For a number of years now I have been intrigued by the dance calls that can be heard on many of the early 78-rpm recordings of old-time music. What started because of my interest as a dance caller, has now turned into a long-term project. As I attempted to compile a comprehensive list, I discovered more and more recordings and my list grew longer and longer. Focusing primarily on those made by southern musicians in the 1920s and early 1930s; I now have transcribed calls from over 60 recordings made during this period. These include many different dance callers from Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Although this sample of 78s may be just the tip of the iceberg, these recordings reveal much about the southern square dances of the early 20th century.
"Barn Dances" with Calls
In the 1920s, when old-time music was first starting to be recorded on 78-rpm records, radio stations powerful enough to be heard across the nation were broadcasting "barn dance" shows featuring fiddling and string-band music. The first of these "barn dance" shows started in 1923 on WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas. The following year WLS in Chicago began broadcasting the "National Barn Dance," which in addition to having a square-dance band, had a caller to make it sound more realistic, and in 1925, WSMs "Barn Dance," later renamed the "Grand Ole Opry," started up in Nashville, Tennessee. These radio "barn dance" programs created a format for the presentation of fiddle music, and they may be the reason why square-dance calls were included on so many of the recordings of southern string bands during these early years.
These early recordings may have been trying to imitate the "barn dance" format that had become popular on the airwaves. If the record companies wanted to make it sound like a barn dance, it would seem natural to include dance calls alongside the fiddling, just like at a real dance. Some of the record labels advertised it as such. Crockett Kentucky Mountaineers "Sugar In My Coffee" is labeled, "Barn Dance with Calls."
The popularity of the "barn dance" format was not limited to southern old-time fiddlers. During this same time period dance calls also appeared on recordings from other parts of the country. These include recordings of New England contra dances and quadrilles made by Chicagos National Barn Dance Orchestra, Henry Fords Old-Time Dance Orchestra, fiddler Mellie Dunham of Maine, and others. Usually under three minutes in length, the early 78s are too short for real square dances and in most cases, the timing of the calls is off. Even for an experienced caller, correct timing would be hard to achieve in a recording studio without dancers to watch. And even if the calls on these recordings had been clear and well-timed, it is questionable whether dancers would be able to follow calls from outside their own community, since square-dance figures and calls were not formally standardized as they are today. Therefore, it doesnt appear that the calls were intended for people to dance to, but rather to enhance the rustic image of an "old-time barn dance" that the record companies were marketing.
Despite the fact that these records are not danceable, they do provide a valuable window through which we can get a glimpse of the nature of southern square dancing in the 1920s. They are like an audio snapshot of the square-dance figures and calls that were common at the time. In examining the calls on these recordings, I expected to find distinct regional calling styles and local variations in the dance figures. I did find some indication of regional styles, but there were also some dance figures and calls that seem to have been common throughout the South. Some of the variation may be due more to individual differences among callers rather than between regions.
Callers and Calling Styles
Many of the callers on these recordings sound like real callers with well-worn patter that flows easily from their tongues, learned from years of experience calling at house dances, corn shuckings, barn raisings, or other community events. Many musicians at one time or another have called dances, including such notables as John Dykes, Fiddlin John Carson, and even Uncle Dave Macon. Unfortunately, the identities of most of the callers are unknown and only a few are credited on the recordings.
Most of the callers use a monotone voice pitched to the tonic or fifth of the musical key. Others just shout out the figures. Several of the callers occasionally sing a few lines of calls to the melody of the fiddle tune, but there are no true singing calls fit to songs. Those came into style much later. On some of the recordings, a musician or perhaps someone else in the studio shouts out arbitrary calls at random to create the image of an old-time barn dance.
On the earliest "barn dance" records that I am aware of, which were made in 1924 by Whitters Virginia Breakdowners, the dance calls on "Sourwood Mountain" and "Mississippi Sawyer" are strangely identical as if the caller were reading them word-for-word from text.
Deciphering the dance calls on 78s can be challenging given that many of the calls are poorly recorded and barely audible. Changes in calling terminology that have occurred over the years can also lead to ambiguities. For example, the word, "swing" as we use it today usually means a waltz-hold swing. In the old days, "swing" would mean a two-hand turn, to join hands and circle to the left. This could be with a partner or any number of other dancers, as in "swing three" or "swing four." Also the word "allemande" is not present on any of these southern recordings, instead the word "turn" is used to mean a hand-turn.
While I am most interested in those recordings that prominently feature clear, well-delivered calls, much can also be learned from the pretend callers. However incomplete their calls may be, they provide an indication of the most common calls these musicians heard during countless nights playing for dances.
In an attempt to convey the atmosphere at a square dance, many of the recordings tend to sound more like skits with no pretence of being anything else. They often include opening dialog such as "We done got all the corn shucked. . . . Were gonna have a regular old barn-dance Virginia Reel. . ." as heard on "Cornshuckers Frolic," a "barn-dance" skit recorded by Callaways West Virginia Mountaineers. An opening call that seems to have been widely used, "Partners to your places, like the horses to their traces," appears on recordings from Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.
