"I can go to hell as fast as you can."
The Obscenity of John Carson's Violin
Throughout the seven volumes of Document Records Fiddlin' John Carson's Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, the first listener will hear old-fashioned country music played with confidence and mastery by one of the early nineteenth-century violin ambassadors to radio and shellac. Sometimes with his daughter (Rosa Lee "Moonshine Kate" Carson), a rotating gathering of scavengers known as the Virginia Reelers, or solo, John Carson's interpretation of American folk music finds common melodies translated through his most idiosyncratic and opportunistic sensibilities. . It's his vision that guides these 165 pages, but it's not the only controlling voice heard on these discs. Equally impressive are the audible sighs, whistles, laughs and whispers that accompany his violin: wood, guts and horsehair and nothing but a demon on his shoulder, drinking and singing as he pleases.
Even without his instrument, Carson had enough demon to warrant attention alongside these recordings. There is no excuse for their racism, anti-Semitism or outright evil. Throughout his life, he was an active member of the Klu Klux Klan, sang songs calling for the lynching of Leo Frank, protested evolution, and enjoyed a (self-proclaimed) reputation as a moonlighter. A motherfucker first and a musical opportunist later, he brought his reputation to the lyrics of his songs and recorded comedy sketches.
The symbiotic relationship between this violin and the violinist is central to the song "Hell Bound For Alabama" (Volume #4). This violin melody adheres to many of the conventions of the traditional form, but diversifies with a clever and/or distorted variation. The melody's A section is only six bars long, which makes it seem like it resolves into the first quarter of the B section. The effect is unnerving and wild, as Carson's violin seems really used to the idea of doom. A high, uncomfortably high note also flies around the melody at various points throughout the melody. There seems to be a second fiddle (Earl Johnson perhaps) adding that weird, spooky part, but the logic of it boggles the listener's ear. The fact that this is only the second most irritating thing about the performance speaks to Carson's strange sensibility.
Carson also knew how to strip a song down, stripping away all but the most necessary musical parts to achieve its whole. Take "I'm Nine Hundred Miles From My Home" (Volume #2), whose intro, a standard old-time modal throwback, slows down the melody as the verse begins. However, Carson betrays his confidence meter as soon as he starts singing, slowing down and simplifying his execution so that it matches the words in the bar as he sings.
I pawn my watch, I pawn my chain, I pawn my gold and diamond ring, but that won't pay my little wife's fine, I pawn my car and my crew.
He doesn't play the tune he sings, but keeps pace with his bow, moving it back and forth on a single note. The effect is sinister and prevents a debt from being paid - a slow walk to the executioner's gallows or, worse still, a life without your wife, your wallet or your well-being. When it's time for him to get back to the melody between the chorus and the verse, he adds the beat without stealing it at the end of the phrase. John Carson is the only one who managed to put his foot down in this version and yet his violin accompanies him until the end. Which of the two is the cart and which is the mule will never be determined... did he slow the violin to match his personal tempo, or was he guided by it? Is John Carson the music man? He says yes, in the final iteration of the chorus, when he promises, "If the train runs right, you'll see John tomorrow night / Lord, I'm 900 miles from home". the audience or maybe his violin.
In a duo, trio, or larger group, the backing musicians play their guitars and banjos, perhaps to keep Carson in time or to hold out until the end of the song. "Goin' Where the Climate Suits My Clothes" or "Hen and the Rooster" (both Volume No. 6) show a devotion to slides and atonal double stops that give the songs a wild, out-of-order quality. Peering through the tired technique of a champion dixie violinist and musical doctor is something unexpected, easily mistaken for failure if not for his dedication to repetition. Far from false primitivism, Fiddlin's John Carson seems to explore a musical language whose rules were as incomprehensible as they were personal.
All of this isn't to say that Carson hasn't found time to include mundane sides, but even they show up with a wink and a glissando. There is little reverence in these songs, particularly on the gleefully impious "Shame to Whip Your Wife on Sunday" (Volume #4), which revels so much in its subversive theme that each time a new verse appears, Carson seems to skip the beat, and Vice comes along. It's Rosa Lee and/or the Virginia Reelers who accompany him on these adventures like the duet "I Want to Make Heaven My Home" and "At the Cross" (in volume #7 and #6 respectively). The latter takes the scene at Calvary and inserts (is it reverent or mocking?) the words of 'Amazing Grace' as the first stanza. There's a distinct difference between Carson's playing and his literal second fiddle, Earl Johnson. It's Johnson who accompanies Carson in his recitation of the verses of "Amazing Grace," and the delivery is too precise and tune-abiding to belong to the man who sings.
Although he recorded his last side in 1934, Fiddlin' John Carson's style still holds a place among the last generation of early violinists. Known as Ferd Moyce and Frank Fairfield understand this relationship between violinist and fiddle when they play together without the interference of other musicians. They know that when there's no band, tempo is irrelevant, as is melody. All that matters, as the Document Record's seven-volume collection shows, is that you've seen your bow without a plan and are dropping your fingers where they can. If you get lost, move your left year closer to the bridge and your violin will whisper what to do, but like Carson, you must follow her advice at your own peril.river toCopyright: Document Records 2020
- recent posts
The Document Records Store is the world's largest catalog of over 25,000 vintage blues, gospel, spiritual, jazz, boogie-woogie and early country music titles.
Latest posts from the document records store(see it all)
- Ball And Chain Blues: 10 Prison Songs From The Document Catalog- February 25, 2021
- Perry (Mule) Bradford follows African-American singers through the closed doors of the 1920s recording industry.- August 10, 2020
- "You Got To Move" A Reflection on Rev. Gary Davis by Jonathan Oldstyle- July 6, 2020