Many readers of this magazine spend a good number of summer weeks at music festivals and gatherings. Were drawn as much by the chance to stay up half the night visiting and playing with rarely seen old friends as by the opportunity to meet and hear first hand the masters and tradition bearers of the music. One of the better results of such gatherings is the delight, inspiration, and rejuvenation felt by older players who suddenly find themselves surrounded by enthusiastic fans of their music, in some cases experiencing a sense of being valued as musicians for the first time in many years. At last Julys Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Pt. Townsend, Washington, I was fortunate to be close by as Lee and Robert Stripling had just such an experienceone which left both of them renewed and excited and planning a new musical career as they start their ninth decades.
Lee and Robert are the sons of the Alabama fiddler Charlie Stripling who, with his brother Ira on guitar, recorded 42 sidesall but two of them instrumentalsbetween 1928 and 1936. A fine selection of these tunes was reissued by County Records (#401) in 1971 and quickly became a "must have" recording for revival fiddlers of the time. Stripling tunes such as "Kennedy Rag" and "The California Blues" (two of Charlies compositions) along with "Big Footed Man in the Sandy Lot" and "Wolves A-Howling" have long been staples of the modern repertoire.
Because of these early recordings, there was a steady stream of visits from other musicians and fans to the Stripling home in Kennedy, Alabama. When Lee was eight and Robert nine years old one of those visitors left a Gibson mandolin and guitar at the house for a while, and their mother showed them how to make the chords to accompany "Little Brown Jug." That same night when Charlie came home from working, she asked him to get his fiddle out and play, a request he found a bit surprising: he was more accustomed at home to being asked to stop playing in the wee hours when he was working out some tune he had heard. But Charlie went ahead and got his fiddle and played the tune, and quickly found his sons were able to accompany him. A month later the trio won their first fiddle contest together, and they continued to play dances, concerts, and contests regularly through the boys teenage years. Soon Lee and Robert started working up brother duet-style vocals which their father accompanied on fiddle. Sometimes they found words to Charlies tunes (such as "The Wednesday Night Waltz"); other times they taught their dad new songs, for example, "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place."
While the original Stripling Brothers continued to record well into the Depression years, an event in 1930 split them off onto different paths with respect to music while at the same time making professional musicians out of Charlies young sons. Before the Depression, Charlie and Ira each owned a home and small farm, and each had a small country store. Music was not seen by either as a principal livelihood, though certainly frequent dances and fiddle contests provided welcome cash supplements. All this changed at the start of the Depression when, after a bank failure, a relative defaulted on a $5,000 debt owed to Charlie. This resulted in Charlie losing everything he ownedthe house, farm, and storeand he was forced into sharecropping cotton to support his family. Overnight, the small amounts of money Charlie could make playing dances and parties and winning fiddle contests became quite significant. In those years, Charlie made about $300 a year on the cotton crop and about the same amount of money from playing dances, parties and contests. Ira was more fortunate, managing to keep his own farm and country store, but this made him unavailable to travel around playing music; so it was Charlies sons who were his main accompanists during the 1930s. Lee tells an illuminating story about these times. One Saturday afternoon Charlie and his sons headed up to Vernon, the county seat, where they were scheduled to play for a dance that night. While they were passing some time playing in front of a barbershop a man came and asked if they would come and play a few tunes for an American Legion barbecue up at the school. The musicians were well fed and the hat was passed netting them six dollars. Afterwards, they went off to play the dance where they were paid five dollars for the evening. Those were hard times and such amounts of cash were welcome.
Of course it wasnt long before Lee and Robert took up the fiddle, too. When he was 13 Lee took first place in a contest not far from Kennedy, with Charlie winning second place. Lee is sure, however, that his age swayed the outcome considerably. In those days, many contests were decided by the applause from the audience, and often it was not the best fiddler who won, but the one with the most novelty appeal. It was also less common for children to play in the contests then, and the boys had learned early how to play up their youth to get the most out of the audience.
