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Cliff Bryan - Got A Little Home To Go To
The State of Missouri, and the Ozarks region in particular, remains a fertile ground for old-time square dance fiddling. Even though there seem to be fewer dances to play for these days, musicians like Cliff Bryan of West Plains, Missouri, continue to find outlets for their music, the most common being regular informal jam sessions in people’s homes, at local community centers, and the occasional folk festival or fiddlers convention.
Cliff Bryan’s playing reflects characteristics shared by many musicians of his generation. His diverse repertory includes pieces learned from local fiddlers, some rarely heard outside of the immediate locale in the Howell County area along the Arkansas border. Many of his favorites, though, are more widely-known pieces he learned from fiddlers popular in the late 1940s through the early 1970s, whose playing could be heard on live radio broadcasts and on records, such as Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Oscar Stone, Tommy Magness, Paul Warren, Tommy Jackson, and Kenny Baker.
Cliff’s father’s family came to America from Ireland in 1776. The Bryans eventually moved to Iowa and later to Kansas. In 1882 they traded their land in Kansas for a farm outside of Pomona, in Howell County, Missouri. Cliff was born on August 31, 1927 in Kansas City, where his parents Cliff Sr. and Sybil had moved to find work. When their efforts were not successful, they moved back to the Pomona farm. Life there was not particularly easy, but they managed.
As Cliff remembers, “If we didn’t raise it, we didn’t eat it. That’s the only worry the folks out on the farm had – was getting rain enough to raise a garden – and sickness. ‘Cause if you got sick you either got well or you died. And we raised our living. Milk, eggs and everything. Mom was a woman who never stopped working. Canned everything she could get her hands on. She always said that was her biggest worry – seeing her kids going to bed hungry.”
Cliff was the only one of nine siblings who showed any interest in music. He recalls hearing fiddle players at local square dances and knew that he wanted to be a fiddler. When Cliff was around 14, his father acquired a violin in a trade. His dad did not play or have any interest in it and hung it on the wall. The children, though, played around with it until it was in pretty bad shape. Finally, Cliff’s father offered to have the violin repaired for anyone who wanted to learn to play it. Cliff eagerly took up the challenge.
His dad spoke to Polk Rhodes, a highly respected fiddler and fiddle maker, about fixing the fiddle. Cliff remembers: “He told Dad – Dad had asked him about fixing the fiddle – he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll fix that fiddle. Tell that kid to bring it up.” Course they lived up on the other side of Pomona about four mile. I walked up there and took the fiddle up there. He told Dad, ‘I don’t know when I’ll get around to getting it fixed, but I’ll let you know.’ … So probably six months later he told Dad, he said, ‘Tell that kid to come get his fiddle. I got it fixed.’ ‘Course he just fixed it out of odds and ends, and I imagine he had guitar strings on it. Me and a neighbor boy, he had a Model A pickup. He said, ‘Let’s run up there and get it.’ And the old man said, ‘Yeah, I’ve gotta get her straightened up here.’ And he worked and he put pegs in it. Put strings on it. Made me a bridge. Done everything and I was starting to get scared. I didn’t have much money. I said, ‘Mr. Rhodes, what’s this gonna cost me?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. How much money do you got?’ I said, ‘I ain’t got but 25 cents.’ He said, ‘That’s just exactly what I was gonna charge.’ So he done all that work for a quarter. They were good people. If I’d a said I ain’t got none, he’d a said, ‘Take the fiddle and go on home.’ When I got that fiddle, I thought I had a Stradivarius.”
Cliff learned most of his early fiddling by watching and listening to local fiddlers. He recalls going to square dances where five or six fiddlers might show up. They never played for money, but would take turns fiddling while the others danced. “I could hear a tune and memorize it in my mind.” And he wasn’t bashful about asking for help. “Anytime I could a get a fiddler cornered, I’d have him to show me something before he got loose.” Local fiddlers who played important roles in Cliff’s early development as a musician were George Edson, Charlie Ridgely, Lee Laswell, Emerson Briles, and Charlie Hiler. Cliff reserves the highest praise for Hiler. “He was the finest fiddler we had in this country. He could play every damn tune there was, from the time of Christ to the present day! … He played tunes that I could never play, you know, hornpipes and stuff – the old fashioned hornpipe way of playing it. He had the best ear for music of anybody I ever saw. He couldn’t read nor write but he’d go to town, take a load wood to town in the wagon, and he’d stand around in Richard’s (the local store), they’d play the radio. And when it played a certain tune he liked, he’d listen to that and he’d come home and get his fiddle and he’d play it.”
