The Legendary West Virginia Fiddler from 1947 Field Recordings
WVU Press SA-2. Double CD
"Really, Holmes," I protested. "It's too bad. First of all, this music chap wanders in here with a mysterious package, which he claims to have received from some American university or other. Says that they're anticipating a measure of erudite comment, and would we be good enough to examine the contents for clues. Yet, when we open it, it turns out to be nothing more sinister than a double CD of the fiddle player, Edden Hammons.1 He's a forebear of the famous Hammons Family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, you know, Holmes; the ones who were anthologised on that splendid compilation, which Carl Fleischauer and Alan Jabbour released on Rounder a couple of years ago.2 Very pleasurable listening and all that (sound clip - Tugboat), but I'll certify the bounder forgets to credit us when he writes it up.
"Then, he comes out with this preposterous theory about the Hammons family being related to the legendary fiddler, Emmett Lundy of Grayson County, Virginia. I grant you I can hear some similarity in their playing styles, and Lundy and this Hammons chap were near contemporaries. Hammons was born around 1874, while Lundy was about ten years older. For that matter, both of them were regarded as the premier fiddle players of their particular locations. Even so, you can't get away from the fact that their homesteads are hundreds of miles apart. They probably never even met."
Holmes laid down his violin. While I spoke he had been attempting, with excruciating approximation, to reproduce the sounds of this pair of Appalachian virtuosi. Now, however, he strode as far as the phonograph cabinet and began to rummage through our collection of old time records. Even before Holmes had extracted his quarry, I knew that he was fishing for issue number STR 802, from Mr Anthony Russell's long and sadly demised String label. I was acquainted with this matrix, for the disc it delineated was one we had listened to extensively over the years. Covering the title, Emmett W Lundy; Fiddle Tunes From Grayson County, Virginia, with one hand and the legend, 'Recorded in Galax for the Library of Congress, 1941' with the other, he bade me bring the candle a little closer. The face of Edden Hammons leapt from the photograph.
"Good Lord, Holmes," I gasped. "Those staring eyes. That raw-boned jawline. The gaunt spare frames of both of them. How foolish of me not to have noticed before."
The great master handed me the double CD, which our visitor had left in our keeping. "It's the untrained eye, Watson. It fails to distinguish between the essential detail and the superfluous. Well, you know my methods. What conclusions can you draw?"
I took the case with uncomfortable feelings of déjà vu, for Holmes had once solved the riddle of the great Baskerville hound by precisely this technique of optical deduction. Did his present demeanour imply that we were about to tangle with another spectral beast? Were the Hammonses, like the Baskervilles, one of those ancient families whose history has been dogged by some evil ancestral legend? My bones chilled as I recalled the eerie story of 'The Panther in the Sky', related by Sherman Hammons, on that salubrious sampling of the collective talents of the Hammons Family.
At first glance, the object of our attention seemed too innocuous to warrant serious comment. True, there was an inscription on the back, which proclaimed this release as the brainchild of West Virginia University Press; an authoritative source if ever there was one. Yet, it had something of the look of one of those bargain re-issues; the sort which have the words legendary, or essential, or immortal carved into the title, like the inscription on a sarcophagus. At Holmes' insistence, I prised the lid open; whereupon any impressions that we were dealing with a cut price compendium were dissipated by the handsome 28 page booklet. Even by the flickering light of my associate's candle, I could see that this was a work of loving care, and one in which the producers had set out to match the highest of scholastic standards. Nevertheless, my untrained eye immediately detected a glaring error.
"The fellow who put this together has dropped a bit of a clanger," I mused. "According to the heading, the notes were written by one John A Cuthbert in 1984, and he talks of Hammons having been dead for over forty years. That would place the time of death at no later than mid 1944. Yet these recordings were made by Professor Louis Chappell, of the English department of West Virginia University, in August 1947. Surely the man couldn't have sat up in the coffin and played?"
"No more than you or I could have done, Watson. You see, Professor Chappell recorded fifty two tunes from Edden Hammons, and fifteen of them were published by WVU on LP some years ago. These notes were originally written to accompany that LP which, you may be interested to know, was recently re-released as volume one of the Edden Hammons Collection. I'll warrant that particular pressing will turn out to be as significant as our present release. In any event, Cuthbert's essay appears to have been updated, so that it now serves both volumes one and two. It has also been posted on the Edden Hammons website, and on the Musical Traditions CD Rom, Musical Traditions of the 20th Century. Clearly, there has been some extensive recycling, although, in the present case, they obviously forgot to change the date of authorship. Careless of them, but hardly a hanging matter. Besides, look at the way Edden Hammons' life story has been interspersed with reminiscences of the people who knew him, and with a news report about his father, Jesse Hammons, from The Pocahontas Times of 1905.