After almost 10 years of playing regularly with Charlie, Lee and Robert left home as teenagers near the end of the Depression to join separate units of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This New Deal program paid young men around $30 per month, most of which was sent home to their parents, plus room and board for six and a half days of work a week. Each of the boys formed his own band while in the CCC and continued to play for dances and other social events. By this time Charlie and Iras music was no longer popular, and Lee and Robert naturally gravitated towards the more modern Western Swing music they heard on records and radio. Tommy Duncan, the vocalist for Bob Wills, was their idol at this time.
World War II caused even more separation for the brothers as each went directly into the service from the CCC. Lee was stationed in Seattle while Robert was sent to North Africa. Again, both Stripling sons found western swing bands while in the service and continued to pursue music semi-professionally. Robert started as an aircraft maintenance crew chief, but one day was pulled out of that and, as his wartime military service, was assigned to play guitar in a swing band that toured the USOs seven nights a week as one of only two groups in North Africa playing American music.
After the war, Lee and his new bride moved back to Seattle where they had met while Lee was stationed there. Robert returned to Alabama and also married. Music took a back seat to the demands of work and family and both brothers put up their instruments for several decades, playing only at rare gatherings at the family home in Kennedy. Gradually, over the last 10 years, both men have started to play again as retirement has provided more time.
The Stripling Brothers 2000 really got started at the previous years festival. Lee had become more involved with music in recent years and he came out to visit Fiddle Tunes 1999 for a day and found himself attending a morning workshop featuring 99-year-old Tennessee fiddler Bob Douglas. Lee was sitting in the front row when another participant asked Bob to play "The Wang Wang Blues." In the discussion that followed, Lee mentioned that his dad had also played that tune, and suddenly Bobby Fulcher, who was assisting Bob, noticed Lees name badge for the first time, and realized that the dad Lee was talking about was Charlie Stripling. This led to a few moments of excitement: Bob Douglas knew Charlie and Ira, who were a bit older than him, and recalled traveling down to Alabama to hear Charlies fiddling, and its possible he even competed against Charlie. Mike DeFosche, who was Bobs guitar accompanist at the festival, is also a fiddler and plays several of Charlies tunes, and Bobby is a big Stripling fan as well, so all three were very happy to meet Lee.
As it turned out, the excitement at the morning workshop was only a teaser for what was to come. That night was Bob Douglass concert set on the big stage, and Lee and his friends were invited over to Bobs apartment at "The Bricks" (performer accommodations at Fiddle Tunes) to visit after the concert. During the small gathering Bob rested from his concert and talked with folks, and someone asked Lee to play. What followed delighted and amazed everyone. Lee seized the moment and played for three hours, playing better than any of us in Seattle had ever heard him and also playing tunes from his dads repertoire he hadnt played in over 50 years. Everyone present realized that Lee was playing seriously again, and folks started talking immediately about the possibilities. Within a couple of months, Lee was invited to be on the 2000 faculty at Fiddle Tunes. Around the same time, he played for a local contra dancehis first paid gig since the 1940s. Having the Fiddle Tunes booking to look forward to motivated many activities; Lee did a full year of concerts and dances, and recorded a CD representing the wide breadth of his music from his dads tunes to the western swing and pop music of his early adulthood.
By the end of 1999, plans were well underway to get Lee prepared for the following years festival. Then, in December, Roberts wife of 51 years passed away after a long and debilitating illness. Before long, Lee was talking about getting Robert out west and the Fiddle Tunes festival in 2000 seemed like the perfect time. Before long, the next generation of Stripling Brothers were preparing for their first gig together since 1938.
