Thelittlejohnsessions vol 1

Page 1

Self-portrait of Stanton Littlejohn at his recorder

In 1909, Stanton Littlejohn, of Eastview, Tennessee was born into a household where music was just second nature.

The Littlejohns were farmers by trade, but everybody played something. Cousin Lee Little-

john - known affectionately as Uncle Lee to the younger generation - was born before

the Civil War and influenced Stanton to pick up the fiddle. Cousin Herman Littlejohn had a reputation as a first-rate flat top picker. Cousin Arlis Littlejohn was an outstanding vocalist and clawhammer/frailing banjo player. In addition to being a remarkable pianist, Stanton’s sister, Eunice LittlejohnSmith, developed an interesting accordion style, doubling the fiddler, note for note, on all of the old fiddle tunes.

Music was just in their blood.


When Stanton married Minnie Bell Randolph in 1931,

she fit right in, playing mandolin for the “Littlejohn String Band” at engagements around McNairy County through the 1930s. But as much as they might have enjoyed public performance, the magic really happened for the Littlejohn family as they made music at home. Prospects improved dramatically in 1944 when Stanton gave up full-time farming for a job at Brown Shoe Company in Selmer, Tennessee. It was an important transition since it made the household finances more consistent and liberated the young couple from the sunup to sundown schedule demanded by subsistence farming. They suddenly had

a little expendable income and just as importantly,

a little more time for music. They would make the most of both. 4

Like other rural communities in the early to mid-twentieth century, McNairy County Tennessee’s entertainment was mostly homegrown.

The home “musical” - sometimes called “a frolic” was a popular local

activity for the musically inclined. Local businesses, barns, one-room schoolhouses, or other public spaces served as venues, but the frolic found its most familiar and intimate expression in homes. Furniture

was removed to the front porch and rugs were rolled up to make way for dancers, while the musicians tuned up

and played in the corner or sometimes a doorway. It was not unusual for the music and dancing to go on until the wee

hours of the morning.

Stanton and Minnie Bell Littlejohn’s home was

frequently the site of such gatherings, but one added feature set their events apart from all others in the region: Stanton could, and often did, document the music played in their front parlor with audio recordings. Littlejohn’s abiding love for music is a constant refrain echoed by those who knew him. There were certainly more gifted fiddle players and dozens of other families hosted home musicals around the area, but

nobody loved it more than Stanton Littlejohn. Indeed, it is reported by his family that one reason he sought out a method of recording live music at home was the competitive edge it provided in drawing musicians to his place for a Saturday night jam. He was also

what we would now call a “technophile.� Stanton & Minnie Bell Littlejohn with

brother-in-law Arthur Smith

A lifelong penchant for experimental tinkering and exploring new technologies gave him the aptitude to put the recording machine he purchased about 1946 to its best use.


The Littlejohn’s Eastview home (period photo)

Stanton’s ear for good music and confident hand at the recorder combined well with Minnie Bell’s hospitality. Together, they established a fertile creative 6

environment for visiting artists. The warmth is still palpable in the recordings made in the couple’s modest home in Eastview, Tennessee (seen above). Littlejohn’s earliest efforts show that he didn’t have to look too far to find willing participants.

The novelty of

his recording machine was embraced almost immediately. The surviving col-

lection includes family and friends discussing seasonal farming, fishing and hunting prospects or telling stories and jokes while neighborhood kids do recitations and tell what they would like for Christmas. These contain wonderful tidbits of family history and some interesting local lore but predictably, it is the music that takes

center stage.

Word that Littlejohn - already well known and respected in local music circles - had the ability to make recordings on lacquer (acetate) discs spread like wildfire. Just as he hoped, some of the best individual musicians, vocalists, and bands from around the region began showing up at his doorstep just to see what they sounded like on a real record. Sometimes

a good jam or musical was underway when

Littlejohn simply flipped the switch and dropped the needle on a blank disc, but increasingly, his efforts began to take the form of more conventional recording sessions. A band or

artist would come with a particular number or two in mind. Littlejohn would make test cuts

and play them back while the band tuned up and ran through the songs a few times. Recordings were made until the artist was satisfied; typically 2 or 3 takes would do it. Littlejohn either kept the culls or in some cases, required the artist to make a disc specifically for his own collection. Musicians paid nothing for Littlejohn’s services beyond the few cents it took to cover the cost of the discs they used.