"What's more, the booklet has a note about Professor Chappell's recordings, as well as mention of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection of the WVU, and the Hammons Project Website at http://www.as.wvu.edu/press. There are also several fascinating photographs. Look at this splendid illustration of a Pocahontas County logging crew, taken around the year 1915, unless my eyes deceive me. All in all, I'd describe this booklet as a most scholarly production."
"Chap doesn't seem to have been too fond of work," I interjected, anxious not to let Holmes get the better of me. "His first wife left him after three weeks, because he wouldn't put down the fiddle and go and find a job. Did rather better with his second spouse, I see. Even so, he seems to have led a pretty hand to mouth existence. Subsistence farming, fishing, hunting. Odd spot of moonshining and occasional logging. Probably when he couldn't get out of it. Doesn't seem to have made much out of playing the fiddle either. Mostly passing the hat round at dances and weddings. I find this story, that Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff tried to talk him into going to Nashville in the 1940s, a bit hard to credit, though. The chap would have been well into his sixties by then, and anyway he sounds a bit too much of a backwoodsman to have met either of them. Come to that, it's dashed hard to see how his style of playing would have suited country music audiences of the day, or how he would have fitted into one of those new fangled honky tonk bands.
"Splendid set of tunes, though. There are quite a few you'd expect to hear in any old timey session; Old Joe Clark, for instance, and Cackling Hen and Sourwood Mountain, and good old Whistling Rufus, but that's only to be expected. There are one or two oddballs as well. How many old time musicians, I wonder, knew The Irish Washerwoman, or Pop Goes the Weasel? Surprisingly enough, there are only two titles here which turn up on that compilation of Fleischauer's and Jabbour's; Three Forks of Cheat, and Turkey in the Straw. Shows you what enormous repertoires some of these of these old fiddlers had.
"There's also a tune called Big Hoedown. Title like that, you'd wonder if came off a commercial record, and he plays it in a different manner to the other pieces. Faster and showier. The Hammonses had a phonograph, you know, Holmes. Acquired it in the days before record companies started marketing country music, but overall, it seems to have had precious little impact on their repertoire. There's one tune, though, which sounds as though it might have been composed by one of those country music record characters; Will There Be Any Stars. Dashed if I can place it, but the melody is the sort of thing you'd expect from someone like Jimmie Rodgers."
"What do you make of this title, Watson? Mary the Wild Mere."
"That's not as odd as it sounds, Holmes. You see it is actually the tune of a parlour ballad which became very popular among country folk in the nineteenth century; Mary of the Wild Moor, Roud 155. Laws P 21. Roud lists two hundred and fifteen sources for the song, and that's not counting the fact that Delia Murphy recorded it on XTRA 5028. Of course she was wont to rewrite songs. Meddling with tradition and all that, so maybe Roud was right not to include her version.........."
Holmes was beginning to nod off. "Details, my dear fellow. Mouldy, inconsequential details. Quite irrelevant. Unless of course you perceive a connection between the moor this particular Mary inhabited, and the Grimpen Mire from which we so narrowly escaped. I dare say you've noticed other evidence of supernatural involvement in this project?"
"Well, yes. Now you mention it, Old True Lovers is none other than the melody of that Appalachian favourite, The House Carpenter; Roud 14, Child 243. Roud lists three hundred and forty-eight American sources, so it's hardly surprising that our Mr Hammons knew the tune. Some very interesting ornaments on that one. Chap seems to be trying to play it the way an Appalachian Ballad singer would have sung it. He makes a fair stab at it too. Notice how the sound of the fiddle replicates the hard open tone of singers from that part of the world. Does the same thing on that other Appalachian standby, Little Sparrow. On that one, you can just about make out the sound of someone singing along.3 Funny enough, Cecil Sharp used The Daemon Lover as a general title for all the versions of The House Carpenter which he collected in the Southern Appalachians; which ignores the fact that the ballad had lost most of its supernatural elements by the time it got to America."
"Precisely, Watson. We are tailing an earthly quarry, albeit one which has been dead for a considerable number of years. So please, no more of this supernatural nonsense. Be a good fellow and listen to the record."
"Well, he certainly wasn't short of fingers. I bow to your expertise when it comes to mastery of the violin, but the way he plays sounds fiendishly complicated. Just listen to that bowing and finger work, and all that double stopping, and the way he plucks those pizzicatos out of thin air. Granted, there are quite a few places where old age gets the better of him, but the chap was seventy three, when all is said and done. Of course, the sound clip won't show this too well, but on that Clucking Piece, he starts off by getting himself tangled up. Then he stops, snorts something or other, starts off again, and turns the whole debacle into a blazing piece of fiddling. I tell you, it would have done credit to a player half his age. Fellow must have been a regular sensation when he was younger. Rum lot, these old time fiddlers, you know, Holmes. Used to spread stories about where they'd learnt their trade just to add to their mystique. I'll wager he had all the neighbours believing he was in league with the devil."
