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Harvard Football vs. HAH: A Draw!

This year the Sports Department has elected to dispense with their customary Pre-game shows, so they won’t be taking as much time away from HAH.  And there are three Friday games, plus two 1:30 Saturday games, so only five games cutting HAH short!

  • 15 Sep:  Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:45 AM
  • 22 Sep: Game Friday; no effect on HAH
  • 29 Sep: Game Friday; no effect on HAH
  • 6 Oct: Game 1:30 PM; broadcast begins 1:15 PM (longer HAH?)
  • 13 Oct: Game Friday; no effect on HAH
  • 20 Oct: Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:45 AM
  • 27 Oct: Game 1:30 PM; broadcast begins 1:15 PM (longer HAH?)
  • 3 Nov: Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:45 AM
  • 10 Nov: Game 1:00 PM; HAH ends 12:45 PM
  • 17 Nov: Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:30 AM (Yale game)
    Harvard Football 18

Why I Cancelled Barbara Martin Stephens

I’ve been wondering whether I needed to explain this at all, but I did mention it on air, so if anyone is curious, this is what happened:

Stephens-Don't GiveBarbara Martin Stephens lived with Jimmy Martin from 1953 to 1966, and had four of his children (they were never married, and Tennessee has no common-law marriage statute). Last year she published a book about her life with Jimmy and thereafter, Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2017).

Back in January, Ken Irwin (Rounder Records) mentioned that Barbara Martin Stephens would be coming North in the summer and was looking for opportunities to promote her book. I responded,

I might well be interested in interviewing her on HAH, especially if the conversation could focus on Jimmy Martin’s history, and if we could juxtapose talk with plenty of Jimmy Martin songs—much as I did with David Johnson and his book on the Stanley Brothers.

Feel free to pass this on to whomever might be doing promotion for the book.

Then in April I got an inquiry from a representative of an outfit called ‘Handsome Ladies, Women in Bluegrass’, named Cindy, who put me in touch with Barbara Stephens. We arranged for her to come to WHRB on June 16th, a week before she was scheduled to appear for a Jimmy Martin tribute at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. I was enthusiastic at that time, telling Barbara:

I’m a long-time fan of Jimmy Martin’s music, and have played him on the radio for many decades.  It will be a great opportunity to revisit some of the music, and learn about his life with you. . .

Hillbilly at Harvard is an informal show, running from 9 AM to 1 PM (Eastern time), and I can certainly spend an hour or two with you, providing we play enough music.  What might make the most sense is to proceed chronologically, relating the events in your book with the songs that he was recording at the time. Since HAH is a country show, our listeners would enjoy hearing about your experiences with others in the country and bluegrass fields, too.

She arranged for me to get a copy of her book, which I began to read. It was a revelation, though not as it developed a pleasant one. I knew of course that while Jimmy Martin was a terrific musician, he was a roustabout, if not worse. I had a hint of this way back in 1981, when I reviewed the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival for The Boston Globe:

The Seldom Scene, from Wahington, D.C., led by the quixotic John Duffey, performed with their usual alacrity, and drew their usual ovation. Jimmy Martin, on the other hand, following a reportedly successful show on Friday evening, fell flat on Saturday, despite his coarse jokes and constant entreaties. “Is everybody happy?” he kept asking, while the wind grew chilly and people gazed anxiously at black clouds. . .

Piazzai-True AdventuresThen there was the slim 100-page book that music writer Tom Piazza wrote, originally a magazine article, with the imposing title, True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass (Vanderbilt University Press, 1999). It mostly described a backstage visit to The Grand Ole Opry with Jimmy, who at his irascible and chronically inebriated best managed to insult Ricky Skaggs and started after Bill Anderson: “I’m going to knock his ass right off him.” We never learn what Jimmy had against Bill, but Ricky apparently wouldn’t sing harmony with Jimmy on some earlier occasion, and Jimmy never let go of a grudge. In a blurb the publisher put on the back cover of Barbara’s book, Bill Anderson writes:

Jimmy Martin was a sparkling stylist. both as a singer and a guitarist, a brilliant showman whom few could follow onstage, and a tortured soul who once, when I simply said hello to him at the Grand Ole Opry, threatened to whip my ass right there on the side of the stage.  I met Jimmy early in my career and I thought I knew him fairly well.  After reading Barbara’s painfully honest portrayal, however, I realize I hardly knew him at all.

