Wednesday, May 5, 2021



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When the self-taught guitarist Joshua Barnes Howell played the blues, it came from a place of multiple hardships and irregular pursuits. Born in 1888 to a farming family in rural Georgia, Mr. Howell worked as a farmer himself until an argument led his brother in-law to shoot him in the leg, forcing its amputation, and generating the man’s unanticipated nickname. No longer able to labor on the farm, “Peg Leg” Howell drifted to Atlanta in the early 1920s, where he began busking and bootlegging. After a one-year stint in jail for a moonshine-related offense, he was discovered playing some raucous licks with a group of musicians on Decatur Street.

Columbia Records wound up recording Peg Leg Howell solo, as well as in an ensemble known as Peg Leg Howell and His Gang. The latter featured the bust-out greasy electricity of fiddler Eddie Anthony and the steady second guitar of Henry Williams. In all, Howell cut about two-dozen sides for Columbia between 1926 and 1929, and was noteworthy for being one of the first African American country blues musicians to record his music. The Great Depression deprived him of further recording opportunities but he continued to play in Atlanta. When the fiddler Eddie Anthony passed away in the mid-1930s, Howell retreated into obscurity, only to be rediscovered by a folklorist about three decades later. By then, Howell was an impoverished double amputee, owing to “sugar diabetes.” He recorded an album’s worth of material (released on the Testament label) before passing away in 1966.

Howell’s first recording session in 1926 (solo vocals and guitar) generated a song—“New Prison Blues”—that merits placement alongside the great murder ballads, including Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O’Lee Blues.” Howell and His Gang (together) conquered a variety of idioms including string band, jazz, and dance numbers; the peppy 1927 “Beaver Slide Rag” might be just the song that’d make you reach for the corn liquor. Springing-forth from that vein, but omitting guitarist Williams, we present for your devotion the magnificent 1928 tune “Turkey Buzzard Blues,” which thoroughly douses itself in suggestive language and never stops jumping. We can only imagine how Eddie Anthony didn’t saw his fiddle in half during the session that produced this gem.

(L) Williams; (C) Anthony; (R) Howell

Our Musicology Department has been working overtime on this song and we’re proud to present the lyrics, below. “Turkey Buzzard Blues” may borrow some floating verses from traditional sources and also refers to another country song, “Sugar in the Gourd.” Moreover, it’s the only song not about chinquapin hunting that mentions chinquapin hunting. I’ll save you the trouble of looking the word up: the chinquapin is a “dwarf chestnut” tree or shrubbery of the southern regions that provides fruit, shade, and cover to people and animals alike. Indeed, someone (a cute little poor gal) could’ve climbed into a chinquapin tree, fell down, and the other person—who happened to be a peg-legged singer—could’ve seen “sump’in.” Go have a listen to Peg Leg and Eddie swinging the dickens out of the universe.

“Turkey Buzzard Blues”
Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Anthony
Peg Leg Howell (guitar, vocals); Eddie Anthony (fiddle, vocals)
Columbia Records 14382-D (Atlanta, Ga., 1928) 10-inch B-side b/w “Banjo Blues”  

Had a long gal, she was tall and thin
Had a long gal, she was tall and thin
Had a long gal, tall and thin
Every time she jigs (I said) “do it up again!”

If you got six bits (you) think you want to spend
Got six bits, think you want to spend
Got six bits, think you want to spend
Go around the corner and cop it till it win

Now me and my gal went chinquapin huntin’
Me and my gal went a-chinquapin huntin’
Me and my gal went a-chinquapin huntin’
She fell down and I saw sump’in!

Have you ever went fishing on a bright sunny day?
Standin’ on the bank, see the little fish play
Hands in your pockets, in your pockets, in your pants
See the little bitty fish do the hoochie coochie dance!

Had an old hen and had a peg leg
Fattest old hen that ever laid a egg
It laid more eggs than the hens around the barn
Another little drink wouldn’t do me no harm

There’s sugar in the gourd, can’t get it out
Sugar in the gourd, can’t get it out
Sugar in the gourd, can’t get it out
Now the way to get sugar, gotta roll it all about

sources of information

AllMusic Guide biography for Peg Leg Howell
Charters, Samuel Barclay. Country Blues. (Da Capo Press, 1975).
DAHR discography for Peg Leg Howell
Early Blues article about “Beaver Slide Rag”
Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music. (Da Capo Press, 1997).
Oliver, Paul. Songsters and Saints. (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
Old Time Blues article on early recordings of Peg Leg Howell
Oliver, Paul. The story of the blues. (Chilton, 1969).
WayBack Machine article on Peg Leg Howell
Wikipedia article on Castanea Pumila (Chinquapin tree)
Wikipedia article on Peg Leg Howell
WIRZ discography for Peg Leg Howell




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In April 1924, Aunt Samantha Bumgarner and her collaborator Eva Davis became the first women to record country music. At the same time, Bumgarner and Davis became the first people to record five-string banjo. Summoned by Columbia Records, the duo traveled from the mountains of western North Carolina to New York, where they cut several sides together, and some solo sides apiece. Neither artist would record again. While Davis refrained from performances afterwards, Bumgarner established herself as one of the most influential country musicians—fiddler, banjoist, singer—of her generation. She passed away in 1960. 

