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Clifftop and Kentucky 2012

My vacation finally worked for Clifftop, the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (here on Facebook). It is held yearly at Camp Washington-Carver. H and I had discussed whether to go right until the day before. I am glad we decided to go.

By the time we arrived in West Virginia, it was near sunset. We did not want to reach Clifftop and then have to set up camp in the dark. An overnight stay in Charleston, West Virginia let us rest. We tried to go to Charleston Town Center to eat. Navigating and parking were confusing, and the clock ran out. Instead, we found Pies and Pints. It turned out to be a nice spot with good pizza.

We made it to Clifftop early on the first official day. The serious attendees start arriving the weekend before, but it was not an option for us. The campgrounds were packed when we arrived, and many people have fairly elaborate camps. We found a clear shady spot for our little tent. A few folks put together a program, A Medicine Show @ Clifftop, based on Good for What Ails You, a compilation of music from the medicine shows. The blog Old Time Party has this post on the collection. I caught one of the organizers wearing a Pink Anderson t-shirt a few days later standing in line for food. I said that I had watched a documentary on blogged Peg Leg Sam, a running partner of Anderson. I regret not catching his name as he had great knowledge of music in South Carolina. H and I bounced in and out of that session. I was lucky enough to catch three times blogged Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas‘ “Railroadin’ Some” featuring one fellow on quills and guitar.

In part, I was on a mission for Mississippi music. I met blogged Harry Bolick. I found his interview on the Mississippi Arts Hour on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Bolick told me that the twice blogged 1939 recordings of Mississippi folk music were based on previous work in 1936. He is planning to release a book on Mississippi fiddle tunes. I look forward to it. I briefly met Jack Magee. I got to meet some Mississippi and Louisiana old-time players.

The festival has a culture that is extremely strange and open in many ways. We saw the strange bowed dulcimer. I figured it out when listening to Harry Bolick’s interview. NPR personality Paul Brown won the senior division fiddling contest. He also made and gave away drinks at the release for a book about old-time accompaniment, Old-Time Backup Guitar: Learn from the Masters. This post on Old Time Party has more about the book. An old friend from CSHL messaged me, and we got to meet for the final night band competition. The charging station for cell phones and batteries was behind the maintenance shed. Hundreds of dollars of electronics, not to mention thousands of dollars in instruments, were left in the open.

First time attendance was hard, though. In old-time sessions, fiddlers lead. We were new to the festival. Instead, we spent much of our time playing together and listening to the many jams. I hope to return and to increase my own playing next time.

My friend from CSHL spends a good amount of time in West Virginia with his girlfriend who lives there. We asked for recommendations on what to do on our way back. We were not up for whitewater rafting, but we found other good spots. We visited the New River Gorge Bridge, an engineering marvel, and then drove over it into Fayetteville. We had breakfast at Cathedral Cafe were everyone appeared young and adventurous. Then we stopped at the Mystery Hole, a spot modeled on old roadside tourist traps billed as a gravity anomaly. It was worth the stop.

We spent some time in Lexington, Kentucky. I got to see the campus of UK. We had supper at Willie’s Locally Known and saw a bluegrass jam session featuring quite a few original songs. We had a fine breakfast the next day at Josie’s.

Our trip back through Kentucky was leisurely. We drove through the horse country around Lexington. It was beautiful. Partly in line with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we visited distilleries, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. The Woodford Reserve tour cost a little money, but it was the best. We saw every segment of the manufacturing process except bottling. The crowd at Buffalo Trace was younger and loud, but the tour was still enjoyable. One fellow pouring samples at Buffalo Trace saw my t-shirt with favorite Mississippi John Hurt. He told me that he saw Hurt play in New York in the 1960s.

We headed on to Louisville. I thought a musical diversion would be fun, and we found Guitar Emporium. I had fun testing out some excellent old Martins. We walked around the neighborhood, evidently called the Highlands. There were some great shops including the Leatherhead. It had terrific boots. Barbecue dinner at Mark’s Feed Store topped off a good evening in the area. The next day we visited Jim Beam, impressive for its enormous scale.

The trip took us to places we had never been. I do not know when I will be able to return to Clifftop although I hope to become a regular. Many people go year after year. They see old friends and visit over tunes. Becoming one of them would be a good investment of time.