Maybe unbeknownst to Tom Piazza, standing backstage at the Opry, amidst the country and bluegrass stars Jimmy knew well, would have fanned the embers of resentment that he bore for having been denied membership in that celebrated club. From the first days the young Barbara Gibson knew him, his fondest desire was to be recognized among his Opry peers. That was to never be, and for what it is worth, we now know why: her name was Melissa Monroe, Bill Monroe’s daughter, whom Jimmy was seeing even when he started dating Barbara. She describes an encounter with Bill at the DJ Convention in 1962:

Back at the convention, I ran into Bill Monroe and we stopped to talk.  I was proud of the fact that we were moving back to Nashville, so I said to Bill, “Jimmy and I are moving back to Nashville.”  He said, “Barbara, don’t do it.”  I asked, “Why?”  Bill said—and I quote—”Jimmy will never be on the Grand Ole Opry as long as I live.”  (p. 83)

That was worth knowing, as are many of the other tidbits about the music business that enliven Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler.  But as I spent more time with the book, it began to seem more like the old True Confessions magazine, a constant litany of personal detail. I told Barbara, “Your memory of events from years past is amazing. I suppose living through such a long emotional roller-coast will impress a lot of details on you, which might have otherwise have been forgotten.” Just an example at random, from the late ’50s, when Jimmy and Barbara were living in Detroit and Jimmy was working with the Osborne Brothers:

One morning in Flint, while Thelma [Jimmy’s aunt] and I were making breakfast after the boys [Jimmy and his uncle Oscar Fields] had been out drinking the night before, Jimmy came into the kitchen and said, “We really liked that potted meat you had in the refrigerator.  Buy that same kind next time.”  Thelma and I almost fell on the floor laughing.  They had eaten dog food and liked it.  When we told them, they were nonchalant and said, “It was good.” (p. 49)

That was funny, but after a while the documentary detail became wearying, and increasingly sordid. The babies kept coming, Jimmy kept drinking and cheating, and then began to get violent. There was a constant backdrop of interactions with relatives and friends and many others, some with famous names. It was interesting to learn how Barbara began to take over booking Jimmy’s tours—and eventually others’ as well, as she was one of the very first women to become a professional booking agent. But there was precious little about the music itself. The book, I began to understand, was really about Barbara Martin Stephens, not about the music, not even about Jimmy, and for me just reading it was becoming increasingly distasteful. Finally, on June 5th, I wrote her:

Since my last response to your note, I’ve been reading more of your book, and I have to tell you I’m disappointed.  You write well and engagingly, and with great honesty, but it’s all about personal issues, not about bluegrass.  It tells me nothing about Jimmy’s music, about the way he crafted and developed it, and how he worked with so many of the other talented musicians in his bands.

Hillbilly at Harvard is a music show, not one for celebrity gossip or revelations, and I think it would be a disservice to the audience to spend any time talking about strictly personal matters.  Many people might find them compelling, but they are subjects for a different kind of program.  So I regret to say I must cancel our interview on the 16th.

I can tell that you are an engaging, friendly person, and I’d enjoy meeting you.  But I simply cannot promote a book to my listeners that I myself don’t see positively.

True or not, I never got the impression that Barbara really liked bluegrass or country music. Her book can be viewed as a graphic case study of the difficulties women have had in disentangling themselves from abusive marriages, especially half a century ago. If I were running a different radio program, as I said, I’d have welcomed Barbara into the studio, but HAH is all about the music, and I certainly could not have given those issues adequate voice.

