I have been revisiting Charlie Striplings neighborhood lately. I hadnt been there since the 1980s when I was doing research on the great Stripling Brothers for my book on Alabama fiddling, With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow. What took me back to West Alabama was the desire to learn something about how Charlie Stripling learned to play the fiddle. Comments by two old-time musicians whose knowledge I respect inspired me to do this new research. I remember a late-night session at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in 1998 with Whitt Mead, Jim Cauthen, and myself that was dedicated to Stripling tunes. When we finished, Whitt said that the thing that amazed him most about the Striplings was that they were so great even though they learned to play in isolation. Just a few months later Kerry Blechs review in the Old-Time Herald (fall 1998) of Documents two-CD set, The Stripling Brothers Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, said that Stripling had told an interviewer that he had taught himself to play because there were no other fiddlers in the area during his childhood. Though I know that Kerry and Whitt came by this opinion honestly, I am ready to put the myth of the isolation of the Stripling Brothers to rest and proclaim that there were plenty of fiddlers in Charlie Striplings community when he learned to play. Perhaps none were as good as he became, but they were there and he learned from them.
The myth grew out of an interview of the Stripling Brothers by Bob Pinson in 1963 as summarized in Robert C. Fleders liner notes to County LP 401, the album that introduced most of the old-time community to the music of the Stripling Brothers. In the interview Ira Stripling told Pinson that his parents didnt play music and "we taught ourselves everything." This comment, however, came right after brother Charlie told the story of how he decided to be a fiddler. He told of how he bought a toy fiddle from "Roebuck" for his nephew and before giving it to him for Christmas, he tuned it up:
I had learned how to tune one. There was an old manwe called him Old Uncle Plez Carrollthat lived in our community. He played for dances and I was just a lad of a boy but Id been to a few dances and I remembered some of the tunes he played. And I got to sawing on that fiddle after I tuned it up and got to where I remembered one of the tunes he played was "Lexington on the Boom"thats what he called itand I remembered that tune and I got to where I could start it. After I gave my nephew the toy fiddle, that kind of got me interested. I decided if I could start a tune in that length of time, maybe I could learn to play. So I bought me a fiddle and bowit cost a dollarfrom one of my neighbors.
Ira ordered a guitar and they started practicing. Less than a year later, he recalled, they won first place at a convention in Kennedy, AL over 25 fiddlers. Thus, only a few minutes into his interview Charlie indicated (1)that Stripling had the opportunity to hear fiddlers at dances; (2)that Plez Carroll had shown him how to tune a fiddle and provided his first tune; (3) that it wasnt difficult to obtain a fiddle in his neighborhood; and (4) that there were enough fiddlers in the area that 25 of them would show up for a fiddlers convention in the nearby town of Kennedy, Alabama.
Ira was probably accurate in saying that he had to teach himself how to play the guitar. When the two started playing around 1915, there were not many guitarists accompanying fiddlers. Many fiddlers conventions required fiddlers to play unaccompanied and there were no competitions for guitarists. Fiddlers, however, were not scarce and nothing about Charlie Striplings fiddling indicates that he learned to play in isolation. I have heard fiddlers who did teach themselves and had no musical community in which to play. They tend to play pop tunes, hymns, familiar tunes like "O Susannah," and "Coming Round the Mountain," or eccentric tunes of their own composition. While Charlie did compose a large number of tunes, he also masterfully played the standard breakdown tunes of the region.
Fleder furthered the isolation myth with his comments about the geographical area in which the Striplings lived. Though he wrote that Stripling picked up tunes from local fiddlers at fiddlers conventions he also said:
Charlie Stripings playing sprang up in a rather remote region, unlike the two other southern regions which produced significant musical traditions and musiciansthe relatively familiar areas of north Georgia and the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. This isolation undoubtedly affected the Striplings music. For example, Narmour and Smiths Charleston and Carroll County Blues was one of the most widely imitated and influential fiddle records of the 1920s, but Charlie had never heard of Narmour and Smith, even though they lived just over 100 miles to the west in Mississippi.
When Fleder wrote this in 1971 most old-time musicians and scholars would have agreed with him, but over the years we have learned that many regions had rich fiddling traditions even if they never were commercially recorded, documented by the Library of Congress, or broadcast on Grand Ole Opry-type radio shows. The fact that West Alabama produced a masterful fiddler like Charlie Stripling is all the more proof that there was a fiddling tradition in the area as good as those in the "regions which produced significant musical traditions and musicians." We all know this intellectually but the Stripling Brothers came to us wrapped in the mystery of remote West Alabama and some of us hate to shed that romantic notion. However, when I first heard County 401 and read the liner notes I didnt believe that such good fiddling could come out of nothing. The disparity between what I heard on the recording and what I read about isolation inspired me to do the research that eventually led to my book on Alabama fiddling.
