Robert Pete Williams at the University of Illinois Campus Folksong Club

Robert Pete Williams

From the early 1960s until the early 1970s a student group known as the Campus Folksong  Club, under the leadership of faculty advisor Archie Green, brought folk musicians from all over the country to perform on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the years, the Folksong Club hosted performances by the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Doc Watson, and in 1965, Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams.

The story of Robert Pete Williams is well known; while serving a life sentence for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the late 1950s, Williams’ songs and stories were recorded by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Harry Oster.  Under considerable pressure from Oster and others in the academic community, Williams’ sentence was commuted, and by 1964 he was released from the terms of his parole and allowed to tour outside Louisiana for the first time. We are fortunate that some of these early performances were captured on tape, including the Campus Folksong Club concert featured here, tape number FT-4189/FT-4190 in the SFC’s Archie Green Collection.

Listen to a clip of Robert Pete Williams performing “I’ve Grown So Ugly”, live at the University of Illinois, Feb.12, 1965:

Grown So Ugly

New Sons of the Pioneers Box Set

wayoutthere2We recently received a copy of Way Out There: The Complete Recordings 1934-1943 (SFC CD-7810), the new Sons of the Pioneers/Roy Rogers box set from German label Bear Family Records. Bear Family boxes are always overstuffed with great material, and this one is no exception, with six CDs and a 160 page hardcover book featuring dozens of photographs and poster reproductions. SFC staff were happy to assist the folks at Bear Family with remote access to material from our 78 rpm record collection during the production of this set.
Listen to the Sons of the Pioneers performing “Way Out There” (from SFC 78-7047): way-out-there
The holdings of the SFC are particularly strong in Sons of the Pioneers material, most notably the Sons of the Pioneers Transcription Discs Collection, featuring many non-commercial recordings from the Lucky-U Ranch radio programs of the 1950’s, and the Elizabeth Drake McDonald Collection on the work of songwriter Bob Nolan.

John D. Loudermilk's Tobacco Road

tobaccoroadOur friends downstairs at the North Carolina Collection’s A View to Hugh blog have a wonderful post up about singer/songwriter and North Carolina native John D. Loudermilk, featuring some fine candid photographs by Hugh Morton. Author David Meincke touches briefly on the dozens of artists who have recorded Loudermilk’s most famous composition, “Tobacco Road”, which inspired us to post a few additional “Tobacco Road” clips from our John D. Loudermilk Collection.
Allmusic.com lists over four dozen artists as having recorded the song, and even their database is missing a couple, including this unexpectedly funky 1978 version by Richie Lecea (SFC 45-5754): richie_lecea_tobacco_road
And this 1961 take from England’s Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys (SFC 45-5753): johnny_duncan_tobacco_road
Another English group, the misleadingly named Nashville Teens (pictured), made “Tobacco Road” a top-20 hit on both sides of the pond in 1964. You can watch them lip sync it on television here.
Loudermilk wrote other hit songs (“A Rose and a Baby Ruth”, “Indian Reservation”), but “Tobacco Road” will likely remain his most lasting contribution to American popular culture. If you have a favorite version, please share in the comments.

Mike Seeger, 1933-2009

sfc_p2944We at the SFC were deeply saddened to hear about Friday’s passing of musician, folklorist, and collector Mike Seeger. He was 75 years old.

Mike Seeger devoted his life to collecting and performing the music of the rural South. He began playing the guitar at the age of 18 and soon added almost a dozen instruments to his repertoire, including the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer, and autoharp.

In 1958 he formed the New Lost City Ramblers with Tom Paley and John Cohen. Modeling their sound after the old-time string bands of the 1920s and ’30s, the New Lost City Ramblers helped to bring the music of the Southern rural tradition to the forefront of the 1960s folk revival.

But Mike Seeger may be best remembered here as a collector, recording hundreds of performances and interviews with legendary old-time musicians including Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, and Ernest V. Stoneman. These tapes now reside in the SFC’s Mike Seeger Collection, currently being preserved as part of a two-year preservation and access grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities entitled Fiddles, Banjos and Mountain Music. The grant focuses on several interrelated collections including the collections of  Paul Brown, Eugene Earle, Ralph Epperson, Fiddler’s Grove and Alice Gerrard.