In addition to calling out figures, the callers often tease or shout reprimands to the musicians as well as imaginary dancers. On Doc Roberts recording of "Martha Campbell," guitarist and caller Asa Martin shouts out "Whup that fiddle boy, whup that fiddle." The command, "Swing that girl with the red dress on," appears on many recordings from Virginia to Arkansas. Is this the same "girl" mentioned in Bob Wills "Take Me Back to Tulsa," recorded a few years later?
Regardless of whether they are called a "barn dance," "shindig," "old-fashioned North Georgia square dance," "Virginia Reel," or a "quadrille," most all of the dances called on these recordings are visiting couple squares for four couples. There are a few examples of Big Circle Sets from Virginia, Tennessee, and possibly Georgia and Mississippi, though it is hard to tell for sure. Although several refer to the "Virginia Reel," the dance by that name is not called on any of these southern recordings.
The most widely used dance figure that shows up on recordings from all of these southern states is "Right-Hands Across." "Cage the Bird" is almost as prevalent, though south of Tennessee I found it only oncein North Georgia. By far the largest and most diverse repertoire of dance figures comes from the numerous recordings made by Kentucky musicians, and includes the following figures: "Ocean Wave," "Chase the Rabbit," "Lady Round the Lady, and the Gent Also," "Figure Eight," "Divide the Ring," "Ladies Bow and the Gents Know How," "Lady Round the Lady and the Gent Round the Gent," "Swing Ma, Swing Pa, Swing that girl from Arkansas," "Cowboy Loop," "Divide the Ring," and a number of others, including some with which I am not familiar.
The "Shoo-Fly Swing," a great dance figure that used to be common here in western North Carolina, is seldom seen nowadays. But it can be clearly heard on recordings made by Dr. Humphrey Bate & His Possum Hunters, so it appears that it was once popular in middle Tennessee as well.
The Grand Right and Left
The "Grand Right and Left" appears as a chorus figure throughout Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. It is less common further south, rare in Georgia, and completely absent from the dance calls recorded in Mississippi. When it was used, it was seldom preceded by a corner turn, as is the common practice at square dances today. Only two of the callers, Ernest Legg of West Virginia, who recorded with the Kessinger Brothers, and an unknown caller with Kentuckys Hobbs Brothers, precede a "Grand Right and Left" with a corner turn. These two callers have very similar patter styles and they are the only ones who use the phrase, "Turn your corner like swingin on a gate." The full name "Grand Right and Left" is only heard from two of the callers. One is Uncle Dave Macon on "Sleepy Lou," who also calls out, "Get your partners for your quadrille. Let er go professor." The other is the caller on Callaways West Virginia Mountaineers "Cornshuckers Frolic." Other names for the "Grand Right and Left" used by these southern callers include "grand chain eight" (KY, WV), "grand trail eight" (WV), "right and left" (KY, TN), "right and wrong" (KY), "left and right" (GA), or simply "chain" (KY).
The back-to-back New England style "Dos-a-dos," which is commonly known today as "Do-si-do," does not appear on any of these southern recordings. Many southern dance callers however called a different "Do-si-do" figure that can be heard on many of the recordings from Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Georgia. It was once commonly used as a sub-chorus in visiting couple squares, danced by two couples after executing the main figure, and sometimes used by itself as a main figure. It is rarely danced nowadays except in a few isolated communities. Ive seen versions of it in recent years at dances in Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western North Carolina.
There are two main variations of this Southern Appalachian "Do-si-do." One is the same "Do-si-do" that Cecil Sharp described seeing in eastern Kentucky in 1917. It consists of a series of hand turns: Turn partner with a left hand, Turn corner with a right hand, Turn partner with a left hand, Turn corner with a right hand. This version of the "Do-si-do," later renamed the "Do Paso," is a common figure in Modern Square Dancing. It is basically a "Georgia Rang-Tang" that starts with partners instead of corners. The words "Georgia Rang-Tang," by the way, do not appear on any of the recordings from the 1920s, even the ones from Georgia. I suspect that the "Georgia Rang-Tang" evolved from the old "Do-si-do."
The other Southern Appalachian "Do-si-do," sometimes called a "Kentucky Do-si-do," goes as follows: The lady walks in a counter-clockwise direction in front of and around the gent without dropping hands. As she passes behind the gents back, he ducks under his right arm. They let go hands and then swing opposites, and then swing their partners.
On some recordings, the call for the "Do-si-do" is simply, "Do-si the lady," but on others the caller lets loose with a non-stop stream of patter calls that fills in time while the dancers execute the figure. Typical is something like, "Do-si-do and gents you know, once-and-a-half and let her go," (KY) or even:
Ladies do and the gents you know,
Its right by right by wrong you go,
And you cant go to heaven while you carry on so,
And its home little gal and do-si-do,
And it may be the last time, I dont know,
And oh by gosh and oh by Joe.
(Ernest Legg, WV)
Ernest Leggs calls were featured on a number of 78s recorded by the Kessinger Brothers in 1928 [see OTH vol.7, no.6 "Swing Your Partner Round and Round, and Turn Your Corner Upside Down.In Search of Old-Time Patter Calls"].