The Stripling brothers grew up the northeast corner of Pickens County within a mile of the Fayette and Tuscaloosa County lines and about 12 miles from Kennedy in Lamar County where they eventually settled. When the Commercial Dispatch of Columbus, Mississippi, featured the Stripling Brothers in a 1929 article, it noted that they came from North Pickens County, "a region whose only claim to fame lies in the great number of fiddlers which it has sent out into the world." My research would have been much easier if the journalist had been a bit more specific about those fiddlers. However, as I visited Charlie Striplings neighborhood on several research trips, one guided by his son Robert, I found from county newspapers and from interviews with folks whose memories of the Stripling Brothers were still vivid that there had been fiddlers conventions galore in the area. Newspaper articles about the conventions provided names of many fiddlers. One described a 1907 convention in Fayette at which only 4 of the 15 who had committed to play had actually shown up. A fiddler who did compete wrote a tongue-in-cheek poem describing each of the 15 and implying that most who stayed away did so out of cowardice. The fact that a town of 636 people had 15 fiddlers in the vicinity impressed me. Most of these would have been active fiddlers when the Striplings were children and some would have still been playing when Charlie took up the fiddle.
The fiddlers I interviewed and recorded in the area played a lot like Charlie Stripling. In their 70s and 80s at the time, they were not as technically accomplished as Stripling had been, and probably never had been, yet they had that Stripling soundthe big deep tone and the sliding notes that roll out of the fiddle. My first thought was that they were Stripling imitators; they bought his records and studied his technique. I came to believe differently however.
Charlie Atkins grew up around Millport (four miles from Kennedy) in the 1930s. He heard Stripling at fiddlers conventions and told me, "When he showed up, the rest of us put our fiddles back in our feed sacks." Atkins learned to fiddle from his mother and couldnt afford to buy records, yet his playing has a lot in common with Charlie Striplings. There was also Pearl Duncan Morgan, born in 1909, who I recorded in 1985. Mrs. Morgan, 13 years younger than Stripling, often came in second or third place under Stripling at contests, and beat him once. Her father, Andrew Duncan, born 1870, was a fiddler who hosted front-porch gatherings of local fiddlers near Vernon, AL, 10 miles from Kennedy. Though she did buy the Striplings records and learned some of his tunes, she attributed her Stripling-like version of "Big Eyed Rabbit" to her father. I imagine her West Alabama style came from her father and his friends rather than from the recordings.
And then there was Jimmie Porter, Striplings chief rival at local fiddlers conventions. There was a long string of fiddlers conventions at which Stripling won first place and Porter second. Porter was born in 1906 near Striplings home in Ashcraft Corner and began fiddling around 1912, about the same time that Stripling did. When I visited him in Steens, MS, he played waltzes and hymns and a very Striplingesque "Horseshoe Bend" and "Give the Fiddler a Dram," and said that he used to play "Lost John" and "a thumping piece called Lost Child, " two of Striplings hot numbers. I am sure that Porter would not buy Striplings records because of the old rivalry that the two developed in the 20s and 30s and still held on to when Bob Pinson visited the Striplings in 1963 and I visited Porter in 1984. Of Porter Stripling said:
He had the best fiddle Id ever seen in my life. He bought it at a pawnshop. Just cost him $10, I think. And I declare that was the best sounding fiddle I ever heard in my life. But he didnt play this ragtime breakdown stuff at all . . . he played slow waltzes and he really sounded good. When they had judg es that liked that kind of music, thats the only time he got a prize over me. I know we was playing down there at Liberty one nightat the high schooland they gave me the first prize and him the second prize, no, the third prize. After we come out he said, "Dont you thinknow Im not saying I should have had first prize, but dont you think I ought to had second prize?" And I said, "I dont guess the judges felt that away about it."
According to Stripling, Porter did get one prize over him. That night someone told him that Porter had said that Stripling had been "the bully with the fiddle for a long time, but there never has been a bully so big but what would come along another a little bigger than he was." When I interviewed Porter I asked him who the good fiddlers were in the area when he was a young man. He mentioned the brothers Charlie and "Monkey" Brown and Y.Z. Hamilton but not his chief rival, Charlie Stripling. Thus I doubt that Porter, who had been playing fiddle as long as Stripling, studied Striplings recordings. Of course, he could have sneaked his wind-up Graphonola and a copy of "Lost Child" into the woodshed and worked on it, but I doubt it would have changed his fiddle style for the rest of his life. If it did, why dont all of us who have labored over Striplings tunes sound like him?