Throughout his life Mike Seeger worked to make the music he loved accessible beyond it’s origins in the rural South. Through preservation projects like  Fiddles, Banjos and Mountain Music, the Southern Folklife Collection seeks to honor his legacy and preserve his lifetime of research for future generations.

Mike Seeger performing Dock Boggs’ “Down South Blues” in 1963 : down_south_blues

And the following year, performing Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Bachelor’s Hall” :  bachelors_hall

From tapes FT-5622 and FT-5635 in the Mike Seeger Collection.

Clyde Johnson On WPAQ

Recently found in the Ralph Epperson Collection, from the recordings of WPAQ Radio in Mount Airy, NC, was a delightful tape of Clyde Johnson and the Stringdusters from the June 15, 1985 broadcast of the WPAQ Merry-Go-Round, a weekly live radio program for local musicians. The Stringdusters had a rotating membership that always included Clyde Johnson, host of the Merry-Go-Round for 47 years (until his death in 2007). Highlights include two songs sung by Rafe Brady, “Take A Drink On Me” & “Waltz Across Texas With You”. Rafe’s unique blend of character and warmth in his aging voice helped give the  program it’s usual down home feel.

The entire Ralph Epperson Collection has now been digitized for preservation and access. This work was made possible though support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Take A Drink On Me”: take-a-drink-on-me

“Waltz Across Texas”: waltz-across-texas

You're No Elvis

**UPDATE**  See the comments below for a more in depth discussion
Often we rely on our researchers for valuable information about the material in our collections: they are the ones who spend the most time with the material, and they definitely have the most expertise. A case in point: a recent discovery in our Elvis Presley Instantaneous Disc Collection, from a set of acetate masters for the soundtrack of the 1963 Elvis movie It Happened at the World’s Fair. A researcher who specializes in all things Elvis has pointed out that one of the the songs in the collection, “The Life I Love” (FD-1190), is not a recording of Elvis Presley at all, but most likely sung by P.J. Proby, a Texas native whose act the folks at MGM apparently found so Elvis-like that they contracted him to record demos of songs they were considering for Presley.
It makes sense that this particular song would only exist in demo form: “The Life I Love” never appeared in the movie, so it’s likely Elvis never recorded his own version, and the existing Presley discographies make no mention of the song.
P.J. Proby would go on to have a very impressive recording career of his own, scoring three top-ten hits in the UK in the mid-sixties, appearing on the Beatles TV special, and recording an album with the future members of Led Zeppelin. Later in his career Proby would continue to capitalize on his similarities to Elvis, portraying the King in various productions of Elvis: The Musical.
Listen to “The Life I Love”, likely sung by P. J. Proby (commenters seem to disagree as to who, exactly,  is singing this demo): the-life-i-love

"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: twelve-gates-to-the-city

The Strange Case Of The DeAutremont Brothers

Here’s an interesting song we came across recently in the Ed Kahn Collection: “The Strange Case of the DeAutremont Brothers”, recorded in 1928 by banjo and guitar duo The Johnson Brothers. It dramatized a sensational train robbery that took place outside of Medford, Oregon in 1923. The would-be robbers (brothers Hugh, Ray, and Roy DeAutremont) badly botched the job, murdering four innocent men in the process. The DeAutremont brothers escaped the scene with their lives, leading authorities on a international manhunt until they were finally apprehended, tried, and sentenced to life in prison in 1927. The Johnson brothers recording no doubt sought to turn some of the recent trial publicity into record sales.
Listen to a clip of “The Strange Case of the DeAutremont Brothers”:
strange-case-of-the-deautremont-bros

Ray DeAutremont (L), with Gary Williams, 1973
Ray DeAutremont (L), with Gary Williams, 1973

The clip below is from a tape made in 1973 by Eugene area journalist Gary Williams (tape FT-12658, Ed Kahn Collection), including an interview with the by-then paroled Ray DeAutremont. Ray is reluctant to speak about the murders, but does offer a few interesting (though self-serving) words on the subject of regret.

Listen to Ray DeAutremont  in 1973:
ray-deautremont-on-regret
You can read more on the strange case of the DeAutremont Brothers in Oregon’s Great Train Holdup: The DeAutremont Case No. 57893-D.