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Michael M. on August 11th 2012 in General, Live, Music

New Mississippi John Hurt biography

The University Press of Mississippi recently published Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues by Philip RatcliffeMississippi John Hurt is a favorite of mine. I met the author, also known as Dr. Phil / Delta Dan, on my 2007 trip to the MJH Festival. He told me then that he was writing the biography. My father saw copies for sale in Square Books and very thoughtfully gave me one for my birthday. Work prevented my getting far into it until vacation this week.

The book was a pleasure to read. It explores the phases of MJH’s life from before his birth through his times in and out of the music business to his death and its aftermath. It also takes a look at MJH’s circumstances in addition to the man himself. He put a lot of work into understanding the familial, geographic and interpersonal relationships of MJH’s community using census data and other old records. For me as a big fan, this level of detail was great. Of course, there are many entertaining anecdotes, too. Through reading them, I came to see how superstitious a man he could be from mythical beliefs about local fauna to timing dental work to the phase of the moon. His personal warmth also came through clearly.

I was thrilled to find my own name on page XVII of the introduction among the people thanked.  I made it into a sentence that included blogged Mike Seeger, Jerry Ricks, Dick Waterman, Steve LaVere, blogged Harry Bolick, Andy Cohen and Larkin Bryant, Patrick Sky and Mike “Backwards Sam Firk” Stewart. I was not sure whether I really had done anything to be included, but Phil confirmed it. At the 2007 festival, we talked about many things including connections between the Avalon/Valley community where MJH lived and the Emmett Till murder centered around nearby Money, and we had a brief email correspondence after. Grover Duke is listed here as a character witness for Roy Bryant, one of the men who murdered Till. He had lived around the Valley store, and he is listed in the liner notes for Harry Bolick’s album Carroll County, Mississippi. One of photographs is in the book is by Jim Steeby, whom I also mentioned from that first festival visit.

This year’s festival is scheduled for September 3. My chances of going are not great, but I might try to make it.

A related project is Mississippi John Hurt: Discovery, a collection of recordings made in Avalon by Tom “Fang” Hoskins soon after he found MJH. I look forward to listening.


Michael M. on August 13th 2011 in General, Music

Ain’t No Tellin’

While researching this recent post, I came across this video on YouTube of Eden and John‘s East River String Band playing beloved Mississippi John Hurt‘s “Ain’t No Tellin’.” This video is another angle of the same thing.

From there, connections sent me in multiple directions. Sitting in with them were blogged Robert Crumb and Joe Lauro. Pat Conte is involved somehow. Sunday Morning on CBS profiled him a few years ago. He played on many tracks of Carroll County, Mississippi by three times blogged Harry Bolick. Twice blogged Dom Flemons sometimes plays with the band, too.

In researching this post, I came across this post on MetaFilter. This comment discusses the NuGrape Twins, a wonderful group I blogged a few months ago. I subsequently found this post on the Tofu Hut and this one on ‘Buked & Scorned.

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Michael M. on November 27th 2008 in General, Music

Chasing fiddles

I spent a while looking for the album Great Big Yam Potatoes: Anglo-American Fiddle Music from Mississippi after learning of it from someone I met at the blogged Mississippi John Hurt Festival. It was released in 1985 on vinyl through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Herbert Halpert recorded the tunes in 1939 with support from the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ and Music Projects and the Library of Congress. Sociologist Abbott Ferriss accompanied him. Using an old army ambulance converted to transport recording equipment, they made over 300 recordings, including 115 fiddle tunes.

Finding a copy of a vinyl album issued in small numbers 22 years ago is no easy task. Folks in the old-time world, however, have been very helpful to an unknown person, me, who contacted them asking for help finding one. Several Usenet discussions mention the album. One included statements that it had been reissued on CD, and another person suggested contacting Cleff’d Ear, which I tried unsuccessfully. The originator of the thread told me that he had found digital versions of the tunes and generously offered to send me a copy, but he had not found the album itself. I corresponded with two people behind the production, Tom Rankin and Gary Stanton. They contributed to a booklet included with the album, as did Ferriss. They told me that a CD reissue has been considered, but it has not happened yet. I also found Tom Sauber who worked on the project. Rankin and Stanton both looked for copies for me, but found none. Stanton did send me a CD with the tunes and photocopies of the booklet. Larry Morrisey, Heritage Program Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, suggested that I contact County Records. Folks there also looked around for copies, but found none. Finally, I inquired at the Old Capitol Shop, the store of the Department of Archives and History, as Harry Bolick suggested.

