Bluegrass Throwdown

One of the great things about archives is that you can run across interesting information in places you’d never expect.  For example, the Mike Seeger tape logs in the Southern Folklife Collection Field Notes (30025) are largely comprised of long lists of the song titles and performers which make up the track listings of his numerous field recordings.  But hidden among the pages and pages of track listings are occasional gems of personal musings, background stories, or random anecdotes like the following:

In August 1988, I spoke with Bud Reed about the Monroe Brothers engagement in the 1950s at the New River Ranch.  . . He said that they booked them separately for the same day, then somehow they sang together on stage. . . Bud said that some of the public attended because of the widely circulated folklore that they had fought and broken up – and that the big scar on Charlie’s neck was from a knife wound from Bill.  These people wanted to see them fight again. I’ve heard many such stories about these two.”

Listen below to a clip from the brothers’ (fratricide-free) collaboration that day:

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The  entire concert is recorded on SFC field tape FT-12917.

A Stack o’ “Stack O’Lee”

Well, it seems there really was a Stetson hat.  And one cold night in 1895, William “Billy” Lyons and Lee Shelton (otherwise known as “Stack Lee”) fought over that hat in what would become one of the most infamous altercations in folk history.  You know which one of them walked away, because Mississippi John Hurt, Ma Rainey, Champion Jack Dupree, Woody Guthrie, The Fruit Jar Guzzlers, Furry Lewis, and countless others immortalized the story in song.

The Southern Folklife Collection has recordings of the grim tale by at least 30 different musicians; there’s a version for every taste.  In the mood for a little Hawaiian guitar? Sol Hoopii recorded an instrumental version in 1926:

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(Clip from SFC FC-4006, Master of the Hawaiian Guitar)

Want something with a little more blues flavor? Try Ma Rainey’s iconic 1925 telling of the tale:

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(clip from SFC CD-3845, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

Mississippi John Hurt got in on the act in 1928, and brought the song to live audiences throughout the country in the 1960s:

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(clip from SFC CD-4025, Before The Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene)

Maybe that’s where Doc Watson heard it – he recorded his own old-timey version in 1967:

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(clip from SFC FC-14460, Ballads From Deep Gap)

Many more versions can be found in the Southern Folklife Collection’s online catalog, and you can read more about the true story in Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy.

A Dog For Outer Space

Goebel Reeves, the Depression-era singer-songwriter better known as “The Texas Drifter”, penned plenty of songs about the hobo life, including his friend Jimmie Rodgers’ hit “Hobo’s Lullaby”. While Reeves certainly crafted his share of songs about the lonely freedom that was the human hobo’s lot in life, he had a soft spot for his four-legged friends, as well.

Reeves wrote at least four songs about dogs, including the heartstring-tugging “The Drifter’s Pup” and “I Love My Dog”. Reeves didn’t shy away from portraying the darker side of canine life, either, as is evident from titles like “The Poisoned Dog”, found on an undated radio transcription disc, and the chilling account of “A Dog for Outer Space”, reproduced here:

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Laika the cosmonaut dog was launched into space on Nov. 3, 1957. These lyrics were included in a letter sent to Australian record collector John Edwards  on December 10th of that year, and can now be found in the Southern Folklife Collection Artist Name File Collection.

“Seeing Sound” Exhibit, Oct. 12, 2009 – Jan. 4, 2010

Before the widespread availability of recordings and record players, music publishers relied on visual representations to inform and entice consumers to buy sheet music of popular songs. The illustrator had to convey both the subject matter and the mood of a song, essentially capturing the sound of music in a single painting or drawing.

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From October 12 to January 4, the Southern Folklife Collection will be hosting the exhibit Seeing Sound: Sheet Music Illustration From 1890 To 1940, featuring sheet music illustrations from the Eugene Earle Collection. The exhibit will be held on the 4th floor of the Wilson Library and is free and open to the public (9:00 AM – 5:00 PM Mon.-Fri., 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM on Sat.).

“Bowling Green” John Cephas, 1930-2009

John Cephas at Merlefest, 1999

John Cephas at Merlefest, 1999, from the Becky Johnson Collection

In March of this year, the music world lost one of its best and brightest when John Cephas, world-famous proponent of the famous Piedmont style of guitar picking, passed away.  Cephas, widely known for his partnership with harmonica player Phil Wiggins, was a regular on the blues festival circuit, bringing the mellow sounds of the Piedmont to enthusiastic crowds on every continent (except Antarctica – too bad for the penguins!) Winner of a slew of awards (including a National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1989), he tirelessly worked to bring traditional blues music to audiences old and new.

Take a moment and remember Mr. Cephas with us, and enjoy Piedmont style picking at its very best.

Listen to a clip of Cephas & Wiggins performing “Twelve Gates To The City”, from the 1995 album Cool Down:

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