Barbara was unhappy with my decision, but I had been increasingly concerned by the incongruity of book and impending show, so it was a relief for me. I had no illusions about Jimmy’s character, but I had no great desire to spend a couple of hours trashing it. To be fair, Barbara does make it clear that, overall, Jimmy was not irredeemably vile.  So let us close with her warm assessment, her perspective in her 82nd year, from the Preface to Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler:

Jimmy was a kindhearted man and a father who cared deeply for his children but was unable to let them know it.  He was a terrific entertainer and singer, a man who suffered humiliation and coped with it in ways that only further injured his pride and his standing in the music world.  He was often misunderstood.  He hid behind the “don’t care” façade he built around himself.  Now you will know the reason for his behavior as well as my part in it—both good and bad. (p. xiv)

JImmy Martin by BAM_sm

Jimmy Martin (Copyright © Byron Marshall,


Bluegrass and Cajun at the Lowell Folk Festival

Folk-Festival-2018-Logo_webBig Country Bluegrass

Inertia, more than anything else, has kept Dr Janie and me from the annual Lowell Folk Festival. It’s free (well, after you pay for parking), festive, with a great variety of music and food (the music is free; the food isn’t). Usually they have one or two bands that we might play on Hillbilly at Harvard. This year a listener alerted me to the appearance of one of my favorite traditional bluegrass bands, Big Country Bluegrass. They were formed by Tommy and Teresa Sells in the late ‘80s, and we’ve been playing them for most of that time. I don’t recall ever seeing them live, and don’t think they’ve been up here in New England very often. The Sells live in Mouth of Wilson, which is near Galax, acknowledged today as the heart of traditional mountain music (as some of us knew in 1960). Tommy Sells learned from Jimmy Martin (and may have even worked with him); Big Country Bluegrass takes its name from a Jimmy Martin instrumental.

BCBG has had many fine musicians in the band over the years, but I was especially fond of Jimmy Trivette’s lead singing. I got a chance to ask Tommy Sells about Jimmy, who seems to have disappeared from the scene. Tommy said, “Oh, he’s around. Singing mainly in churches, I think.” Didn’t get a chance to talk further, but Jimmy Trivette’s role in BCBG in recent years has been assumed by an amazing tenor singer, Eddie Gill, who really ought to be ranked among the top vocalists in all of bluegrass-style country music. I was fortunate to hear Eddie sing “One Loaf of Bread” in the first of their two sets Sunday, and don’t think even the late, great Dave Evans could have done his own song any better. It was stunning. I hope they record it soon.

All told, it was a treat for me to hear the current edition of this band I’ve admired for decades. Here are a few shots (click to scroll through larger versions; for higher resolution images, go HERE). The band: Tommy Sells, mandolin; Teresa Sells, guitar; Eddie Gill, guitar and lead vocals; Tim Laughlin, fiddle; John Treadway, banjo; Tony King, bass:

Kyle Huval & the Dixie Club Ramblers

Big Country were playing their next set at a different stage, so there was time to get over to hear an excellent hot (and very loud) cajun band I had never heard of: Kyle Huval & the Dixie Club Ramblers. These folks are from southwest Louisiana, and feature twin fiddles, accordion, and pedal steel, which gives them a rich, vibrant sound with a Texas flavor. They kept the large crowd entertained with up-tempo cajun breakdowns and traditional waltzes, but even the waltzes kept things (and dancers) moving. The Festival notes say Kyle Huval has a 2017 album out, called Straight Allons. It’s on Valcour Records, and as it turns out, the proprietor of Valcour is Joel Savoy, known for his work in cajun, old-timey, and country music, and Joel was one of the two fiddlers on stage with Kyle. I wanted to say hello, but we left before the end of their set. Maybe next time!

