N. American Fiddle Traditions: Joseph Decosimo’s Tennessee Roots
Young Tennessee old-time fiddler/banjo player Joseph Decosimo’s album, Sequatchie Valley, is one of my jealously guarded treasures. It’s an album filled with unexpected delights: beautiful tunes and songs learned directly from elder musicians from Joseph’s home state. The fiddle tunes are often beguiling: the softly loping rhythms of Bob Douglas’ tune “Jenny in the Cotton Patch” wind their way as if along an old dirt track. Each tune is like the tip of an iceberg; they’re seemingly short vignettes of Tennessee rural life that actually reflect years of friendships, community life, and good times spent with neighbors. The “goofy” tune “Hy Patillion” came to Joseph in much the same way as an excellent old joke, passed around with a smile and wink from old friend to new friend. Joseph’s a marvelous fiddler, able to snake his way around the twisted winding rhythms of Southern old-time music with such ease that you find yourself following his path with ease while listening. And he’s a beautiful singer. Despite the strange title, the song “The Old Cow Died in the Forks of the Branch,” is a masterfully subtle example of how to make an archaic antique sound as fresh as a beating heart.
I first met young old-time fiddler Joseph at the annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend in 2010. He was there helping out with the older Tennessee fiddler Mike Bryant, but was up all night with the rest of us playing killer old-time jams anywhere we could find a spot. I was blown away by his impressive repertoire of beautiful Tennessee tunes and songs (I also hadn’t realized what a wonderful singer he is). Here was a young guy who’d clearly done his homework, soaking up the tradition at every possible opportunity. I wanted to interview him to find out more about what makes Tennessee fiddling so special and to find out more about where he comes from.
Joseph Decosimo and Mike Bryant at Fiddle Tunes Festival 2010:
Hearth Music Interview with Tennessee Fiddler Joseph Decosimo
Tell me more about where you grew up? What kind of town? Close to the famous Cumberland Gap? Did you grow up around music?
Joseph Decosimo: I grew up on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, up above Chattanooga. Signal Mountain is on Walden’s Ridge—a finger of the Cumberland Plateau that runs for miles and miles. It’s a beautiful place with big sandstone bluffs, deep gorges, and lots of trees. Although Signal Mountain has grown a lot during my lifetime, it’s still easy to slip away into the woods up there. Most of my father’s family lived within a few miles of us. My grandmother’s people have been in Tennessee for a long time and have lived up on Signal Mountain for several generations. It’s a place that feels like home.
As for Cumberland Gap, we’re pretty far from Cumberland Gap. Signal Mountain is down on the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau, while Cumberland Gap is further up north on the Kentucky line. I grew up down closer to the Georgia line and not too far from the Alabama line.
Signal Point outside Signal Mountain
As far as getting into the music goes, I didn’t really grow up in the music. My parents didn’t play or anything like that; but they encouraged me to listen to any kind of music that wasn’t trashy pop stuff. They also were and continue to be really supportive of my music. I got a banjo in seventh grade and quickly found a place where folks were playing music just a few miles away from my house every Friday night at the Mountain Opry. It was in an old school that had been turned into a community center. Bands would sign up to play for slots throughout the evening, and folks would jam outside and in the back rooms. There were a lot of bluegrass players there, but for some reason, I wasn’t drawn to their sound.
There was an older guy named Don Sarrell who came every week and played in the house band. His banjo playing really caught my ear. It was different from what most of the guys were doing. Don played a nice two-finger up-picking style of old time banjo. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate the difference at that time, but I heard something different and beautiful in the way he played. I spent hours in the practice rooms listening to him—the sounds that came out of his banjo washed over me and embraced me. It was powerful stuff. Don’s father had played, and Don was trying to get a sound like his father’s. There were a small handful of folks playing old time music around Chattanooga at that time, but I didn’t meet them until I was in college. These days, there’s a pretty vibrant old time scene in Chattanooga, but when I was growing up, it wasn’t really there
Walk me through the basic geography of Tennessee. I’m a West Coast boy, born and raised, so pretend I know nothing about Tennessee.
