by Walter Vinson and fiddled by Lonnie Chatman.
In between are lowdown blues by Mississippi guitarist/singer Joe Williams, accompanied by “Dad” Tracy on fiddle; Georgian Henry Williams with Eddie Anthony, who was best known for his fiddle playing with Peg Leg Howell; and Frank Stokes, a well-known fixture of the Beale Street blues scene in Memphis. Clifford Hayes and his Louisville Stompers and the Dixieland Jug Blowers, two fine bands from Louisville, play in a style that might best be described as the string-band equivalent of the hot jazz then popular in Chicago and New York.
Those familiar with the great blues guitarists Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy may be surprised to learn that their first instrument was the fiddle. Each is heard here demonstrating their prowess on that instrument, Broonzy in blues and jazz ensembles, Johnson in a trio with a more countrified sound. Bo Chatman, best-known as a guitarist and singer of double-entendre blues under the name of Bo Carter, is heard here as a fiddler on several cuts. One of the more unusual pieces included in this compilation is the charming (and very European-sounding) “Cabo Verdranos Peca Nove” played by Augusto Abrew, a fiddler who migrated to New York from the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa.
Three selections are straight-ahead country breakdowns that were originally issued as part of the record companies’ hillbilly series. Howard Armstrong of LaFollette, Tennessee, who played in a group called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, knocks one out called “Knoxville Stomp”. Armstrong, incidentally, is still living and playing his fiddle and mandolin around Boston. James Cole’s String Band offers up “I Got A Gal”, a lively tune with comic verses typical of the day.
Finally, in what was certainly one of the earliest integrated recording sessions, Andrew Baxter, a black fiddler from north Georgia, leads the well-known hillbilly band the Georgia Yellowhammers on an energetic romp simply called “G Rag”. Wonderful stuff indeed. The collection also comes with 32 pages of meticulously researched notes, interspersed throughout with vintage photographs.