The ascendancy of the now-ubiquitous guitar in its many incarnations as the primary instrument of American folk music is actually a rather recent phenomenon. It wasn't until 1960 (likely thanks to the combined popularity of Elvis Presley and the Kingston Trio) that guitars actually outsold pianos in the U.S. Think about that one - relative cost, size, and difficulty to master. The mass media of recordings and radio pushed the guitar past the piano, and it has never looked back, the former now outselling the latter by factors of ten.
So what did our eighteenth and nineteenth century forbears use to make music while the guitar was still in the childhood of its development and played largely by refined urban young ladies in parlors? Harmonicas, of course, and the ever-present concertina - even the banjo was beginning to break out of its segregation as a slave instrument by the 1830s. But the granddaddy of all American folk instruments is the humble fiddle, simply a slightly smaller and cruder version of its more august sibling, the violin. Compact, light, and portable - but capable of producing a great volume of sweet sound when played well - the fiddle was perfect for accompanying either voice or dance, as a solo instrument or in tandem with just about anything else that could make music. "Turkey In The Straw," "Flop-Eared Mule," "Old Dan Tucker," "Devil's Dream" - there is an entire repertoire of American folk songs, many that we now think of as banjo tunes, that first saw the light of day two centuries ago in rural American hoedowns and square dances and camp meetings, played on the fiddle.
This week's song, which has dozens of names and variants, generally starts with a short fiddle riff, with a clawhammered banjo coming in at the second bar. It is a very old song, learned by legendary country-folk performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford from one Fletch Rymer in 1898 - and Rymer was a really old man at the time. Lunsford was one of the first to record it, along with Sarah Bumgarner as "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" in 1924, the same title used in the same year by Frank Blevins and his group. In this remarkably well-remastered 1931 recording with yet again the same name, The Skillet Lickers gave the tune genuine national exposure on radio:
I am not sure of the personnel of the group here - Britain's folk site Mudcat.org identifies the lead singer as Riley Puckett - but I'm going to hope that Chicago musician and old-time music devotee Jeremy Raven will fill us in a bit on this. It is to Jeremy that many of us owe any knowledge of this group at all, whose bang-up version here certainly sounds like a 1930 edition of the Kingston Trio in their energy and the fun they are clearly having with the tune. I am also reminded here of Lindsay Buckingham's remark to John Stewart that a good recording should be "simple, repetitive, and hypnotic." I think Buckingham may have meant "simple-sounding," because the sophistication of the instrumentation on this recording is amazing.
The Kingston Trio in 1960 didn't have a fiddle player handy - but their version of the song as "Blue-Eyed Gal" gave them an opportunity to showcase the impressive development of Dave Guard as a banjoist and vocal arranger of the lyrics adapted by KT's Bob Shane with Tom Drake and Miriam Stafford:
Guard is blending different banjo styles here, much as he would do a year later in his tour-de-force "Coast of California." It is not exactly a traditional rendering of the song - but definitely one that respects the origins and roots of the piece.
The New Lost City Ramblers" made a career out of presenting authentic readings of old mountain tunes, as they do here:
I always get a kick out of talented non-professionals, especially when they are young. Here is the Short Mountain String Band in Frostburg MD two years ago - a fine toe-tapping instrumental once they get going:
Another great instrumental, this one by Julie Duggan on clawhammer banjo:
Duggan's right hand work here is mind-blowing.
For a more contemporary reading - indie rock group Built to Spill (now almost 20 years old) updated the lyric and electrified the accompaniment on an album appropriately named Ancient Melodies of the Future:
I actually rather like this, though it clearly uses the root song as a starting point only, as for instance the Kingston Trio did with "A Worried Man." But for sheer repetitive and hypnotic exuberance, I'll take the Skillet Lickers any day - or the Kingston Trio.