Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sallie Gooden

Eck Robertson’s 1922 Victor recording of the traditional fiddle tune Sallie Gooden is among the first professional country music records ever made. The recording features a whopping 13 variations of the tune, and it was very influential in the early development of Texas-style fiddling. Here in Book V, I present Sallie Gooden with what has become its standard sequence of variations in the contest circuit. The notes and bowings remain fairly close to Robertson’s recording though, as do the playing style, tempo, and feel.

Eck Robertson's original recordings
Robertson was born in Texas in 1887, and he became a professional entertainer in his early 20s. In 1922, he began performing frequently at Confederate soldier reunions throughout the South, and at one of these events, he struck up a friendship with a Civil War veteran and fellow fiddler, Henry C. Gilliland. In summer 1922, the two traveled to New York City in hopes of securing an audition at the Victor Talking Machine Company – and they achieved just that. Arriving in New York in wide-brimmed black hats, leather cuffs, and pants tucked into high-topped boots, they met up with a lawyer and old friend of Gilliland’s named Martin W. Littleton, who set up a meeting for them at Victor. The two fiddlers impressed one of the label executives, who invited them to return the following morning to make a “test record.”

The first two tracks they recorded were Arkansas Traveler (featured in my Book II) and Turkey in the Straw. Over the next couple days, Robertson also recorded several fiddle tunes both solo (including Sallie Gooden) and with piano accompaniment. All of these recordings were released by Victor over the next couple years, and they found some success, in particular after a surge of interest in old-time country music in mid-1923.

Robertson continued performing until WWII, during which his son was killed in combat. The loss of his son, combined with new trends in music that he thought rendered his brand of entertaining a bit old-fashioned, prompted him to quit performing and become a piano tuner at the Tolzien Music Company in Amarillo, TX. Occasionally, he was a featured guest at fiddle contests, but he didn’t regain serious recognition until 1963, when old-time musicians and folklorists Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tracy Schwarz visited his home, recorded him playing a number of fiddle tunes, and released these recordings on an album called Eck Robertson, Famous Cowboy Fiddler. The release of this album yielded appearances at the UCLA Folk Festival in 1964 and on the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and cemented his legacy as one of the great old-time fiddlers in American history. He passed away in Texas in 1975.

Three generations of teachers and students playing Sallie Gooden
Robertson was a longtime friend of Texan fiddler Luke Thomasson, the father of my teacher, Benny. Though known primarily as a showman (reportedly, he could toss his bow or fiddle in the air, catch it, and resume playing a tune without dropping a note!), Robertson’s influence on the development of fiddling is significant and unmistakable. I am fortunate to have been able to meet “Uncle Eck” in 1974 at a fiddle contest in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

The rendition of Sallie Gooden presented here is demanding. It requires the extended use of double-stops, frequent trips to the 2nd position with maneuvers that involve forward extensions on the 4th finger and backward extensions on the 1st finger. I suggest learning to play this using the cross-tuning employed by Robertson in his recording and my companion recording to the book (low to high: AEAE), because the resonance created by the cross-tuning is powerful and sheds new light on the fiddle’s tonal and textural possibilities. However, because many fiddle contests prohibit cross-tuning, most fiddlers have adapted the tune to standard tuning. Sallie Gooden can be played either way.

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