The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 6


The Legend Of Uncle Willie & The Brandy Snifters;
Or How To Enjoy Playing Old-Time Music Without The Pitfalls Of Worldly Success

by Lyle and Liz Lofgren

Uncle Willie & The Brandy Snifters: a legendary band? If you’ve heard that we’re legendary and hope to find out why, here’s how I think the rumor got started. Unlike our urban cohorts, we never scoured the South looking for “lost” musicians. Like many of those seminal musicians, the place you’d be likely to find us would be at home. If scarcity increases desirability, we must be very valuable.

Buying Session. Minneapolis, Minnesota, early 1960s.
Saturday morning, Jon Pankake’s living room: Jon, Bud Claeson and I are present. Marcia Pankake otherwise occupied. Willie Johnson can’t bear to come. Two tape recorders cued up. One holds a seven-inch reel of dubs from Willie’s collection of 78s with a tape list coded with colored ink according to his taste. The best—Grayson & Whitter or Earl Johnson & his Dixie Clodhoppers, for example—is a Red A, and costs a dollar. Blue As, marred by hiss and scratch, are fifty cents. Green Bs—anything with yodeling or by performers such as Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies—go for thirty cents. Brown Ss are free. A blank reel on the second recorder is ready to be filled with dubs we choose to buy. To ease decision tension, a quart jar of Georgia Moon, clear corn whiskey guaranteed to be aged less than 30 days, sits on the coffee table etching a permanent ring. Jon flips the switch and we sample a song of questionable merit, “Reno Blues” by the Three Tobacco Tags.

“Time to vote, thumbs up or down.”
One thumb up, one down, one sideways.

“Two hand vote.”
Three thumbs up, two down, one sideways. We buy the song. Later, we’ll grow fond of many such marginal choices and learn them as band pieces.

The more Georgia Moon we imbibe the better we like the music—even green Bs and, God forbid, brown Ss. After several rounds of voting, we pass up home-cooked Minnesota victuals for Southern sustenance. I’m sent out for an order of Colonel Harlan Sanders’ fried chicken with biscuits and extra gravy, which I drink straight from the container while the others look on in awe.

Guam, 1944: Willard Johnson, star athlete of Sisseton (South Dakota) High School, is serving our country in the SeaBees. This is as far from home as Willie ever gets. Some Navy buddies from the South sing strange songs that home straight in on Willie’s heart. Back from the war, in his garret, he becomes our Midwest Harry Smith. He collects 1920s hillbilly recordings at junk shops, bids on records in auction catalogs, sends for selections from the Library of Congress, and trades with other collectors as far afield as John Edwards in Australia. Meanwhile he’s teaching himself to pluck a banjo and he begins transcribing tunes and words from scratchy 78s into spiral notebooks. Words he’s sure of are in ink, while the questionable ones are in pencil. By the time he runs out of steam, he’s filled 40 notebooks.

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