Friday, December 11, 2009

*In Folklorist Harry Smith’s House-"Brilliancy Medley" — Eck Robertson and Family (1930)

Click on the title to link to a presentation of the song listed in the headline.

The year 2009 has turned into something a year of review of the folk revival of the 1960s. In November I featured a posting of many of the episodes (via “YouTube”) of Pete Seeger’s classic folk television show from the 1960s, “Rainbow Quest”. I propose to do the same here to end out the year with as many of the selections from Harry Smith’s seminal “Anthology Of American Folk Music,” in one place, as I was able to find material for, either lyrics or "YouTube" performances (not necessarily by the original performer). This is down at the roots, for sure.

Eck Robertson Bio From Old Time Fiddlers Hall Of Fame

Eck Robertson was one of the most noteworthy fiddlers I have run across, because there is so much incredible history surrounding a man whose fiddling almost transcended the Old-Time style. Eck was an accomplished talent, and played many parts of his tunes in second or third position, a convention much more common to Classical style playing than Old-Time. Eck is also credited with being the first recorded country artist (see below).

We are also fortunate that Eck was around and still in fine fiddling form during the folk revival in the 1960s and 70s. The following article came from the LP liner notes of County 202 - Eck Robertson, Famous Cowboy Fiddler:


Eck Robertson's musical career spanned eight decades. He was an accomplished musician by the turn of the century and entered the ranks of the professional entertainer by 1910. He was easy with a joke, quick to tell a funny story and confident of his ability as a fiddler. He was never content to simply play the old tunes repetitiously; he always experimented and expanded the boundaries of his musical tradition, but he never strayed too far from the core.

Eck, as evidenced by his repertoire and fiddling style, was firmly established within the larger tradition of late 19th century southern fiddling. Although he helped establish what is today called the "Texas style" of fiddling, his musical heritage and influence extended well beyond the southwest.

[The sound sample included here exhibits a mere snippet of Eck's phenomenal mastery of the fiddle.]

Eck Robertson was, first and foremost, one of America's great folk fiddlers. And through his music and his history a great deal can be learned about the folk tradition of fiddle playing, and the historic and cultural matrix within which it flourished.

Eck Robertson is famous as the first person to record a commercial country music record. This he did, in company with fellow fiddler Henry C. Gilliland, on June 30 and July 1,1922, for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studios. Eck and Gilliland, a Civil War veteran from Altus, Oklahoma, after entertaining veterans at the 1922 Old Confederate Soldiers' Reunion in Richmond, Virginia, decided to go to New York for the express purpose of making records. Gilliland, a former justice of the peace, knew an influential lawyer there named Martin W. Littleton. After their first night in New York, the two men stayed with Littleton who provided them with grand tours of the city, including a visit to the Steinway piano factory, a visit Eck remembered fondly forty years later. The image of Gilliland and Eck touring New York, attired respectively in full dress Confederate uniform and flashy western "regalia" (satin fuchsia shirt with pearl studs, wide-brimmed black hat, leather cuffs and pants tucked into high-topped boots) and undoubtedly carrying fiddle cases, would be striking even today.

Just how much influence Littleton exerted to get the two fiddlers an audition for Victor is not known, but Littleton did, on occasion, do legal work for the company. Eck recalled that Littleton's "lawyer" first introduced he and Gilliland to the Victor people and that when he first appeared for an audition, the Victor manager insisted he take out his violin right then and there:

[In Eck's words:] "You couldn't fool that man was running the shop in the Victor office...But then he come at me, he just come into the room in a hurry with a long piece of paper with names on it. He done that on purpose, you see, thought he'd get rid of me just like he had all the rest of them. He said `Young man, get your fiddle out and start off on a tune.' Said `I can tell that quick whether I can use you or not.' Well, I said back to him just as honest as I could `Mister, I come a long ways to get an audition with you. Maybe I better wait and come back another time. You seem like you're in an awful hurry.' `No,' he said, `Just start off a tune...' Well, I didn't get to play half of Sallie Gooden; he just throwed up his hands and stopped me. Said, `By Ned, that's fine!' And just smiled, you know. Said, `Come back in the morning at nine o'clock and we'll make a test record."

And he did.

Eck and Gilliland recorded "Arkansas Traveler"and "Turkey in the Straw''on June 30th,with Gilliland playing the melody and Eck a high harmony. The next day Eck returned alone, this time recording "Sallie Gooden" and "Ragtime Annie" solo, and two additional tunes accompanied by a studio piano player. Two tunes from these sessions, "Sallie Gooden" and "Arkansas Traveler," were released in April, 1923, thus becoming the first commercial record ever released by a country musician. Eck stayed in New York ten days, finally returning home to Vernon, Texas, full of memories and stories.

