Robert Clifton Stripling passed away on October 26, 2010. Born February 18, 1920, he was eight years old when his father, Charlie M. Stripling, and his uncle Ira Stripling recorded “The Lost Child” and “Big Footed [Man] in the Sandy Lot.” Robert was an eager observer as the Stripling Brothers prepared for subsequent recording trips to New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. When he was ten, his mother taught him to play the chords to “Little Brown Jug” on guitar and taught his younger brother, Lee Edwin, to play them on mandolin. It was not long before the boys became the primary backup musicians for their father, playing for fiddlers’ conventions and staying up late at night to play for dances. He and Lee also attended southern gospel or “new book” singing schools together and became fine harmony singers, practicing for hours as they picked cotton.
During their service in the Civilian Conservation Corps and World War II, Robert and Lee both became more interested in swing music than in their dad’s old-time music, yet they still revered his talent and legacy. Robert helped Dave Freeman reissue the Stripling Brothers’ recordings on County Records and served as the chief source of information about Charlie Stripling for my book about old-time fiddling in Alabama, guiding me on several road trips to Kennedy, Alabama, and environs. He spent many hours with me going through collections of West Alabama newspapers of the 1920s and ‘30s to find articles listing Charlie Stripling as the winner of local and regional fiddlers’ conventions.
Robert spent his adult years repairing airplanes at Hayes Aircraft in Birmingham, running a homeless shelter in downtown Birmingham, and preaching at Cane Creek Baptist Church in Warrior. After suffering a stroke and the death of his beloved wife Margie, he found time and incentive to return to the guitar and fiddle. In 2000 he and Lee were on staff at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, and the next year performed at MerleFest in North Carolina, making many lasting friendships at both.
Two weeks before his death he allowed me to interview him for a radio program about an event the Alabama Folklife Association was sponsoring in Belk, Alabama, six miles from Kennedy. In the interview, on-line at www.arts.state.al.us/actc/1/radioseries.html, his knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of humor come across loud and clear.
Sherry Stripling, the daughter of Lee, writes:
With unfortunate timing, my Uncle Robert Stripling died at age 90 just 18 days before the family music was honored at the Charlie Stripling Fiddle Fest and Fish Fry in Belk. His presence was missed at the event not only as a vital part of this heritage, but also for his guidance and impeccable memory. His recollections were key to the accuracy of filmmaker Jeri Vaughn’s documentary Winging My Way Home: The Stripling Fiddle Legacy, which premiered there.
Robert’s leadership qualities were evident in his role in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression; the swing bands he led in North Africa in World War II, and in his second career as a Baptist minister. Closer to home, his eight younger brothers and sisters made few decisions throughout their lives without seeking Robert’s opinion. Not long ago, my sister and I got terribly lost on unmarked rural roads while trying to find the old home place near Kennedy, Alabama. Despite dips that cut out the cell phone, Uncle Robert talked us back turn by turn from a county away, using churches as landmarks.
Robert was the oldest of Charlie Stripling’s nine children. Among the five surviving children is Elsie Mordecai, 86, of Kennedy, a fine player of gospel songs and old-time fiddle tunes on the piano.