JD: Tennessee is an interesting place. These days I’m living up in the northeast corner of Tennessee—just south of Johnson City in a little town called Jonesborough. The big mountains—5 and 6 thousand foot mountains—of East Tennessee are just east of us. I’m living just down the road from Bristol and Johnson City, where some of my favorite musicians recorded back in the 20s. You can follow the line of the big mountains down the eastern edge of the state, running a little east Knoxville and on down a bit east of Chattanooga. As you head west, you get into the ridge and valley area where the Tennessee River and the Holston and Clinch Rivers cut down through the state. It’s still East Tennessee. A bit further west, the Cumberland Plateau cuts down through the state. It’s a big sandstone capped plateau with some wild areas, sandstone bluffs, and deep gorges. I grew up on the plateau and love the landscape. I consider the plateau to still be a part of the Appalachian region, although it’s pretty different than the mountains further east. Then you drop into Middle Tennessee where the land starts to roll. There’s some big hills, but it’s got a whole other kind of beauty than the mountains. I haven’t spent much time in the western part of the state towards Memphis, so I can’t say too much about it. The eastern part of the state, from the border with North Carolina on back to a little bit west of the Cumberland Plateau would be considered part of the Appalachia. It’s roughly the eastern third of the state.
This might be a bit of a tangent, but I’ve been thinking about it some lately: this way of defining—relying on geological features—doesn’t always square up with that people think about the region when they think of Appalachian music. Because the history of the old time music revival centered so much around what was happening around Tommy Jarrell and the folks in that region along the North Carolina and Virginia line, people often use “Appalachian fiddle traditions” to refer to a narrow slice of music made in the Blue Ridge. I’m beginning to think that a term like that is pretty useless. There were people playing fiddle and banjo music throughout the South— in the mountains, in the piedmont, and in the flatter places.
How would you describe the Tennessee fiddle style? I hear a lot about the Kentucky long-bow players, and I hear a lot about the Blue Ridge style of Tommy Jarrell, but don’t hear as much about Tennessee fiddling.
JD: That’s a great question, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Tennessee can lay claim to some pretty amazing and diverse fiddle styles. Arthur Smith‘s slicker, notey fiddling influenced a whole generation of fiddlers throughout the South and beyond. Down where I grew up, around Chattanooga, it seems like a lot of the older fiddlers were influenced by the wild and wooly North Georgia sounds. Gid Tanner, Lowe Stokes, and Clayton McMichen spent some time hanging out in Chattanooga back in the 20s. Maybe a lot of what gets labeled a North Georgia sound could also be called a Southeast Tennessee sound. At the same time, I hear a lot of influence from African American musicians in the music that was played around Chattanooga. One of my favorites fiddlers from around Chattanooga, Bob Douglas, played an incredible raggy piece called the “Maybell Rag.” It came to him from a black guitar player who was working on barges on the Tennessee River. One of my other favorite fiddlers from down there is Blaine Smith. His playing swoops and slides in a way that reminds me of the syncopated and swooping rhythms from African American fiddler John Lusk. They also shared several tunes in common.
Bob Douglas – Sequatchie Valley
Check out Joseph Decosimo’s version of this tune, “Sequatchie Valley” from his album:
What two Tennessee fiddlers do you most wish old-time players around the US would know about? Obviously Clyde Davenport is a HUGE stylistic influence all around, but think of two sadly ignored names here that you wish would be household knowledge.
JD: For the last few years, I’ve been obsessed with a fiddler named Jimmy McCarroll. He recorded with his band the Roane County Ramblers for Columbia back in 1928 and 29. He manages to reinvent the tunes with each pass. It’s powerful, creative stuff. He can do just about anything. Although he’s a contemporary player, Mike Bryant is a mind-blowing fiddler. He’s been really generous sharing his music with me and bunch of other younger players. His touch on the instrument is a total paradox–searing intensity paired with the most intricate bowing and fingering. Mike hasn’t been ignored, but I can’t help but mention him.
