The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 6


-In the Field—An Interview with Mark Wilson

-By Kerry Blech

A few years ago I learned that field recordings from Kentucky fiddlers would be issued on two Rounder CDs (Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky, Vol. I: Up the Ohio and Licking Rivers, Rounder 0376; Vol. II: Along the Kentucky River, Rounder 0377; both reviewed in OTH vol. 6 no. 8, summer 1999). When I saw this, I began pestering all sorts of folks for further information. I knew a bit of the material that would be on those discs, because "underground" tapes of some of those artists had circulated over the years, and I had seen several of those great fiddlers in person. I bought those CDs the day they came out and played them nearly to death; I still do.

Not only was the music precious, luscious, rewarding, but the depth of the notes were, as I strongly felt, something that all who are seriously interested in traditional fiddling should read; I also believed that it should be mandatory reading in all folklore and ethnomusicology departments. I felt a great need to write a fan letter, and started a correspondence [with Mark Wilson] that has not abated to this day, each communiqu" fro from him chock full of information and advice. It was about that time that I was having a discussion with a friend, to whom I had strongly recommended the Kentucky fiddle anthologies. He had loved the music. Then we discussed the production values and annotation. He thought awhile, then started asking me some questions, primarily, "what are some of your favorite traditional fiddle recordings you’ve purchased over the past 20 years?" We made lists and then analyzed them. The vast majority had deep involvement by Mark Wilson, as variously, producer, recordist, collector, and/or annotator.

Another thing that really struck me, in reading Mark’s notes to various recordings, is that every time I’d think of something, Mark had already written about it. He seemed to have nearly encyclopedic knowledge of North American fiddling styles, repertoires, and migration patterns of tunes. Of course that was just my impression, but in reality he has added so much insight and hard scholarship to an area that has been grossly neglected for too long a time. And not only that, Mark has always had the knack of collaborating on his projects with just the right people, most of them well-thought-of scholars in their own rights, so that they complemented each other extremely well.

At one point, Mark came through Seattle, where I live, en route to record Jim Herd and Stan Jackson in Sunnyside, WA, and stayed overnight at our house - he also invited me to accompany him on the recording trip. I had a golden opportunity to get to know Mark better, to learn a lot about what he had accomplished and his viewpoints on a variety of subjects. We also were able to share some music together, as Mark is quite adept on the banjo, guitar, and fiddle. Despite his skills in these areas, he has shown a professional restraint by rarely playing with his field recording subjects (for publication), which, while pleasantly social, might introduce a foreign quality to the music at hand. This is a quality I greatly admire. It was on that trip, also, that we first entertained the idea of an interview or a series of articles.

In the process of our conversations and discussions, we had an extensive telephone interview, following up with e-mails and letters. The product of this ongoing process is before you now. Since we began this discussion, Rounder Records has started issuing Mark’s field recordings (and reissue projects) as a part of the North American Traditions (NAT) series. This will tie together his work and the work of his collaborators and others to help us better understand the breadth of traditional music on our continent. Rounder has developed a Web site for NAT: where you can read more about it, and see the expansion of some of the subjects touched on in this interview. - K.B.

What kind of things interested you when you were growing up in Oregon? How did you get interested in Anglo-American traditional music?

Well, my mother’s people were of pioneer stock and she tells me that my great- uncle used to sing the parody version of "Old Zip Coon" when I was very young, but I essentially stem from a very solid middle class background, so most of that stuff had been purged from memory long before. Some ancestor had been a fiddler, I’m told, but the other members of the wagon train got so sick of it, they "accidentally" placed his instrument under the wheels. However, when I grew up in the ’50s a general awareness of the existence of true folk song was much more prevalent than now - after all, things like "Old Smokey" and "Stack’o’Lee" occasionally even made it onto the hit parade. My dad played a bit of jazz piano and he had some nice Mary Lou Williams records and things like that but we also had a copy of The Fireside Book of American Song around the house. I was fascinated by that very fine book and for my third grade talent show I memorized all 13 verses it supplied for "The Boll Weevil Song" with the wrong tune because I couldn’t read music. A bit later when the Kingston Trio stuff came in, I became curious enough about the subject to look up folk song books in the library and found a list of recommended records. It took a trip to San Francisco to find one, but the first authentic record I bought was by Lead Belly, after which I immediately gave away all my Kingston Trio records (and my Brenda Lee 45s too, I’m sorry to say). Back then, one could order three LPs for ten dollars from Folkways in the mail and so I slowly accumulated a lot of fine records that way. Their old Pete Steele record was probably my favorite, but I still love neglected gems like Wolf River Ballads.

