Liner Notes

CD 362 CARTHY SISCO: RUGGED ROAD

Carthy Sisco was born on August 17, 1921, in Carroll County, in the northwest corner of Arkansas. His family homesteaded on an 80-acre hill farm of corn and tomatoes about 12 miles south of Berryville. It was a large family, eleven children in all. Children did much of the work and hired out to others—dropping plants off at marker crosses in the field, then planting, thinning, and eventually plowing up the ground again. For all this hard work, Carthy’s family never seemed to make any kind of profit, a deciding factor in his later migration to the West Coast.

Carthy’s father was a five-string banjo picker who played mostly clawhammer style, but also some two-finger picking that Carthy calls “fingertipping.” He didn’t have a case for the banjo, so he kept it in a flour sack. Carthy remembers his father playing “Turkey in the Straw” and a song called “Old Aunt Kate,” something about “old Aunt Kate she jumped in the bed and I jumped in behind her.” Other songs Carthy remembers from his father’s playing are “Going Across the Sea” and “The Bluebells of Scotland.” All eleven children played an instrument; as Carthy puts it, they were always “thumpin’ around.”

His father started taking him to dances at age three. As soon as the playing began, Carthy would fall asleep to his father’s banjo and the fiddling of a man named Delton Hitson.

At five, Carthy began making and playing cornstalk fiddles. He would saw across the stalk and hum the tune while he’d “play.” But by the time he was seven, Carthy had decided that he wanted to play the banjo. His father taught him to play clawhammer style, and Carthy tried to play a few fiddle tunes. Carthy remembers that he wanted to be able to get more of the notes in a tune. With no other teachers of banjo available, he says, “I got frustrated with the banjo, I couldn’t do what I wanted to with it.” One of their neighbors, the Ramsey brothers, played a three-finger style of banjo that Carthy liked. He describes it as “what Earl Scruggs got the credit for. They were doing that way back when I was a kid. Some old guys back in the hills there. Probably never got 15 miles away from home all their life.”

But the Ramseys were not gregarious and lived too far away for a young child to visit. This was only one aspect of the isolation that Carthy grew up in. He recalls winters were so bad that after trying to get to school twice and not getting through, he had to give up. The roads were rough, and most people didn’t have cars. Carthy made it through the eighth grade, which involved a three-mile walk, but he couldn’t go to high school, as he was too far out in the country and couldn’t afford to pay someone to board in town.

Frustrated with the banjo and his inability to play tunes on it, Carthy focused on the fiddle. His father helped him start to learn tunes and was proud of his son’s ability. Carthy made a chair out of a tomato crate so that he could sit on it to practice. He transferred the four or five banjo tunes he knew over to fiddle. The first tune he remembers learning was “Coal Creek Mine.” He describes the rest of the tunes he learned as a boy as “easy” or “standard:” tunes such as “Turkey in the Straw,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Going across the Sea,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Black Eyed Susie,” “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls,” “Eighth of January,” and “Wagoner.” Often he would just learn part of a tune, not the whole thing. He would try to remember as much of it as he could—taking his fiddle out as soon as he got home—but it could be years before he would get the whole tune.

The small farms that were part of Carthy’s growing up were so scattered that music gatherings were rare. However, Carthy’s older sisters played guitar and banjo to back him up, and the three of them would play with a boy named Claude Hitson for very occasional dances or school shows. If a family didn’t have musicians of its own, people were especially glad to have music in a way we can scarcely comprehend today. “Once in a great while,” according to Carthy, they would have a fiddle contest in the public square in the center of Berryville. Typically, contests occurred during election seasons, with politicians stumping as the fiddlers played.

In addition, Carthy heard some recorded music. Someone got a “crank phonograph,” so people bought records from Sears Roebuck, three for a dollar. In the Sisco family, the children were given turns choosing what records to buy. Carthy’s first choice was Bill and Charlie Monroe. He also had records of the Carter Family and one of his favorite fiddlers, Arthur Smith.

Carthy’s best venue for playing was local dances. He calls his style “hoe-down” from hearing and later playing tunes at dances. It informs his accents, style, and speed to this day. He knew so few tunes that he’d repeat them a lot if the dances went late, which they usually did. No one minded, and dancers would often request the same tune again anyway.

They danced mostly squares, with an occasional two step. Back then he didn’t know any waltzes. Dances were simpler, and there were no callers. Instead, someone in the square “just hollered out what move you were supposed to do, ‘circle eight,’ maybe ‘chase the rabbit’.” One dance that was outlawed was called “Chase the Squirrel.” People would be in a line and the one on the end could get injured, especially if people were drinking. Almost every coat hanging up had a revolver in it, and firearms combined with drinking made things pretty rowdy.
Often the dances were in someone’s home, with the furniture moved out of a couple of rooms and a square set up in each room. Floors were rough and wooden, not suitable for too many fancy moves. At some dances, they would charge the “gents” 10 cents a set to help pay for the music. Musicians could make up to 25 cents and get free drinks. The Sisco family hosted a dance but quit after three of them because of “trouble brewing.” At all the dances, fighting broke out, typically over whose turn it was to dance next. Carthy remembers one man named George Williams who built a small building to get three squares in instead of just one per room, so that the community could have regular square dances. But after about three or four dances the drinking and fighting would shut things down. Carthy says that Williams was “a pretty good size fella and carried a claw hammer in his back pocket. And he placed it pretty good....I guess he had a reputation of using it if he’d need to.”