Most everyone went home with at least one of their own records.


Five years of intense recording produced more than two hundred documented tracks

of music by dozens of artists as well as several hours of voice and radio recordings. Though a handful of discs are dated as late as 1957, the bulk of known recordings were made between 1947 and 1951. More

discs are surely out there gathering dust in closets and attics. Yet others have not escaped the ravages of time and neglect.

Far from the homogenous collection of string bands one might

expect, the Stanton Littlejohn recordings reveal a local music scene which was both vibrant and startling in its diversity. String bands, gospel groups, individual artists, instrumental soloists, a cappella vocalists, pianists, and even a pair of tap dancing sisters were preserved in the Littlejohn 8

archive. Shades

of everything from western swing to the blues to bluegrass reverberate from the strings of local fiddlers, guitarists and banjo players. Songs descended from the traditions of the British Isles are recorded right alongside the raw, high energy, blues-infused, new sound of rockabilly. He couldn’t have known this at the time, but if Stanton Littlejohn had to pick a moment in American music history to flip the switch on a microphone in Southwest Tennessee,

he couldn’t have done much better than 1947-51.

Littlejohn continued to play music, host and attend musicals and even record a few sessions on magnetic tape after the last acetates were made in the mid to late fifties. But by the mid-sixties new and affordable recording technologies were everywhere and

Marjorie & Stanton at Eastview in the 1970s the commercialization of music was nearly complete. The moment had passed. The Littlejohn recordings went unheralded and largely unnoticed for many years. Many of those who made recordings held on to their discs and passed them down through their families, playing them occasionally for nostalgia’s sake. The archive amassed by Littlejohn during his active recording

years was kept in a box in the closet where they were fortunately protected from direct exposure. In later years, Stanton and Minnie Bell’s daughter, Marjorie Littlejohn Richard, would remove them to her home in Jackson, Tennessee further contributing to their preservation. The old home at Eastview had no central heat or air. 9

In 1976 a young fiddler and community music historian David Killingsworth learned of the records and borrowed a few of them from Mr. Littlejohn to brush up on some of the old tunes. He had known and learned from many of the musicians on

Killingsworth transferred several of the best tracks to cassette tapes before the records.

returning them to the Littlejohn family. A few years later, McNairy County Historian and old time music lover Bill Wagoner heard, and was impressed by, some of the cassette transfers. Wagoner asked Killingsworth for a copy and encouraged him to record a little commentary on the musicians who had mentored him. Wagoner taped audio interviews with other area musicians who had been influenced by many of the same old time players, notably champion fiddler Wayne Jerrolds.

Wagoner broadcast the

Littlejohn recordings, along with the interviews and commentary from a local radio station in Selmer, Tennessee, billing the short-lived series Magic Moments in McNairy County. It was the first time most of the

recordings had been heard outside of the Littlejohn family in more than forty years. Stanton’s passing in 1983 and the deteriorating condition of the records themselves seemed to lend a sense of urgency to their preservation. Wagoner assisted Mrs. Littlejohn in distributing some of the old discs among the better known families who had recorded at Eastview. Meanwhile, Marjorie Littlejohn Richard and husband Don Rayburn continued the family tradition of involvement in music, first as volunteer organizers of an old time music festival, The Midsouth Jammin Jamboree at Eastview, Tennessee, and later as charter

members of the Jackson Tennessee Area Plectral Society, where they remain active today. Through these and other channels—both Marjorie and Don are talented old time musicians in their own right—they came into contact with the late Ellis Truett in nearby Henderson County. With Truett’s cooperation, Bruce Nemerov of Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Popular Music and Tennessee Arts Commission Folklife Program Director Dr. Robert Cogswell were engaged in fieldwork to document traditional music and musicians in West Tennessee. Between 1997 and 1999 Truett arranged several interviews and jam sessions with musicians from the region who were recorded and photographed as part of that project. It was then that Cogswell and Nemerov learned about the Littlejohn recordings. With the cooperation of the Richards, Nemerov borrowed several of the original discs and made Digital Audio Tape transfers in 1997, but less than half of the available material was preserved at that

time. The tapes became part of the collection at CPM but again, there was no release or further distribution, and the recordings fell back into obscurity.