"Watson, really! That sort of thing is quite impossible. We are dealing with a human phenomenon, one which is capable of perfectly rational explanation; and I would counsel you to remember my maxim. After one has removed the impossible, whatever remains has to be the truth. Come back to earth and tell me what you think of the sound quality."
"At the risk of offending your sensibilities again, Holmes, the recording has a ghost like quality about it. It is as though somebody were calling to us from beyond the grave. In fact, the sound is so impoverished as to positively daunt the listener. It is dim, distant and distorted and nobody speaks. There are none of the background noises, like ticking clocks and barking dogs, which a chap expects to hear on field recordings. (sound clip - Let's Hunt the Horses)
"Just for once, I agree with you," Holmes assented. "However, the explanation becomes prosaic enough, once one remembers that, in 1947, the tape recorder had only just been invented. As a matter of fact, these recordings predate the first use of a modern tape recorder, as an instrument of field collection, by several months.4 The lack of background noise is therefore simply a phenomenon of primitive technology. That also explains the sound distortion, which is indeed very noticeable in places, to say nothing of the fact that, when Hammons does speak, it is impossible to make out what he says.
"But there is another aspect of the sound quality, which I would like you to consider. These performances were captured on a disc recorder, and such equipment was a byword for surface noise. Yet there is hardly any here. Compare the sound of these discs to those splendid Library of Congress re-issues, which the Rounder Collective has recently been undertaking. The Library of Congress material was also collected using disc recorders, and much of it is a good ten years older than Professor Chappell's. Yet, while Rounder's output contains a lot more surface noise, the sound is generally much clearer."
"Sounds like those digital blighters have been a bit heavy handed with the audio restoration," I snorted. "Taken off too much of the treble while trying to get rid of the crackle and hiss. Everybody knows that a violin needs plenty of vibrations in the upper frequency to be heard properly. Just think, Holmes, if these chaps had been let loose in here, nobody would be able to hear your fiddle either."
"Indeed, Watson. However, bad as the sound quality is, we do not know the condition of the original discs, or what the engineers may have had to struggle with. Therefore, we may be a little unfair if we judge the end results too harshly. What are your overall conclusions?"
"If you ask me there's not much evidence of any wrong side of the blanket stuff. The reviewer chap probably wrote that in just to start people guessing. Us too, I shouldn't wonder. Uncanny facial resemblance without a doubt, but a lot of old time fiddlers looked like that. As for the physical build, that used to be common among Appalachian settlers. Came from eating a poor diet don'tcha know."
"Very commendable, Watson. Odd, don't you think that with such fine playing, nobody else looked the Hammonses up, or recorded any other members of the family, until our old friend Dwight Diller ran across them a later generation in the 1960s. Anything else?"
"Don't forget, Holmes, that Professor Chappell recorded another West Virginia fiddle player, Johnny Johnson, only four days after Edden Hammons. Haven't heard the fellow myself, but legend has it that Johnson was almost as good a fiddler as Hammons. West Virginia University are releasing the CD of that meeting in April 2001. Definitely one to look out for, I'd think, and of course we don't know what else may be lurking in their vaults. Apparently, Chappell's collection alone runs to over six hundred discs. Hundreds of ballads and songs as well as a mountain of fiddle music. They operate a duplication service, you know. Almost anything which they have in their archive, they'll make a copy of on request; including two Edden Hammons tunes which weren't included on either of these volumes. Small administrative fee, of course, but dashed civil of them, nonetheless. Imagine the Irish Folklore Commission doing anything like that.
"Regarding the present set of recordings, I'd say that we have been dealing with a most creditable release. There is a question mark hanging over the sound restoration of course. Also, some notes on the tunes, and on Hammons' playing style, would have been welcome. Otherwise, this is a product which WVU has every reason to be proud of. Very reasonably priced too. Let me see now. What would $25.00 work out at in coin of the realm? About £17.00, I would think. All in all, we have a most interesting complement to Rounder's Hammons Family release - Burl and Sherman Hammons, Maggie Hammons Parker, and their friends Lee Hammons and Mose Coffman - but one which stands on its own merits as a document of great historical and musical importance. Not for the faint hearted of course, but to the connoisseur it represents a capital piece of expenditure. No serious old time fiddle enthusiast would wish to be seen dead without it.
Holmes returned the CDs to their appointed resting place. "Excellent, Doctor Watson. Truly excellent. The ghost is laid, but the music lives. Now, anyone possessing an appellation as famous as yours is bound to tote a pretty mean old timey guitar. Before Mrs Hudson calls us in to lunch, would you care to join me in a brief musical soireé, to honour our old friend, Inspector Lestrade? Turkey in the Straw, perhaps, or Old Black Cat Shit in the Shavings?" (sound clip - Old Black Cat Shit in the Shavings)
These CDs (and Volume One) are available from MT - see our Records page. Price £16.00
Fred McCormick - 10.12.00
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