Do you think Tennessee and other Appalachian fiddle traditions have gotten short shrift in the old-time revivals? Blue Ridge playing has become such an archetype, that it seems other regional Appalachian styles have gotten lost in the shuffle.
JD: The old time revival was an interesting thing. There are so many compelling sounds that came from around the Blue Ridge, especially along the North Carolina and Virginia line around Mt. Airy and up into the mountains. I can’t blame musicians for being drawn to those sounds. When I was working on my Master’s Thesis, I spoke with Bruce Molsky about the time he spent with Tommy Jarrell and the other guys. It sounds like it was rich. It also sounds like it was a major point of connection for a lot of the folks who were getting into the music back then. Nowadays, things seem to broadening. That’s not to say the folks who came before have not opened new doors. There are a number of players of my generation from Kentucky and West Virginia who are dedicated to playing music from their home. They’ve spent time visiting with the older players and listening back to commercial and field recordings and are trying to create a sound that honors their region. You can hear some of them on The New Young Fogies album [see our interview with Anna Roberts-Gevalt about that project HERE]. In a way, the obsession with something that often gets mislabeled Round Peak leaves the rest of us with a lot more territory to explore. It’s kind of liberating. There are plenty of folks and a bunch of younger people who have chosen to learn about the music from their home. It’s become one way to connect to a place, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing the music from your home transcends any sense of being slighted or overlooked. In the end, it makes for a much more interesting music community when you have folks who are really digging into particular repertoires.
You’ve learned a lot from older players. Which of these players is still living? Do you still visit them?
JD: Clyde Davenport lives up in Jamestown, Tennessee—right up on the Kentucky and Tennessee line. He keeps a garden and still takes in visitors although his hearing is pretty bad. He loves to mess with folks who visit him. The first time I came by, he answered the door and told me he didn’t have any instruments to play—there was a fiddle sitting on his couch. We went back and forth about whether or not he had any instruments for a while. Eventually, we made our way in and spent the rest of the day playing music. After I finished college, I’d go and hang out up there a good bit, especially during the summers. We’d play music, talk about the music, walk around his garden, eat meals together, and run errands in town. All the folks who’ve spent much time with these musicians know how it goes. It’s rich but exhausting. His wife Lorene keeps him straight. I haven’t been up there as much lately because I was living in North Carolina, but I’m hoping to get over his way more. I’m actually going to be playing at his 91st birthday party this evening.
Charlie Acuff, who taught me a lot when I first started fiddling, is still around. He lived in Alcoa, Tennessee where he and Dorothy raised a family. He worked in the Alcoa aluminum factory. He’s getting into his mid 90s now and can’t play so much. During my last couple of years of high school, I’d get up there about once or twice a month. Charlie is in an assisted living place now. I’ve dropped in a few times when I’ve been on my way between North Carolina and Tennessee. These visits have shown me the tremendous power of this music. Although his memory is failing him, I’ve watched a change come over him as I’ve played some of his grandfather’s tunes for him—a physical change—from shallow breaths to deeper breaths. I’ve watched tears well up in his eyes and had them well up in mine as I’ve fiddled some of his tunes for him. The music resonated in both of us in different ways, but it connected us in a way that runs deeper than words or memory.
These days I’m hoping to get down and see Charlie McCarroll a bit more. His father was the great Jimmy McCarroll I mentioned earlier. I’ve been visiting and learning from him some the last few years. He’s got some beautiful family tunes that he’s shared with me.
I talked with Chance McCoy, a great old-time fiddler from West Virginia, and he said he never felt that comfortable visiting older players. He wasn’t really their friends to start off with and it felt a bit forced. Have you experienced this? There’s such an aesthetic that we all have to learn from old-timers, but has that been a struggle at times? Not only finding the few old-timers left, but getting along with them?
