Saturday, December 18, 2010

Old Time Holiday Train #3

Hello, folks—the train’s running behind time this morning, which is more than a little appropriate to the two songs.  Fortunately, no actual wreck seems imminent.  Also: apologies to aficionados of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, who will see that today’s pairing comes straight off the first “Ballads” record of his compilation.  The pairing of “Engine 143” & “Kassie Jones” was just too good to pass up.

Carter Family: Engine 143 (1929)

The Carter Family from southwestern Virginia have had a profound impact on U.S. popular music, from country & folk to gospel & even rock (rockabilly in particular).  Perhaps the greatest single influence on future musical styles came from the guitar-playing of Mother Maybelle Carter.

In the 1920s the guitar was still primarily a rhythm instrument.  Even if we look at the great blues guitarists of that time, we don’t hear much in the way of “lead” playing such as we’d think of the thing nowadays.  The rhythmic backgrounds could be quite intricate—they could be contrapuntal, both in terms of harmonic lines & actual rhythm—but they didn’t tend to be break out into “melody.”  At least in terms of what would later become country music, Maybelle Carter’s playing changed this, as she perfected a style that incorporated melody with rhythmic playing.  This style is called “Carter picking” or “Carter scratch” in her honor. 

Although most folks nowadays play Carter style using a flatpick, Maybelle Carter played with a thumbpick & a fingerpick on her index finger—in this, her style was closely related to what is called “two-finger” banjo picking (she also played banjo, in fact, which she learned from her mother).  There has been some controversy as to how much influence African American musician Lesley Riddle had on her playing, but her connection to the banjo means at the very least that her innovative guitar style had some deep roots. 

Furry Lewis: Kassie Jones, parts 1 & 2 (1928)

Furry Lewis was, quite simply, an amazing singer & fingerstyle guitar player, equally adept at playing music from ragtime to blues.  His roots go way back.  He was born some time in the 1890s—the exact date is uncertain, as he gave various dates over the course of his life—& he had some success as a traveling musician in the ‘teens & early 1920s.  But apparently with an eye on some financial stability, Lewis took a job as a Memphis city street sweeper for his main source of income—a position he held from 1922 until he retired in 1966.  Fortunately for us, he had a brief but fruitful stint making records for Vocalion & Victor in 1927 & 1928; he might have even continued as a recording artist, but the Great Depression had a major impact on the recording industry in general, & so-called “race records” in particular.

So again, as with a number of artists, Lewis was re-discovered in part because of Smith’s Anthology, as well as by the interest in his 78 sides from within the 1950s & 60s folk movement.  He had a second musical career in his retirement that included recordings & a number of live appearances—for instance, opening for the Rolling Stones & appearing on Johnny Carson! 

Lewis played an old-style form of fingerpicking that in its own way is also closely related to banjo playing.  In fact, it would be hard to over-state the influence of the banjo on all forms of old-time music, even the blues where the banjo itself rarely was featured.

You’ll notice that Kassie Jones in appears in a part one & a part two.  The reason for this is actually quite simple.  The standard size ’78 rpm record was 10 inches, & this record held approximately three minutes per side.  If a song was longer than three minutes, there was a part one & a part two—another well known example is Robert Wilkins’ great blues song “Rolling Stone.” 



  1. Another great pairing, John. No stand-up bass needed by the Carters! And Alice Fry, who makes a brief appearance at the end of 'Kassie Jones', is presumably the same lady who alternates with Nellie Bly in the 'Frankie and Johnny/Albert' cycle. I have a vague memory hearing her also cited by Bessie Smith, but I can't remember in which song. She gets around!

  2. Wow! Furry Lewis! I haven't listened to him in ages. Thanks for bringing him back to my ears, John. The pairing with the Carter Family is definitely inspired.

  3. Hi Dick & Roy: Well, Harry Smith gets the credit for the pairing--in a way. Funny thing is, I was originally going to pair Engine 143 with a Charlie Patton song called "Heart Like Railroad Steel," but I decided they just didn't go very well together. Then a couple of days ago I thought--geez, "Engine 143" would go well with "Kassie Jones." It wasn't until yesterday I remembered Harry Smith did exactly the same pairing on the Anthology! I'm sure I was "hearing" that in the back of my mind.

  4. You have encyclopedic knowledge John.
    All interesting stuff and what a database for future generations. Well done!

  5. You got my feet tapping even on a very cold and frosty Sunday morning.

  6. Hi TRFE & Alan: Sorry to be so late in responding--crazy weekend.

    TFE: Thanks for that. A lot of traffic does come to the blog to see these types of posts so there's definitely interest!

    Alan: That's great! Hoping it warmed you up a bit!


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