During his first four years as an Okeh recording artist, Fiddlin' John Carson
acquired a reputation as a definitive Southern fiddler, attracted a whole lot of imitators, and helped establish the rural hillbilly genre as a viable niche in the rapidly expanding phonograph record industry. Nevertheless, someone in charge at Okeh clearly decided that Carson
had too many similar entries in the catalog, as 22 sides cut in 1927 were followed by only four titles in 1928, and eight in 1929. Carson
's habit of recording the same songs several times under different names prompted A&R directors to suggest a series of spoken comedy sketches punctuated with showy bursts of string band instrumentation. These are similar to hillbilly skits recorded during this period by Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers
, particularly in the choice of subject matter which tended to concentrate pretty heavily upon the production and consumption of bootleg liquor and the inevitable face-off with nosey Prohibition agents. The problem here is that Carson
and his daughter (from here on out known as Moonshine Kate
) weren't near as funny as Gid Tanner
, Riley Puckett
, and the rest of the Skillet Lickers
, who clearly possessed more of a knack for improvised theatrical narrative as evidenced by their humorous depiction of a Bee Hunt.
Whereas "Who's the Best Fiddler?" comes across as a staged bout of harmless jousting, historian and musicologist Gavin James Campbell has uncovered evidence suggesting that fiddling contests sometimes constituted "a means of enforcing white supremacy" and a reaction to the spread of jazz and blues. It seems that the extremely racist stance taken by many white musicians in and around Atlanta was in line with a widespread backlash against other kinds of musical entertainment which were being widely distributed by agents of the popular music industry. Henry Ford specifically sponsored fiddling contests throughout the entire eastern half of the nation to combat the influence of African-American musicians and "Jewish middlemen, both of whom Ford accused of plotting to subvert the nation's moral standards."
Of the 24 recordings reproduced here, tracks 1-14 were made in Atlanta between October 1927 and March 1929; 15-20 were waxed in New York in August of 1929, and the remaining titles represent the first half of eight sides cut in New Orleans in December 1929. In addition to nougats of sage advice like "Times Are Not Like They Used to Be" and "You Can't Get Milk from a Cow Named Ben," musical highlights include "Hawk and Buzzard" (known in African-American circles as "Raise a Ruckus Tonight") and "Down South Where the Sugar Cane Grows," which appears elsewhere as "I'm Going Where the Chilly Winds Don't Blow." Whereas it's good to have access to these old records, the scratchiness of "The Little Log Cabin by the Stream" and a few others makes one wish that Document's remastering had involved some sort of noise reduction technology. Perhaps cleaner copies have since been discovered and will lead to better transfers allowing more of the fiddling to be heard and appreciated.