First Impressions: June Appal Recordings

First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


The Album

LP cover, gray background with image of Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens on a porch

Nimrod Workman & Phyllis Boyens, Passing Thru The Garden | FC-1286

June Appal Recordings was founded to release traditional and contemporary mountain music, recorded by and for the people of the Southern mountains near their Whitesburg, Kentucky home. At the time, it would have been difficult to find a more complete embodiment of that mission than Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens. Nimrod Workman had been a mine worker, singer, and union activist in the mountains of West Virginia for over six decades by the time June Appal Recordings was created in 1974. Phyllis Boyens, Nimrod’s daughter, had been raised in that culturally rich environment and quickly took to the musical and activist inclinations of her parents and grandparents. Passing Thru The Garden marked the recorded debut of June Appal, Nimrod and Phyllis, the first example of the cross-generational efforts that would come to define June Appal as a label. Most of the songs on Passing Thru The Garden are credited as arranged by Nimrod Workman, and most are sung unaccompanied by instrumentation. Nimrod and Phyllis take many of the songs alone, while joining voices on others. Listen to excerpts of two tracks from the album, and read on below.

Here is an excerpt from Track 1, “I Am a Traveling Creature,” featuring both Nimrod and Phyllis:

Also listen to a clip from Track 10, “Oh Death,” featuring Phyllis Boyens with some spare instrumentation:


NIMROD WORKMAN

Nimrod is shown performing during a workshop with others seated around him

Nimrod was active with the Highlander Folk School, and he is pictured here (standing) at a 1972 workshop organized by the group. Photo by Doug Yarrow. Image Folder PF-20008/70 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

Born in 1895 in Inez, Kentucky, Nimrod Workman moved to West Virginia to work in a coal mine at the age of 14. For the next 42 years, Workman continued to mine coal, until black lung and other injuries forced him to retire. He was an active union member and activist for worker’s rights from the early years of his career, but he became most well known later in life as a singer of unaccompanied ballads. Nimrod Workman was already 79 in 1974, the year his first album, Passing Thru The Garden, was released. While he was an active performer for the rest of his life, he recorded only one more album, Mother Jones’ Will, for Rounder Records in 1978. Workman continued to be associated with his career as a coal miner, frequently singing coal mining songs and contributing to different coal mining-related projects. He recorded several songs for Come All You Coal Miners, a collection of coal mining songs also produced by Rounder Records, and he appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.

His appearance in the acclaimed documentary, which followed the “Brookside Strike,” translated into a brief appearance in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. In the film, Nimrod leads a group of mourners at a funeral in a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The recording appears on the soundtrack to the movie, and Nimrod can be heard calling out each line before the rest of the crowd joins in. Listen to a brief clip from the song below:

At first glance, Workman’s appearance always seemed to announce his increasing age – from his uniquely dimpled cheeks to his tall and lanky frame. However, whenever Nimrod Workman sang or moved, he constantly betrayed just how young his spirit was. To help demonstrate that trademark youthfulness, below is a clip from Carry It On, a nine-part series produced by the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in 1984 and aired on PBS. In the clip, Nimrod states his age (“87 in years, 18 in feelings”) and demonstrates to his daughter Phyllis Boyens and host Mike Seeger how to do the “frog walk.” The full video, VT-20004/21 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004) is streaming through UNC libraries here.


Phyllis boyens

Promotional photograph of Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens. P-2992a in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004).

Phyllis Boyens-Liptak was born Phyllis Workman in 1947 in West Virginia, one of the youngest of Mollie and Nimrod Workman’s 13 children. Raised by musical parents, she quickly took to singing the songs that her father sang, and frequently accompanied him in casual venues and on tour. 1974’s Passing Thru the Garden was, like her father, also Phyllis’s first album. Also like Nimrod, Phyllis only recorded one more album, the 1983 solo outing I Really Care. Phyllis was active in the same musical and activist groups as her father, contributing songs to albums like They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs and touring with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project. Although she did not have a prolific recording career, she maintained an active presence in the folk music world, and she also expanded into the world of acting. Phyllis had appeared in the documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. alongside her father, and attention from that appearance helped her land a supporting role as Loretta Lynn’s mother in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter

Phyllis’s mother Mollie Workman was also an accomplished singer, as she demonstrates in this field recording made by Mark Wilson for Rounder Records’ “North American Traditions Series.” In this clip from FT-20503/16073, Mollie Workman sings “I’m Going Back With Jesus When He Comes” unaccompanied:


THE label

The Appalachian Film Workshop was founded in 1969 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, part of the United States government’s legislative War on Poverty. Federal funding helped create several of these community workshops, which aimed to provide access to film production training and education in impoverished areas. In 1974, the organization underwent a few major changes, diversifying beyond film production and evolving into an independent nonprofit company. Around this time, the name of the organization was shortened to Appalshop, reflecting broader goals and a new direction.

These 1974 changes included the creation of June Appal Recordings, a record label within Appalshop. The goals of this new label reflected those of Appalshop as a whole – producing content for, by, and about the people that live in Appalachia. The June Appal discography includes Kentuckians like Buell Kazee, I.D. Stamper, and Nimrod Workman, but it also includes a broad range of traditional and contemporary folk musicians from across the U.S. June Appal has maintained a relatively steady pace since 1974, releasing more than 80 albums on LP, CD, or cassette in the past 45 years since its founding. Some of that discography is still available through the June Appal portion of Appalshop’s website, found here.

four covers of recording catalogs, illustrates different June Appal logos over time

These four recording catalogs show different June Appal logos over the years, all emphasizing their focus on “Music From the Southern Mountains.”  Folder 275 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).

June Appal Recordings is unique among its contemporary independent record labels for many reasons, chief among them being its origins within a cooperative nonprofit company. Due to these unique beginnings, there are no individual founders widely credited with the creation of June Appal Recordings. However, there were of course individuals involved in the creation and maintenance of June Appal from its beginnings, including: Rich Kirby, who produced many records on the label and recently retired from Appalshop’s Mountain Community Radio station, and Jack Wright, who recorded on June Appal with The Payroll Boys, produced a film for Appalshop, and ultimately became a professor of film.


