Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England by Clifford R. Murphy

485814a724ea7bf-261x361.jpg Author Clifford R. Murphy
Isbn 9780252038679
File size 3MB
Year 2014
Pages 288
Language English
File format PDF
Category music


yankee twang Murphy_text.indd 1 6/11/14 8:39 AM music in american life A list of books in the series appears at the end of this book. Murphy_text.indd 2 6/11/14 8:39 AM Yankee Twang Country and Western Music in New England clifford r. murphy university of illinois press Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield Murphy_text.indd 3 6/11/14 8:39 AM Publication of this book was supported by a grant from the L. J. and Mary C. Skaggs Folklore Fund. © 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois All rights reserved Manufactured in the United States of America c 5 4 3 2 1 ∞ This book is printed on acid-free paper. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Murphy, Clifford R., author. Yankee twang: country and western music in New England / Clifford R. Murphy. pages  cm. — (Music in American life) Includes bibliographical references and index. isbn 978-0-252-03867-9 (cloth: alk. paper) isbn 978-0-252-09661-7 (ebook) 1. Country music—New England—History and criticism. I. Title. ml3524.m87  2014 781.6420974—dc23  2014012436 Murphy_text.indd 4 6/11/14 8:39 AM To the many women and men of New England country and western music: this book is for you, that the world should know you, your music, and your contribution to the character of New England community life. To the memories of those who contributed so generously to this work and who have traveled on before seeing their names in print: Wendell Austin, Angelo Boncore, Vinny Calderone, Bill Chinnock, Jerry Devine, Doug Garon, Flo Cody Hooper, Gene Hooper, Clyde Joy, Herb LeBlanc, Paul Roberts Metivier, John Penny, Rusty Rogers, Jim Senter, Johnny Smith, Rex Trailer, John Lincoln Wright, and Richie Zack. To the memory of my late father, Gordon D. Murphy, Jr., who always dreamed of publishing a book: this one’s for you. Murphy_text.indd 5 To Mom and Peter, for always encouraging me to follow my muse. And, finally, to my wife, Monica, without whom my life would be so very empty. You are profoundly beautiful by every measure. I love you so much. 6/11/14 8:39 AM Murphy_text.indd 6 6/11/14 8:39 AM Contents Acknowledgments  ix Prologue. Fieldnotes on the Dick Philbrook and the Frye Mountain Band Show  xiii Introduction. Reintroducing New England to the Country Music World  1 1 New England Country and Western Music and the Myth of Southern Authenticity  11 2 A History of New England Country and Western Music, 1925–1975  37 3 Finding Community in the New England Country and Western Event  105 4 Home on the Grange: The Frontier between “American” and “Immigrant” Worldviews in New England Country and Western  124 5 “It Beats Digging Clams”: The Working Life of Country and Western Musicians in the Barnstorming Era  145 6 The New England Cowboy: Regional Resistance to National Culture  167 Epilogue. “Oh, You’re Canadian”: My Night as a Canadian American in Watertown, Massachusetts  183 References 187 Index 199 Photos follow page 89. Murphy_text.indd 7 6/11/14 8:39 AM Murphy_text.indd 8 6/11/14 8:39 AM Acknowledgments My ethnographic and historical research was informed by—and shaped by—my having been a resident of New England from 1978 until 2008, my family heritage in Massachusetts and Maine that stretches back in parts some two centuries, and my having traveled extensively throughout the region as an itinerant rock and country and western musician from 1988 through 2003. Formal research for this project began in 2004. As a bimusical participant-observer, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork with country and western musicians and fans in the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, as well as in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. I conducted oral histories with performers active (and formerly active) in all six New England states and with pertinent persons who now reside in the states of Tennessee, Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida, and Ohio and in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Oral histories were all conducted under the auspices of the Maine Folklife Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the American Folklife Center. Copies of fieldnotes, sound recordings, photographs, transcriptions of interviews, and signed release/consent forms have all been deposited in those archives as noted. Research in historical primary sources—field recordings, commercial recordings, photographs, oral histories, print media, radio transcriptions, recording contracts, show posters, advertisements, fan mail, and business documents—was conducted in the archives of the New England Country Music Historical Society in Watertown, Massachusetts; the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine, Orono; the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress; the Folklife and Heritage Archives of the Massachusetts Cultural Council; the New England Folk Music Archives at the Passim Center; the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; and the John Murphy_text.indd 9 6/11/14 8:39 AM x acknowledgments Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF) Collection of the Southern Folklife Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The archives of the now-defunct New England Country Music Historical Society are maintained by Gordon “Country Gordy” Brown of