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HARRY BOLICK & STEPHEN T AUSTIN - Mississippi Fiddle Tunes And Songs From The 1930s

HARRY BOLICK & STEPHEN T AUSTIN - Mississippi Fiddle Tunes And Songs From The 1930s
University Press of Mississippi  ISBN: 9781496804075

Mississippi – home of the blues. Thousands of recordings were made of this most popular music form from the Delta. Folk groups too, such as the Leake County Revellers, proved popular as did duo Narmour and Smith – some of my personal favourites from the period.  But I thought that the traditional “old-timey” song and dance music was either not there, eclipsed by the other musical forms or had simply been overlooked. How wrong I was!

These publications are the result of happenstance – a thread of chance events, coincidences and luck. Stephen Jay Gould recounted one such: if Lord Castlereagh had not survived the duel with Canning in 1929, he would not have developed the depression which caused him to take his own life in 1821, the depression which prompted his cousin to guard against this by hiring a companion for his forthcoming project.  The project was a voyage of HMS Beagle and his companion was Charles Darwin. In the case under consideration, a student recited his cousin’s ballad to the professor running his University ballad course, thus instigating the collection of items which he published in a book. Then, when a polio outbreak scare in Mississippi during 1936 saw all music classes cancelled, their employer, because of his awareness of that book, decided to put the music teachers to work as folk music collectors.  The result was the astonishing fact of nearly 130 trained music teachers turning into full-time folk music collectors for several months amassing a collection of over 3,500 songs and tunes. Just as suddenly, the polio scare vanished, the collecting work ceased, funding was withdrawn and the results of the project were consigned to an archive. Three years later however, a follow-up project was undertaken, with two collectors, Herbert Halpert and Abbot Ferris making around 180 sound recordings of similar material (even though the two projects only had one source in common, the fiddler John Alexander Brown, a wonderful photograph of whom adorns the front cover of the book). These recordings went into a different archive. And there they all stayed until 1985 when they were cherry-picked for an LP called Great Big Yam Potatoes. It was when investigating this archive to see Ferris’s wonderful photos that Harry Bolick discovered this huge collection of seemingly forgotten material.  Bolick has now published all the instrumental items in these projects, comprising the 331 tunes from the 1936 project and new transcriptions of the 180 sound recordings. Additionally, he has, with Document records, published the sound recordings in a 3-CD set. It’s an amazing achievement.

The 1936 material is quite a mixed bunch.  The collectors were untrained in this field and their abilities varied considerably. Supporting material is scarce, or even worse (on some items, it is not known whether the one name given was the source or the transcriber), some were not able to transcribe at all, trying to learn the tunes from their source and later play them to a colleague with the necessary expertise. They didn't know the material, or even like it sometimes – one transcriber wrote at the bottom of a tune: “he plays a number of these pieces and they all sound alike”. Consequently they collected popular and minstrel songs and other items learned from commercial recordings as well as the traditional material they sought. In contrast, the 1939 recordings were accompanied by interviews, pen-pictures, photographs – even details of the source’s house layout in some cases. 

A few interesting points crop up as well.  Although not specifically looking for traditional tunes from African-American fiddlers, several were recorded from this under-documented group. After all it is estimated that at one point there were as many black fiddle players on the Southern plantations as there were black banjo players.  Also, the practice of a second person beating straws on the fiddle strings whilst the fiddle was being played, creating an aural impression of a banjo-type accompaniment, appears to have been fairly common in the state and some good examples are captured.  The area seems to boast a higher than usual number of crooked tunes – in the best sense, where the tunes flow naturally into an unusual number of bars, rather than sounding like errors.  Narmour and Smith demonstrate this as well, see their two CDs (also on the Document label).  Although some of the material here shows evidence of square dancing usage, the crooked tunes would work best with two-steps or step dancing and clogging of which there was evidence in the area.  Also, I feel there are a stock of tunes and a stock of titles, but the two don’t always coincide (I once heard a story where a source gave increasingly implausible names to the tunes, to see just how gullible the collector was)! Just because the tune has a title you recognise, doesn’t mean it’s the tune you expect.

The 1936 tunes are simplistic, with little nuance noted and will take a fair bit of work to render them usable.  Bolick himself estimates that it took him “a year of playing” to achieve this.  Luckily his album, Tunes From The Book, demonstrates in no mean way how the author has breathed new life into the tunes.  The album is a lovely and inspiring piece of work and is highly recommended. The Document CD set is marvellous, with a vast array of performances. These show musicians fully in control of their material – even 81-year-old Stephen Tucker, who rarely played by then, gives fluent, impressive performances giving us first-hand knowledge of how these tunes would have sounded when played in the period of the American Civil War. 

Like every good researcher, Bolick points out that this work is not finished.  There are still over 3,000 items still languishing in the archives and needing this kind of fastidious attention.  Any volunteers?

This is an outstanding set of publications, put together with scholarship and wit, dedication, knowledge and drive.  Many, many thanks to Messrs Bolick and Austin.

Buy them.

Paul Burgess


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This album was reviewed in Issue 115 of The Living Tradition magazine.