Of course, I got The Anthology of American Folk Music and on it there was this fellow, Edward L. Crain, singing "Cowboy Cole Younger," and I realized he was the same fellow I used to watch a few years before on afternoon television. For a while Eddie ran a 15-minute show to advertise his cleaning business and would sing "There’s an Empty Cot in the Bunkhouse Tonight," "Preacher and the Bear," Milton Brown’s "My Mary" and other material like that. My father knew Eddie slightly so I called him up, borrowed a malfunctioning tape recorder and went over to Ashland where he lived. I was nervous as hell but Eddie was a very gentle man. He had been raised on a ranch outside Longview, Texas (he learned "Cole Younger" from an elderly ranch hand there) and had made hats until asthma forced him to move to Oregon. Jimmie Rodgers recommended that he try his hand in the music business and Eddie said he was in the studio when Rodgers recorded "TB Blues." He said it was very sad because Jimmie was so short of breath that he would collapse onto a sofa for a half hour after every number. By the time I met him, Eddie had developed a bad case of emphysema himself and was never able to sing much when I visited in later years. Eddie also knew Goebel Reeves, whom he remembered visiting [when he was] in jail on some Mann act charge. In any event, Eddie went off to New York where he stayed in the YMCA and played at places like The Little Red Schoolhouse in the Village dressed up in full ranch regalia. Somehow he even got booked on a tour with Jean Harlow and Bing Crosby. He liked Harlow but claimed that Crosby was "stuck-up." He said he tried to modernize his fare but Harlow told him to stick to the cowboy stuff. All of this, of course, gave me a rather different picture of the ways of folksong than found in those somewhat romanticized books I was reading! Ever since, I’ve always found that the real life of folk musicians is so much more fascinating than the scripts that Jean Thomas and her modern equivalents devise. That is why, whenever possible, I try to get full autobiographical statements into the records I edit. I might mention that when I played "Cowboy Cole Younger" for Eddie, he commented that it was running too fast, which was apparently a rather common problem on 78s. Eddie’s voice was somewhat nasal, I suppose, but rather sweeter than is apparent on those records, great as they are. His own favorite was "Little Blossom." To this day the picture of Jean Harlow and Eddie Crain appearing on the same show still astonishes me and demonstrates how drastically standards of cultural acceptance have shifted in this country.

I recorded a few other interesting singers around southern Oregon and occasionally used to sit outside the Talent square dance listening to the Maddox Brothers sing "My Heart Skips a Beat" and things like that - I couldn’t go in because they sold liquor. Later on I timidly called up one of the brothers and asked him if he knew any cowboy songs and he said "Nah, we don’t know any of that stuff" and hung up on me.

What about meeting the Rounders? And starting to make records?

The first year I attended graduate school, I went to a bluegrass show and there was Bill Nowlin sitting at a card table selling their first George Pegram record. I was intrigued because I had been looking for the Pegram and Parham Pickin’ and Blowin’ LP for years. At that time Bill was studying political science at Tufts and teaching up in Lowell. He had a large record collection, so I began going over to his flat and taping some of his LPs. He knew some of the 78 collectors in the New England area and we began to visit them, which gave me a golden opportunity to hear hundreds of wonderful records - at that time one really only had the early County reissues and whatever else one might stumble across. For a number of years thereafter, I went a bit nuts, trading tapes with a variety of collectors until I had heard a huge number of 78s. I still entertain the illusion that I remember every one of them perfectly, but, of course, the human memory isn’t capable of that! And that is how I happened to start writing notes for many of the Rounder reissues. But I eventually found this rather discouraging, because it was very hard for us to get good transfers, because we didn’t own any appreciable number of 78s ourselves and I had neither the time nor the money to get them made properly on location. So what got issued was largely by happenstance—for example, I found out that the Library of Congress had been given mint condition copies of some of the Stoneman Victors back in the ’20s and so we built a record around those. Generally most of the reissues that came out were of artists that the Rounder folks particularly favored, like the Skillet Lickers. I certainly enjoy those, but, fairly early on, my own tastes began to gravitate to what I would dub the "deeper" veins of fiddling and singing. Before I quit, I was planning to do LPs of the older generation of fiddlers like Allen Sisson and M.J. Bonner, some of the sacred groups, and one of parlor music called The Mansion of Aching Hearts. But as Rounder grew more successful, the question of their continuing to issue "pirated" recordings grew more problematic while I began to feel my limited time was better spent elsewhere. Bill tried valiantly to get permissions from the majors [major labels that owned rights to 78 rpm recordings], but they rarely answered his letters. In any case, those 78s are now in very safe hands - safer than if they were in libraries - so I’ve gravitated to spending my time mainly trying to register living musicians in tolerable fidelity.