Watertown, Massachusetts; Mr. Brown and his archive contributed the bulk of historical materials (rare radio transcriptions, photographs, regional commercial and noncommercial recordings) used in this work. A series of oral histories and field recordings conducted by folklorist Edward D. “Sandy” Ives and his anthropology students and interns (Greg Boardman, Lisa Feldman, and Debora Kodish) at the University of Maine in Orono between 1975 and 1980 with musicians, fans, and radio executives active in country and western and hillbilly orchestra music in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes between the 1920s and the 1980s proved an invaluable resource. These materials are housed in the Northeast Archive of Folklife and Oral History at the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine, Orono. Other items located in the archives of the Maine Folklife Center and utilized in this work are a series of oral histories, field recordings, and rare radio transcriptions of Maine country and western musicians collected by folklorist Jeff “Smokey” McKeen. I am most grateful to Maine Folklife Center director Pauleena MacDougall for her ongoing support of this project. The New England field recording collections of Phillips Barry, Helen Hartness Flanders, Alan Lomax, and Eloise Hubbard Linscott housed at the American Folklife Center and the Vermont Folklife Center were valuable in providing historical context for this work. The Linscott collection was particularly helpful as—unlike the recordings of Barry, Flanders, and Lomax—it contained a wide variety of styles and reflected a far more elastic definition of “vernacular” or “folk” music worthy of recording in the 1930s and 1940s. Linscott’s collection includes several recordings of radio broadcasts made in 1942 by Massachusetts cowgirl yodeler Georgia Mae, as well as the only known recordings of Maine performers like the Katahdin Mountaineers, the Singing Smiths, and other early Maine string bands experimenting with proto–country and western sounds. Finally, the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame hold several high quality rare commercial recordings of New England artists unavailable elsewhere, as well as songbooks from the 1930s through the 1950s of New England artists. The archives also include oral histories conducted with Bradley Kincaid and Grandpa and Ramona Jones (which cover their brief tenure in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the 1930s and 1940s) by Douglas Greene and with Kenny and Bettyanne Roberts by John Rumble. Murphy_text.indd 10 6/11/14 8:39 AM acknowledgments xi Beyond those persons mentioned above who extended gracious and insightful assistance above and beyond the call of duty, I would like to thank the mentors, colleagues, and friends who helped to bring this book along: Jeff Todd Titon, Maggie Holtzberg, Jennifer Post, Rose Subotnik, Pauleena MacDougall, Pamela Dean, and Millie Rahn. And a most grateful thanks goes to my wife, Monica, and to my friends Eric Chalek, Baynard Woods, Nate Gibson, and Elaine Eff for offering so much editorial insight and moral support along the way. Thank you, too, to Terry Chinnock for sharing biographical details about her father, the late, great Dick Curless. Thanks to Alyce Ornella and Andrew Jawitz of Rockhouse Mountain Productions for their generosity and enthusiasm for all things Al Hawkes. And thanks to my team at the University of Illinois Press: my editor, Laurie Matheson, for her calm and patient guidance; and my copyeditor, Mary M. Hill, and managing editor, Jennifer Clark, for their indefatigable dedication to quality and good cheer. I must also add a thanks to my friends and musical colleagues, the late, great Say ZuZu and Hog Mawl: those thousands of hours of conversations on tour, in living rooms and at truck stops, about all that is righteous and good and devastating about playing music for a living—those led me to this, and your insights and hard-won wisdom fill these pages. Murphy_text.indd 11 6/11/14 8:39 AM Murphy_text.indd 12 6/11/14 8:39 AM Prologue fieldnotes on the dick philbrook and the frye mountain band show Place: Thompson Community Center, Union, Maine DATE: AUGUST 4, 2007 The drive from Waldoboro to Union, Maine, was as beautiful as I remembered it from two years before when I attended the Dick Curless Memorial Scholarship Fund concert. Old coastal Colonial houses and clam huts gave way to rolling fields of blueberries and small dairy farms. I arrived in town around 5:30, which was the time I had arranged to meet Yodeling Wade Dow for an interview and to make a recording of his virtuosic cowboy yodeling. I went inside the Thompson Community Center—a wonderfully dusty old basketball court with high rafters, a stage, a kitchen, an ancient scoreboard with orange bulbs, and dim, rusty-red overhead lighting. I approached the first man I saw in a western shirt with pearl buttons to ask Wade’s whereabouts. This was—it turned out—Dick Philbrook, the leader of the Frye Mountain Band, with whom Wade was to be playing that night. Dick is a solid man of short stature with white hair slicked back in a 1960s trucker style, a thick Down East brogue, a wide smile with a front tooth cut at a sharp angle, and big, strong hands. Dick told me that Wade had been given the night off, and he was chagrined to find that I’d traveled all the way to Union only to be disappointed. Dick and his girlfriend, Evelyn, tried to call Wade repeatedly, but to no avail, and we talked awhile about country and western music in Maine. I