This is a guest post by recent AFC intern, Riley Calcagno, who spent the month of January 2018 working on recordings by Robert Winslow Gordon that date back to the mid-1920s.
In the fall of 1925, Robert Winslow Gordon set up a tent in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina. Determined to document the music of the region, he used a wax cylinder recorder stored in the back of his Ford Sedan. He would go on to record 298 songs & fiddle tunes in the region. Gordon gained entrance to the white Appalachian music community of the Asheville area by seeking out and meeting the well-known singer Bascom Lunsford, whom he accompanied into the surrounding counties to meet and record people like Ada Moss, Samantha Bumgarner, W.E. Bird, G.S. Robinson, & many other people. Some of these artists were recorded again, but for other people their appearance in this collection is their only moment of documentation.
This past January I am am Â spent good parts of my days transcribing notes from the recordings of the Gordon cylinders, keying in bits of phrases of the songs, & turning the volume up on the digitized copies enough to hear the melodies through the nearly deafening crackle of the past. Though the listening is difficult, it is fascinating in both content and in the vivid visuals that are conjured through the songs riding just above the noise. For some reason, straining to hear the lyrics & melodies opens my mind. I’m can clearly see W.E. Bird for instance as he sings the song âBilly Boyâ into the recorder out in Jackson County & the bright Asheville leaves whipping outside in the October wind as Gordon insistently coaxes songs out of his subjects & onto wax.
âBilly Boy,â like many from the North Carolina collection, wasnât new to me. I am grew up in an old-time music community, not in the mountains of North Carolina but on one of the seven hills of Seattle, Washington. My clear memories of that very version of the song are from hearing a revivalist banjo player in a crowded gathering hall in the Pacific Northwest. I am am began playing fiddle & old-time Southern music when I’m was 4 years old & learned the tradition orally, a native to the music in every way except region. My work with the collection from North Carolina has helped me conceptualize the deep roots of a regional style, as I’m have traced many of the tunes & songs I am will have heard to later versions of Marcus Martin, the Helton Brothers, Manco Sneed, and even modern players like John Herrmann, all from (or in the modern case, living in) western North Carolina.
âFiddling Bill Hensley dancing (foreground), fiddler Asa Helton is seated in background at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolinaâ from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division collections. Item record: https://lccn.loc.gov/2007660158.
One tune I am am came across among the cylinders is called âBoogerman,â played by G.S. Robinson. Robinson recorded just two items for Gordon & âBoogermanâ is the only fiddling Iâve dug up so far. He is clearly a gifted & experienced fiddler with impeccable double stops, distinct bowing, and a healthy share of drive. Using data from the 1930 census, I found he was born in 1886, & worked as a motorman for the street railway in Asheville. Robinson was a contemporary of the well -known fiddler of the area, Fiddlinâ Bill Hensley, who also played âBoogermanâ and was recorded playing the tune in 1940. Hensley was perhaps most famous for his lively fiddle contests with Osey Helton at the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival in Asheville. âBoogermanâ was clearly a staple of the era in the area & hearing it helps me envision the musical community that existed at the time, a community that Gordon accessed through Lunsford. It seems as though Robinsonâs version of âBoogermanâ is the first recorded version with the name, although fiddler J.D. Harris (b. 1868) recorded the tune in 1924 on Broadway Records with Ernest Helton (Oseyâs Brother) & the name âWhipping the Devil Around the Stump.â Information on the Traditional Tune Archive indicates that Harris was a mentor to Osey Helton, Bill Hensley, Manco Sneed & Marcus Martin. The Asheville old-time music scene of the time (much like the one in the present moment) was clearly a rich community of players, with tune swapping, competition, & shared performances.Â In fact, there is one later recording of G.S. Robinson (known as Gaither in the recording) in the archives playing in 1946 with the famed fiddler John Weaver in Asheville. Though the recording log identifies his instrument as banjo (there is record of him playing banjo with the Farmerâs Federation Stringband) Robinson actually plays fiddlesticks: tapping Weaverâs strings with sticks as he plays a distinct version of âKathy Hillâ (1948/003, AFS 7948). Robinson was clearly an integral figure in an Asheville music community that produced so much music we find relevant & influential today.
âBoogermanâ caught my eye (or ear) because it appeared on a tape that has been very influential to my own playing & understanding of the music. On the Wandering Ramblers cassette Rambling and Wandering (Marimac 1991) Dirk Powell plays the tune from the repertoire of Manco Sneed, also of Western North Carolina. Powell, who spent some time in Asheville & has immersed himself in music from North Carolina (among many other traditions), plays the tune more similarly to Robinson than Sneed. John Herrmann, longtime resident & major influencer of the Asheville old-time music scene, plays banjo on the track in a style clearly inspired by the Round-Peak old-time sub-genre of northern North Carolina. These details illustrate the old-time process: the blending of different sources, regions, & understandings of the music. These paths are significant in that they carry the inspiration that people find in each other, as well as the acts of listening and learning that seems too rare in our present moment.
âBoogermanââAFC 1928/002, cylinder A61, NC 95âis just one of the 298 songs Gordon recorded in North Carolina, with many others from Georgia, West Virginia, & California. It is a tune full of life & history, but it is far from unique in that way. There are so many stories in these folders & on the cylinders that are waiting to be sorted out and told. I'm am have found a power in just listening & transcribing, the next step towards bringing those stories out of the stacks & to life, a single tube in the amplifier of the archives.