I got a few photos, though (click to scroll through larger versions; for higher resolution images, go HERE). The band: Kyle Huval, accordion, steel, vocals; Chris Stafford, accordion, steel, vocals; Joel Savoy and Mitch Schexnayder, fiddles; Jo Vidrine, guitar; Cody Lafleur, drums:

Strolling Through the Festival

We caught Big Country’s second set of the day, and then took the trolley (part of the Lowell National Historical Park) to Boardinghouse Park, where we stopped to hear a little of a Celtic quartet, performing with accordion, mandolin, guitar and percussion. After the rousing French of Kyle Huval, which required no translation, slow songs in Gaelic seemed tedious, so we moved on, ending up back where we started (Market Street, I think). There a mariachi band in fancy dress outfits were entertaining an enthusiastic crowd. The trumpets blared, and ladies spun around in white festive gowns, and then, for their closing number, the band announced they were playing a ‘bluegrass’ song. They lined up, and launched into. . . ‘The Orange Blossom Special’, complete with trumpets and strings! That was enough for me, so we rescued the Green Expy from the parking garage and headed home. Here are a few more shots (click to to scroll through larger versions; for higher resolution images, go HERE):

Getting to Saturday events (the big day at most bluegrass festivals) is hard for me, so it was fun to spend a sunny Sunday with a crowd of music lovers.   Word to LFF folks: more country and bluegrass, please!  /CL

Southern Rail in Framingham

Friday, June 29th the Framingham Concerts on the Green series began with old friends of Hillbilly at Harvard, Southern Rail, now celebrating their 40th year playing bluegrass and gospel in New England.  Aside from the Joe Val Festival, it’s rare to find bluegrass a few minutes from home (and even rarer on the Green) so Dr Janie and I put a couple of beach chairs on the grass not far from the stage.  It was a lovely summer evening.  Southern Rail were in good voice and fine fettle, though a little hard to hear in the far reaches of the Green, and treated the crowd to a good variety of songs, including some non-bluegrass fans might recognize.   Banjoist Rich Stillman indulged me with a version of the ‘Randy Lynn Rag’, which Jim announced as ‘Kicking off’ HAH (of course it ends the show), but only I noticed.  Click a photo to scroll through them (for higher-resolution images, go HERE):

Southern Rail are: Leader Jim Muller, guitar—he’s from Virginia, hence truly Southern; Sharon Horovitch, bass, married to Jim; Rich Stillman, banjo; and John Tibert, mandolin.  This Saturday they’ll be at the new Smuttynose Bluegrass Festival in Hampton, New Hampshire (105 Towle Farm Rd).  Smuttynose brews my favorite IPA, so this is a great match as far as I’m concerned; details HERE.   Check out Southern Rail’s website for oncoming events.

Here’s Southern Rail playing ‘Turn Your Radio On’ at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse in Mansfied last fall (Rich is finger-picking the guitar as Earl Scruggs did in the Foggy Mountain Boys gospel numbers):

Late getting this post up, but sometimes those round tuits are hard to find. /CL

Talkin’ about Trains

The High 48s Bluegrass Band

48s_GNR_Cover_MediumBack on the May 26th show I rediscovered the 2014 album of train songs, called Great Northern Railroad, from a band called The High 48s, a slim cardboard volume hiding amidst the plastic jewel boxes on the cart I bring in to the studio (if you go to the posts on Jon Chase slide show, or the Cosmo Cavicchio video, you’ll see the cart). I played their song about the ‘Baltimore and Ohio’ (Railroad), a lovely number written by Becky Schlegel. I have fond recollections of going with my parents and brothers to the B&O Station in Silver Spring, Maryland in the early evening, to watch the Capitol Limited (to Chicago) and the National Limited (to Cincinnati) come through about half an hour apart. I’m not sure which came first, but it left explosive caps, called ‘torpedos’ on the track, which banged when the following train hit them, a warning I guess. Afterwards we would go across the street to the Giffords Ice Cream store for desert.

I wondered idly where the name ‘High 48s’ came from. Was it a reference to latitude (turns out the band is from Minneapolis, close at 45º)? The query disappeared from my mind in the press of the next record, and the one after that, but when I got home, there was the answer: listener Ed McMann in Sausolito, California, had looked up the band’s website, and there it was:

The band takes its name from railroad slang for the boxcars originally used to transport troops on the front lines in WWI that could carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses, and were later used in the US on fast-moving “hot shot” freight trains by train-hoppers looking for work during the Great Depression.