stepped out to look for a bite to eat, perused the snacks at the Mic-Mac Convenience Store and a small grocery store, and took a look at the Union Fairgrounds and the warehouses that serve as the center of Union, Maine’s blueberry industry. I went back into the Thompson Community Center, paid the eightdollar cover, passed on the fifty-fifty raffle, ordered a couple of hot dogs and a Moxie, and sat down next to Evelyn while the band began to play. During the second song, Dick waved me over to the stage and told me to grab my guitar out of my trunk and sit in with the band for at least one set. Murphy_text.indd 13 6/11/14 8:39 AM xiv prologue Being the youngest person by a good twenty years at least in a room (the gymnasium in this case) full of a hundred or more people is not a feeling I am comfortable with. Young people—particularly young people in their twenties through forties—are so rare at these events that the regulars can’t help but be curious about the “youngster.” I figured if I was going to stand out that much, I might as well be playing and not sitting. So I went out to the car, tucked in my shirt, and got my guitar. The Dick Philbrook band wears matching white western shirts and black pants. Dick plays electric bass and has two men playing electric guitar (both lead) and a woman on drums. The group was very loose, and band members traded off songs, with the singer starting the tune and the others joining in halfway through the first verse or so. I plugged in my acoustic and played rhythm guitar. I knew most of the songs without having ever played some of them, and I sang lead on about one in every four or five songs—mostly Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Merle Haggard songs. I got a good hand each time, and Dick gave me high praise at the end of each song on which I sang lead. That felt good. For me, personally, this was a milestone performance: though I have been playing this music now for over ten years, this was the first truly country and western gig I’d ever been on. Shows I had been playing with my own band for the past seven years either were for rock crowds or were in diverse rooms where some patrons were serious country and western fans, but most people were socializing to music that happened to be country and western. And though most of the songs we played that night originated in Nashville or Bakersfield, what we were doing at the Thompson Community Center did not feel attached to those places at all. The heady commercial country music world of Nashville—where I had spent considerable time in the past knocking on doors, making commercial recordings, playing at record label showcases, meeting with music industry professionals, lawyers, and songwriters—felt very far away from Union, Maine. Here at the Thompson Center, people in matching cowboy clothes were dancing, and we had to play mostly slow or midtempo songs for them. This was a challenge for me, as I like to push the beat, and—instinctively as someone who grew up playing rock music first—I think of “dance” songs as fast songs. This is not the case when you are playing traditional country and western for a room full of Mainers who grew up two-stepping, polkaing, and square dancing to country and western music. The stage sound was not good—the drummer had trouble hearing the band and would occasionally drop the beat when the phrasing fell behind or ahead of the established rhythm. This is part of the country singer’s job— Murphy_text.indd 14 6/11/14 8:39 AM fieldnotes xv to keep a steady rhythm on guitar while falling around the beat with the vocals. This is particularly true at a dance in Maine for a room full of Dick Curless, Lefty Frizzell, and Merle Haggard fans. So a muddy stage sound that causes a drummer to be thrown off by this kind of vocal technique is a bit of a liability. But no one seemed to mind, and I found myself watching the feet of the dancers in order to keep time when the drummer’s beat was unclear. This visual metronome was like nothing I’d ever experienced before as a musician. At one point the drummer teetered on reversing the beat of the song, and so she dropped out entirely for about two measures. During this gap, the swooshing of the dancers’ feet as they grazed the dance floor was fully audible: no conversation in the room could be heard, just the swooshing of the dancers’ feet in time to the music like a set of brushes on a snare drum. The sound filled the gymnasium in balance with the reverberating music, and the engagement of the band with the audience—and the audience with the band—was fully palpable and audible if just for a moment before the drums kicked back in. The nature of the relationship between the country and western group and its audience appeared revealed in that moment— where the musicians and the audience serve as alternating engines that drive the country and western event. I wound up playing three sets with the band. The material covered songs by Gene Autry, George Jones, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and other “traditional country” songs. There were no songs from the Maine country and western pioneer repertoire (meaning, no songs written by Mainers), though we played a number of traditional instrumentals, and I sang Doc Williams’s “Roses Are Blooming,” to the surprise of the band members and the audience. During a set break, the other players in the band each told me stories about playing with Dick Curless at some point in the past. We played a couple of tunes that I just never would have ever played