THE Southern folk cultural revival project

The Nashville-based Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP) was founded in 1966 by musicians and activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon. The primary goal of the SFCRP was to “present traditional musicians from black and white cultures in performance together at a time when this was considered controversial.” In pursuit of that goal, the group recruited a large number of musicians, including Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens, to perform on tour together. However, the work of Romaine and the SFCRP extended far beyond these tours. One such endeavor was the production of a nine-part series on traditional music that aired on PBS in 1984, Carry It On. Each episode of Carry It On consisted of interviews with and performances by traditional musicians. Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens are featured in an episode of the series on mountain ballads. A videotape recording of the episode, VT-20004/21 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004), is streaming through UNC Libraries here. Watch two brief clips from the episode below, featuring Nimrod and Phyllis singing “Passing Through The Garden” together and Nimrod singing “Burglar Man” alone:


APPALSHOP FILMS

Appalshop, true to its origins, is perhaps best known for the films it produces as Appalshop Films. Appalshop’s current website hosts over 80 films, ranging from narrative features to documentaries on a wide range of subjects. There are documentaries on craftspeople, like 1976’s Quilting Women and 1980’s Oaksie, about eastern Kentucky basket maker, fiddler, and harp player Oaksie Caudill. There are activist documentaries and documentaries on activists and protests, like 1995’s Justice in the Coalfields and 1992’s Belinda, about Kentucky AIDS prevention and education activist Belinda Mason.

One of the largest shares of the Appalshop filmography, however, is occupied by music documentaries, following performers and traditions rooted in Appalachia. These include works on Sarah Ogan Gunning, John Jacob Niles, Lily May Ledford, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, and Nimrod Workman. In 1975, the year after the release of Passing Thru The Garden, Appalshop released To Fit My Own Category, a 35 minute documentary following Nimrod Workman. Directed by Scott Faulkner and Anthony Slone, the black and white film features interview and everyday footage and incorporates Workman’s music. Watch a brief trailer for To Fit My Own Category below, and stream the entire film for free on Appalshop’s website.


ROADSIDE THEATER AND THE LOCAL CONNECTION

Appalshop also created several other prominent divisions beyond June Appal Recordings, including the Appalshop Archive, the Appalachian Media Institute, Culture Hub, Roadside Theater, and Mountain Community Radio (WMMT 88.7). Roadside Theater, one of the earliest new divisions of Appalshop, shares the spirit of the original film workshop and June Appal Recordings. Focused on providing a platform for young people in Appalachia to tell the stories of their lives, Roadside Theater is “a company of unreconstructed Appalachians who make stories out of the kind of history ‘that generally never gets written down.'” The group began by producing and maintaining a repertoire of Appalachia-centered plays, like South of the Mountain, Brother Jack, Red Fox/Second Hangin’, and Mountain Tales. Written by and starring members of the troupe, these productions would tour around the country, visiting schools and larger performance venues along the way. The below article from the April 3, 1987 issue of the Durham Morning Herald describes a Roadside Theater stop in Carrboro that day. Sponsored by The Arts Center in Carrboro, the group was set to offer a workshop on “Storytelling from Oral History” and perform South of the Mountain at Carrboro Elementary School. Roadside Theater continues to produce and perform new plays, and more of their work and history is available here.

newspaper article describing a Roadside Theater stop in Carrboro in 1987

This clipping from the April 3, 1987 Durham Morning Herald contains an article titled “‘Roadside’ Brings Mountains To Stage.” The photo features Roadside members Ron Short, Nancy Jeffrey, and Tom Bledsoe. Folder 275 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).


SHOW ME MORE!

There are an abundance of materials related to June Appal Recordings, Appalshop, Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens, and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the June Appal catalog on LP and CD. Check out a few other items of interest below or search the collection yourself.

cover of a newspaper featuring a picture of Nimrod Workman at the Kentucky Folk Festival

This June 10, 1973 edition of The Courier-Journal & Times features “Kentucky Folk Festival is fun,” an article on the 1973 Kentucky Folk Festival in Lexington. The photo on right, by Pam Spaulding, shows Nimrod Workman dancing for an audience at the festival. Folder 676 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

poster for the Jubilee Festival features a photograph of Mollie and Nimrod Workman

This poster for the 18th Annual Jubilee Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, features Mollie and Nimrod Workman, advertising a “special tribute” to the couple. Folder 676 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

Promotional photograph of Nimrod Workman. P-2993a in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004).

Nimrod Workman performing at the 1985 Tennessee Grassroots Days. Photo by David Hildebrand. P-2995 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004).

A group photo of Nimrod Workman and other traditional musicians

This photo features Nimrod Workman singing with several other prominent traditional musicians. From left: Tillman Cadle, Lois Short, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Nimrod Workman, Hazel Dickens, Goerge Tucker. PF-20008/63 in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

 

Ella May Wiggins and Depression-era Textile Worker Ballads in North Carolina Part 1

Page from the Working Women's Music songbook featuring "The Mill Mother's Lament" words and music

“The Mill Mother’s Lament” words and music found in the Working Women’s Music: The Songs and Struggles of Women in the Cotton Mills, Textile Plants and Needle Trades by Evelyn Alloy from the Irwin Silber Papers.

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the June 7th, 1929 violence at the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. The strike started in April of 1929 with the arrival of the National Textile Workers Union. The workers at the mill began striking for their demands. On June 7th sheriff’s deputies raided tents set up near the mill by striking workers. Violence ensued, and Police Chief Orville Aderholt was killed.  

Just a few months after the culmination of the Loray Mill Strike, in September of 1929, Ella May Wiggins, a 29-year-old working mother and strike organizer, was killed by a mob of men trying to run the strikers out of town. The union was preparing for a large rally at which Ella May Wiggins would sing her ballads. On the way to the meeting, Ella May and other union members were attacked by anti-strikers. Ella May was one of many mill women and girls who protested the working conditions, hours and little pay in the Gaston County Mills in 1929. Often overlooked, the women working in the mills had a huge impact on the future of labor organizing in the South.  

Front cover of Working Women's Music songbook

Cover of Working Women’s Music: The Songs and Struggles of Women in the Cotton Mills, Textile Plants and Needle Trades by Evelyn Alloy from the Irwin Silber Papers.

Ella May’s legacy lives on in the protest songs and ballads she wrote and sang. Her most popular protest song is “Mill Mother’s Lament,” a ballad covered by Pete Seeger on the album American Industrial Ballads

American Industrial Ballads by Pete Seeger LP Cover

Cover of American Industrial Ballads from the commercial albums selection in the Southern Folklife Collection.

American Industrial Ballads track listing on record

Track listing of American Industrial Ballads featuring Pete Seeger’s cover of “Mill Mother’s Lament” written by Ella May Wiggins.