Hiler was a farmer who lived outside of Pomona, and Cliff would visit him as often as possible. “I had to go at night of course. I was either in school or Dad had us working. I’d take old Shep and my fiddle and we’d hunt up to Charlie’s. If old Shep treed a possum, why I’d shoot it and tie it up on a limb and pick it up on the way back. And have two or three. They was worth, wasn’t a lot of money, probably 25 cents for a good possum hide. It bought shoe leather.”
Hiler taught Cliff many of the pieces that Cliff still plays, unusual tunes like Raymondsville (also called Collins Two-Step), John Mullins’ Tune, and Cherokee Wagoner, as well well-known tunes like Ragtime Annie, Soldier’s Joy, and Tennessee Wagoner. Cliff paid close attention to Hiler’s unusual and highly rhythmic bowing style, which emphasized short, rhythmic bow strokes, and incorporated much of that style into his own playing, giving it a distinct flavor, danceable and highly listenable.
In the mid-1940s, Cliff and his family, along with Charlie Hiler and other Ozarkers, migrated to Yakima, Washington, where they worked in the orchards picking apples, cherries and pears. Cliff and Charlie spent much of their free time playing music at Grange Halls and other venues, switching off on guitar and fiddle. They played old pop songs like Darktown Strutters’ Ball and Just a Shanty in Old Shantytown interspersed with the old square dance tunes from back home. In 1945, Cliff was inducted into the Army at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was scheduled to be deployed to the Philippines, but good fortune intervened, and World War II ended. He was instead sent to Japan where he worked on a construction crew building an airbase. After two years, he was discharged and returned to the States.
Around 1947, Cliff moved to Chicago where he lived for a time with his brother on the city’s south side. Cliff soon found himself playing music in the thriving nightclub scene that catered to country music audiences across the city. He also had to join the musicians’ union. He played in a three-piece band that consisted of himself on the fiddle, a rhythm guitar player, and a “slide steel” guitar player. They called themselves the Kenosha Corn Huskers, although Cliff admits that not one of them had ever set foot in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The band played a wide variety of country music, from fiddle tunes and songs from the 1920s through current popular hits by the likes of Margaret Whiting and Eddy Arnold. The band played every Friday night, “anywhere we could play,” including The Laurel on 63rd St., the Elks Club, and the Masonic Lodge. Cliff recalls playing square dances at Roosevelt College and elsewhere during the nation-wide revival of interest in square dancing. Unfortunately, the late nights playing music and hanging out in nightclubs caused some friction between Cliff and his brother, a preacher, who eventually asked Cliff to make other living arrangements. Cliff was finding the music business less than lucrative. He recalls, “There were three of us. There wasn’t no money. You just played for whatever they wanted to give you.” He moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he worked in a factory for a short time, before heading back to Pomona and the farm.
Cliff’s return to farming did not prove to be very successful. After a few years of severe drought, he started working construction jobs because they paid a lot better than factory work. He would leave home on a job and return at the end of the season. Around this time he got married and started a family. Unfortunately, his wife did not care for Cliff’s fiddling, which took him away from the family, so he quit playing for several years. He continued to work construction jobs until 1959. Tired of following construction jobs around the country, he remembers telling his wife, “If that’s the only way I got of making a living, then we’ll just go home and start eating rabbits.” They moved back to Pomona and the family farm. Cliff eventually went into the real estate business. He also got divorced and remarried. His current wife, Sue, encouraged Cliff to start playing his fiddle again after he had put it down for fifteen years, and remains an avid supporter of his musical activities.
Since then, Cliff has played for square dances in and around West Plains and has participated in the Old-Time Music Ozark Heritage Festival since it started in 1995. He became involved with Missouri Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and has passed many of his unique tunes on to a new generation of Ozark fiddlers. Most importantly, though, Cliff continues to play every week with a group of his musical friends in West Plains. This CD was recorded during three visits to Cliff in West Plains in April and May 2000 and February 2011.
1. John Mullins’ Tune, or Hiler Hornpipe. Charlie Hiler learned this tune from fiddler John Mullins, and named it after him. Cliff, in turn, learned it from Hiler and named it after him.
2. Arkansas Traveler. Composed in the mid-19th century by Colonel Sanford C. Faulkner, Arkansas Traveler has undergone a number of transformations through the years. Several sets of lyrics have been attached to the melody. In the 1850’s a vaudeville skit based upon the song became quite popular across America. It portrayed a city slicker’s humorous encounter with a squatter while traveling through backwoods Arkansas. The skit remained popular well into the 20th century and was recorded several times. Played as an instrumental it has long been popular with fiddlers. Arkansas Traveler was recorded by Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland on June 30, 1922 making it one of the earliest fiddle tunes to be recorded commercially.