Poor transfers, by the way, were the main reason that the second Ed Haley LP was never released. At what would have then represented a considerable expense, Rounder paid Larry Haley to take all of his dad’s records to the Library of Congress to be dubbed - it took quite a bit of persuasion on my part to get him to go. Unfortunately, I was teaching and couldn’t go down to Washington and the transfers turned out much less good than they should have been. It was very discouraging, because there was no way to get them redone. When I was out in California, I started to edit volume two but couldn’t bear to keep going, cutting out pops that I knew shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In any event, the bottom had fallen out of the folk record market then - somehow celebrating the bicentennial seemed to have cured people of any interest in music of the past - so it wasn’t like I was leaving some intense public hunger unsatiated. The transfers are generally better on the Hartford/Carlin issues, although unfortunately a few discs got damaged over the intervening years and it would have been better to go with the old copies.

Getting back to Bill Nowlin, he is a truly interesting character and deserves a lot of credit for all the things he’s done for music over the years. Of course, Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton and, to some extent, Bruce Kaplan deserve equal credit for starting Rounder on its amazing career, but it is with Bill that I have always worked most closely. The early ’70s, as some of you witnessed yourselves, were a very tumultuous time and every bit of that was fully reflected inside Rounder records. Now I was completely outside of it all (no anarchist collective for me!) but Bill has a dry sense of humor that carried him through many goofy episodes that would have extinguished lesser mortals - for example, the time when money was perilously tight and somebody accidentally put a few extra zeros on the Aunt Molly Jackson LP order. I bet you they are using those cartons for tables there yet! As Dolly Parton said, no money could pay me for the memories of those days and no money could pay me to live through them again.

How’d you meet Gus Meade?

In those early days, none of us knew how to mix a record, do designs, edit copy or much of anything else, so a lot of those early Rounder records were quite funky in a charming kind of way. I first learned how to edit records, because the Rounders or Bruce Kaplan would often come back with tapes of, [for example], Steve Ledford or E.C. Ball and they’d just sit around Bill’s house for awhile because nobody knew quite what to do with them. So we made a deal: I got to listen to the tapes if I pieced them together into masters. Eventually I began directly supervising a few records myself, like the first Almeda Riddle LP. That was done in a studio, but recording that way was far too expensive and created a terrible atmosphere for traditional music anyway. On one surrealistic occasion the engineer and I had started remastering Almeda and had her up on the loudspeakers while out in the studio Aerosmith was still stumbling around, clearly vexed by difficult physical tasks like remembering how to put a guitar back in its case. So eventually I began to do most of my own recording, on the grounds that at least I’d have myself to blame for the screwups (of which there have been many).

After doing a few LPs like that, the record collector Tim Woodbridge and I happened to go down to Loy Beaver’s for a record release party for John Ashby and that’s where I first met Gus Meade. He and Norm Cohen had been out to interview Doc Roberts and Asa Martin in Kentucky and I was surprised that they were visiting all of these great people and not trying to get any new recordings made. So I asked Gus, "Is there any chance that we might get Doc and Asa to record again?" Gus called up Asa who said, "Come on out" and in the meantime I persuaded Buell Kazee, whom I’d already known, to try recording on the same trip (one had to practice the strictest economy in these projects). Unfortunately, when we got out there, it turned out that Asa had not asked Doc whether he would record, so we wound up doing the Ginger Blue LP with the little band Asa was using on his radio show. Although if you were gullible enough, Asa would start claiming he wrote "Swanee River," nonetheless he was really a great guy with an amazing fund of experience. It is too bad that he had arthritis by the time we recorded him, for he had been a stellar guitarist and knew lots of nifty instrumentals that he had recorded for Gennett’s race series but which were never issued. And it was Asa who first told us about George Hawkins.