She also penned songs such as “The Big Fat Boss and the Worker” and “Up in Old Loray,” that were sung at union meetings and rallies. Some accounts say that Ella May did not write “Up in Old Loray,” but the lyrics in the Archie Green Collection have Ella May credited as the writer. Handwritten and typed copies of the lyrics to a few of her songs can be found in the Archie Green Papers. 

Big Boss Man lyrics typed out

Lyrics to Ella May Wiggins’ “The Big Fat Boss and the Worker” from the Archie Green Papers.

Up in Old Loray lyrics type out

Lyrics to Up in Old Loray from the Archie Green Papers.

Many of the mill workers that fought for better working conditions during the strikes in 1929 will go unnamed. We are lucky to have Ella May’s songs as a reminder of her spirit and tenacity.

If you are looking to learn even more about Ella May Wiggins, check out The Southern Historical Collection’s oral histories of Ella May’s daughters, Millie Wiggins Wandell and Charlotte Wiggins. These tapes were digitized and are streaming online thanks to our generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

 

Cox, Annette. “The Saga of Ella May Wiggins.” Southern Cultures, The University of North Carolina Press, 4 Oct. 2015, muse.jhu.edu/article/594509. Web. 7 June 2019. 

Huber, Patrick. “Mill Mother’s Lament: Ella May Wiggins and the Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929.”Southern Cultures, vol. 15, no. 3, 2009, pp. 81-110. Web. 7 June 2019. 

Jones, Loyal. “On the Death of Union Organizer and Balladeer Ella May Wiggins, A Tale of Two Families.” Review of BookAppalachian Journal, vol. 43, no. 3-4, 2016, pp. 252–262. Web. 7 June 2019. 

McShane, Chuck. “Tar Heel History: The Loray Mill Strike.” Our State Magazine, 17 May 2015, www.ourstate.com/loray-mill-strike/. Web 7 June 2019.

How Polacolor film helped document Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Raleigh

**Excited to share this Guest post by Visual materials Processing Archivist at Wilson Special Collections Library, Patrick Cullom**L to R: Bebo White in sport coat and tie, Joan Baez in blue blouse with flowers, and Bob Dylan in pinkish button down shirt with a scowl on his face

Bebo White (pictured left) was a 20-year-old student at UNC Chapel Hill in 1965, when he had this image made with musicians Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.  It was March 19, on the campus of NC State in Raleigh, when White and a friend managed to make their way backstage at Reynolds Coliseum, eventually finding their way into Baez and Dylan’s dressing room. There for less than 30 minutes, White was able to conduct a short interview with the duo (which he recorded), and to have a photograph (pictured above) made commemorating the meeting.  He ended up creating resources documenting these two influential songwriters/musicians, in what would become an important year in the careers of both, thanks to a portable tape recorder (small enough to wear on shoulder strap under arm) and a camera packed with Polaroid “Polacolor” film.   Mr. White and his cohort were equipped to document the evening with some of the most advanced tools available to them in 1965, and they did not disappoint. 

back side of polaroid photo mount with instructions on how to peel off photograph and attach it to the mount

Flipside of print mount signed by Dylan

This version of Polacolor film was relatively new to the market and allowed users to create color photographic prints in a matter of minutes after taking an image.  In the era of film-based photography, where 1 hour “express” processing was available (at a cost and with limited availability) this advancement provided photographers with a virtually “instant” color photographic print that could immediately be created and shared.  If the camera used that night had been loaded with “traditional” roll film to make the image, neither Dylan or Baez would have likely ever seen the image. The film packs were sold with cardboard mounts that allowed users to put the newly developed print onto a more stable backer, providing both support and a surface for writing descriptions or notes.  In White’s case he used the mounts to get what appear to be autographs from both musicians.      

plain white card with Joan Baez autograph in cursive handwriting

Back of “print mount” print is mounted on (Baez signature & order for duplicate print—No negative)

The photograph is mounted on the mount bearing Ms. Baez’s signature.  In addition to the signature, the mount also has notes for a 24×36 inch print that was made after the image was taken. These Polacolor prints had some “trade-offs” for their virtually instant print capability, key among them, was no reusable negative. This meant duplicate prints could not made without producing a copy negative (photograph of a photograph) which would not be as sharp or detailed (think “resolution” or clarity) as the original.  

The photograph taken that evening ends up being an extremely unique item that not only depicts White with the two musical icons, but also is an object that both Baez and Dylan viewed, commented upon, and interacted with.  All of these aspects make it a one of a kind item we are thrilled to welcome into the Southern Folklife Collection, where it now resides with the other materials in the Bebo White Collection (20544).

Read more about White’s experience at the show from this 16 March 2018 News and Observer article: “2 UNC students snuck backstage at the 1965 Dylan and Baez show in Raleigh and left with an interview of a lifetime

Learn more about Polacolor format via Graphic Atlas (Image Permanence Institute) 

plain white card with Bob Dylan signature.

Dylan’s signature on “Polacolor print mount” (Not attached to image)

 

 

Joan Fenton and Documenting Southern Tall Tales

Audiotape of the North Carolina Folklore Broadcast Series found in the Joan Fenton Collection (FT-20015/909).

Joan Fenton was a folklorist and performer who earned a master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The sound recordings in this collection include interviews, oral histories, songs, and tall tales from artists and musicians throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. She also recorded a gospel group at an African American church service near Princeton, West Virginia. Those recordings include sermons and testimonies from members of the congregation. Thanks to our generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the audio items in the Fenton collection are available and streaming online from the finding aid.

Fenton wrote the thesis for her master’s on Howard Cotten, a black tall-tale teller from North Carolina. These recordings include songs, tales, and interviews with Mr. Cotten and others like Laura Lea, a quilter from Chatham County, NC and Cotton’s friend and cousin, Willie Brooks. In the interviews, Cotten sings and tells stories about hitchhiking, ghosts, possum hunting, talking dogs, seeing a train for the first time and more (FT-20015/890-908).  

White sheet of paper with typed interview and field notes.

Field notes and transcribed interview with Howard Cotten by Joan Fenton. Found in the field notes of the Joan Fenton Collection (Folder 5-6, FT890-908).

The above interview is streaming through the finding aid.

White sheet of paper containing type field notes and transcribed interview.

Field notes and transcribed interview with Howard Cotten by Joan Fenton. Found in the field notes of the Joan Fenton Collection (Folder 5-6, FT890-908).

Fenton was the editor and sound engineer on an episode of the UNC Folklore Broadcast featuring a recording of Howard Cotten and Willie Brooks telling tall tales or lies, as Fenton calls them in the introduction to the broadcast, along with blues songs and additional explanation and commentary in between songs and stories. 