Ten years later the local arts

agency Arts in McNairy rediscovered the Littlejohn recordings while engaged in a local cultural assessment effort. From 2009 through 2013 AiM representatives worked with the Richards and other local families to

compile and preserve as many of the original Littlejohn discs as possible. At the same time, photo documentation of the musicians who recorded at Eastview was collected and digitized with

the assistance of local media outlets. These efforts have resulted in the most comprehensive documentation and preservation of the Littlejohn sessions to date. CPM was contracted to transfer as much of the surviving material as possible to digital media and TAC offered generous financial

Marjorie Littlejohn Richard tells

a sweet story about her mother’s sentimental attachment to the recordings. Minnie Bell Littlejohn passed away in 2009 just as this preservation effort was getting underway. In the waning days of her life, she

loved nothing more than to hear the old recordings made in her home. Marjorie played them over and over again in Minnie Bell’s room. The sounds transported her back to those wonderful years when the floorboards

shook with the shuffling of a dozen dancing feet and the halls rang with the music and laughter of friends. It is our sincere hope that the recordings of Stanton Littlejohn will have a similar effect on you. -Shawn Pitts

assistance at the urging of Cogswell. In 2012 Arts in McNairy’s Heritage and Culture Committee received an award from the Henry Reed Fund of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress to continue the project. TAC and LOC support made it possible to conduct interviews with surviving informants and stage two homecoming concerts featuring several artists and families who had recorded with Littlejohn. The county’s new visitors’ and cultural center, opened in June 2011 in downtown Selmer, was the perfect venue. Fittingly, the center is housed in the former Latta Ford Motor Company building, a frequent site of local jams and musicals where many of the Littlejohn artists cut their teeth as performers. An annual homecoming concert is now included in Arts in McNairy’s ongoing program efforts. December 2013 Selmer, TN




Elvis Black

volume 1

1. Pig Ankle Strut Elvis Black, 1950

7. Black Eyed Suzie Arlis Littlejohn , 1949

2. Wolves a Howlin’ Lee Littlejohn, 1948

8. Tennessee Wagoner The Walker Band, 1949

3. Bile Dem Cabbage Arnold English, 1957

9. The Theme/ Matchbox Blues Ernest Whitten, 1951

4. Hadacol Boogie Ray Presley, 1950 5. Georgia Camp Meeting Con Crotts 6. Devil’s Dream Charlie Cox, 1951

10. Milk Cow Blues Waldo Davis, 1950 11. Kentucky Waltz Virgil Murray, 1950 12. Eighth of January Stanton Littlejohn


1. Pig Ankle Strut

Elvis Black (April 27, 1950) One of the most respected fiddlers from the early to mid-twentieth century, Elvis Black influenced three generations of area musicians. He was accidentally blinded as a small child and took up the fiddle to pass the time. Recognizing his aptitude for music, his family encouraged him to pursue it, even taking up a collection to send him away for violin lessons. He reportedly stayed only one semester, preferring to learn from local country fiddlers and developing his own instantly recognizable style. The song Pig Ankle Rag (noted as Pig Ankle Strut in the Littlejohn session) is an obscure old-time American rag.

2. Wolves a Howlin’

Lee Littlejohn (June 9, 1948) Stanton Littlejohn’s cousin, Lee Littlejohn, recorded this uniquely American breakdown at the age of 88. The song was popular in the repertoires of north Mississippi and Alabama fiddlers at the turn of the twentieth century. It is one of only a handful of solo fiddle and voice recordings made of “Uncle Lee.” In a charming interview from the same date, Uncle Lee reveals that he doesn’t even own a fiddle, having sold his. When Stanton prevails on him to play some of the old time tunes on a borrowed instrument, Uncle Lee remarks, “the old time kind is all I ever knew about.” Wolves a Howlin’ is proof enough. 14