We are talking early ’70s now?

Yeah, ’71, ’72. Gus had already met J.P. Fraley - I believe at Union Grove - and so we decided to record J.P. and Annadeene the next trip, after which I went over to do more sessions with Asa. It was a 16-hour drive from Boston and I still vividly remember the scene when I showed up. Gus had already arrived and there were all these recordings lying around: big aluminum discs of J.W. Day that Annadeene had borrowed from Jean Thomas and little paper home recordings of another blind fiddler of whom I’d never heard but J.P had seen a lot as a kid. Annadeene had been working in a sewing factory and had been chatting with a coworker named Pat who, despite the fact that she was British, turned out to be the daughter-in-law of this fiddler. And, yes, the family had quite a few old recordings of him. That, of course, was my first introduction to Ed Haley’s fiddling. So I remember feeling this curious blend of total exhaustion and terrific elation as these marvelous sounds came off those little records.

I would like to remark that Annadeene Fraley was as helpful to me in my efforts as anyone I ever met. She was a supremely intelligent woman and her willingness to assist me on our trips had to be a bit hard on her because she was a very good singer herself but in a "folk festival" vein that I was unable to do much with (although just before her death I was able to get some nice recordings of a few things she’d picked up in childhood that I’ll issue as soon as I’m able).

What do you think about the music at folk festivals generally?

Generally, I rarely go, mainly for lack of time. But I have rather ambivalent feelings about the entire "folk festival" movement. Without a societal outlet, any form of music will quickly fade away and the old forums where musical activity in the mountains used to occur - square dances, family entertainments after supper, etc. - have largely disappeared. But few types of traditional music seem to survive the transition across the footlights very well. Bill Nowlin and I went to visit Pleaz Moberly once. He sounds great on his Library of Congress recordings, but in person his performances were so full of "folk festival" histrionics that it was embarrassing to be in the same room with him (he was not quite as bizarre as John Jacob Niles, who was the Iggy Pop of Kentucky folk music, but I believe Moberly was imitating Niles’ mode). Insofar as I can see, most of the limited grant money available to folk music seems to have gone towards festivals of the tourist event type, rather than underwriting the kind of preservational work I do. I guess it’s worth it - I guess it’s good that Cape Breton fiddle music has maintained a longer hold on life through being transmogrified into the new form you hear today, but I feel very lucky that recording in conjunction with a prominent record label has allowed me to hear a lot of preadjustment music in what I regard as a more congenial setting.

In any case, getting back to our subject, once Gus and I started going out to Kentucky on a regular basis, it was pretty easy to find good musicians like Buddy Thomas, Alva Greene and all the rest. Because of the unusual laxness of my graduate career, I was able to make quite a few trips over a period of several years, often when Gus couldn’t come. But because of personal reasons, including being "an impecunious party," I was unable to get back to Kentucky after 1975. Gus, however, met John Harrod a few years later and they recorded most of the cuts on Vol. 2 of Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky.

Are you considering more volumes of the Kentucky Anthology?

John and I have started planning a selection of fiddlers living along both sides of the Ohio River, drawing both from the older analog recordings and from nice DAT ones we have been fortunate to make. Harold Zimmerman and Ray Hilt will be on it, along with Buddy, Alva, George and a number of your other favorites. It makes for an interesting blend of styles.

Tell me about George Hawkins.

I think it’s great that you appreciate what a truly wonderful musician he was. I always remember George with a tinge of sadness, although I don’t know if that’s the proper emotion to feel. Objectively, some of the circumstances of his life were quite unhappy: his wife died of TB when she was quite young and the disease almost killed George in the ’50s. He mainly worked as a farm-hand and occasionally experienced a little trouble with the bottle. Nonetheless, George possessed this fantastic determination to excel at the fiddle, following Tom Riley and the other "northern fiddlers" that he admired. So he paid an enormous amount of attention to controlled bow work - he would do little exercises where he would purposefully bow tunes with a backwards stroke to heighten his control, as well as cycling "Fisher’s Hornpipe" through a series of difficult keys. Although there was once a circle of excellent fiddlers in Bath County who appreciated George’s music, Roger Cooper tells me that George almost "improved" himself out of the fiddle contests they used to have in Vanceburg and Maysville. The other fiddlers would work up outlandish versions of "Orange Blossom Special" while George would prepare a virtuoso version of "Good for the Tongue" in Bb. You see, George followed essentially 19th century paradigms for what "quality fiddling" should be like and, by damn, he wasn’t going to degrade his instrument by playing lesser fare. I found his intense concern with self-betterment rather noble.

