Playing oldtime music often opens little windows to a mostly forgotten past. One gets interested in a particular fiddler from long ago, and then follows the long, unhurried, zig-zaggy path of listening to available recordings, collecting snippets of biographical information, hearing about the other fiddlers in that community who might have been mentors, peers, or students, and so on. Not to imply that this is necessarily a studious process, or even particularly intentional in every case. Rather, sometimes it's simply that when a fiddler (or sometimes even just a particular tune) becomes appealing, one starts to pay more attention to conversations, writings, or recordings that surface concerning that fiddler (or tune). The fragments slowly come together over time, forming an evolving but never complete picture of the fiddler's repertoire, stylistic sensibility, influences, and life details.
Every once in a while, a new puzzle piece comes along that raises new questions and further deepens the mysteries of the past. And so it was when I first listened to an unnamed, untitled tune that Osey Helton played around 1939 for Dr. Jan Schinhan, a University of North Carolina professor of music from 1935 to 1958.
First, some quick background about Osey Helton, pieced together over time from various sources, but with particular gratitude to Bob Carlin's informative research, published in a series of articles for the Old-Time Herald. Osey (pronounced "Ozzie") was a part-Cherokee fiddler, born in 1879, who first learned fiddle from a former slave who worked with his father in an Asheville, NC distillery. Osey became a master musician who regularly played with his brother Ernest and a bevy of venerable fiddlers that included, most notably, Marcus Martin, Manco Sneed, and Bill Hensley, all of whom were very influenced by J.D. Harris (b. ~1868), who moved to the Asheville area from nearby Flag Pond, TN (and whose repertoire came in part from Wiley Laws, a blind fiddler from England who immigrated to Virginia in the 19th century).
Having grown up in western NC, not too far from Asheville, I have long admired and tried to learn from field recordings made of Osey and his peers, and Rob and I have recorded many of their tunes on our three Hog-eyed Man records. It was thus with great happiness that a few weeks ago I first got to listen to some of the field recordings made of Osey and his brother Ernest by Dr. Schinhan between 1939 and 1941. (A huge thank you to Gail for sharing these with me, and to whoever else unearthed these gems!) There were of course the expected joys of hearing more of Osey's personal takes on some of the repertoire of western NC from that time. His approach to "Polly Put the Kettle On" is particularly neat. A unique and dark version of this common tune became popular in the area, which Sneed, Hensley, Martin -- and, a bit later, Byard Ray and Steve Ledford -- all played, but each put his own twists and turns on it. Osey's might be the best of them all.
But the Schinhan collection also contained a few big surprises, for me anyway, including an untitled file labeled simply "Track 19," featuring an unnamed tune. It's a modal tune in which Osey takes a variable approach to phrasing, particularly on the high part, and uses a tuning that sounds like a lot of open D strings (or at least a low bass string); neither of which were common techniques for him, at least judging from his available recorded tunes (Osey mostly played in standard tuning, and he tends to play crisp, well-defined settings of tunes with only small variations). The tune sounded vaguely familiar, and not unlike something Manco Sneed might've played, but my brain couldn't quite place it within the canon of regional fiddle tunes from that era. A few days ago, however, when I sat down to actually learn it, synapses finally fired and the connection was made. I stopped playing and caught my breath. This tune, I realized, appears to be a version (or very close cousin) of the Kentucky masterwork "Glory in the Meetinghouse."
Hog-eyed Man recorded Glory in the Meetinghouse for vol. 3, which we derived mostly from the playing of Bev Baker (b. 1872), who was present when Luther Callahan Strong (b. 1892) made his celebrated recordings for Alan Lomax in Hazard, KY in 1937. Strong's powerful version of Glory is considered the definitive one, but Baker's approach to the tune had nuances that drew us in. (For more notes and sound files regarding those sources and our recording, check out our Tune Journeys page). As chronicled by Stephen Wade in his brilliant book The Beautiful Music All Around Us, Glory in Meetinghouse was apparently a fairly well-known tune in that part of Kentucky at the time. In addition to the Strong and Baker recordings, on that same 1937 trip Lomax collected versions from Theophilus Hoskins and Boyd Asher, each of whom knew Strong and suggested that Lomax find him. Hiram Stamper (b. 1893), a friend of Strong's, played Glory in the Meetinghouse too, although he was apparently not recorded doing so until the 1970s, when visited by Bruce Greene. According to Wade, Hiram said he learned the tune from Bev Baker, but he also heard it from older players like Shade Sloan (b. 1828), and his version sounds more archaic, with a great deal of variability in the phrasing and a deeply resonate open tuning. Previously, just listening to sound files, I thought Hiram was either DDAD or DDAE, but a video made in the 80s (see link below) shows that it was actually just a low bass string -- EDAE, in terms of relative tuning (but his fiddle is tuned down about a step in pitch, so something like DCGD).