Some of my favorite audio recordings in the collection are from the John Henry Folk Festival in 1978. She gathered many interviews from this festival with musicians and attendees. She asks questions about the folk festival, why people attend this specific festival, what the blues mean to them, the importance of gospel music at a festival such as the John Henry festival, and many others. The answers she gets to her questions are part of larger conversations that are still relevant today. Some of the folks interviewed include Sparky Rucker, Ron Wilkerson, Hazel Dickens, Phyllis Boren, The Badgett Sisters, and Pigmeat Jarrett.  

Audiocassette tape with handwritten label

Audiocassette tape of a Hazel Dickens and Phyllis Boyens interview at the John Henry Folk Festival in 1978. (FS-20015/1167)

Finally, Fenton took part in video documentation of blues musicians including videos of Willie Trice. Fenton is described as recording the videos. They are also accessible and streaming in the Southern Folklife Collection Moving Image Materials finding aid. (VOR-30002/110-111).  

Black and white shot of man sitting on couch, playing a guitar.

Willie Trice playing his guitar (VOR-30002/110).

Fenton resides in Charlottesville, VA where she owns 9 retail stores. She is one of the organizers of Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Workshop in Elkins, WV.

First Impressions: Folk-Legacy Records

First Impressions banner featuring Folk-Legacy Records logo, an illustration of a green man encircled by branches

First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


THE ALBUM

LP cover, black and white, featuring close photograph of Frank Proffitt

Frank Proffitt, Frank Proffitt of Reese, North Carolina | FC-383

cover of booklet from Frank Proffitt record, features black and white photograph of Frank Proffitt holding a wooden banjoIn 1961, Sandy Paton recorded Frank Proffitt, a traditional singer, banjo and dulcimer player and instrument maker, in his home in Reese, North Carolina. 14 songs from that recording session were released on the 1962 Folkways album, Frank Proffitt Sings Folk Songs. Sandy Paton was a folk singer in his own right, having already released a well-reviewed album on Elektra Records in 1958, The Many Sides of Sandy Paton. In 1961, however, Paton and an old friend, Lee B. Haggerty, decided to start a record label in Huntington, Vermont. Paton had not been completely satisfied with the Folkways release of Frank Proffitt’s songs, and decided to release more material of his as the first LP on his new label, Folk-Legacy Records. This new album, Frank Proffitt of Reese, North Carolina, featured 17 songs, including the song preserved by Proffitt and made famous by the Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley.” Most of the songs are of unknown authorship and are credited as traditional, while 4 are credited to Proffitt and 4 more are ballads collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century. This first Folk-Legacy release, with a stark black-and-white cover, simple packaging, and comprehensive liner notes, is emblematic of their early catalog. In 2001, the album was reissued as Folk-Legacy CD-1, and is now available on digital and streaming platforms.

Here is an excerpt from Track 8, the murder ballad “Tom Dooley”:

Also check out Track 9, “I’m Going Back to North Carolina”:


 THE ARTISt

business card, features small illustrations of banjo and dulcimer

Frank Proffitt business card (front). Included in a letter from Proffitt to Howie Mitchell, a folk revival musician and Appalachian dulcimer maker. More letters from Proffitt can be found in Folders 1-6, Howie Mitchell Papers (20538).

Frank Proffitt was born in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee in 1913, and raised in Reese, a small town in Watauga County, North Carolina. Proffitt worked in a variety of trades throughout his life, including carpentry, factory work, and growing tobacco. As a carpenter, he became well-known for his handmade fretless banjos and dulcimers, but he was always locally known for his banjo-playing and singing. In the late 1930s, the folksong collectors Anne and Frank Warner met Proffitt through their search for a dulcimer builder. Among the songs that Frank Proffitt shared with the Warners was “Tom Dooley,” a ballad which had been passed through several generations of his family. The Warners in turn shared the song with Alan Lomax, who published it and several others in his book Folk Song USA in 1947. The Kingston Trio learned the song from one of the Warners’ recordings, and the version they sang became one of their first and biggest hits. Frank Proffitt continued to live and work in Reese, North Carolina, and only released two albums in his lifetime: one on Folkways Records and one on Folk-Legacy Records, both recorded by Sandy Paton. After these two releases in the early 1960s, Proffitt enjoyed even more attention in the ongoing folk revival, performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Frank Proffitt passed away in 1965 at the age of 52. In 1969, Folk-Legacy Records released an album of previously unreleased recordings of Proffitt as the Frank Proffitt Memorial Album.

As part of a radio program on record collectors, Billy Faier interviewed Frank and Anne Warner about their lives and work. In this clip from FT-20380/11368 in the Billy Faier Collection (20380), the Warners tell the story of how they first met Frank Proffitt at the home of dulcimer-maker Nathan Hicks in Beech Mountain, NC:

Frank Warner: When we crossed the divide, and looked down over on the 
side, there was this house sitting on the side of Beech Mountain and 
a lot of people around it. And we pulled up and they just gave us a 
tremendous reception.
Anne Warner: Everybody was sort of shy at first, including us.
Billy Faier: Yeah, first time you'd seen them.
FW: Yes! But there was old Frank Proffitt, the son in law of Nathan
(Hicks).
AW: Well we met him for the first time - when you say "old," it's
just in endearment, he was very young, he was about 27.
FW: But I mean, there he was, and uh, Nathan had got him to come over
- he came 25 miles to be with us, and brought his guitar.
AW: It was 25 miles by road or 10 on foot.
FW: Yeah, and he walked, that's right, he walked across carrying his 
guitar on his shoulder all the way across those mountains just to be 
with us, you know.
AW: I remember his - that - acute sense of humor he still has, and we 
had some binoculars, and later on to break the ice everybody was 
looking through these binoculars. Frank Proffitt said, "Well, I can 
see my corn field over there, but I don't see nobody hoeing in it.
All: [Laughter]

The Label & its founders

Black and white flyer featuring an illustration of Sandy Paton holding a guitar

Flyer announcing Sandy Paton as the manager of the Kroch’s & Brentano’s Record Department in Chicago. Folder 113 in the Archie Green Papers (20002).