But you know, these are just my impressions, based upon a couple of visits and talks afterward with Roger and George’s children. There are some "collectors" whose names you know well who regularly claim that some spark of telepathic empathy - some Spockian mind-meld - flashes during their own recording sessions. Well, nobody is really able to learn that much about a complicated human being during the brief encounter that a recording session or two represents. Such "collectors" are simply allowing visions of themselves to dance before their eyes and the quality of their work usually becomes somewhat compromised as a result.

In reading the notes to the first volume of the Kentucky Fiddle Anthology, I think it was the first time it really drove home for me that connection between some of the Kentucky fiddle techniques and the old Scottish style. I really hadn’t thought about it much even though so many scholars have mentioned the Scots and Scots-Irish connection to southern old-time fiddling, but it is really evident in listening to that recording.

I believe we need to take care in how we frame the issue, but there’s no doubt there’s a strong common root. If you listen to some of the older style fiddlers from Cape Breton, say, the way Angus Allan Gillis plays "Lady Georgianna Campbell" on his old Celtic 78, and compare it to, say, a Kentucky recording of "Lost Girl," you will hear a lot of similarity in phrasing and ornamentation.

A tune on the Joe MacLean CD that really caught my ear was "The Old Bog Hole," which is like "Natchez Under the Hill," a "Turkey in the Straw" type of tune.

It’s in A, so it is closer to "Natchez Under the Hill." The later members of the family, "Old Zip Coon" and "Turkey in the Straw," are usually set in G.

I could hear in MacLean’s playing a 19th-century Southern American fiddler playing quite like that, in a similar manner with the ornamentation and drive.

You’re quite right and one of the projects involved in my research is trying to gather enough data to reconstruct how 19th-century fiddling must have sounded. The story has to be quite complex, but we can be relatively sure that tunes were played with a lot of bow trills of the sort that Dwight Lamb still uses and there was a fairly extensive body of melodies, now rare, that were once known in many regions of the country.

With respect to the "Old Bog Hole," Joe got it from the Kerr’s Collection, which was published in Edinburgh around 1875. I imagine that the "Old Bog Hole" is Scottish in origin, but one can’t be quite sure - it might represent a funny kind of feedback, for a lot of American entertainers toured Scotland as early as the late 18th century (Mr. Fischer of "Fisher’s Hornpipe" fame was over there, for example). In particular, Kerr’s includes a number of manifestly American tunes. Once again, if you compare Joe’s playing to Alva Greene playing "Natchez" (Alva called it "Matches under the Hill"), you’ll hear a good deal of similarity. [Transcriptions of these tunes can be found at the end of the article; excerpts can be heard at the NAT web site]. And indeed, both men held the fiddle in the old grip of the 18th century, before the instrument had its neck extended. The evocative way Alva makes his bow skip along its stroke is a marvel to me - it isn’t a true Scots "cut," but I believe it to be a modification of that technique.

But when you make comparisons of this sort, you need to be quite careful. I think that a lot of the tune comparisons you might have read in the literature tend to exaggerate the Scots/Irish/American links somewhat. First of all, there is the bias created by the annotators who select tunes simply because they have something to say about them, which automatically overemphasizes British origins. Secondly, many writers will claim tune identities based upon fairly crude standards of musical overlap - I would fault Samuel Bayard here, as great as his work otherwise is. In fact, I am quite certain the resemblances between many of the tunes that he and others regularly equate have emerged simply as the accidental products of convergent evolution.

I have been able to record quite a few examples of fiddlers and their sources. Depending upon the circumstances, wildly different versions can appear in the course of a single stage of transmission. Often the musical features Bayard cites (e.g., harmonic structure) get destroyed in the process and what remains will be some higher psychological invariant, e.g., the "hook" that fiddlers themselves will identify as central to the tune’s identity. Most of the time these "hooks" are elements of phrasing that are almost impossible to notate (thus I sneak in a plug for the special merits of decent quality recordings). I plan to write about some of these issues in Vol. 3 of our Ozark set.