Osey's "Track 19" shares the essential structure and melody of Glory in the Meetinghouse. Of note, however, Osey never plays the highest third part variation that the Kentucky fiddlers incorporated now and again for climactic effect. So how did this Kentucky tune come into Osey's repertoire? He didn't learn it from the Library of Congress recordings of Luther Strong, as these were released after Osey died in 1942. And in any event, to my ear at least, Osey Helton's version sounds closer to how Hiram Stamper played it than Luther Strong or Bev Baker. Like Hiram, Osey uses a more open (or at least low bass) tuning, and he similarly alters the phrasing of both the high and low parts every time he passes through the tune (Luther Strong used ample variations too, but he didn't alter the actual length of the measures / parts quite as much as Hiram or Osey).
Most likely, the tune was passed along from fiddler to fiddler sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century, making its way from Kentucky down to North Carolina. Without radio or recording devices, fiddlers of that era relied on direct contact with other fiddlers. Through this pattern of oral transmission, the nuances of melodies evolved, and tune titles were sometimes lost or mangled, but the tunes -- especially memorable ones -- nonetheless traveled. I emailed Bruce Greene to get his thoughts on the similarities between the tune as played by Osey and the Kentucky fiddlers, and he replied that "Strong travelled a fair amount, so it could have drifted down to NC. Don't know if those fellers ever knew each other, but I suspect there was a lot more interaction through travel than is commonly assumed (the isolation idea.)" With this in mind, I did some more reading about Shade Sloan, the older fiddler mentioned by Hiram as having also played the tune. Sloan fought in the civil war and could have disseminated (or picked up) the tune during those travels. Or it could have been Strong on his travels, or some other feller...
Perhaps less likely, but not impossible, is that the KY and NC versions of Glory are a musical instance of what biologists refer to as "parallel evolution," in which distinct species with a common ancestor develop similar traits over time in different places (e.g., the green tree boa and the green tree python). The character and even the title of Glory in the Meetinghouse bears some resemblance to the Irish traditional reel "The Templehouse." Perhaps, then, after crossing the Atlantic the tune took distinct but not dissimilar paths in different parts of the Appalachians. (The Templehouse Reel appears in Chief O'Neill's celebrated collection of Irish traditional music in America published in 1903; not sure if there's any evidence pre-dating that).
We will never know the full history of Glory in the Meetinghouse. But there's joy to be found in the journey of discovery, and the puzzle only becomes more rich with this unearthing of Osey Helton masterfully playing the tune so far down south, so long ago. By the way, if any readers have something to add to this story, or any corrections you wish to point out, please leave a comment below, or send a message. Cheers!
When I learned Osey Helton's Glory in the Meetinghouse a few days ago, I immediately played it for my three year old son. When he hears music with energy, whether traditional, pop, rock, rap, or whatever, he starts dancing. He was really into this tune and rewarded me with some amazing improvised flat-footing. Recognizing the spontaneous excitement of the moment, my 7 year old son picked up my phone and shot this impromptu short video.
You can check out Luther Strong, Bev Baker, and Hog-eyed Man playing Kentucky versions of Glory over on our Tune Journeys page. And here's a video of Hiram Stamper at 91 or 92 years old, still playing the tune with his unique brilliance.
And finally, here's Osey Helton, recorded sometime between 1939 and 1941, playing the Western NC version of Glory in the Meetinghouse, for your listening pleasure: