A blues with a yodel : it may not sound much now, but in the 1920s a lot of careers were carved out of that curious amalgam. Jimmie Rodgers started it, and after him went Gene Autry, or Jimmie Davis, or Cliff Carlisle. The latter yodeled the longest and the best.
Raised in the countryside outside Louisville, Kentucky, Carlisle would say later : « My music is a cross between hillbilly and blues – even Hawaïan music has a sort of blues to it. » Teaming first in the early Thirties with the singer-guitarist Wilbur Ball, he went on the vaudeville tent show circuit, and afterwards he told they had actually been the first yodeling duet.
Then in 1930 he recorded in a Jimmie Rodgers vein (« Memphis yodel »), but with a distinctive touch on the Dobo resonator steel guitar. At this point he was also making a name on Louisville stations (WHAS and WLAP), billing himself and Ball as the « Lullaby Larkers ». That’s how his career took off.
In 31 or 32, he was in New York, extending his own port-folio, and recalling Jimmie Rogers singing a number about a rooster : « What makes a Shanghai crow at the break of day ? To let the Dominicker hen know the head man’s on his way.. » Ralph Peer wouldn’t let him record that, because it was kind of a risqué tune at that time, but finally he let Carlisle go. Hence « Shanghaï rooster yodel n°2 ».
In 1932 Carlisle was working solo, but in the years that followed he was often partnered by his younger brother Bill. On one of their records they even staged a fight over who would do what. « Hold it, buddy, » says Cliff indignantly as Bill starts to yodel. « This is my « Mouse’s ear blues », and I’ll do the yodeling. » It isn’t the only unusual feature. « Moose’s ear blues » is, probably uniquely in the corpus of recorded hillbilly music, a song about defloration. « My little mama, she’s got a mouse’s ear, but she gonna lose it when I shift my gear. »
By the mid-’30s, when he was working on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and recording for Bluebird and Decca, Cliff was making a fair bid to corner the hillbilly disc market in sniggery songs about roosters and ashcans (there was an occasional double entendre loitering in this vicinity), and humorously violent tales of marital discord like « Hen pecked man », « Pay day fight » or « A wild cat woman and a tom cat man », where Cliff’s boisterous flights of fancy are powered by the twin engines of his Dobro and Bill’s inventive flat-picked guitar. By the end of the decade he had been on four record labels and made almost 200 sides. He and Bill had a cross-section of country music just prior to WWII. So it was hardly surprising that their family group, the Carlisles, with various sons and dauhters, was popular on the Grand Ole Opry and had hits in the ’50s with « Too old to cut the mustard » and « No help wanted ».
In the mid-’50s Cliff retired to a quiet life of painting, fishing and church work. He did the occasional comeback on not very memorable albums for small labels, even reuniting with Wilbur Ball and playing for college audience or folk festivals.
(Freely adapted from the chapter devoted to Cliff Carlisle in Tony Russell’s « Country music originals – The legends and the lost »)
Here are some selections of Carlisle’s work in very different styles.
From 1932, backed by a wild slapping-bass, for the evergreen « Goin’ down the road feelin’ bad ».
Howdy folks, this fortnight will be a bit quieter than usual, with a batch of very old Hillbillies.
First the King of Country Music, Mr. ROY ACUFF himself. There’s no need to tell his story, after all, with his Smoky Mountaineers or his Crazy Tennesseans, he more or less started it all. Here’s his « Steel guitar blues » (Conqueror 9088), recorded on March 22, 1937 in Birmingham, AL, with the stunning Clell Summey on lap-steel, Jess Easterday on guitar and Red Jones on bass. Wild effects on the steel, and great string-bass !
JOHNNY HENDERSON, originally from Texas, was a determined character, who just kept on trying. He had «The girl that I love is an Oakie », first on Miltone 5201, a nice jumper (piano leader plus steel solo and fiddle) ; then he recut it on his own High Time label # 117. On the flipside, « Down beside the Rio Grande » is a fine relaxed fast ditty on the same format. Henderson also had of course the famous « Any old port in a storm » and, under the alias of Johnny Gittar, « San Antonio boogie », perhaps for a later fortnight.
On the Tred-Way label (# 100A), out of Midland, Texas, « Who flung that mater » by TROY JORDAN is a gentle piano-led jumping little thing. Good fiddle solo. Jordan had another one on this label, « Too many kinfolks » (# 103).
“Who flung that mater”
download Way up in the early times, a famous duet, that of TOM DARBY & JIMMIE TARLTON, had a long string of releases between 1927 and 1933 on the Columbia label, cut in Atlanta, Ga. Here is their fantastic bluesy dobro and urgent vocal for « Sweet Sarah blues » (April 15, 1929, Columbia 15431).
From Arizona came SHELDON GIBBS. On his own Gibbs label (# 1), here are two sides, « Nothing gets me down » first, an uptempo shuffler, with lovely fiddle and vocal by Bud Gray. On another issue, they do the semi-instro »Houn’ dog boogie », a nice uptempo with fine guitar, steel and drums issued on the Smart label (# 1016). Thanks Dean.