Arnold English on fiddle


3. Bile Dem Cabbage

Arnold English (March 11, 1957) English’s version of this popular American fiddle breakdown is among the latest recordings made by Littlejohn in the acetate/lacquer format. Dialectical for “boil them cabbage” and more commonly know as Boil Them Cabbage Down, the tune is thought to have originated from an African-American reel (Lomax) but also shares characteristics with some English country dance numbers (Rinzler). Uncle Dave Macon was one of the first to record the song in 1924. By 1957 Arnold English and The Dixie Hay Riders had emerged as one of the area’s best square dance bands but English, on fiddle, is here backed by The Latta Ramblers. The Ramblers appear on many of the Littlejohn sessions behind vocalists or instrumentalists and typically included Rob Richard on Bass, Paul Taylor and/or Tom McCormick on guitar and Eunice Smith on piano/accordion.

4. Hadacol Boogie

Ray Presley (June 19, 1950) Hadacol was a Louisiana patent medicine popular in the South during the 1940s and 50s, primarily due to its 12% alcohol content. Hadacol Boogie reportedly first appeared as a jingle to hawk the product and was later recorded and popularized by Bill Nettles and His Dixie Blue Boys in 1949. Another Louisiana product, Jerry Lee Lewis, also recorded a version of the song. Ray Presley’s version here owes more to Nettles than Lewis. This is Presley’s only known recording with Littlejohn, but he 16

was a singer and guitarist known to perform locally with Waldo Davis. He is backed on this song by a group of seasoned local musicians including Davis on Fiddle, Eunice Smith on accordion and Rob Richard on bass. Littlejohn recorded an instrumental version of Hadacol Boogie by Waldo Davis around the same time.

5. Georgia Camp Meeting

Con Crotts (Unknown) Another influential fiddler from McNairy County Tennessee, Con Crotts traveled widely and played contests, radio shows, dances, political rallies and home musicals. He made only a handful of recordings with Littlejohn. The song At a Georgia Camp Meeting, from which this tune is derived, was originally composed by Kerry Mills in 1897 as a Cakewalk—a popular, twostep, dance craze from the turn of the twentieth century. It was later adapted and popularized as a ragtime number. Chet Atkins breathed new life into the song as a solo guitar piece in the 1950s, but Crotts’s version is the rare old-time fiddle version of this once popular song. Con & Elvin Crotts

6. Devil’s Dream

Charlie Cox (January 1, 1551) This is one of at least three tracks Charlie Cox recorded at Eastview with Stanton Littlejohn. He was described by a friend as, “not your average country fiddler.” Though Devil’s Dream is the quintessential old-time hornpipe, Cox demonstrated diverse musical tastes and talents, even trying his hand at classical music in the 1970s and 80s. The origins of Devil’s Dream are obscure and several melodies actually go by that title. This tune, which is one of the older tunes so named, probably emigrated with musicians from central England.

7. Black Eyed Suzie

Arlis Littlejohn (August 14, 1949) Another Littlejohn cousin, Arlis, was one of the area’s best known practitioners of the frailing banjo style. From this rendition of the popular breakdown, Black Eyed Suzie (Susan/Susie), it is evident that he was also a powerful vocalist. The song is probably derived from an earlier melody originating in the British Isles, but by the time Arlis Littlejohn recorded it, the tune was already an old time standard throughout much of the South and Midwest.

8. Tennessee Wagoner 18

The Walker Band (December 23, 1949) Everett and Manse Walker were well known and respected on the home musi-

cal circuit of McNairy and surrounding counties. Tennessee Wagoner (alternately known as Georgia Wagoner) is probably derived from an earlier Scottish hornpipe. It was undoubtedly one of the Walkers’ favorites since they recorded versions of it with Littlejohn on two separate occasions, this being the stronger of the two. Everett Walker is listed as the fiddler on this cut but the other band members are unknown. Waldo Davis & the Midnight Ramblers (Left to Right) Rob Richard, Paul Taylor, Cletus Sanders, Johnson Gooch, Eunice Smith, Waldo Davis, Grant Taylor


9. The Theme/Matchbox Blues

Ernest Whitten (October 30, 1951) Titled Matchbox Blues on the label of the original recording, this is undeniably Ernest “Pappy” Whitten’s original song he simply called, “The Theme,” an unnamed composition with which he opened and closed all of his dances. The Littlejohn materials contain several excellent recordings of Whitten who was considered the preeminent local dance fiddler of his day, playing as many as three dances a week for almost fifty years. Presumably, the title Matchbox Blues was applied arbitrarily by Littlejohn when Whitten failed to supply one. The tune bears no resemblance to the well-known blues song of the same name.

