When I was a young undergraduate student at Middle Tennessee in the late 1970s, there were two English professors who influenced my life in ways that I’m still only understanding. One was Ralph Hyde, who was serving as editor of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. Ralph published the first articles of mine in a professional journal or magazine, introduced me to the rich cultural traditions of the mid-South, and gave me my first bottle of moonshine. I still think all three are significant in shaping my life (although that’s the first and only time I drank moonshine!)
The other was Charles Wolfe, who taught English, succeeded Ralph as the editor of the TFS Bulletin, and – most importantly – brought scholarship and love to old time and bluegrass music. Charles was an avid collector, writer, and recorder of music from the mid-South, and I was lucky enough to be with him on occasions when he was recording or interviewing some of the area’s old-time musicians.
Just the other day my father sent me a note saying that Charles – who died in 2006 – will be inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in October at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. This is a well-deserved award for an individual who brought rigorous scholarship and deep affection to a subject that many thought marginal at best. One of Charles’ best books is A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry which chronicles the early days of an American institution. It is especially fitting that Charles’ induction will come at the Ryman (the long-time home of the Opry), as Charles and I were both featured as “talking heads” in a Nashville Public Television production entitled The Ryman: Mother Church of Country Music. In this excellent history, Charles is one of the country music experts while I speak about the preservation issues along with other Nashville preservationists. Highly recommended!
While I was still living in Middle Tennessee, Charles had me help him record an obscure brother duo (so obscure that I can’t remember the name or find any information on Google) from Alabama that sang in the style of the Delmore Brothers. It was great fun to hear these two older men sing from the heart and to watch Charles work with them to capture their history on tape.
Charles was an institution, but he also had a great sense of humor. In the compilation The Bluegrass Reader, Charles had a great article full of in-jokes entitled The Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 117 (Fiction), which you can read in its entirety by clicking on the link. For this posting, I’ll just quote a few of my favorite tunes on this fictional album, which Charles notes (very tongue-in-cheek) as “peripheral influences on the development of bluegrass”
The Big Mouth Sacred Singers, “No Potholes in Heaven” (Backhoe 5440-B)
This was apparently a family group headed by a self-styled preacher named Tyler Tyree, who was the founder of a sect called the Church of the Speckled Bird, which venerated wrens. They were fond of singing out of round-note songbooks in shape-note style, giving their music a striking diatonic effect. Their special significance to bluegrass stems from the fact that they moved to Rosine, Kentucky, in 1929; a few short weeks later young Bill Monroe left Rosine. So did several other people.
The Bluegrass Nuns, “Yellow Road to Camptown” (Merton 102-A, recorded ca. 1949)
The Bluegrass Nuns were three or four sisters from an obscure Carmelite order in south central Kentucky who entertained in various orphans homes from 1948 to about 1952. Little is known about them except that they used an unusual three-stringed banjo, and they often sang part of their songs in Latin. They are one of the first real sister acts in bluegrass. In 1975 bluegrass scholar Boggs Hickey disguised himself as a nun and went around the area trying to learn more about this band, but he was arrested in Corbin.
Blind Oscar Thornton, “She Poisoned Me Boys” (Vocalion 5890)
This is Blind Thornton’s last recorded number, thought by some scholars to be autobiographical.
Doc Stanley, “Corn Cob Blues” (Harry Ace 345-A, recorded 1947)
This is Doc Stanley’s famous complaint about how rough dried corn cobs are; some scholars think Doc was trying to comb his hair with them, and there is speculation that this custom might have once been quite common in West Virginia. Others see this song as related to Woody Guthrie’s “Hard, Ain’t It Hard.”
Thanks for the memories, Charles…and I’m glad the bluegrassers are recognizing your many contributions.
More to come…