All of the above convinced me that Stripling did not develop a unique fiddle style then influence others in the area through his performances and records. Instead, he partook of an already established fiddle traditiona way of fiddling that sounded right to folks in his part of West Alabamaand carried it to new heights. Based on recent information I have obtained, I believe that Uncle Plez Carroll served as a conduit for both Stripling and Jimmie Porter into the style of the region and some of the Carroll familys repertoire of archaic tunes.
I learned about Plez Carroll through Dot and Leon Vice of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dot is his great-great niece and Leon grew up on a farm near Kennedy where Charlie Stripling once sharecropped. Both he and his 95-year-old father, James Archie Vice, remember the Striplings well. Mrs. Vice arranged an interview for me with her aunt, Ovella Carroll Junkins, whose family had taken care of Plez in his old age. Through family genealogical studies and interviews I was able to learn a surprising amount about the Carroll family fiddlers.
Family historians believe that the first Carroll to come to Pickens County was James Humphus Carroll, born in 1790. He left Gwinnett County, Georgia, and settled in Alabama before the birth of his son James Monroe Carroll in 1826. After his first wife died, he married a woman 21 years younger and fathered 11 more children, the ninth being Pleasant C. Carroll, born in 1850. We do not know if James Humphus was a fiddler but we know that most of his children played. Plezs half-brother James Monroe Carroll had a fiddling daughter who moved with her second husband to Amarillo, Texas, where she was featured in the Amarillo News (9/21/48) on her 89th birthday. Eleanor (Ellen) Carroll Dollar told the reporter that she came from "a fiddle-playing family. I was raised on that kind of music. My father and all his brothers were famous fiddlers. . .that is all but one of the brothers, Uncle Isaac Carroll. Uncle Isaac couldnt fiddle but he sure could dance. He was a slim kind of man and he used to say he didnt have time to learn fiddling for he was too busy dancing." She continued, "Oh, I played the fiddle when I was young, played for many a dance . . . yes sir, many a dance . . . I guess Ive had more fun and more trouble than any woman my age, but Ive kicked trouble off every time I could." Ellen Dollar gave her reasons for a long and healthy life: (1) Smoking her pipe "whenever I feel like it
I like this Sir Walter tobacco," (2) Playing her fiddle "whenever I want to"; (3)Working hard "whenever I feel like it"; and (4)"Dancing by myself to radio tunes when they play a good break-down." Ellens Alabama kinfolks remember when she came home for a visit in the late 1930s and played her fiddle and danced for them.
Plez Carroll was one of Ellens famous fiddling uncles. Plez married when he was 29 but his wife died only four years later and he never remarried. At some point in his life he developed what Ovella Junkins called "white swelling," a swelling of the brain which was relieved by opening his skull, then inserting a half-dollar to close it up. This left him crippled and thereafter he had to live with various members of the family. He spent some time with a relative in Texas, but we do not know how long that was. Excursions between Kennedy, Alabama and Texas were very common. The Kennedy News in the late 1800s advertised such trips each week and the social column often mentioned citizens who had just returned from the big state. He could have stayed for months or years. Mrs. Junkins does not remember exactly when he returned but knows she was a small child, perhaps six years old. She was born in 1908, which means Plez Carroll would have returned around 1914, about the time that Charlie Stripling was taking up the fiddle. It is possible he played at dances when Stripling was "a lad of a boy," spent some time in Texas, then returned when Stripling was a teenager starting to play the fiddle. That would have been when Stripling was about 15, as he told Pinson, or when he was 18, as stated in the 1929 Commercial Dispatch article. Either way Carroll returned in time to influence young Striplings playing. It is also possible that he introduced some Texas tunes into the local repertoire.
Ovella Junkins was the granddaughter of Isaac Carroll, Plezs dancing brother. She remembers that when Uncle Plez returned from Texas to live with them at Ashcraft Corner, the family had a dance at their house and the children had their own dance down at the well. Uncle Plez could play all the old tunes, according to Mrs. Junkins, but the children loved his version of "Arkansas Traveler" where he would play the tune awhile, stop and talk and then start playing again. Her father, "Ump" Carroll, was a good harmonica player and strawbeater. He would use two straws and "make a double shuffle beat with those straws on the strings of that fiddle and it sounded good. That and harmonica and banjo was our music back then."