Robert arrived in Seattle on a Thursday allowing just a few days to rest from the trip and do some rehearsing before heading out to Fiddle Tunes Sunday morning. I didnt know quite what to expect since I had been warned by both brothers that Robert had not been playing a lot until recently, and that a stroke several years ago had caused some difficulties with his left-hand guitar work. A short amount of getting-to-know-you practicing alleviated all concerns as it was apparent that Robert, like Lee, is a professional musician. Regardless of his physical limitations at age 80, he was ready to apply himself to the task at hand with great focus and diligence. Hearing the two brothers singing and playing together for the first time was exciting, and it was clear that we had a great week in front of us. Roberts rhythmic guitar playing and choice bass runs are the perfect complement to Lees fiddlingno surprise; their collaboration is the product of at least two generations of refinement and many years of childhood listening and playing together. And the duet singingwell there really is something about the vocal blend found with siblings, and these two brothers sound great together.
Both Robert and Lee are fine storytellers (Roberts skills have been especially honed by his 50 years as a part-time preacher) and this added invaluably to the festival. Most of their stories painted a vivid picture of life during the Depression in rural Alabama and were invariably told with great humor as well as pathos. One came to be known as "the hamburger story" by the end of the week. As Robert tells it, he and Lee used to beg to be taken along with their dad on trips even before they started playing music with him. One time, Charlie was off to a county fair to play in a fiddle contestone in which he didnt expect to have much chance in taking first place because of the presence of a fine woman fiddler named Pearl Morgan who was known to be a real crowd pleaser. Charlie was a bit reluctant to take the boys along, but they begged and begged and he finally relented, but made it clear to them that he had no money for food or other wants. The boys agreed and off they went to the fair. By the time they got there it was nearly noon and, naturally, the two youngsters were already getting hungry. To make matters worse, a stand was selling hamburgers for a nickel each, and the smell from the grill was irresistible. The boys asked Charlie for some money but he said, "Im sorry, I told you before I just dont have any," and they went away. Before long, though, the smell of the hamburgers overcame them and they asked again. Charlie declined once more, but this time the man he was talking with gave the boys a quarter. They ran off to each buy a five-cent hamburger and for a nickel each, soft drinks. To end the story Robert pointed out that they got two hamburgers and two soft drinks, all for a nickel each, and then turned to Lee and said, "you know, its always bothered me, what ever happened to that extra nickel?" This story, oft repeated through the week, never failed to get a laugh.
Robert also told of the time when, as a boy, he got some tobacco and tried out smoking. In looking for a place secluded and dry enough for this experiment, he decided on the cotton shed where Charlie had stored his share of the years crop, waiting for the price to get above ten cents a pound. Robert had trouble getting his wet matches lit and so he resorted to striking the match on the metal strap binding the cotton bale. When he succeeded, he also managed to ignite the highly flamable cotton fuzz on the outside of the bale which quickly threatened to burn out of control. Fortunately, he was able to put out the fire before it really got going and the destruction of an entire years profit was averted.
One of the great features of Fiddle Tunes is the daily "band lab" period. For two hours each afternoon faculty members work with a group of participants to create a band in their own image and prepare them to play for a concert and a dance at the end of the week. Monday afternoon was the brothers first band lab session and most of the time was spent meeting the participants, demonstrating the tunes we had chosen to teach them, and going through the tunes slowly a few times. This was a fine start, but we knew wed have to pick up the pace if the band was to be ready by the end of the week. Shortly after Wednesdays session had started, I noticed that something was really different. Robert had taken all the guitar players to one end of the room and Lee had the fiddlers at the other end, and they were each really working their group of participants. After watching this for a whileand finding myself suddenly a bit superfluous to the effortit dawned on me what had changed. By Wednesday, Robert and Lee had come to realize that this was not a class but a band rehearsal. These two musicians hadnt forgotten how to be band leaders, even though it had been more than half a century since they had found themselves in that role, and they quickly took command and started gently but firmly getting their players into shape. By the end of the week the 15 or 20 members of The Stripling Sibling Saplings had developed fine versions of "Big Four" and the humorous song "My Little Girl," both in the key of F, and were ready to go.