The shop had one copy left! It was closing soon for reorganization, though. Partially due to Katrina damage, the store has made several moves lately, and they were planning to close for September and October. It was already late August by the time I found out the copy. In a stroke of luck, my mother happened to be passing through Jackson the next day. I wrote asking the store to hold it for me, and they had it waiting behind the counter for her. Now I have it. It has 42 tracks, all short examples of the tunes rather than fully developed performances with variations because Halpert had to conserve disks. The music is terrific and strange. I hope that someday the whole collection of recordings is released.

More relevant to my current residence, I got Dear Old Illinois: Traditional Music of Downstate Illinois as a birthday present. Garry Harrison and Jo Burgess compiled it. I have only begun to explore the collection, but it is great so far. I have both the CDs and the book, which has notation for many fiddle tunes. It might inspire me to develop my sight reading.

In addition to pursuing recorded fiddle music, I looked into a new fiddle for myself. The Enterprise-Journal, my hometown newspaper, published “Pulling Strings” back in May about two locals men who had become luthiers in retirement. It is missing from their web archives. As part of my playing and listening on my trip home this past summer, I had a great visit with violin maker Robert Causey. Soon I will have one of his instruments for my very own.

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Michael M. on September 24th 2007 in General, Music, Recorded

Place concept albums

Inspired by my trip to Avalon, I purchased two delightful albums. In both cases, I had learned about them in the past without ever getting around to ordering. I present them in no particular order.

Greetings from Cairo, Illinois by Stace England drew comparisons to Illinois from multiply blogged Sufjan Stevens. England resides in Cobden, Illinois. Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin of Shady Mix also live there. It must be some town. I found it by searching for “Going Down to Cairo,” one of the few southern Illinois fiddle tunes, on iTunes. It is one of the most played tunes in Folk School circles. As mentioned previously, I sang a verse I picked up from the iTunes clip at a Folk School showcase. The version on the album was sung by a men’s chorus to great effect. The other traditional tune is “Cairo Blues.” The song was part of Andy Cohen second set at the Mississippi John Hurt Festival. It was recorded first by Henry Spaulding and then served as a favorite tune of Saint Louis blues legend Henry Townsend. The other songs are originals by England about Cairo. The most prevalent style is country rock, but it ranges. The deep black humor in the lyrics covering the rampage of a lynch mob is excellent. My desire to see Cairo for myself, which I have had for a while, has grown.

I mentioned Harry Bolick‘s Carroll County, Mississippi in my post about visiting Avalon in Carroll County. Since then, I bought a CD and a shirt. The album mostly covers fiddle tunes played by Narmour and Smith along with tunes from other players in that region. One of the tunes from other musicians is “The Last Shot Got Him.” As we discussed on the Mississippi John Hurt forum, his “First Shot Missed Him” and the Mississippi Possum Hunters‘ “The Last Shot Got Him” come from the same source, an old rag from 1912. When I came across the two, I had the idea to recombine them. I even tried to get a local fiddler to play “The Last Shot Got Him” at a party to make it happen, but she did not know it. Bolick’s version does it, and it was recorded well before when I had the idea. In 2000, Carroll County had only 10,769 residents, and it could not have had many more back in the 1920s and ’30s when the source material was recorded. Its musical history, however, is rich. Bolick had to pick and choose among the areas musical legacy. He made some good decisions.

In addition to being good musicians, both of them are friendly fellows. I ordered directly to maximize their profits and minimize my costs. I am happy to offer my small support. With both of them, I received friendly notes of thanks inquiring about how I encountered their albums. The concept of using geography to organize albums allowed production of some quality music. I recommend these musical and geographical detours off the main roads.

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Michael M. on July 20th 2007 in General, Music, Recorded

Mississippi John Hurt Festival

I was a pilgrim. On Independence Day, I awoke early and enlisted the canine assistance of Ralph to wake Lib. Then we headed up to Avalon. I had wanted to go to the Mississippi John Hurt Festival last year, but then I did not feel at liberty to spend the time away. I am a big fan. When I visited home later in the summer, I made a detour. It was too quick. This time, we arrived early and started with a trip to the St. James cemetery that I could not find last year. Then I soaked in the whole afternoon of music. I could have stayed longer.

The music was good, but the people were the real treat. I met Mary Frances Hurt Wright, Hurt’s granddaughter, who heads the foundation. Hurt’s oldest granddaughter was there, too. I tried to catch her reminiscences as she toured the old house that has been converted to the museum. Art Browning, the curator, gave tours and told stories. He even picked a little “Payday” for us.