Born circa 1878 (or 1880) to a musically-inclined family, Bumgarner (neĆ© Biddix) nevertheless faced resistance when demonstrating an interest in playing instruments. Her father finally allowed her to play a homemade banjo—a gourd with a cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread slathered in beeswax—before purchasing her a “10 cent” store banjo. Later, her husband Carse bought her the first “devil’s box” (or fiddle) she ever owned. While her ambitions may have challenged the “appropriateness of gender roles” at the time (that is: only a man can fiddle Appalachian mountain music) it was probably obvious that she possessed what the kids would call “mad talent.” Bumgarner defeated many a male banjo player in winning contest after contest.

Given the respectful musician title “Aunt” at age 30, Bumgarner would become a regular at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. It was there that a young student, Pete Seeger, was inspired by Aunt Samantha Bumgarner and her five-string clawhammer banjo technique. In 1939, Lunsford, Bumgarner, and others
appeared at a command performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, hosted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. It’s funny to imagine English royalty sitting there, squirming stoically, while Aunt Samantha Bumgarner might’ve torn through a North Carolina dance number like “Big-Eyed Rabbit.”

Our Musicology Department has been working overtime on this song and we’re proud to present the lyrics, below. My goodness: where to start? The whirling pace—and rough elegance—of Bumgarner’s fiddle? The cool, yet not inelastic anchoring of Davis’ banjo? How could we not discuss the clipped, frenetic vernacular of Bumgarner’s vocals? And what of the song’s story? That beloved rascal the big-eyed rabbit. Howling hound dogs. Threat of the old shotgun. The regular “lord, lord” invocation of a deity. The concept of “getting’ there now” which is mighty ticklish, given the song’s dizzying pace. Clearly, many people were “rocking” well in advance of rock ‘n’ roll. Would your life be better if you turned this tune up loud and hopped around? Why yes it would.

“Big-Eyed Rabbit”

Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis
Samantha Bumgarner (fiddle, vocals); Eva Davis (banjo)
Columbia Records 81710 129-D (New York, N.Y., 1924) 10-inch A-side b/w “Wild Bill Jones” [Notably, “Wild Bill Jones” features only Davis.]

Rabbit oh rabbit done hear them hounds
Yes lord lord they’re gettin’ me around
Get there rabbit rabbit get there now
Yes lord lord I’m gettin’ there now

Rabbit oh rabbit your ears mighty red
Yes lord lord been jerkin’ [up afraid]
Get there rabbit rabbit get there now
Yes lord lord I’m gettin’ there now

You jump out and start to run
Shoot you down with my old shotgun
Get there rabbit rabbit get there now
Yes lord lord I’m gettin’ there now

Rabbit oh rabbit your foot’s mighty round
Yes lord lord make a hole in the ground
Get there rabbit rabbit get there now
Yes lord lord I’m gettin’ there now

Rabbit’s in the garden siftin’ sand
‘Fore tomorrow morning I’ll have him in my hand
Get there rabbit rabbit get there now
Yes lord lord I’m gettin’ there now

Rascal rascal hearin’ my dog
Yes lord lord I want [a call]
Get there rabbit rabbit get there now
Yes lord lord I’m gettin’ there now

sources of information

Appalachian History (.net) article on Samantha Bumgarner
Banjo News article on Samantha Bumgarner
Birthplace of Country Music article on “Big-Eyed Rabbit”
Bluegrass Today article on Samantha Bumgarner
Bufwack, Mary A., and Oermann, Robert K. Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000. (Country Music Foundation Press, 2003.)
Cloer, Tom. “Aunt Samantha Bumgarner: Pioneer in Southern Music.” Pickens County Courier (July 10, 2013).
DAHR discography for Samantha Bumgarner
DAHR discography for Eva Davis
Hotaling, Lynn. “Samantha Bumgarner was a musical pioneer.” The Sylva Herald (May 1, 2019).
Old Time Party article on Samantha Bumgarner
WIRZ discography for Samantha Bumgarner
Wolfe, Charles K. “Samantha Bumgarner: The Original Banjo Pickin’ Girl.” Old Time Herald (Winter 1987-88), pp.6-9.