“Do I resemble myself this morning?” The elderly gentleman greeted Thelma Boltin as she pulled into the yard of his shack one day in 1959. She had come to invite Arthur “Cush” Holston, “the Fiddling Fisherman of Cedar Key,” to the Florida Folk Festival, which she directed for many years. “Cousin Thelma” rode with storyteller Margie Smith Baldwin [no relation to the author], who had known Cush since she was a child. Like most of the kids around Cedar Key, Margie used to follow him around town, dancing as he walked along playing his fiddle, singing, and cracking jokes.
Cush was born in 1878 near Gulf Hammock, in Levy County, Florida. He described his home place as “so far back in the woods, wasn’t nobody lived back of us.” He spent his early years learning the ways of the Gulf Coast wilderness.
Cush never had a job that anyone could remember. He spent his days hunting, fishing, and trapping according to the seasons. His neighbors were generous and kept him supplied with fresh garden vegetables. He never married. According to Lindon Lindsey, who knew him for many years, he would often stay in town with a Mrs. Cooper. Lindon believed that she was Cush’s sister.
Along with his outdoor activities, Cush scratched out a living with his fiddle. He played for dances and parties in the area and entertained tourists at watering holes downtown, where he would play for drinks and food. Don Miller, his grand-nephew, said that Cush used to get a royalty check from time to time for a song he had composed, but Don did not know what the song might have been.
Cush also knew about medicinal plants. When Margie was 12 years old, she suffered from asthma. He stood her next to a certain kind of tree and drilled a plug out of it at her head’s height. He then cut a lock of her hair, stuffed it into the hole, and drove the plug back into the tree. He told her that the tree would pull the asthma out of her as it grew. By the time she was grown, her asthma was gone.
Cush spent some time in southern Florida, but lived much of his life in a cabin near the town of Otter Creek. I learned from Don Miller that Cush built a coffin out of cedar, which he occasionally used as a bed. When he decided to move to Cedar Key, he took his cabin with him. According to Don, Cush jacked the building up and installed pontoons under it. The next time a storm tide came up the Waccasassa River, he waited in the cabin until it floated. He then poled it down the river and around through the Gulf of Mexico to Cedar Key, where he beached the cabin, and established his new home.
There was usually a gaggle of youngsters around Cush’s cabin. He fixed their bicycles and kept some spare parts handy. As he got older, he tired of walking everywhere he went, so he built a four-wheeled contraption out of a couple of spare bicycle frames with cross-members welded to them. Steered with a wooden stick, it had a car seat that held several passengers, who powered the rig with three sets of bicycle pedals that were ganged together. Kids loved to help him pedal around town. Later on, he found an old Model T engine and installed it behind the seat to drive the wheels. Because he was sometimes out after dark, he rigged up a couple of headlights by taping flashlights to the front. Someone told him that he also needed red tail lights, so he installed a couple of flashlights facing rearward and covered the lenses with red candy wrappers.
I was introduced to Cush’s music by Marty Schuman in the early 1970s, shortly after I started learning to play the fiddle. At that time, Marty was playing the banjo more than other instruments, but later made a national reputation as an autoharp player. He had visited Cush’s home with friends Jim Dowis and Dick Hunt several times in the early 1960s. They recorded over an hour of tunes and conversation on a wire recorder, which Marty later transferred to cassette tape. He donated a set of tapes to the Florida archives, but the original wire recordings were destroyed in a housefire several years afterwards. Later, with the assistance of Peggy Bulger, who was then the state folklorist, I was able to obtain recordings of several tunes that Cush played at the Florida Folk Festival in 1960, along with copies of Marty’s recordings. (Tunes from the Folk Festival and Marty’s interviews can be heard at floridamemory.com by searching for “Cush Holston.”) Marty’s recordings were pretty noisy, but Kerry Blech doctored them and put them on a two-CD set in 2008 along with the Festival tunes. He compiled extensive liner notes, and did a great job. Browsing around the floridamemory.com web site, I recently found another couple of tunes by Cush from 1959.
Cush knew several tunings, including one he called “Flatwoods,” presumably after the tune of that name. He referred to standard tuning as “natural flat.” He can be heard re-tuning his fiddle on the Folk Festival recordings before playing “Cotton Eyed Joe.” I have played several of Cush’s tunes, mainly learned from the Folk Festival recordings, for many years. When I first heard the tunes, they sounded as if he had tuned primarily in cross-G (GDGD), so that is where I have always played them. He claimed not to play any “waltzy-type tunes,” but did play some tunes in 3/4 -time. He claimed that his aversion to waltzes sprang from an incident in his younger days. It seems that he was visiting a young lady in her parlor one afternoon, teaching her how to waltz, but her father showed up with a shotgun and taught him how to march.