otherwise, including “Tiny Bubbles” (Don Ho), “Chattahoochie” (Alan Jackson), and “Margaritaville” (Jimmy Buffett). The audience wanted to hear them, so we played them. I had gone nearly twenty years playing gigs while successfully avoiding ever playing a Jimmy Buffett tune. No longer. After the third set, Dick Philbrook kicked me out: he knew I’d hoped to find a motel room up by Belfast, and he told me that it’d be too late by the time they finished the fourth set. So I packed up to leave. Dick told me that anytime I was back in the area, I was welcome to sit in with the band. He was very enthusiastic about this. Evelyn handed me her cell phone, too, as Wade Dow was on the other end of it. Wade, too, felt bad that we’d crossed Murphy_text.indd 15 6/11/14 8:39 AM xvi prologue wires, and he invited me to come by on Sunday to his house to meet up for an interview. We decided on 3:00. Dick pulled me aside and suggested I stay at a motel that’s just on the other side of the bridge in Belfast. “It’s got a good rate, and it’s where I used to take my girlfriends back in high school.” I made a mental note not to stay there—not because I didn’t trust Dick, but because I took him at his word and didn’t want to get a room next to a couple of high school kids. With that, the band thanked me for my help, the crowd gave me a hearty round of applause, and I was on the road down Route 17 toward the coast, having finally played a real country and western gig. It was not the first time I had benefited from the inclusiveness so pervasive among audiences and musicians at New England country and western events, but it was certainly the most personally rewarding. Murphy_text.indd 16 6/11/14 8:39 AM yankee twang Murphy_text.indd 17 6/11/14 8:39 AM Murphy_text.indd 18 6/11/14 8:39 AM Introduction reintroducing new england to the country music world New England country and western music has been buried under a mountain of corporate propaganda that wants you to believe that country music is an exclusively southern cultural export. This process began in the late 1950s, when corporate music industrialists in Nashville orchestrated a union between record companies, song publishers, and radio DJs that effectively swept the nation’s copious and colorful regional subsets of country and western music off the airwaves and truncated the music’s commercial moniker to “country music” (without the “western”). In this new Nashville-based and corporate-controlled order, country music became virtually anything sung with a southern accent. And as country and western music makers outside the South had ever-decreasing access to broadcast mediums from the late 1950s onward, the ensuing decades of southern-“branded” country music have served to erase much of the living memory of the rich country and western legacies of those regions whose misfortune places them outside of the vaunted southern United States. The subsequent popularity of the new corporate country music among working people in the North has led industrialists, scholars, and cultural purists to alternately celebrate and lament this illusory triumph of southern culture in the North. In New England, many have come to misunderstand the music’s popularity as a new phenomenon, unaware that New England country and western music has a long and storied history, convinced instead by Nashville’s chokehold on broadcast media that country music is and always has been a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, southern cultural export. Up until the formation of the Country Music DJ Association (later to become the Country Music Association) in 1958, the country and western music heard on the airwaves in New England was mostly made by New Englanders (and not just any New Englanders, but predominantly those of an ethnic and religious heritage different from that of their southern counterparts). That Murphy_text.indd 1 6/11/14 8:39 AM

Author Clifford R. Murphy Isbn 9780252038679 File size 3MB Year 2014 Pages 288 Language English File format PDF Category Music Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Merging scholarly insight with a professional guitarist’s keen sense of the musical life, Yankee Twang delves into the rich tradition of country & western music that is played and loved in the mill towns and cities of the American northeast. Clifford R. Murphy draws on a wealth of ethnographic material, interviews, and encounters with recorded and live music to reveal the central role of country and western in the social lives and musical activity of working-class New Englanders. As Murphy shows, an extraordinary multiculturalism informed by New England’s kaleidoscope of ethnic groups created a distinctive country and western music style. But the music also gave–and gives–voice to working-class feeling. Yankee country and western emphasizes the western, reflecting the longing for the mythical cowboy’s life of rugged but fulfilling individualism. Indeed, many New Englanders use country and western to comment on economic disenfranchisement and express their resentment of a mass media, government, and Nashville music establishment they believe neither reflects nor understands their life experiences.     Download (3MB) “We’re the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill”: An Oral History The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music Help! I Want to Play Piano Harmonic Rhythm: Analysis and Interpretation A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music Load more posts

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