Particularly since meeting Owen Chapman, I have been less inclined to be monolithic about the Scots influence on Kentucky fiddle music, for those ancient, eerie tunes that "Snake" learned from his dad seem cut from a different cloth altogether. But we shouldn’t really group distinct regions together just because they’re geographically in Kentucky.

By the way, we should note that our understanding of British tradition isn’t so hot either. I’ve not been able to hear very much Scottish music proper that is bowed in the fashion of the older Cape Bretoners. Apparently the 19th century wreaked havoc on the "folk fiddling" in Scotland: either the Presbyterians burned your instrument or you were taught to "elevate" your playing by incorporating classical techniques. Insofar as I am aware, we do not possess a very reliable picture of the evolution of Irish fiddling either. Once again people don’t seem to be asking the proper questions.

And it’s daunting to consider how rapidly fiddle techniques can change within a given region. I don’t believe that one can detect virtually any overlap between Alva Greene’s playing and that of a modern Cape Bretoner of the Natalie MacMaster school. But then it’d be hard to detect too much commonality between Alva and J.P. Fraley, despite the fact that Alva used to play on his daddy’s porch.

I have been reading recently some books of tune collections from the well known collectors. In their analyses of the source of the music, most have used only older written sources and tune books. They seem to have ignored the early field recordings and they appear to have dismissed 78s because they were commercial, although a lot of those earlier recordings were more like field recordings of traditional artists. You seem to have a much broader knowledge or acceptance of all these things that have been input into the local traditions.

Insofar as you are talking about R.P. Christeson, he can be pardoned, because he was basically documenting the repertoire of a fiddler he greatly admired, Bob Walters, and so if he didn’t care to listen to anyone else, you can hardly blame him! But with some of the others, there is a manifest lack of curiosity that, to me, indicates that they probably don’t appreciate the higher nuances of fiddling. Listening to the chatter on the Library of Congress recordings, for example, one gets the impression that Alan Lomax regarded fiddle tunes as mainly useful for supplying dashes of local color - that it never occurred to him that every one of those melodies had its own personality and history. Well, thank goodness he recorded Luther Strong and the others, but we are left in a condition where our archives possess a very spotty and haphazardly gathered registration of American fiddle music, with almost none of the salient data (which one can often easily extract from the musicians themselves) needed to date or locate their origins. The story of fiddle music is complex and deeply implicated in the major developments within 19th-century American music - much more than were the old mountain ballads - but they have been consistently underestimated by both musicologists and folklorists. And why, as you observe, those who do write about the tunes so often ignore what should constitute the richest - and most enjoyable - sources of data is beyond me.

That kind of brings us to the North American Tradition series. Does this title attempt to pull a lot of your work together, that is, things you did, and recordings on which you collaborated with others? Will it help show that there was a method behind all of this?

As to the title, it’s rather uninspired but I couldn’t think of anything else! The main motivation for the series is crassly commercial: these records were getting totally lost inside Rounder’s formidable catalog, buried knee deep in bluegrass and other material that today appeal to a basically different audience. And unlike in that Fireside Book era in which I was brought up, people who are otherwise interested in American history have forgotten what true traditional music sounds like and will accept completely bland, drippy substitutes. Our record sales are really terrible - it’s an act of corporate charity on the part of Bill, Ken, and Marian that they get released at all. The worst problem is that a CD of authentic North American traditional music no longer has a home in the modern record store, partially because the label "folk music" was stolen long ago for the benefit of baby boomer nostalgia music. So Bill Nowlin and I have hoped that our little NAT series might help educate people a bit - to get them to understand that the background music they hear on some PBS historical series sounds better if it’s played by somebody who truly knows how to fiddle. And the deep sense of musical continuity and change, as we bounce from Theresa Morrison to Snake Chapman and then to Jim Herd, should seem intriguing to anyone interested in musical history.

Often in our notes we stress the great skill needed to play these tunes properly - those "higher nuances of fiddling" I mentioned before. I don’t have occasion to listen to many "revivalists," but even the celebrated ones overlook many of the details that a George Hawkins or Roger Cooper will woodshed many long hours over. And the many tune collections that proliferate today conspire to orient their audiences away from the original players rather than towards them. Reliance upon these books hasn’t helped the quality of "revivalist" fiddling much; ditto for the mania for playing in big gangs.

