Eck Robertson, Texas Fiddler, and “Sallie Gooden”

I’ve been corresponding with my music friend Wayne Erbsen, talking about Texan fiddler Alexander Campbell “Eck” Robertson of Amarillo, Texas in the heart of Panhandle Country. I’ve long been intrigued with Eck, and count myself a lifelong fan.  Here’s some excerpts of what I wrote to Wayne, plus more comments and a tune:

I first heard Eck’s playing (Brilliancy Medley) on the Harry Smith Anthology, which I bought in early 1962. That six-volume Lp set really changed my life! Later, it became the foundation of my musical world: I wanted to play *everything* on it! When I put together my musical group The Scragg Family [ https://bluegrasswest.com/ideas/scragg.htm  ], I added several selections from that set to our repertoire. What struck me about Eck’s playing was first, his extremely precise timing, notation, and bowing. Eck did this without sacrificing the emotion, the “feel” of the tune, along with its drive. Later, when I heard Sallie Gooden, it’s inventiveness, charm, and quality stunned me!

Eck made that record for the Victor Talking Machine Company on the morning of Saturday, July 1, 1922, solo. He’d visited the studio the day before with traveling companion Henry C. Gilliland, but on the second day of his sessions, he left Henry visiting friends and faced the dark maw of the recording horn by himself for Sallie and Ragtime Annie, using Victor studio pianist Nat Shilkret as accompanist for two other selections.

Eck Robertson, publicity photo, 1923.

Eck Robertson, publicity photo, 1923.

Sallie (Sally Gooden) is, to me, the finest recorded example of American fiddle playing we have. Period. It is a magic record. Something happened that Saturday morning in  the hub of a busy city, and it happened to be captured by the Victor recording technician. In one take. The music is driving and intense. Dropping the needle on that disc is, to the listener, like stepping on one of those moving sidewalks at airports, etc: you begin to move, immediately, with no turning back. Eck’s bowing is fluid, managing to maintain a droning accompaniment, just as a tanboura is used in classical North Indian music still today. But there is something more. The low A drone seems to catch the edge of the recording horn somehow, making it resonate with what Eck is playing, a series of variations on a simple county play party tune that brings the listener into the melody, holding a diamond in the

light and turning it, each facet bringing out more

Henry C. Gilliland, who accompanied Eck on his new York trip.

Henry C. Gilliland, who accompanied Eck on his new York trip.

sparkling beauty. Keeping that powerful drone, Eck launches a series of upward sweeps on the high E string, bursting sky rockets on the fourth of July. Nearing the end of the tune, Eck returns to the original phrases and then, bringing the cascade of notes to a halt without slowing down, drops into an F# minor double stop, resetting the melody into a more subdued, moving, light before returning to the beginning once again to end his offering with a smile and a musical wink.

I met Eck 42 years after that recording session in a covered walkway just outside of UCLA’s Royce Hall. He was appearing at one of their annual folk festivals, traveling with his 50-ish son as companion. He was a small man, thin, frail, and spoke with a very soft voice. And he could talk! Talk about fiddlers and fiddles, fiddle contests and his own prowess as a showman. He was enjoying the sun and the attention he was getting from all the bystanders.

Eck Robertson

Eck Robertson

Later, for a workshop, he’d brought out his fiddle. He had a leather strap around his neck attached to the end pin of the instrument. He spoke of fiddling and occasionally, would raise the instrument to playing position and run his bow across the strings to make a point. His frailty vanished as soon as he laid that bow to the strings: there was the Eck I knew from his recordings! Done with making his musical point, still speaking, he let the fiddle drop in front of him. Several of us made a jump to catch the thing but the strap held it and there it was, swinging back and forth in front of him like a clock pendulum while he, oblivious, continued assuring us that yes indeed, he was the World’s Greatest Fiddler!

Later, speaking aside to me about Sallie, he said:
Long time ago there was a girl named Sallie, the most beautiful in the land. She had many suitors but couldn’t make up her mind which one to marry. So she held a fiddle contest for her hand. Her beau made the tune and played it for her to win the prize. His name was Gooden, and there have been 13 generations of Goodens since that time. That’s where Sallie Gooden came from and that’s why I composed a variation for each generation in my version of the tune.”

Click (on the far left of the box) to listen to Sallie Gooden:

 

In 1976, I produced Eck Robertson – Master Fiddler, a reissue of all the 78 RPM discs that Eck had recorded in the golden age of country music, issued on my label Sonyatone Records, STR-201.

Eck Robertson - Master Fiddler

Eck Robertson – Master Fiddler

My reissue Lp was accompanied by a 12-page booklet which contained a biography and discography of Eck Robertson. It is available for download here:
Eck_Robertson_Booklet

If you’ve enjoyed this article and booklet, please consider making a donation to BlueGrass West! to help us continue our work.

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Thanks,
Peter Feldmann                  

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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