In 1937, when he was 16, Carthy joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, lying about his age so that he could get in. Workers made $30 a month, with $25 of this sent back as mandatory family allotment checks. These checks were life savers for the folks at home battling the Great Depression. The CCC at this time was in its prime, and local communities were proud of the CCC workers, who constituted something like a peacetime army, with more than 20,000 Arkansas men serving in camps all over the country as well as in 77 camps in their home state. Along with 150 other young men, he lived in a barracks, spending two years in the southwest corner of Arkansas near Fayetteville building dams, roads, and buildings for Devil’s Den State Park, at the bottom of the steep Lee Creek.

Carthy made many good friends during these years. Most of his comrades were from different counties in Arkansas. After work, they would gather to have some fun. Every camp had a room that served as a recreation center and canteen or PX. Here, the men could relax with ping-pong and drink Coca Colas. Carthy and the other musicians would gather around the piano to play the few tunes they knew in common and learn each others’ tunes. Some young men had brought instruments, including Carthy, who had his fiddle. They formed a makeshift band of piano, guitars, and fiddles.

In addition, they could get the Grand Old Opry on the radio from about 8 p.m. until midnight. Carthy remembers hearing the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Roy Acuff among others. Bob Wills was one of his favorites on KVOO in Tulsa, as well as Arthur Smith. Radio was a special treat since at home Carthy’s family couldn’t afford the battery for a radio.

Soon after his time in the CCC ended, Carthy was faced with some pretty bleak job prospects. Sharecroppers had come back from California with what seemed like a lot of money, so he and a neighbor took a bus out that way. But when they got to California, no one was hiring. So with the little money he still had from his CCC work, he took the bus north to stay with his sister Opal, who was living near Sedro-Woolley, WA, a tiny town northeast of Seattle where there was a small community from Arkansas. But Carthy didn’t feel he was cut out to be a logger, the major employment there. He signed up for Boeing’s vocational education program to learn about working with sheet metal and blueprint reading. Then he was sent to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, across the Sound from Seattle. In August 1943, Carthy was drafted. He spent about a year and a half in the Philippines, much of it up in the mountains.

After the war he married and they moved back to Washington where his job in the Bremerton ship yards was waiting. He spent 37 years there working with black and galvanized iron in the aircraft sheet metal shop. Between the duties of work and raising children there wasn’t much time for music.

In the fifties and sixties he almost gave up fiddling. “Television come along, you know, and that kind of took over everything...you didn’t have any place to practice with the television going. Once in a while I’d go into the bedroom or somewhere and saw a little bit. But there wasn’t a lot of tunes to learn, you know, on the radio was all country western ... People started just hanging their fiddles up on the nail on the wall as ornaments. It seemed like a time when if somebody heard you playing the fiddle, they’d ride you out of town on a rail.”

Abandoning the fiddle, he looked for other musical outlets. He picked up an old guitar at a “hock shop” and started playing Jimmy Rodgers and Ernest Tubb songs and songs off the radio. He also started playing the mandolin. He and his wife danced with the Square Dance Federation for 12 years. But according to Carthy, callers were “what run fiddling out” of square dancing, since it was more convenient for callers to buy records and call with them rather than use live musicians.

For Carthy, the early 1970s was the beginning of a new life in music. The key for him was the Washington Old-Time Fiddlers Association, with its jams, campouts, and contests. It was at those early Bremerton WOTFA meetings where he met Boyce Stuckey and Henry Mitchell, who were both fiddlers from Arkansas. Years ago, at the St. Vincent de Paul store in Bremerton, Carthy had found an old “casket case fiddle” that had come apart, but it had only cost $2. He called Henry up to get his fiddle glued up. Carthy remembers the call vividly:
“He said, ‘Bring it up and I’ll glue it up for you.’ So I took it up there and said, ‘What’s it gonna cost me?’ He said, ‘Do you play?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘well, I play a little.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the better you play, the less it costs.’ That was the type of guy Henry was.”

The job ended up costing $25 and the two men became good friends. Henry got Carthy interested in violin making, and the first one he made “didn’t turn out too bad.”

Carthy has played at the Fiddle Tunes Festival in Port Townsend, at Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival, and at countless jam sessions and WOTFA events. He is always ready to play tunes, and he’s still learning new ones as if, after his early starvation for tunes, he just can’t get enough. But once he gets a hold of a tune, he makes it his own, especially through his rhythmic bowing shuffles. Often, these rhythms rejuvenate the tune and offer a wonderful new version. Those of us who have played with him have come to call this process “Carthyizing.” For example, Carthy worships Kenny Baker and has learned many of his tunes, but it is as if he has put them in an Ozarkian Peabody’s Wayback Machine, conforming them to his fabulous light bow shuffle and making them “old-time.”