It was seven years before Eck recorded again, this time in Dallas with his family band. Most historical accounts about Eck Robertson stop after this as if he and his music ceased to exist beyond 1929. However, such was certainly not the case.

Eck promoted himself heavily as the "World's Famous Cowboy Fiddler, Victor Record and Radio Artist" during this time, and advertised the family band as "A Novelty Musical Program Playing Old Time Melodies, Trick and Stunt Fiddling, Singing and Dancing," and promised, "If You Don't Laugh, We Will Call the Doctor!."

Eck had two special tricks he did while fiddling. One was the "normal" trick fiddling; tossing the fiddle or the bow in the air, catching it and not missing a beat, playing behind the back, fiddling while "laying down on the stage and doing somersets" and so forth. He played the tune "Pop Goes the Weasel" for this performance. His other trick was to make his fiddle talk. On many show flyers he asked the question, "Have you ever heard a fiddle talk?" He remembered:

"I used to do it on the stage in theaters and take the house down. I offered a dollar to any child in the house who didn't understand what the violin said...And I made that dad-gummed fiddle talk just as plain as anybody could have said the words...I generally wind up on that by playing Sallie Gooden. I'd wind up on the last of it by making that fiddle talk, representing Sallie Gooden going to the cowpen to milk the cow. You'd hear her calling the calves, and then you'd hear the calf bawl. About that time her baby woke up and began to holler `mamma oh mamma. I want my mamma!' And just say it as plain as anybody could."

Eck explained this trick to an incredulous Mike Seeger:

"Got to put an attachment in my mouth there. To touch the bridge of the fiddle with a piece of steel...Well, you just put that piece of steel in your mouth. It's just like a cigar, about as long as a cigar...You can take a pocket knife even, put it in your mouth; right shaped pocket knife, and do it, too. Anything that will kill the tone of the violin. You touch the bridge at intervals, and know how to pull the bow across the strings to make it do that."

Eck apparently learned this trick from a classical violinist he met during his medicine show travels. The family band disbanded around the beginning of World War II and shortly before Dueron [Eck's son], was killed, Eck and Nettie (who was working at the Pantex ordinance plant in Amarillo) separated. Eck never remarried.

The next two decades, through the 1950s and until his rediscovery by old-time music enthusiasts and folklorists in the early-1960s, were fairly dry years musically for Eck and the family. Eck continued to tune pianos for the Tolzien Music Company in Amarillo, and to repair and rebuild fiddles and other stringed instruments in his home shop. He was occasionally featured as a special guest at the fiddle contests that were sprouting throughout Texas. The brochure advertising the "Hale Center 4th of July Homecoming Celebration with All-American Fiddlers Contest" (ca .1963) proclaims: "The best fiddlers come from the country where folks scratch themselves for entertainment and aren't ashamed of it!" and "There's nothing more American than Fiddle Music." The flyer also features a photo of Eck Robertson with the following caption:

"Eck Robertson of Amarillo, who started fiddling when he was five years old is one of the most colorful performers in the All-American Fiddlers Contest at Hale Center. He has won top honors in the old fiddlers division of the contest several times. Two generations ago Eck, a recording star, was one of the most popular country musicians in the country."

By the 1960s, Eck was relegated to the role of elder statesman, special guest and pioneer recording artist. The family was gone and popular venues for either old-time fiddling or vaudeville style entertainment were scarce. When Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz visited Eck in 1963, he was seventy-six years old. The next year he performed at the UCLA Folk Festival, and in 1965 he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. Even then he was still plenty able to charm an audience with his music and talk.

Eck's last few years were hard on both him and his family. After his house and shop in Amarillo nearly burned to the ground, Eck moved into a rest home. While there, his favorite fiddle, a Steiner he rebuilt, was stolen. He apparently received comfort from just holding a fiddle, because he was never without one, even in his last days. But having his fiddle stolen caused him to take precautions. Doyle Davis remembers:

"He took the neck out of an old fiddle, switched everything around and put the neck in the big end, the back end. That's all he had left at that rest home. And he would walk around with that old thing under his arm all the time"

Beulah [Davis] continues:

"...I remember the last time [we saw Eck]...We took this County Sales record that had dad's tunes and we played them for those old people in the nursing home that day."

And Doyle concludes:

"...Eck wanted to know - we had one of his tunes, I don't know if it was Wagoner or what - he wanted to know `Who's that fellow playing the fiddle?' Beulah told him `Why, that's you.' `I never played a tune that fast in my life,' he said."

Eck Robertson died February 15,1975 at the age of eighty-eight. Inscribed on his tombstone in Fritch, Texas, is the epitaph "World's Champion Fiddler."

—Blanton Owen, Virginia City, Nevada

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