26 January, 2010

"Sail Away Lady" - "Uncle Bunt" Stephens

Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track One: "Sail Away Lady (Fiddle Solo) Mountain Dance Music" performed by "Uncle Bunt" Stephens. "Unaccompanied violin solo." Recorded in New York on March 29, 1926. Original issue Columbia 15071D (W141876).

The second volume of the Anthology is titled "Social Music." As its name implies, the music on this set had a purpose beyond listening pleasure. The first disc of this set deals with dance music. The second disc deals entirely with religious music. To paraphrase Greil Marcus, the first disc is Saturday night. The second is Sunday morning.

This is easily the most misunderstood of the four volumes of the Anthology. Most of the attention and praise lavished upon the set is directed at the first and third volumes, "Ballads" and "Songs." These sets are indeed worthy of praise, but the second volume shouldn't be overlooked. The reason the "Social Music" volume is often overlooked is twofold: First, there is a perception that the set is made up largely of "instrumental music." It is true that the first disc contains a good deal of instrumental music. That is not all that it contains, however. There are several vocal selections. Even if there weren't, the fact that the set is downplayed or dismissed reflects a prejudice against instrumental music in American popular culture. It also reflects the prejudices and predilections of the original audience for the Anthology. As has often been noted, this set helped to spark a folk music revival in the United States during the fifties and early sixties. Many of the musicians who listened to and learned from the Anthology were singers who accompanied themselves on guitar, banjo or mandolin. They would have had little use for instrumental music and fiddle tunes. That is not to say that many did not learn from or play the music on this set, but the evidence suggests that more people covered songs from the "Ballads" and "Songs" sets.

The other reason for the diminished status of this volume is a general dismissal of religious music. Speaking for myself, I once held a similar view. Since I am not religious, I wasn't interested in listening to religious music. Point of fact, I was slightly afraid to do so. Eventually, I was exposed to the wonderful scope of religious (largely Christian) music recorded during the twenties and thirties (including music by both white and black artists) and I discovered that I could enjoy the music without sharing the faith of the people who made it.

I firmly believe that this volume is as important and as beautiful as the others in this set. For one thing, it is on this volume that the Cajun music is first heard. There are also several virtuoso performances on both discs that must be heard to be believed. I sincerely hope that those of you who have followed me this far will continue to do so and listen with an open mind.

The first disc of this set kicks off with a recording of "Sail Away Lady" by Uncle Bunt Stephens. Born John L. Stephens on February 2, 1879 in Bedford, Tennessee, Stephens was orphaned at an early age and raised by an aunt. A self-taught fiddler, Stephens began performing at local square-dances at the age of seventeen. In 1926, when he was almost fifty years old, Stephens participated in a fiddling contest at a Ford dealership in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The contest was part of a nationwide event sponsored by Henry Ford with the aim of promoting the old-time music of which Ford was a fan. Having won the contest in Lynchburg, Stephens went on to win at each successive level until he reached and won the national finals in Detroit. His prize was $1000, a new Lincoln automobile and a new suit.

After touring briefly, Stephens traveled to New York where he made his only known recordings, including this recording of "Sail Away Lady." He made several appearances on the Grand Old Opry, billed as the "World Champion Fiddler." Stephens died on July 25, 1951.

According to Smith's liner notes, this performance of "Sail Away Lady" is "probably similar to much American dance music in the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars." If this is true, it a truly remarkable how similar it is to modern dance music in rhythmic terms. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to hear a techno beat behind Stephens's playing (in fact, you can hear Stephens's foot keeping time as he plays, providing a rock steady beat). This performance is rough-hewn but virtuosic. Stephens never varies the tempo, and one can easily understand why this tune was so popular for dancing.

The song is a part of the standard repertoire for any country fiddler and is found in most collections of fiddle music. It is closely related to the songs "Sally Ann" and "Sandy Land." While this performance is entirely instrumental, there are several sets of lyrics that accompany this tune.

"Sail Away Lady" became popular in England during the skiffle craze of the 1950s when it was recorded by Lonnie Donegan under the title "Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O." Under this title, the song was included in the set list of the Quarrymen, the group that eventually became the Beatles.

Who's Afraid of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, 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?

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Here's my younger brother, Jacob Stern, a professional fiddler and member of the New Hampshire based Crunchy Western Boys performing a version of "Sail Away Lady" with lyrics. This is a Where Dead Voices Gather exclusive recording!

Download and listen to Uncle Bunt Stephens - "Sail Away Lady"


  1. I really appreciate your impassioned defense of the "Social Music" volume. I've also argued its merits, and cited similar reasons for its dismissal by some Anthology neophytes.

  2. I actually think the social music volume is the best part of the anthology.