What about the booklets?

I’ve always been concerned to get my musicians, whenever possible, to tell their own life stories, for this music can achieve its proper sense of associations only if it’s set within its original context, mixed together not only with the tales of fox hunts, fiddle contests and fishing, but also the harsher aspects of country life that we’re apt to forget. For the web site, I wrote a little essay describing some of the common sorts of stereotyping of traditional musicians that I have been concerned to avoid in our series.

I should add that our series isn’t all fiddle music, although that’s been our focus in our discussion. I have a lot of old ballads recorded and over time we’ll get those out slowly in conjunction with some of the out-of-print material on the old LPs.

What other kinds of recordings have you done?

I became very interested in Cape Breton music in 1973. I was helping Frank Ferrel record Gerry Robichaud for Voyager and not too long before I’d heard a Winston Fitzgerald record that I thought was wonderful. So I asked Gerry if he knew of Fitzgerald: "Oh, we’ve got a guy down at the French Club that plays just like him!"  - and that’s how I met Joe Cormier. Later on I was privileged to meet Winston, who, without a doubt, was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard. So in the mid-’70s I recorded about ten Cape Breton LPs. By then I was teaching in California. Although there were many fine players up there I’d hoped to record, I was forced to quit prematurely, largely because disputes arose between a few of the musicians and the record company. Although I recorded Jerry Holland’s first album (who is now the dominant influence there), I think it’s a shame that the contemporary audience seems unfamiliar with the great older style players that I used to hear like Donald Angus Beaton, Theresa MacLellan and Dan Joe MacInnis. When I recorded Theresa Morrison (who is Joe MacLean’s sister) last fall in Sydney, tears came to my eyes as soon as she began to play, because it had been so long since I’d heard Scots music played in its proper beauty and dignity. Once again, although the tunes are the same, 25 years have made a huge difference in the way the tunes are played up there.

In any event, while living in San Diego, I issued a number of LPs I liked (often working with Lou Curtiss) including ones of Art Galbraith, Van Holyoak, and a bawdy song record that I’m very glad we did although it is so raw as to be completely unlistenable! In 1984 I moved to Chicago and, because of family concerns, did very little recording for about eight years. In any case, it was hardly the case that folks were beating on Rounder’s door clamoring for more traditional recordings. However, Ken Irwin ran into J.P. Fraley shortly after I moved to Ohio and J.P asked whether we might be able to do a CD together. That motivated me to get in touch with John Harrod and we began working together. Although a lot of Kentucky’s traditional musicians are now gone, I can hardly complain when I’ve been able to record performers of the caliber of J.P., Roger Cooper, Owen Chapman, Paul Smith, Blanche Coldiron and so many others. I’ve probably registered more material in the past five years than in all the previous time, partially because of living in Columbus and the free time I had available. I’m unlikely to be able to do so much in my new position.

Let’s talk about your collaborations.

It’s important to realize that you can’t do work like this unless you know some locally-based experts who can introduce you to the musicians and explain its context to you. And I’ve been very lucky here, especially since it’s not always easy working with someone who adheres to such elaborate and, perhaps, crabby methodological precepts as I do! My main collaborators so far have been John Harrod and Gus Meade for the Kentucky recordings, Gordon McCann in the Ozarks and Lou Curtiss in California. I have done a few projects with Frank Ferrel, although his predilections drift more towards the contemporary scene. There’s a great fiddler in Detroit, Morgan MacQuarrie, with whom I hope to attempt another series of Cape Breton recordings this summer. And, of course, the musicians themselves - J.P. and Annadeene, Roger Cooper, Buddy Thomas, Joe Cormier, Bob Holt and so on - have always been a big help in running around with us and introducing us to local musicians.

John Harrod was raised around Frankfort, Kentucky where he teaches high school history. He is a former Rhodes Scholar who returned to Kentucky and became interested in fiddle music. I believe that meeting John is what gave Gus the impetus to keep doing field recording. John is certainly the most knowledgeable person alive about Kentucky fiddle music and has played a large role in getting good traditional musicians on stage at some of the folk festivals in his state. John and his wife, Jane, do a lot of performing themselves locally as well.

