Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/12/09

New Old-Time (1928)

It’s important to remember that what we now think of as “old-time” records were at one point the height of musical innovation. Although at first listen they may sound like centuries-old traditional music to us, they were played faster and in unexpected ways for those used to hearing such music. Here are three country acts that were on the cutting edge in 1928.

Hoyt “Floyd” Ming and His Pep-Steppers
Indian War Whoop(Victor 21294, 1928)

There are no lyrics in this song, just long, monotone cries that are actually far too subdued to be called “war whoops.” Those cries serve as drawn-out exclamation points punctuating the hypnotic playing of this Mississippi family string band. Led by Hoyt (mislabeled as “Floyd” on the record label) Ming on fiddle, they create a captivating loop. The record contains real energy as it is propelled forward by steady handclapping and some fine, low-tone strumming by Ming’s wife Roselle on guitar and his brother Troy on mandolin. Yet Ming’s vocals and high, thin fiddling is so captivating against the repetitive rhythm that one is lulled into a trance rather than moved to dance. Ming’s talent isn’t revealed through some flashy fiddling display, but rather by knowing just when to let a note linger and when to drop to a lower register. His vocals follow the same blueprint, with long, high wails followed by softer, lower moans. Ming may have titled this piece “Indian War Whoop,” but he created something otherworldly that defies labels.

~ You may also like: Carter Brothers and Son, “Give the Fiddler a Dram (Okeh 45289, 1928)

Weems String Band
Greenback Dollar(Columbia 15300-D, 1928)

“Greenback Dollar” is one of only two songs – two sides of a single record – ever documented from this Tennessee family string band. That seems unfathomable considering how good it is, and how unique. The band played rural music unlike any other captured on record. Brothers Dick and Frank Weems played their fiddles with advanced fingering positions usually employed only by classically trained musicians. Another brother, Jesse, played cello, an instrument also typically reserved for classical music. While all of this created a sophisticated sound, the band was still using these instruments to play “hillbilly” music, and the unexpected juxtaposition was exhilarating. The cello, for example, shifted between a thumping, staccato beat and a low, brooding drone. And brother-in-law Alvin Condor added banjo and down-home vocals for a clear mountain music touch.

The lyrics are simple and spare, but classic. Condor delivers them in a voice that starts as a yell and ends as a statement: “Over the hills and down in the holler / All I want is a greenback dollar.”

Adding to the excitement was the way the band members improvised variations and created a tapestry of interlocking melodies, all while keeping a steady rhythm. While everyone appears at first to be playing regular, repeating themes, as the song progresses, one notices frequent, subtle variations. At times, they add a few unexpected notes, and at other times an instrument will drop away completely, its presence still somehow felt as the rest of the band fills the gap seamlessly. Sometimes an instrument will even play out of key for a few notes, heightening the tension of the moment and then snapping back into the familiar pattern. All together, the band exhibits a tremendous sense of awareness; if they were playing jazz, you would call it “swing.”

~ You may also like an excellent, earlier version of the same melody: Fiddlin’ Powers and Family, “Callahan’s Reel” (Victor 19450, 1924)

Burnett & Rutherford
All Night Long Blues (Columbia 15314-D, 1928)

Guitarist and banjoist Dick Burnett became a professional musician around the age of 25 after being blinded during a robbery by a gunshot wound. A few years later, he took teenage fiddler Leonard Rutherford under his wing and the two Kentuckians became one of the most prolific and highly regarded country acts of the 1920s. “All Night Long Blues” is a particularly good showcase for Burnett’s fantastic vocal delivery and the duo’s expert musicianship. Burnett’s down-home voice takes a number of different shapes on the record, and all of them are interesting. He leads with a clear mountain cry, transitions to a low, earthy moan, and then to a heartfelt, tremor-filled plea. Every time he sings, “All night long,” he lays his soul bare, his voice dripping with raw feeling.

As powerful as Burnett’s singing is, though, it is not the only thing on display here. With Burnett keeping a simple, pleasant rhythm on guitar, Rutherford is simply masterful on the fiddle. He never overpowers the vocals, keeping them the main focal point of the song, but he fills the spaces around the vocals with a sweet, pure sound that makes the record all the more gripping. Rutherford’s playing is some of the smoothest country fiddling you’ll ever hear, and a good reason to seek out more of his recordings with Burnett.

~ You may also like the delightfully wacky vocals and playing on another record by this duo (with Burnett on banjo instead of guitar): Burnett & Rutherford, “Ladies on the Steamboat” (Columbia 15209-D, 1928)

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