On Saturday morning at Fiddle Tunes each band lab group performs two selections and this concert has always been one of the great highlights of the week for participants and faculty alike. By long tradition, the performances are each preceded by various honorsoften in the form of clever lampoonsbestowed on the faculty instructors by the band lab participants. As part of the honoring of the Stripling Brothers, Robert was presented with a nickel by the band lab participants to finally settle the old score from that day at the county fair almost 70 years before, to the delight of both brothers.
Another highlight of the week was an impromptu swing dance led by the brothers. Robert and Lee had played earlier in the week for a square dance, but we hadnt succeeded in arranging for them to play for any of the official swing dances, an unfortunate oversight considering the experience of these two veterans of the 30s and 40s. Finally we decided to just pass the word that a swing dance would take place Thursday night on the back porch of "204," the main jamming building on the Ft. Worden State Park grounds where Fiddle Tunes is held. For a couple hours the Stripling Brothers, backed up with bass, banjo, steel guitar, and guitar, rocked the porch to the delight of the small but dedicated group of dancers willing to brave the chill. Both men really aired it out, with Roberts rock solid right hand on the guitar driving the band and Lees fiddle solos building each time around with more and more energy. And although the music was more modern than is usually heard at gatherings like Fiddle Tunes, at the same time it struck me as still being old-time music, played with the raw passion of a good fiddle tune. These two musicians dont make much of a distinction between the different styles, whether its their dads tunes or more modern swing songs; its all just good music.
A year earlier, that night at The Bricks, I had seen Lee sparked into taking on music with a new passion, and during the year since I had watched him work hard and steadily improve as a musician. Now as the week at Fiddle Tunes drew to a close, I saw the same kind of spark lighting up in Robert. Each day of the festival he seemed younger, and the rust on his guitar playing fell off in great chunks hour by hour. By the end of the week he was playing many runs and chords that he had been unable to execute when I had first met him a week earlier, and he was also starting to once again be able to sing and play guitar at the same time, something the stroke had made quite difficult. It was wonderful to see music and Fiddle Tunes work the healing magic once again. On the last day of the week I was sitting with Robert in the living room of the house we had all shared for the week at Ft. Worden. He was quite excited, and was telling me in a rush of words about his plans for after the festival. This experience had really inspired him, and he told me, "When I get home, Im going to start practicing every day, and Im going to work on every word to every song so that the next time we get together we can sing everything perfectly." He kept going on like this, listing all the things he would do until I finally stopped him and said, "Robert, youve got the bug!" He only half heard me, and barely paused in his list of new projects. After a moment I stopped him again and repeated, "Robert, youve got the bug!" This time he stopped cold for a few seconds, looking at me hard, and then broke into the widest grin, saying, "Yeah, I do!"
Just after Fiddle Tunes, we got Robert and Lee into the studio for a day and got a few tracks down that might make it onto a record someday, but at least will be preserved. Robert went home to Alabama and, true to his word, has been practicing every day and getting out at least once a week to the local jam session in Birmingham. He also started working out at a gym three times a week and is now feeling better than he has in years, and his guitar playing is also coming easier than at anytime since the stroke. Lee has continued to make progress as well, and has become quite the music-party animal, making just about every gathering in Seattle and joining in with all kinds of music, and continuing to bring out material weve never heard him do before. This past January he played two dances locally, and there was unanimous agreement that his fiddling is better than ever.
As of this writing, plans are well underway for the Stripling Brothers tour of Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina in April 2001 ending up with performances at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Lee and Robert are working hard to be ready for these gigs, learning all the little words in the songs perfectly, and practicing up, even though theyre far away from each other. By the time this article is read, that tour and Merlefest will be nearly complete, and the brothers will be plotting the next phase of their careers, no doubt once again charged and made younger by the appreciation of our fine community.
W. Bruce Reid is a musician living in Seattle, and can be reached at WBReid@Compuserve.com.
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