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 and 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, and many others. Some of these artists were recorded again, but for others their appearance in this collection is their only moment of documentation.
This past January I spent good parts of my days transcribing notes from the recordings of the Gordon cylinders, keying in bits of phrases of the songs, and 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 and melodies opens my mind. I can clearly see W.E. Bird for instance as he sings the song “Billy Boy” into the recorder out in Jackson County and the bright Asheville leaves whipping outside in the October wind as Gordon insistently coaxes songs out of his subjects and onto wax.
“Billy Boy,” like many from the North Carolina collection, wasn’t new to me. I 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 began playing fiddle and old-time Southern music when I was 4 years old and 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 have traced many of the tunes and songs I 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.
One tune I came across among the cylinders is called “Boogerman,” played by G.S. Robinson. Robinson recorded just two items for Gordon and “Boogerman” is the only fiddling I’ve dug up so far. He is clearly a gifted and 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, and worked as a motorman for the street railway in Asheville. Robinson was a contemporary of the well -known fiddler of the area, Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley, who also played “Boogerman” 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 and Folk Festival in Asheville. “Boogerman” was clearly a staple of the era in the area and hearing it helps me envision the musical community that existed at the time, a community that Gordon accessed through Lunsford. It seems as though Robinson’s version of “Boogerman” 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 (Osey’s Brother) and the name “Whipping the Devil Around the Stump.” Information on the Traditional Tune Archive indicates that Harris was a mentor to Osey Helton, Bill Hensley, Manco Sneed and 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, and shared performances. 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 Farmer’s Federation Stringband) Robinson actually plays fiddlesticks: tapping Weaver’s strings with sticks as he plays a distinct version of “Kathy Hill” (1948/003, AFS 7948). Robinson was clearly an integral figure in an Asheville music community that produced so much music we find relevant and influential today.
“Boogerman” caught my eye (or ear) because it appeared on a tape that has been very influential to my own playing and 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 and 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 and 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, and 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.
“Boogerman”—AFC 1928/002, cylinder A61, NC 95—is just one of the 298 songs Gordon recorded in North Carolina, with many others from Georgia, West Virginia, and California. It is a tune full of life and history, but it is far from unique in that way. There are so many stories in these folders and on the cylinders that are waiting to be sorted out and told. I have found a power in just listening and transcribing, the next step towards bringing those stories out of the stacks and to life, a single tube in the amplifier of the archives.