Gordon McCann is newly retired from the blueprinting business and has collected books on the Ozarks all of his life. He met Vance Randolph, who was one of his idols, in a nursing home and worked with him on an Ozark bibliography. Around the same time, Gordon met Art Galbraith when Art was looking for a guitarist and that brought him full square into the world of fiddler’s get-togethers. I met Gordon in San Diego in the early ‘70s. Lonnie Robertson had just died and Gordon kindly mailed me a lot of his LPs. When I started doing records again in Ohio, I began to wonder about the master tapes for Lonnie’s LPs, having just learned from Joe Cormier that he’d lost the originals for the LPs he had issued privately. So I called Gordon and said that we should check on the safety of Lonnie’s recordings. Well, it turned that Gordon already had them safely in his home and that started the two of us on a series of issues that have far exceeded what either of us originally anticipated. He is a great guy to work with.

Of course, you’ve been to Lou Curtiss’ record shop in San Diego, which is one of the more interesting spots in the universe. Lou knows a lot about all kinds of music and I learned much from him. And how many other people do you know once sang with Annette Funicello on Cliffie Stone’s show?

Do you have any final thoughts?

One of the pitfalls you should try to avoid in doing these records is the illusion that you, as producer, are somehow more responsible for the music rather than the artists, for then you become tempted to shape the music according to some predetermined scheme of your own, by bringing in extra musicians of your choice or whatever. True regional style is a very delicate business and is easily spoiled by a well-meaning outsider. In the early ’70s particularly, there was a lot of childish competition among the little record companies: "Oh, you’re going to record X, but we’re going to do Y who is ever so much greater." In such a climate, the temptation to jazz up your recording begins to creep in. I think it was this setting that led Gus to set up our Wilson Douglas sessions in a way I regard as unfortunate. And I’ve probably succumbed to some of this myself - one walks a rather fine line here.

In an allied vein, I believe that the common impulse to elevate a particular traditional artist as greater than all the rest is a great mistake: "the master musician within his/her community" and all that. I truly hate that stuff. Buddy Thomas taught me an important lesson in this regard. Of all the musicians I have heard, there was never a fiddler deeper than Buddy, either in terms of technique or emotional expressiveness. And Buddy was willing to be quite competitive, especially when he believed some other musician was condescending towards him. But he’d take Gus and me proudly to see someone like Joe Stamper and if Joe asked Buddy to fiddle, he’d reply, "No, Joe, these fellers came all the way to hear you play." Now neither Gus nor I were ever able to make much sense directly out of Joe’s music - it sounded pretty much like pure white noise. But Buddy’d say, "All these old-timers really have something to offer" and, sure enough, Buddy’d take Joe’s "Brown Button Shoes" and make it into something extraordinary. And then when you listened once again to Joe’s playing, you’d be able to hear Buddy’s tune in there, hidden away. Few of us can detect a melody as keenly as Buddy, but he was completely right: all those fiddlers from the old days really do have a lot to offer. Now pop music criticism, especially since the days of Bob Dylan, has been deeply disfigured by an exaggerated worship of "individual genius"; to me the "master musician" stuff is simply another riff over these same romanticized chords. We would do better to learn from Buddy Thomas, and from the rest of traditional music generally, that this is a unproductive way to approach the world.

Mark Wilson, who currently is a professor of Philosophy at University of Pittsburgh, earned his PhD at Harvard in 1976. While in graduate school there, he began working on the production of recordings for the then-new Rounder Records label. In addition to the record-issuing, he conducted, and continues to conduct, both with collaborators and alone, extensive field-recording of traditional fiddle music, primarily in Kentucky, the Ozarks, Cape Breton Island, Down East, West Virginia, and the Midwest.

Kerry wishes to give special thanks to Nancy Martin for transcribing the tape of the interview with Mark, to Paul Anastasio for his transcriptions of the Alva Greene and Joe MacLean tunes, to Bill Martin and Scott Prouty for assisting in the location of presentable copies of vintage sheet music, and to Bill Nowlin of Rounder Records for facilitating this project.

Kerry Blech is a computer programmer by day and a father and husband by night, residing in Seattle. He tries to fit in as much fiddling as he can, in the cracks of life. And he does occasional writing.

<<<Return to 7-6 Index

The Old Time Herald PO Box 61679• Durham, NC • 27715-1679
Phone (919) 286-2041