The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 6


20 Essential Recordings

by Jeff Titon

This list reflects my preferences for the fiddle music of central Appalachia, particularly Kentucky, and for good album notes. Many outstanding fiddlers, such as Marcus Martin, W. M. Stepp, Isham Monday, Henry Reed, J. Dedrick Harris, Hiram Stamper, George Custer Nicholson, Manon Campbell, and Luther Strong are under-represented (if represented at all) in this list because their music is unissued or buried on albums in a mass of (to me) less interesting material. I do not rank the albums in order of preference.

  1. Berea College Appalachian Center AC003, and AC003, v. 2. John Morgan Salyer: Home Recordings, 1941-1942. An outstanding breakdown fiddler from southeastern Kentucky who preserved many rare, wonderful tunes that would otherwise have been lost. Bruce Greene's notes are highly detailed and informative.
  2. West Virginia University Press Sound Archives 001. The Edden Hammons Collection. Brilliant old-time West Virginia fiddling; outstanding versions of regional tunes. Alan Jabbour and John Cuthberton's informative notes are a model of grace and clarity.
  3. String 802. Emmett W. Lundy: Fiddle Tunes from Grayson County, Virginia. Lundy's versions of the 19th-century tunes he played for the Library of Congress in 1941 are magnificent, and in the spoken sections with Elizabeth Lomax he comes across as the wise and dignified old gentleman he must have been. Tom Carter's interpretive notes view Lundy in a 19th-century, pre-string-band tradition.
  4. Rounder CD 1131/2/3/4. Grey Eagle and Forked Deer. Ed Haley, fiddle. These CDs are an expanded reissue of the Rounder LP, Parkersburg Landing. There was no more inventive or accomplished old-time fiddler than Ed Haley, whose astonishing range of repertoire and ability to improvise made him an enormous influence on other fiddlers. John Hartford's notes add many new biographical details and tune annotations to Mark Wilson and Gus Meade's original Parkersburg Landing notes.
  5. BG-001. Five Miles of Ellum Wood. Bruce Greene, fiddle solos. Over the last 25 years Bruce Greene has taken Kentucky old-time fiddling into the marrow of his bones and fashioned a style that honors his teachers and is a natural force in its own right. Greene's notes are detailed and forthcoming about his teachers and what he learned from them.
  6. Library of Congress AFS L62. American Fiddle Tunes from the Archive of Folk Song. Alan Jabbour's early anthology of field recordings emphasized the South but included musicians from New England and the Midwest. His notes represent perhaps the first truly thorough annotations of fiddle tunes on any album.
  7. Rounder 0032. Kitty Puss: Old-Time Fiddle Music from Kentucky. Buddy Thomas, fiddle. Thomas worked carefully on his settings of the elegant tunes in the northeastern Kentucky tradition to which he was heir. His playing was sweet and his melodic variations are noteworthy. Notes by Mark Wilson accomplish the rare feat of evoking what it might have been like to be Buddy Thomas.
  8. Berea College Appalachian Center AC002. Puncheon Camps. Clyde Davenport, fiddle. "Clyde the Glide," along with Melvin Wine, is an outstanding source musician, an excellent player with many rare local fiddle and banjo tunes in his repertoire.
  9. Kanawha 307. June Apple. This classic recording of Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed was enormously influential on the old-time music revival in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and remains an exciting album.
  10. County 756. Sail Away Ladies. Tommy Jarrell, fiddle. Tommy Jarrell's solo fiddle album, beautifully recorded. Jarrell's sense of time, pitch, and setting was without peer, and his bowing was astonishing.
  11. Morningstar 45003, 45004, 45005. Old Time Fiddle Band Music from Kentucky. A fine anthology of rare commercial recordings by Kentucky musicians, coupled with Gus Meade's painstakingly researched biographical and discographical notes.
  12. Meriweather 1001-2. I Kind of Believe It's a Gift: Field Recordings of Traditional Music from Southcentral Kentucky. Anthology of regional music contains the only published recordings of Isham Monday; also outstanding music from Jim Bowles and Pat Kingery. Good notes by Burt Feintuch and Bruce Greene.
  13. Leatherwood Recordings. Vintage Fiddle Tunes. Bruce Greene, fiddle. Greene's first album contains many particularly attractive tunes, played in a style that is nuanced and powerful, yet never flashy nor calling attention to itself.
  14. Mississippi Department of Archives and History AH 002. Great Big Yam Potatoes: Anglo-American Fiddle Music from Mississippi. Superb anthology of field recordings by Herbert Halpert, with excellent explanatory notes by Tom Rankin and Gary Stanton, and transcriptions by Tom Sauber.
  15. Rounder 0238. Altamont: Black Stringband Music from the Library of Congress. Not only were recordings of African-American string bands rare, but this one is especially good. Their repertoires reflect the Cumberland Plateau region, and the tunes are shared by Isham Monday and Jim Bowles among others, making for interesting comparisons. Charles Wolfe's notes are essential reading.
  16. Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song L65-L66. The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family's Traditions. Ballads, songs, stories, fiddle tunes, and notes that fill a booklet and account for an exceptional musical family's traditions. Notes are by Carl Fleischhauer and Alan Jabbour.
  17. Rounder 0361. Lost Boy. Bruce Molsky, fiddle. Molsky, a modern-day Ed Haley, is an extremely powerful, accomplished, and inventive fiddler with an unusually percussive style and a vast repertoire. This is a well-paced album with some attractive singing, solo fiddling, and string-band music.
  18. Anachronistic Phonograph Recording Co. 001. Swope's Knobs. W. Franklin George, John Hilt, and John W. Summers, fiddle. Outstanding performances, including many duets, from George and Summers whose settings were more elaborate than most fiddlers. Summers also was accomplished in Irish traditional music and some reels are included here.
  19. University of Missouri Press. Old-Time Fiddler's Repertory: Historic Field Recordings of Forty-one Traditional Tunes. An LP issued in 1976 to go along with R. P. Christeson's tune books of the same name. Bob Walters, who combined superb technique with a vast repertoire, dominates the recording as he does the books.
  20. Rounder 0129. The Watson Family Tradition. Emphasis on the traditional music of this exceptional family that includes Doc Watson.
  21. Folkways RBF 654 . Dock Boggs: His Original Recordings. Boggs was uncanny in his blues-influenced, 2-finger banjo style and settings of traditional songs and ballads.

Jeff Titon teaches ethnomusicology and directs the PhD program in music at Brown University in Providence, RI. His interests include blues, lined-out hymnody, and old-time string- band music. A guitarist and clawhammer banjo player, he also tries to play the fiddle, leads a string-band class (for credit!), repairs and recycles old fiddles; and he has just finished a book manuscript on Kentucky old-time fiddle tunes that includes his transcriptions of almost 200 of them.

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