Did the "barn dances" on radio and recordings influence and change southern dance traditions and calling styles? Certainly the advent of radio and the availability of records affected musical styles and repertoires and blurred existing regional differences. As with the music, dance calling recorded in subsequent decades, began to change and modernize becoming more polished and professional. Square-dance records made by the Prairie Ramblers and others in the mid-1930s and later are more danceable and less like "barn-dance" skits.
In addition to providing an historical perspective on southern square dance, these early "barn-dance" recordings are a valuable resource for dance musicians and callers. While the calls may be a distraction for fiddlers trying to learn the notes, the recordings are a source from which musicians can learn some of the best dance tunes ever played. Its no accident that dance calls were included on these particular tunes. The generally lively tempos, which vary from 130 to as fast as 150 beats per minute, can help contemporary dance musicians develop a sense of the tempos appropriate for real dancing. As a dance caller, I have found in these recordings dance figures, rhyming patter calls, role models, historical insight, and above all else, inspiration.
So these are a few of my observations. I hope to continue this research with other old-time square-dance 78s from this period, and in the future to be able to answer other questions and confirm some of the other hunches that I have had about southern square dancing. I am aware of other 78s that I have not yet had a chance to hear, and Im sure that there are many more out there waiting to be discovered. Id appreciate hearing about the ones that I have missed so far. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the OTH, PO Box 51812, Durham, NC 27717.
Thanks to: Joe Bussard, Marshall Wyatt, Bill Dillof, Paula Bradley, John Lilly, Ron Cole, and others who have helped with this research so far. The following sources were particularly helpful in verifying dates and identifying some of the musicians on these recordings:
Malone, Bill C.: Country Music, U.S.A. Revised Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.
Tribe, Ivan M.: Mountaineer Jamboree. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1984.
Wolfe, Charles K.: Kentucky Country. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1982.
Wolfe, Charles K.: Tennessee Strings. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1977.
My observations about southern dance calling are based on the following recordings, some of which can be found on reissue CDs.
Arkansas-Ashleys Melody Men "Searcy County Rag"
Georgia-Hershal Browns Washboard Band, "Liberty"
Fiddlin John Carson, "Cotton-Eyed Joe"
Bill Chitwood, "Kitty Hill"
Scottdale String Band, "Share em"
The Skillet Lickers (Ted Hawkins, calls), "Fiddlers Convention in Georgia Pt. 2," "Arkansas Traveler"
Kentucky-Crockett Kentucky Mountaineers, "Sugar in My Coffee"
Tommy Gordon & His Corn Huskers (Lonesone Luke & His Farm Boys), "Wild Hog in the Woods," "Dogs in the Ashcan," "Halfway to Arkansas," "Beaver Valley Breakdown"
Harman Brothers (Hobbs Brothers), "Hell among the Yearlings," "Turkey in the Straw," "Devils Dream," "Patty on the Turnpike"
Hatton Brothers (Asa Martin, calls), "Hook and Line," "I Wish I Had My Time Again"
Jimmie Johnsons String Band, "Step Lively," "Washington Quadrille"
Doc Roberts (Asa Martin, calls), "Martha Campbell," "Waltz the Hall," "Girl I Left Behind," "Whos Been Here Since Ive Been Gone"
Charlie Wilson & His Hayloft Boys, "Cuttin at the Point," "Shelven Rock," "Ride the Goat over the Mountain"
Mississippi-Freenys Barn Dance Band (Fonzo Cannon, calls), "Mississippi Square Dance - Part 1," "Mississippi Square Dance - Part 2" (Sally Ann)
Leake County Revelers, "Leather Britches"
Floyd Ming & His Pep Steppers (A.D. Coggin, calls), "Old Red," "White Mule," "Tupelo Blues"
North Carolina-Al Hopkins & His Buckle Busters, "Boatin Up Sandy"
Da Costa Woltzs Southern Broadcasters, "Richmond Cotillion," "John Browns Dream"
South Carolina-Aiken County String Band, "Carolina Stompdown"
Tennessee-Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters, "Take Your Foot Out of the Mud," "Goin Up-Town"
Dykes Magic City Trio, "Cotton-Eyed Joe," "Red Steer," "Callahans Reel," "Tennessee Girl," "Huckleberry Blues"
Uncle Dave Macon, "Sleepy Lou"
Virginia-Fiddlin Powers & Family, "Old Virginia Reel - Part 2"
Whitters Virginia Breakdowners, "Sourwood Mountain," "Mississippi Sawyer"
West Virginia-Warren Caplinger, "Chicken Reel"
Callaways West Virginia Mountaineers, "Cornshuckers Frolic"
Kessinger Brothers (Ernest Legg, calls), "Chicken in the Barnyard," "Forked Deer," "Hell among the Yearlings," "Patty on the Turnpike," "Devils Dream," "Wild Horse," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Turkey in the Straw"
Williamson Brothers & Curry, "The Funs All Over"
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