Jane Wells Scott of Tallahassee transcribed several of Cush’s tunes for a workshop that I taught in 2000. Two of the transcriptions are included here. The first is entitled “Good Time Tonight.” Cush sang several verses to the tune, but did not sing a chorus. In the 1980s, I lived in Alabama, where we were blessed with several visits from Indiana fiddler Lotus Dickey. During one visit he played this tune for a dance. At a jam session later, he told me that it was the theme song for a radio show broadcast in the Midwest many years ago. Lotus sang a chorus for the tune, but did not know the verses. We exchanged notes about the tune. I still have a handwritten copy of the chorus from Lotus. The second tune, “The Old Coon Dog,” has several verses that seem to be interchangeable with another of Cush’s tunes, “Trouble, Trouble, Trouble.”(Both can be heard at floridamemory.com.)
I am not sure where Cush learned his tunes or where the titles came from. He did not always give the names on his recordings. For example, one tune from the 1960 Florida Folk Festival is titled “Forty Weight of Gingerbread.” (The tune was titled this way not by Cush, but by the transcriber, who pulled the name from the verses.) My father, a native of rural Alabama, sat down with me one day to try to figure out the words to several of Cush’s songs. We made progress on some of them, but were not successful with others. We were able to figure out enough of the words to “Forty Weight of Gingerbread” to trace their origin back to Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in England in 1744.
I think that a note about fiddle tuning for Cush’s pieces is in order since some of his tunes are showing up in other parts of the country from time to time. “Trouble, Trouble, Trouble”, alternatively “The Wilds of Idaho”, has been played by various fiddlers recently, and at least one recording of “Forty Weight of Gingerbread” has been released. Many current players use cross-A tuning. The tunes have been shared on copies of copies of copies of cassette tapes of questionable quality, so determining the correct key for a particular tune can be problematic due to limitations of equipment used for the original recordings as well as copies.
Years ago, Harold Hausenfluck, the blind fiddler from Richmond, recorded “Trouble, Trouble” on his album “Harold Hausenfluck: The Fiddling Collection” (FRC 119) in the key of G. Harold has a very keen ear and is a stickler for accuracy, so that is what he heard from his recording of Cush, probably sourced from a cassette from Gail Gillespie.
Almost all of Cush’s tunes are duplicated on the floridamemory.com site and on the CDs made by Kerry Blech. On listening carefully to the recordings from both sources, the recordings on the CDs are consistently pitched a half-step higher than the same tunes on the web site.
The tunes from the 1960 Florida Folk Festival were recorded with much better fidelity than Marty’s recordings due to the use of better equipment. The Festival recordings on the floridamemory.com site are just one generation removed from the originals and they are all in the key of G.
The tunes “The Old Coon Dog” and “Forty Weight of Gingerbread” each appear twice on Marty’s recordings. Both tunes are in the same key, which sounds sharper than G on one recording but flatter than G on the other. “The Old Coon Dog” appears on the Festival recordings in the key of G, but “Forty Weight” is not there. Since “Forty Weight” has the same key as “The Old Coon Dog” on other recordings, I believe that it should also be played in the key of G. A similar argument also places “The Wilds of Idaho” (or “Trouble, Trouble, Trouble”) in the key of G.
All in all, I believe that the Festival tunes sound best in the original key of G, which is the way I have been playing them since I learned them decades ago. My fiddle and I are both getting on in years and we do not like the stress of tuning up to cross-A anyway. Cross-G suits us much better these days.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Cush. He apparently vanished into the swamps near Cedar Key sometime around 1964, when he was well into his eighties. He never got to use the coffin that he had made years before.
There are various stories to account for his disappearance. Florida balladeer Will McLean told me that Cush got a little too far into his cups one evening and was locked up in the town’s jail, where he howled like a wolf all night. The next morning, he collected some gear and walked off into history. Will memorialized Cush in a song named after him.
Charles Beckham of Cedar Key said that Cush caught a ride on a mail truck one evening. The driver later reported that Cush stopped him about three miles out of town near a big swamp called Dorsett Head. The last the driver saw of Cush, he was walking down the road toward the swamp. The townspeople searched the swamp for two weeks, but never found a sign of him.
Lindon Lindsey told me that, when storms threatened the area, Cush would go to high ground and find a palmetto thicket. He would dig out a den underneath the thicket and wait out the storm there. Palmettos share a very dense root structure just below ground surface, so Cush must have felt secure in his den. Lindsey theorized that the reason Cush was never found was that he had walked into the swamp and denned up under a palmetto thicket one last time.
Cush was a prime example of an old-time Florida Cracker. He left behind some very interesting tunes played in his unique way, along with legends and stories that still survive today.
Sources for this article include Margie Smith Baldwin; Don Miller of Sumner, Florida; Charles Beckham of Cedar Key; Peggy Bulger; Kerry Blech; Jane Wells Scott of Tallahassee;”Cush, the Gator Man of Cedar Key” from Cedar Key Legends, by Sally Tileston and Dottie Comfort, and “The Fiddlin’ Fisherman of Cedar Key” by Ron MacIntyre, September, 1956; and the late Will McLean, Marty Schuman, Lindon Lindsey, and Lotus Dickey.