Wikipedia has more detail:


Men of the British Expeditionary Force being transported from Cherbourg to their assembly area in a railway goods wagon, 29 September 1939. (Photo by Lt. G Keating, British War Office, P.D., via Wikipedia)

Forty-and-eights (French: Quarante et huit, typically written 40/8 or 40&8) were French 4-wheel covered goods wagons designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. Introduced in the 1870s, they were drafted into military service by the French Army in both World Wars. They were also used by the occupying Germans during in World War II, followed by the Allies.

There’s more, the Merci Train!

In 1949, France sent 49 Forty-and-eights to the United States laden with donations from citizens of France in thanks for the U.S.’ role in the liberation of France, one for each of the then forty-eight states and one for Washington, D.C., and Hawaii to share. Called the Merci Train, it was sent in response to the Friendship Train America had created two years earlier to aid France in the dire immediate aftermath of World War II. Over 700 boxcars worth [sic—with?] the donated supplies were collected across the U.S. and shipped across the Atlantic via donated transport.

As it turns out, some 43 of the 49 Merci Train boxcars are still in existence, maintained as historical exhibits in their respective states (no, not here; the Massachusetts one was apparently destroyed). And the mystique of the Quarante et huit led after the First World War to the creation of a veteran’s honor society, called The Forty and Eight (or 40 & 8). Says Wikipedia, the boxcars

were seen by the troops as a miserable way to travel, and the new organization was thus called the 40 & 8 in an attempt to make some light of the common misery they had all shared.

The 40 & 8 still exists, mainly as a charitable organization, and is organized into local units called Voitures (boxcars).

As for ‘High 48’, the band’s website is the only source I’ve seen for that term: “railroad slang for the box cars on Hot Shot freight trains.” ‘Highball’ is the term for a clear track ahead, and latterly a fast train, and we now know the ‘48s’ are boxcars, so maybe it’s strictly railroad lingo; it doesn’t seem to turn up in lists of hobo slang that I’ve found.

I really like The High 48s’s Great Northern Railroad album. But they have others, not just about trains. I contacted them and fiddler Eric Christopher tells me they have a new album out, Daddy was a Bankrobber. I’m looking forward to hearing it.

‘Riding the Blind’

DavidDavisWRB_Ramble_COVER_RGB-768x768Last week I did a ‘Tear and Compare’ between Charlie Poole’s original ‘Milwaukee Blues’, and the same song on David Davis’s terrific new Rounder album, Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole. The first verse goes like this,

One Tuesday morning and it looked like rain
Around the curve come a passenger train
On the blind sat old Bill Jones
A good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Trying to get home, he’s trying to get home
He’s a good old hobo and he’s trying to get home

Whereupon long-time listener Jim Walsh called up to ask, “What’s the ‘blind’?” I had to admit, I didn’t know. I knew what the ‘rods’ were, as in

Old Bill Jones said before he died,
“Fix the roads so the ‘bos can ride
When they ride they will ride the rods
Put all their trust in the hands of God
In the hands of God, in the hands of God
They’ll put all their trust in the hands of God”

They were steel rods under the freight cars, to add structural support for heavy loads. Here’s a picture:


Two hobos ride the rods on the underside of boxcar. (1894, PD, via Wikipedia)

A little research tells me the ‘blind’ was hobo slang for the doorway to the baggage car right behind the locomotive tender. The door would be locked, but either the frame or the portion of the canvas vestibule (if there was one) would afford protection for the train-hopping hobo. The ‘blinds’ could also refer to the vestibules of passenger trains, though there of course you’d risk discovery by the conductor. See here and here, among other places.

[Edit: See Steve Bartlett’s comment on the ‘blind’ end of a car, below, for a more accurate explanation than mine./ CL]

In this photo you can see the vestibule, which would have been the ‘blind’, on an HO model baggage car:

Here’s Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers:

Scroll down to the Joe Val preview post for David Davis playing ‘The Milwaukee Blues’ at a festival.

What’s fun about doing HAH is that it’s never old hat: I learn something every day! /CL