Carthy continues living at his home in Rosedale, Washington, where he welcomes visiting fiddlers and other musicians for a session just about any time!

1. Acorn Hill Breakdown (Key of D). This tune was written by Tommy Jackson, one of Carthy’s favorite fiddlers.

2. Cowhide Boots (Key of G). Learned from a tape of Missouri fiddler Lyman Enloe.

3. Soapsuds (Key of A). Carthy doesn’t remember where he got this tune.

4. Barley Corn (Key of G). Kenny Baker recorded this tune on his 1988 album on Amber Records, Carpetbagger. To Carthy it feels a lot like “Old Mother Flannigan.” He thinks he may also have heard it on KRAB radio back in the 1970’s. He often cites this now defunct radio station as a real lifeline when there wasn’t much support for fiddling.

5. Dubuque (Key of D). Carthy isn’t sure where he learned this, perhaps from the playing of Ron Hughie, a Missouri fiddler who lived in California and was an important influence on many old time musicians on the West Coast.

6. Blue Ridge Breakdown (Key of A). Carthy isn’t sure where he learned this tune.

7. Texas Quickstep (Key of C). This is one of the few tunes that Carthy remembers learning from his friend Delton Hitson when he was a young teenager.

8. Little Nancy Rowland (Key of G). Carthy learned this tune from a tape sent to him by Dave Rainwater, a local mandolin player who became a fiddler and then moved from the area.

9. The Old Grey Mare Came Tearing out of the Wilderness (Key of A). This tune was popularized as a 19th century minstrel song; Carthy learned it from a tape of Kenny Baker.

10. Kiss Me Waltz (Key of G and D). Carthy says he heard two versions of this: the first was from Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen album on KRAB radio, and the second, which he liked better, was from Dave Rainwater. Although this waltz is often attributed to Bill Monroe, banjo player and historian Clarke Buehling (who has played with Carthy’s brothers AJ and Troy, who lived in Conway, Arkansas) unearthed sheet music of the original, “Il Bacio” or “The Kiss Waltz” by Luigi Arditi, dating from the middle of the 19th century.

11. Chickens Under the Back Porch (Key of C). This tune is on Kenny Baker’s 1979 Farmyard Swing LP on County.

12. Walking in My Sleep (Key of G). Kenny Baker’s 1969 County LP Portrait of a Bluegrass Fiddler was Carthy’s source for this version of the old Southern fiddle tune.

13. Rachel (Key of D). Carthy can’t remember where he first learned this well known tune, which is commonly played by many of the Washington Old-Time Fiddlers.

14. Cumberland Gap (Key of G). We were astonished when Carthy told us that he learned this tune, usually associated with Appalachian music, from the playing of Dewey Balfa on KRAB radio, but who knows?

15. Peter Went A-Fishing (Key of A). All Carthy remembers about this tune is that he got it off “an old 78.”

16. Sally Ann (Key of G). Texas fiddler Shorty Chancellor may have been the source for Carthy’s version of this tune, which is very similar to “Sail Away Ladies.”

17. Chuckaluck (Key of G). Carthy says he learned this from Kenny Baker.

18. F & D. This tune came from a home recording of the fiddler who wrote it, Ron Hughie.

19. Whitehorse Breakdown (Key of G). Another tune from Kenny Baker’s playing, and one of Carthy’s signature tunes. Bill Monroe wrote it shortly before performing at the bluegrass festival in Darrington, Washington, and he named it for nearby Whitehorse Mountain.

20. Barbara Allen (Key of A). Carthy says he learned this version of the old ballad from Billy Baker.

21. Brandywine (Key of G). The first Kenny Baker album Carthy ever bought was the 1972 County LP Kenny Baker Country, from which he learned this tune.

22. New Five Cents (Key of D). Carthy learned this tune from someone fiddling on television.

23. Coker Creek (Key of G). From Kenny Baker’s album Carpetbagger.

24. Pike’s Peak (Key of C). Carthy thinks he learned this tune from Hank Bradley at an Old Time Fiddler’s party or from KRAB years ago.

25. New Broom (Key of G). This tune comes to Carthy from Byron Berline’s seminal 1977 Rounder album Dad’s Favorites, a favorite with many fiddlers in Washington.

26. Birdie (Key of C). Carthy learned his version from Kenny Baker and Joe Greene’s 1967 High Country LP on County.

27. Rugged Road (Key of G). The playing of Lyman Enloe was Carthy’s source for this tune.

28. What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Key of D). Carthy learned this hymn from Billy Baker’s 1979 album on Old Homestead, Fiddle Classics Vol. 1.
Banjo: Jeanie Murphy. Guitar: Jim Ketterman. Liner notes: Jeanie Murphy. Photo: Brid Nowlan. Art work: Vivian Williams. Recorded 10/01 - 2/02 and mixed by Phil Williams. Production assistance: Kerry Blech, Stephen Wade, Stuart Williams.

Return to CD catalog Return to Voyager Recordings Home Page