10. Milk Cow Blues—Waldo Davis (May Ernest “Pappy” Whitten

15, 1950) First written and recorded as a country blues number by James “Kokomo” Arnold in 1934, Milk Cow Blues made its way into the repertoire of artists as diverse as Robert Johnson,

Bob Wills, Elvis Presley, George Strait, Aerosmith and Doc Watson. This instrumental version shows off the prowess of Davis on fiddle and Eunice Smith on accordion. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Davis was one of the most versatile musicians and entertainers in the area, appearing on regional radio programs and even, for a brief stint, on the Grand Ole Opry. Davis recorded on a number of Littlejohn sessions as both lead and backup performer.

11. Kentucky Waltz—Virgil Murray (May 26, 1950) Patriarch of one of McNairy County’s best known musical families, fiddler Virgil Murray performs here with the Latta Ramblers who served as a sort of house band for the Littlejohn sessions as well as the regular jams at The Latta Ford Motor Company in Selmer, Tennessee— thus the name. This is an instrumental version of Bill Monroe’s 1946 classic. Local boy Eddie Arnold also scored a number one hit on the C&W charts with Kentucky Waltz a year after this song was recorded by Murray.

12. Eighth of January—Stanton Littlejohn (Unknown)

While appearances by Stanton Littlejohn on his own recordings are not rare, they are more sparse than one might imagine. The voice and fiddle of Littlejohn are heard on this track. He is joined by well-known McNairy County musicians Clyde Sargent and George E. Knight—on guitar and mandolin respectively—and his sister Eunice Littlejohn Smith on accordion. Eighth of January is a well-known Southern reel commemorating the date of Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory at the Battle of New Orleans.


That these

fragile records have survived, mostly intact, for almost seventy years

is a testament to how much they have been prized by Littlejohn’s family, as well as the families of the men and women who appear on his recordings. Very few of the those artists are still with us now, but to hear those that remain speak of their respect and affection for Stanton Littlejohn, his enthusiasm for their music, and the fond recollections of the time they spent in his home, behind his microphone, is to understand something about

the power of local

music tradition. -Shawn Pitts Dec. 2013 Selmer, TN

Dedicated to the memory of Stanton and Minnie Bell Littlejohn. Special thanks to: Marjorie Littlejohn Richard; Don Rayburn Richard; David Killingsworth; Bill Wagoner; Peck Boggs; Harold Richard; the Johnson Gooch family; the Arnold English family; Alan Murray; Tom Evans; Robert Cogswell; Bob Fulcher; Martin Fisher; Arlis English; Carolyn Bowman; Wayne Jerrolds; Gary Holland; Harold Knight; Lanessa Miller; Ron Bell and the musicians -

both past and present of McNairy County, Tennessee.

1. Pig Ankle Strut Elvis Black, 1950 2. Wolves a Howlin’ Lee Littlejohn, 1948

3. Bile Dem Cabbage Arnold English, 1957 4. Hadacol Boogie Ray Presley, 1950 5. Georgia Camp Meeting Con Crotts 6. Devil’s Dream Charlie Cox, 1951 7. Black Eyed Suzie Arlis Littlejohn , 1949

8. Tennessee Wagoner The Walker Band, 1949 9. The Theme/ Matchbox Blues Ernest Whitten, 1951 10. Milk Cow Blues Waldo Davis, 1950 11. Kentucky Waltz Virgil Murray, 1950 12. Eighth of January Stanton Littlejohn

Total Running Time 30:57 Copyright 2014 Arts inMcNairy On the cover: Waldo Davis and the Midnight Ramblers History & Notes by Shawn Pitts

Package & Design by Lanessa Miller Contemporay Photos by Bryan Huff

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