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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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