Uncle Plez passed the time in three ways. The family gave him a cotton patch so that he could support himself. They helped him because he couldnt walk behind a plow, but he could do other chores. He also spent a great deal of time at Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church, where he was a song leader. He sang from Benjamin Lloyds Primitive Hymns (1841), a palm-sized text-only hymnal. Since it has no musical notation, the song leader has to store a great number of tunes in his memory in the same way a fiddler does. He also sang from the Sacred Harp and taught Ovella and her sisters the rudiments of music and helped them learn their parts from the shape-note book. "He wouldnt let us sing them wrong." Uncle Plez was at Mt. Zion whenever the doors were open, except for the brief time he was unchurchednot for fiddling but for being seen urinating behind someones house. According to Mrs Junkins, it was not unusual to be unchurched. Her father-in-law was put out of the church for standing on his head at a log-rolling. He was thought to be showing off. It is surprising that Uncle Plez was not put out of the church for fiddling at dances, but the congregation seems to not have had a problem with that. Charlie Stripling later became a deacon at Mt. Zion, led the hymns there, and is buried in the church cemetery not far from Plez Carrolls grave.
When Uncle Plez wasnt in the cotton patch or in church he was fiddling. He taught Ovellas two brothers to play and he played tunes with Jimmie Porter who lived nearby. He also played with the well-known fiddler, E.D. "Monkey" Brown (born 1897) who is one of the "brag" fiddlers featured in With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow and in Carl Carmers Stars Fell on Alabama. Mrs. Junkins oldest sister, Dovie, married Brown in 1916 and they stayed in Pickens County for awhile. Brown did not play in the same style as Carroll or Stripling. According to Mrs. Junkins he was more modern sounding and could read music, but he was an exciting fiddler who made Stripling work for his first place prizes. She also said that the Striplings, who lived only a mile away, were "next door neighbors," and that Uncle Plez went there often. "It was something for him to dosit and teach Charlie." In his interview, however, Striping didnt mention any sessions with Plez Carroll and implied that he learned by listening:
That old man I was talking about, Old Uncle Plez Carroll, I guess he was 70 or 80 years old, but he played old-timey fiddling. He played for dances. Ive been to dances where he was at. He played that "Lost Child," but he didnt do anything but just pick the strings with his fingers. But I added that picking this-a-way and the other and bouncing the bow. Nobody would have paid much attention to it the way he played it. What I added to it made it more entertaining.
Whether or not Plez Carroll was Striplings mentor, he was in such close proximity that Stripling had plenty of opportunities hear Carroll and learn his tunes. In addition to "Lost Child," I suspect that he (and Jimmie Porter) got other archaic sounding tunes such as "Horsehoe Bend" (probably named after the significant battle which occurred shortly before the Carrolls moved from Georgia to Alabama), "Lost John," and "Wolves AHowling" from him. Bermaleen Ashcraft Albright, great-granddaughter of James Monroe Carroll, confirmed that "Wolves AHowling" has been in the family repertoire for many generations. She remembers that when Aunt Ellen Dollar came from Texas to visit she played it and that her father sang the words hed learned from his grandfather, "Dont you hear them wolves a-howlin, way over yonder in the Rocky Mountains
oh, oh-a, oh-a, them wolves are howlin."
Eventually Charlie and Iras father closed up his country store in Ashcraft Corner and moved to Kennedy to open T.N. Stripling and Son, General Merchandise. Charlie, now married with children, moved to the farm of the Vice family outside of Kennedy. Even Uncle Plez moved to Kennedy where another niece, Bellezann Crowley, known for having good dances and fiddling at her house, cared for him until he died in 1930. The Stripling Brothers, besides winning all the fiddlers conventions they entered, became the most sought-after dance musicians in the area and James Archie Vice, who called dances and did the "Toddle," remembers that his group of dancing friends would guarantee the Striplings $6 a night in order to obtain their services. Vice also remembers the Saturday afternoon in 1928 when the Striplings went off to Birmingham to audition for Brunswick records. "I remember them practicing in the Post OfficeMiz Muriel [Iras wife] worked in the Post Office. The train come up around 3:00 going from Columbus to Birmingham and we were standing around listening to them play." We know that when the brothers got to Birmingham, Brunswicks agent listened to only a stanza of their music and decided to record them. First they played a tune with a problematic title, "Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot," that theyd heard Henry Ledlow, an excellent fiddler from Fayette County, play at a contest. Then they launched into "The Lost Child." What we hear on those recordings today is not music that sprang forth from solitary musicians in a remote part of the mysterious South, but the music of an active community of West Alabama musicians as performed by its two most talented members. n
The author would like to thank all those mentioned in the article who provided information on Plez Carroll and Charlie Stripling, and Kerry Blech who served as devils advocate and proofreader.
Joyce Cauthen is the author of With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: The History of Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama, which has recently been reissued in paperback by the University of Alabama Press. She is executive director of the Alabama Folklife Association and has produced a number of CDs of traditional music of Alabama, including Possum Up A Gum Stump: Home, Field, and Commercial Recordings of Alabama Fiddlers. She plays guitar in the old-time string band Red Mountain White Trash.
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