Chance is great, and I can understand where he’s coming from. I’m not sure how it worked, but it felt right to come alongside the older musicians I’ve gotten to know. By some strange events, spending time with older musicians became my main way of learning while I was in high school. I never went to festivals during high school and college. Instead, I’d go and hang out with older players. It wasn’t really intentional. It was more that I was fascinated by their music and by them. In some beautiful way, these encounters and friendships have grown into something that goes much deeper than the music. I have a tape of my first visit up to Charlie and Dorothy Acuff’s house. I spent most of the time trying to get my banjo in tune. I can listen back and hear Charlie patiently coaching me along. After that tape, I made other tapes: each tape documents the music. They document the ways that Charlie taught me to move the bow. They document the way that he taught me to sweeten up a note high on the E string. Beyond the music, these tapes document the friendship that was growing. When I was a freshman in college, I can remember playing these tapes when I got homesick. Just hearing Charlie talk and play and the sounds of his house was a comfort. I don’t think there was anything forced in the relationship. Although Charlie gave me a lot, I hope that I reciprocated.
Getting along with Charlie was easy. He is gentle and patient. Getting along with Clyde Davenport, as anyone who has visited him can attest is something else. Clyde is wonderful, but he is a total trickster. You learn to play along and to dish it back out to him. The whole experience of visiting has taught me about being patient. It has taught me that these musicians are people. It reminds me that there is much more to them than just the name that gets linked to a tune during the conversation between tunes at a jam. It’s taught me about what it means to be a good visitor. These visits are socially exhausting, but they’re totally rewarding. Not only are you trying to absorb complex musical things, but you’re navigating and creating relationships across generational and social lines. I try to encourage younger players to go and spend time with older players. If old time music is a tradition, it seems critical that we value and spend time with the people with links to the past as we make our music for the present. It’s that reaching back into the past to create something to satisfy my needs in the present that makes me love this music.
Joseph Decosimo – “Jenny in the Cotton Patch”
Joseph Decosimo – “The Old Cow Died in the Forks of the Branch”
Photos/Notes on Other Tennessee Fiddlers from Joseph Decosimo:
“Sequatchie Valley fiddler Clint Kilgore stands in his backyard in Victoria, TN in the summer of 2006. The Cumberland Plateau rises behind him in the background. He was a fine fiddler who played with some notable fiddlers during his childhood, including Jess Young and Lowe Stokes. My version of Hy Patilian comes from Jess Young’s playing.”
“Jean Horner is a violin maker from Westel, TN up on the Cumberland Plateau. I play two of his fiddles. He sources much of his wood from East Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau. His instruments are becoming increasingly popular among younger old time musicians.”
“Cumberland Plateau fiddler Bob Townsend stands beneath his name at a monument built in honor of all the traditional musicians who have played in and around the Sequatchie Valley through the years. The monument is located just outside of Dunlap, TN. Bob Townsend has turned much of his musical energy towards learning the repertoire and style of fiddlers from the Cumberland Plateau. He’s one of the finest representatives of fiddling from the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau around. We’ve played a lot of music together over the last decade, and he’s been very generous in sharing the older tunes that he’s figured out. I initially learned Newt Payne’s ‘Great Big Taters’ from him.”
“Tom McCarroll standing in his garden in June, 2011 in Lenoir City, TN. Tom is Charlie McCarroll’s older brother. He fiddles, plays guitar, and sings. His fiddling has a more rugged drive than his brother’s more polished playing. It’s equally compelling and bears witness to the diversity of sounds even within one family. While Charlie took many of his musical cues from his father and uncle George, Tom feels that his playing reflects his grandmother Rosie’s fiddling. He tells me that when he was very young, she propped him on a bed with pillows and put a fiddle in his hands. Like so many of these other musicians, fiddling and music making has been one part of their lives. I like this picture of Tom in his garden because it speaks to the fact that these musicians have led full lives that extend far beyond the music. For many of them, music has been a gift to be shared with friends and neighbors much like the produce from Tom’s garden that he shares with his neighbors.”
NOTE: Joseph Decosimo returns to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes as teaching faculty this year accompanying Charlie McCarroll! MORE INFO HERE. June 30-July 7, 2013, Port Townsend, Washington State. www.centrum.org/fiddle
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