Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Brilliancy Medley" - Eck Robertson and Family

Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Six: "Brilliancy Medley" performed by Eck Robertson and Family. "Violin with two guitars, banjo." Recorded in Dallas on October 11, 1929. Original issue Victor 40298A.

Alexander "Eck" Robertson was born on November 20, 1887 in Delaney, Arkansas. At the age of three, his family moved to a farm in the Texas panhandle where Robertson was raised. His father, a Confederate Civil War veteran, was a fiddler as were Robertson's grandfather and uncles. At five, Robertson began studying violin, later taking up guitar and banjo. In 1904, at the age of sixteen, Robertson left home to become a professional musician and traveled through the Indian Territories with a medicine show. By 1906, Robertson was married and settled in Vernon, Texas. Nettie, his wife, was also a musician and they performed together in silent movie theaters and in fiddle contests. They also performed at Old Confederate Soldiers Reunions throughout the South. It was at one such event that Robertson met Henry C. Gilliland, a 74-year-old fiddler who became Robertson's performing partner. In 1922, Robertson and Gilliland went to New York City in order to audition for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Passing the audition, Robertson and Gilliland recorded four fiddle duets which are now regarded as the very first country records ever made. The records were not strongly promoted until Fiddlin' John Carson's Columbia recordings were released in 1923, sparking a sudden boom in "Old Time Country Music." Once the electrical recording process became standard after 1927, Robertson's 1922 recordings fell out of print.

Robertson was not recorded again until 1929 in Dallas, Texas. Robertson - accompanied by Nettie and their daughter, Daphene on guitar and son, Dueron, on banjo - recorded ten sides, including this recording of "Brilliancy Medley." Robertson would be recorded only two more times in his life. One session, from 1940, yielded no releases and no written studio records have survived to tell us what was recorded, although it is claimed that Robertson recorded more than 100 fiddle tunes during the week long session. A second session, in 1963, was eventually released on the LP Eck Robertson, Famous Cowboy Fiddler. Meanwhile, Robertson continued performing, appearing at the UCLA Folk Festival in 1964 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He died in 1975.

According to Smith's notes, "Brilliancy Medley" is made up of "traditional tunes," but I have been unable to uncover exactly what these tunes are. If anyone has any information, please e-mail me at

Smith also notes that Robertson's style on this recording is "quite archaic in its studied and exaltant (sic) formality." However, he goes on to say that the tune is rhythmically modern, stating that it "is more suited to the popular dance steps of the 1920s than for square dancing." This might have been a choice made by the supervisor on the session, or it may have been a personal choice made by Robertson who wished to make a record that would sell.

This recording of "Brilliancy Medley" is certainly full of energy. The rhythm laid down by Nettie and Daphne Robertson is infectious and makes even a modern listener (or at least this modern listener) want to take to his heels and dance. This may be a function of the relatively "modern" rhythmic style described by Smith, but Robertson's high spirited fiddling is at least as much of a factor.

"Brilliancy Medley" is the sixth recording in a row on the "Social Music" volume to feature the fiddle. Smith's deliberate highlighting of the fiddle on this volume speaks to the instrument's prominent place among both whites and blacks in the dance music of the American South in the period leading up to the 1920s.

The Great-Minds-Think-Alike Department: Check out The Old, Weird America , another blog on Smith's Anthology. While my blog focuses on history and close lyrical reading (as well as my laughable attempts at musical analysis), The Old, Weird America helps give a broader view of the artists and the songs by providing downloads of other songs by the artists in question, as well as variant recordings of the selection. It's an excellent blog and is well worth visiting.

The Devil In The Shameless Plug Department: The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. It is my intention to do a fifth episode in the near future, although for the time being I am busy acting in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. As soon as I have more time, you can rest assured that I will do a new episode of the podcast. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here is the British Folk-Rock group the Fairport Convention performing "Brilliancy Medley" on a 1973 episode of "The Old Grey Whistle Test."

Download and listen to Eck Robertson and Family - "Brilliancy Medley"

1 comment:

  1. the tunes are "Drunken Billygoat/Little Billy Wilson/Bill Cheatum." Dave Swarbrick interjects a touch of "Devil's Dream" in that Fairport version.