I had a good time talking to some people from the forum. Novalis was down on a tour of musical sites. Jonathan Beech, who posts on the forum as Manchester Jonny, made the festival the center of his American vacation. Early in the festival, he stepped on stage to tell us about how he came to the music, and he played us a few fine tunes. He called it “a dream come true,” and it was great seeing him up there. A professional illustrator, he presented his depiction of “Louis Collins” to the foundation later in the day. He posted it on his blog. He also posted about its role in one of Frank Delaney‘s projects. I have wondered about “Louis Collins” for a while. Hurt seems to have made the song based on a local murder. Reportedly, Delaney has found some census records and other material that will soon shed light on the story behind it.

Also playing country fingerstyle were Lost Jim Ohlschmidt and Andy Cohen. Lost Jim played his tribute “Dear Daddy John.” An earlier recording is on the mp3 page. He recorded a whole album of MJH tunes. Cohen played a wide variety of fingerstyle music with a Hurt tune or two toward the end. A fellow named Donald Kincaid who has sung with the Jackson Southernaires also performed.

Super Chikan played some of his contemporary electric blues on his folk art painted guitars made from recycled objects. As announced at the festival and in this post on his agent Charley Burch‘s blog, Chikan will record some Mississippi John Hurt songs. On stage, he talked about hearing his father fiddle. I was intrigued. I have been curious about the huge role of African-Americans in country music and the enduring affection of many African-Americans for country music for a while, my latest focus being the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Between his sets, I asked Chikan about it. He never learned to fiddle. He said that somebody, I think his grandfather, played banjo. He lacked guitar skills at the time to second well and had only played along a little on his diddley bow. He could not remember any tunes they played. It was a disappointing part stuck in a terrific day.

I also spotted a few Mississippi folks, familiar and new. Lib and I talked to the Ellen and Jim Steeby, parents of a high school friend of hers. I found this post on, the blog of Robert Neill who lives near Avalon, that features one of his photographs of the festival. I also found this post from a fellow named David Rosen who must be spending the summer as an intern at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I believe we toured the museum with him and his friend. I had a good talk about Mississippi roots with a newspaper reporter covering the festival, but I have not found her article yet. At the end of the day, a lady came to hand me a flier for a store. I had helped her adjust the arms of her chair at the beginning of the afternoon. I only recognized her at the end of the day. She runs the Little Big Store in the old Raymond train depot. Two people from the Mississippi Old Time Music Association sat down behind me. One I had played with on Sunday. The other had not been at the jam, but I remembered his name, Tim Avalon, from the society’s CD. He will publish a book on Mississippi fiddle music that I look forward to reading.

I talked to a man wearing a Carroll County t-shirt with fiddler Willie Narmour on it, trying my best to encourage him to follow his desire to take up fiddling. Harry Bolick designed the shirt. He also made an album about his ancestral home, Carroll County, Mississippi. I placed an order for the t-shirt and the CD. I have listened to snippets of the album, and now I want to hear the whole thing.

Musicians love to talk and play just a little more. After the festival, Andy Cohen and I traded a few fiddle tunes in the twilight. I played “Carroll County Blues” there within the eponymous territory. Art Browning and I traded a few MJH tunes along with Novalis. After a brief conversation earlier in the afternoon, I visited more with Phil “Delta Dan” Ratcliffe about the MJH book he is writing, swapping notes with him and Mary Wright and the lady from the Little Big Store. Mary invited us in, but it was past time. The light had gone from the sky.

Now that I am back from vacation, I have to watch myself. The trip so affected me that I will expound if I sense the opportunity and the denial is not too harsh. I quickly become animated. When I told Rebecca about my journey, she brought up Schultze Gets the Blues, recommended to her by her parents. This review of it mentions Genghis Blues. I am not much of a moviegoer. I never have belonged to Blockbuster or Netflix. These movies were small films in the American market. Somehow, I have seen both of them. A German friend in my old research group loaned me Schultze. I borrowed Genghis Blues from the library after stumbling across it while browsing. I do not know why I neglected to blog about them until now. Now I, too, have traveled an isolated rural path seeking the roots of the music I love. Fictional Schultze became entranced by zydeco and headed for the bayous. Paul Pena‘s love for throat singing led him to Tuva. I rode my passion to Avalon.

Update July 23: Jon Beech posted his reminiscence of the day.


Michael M. on July 10th 2007 in General, Live, Music

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.