An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
"Old Shoes and Leggins" - Uncle Eck Dunford
Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Nine: "Old Shoes and Leggins" performed by Uncle Eck Dunford. "Vocal solo with harmonica, violin, guitar, banjo, autoharp." Recorded in Bristol, TN on October 31, 1928. Original issue Victor V-400608.
Born Alex Dunford in Carroll County, West Virginia in 1878, Uncle Eck Dunford has the distinction of being the first fiddle player to appear on the Anthology. He recorded mainly as a sideman, often with Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, who plays harmonica on this recording (and who appears on the Anthology performing "The Mountaineers Courtship" and "The Spanish Merchant's Daughter"), although he did record occasionally under his own name. It was as a member of Stoneman's Dixie Mountaineers that Dunford recorded at the historic Bristol Sessions in 1927 (a little over a year before "Old Shoes and Leggins" was recorded), where both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (who will appear on the Anthology performing "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" and several other songs) were first recorded. Dunford was known as a "local character" around Galax, Virgina where he settled, often performing as a member of the Galax based string band, the Bogtrotters. He was reknowned for his vast repository of songs, his unusual tunings, and his eccentric mode of dress (he always appeared in an overcoat and overshoes, even in the heat of summer. In winter, he added pink earmuffs to his ensemble). He died in 1953.
The term "fiddle" can refer to a number of stringed instruments, but in Dunford's case it refers specifically to the violin. The ancestor of all bowed string instruments is usually considered to be the Ravanahatha, an instrument that first appeared in India around 3000 BCE. The technology traveled to China, and then through Central Asia to Europe, where it eventually led to the Byzantine lira. The lira then traveled to Western Europe, leading to the development of the medieval fiddle (the terms lira and fiddle being used interchangeably by 11th and 12th century writers). The medieval fiddle is the ancestor of the modern violin and other members of the violin family.
The violin traveled to the New World with British, French, Dutch, and Spanish settlers and was integrated into the various musical folk traditions. The style of fiddling practiced by Dunford and others in the South-eastern United States derives primarily from British and Irish forms.
There is some disagreement about the precise nature of the personnel on this recording. In Smith's booklet, he reproduces the original label copy, which states that "Old Shoes and Leggins" is a "vocal solo with harmonica, violin, guitar, banjo, autoharp." However, the records kept by the record company, and reproduced in the 1997 reissue of the Anthology, give the personnel as follows: Uncle Eck Dunford, vocal and fiddle; Ernest Stoneman, harmonica; Hattie Stoneman, mandolin; Bolen Frost, banjo." Listening to the song, it does seem that there is a guitar audible. It is possible that Stoneman is playing the guitar with his harmonica in a rack around his neck. If Stoneman's wife, Hattie, is indeed playing the mandolin, it would seem that whoever wrote the copy on the original record label mistook the sound of the mandolin for an autoharp.
"Old Shoes and Leggins" first recorded appearance comes from Scotland in the early 1700s. It remains popular in the British oral tradition, often appearing as "An Old Man Came O'er The Lea" or "With His Grey Beard Newly Shaven." Some observers contend that what Dunford is singing is "with his overshoes on and his leggin's." It is possible. Dunford, who was fifty when the song was recorded, sounds much older, probably due to a lack of teeth. Nevertheless, when I listen to the song, I hear the words "with his old shoes on" rather than "overshoes on." You'll have to listen for yourself and decide.
The song tells the simple story of an old man who comes to court a young woman. His bizarre behavior eventually causes her to reject him.
A man that was old come a-courtin' one day And the girls wouldn't have him; He come down the lane on a walkin' cane, With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother, she told me to give him a chair, For the girls wouldn't have him; I gave him a chair and he looked mighty queer, With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother she told me to hang up his hat, For the girls wouldn't have him. I hung up his hat and he kicked at the cat, With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother she told me to give him some meat, For the girls wouldn't have him. I gave him some meat and oh, how he did eat, With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother she told me to give him the hoe, For the girls wouldn't have him. I gave him the hoe and he jumped Jim Crow, With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother she told me to give him a saw, For the girls wouldn't have him. I gave him a saw and he played "Rye Straw," With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother she told me to put him to bed, For the girls wouldn't have him. I put him to bed and he stood on his head, With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
My mother she told me to send him away For the girls wouldn't have him. I sent him away and he left us to stay With his old shoes on and his leggin's.
Like "The Wagoner's Lad", "Old Shoes and Leggins" is sung from the point of view of a female protagonist. It is paired with "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" as both songs deal with courtship. While the frog in the previous song is accepted, however, the old man in this song is eventually sent away. Another reason this song is interesting is the fact that it makes reference to other popular songs and dances. When given the saw, the old man plays "Rye Straw," a well-known fiddle tune. Similarly, when given the hoe, the old man "jump[s] Jim Crow," a reference to the 1828 song and dance routine popularized by blackface performer Daddy Rice. These references solidly ground this version of the song in the American tradition, distinguishing it from its British ancestry.
One detail in the performance of this song that I particularly enjoy, by the way, is the way Dunford pronounces the word "queer" as "quare" in order to rhyme it with "chair."
"Old Shoes and Leggins" has not been recorded many times over the years, and no video was available as the time of this writing. If I find any, I will post it, however.
Here are a couple of videos I've found that illustrate the songs referenced in "Old Shoes and Leggins." The first is a version of "Rye Straw." This is an excellent example of clawhammer banjo picking played by 17-year-old Josh Turner on a fretless, gut-strung (rather than steel-strung) banjo. There are a few little fluffs, but given the age of the performer, this is a remarkable performance...
The second video is a version of "Jump Jim Crow" performed on five-string banjo by Sule Greg Wilson.
Finally, here's a video of fiddler Barry Hall performing a tune on the vielle, a variation of the medieval fiddle referenced above.