By 1960, Sandy Paton was working a regular job as the manager of a record department in Chicago, where he focused primarily on stocking and selling folk music. Eventually, however, he and his wife Caroline decided to leave the city life for rural Huntington, Vermont. Soon after their move, they were visited by their friend Lee B. Haggerty, who suggested they start a record label with the rest of Sandy Paton’s unreleased field recordings. Haggerty had just received a sizable inheritance, which formed the foundation of Folk-Legacy Records along with Paton’s tapes of Frank Proffitt. Haggerty joined the Patons in Vermont, and they operated the label from a large barn near their home. Everyone was involved in the operation of the label, from making and purchasing recordings, designing record sleeves, writing liner notes and transcribing lyrics, placing ads in folk music publications, and taking the records on the road to festivals and conventions across the country. In 1967, they moved the label from its home in Vermont to Sharon, Connecticut. The label ultimately released around 150 recordings on LP, CD, and cassette over their more than 50 years of operation. Lee B. Haggerty passed away in 2000 and Sandy Paton passed away in 2009. As of this posting, Caroline Paton maintains the label, which survives primarily through its website.

covers of Folk-Legacy recording catalogs, including Folk-Legacy logos and photos of rustic backdrops

Assorted Folk-Legacy Records catalogs. Folder 396 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

In 1991, Ronald Cohen interviewed Sandy and Caroline Paton in their home, and in this clip from that interview, FS-20239/7539 in the Ronald D. Cohen Collection (20239), Sandy Paton describes the humble origins of Folk-Legacy Records.

Sandy Paton: While I was there, I recorded a number of other people 
around Beech Mountain, and I was playing these tapes back home for this 
visitor, Lee Haggerty from Chicago. And he said, you know, what are you 
going to do with them? And I said, well, I might put them together and 
try to make another album for Folkways, and he said, why don't we put 
them out? I said well, it's cool, except, you know, I gotta make money. 
He had inherited some money from an uncle, and so we started Folk-
Legacy Records with his inheritance and my tapes, and produced - I 
called up Diane Hamilton [founder of Tradition Records, another 
prominent folk music label at the time] and asked her who made masters, 
and where did you get your records pressed, and who prints jackets, and 
so on.

Limber jacks and dulcimers

Sandy Paton holding a dulcimer while sitting by a tree, advertisement for "Appalachian Dulcimers"

Flyer for Appalachian dulcimers sold by the Patons, featuring Caroline Paton with two of the dulcimers. NF-1529 in the SFC Artist Name Files (30005).

Operating a record label of any size is a costly venture, but operating a relatively niche, small label like Folk-Legacy was rarely profitable. In part to supplement their income, the Patons sold other items alongside their recordings, both through mail-order and from a table at conventions and festivals. Several accounts describe Sandy Paton as always carrying one of his Limber Jacks, a small, wooden dancing toy the Patons sold for many years. Recognizing a market for the beautiful instruments made by craftsmen like Frank Proffitt, the Patons also sold hand-crafted “Appalachian” dulcimers from their headquarters in Connecticut.

 

 

Flyer for limber jack toys, featuring picture of the toy and picture of the Paton family around a toy

Flyer for the wooden Limber Jack toys sold by the Patons, featuring the entire Paton family crowded around one of the toys. Folder 113 in the Archie Green Papers (20002).


NUMBER TROUBLE

LP cover, features black and white photograph of Sandy and Caroline Paton singing outside

Sandy and Caroline Paton, Sandy and Caroline Paton | FC-8319 | Note the call number in the upper right hand corner of the record sleeve: “EGO-30.”

In discovering the first LP released by a given record label, one challenge can be deciphering the numbering system used by the label. Sometimes the process is simple – early catalogs and the records themselves say “#1” or “1001,” or the liner notes explain that this is the first album released by the label. However, it can also be more complicated – sometimes multiple lines of recordings (i.e. a 400 and 600 “series”) are released simultaneously, labels have several releases prepared before their launch, or numbering systems change throughout the years. Folk-Legacy’s initial numbering system includes four “number 1s,” each with a different prefix: Frank Proffitt is FSA-1, while there is also an FTA-1, FSI-1, and FSE-1. Based on catalogs and various reviews, these prefixes could be loosely translated as: FSA = Folk Songs – Authentic, FTA = Folk Tales – Authentic, FSI = Folk Songs – Interpreters, and FSE = Folk Songs – England. Folk-Legacy continued to use these prefixes in creative (if sometimes confusing) ways throughout their catalog. For example, when Sandy and Caroline Paton released their first album on Folk-Legacy as performers, Sandy and Caroline Paton, they changed the prefix to “EGO” to acknowledge what was required to release an album of your own music on your own record label.

black and white record catalog with photos of LPs and Folk-Legacy logo

Folk-Legacy’s first record catalog. Note that each record is advertised at $4.98, and there are three #1 records. Folder 396 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).


SHOW ME MORE!

There are an abundance of materials related to Folk-Legacy Records, Frank Proffitt, and other independent record labels in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the Folk-Legacy catalog on LP and CD. Check out a few other items of interest below or search the collection yourself.

front and back cover of Little Sandy Review magazine, photo of Leadbelly on front, photo of cowboy throwing another man on back

An early advertisement on the back cover of The Little Sandy Review proclaims “FOLK-LEGACY IS HERE!” The Little Sandy Review, Vol. 1 no. 21, front and back cover.

front and back cover of folk music magazine, front features Frank Proffitt illustration, back features ad

Frank Proffitt features on the front cover of The Little Sandy Review while another Folk-Legacy ad appears on the back. The Little Sandy Review, Vol. 1 no. 22, front and back cover. Frank Proffitt illustration by George Armstrong, the same artist who designed Folk-Legacy’s iconic Green Man logo.

pencil sketch of a record cover layout with type-written text

This excerpt from a 1962 letter from Sandy Paton to folklorist D.K. Wilgus includes a sketch of the basic Folk-Legacy record layout, which would remain largely unchanged for most of the Folk-legacy catalog. Folder 313 in the D.K. Wilgus Papers (20003).

cut-out illustration of a dulcimer, banjo, and other string instrument featuring descriptions by Frank Proffitt

Frank Proffitt business card (reverse). Included in a letter from Proffitt to Howie Mitchell, a folk revival musician and Appalachian dulcimer maker. More letters from Proffitt can be found in Folders 1-6, Howie Mitchell Papers (20538).

text describing the Folk-Legacy logo, back of a recording catalog

The Folk-Legacy logo, featuring the “Green Man” is explained on the reverse of a 1984 Folk-Legacy Catalog. The artwork by George Armstrong, Caroline Paton explains, is meant to be “an ancient pre-Christian vegetation god, a symbol of the rebirth of nature after its apparent death in winter.” Folder 396 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

LP cover featuring three photographs of Sandy Paton in different outfits against a black background

Sandy Paton, The Many Sides of Sandy Paton | FC-4568

An 80th Birthday Salute to John Fahey

Cover for the 1967 rerecording of Blind Joe Death by John Fahey, subtitled volume oneYesterday marked what would have been the 80th birthday of musician, folklorist and proponent of American Primitive Guitar, John Fahey. In honor of this occasion, we pulled a few Fahey-related highlights from our collection.

The 1967 rerecording of his debut set Blind Joe Death provides an excellent primer on the breadth and depth of his idiosyncratic playing style, nicknamed “American Primitive Guitar,” juxtaposing traditional country blues fingerpicking guitar techniques against melodies drawn from traditions ranging from gospel hymns and 20th century classical music to Indian ragas.

Record sleeve for The Yellow Princess by John Fahey

By the late 60s, Fahey had expanded the sonic palette of his recordings significantly: incorporating found sound and tape collage techniques and occasionally bringing in additional musicians to flesh out his solo guitar performances. The Yellow Princess exemplifies this experimentation by featuring contributions by Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes from the psychedelic band Spirit and ex-Byrds drummer Kevin Kelley alongside musique concrete pieces and Fahey’s own consistently excellent solo guitar.

Record sleeve for the Leo Koettke/Peter Lang/John Fahey split album

Box containing safety masters for side one of John Fahey's Old Fashioned LoveFahey was also known for founding the influential folk label Takoma Records, which was responsible for several high-profile releases by like-minded musicians such as Leo Koettke, Robbie Basho, Peter Lang and Joseph Byrd among others. The 1974 split LP Leo Koettke/Peter Lang/John Fahey shows all three guitarists in fine form, each performing a set that exemplifies the American Primitive Guitar style.Box containing a tape with rough and alternate mixes for John Fahey's Old Fashioned Love albumOur archival holdings also include a number of fascinating Fahey-related items. Of particular note in the Greenhill Family/FLi Artists/Folklore Productions Collection (20542) are tapes containing safety masters and rough mixes from Fahey’s 1975 LP Old Fashioned Love as well as promotional artwork meant to accompany the Shanachie records re-release of Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes.

Illustration excerpts from Admiral Kelvinator's Clockwork Factory by John Fahey

Handwritten orchestration charts for the song Old Fashioned Love by John FaheyIn addition, this collection holds a number of unique Fahey manuscript items: including a typescript copy of Fahey’s unpublished book Admiral Kelvinator’s Clockwork Factory. Especially exciting are handwritten lead sheets and orchestration charts for a number of his pieces, prepared as part of the copyright registration process for these compositions.

John Fahey passed away in 2001, leaving behind a vibrant and restlessly imaginative body of work that continues to inspire musicians to this day.

Hand written lead sheets for Funeral Song by John Fahey

 

Documenting Gravel Springs, Mississippi, in the 1970s: Dr. Cheryl Thurber and Rising Star Fife and Drum

Othar Turner blowing fife at picnic 1973. Photographed by Cheryl Thurber.

One week from today, Monday February 25.

Documenting Gravel Springs, Mississippi, in the 1970s

Exhibition opening with lecture by Dr. Cheryl Thurber and performance by Rising Star Fife and Drum

5:30 p.m. Reception and exhibition viewing
6:00 p.m. Lecture
7:00 p.m. Performance

Scenes and sounds of African-American musical traditions from Mississippi will greet visitors to Wilson Library during the opening of a new photographic exhibition in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room.

“Cheryl Thurber Photographs: Documenting Gravel Springs, Mississippi, in the 1970s” will launch with a talk by the photographer and a performance by Rising Star Fife and Drum.

Thurber is an interdisciplinary scholar, cultural historian, folklorist and photographer whose images have been published in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, as well as in numerous music and folklore publications.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Thurber traveled through the South and California, documenting African-American communities, musicians and musical traditions, including in the small town of Gravel Springs, Mississippi. Thirty prints from Thurber’s time in Gravel Springs will be on view. They are part of the Cheryl Thurber Photographic Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

Following Thurber’s talk, Rising Star Fife and Drum will take the stage for a traditional performance of this iconic form of blues music.

Presented by the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, the American Studies department and the Center for the Study of the American South.

Congratulations Bill Ferris! “Voices of Mississippi” box set wins two Grammys

Double Grammy award winning box set released by Dust-To-Digital in 2018. Produced from materials in the William R. Ferris Collection (20367).

photo by Marcie Cohen Ferris

We were thrilled to see our colleague, collaborator, and constant source of inspiration Dr. William R. Ferris honored with two Grammy awards at yesterday’s ceremony for the box set Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris. Ferris, along with compilation producers April Ledbetter and Lance Ledbetter of record label Dust-to-Digital and mastering engineer, Michael Graves, received Grammy recognition for “Best Historical Album” and Ferris, along with David Evans, also won for “Best Album Notes.”  Materials for the box set come from the William R. Ferris Collection (20367) that is part of the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library here in the University Libraries at UNC Chapel Hill.

Over the past decade, archivists, audio engineers, photo technicians, students, researchers, and Bill Ferris himself have worked to arrange, describe, and digitize the more than 250,000 sound recordings, photographs, videos, films, papers, and ephemera that make up the William R. Ferris Collection. Thanks to the dedicated teams at Wilson Library and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a few thousand of these sound recordings, videos, films, and photos are digitized and can be streamed or viewed in their entirety online. It’s exciting to think of listeners hearing a track on Voices of Mississippi and then be able to find that recording and many others in the William R. Ferris Collection (20367) finding aid.  They may want to hear more of Lovey Williams, or to hear James “Son” Thomas playing in a juke joint, or Fannie Bell Chapman singing in her back yard

SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20367/10256

(digitized)

Ferris Folklore Tapes: James “Son” Thomas, Shelby Brown. FFT 41-69-5/24

SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20367/11175

(digitized)

Lovey Williams blues

SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20367/9958

(digitized)

Fannie Bell Chapman: Singing in back yard, 10 August 1973. FCT 68-73-8/10

These examples are the smallest sample of the opportunities available to interested researchers and listeners and explorers of the rich cultural history and beautiful human artistry documented by Dr. Ferris. B. B. King recorded at home, extensive conversations with brilliant minds like Eudora Welty, Walker Evans, Alice Walker, tales told by Ray Lum and Victor Bob and many, many others are streaming online.  There are also thousands of photographs digitized and searchable through the William R. Ferris Collection Digital Photographs.

Bill Ferris, Bruce Payne (WOKJ radio announcer), and Robert Slattery (sound technician) in the WOKJ radio station during the production of the film “Give My Poor Heart Ease.” In DJ booth of radio station. Bill Ferris on left holds a soda bottle. DJ seated is talking with Ferris.

Bill Ferris, Bruce Payne (WOKJ radio announcer), and Robert Slattery (sound technician) in the WOKJ radio station during the production of the film “Give My Poor Heart Ease.

It is exciting to see recognition for the work that Dr. Ferris dedicated his life to. It is also exciting to see recognition for the people of Mississippi who, in Bill’s words, “so courageously shared their stories.”

That list is long, but to start, thanks to Scott Dunbar, Lovey Williams, Walter Lee Hood, Tom Dumas, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Wash Heron, Wallace “Pine-Top” Johnson, Sonny Boy Watson, Mary Alice McGowan, The Southland Hummingbirds, Liddle Hines, Mary and Amanda Gordon, Reverend Isaac Thomas, Bobby Rush, Barry Hannah, Joe Cooper, Joe Skillet, Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown, Pete Seeger, Charles Seeger, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Victor Bobb, Cleanth Brooks, Fannie Bell Chapman, Edith Clark, Leon “Peck” Clark, Bill Clinton,

Eudora Welty on left in white sweater, Bill Ferris on right with sport coat. they are standing outside

Eudora Welty at her home on Pinehurst Place in Jackson, Mississippi, 1976. William R. Ferris Collection (20367)

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Willie Dixon, John Dollard, Louis Dotson, Walker Evans, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Shelby Foote, Ernest J. Gaines, Allen Ginsberg, Theora Hamblett,Bessie Jones, B.B. King, Alan Lomax, Ray Lum, Arthur Miller, Ethel Wright Mohamed, Ola Belle Reed, Harry Smith, James “Son” Thomas, Othar Turner, Alice Walker, Pecolia Warner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and members of the Rose Hill Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Miss.

Our sincerest thanks and gratitude to all of these individuals and many more unnamed, for their willingness to share parts of their lives with Dr. Ferris and then with all of us.  But once more, many congratulations to our friend Bill Ferris and his fellow award winners Lance, April, Michael, and David. We can’t wait to hear what stories you will turn up next.

BB King lying on a couch asleep before a show

B. B. King in repose. Photo by William Ferris. William R. Ferris Collection (20367)

Happy 2019! A look back at 2018.

All of us at the Southern Folklife Collection want to wish you a very happy new year. 2018 was a very productive one for the SFC:

2018 was the second year of our partnership with YepRoc Records and saw the release of three new recordings. In February, we released Doc Watson, Live at Club 47 with a record release party at Club Passim featuring songwriter and 2017 IBMA Guitar Player of the Year Molly Tuttle accompanied by her bandmates in The Goodbye Girls, Allison de Groot, Lena Jonsson, Brittany Karlson and guitarist and singer Stash Wyslouch.  Live at Club 47 documents Doc Watson in top form recorded in February 1963, between his first solo public performance at Gerdes Folk City in New York City in November 1962 and his breakthrough performance in August 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival. 55 years after the recording, Live at Club 47 reached #9 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album Chart.DocWatson_LiveAtClub47_COVER to album. Sepia toned photo of Doc Watson holding acoustic guitar standing outside in front of a barn

Black and White photo of Tia Blake in black shirt with leaves in background. Shot in ParisIn March we released a special 10” vinyl EP for Record Store Day, Tia Blake, Paris and Montreal Demos 1973-1976.  Tia released only one record in her lifetime, Folksongs & Ballads, for a small record label in France. Her demos had briefly been available on a CD reissue by Water Records that had quickly gone out of print. We hated to see this material unavailable to a broader audience, and with both Tia’s and her mother Joan’s blessing, made the tracks available again on vinyl, newly remastered by Brent Lambert of Kitchen Mastering, from the SFC’s 24bit 96kHz transfers of the analog masters. The demos are intimate and beautifully sung in Tia’s rich melancholy voice. The recordings are some of our favorites in the collection.

July saw the release of Bluegrass Champs, Live from the Don Owens Show. These rare live 1950s radio broadcasts featured Scotty, Donna, Van, and Jimmy Stoneman of the Stoneman Family.

The recordings came from the legendary private collection of Leon Kagarise and were produced by Joe Lee of Joe’s Record Paradise.  Live from the Don Owens Show reached #2 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album chart.

At the end of July, we completed the implementation phase of Extending the Reach of Southern Audiovisual Sources, our 2015-2018 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant has been transformative, allowing us to implement large-scale preservation and access workflows for archival audio and video holdings of the Southern Folklife Collection. This August we started a new expansion phase of the grant to broaden the focus to all archival AV materials in the Wilson Special Collections Library and to pilot AV digitization services for partner institutions across the state through UNC Libraries’ North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Another key initiative has been providing access to our collections backlog. In 2018, brief online finding aids and library catalog records were created for many of the SFC’s hidden collections. We hope to complete this process and have all of the SFC’s collections discoverable in 2019. For an updated listing of our collections visit our website.

My thanks for your continued support! We are looking forward to 2019, which is the 30thAnniversary of the SFC’s official opening. We have a number of events and exhibits planned. More news to come.

First Impressions: CMH Records

First Impressions banner featuring Country Music Heritage logo

First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


THE ALBUM

LP album cover, features Don Reno holding banjo, Bill Harrell holding guitar, both wearing suits and sunglasses

Don Reno & Bill Harrell & The Tennessee Cut-Ups, Dear Old Dixie | FC-17121

center label from Country Music Heritage first record, wood grain background with silver textIn 1975, country music industry veterans Martin Haerle and Arthur Smith started CMH Records, and Don Reno, Bill Harrell, and the Tennessee Cut-Ups were a perfect fit for the label’s first release. Haerle had many connections from his experience at Starday Records and in the radio business, and Don Reno had performed with Arthur Smith on several occasions. Don Reno, Bill Harrell, and their band were, by 1975, long-established bluegrass musicians. Performing with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and, most famously, Red Smiley, Don Reno was a member of the first generation of bluegrass musicians that established the sound of the genre in the 1940s and 50s. Bill Harrell, too, was one of bluegrass’ most popular musicians, most successfully recording and performing with his band the Virginians. CMH, short for Country Music Heritage, aimed to give a home to these prominent, if aging, artists, many of whom had been dropped from the rosters at major labels. Don Reno and Bill Harrell had been performing together for over 10 years by the time they recorded Dear Old Dixie at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. The album features mostly original and arranged tunes by the pair, and Arthur Smith even steps in to join Don Reno on guitar on  “B.G. Chase,” an instrumental he co-wrote with Reno.

Listen to a segment of “B.G. Chase,” from Side 2 of Dear Old Dixie, here:

And here’s “Make Believe (You Didn’t Set Me Free),” also from Side 2:


The label

CMH Records advertisement, album covers and descriptions

An early CMH Records advertisement shows the prominent names in bluegrass already recording for the label. Folder 211 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

Country Music Heritage (CMH) Records was founded in 1975 by Martin Haerle, a former vice president of Starday Records, and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, famed performer, TV host, and composer of “Guitar Boogie” and “Fuedin’ Banjos.” Their vision of the label was to release contemporary country music recordings, with a particular focus on bluegrass music. From the beginning, CMH signed long-established musicians, from the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Lester Flatt to the Stonemans, Benny Martin, and Joe Maphis. Most of these early releases, like Dear Old Dixie, were produced and recorded at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. Soon after the launch of the initial album series (starting with Dear Old Dixie, CMH-6201), CMH began releasing their popular “Bluegrass Classics” double LP series (starting with CMH-9001). These two primary series, featuring modern recordings of bluegrass and country greats, carried the label into the late 1980s. In 1990, after the death of Martin Haerle, his son David Haerle took over operations of CMH. The younger Haerle started the “Pickin’ On” series in the 1990s, which offered bluegrass cover albums of classic and popular songs, from Pickin’ on the Beatles (1999) to Pickin’ on Nirvana (2017). In this same spirit, CMH is now home to other labels offering interpretations of classic music: Vitamin Records, an outlet for the Vitamin String Quartet, releases instrumental interpretations of popular artists from Radiohead to Kanye West, and Rockabye Baby! releases lullaby versions of popular rock songs.


The Artists

Bill Harrell with guitar on stage, promotional photo

Promotional photo of Bill Harrell, Folder 236 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).

Born in South Carolina, Don Reno was raised in Haywood County, North Carolina, where he first picked up a banjo at the age of five. After a decade or two in the country music business, Don Reno achieved lasting fame through his partnership with Red Smiley as Reno & Smiley. Bill Harrell, another successful bluegrass musician, had been touring and recording with his band the Virginians. Reno and Harrell first started performing together in 1964, after Red Smiley retired from music performance. Backed by the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Don Reno could usually be heard playing the 5-string banjo while Bill Harrell joined him on the guitar and sang lead. When Red Smiley returned from retirement in 1969, he performed with Reno and Harrell until his death in 1972. After parting ways in 1977, Reno and Harrell continued to tour and record with their respective bands for the rest of their lives.

Here is a brief segment of an interview between Alice Gerrard and Bill Monroe, from the Alice Gerrard Collection (20006), in which Bill Monroe discusses Don Reno’s impromptu “tryout” for the Blue Grass Boys:

Alice Gerrard: How'd you happen to meet Don?
Bill Monroe: Don Reno?
AG: Yeah.
BM: Oh, uh, I guess he'd heard that, you know, that Earl [Scruggs] had 
quit, and he was going to be the next banjo player, you know, whether 
or not.
AG: Yeah. [Laughter]
BM: He got into Nashville and we'd done gone, we'd left on Saturday 
night, and he -
AG: Oh no...
BM: He followed us right on back into Taylorsville, North Carolina, 
and -
AG: Persistent, anyway...
BM: And Earl was working his two weeks down there, and he [Don Reno] 
came right down through the audience with his banjo, take the banjo out,
walked right out on the stage where we were.
AG: Oh, that's great, that's really great. And did he just -
BM: Nobody didn't ask him to come out or nothing.
AG: [Laughter] Did it tickle you at the time or were you kinda mad?
BM: No, it came as a surprise, and tickled us, too. But Earl would take 
a break while Don would get up and play.
AG: Oh no! That's a riot, Bill...
BM: I tell that on Don now, but you know, that kinda gets away from him, 
but that's really the truth.
AG: That's really funny... How old was he then? Do you have any idea?
BM: Uh, I don't know - he's a little older than Earl, or a little 
younger, I believe, isn't he?
AG: I guess he's probably a little bit younger. Was he pretty young, 
though, when he came? Well, he must have been, to have that much nerve! 
I tell you, only a young kid would have -
BM: He wanted that job, though, he knew what it would mean to him.

Listen to the full interview, on FS-20006/8640, here. Streaming access to this recording were made possible through the SFC’s ongoing audiovisual preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


The local connection

Arthur Smith was born in South Carolina, where he also began his musical career, but he achieved most of his success in Charlotte, North Carolina. After moving to Charlotte in 1943 to appear on WBT radio’s Carolina Calling, and was also featured on the later TV iteration of the show. Arthur Smith’s own The Arthur Smith Show was the first nationally syndicated country music television show, and ran for 32 years. When Smith’s 1955 recording “Fuedin’ Banjos,” which he had recorded with Don Reno, was reinterpreted without credit as “Dueling Banjos” in the 1972 film Deliverance, he successfully sued Warner Bros. for a substantial settlement and a songwriting credit. In 1957, Smith established Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, the location of many seminal recordings and prominent radio shows, as well as much of the CMH Records catalog of releases.

In a recording studio, seated in front of microphones, Arthur Smith, late middle aged, wearing headphones, in a red short sleeve shirt and purple boots holds a guitar, Don Reno, wearing headphones and classes, with blue longsleeve shirt, blue pants, and cowboy boots, playing a banjo

Don Reno and Arthur Smith (in the purple boots) in the studio recording “Feudin’ Again” on Nov. 17, 1978. From Roll Film Box P081/120C-2 in the Hugh Morton Photographs and Films (P0081) in the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives. Search the Hugh Morton Collection here.


Show me more!

There is plenty of more information related to Don Reno, Bill Harrell, Arthur Smith, and CMH Records in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the CMH catalog on LP, CD, and cassette. Check out a few other documents of interest below or search the collection yourself.

Song folio cover, features two red stars, with the faces of Don Reno and Red Smiley on each star

Don Reno & Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Song and Picture Folio No. 4. Song Folio FL-184 in the Southern Folklife Collection Song Folios (30006).

Cover of a CMH Records newsletter called Midnight Flyer, featuring an illustration of a train

Midnight Flyer, no. 1 (1980). Several of these newsletters can be found in Folder 211, SFC Discographical Files (30014).

Cover of a song folio, featuring Don Reno and Red Smiley dressed as Union and Confederate soldiers leaning against a tree with their guns

Don Reno & Red Smiley: Song and Picture Folio No. 2. Song Folio FL-185 in the Southern Folklife Collection Song Folios (30006).