3. Cherokee Wagoner. Cliff learned this tune from Charlie Hiler, who sometimes called it Creek Wagoner after the Indian tribe in Oklahoma. In southwestern Missouri it was sometimes known as Humansville, presumably named for the town in Polk County. The first part is similar to Wagoner One-Step as played by Earl Collins, a fiddler born in neighboring Douglas County in 1911.
4. Walking In My Sleep. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith made a popular recording of this in 1937. Kenny Baker recorded it on his “Portrait of a Bluegrass Fiddler” LP in 1969, which is probably where Cliff first heard it.
5. Peek-a-Boo Waltz. This tune is popular with Swedish fiddlers under the name of Svensk Anna’s Waltz, and is a favorite of fiddlers everywhere. Cliff remembers hearing this as a young boy, played by his father’s uncle, Will Ward. When he got his own fiddle in his teens he relearned the tune after hearing it played by several other local fiddlers.
6. Chickens Under the Back Porch. A tune by Kenny Baker which has become quite popular among Ozark fiddlers.
7. Chinquapin (Chinkypin). This tune is played all over the United States and is known by many names, including Crooked Stovepipe, Love Somebody, Lead Out, and Too Young to Marry. Cliff learned it from the playing of George Edson.
8. Collins Two-Step, or Raymondville. Cliff may be one of the few fiddlers that play this piece that was once common throughout the south-central Missouri Ozarks. He learned it from Charlie Hiler, and called it Collins Two-Step after a fiddler who lived near the Howell County/Ozark County border. It is also known locally as Raymondville, perhaps after the town of Raymondville about 60 miles north of West Plains. Douglas County fiddler Bob Holt recorded it (Rounder CD 0432) as Arkansas Two-Step.
9. Dry and Dusty. This is well-known throughout the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Cliff thinks he may have learned it from George Edson. First recorded by the Morrison Brothers String Band (Abbie and Apsie, with their sons Claude and Lawson) from Searcy County, Arkansas on June 3, 1930 (in D), other fiddlers have recorded it more recently, in the key of E, including Uncle Dick Hutchison from Jay, Oklahoma, Lonnie Robertson from Theodosia, Missouri, and the great bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker.
10. Kiss Me Waltz. Another tune learned from Kenny Baker. This is one of the more commonly played old-time waltzes throughout Missouri and elsewhere.
11. Eighth of January. There seem to be as many versions of the 8th of January as there are fiddlers who play it. Cliff’s vigorous short-stroke bowing is on display here.
12. Buffalo Gals. Cliff’s version of a venerable old song/square dance tune once popular on the minstrel stage, written in 1844 by John Hodge.
13. Forked Deer. A perennial favorite among fiddlers in the Ozarks and the Southern United States. East Tennessee fiddler Charlie Bowman recorded a version in 1929 that is still widely played today. Cliff plays it a bit different, adding a couple of extra beats in the A part, giving it a unique feel. Cliff thinks he may have learned it from Lee Laswell or George Edson.
14. Hard Road To Travel. Cliff is the only fiddler we know that plays this piece as an instrumental dance tune. His source was Charlie Hiler. Originally a song titled Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel, it was written for a black-face minstrel show by Daniel Emmett in 1853. We’re not sure how or when it evolved into an instrumental fiddle tune, but Hiler might have developed his version from Opry performer Uncle Dave Macon’s popular 1927 recording.
15. Ragtime Annie. One of the most popular fiddle tunes of the last century, this piece is also one of Cliff’s favorites.
16. Johnny the Blacksmith. Cliff learned this one from a Kenny Baker recording, but definitely puts his own stamp on it.
17. Durang’s Hornpipe. Composed in 1785 in honor of highly-acclaimed step dancer, John Durang (1768–1822) by a Mr. Hoffmaster, this is another tune that seems to be played everywhere fiddlers gather. Cliff acquired this one from Emerson Briles.
18. KC Stomp. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s 1940 Bluebird recording was the source for this tune, which Cliff plays at a much more relaxed tempo, making it a good tune for dancing a two-step.
19. New Five Cent Piece. Although this tune (also known as New Five Cents) has been widely played throughout the South since at least the early 20th century, Paul Warren, fiddler with Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys and Cliff’s source, probably is responsible for this tune’s popularity among fiddlers of Cliff’s generation.
20. (Why Don’t You Go To Heaven) Uncle Joe. An old tune with origins in Scotland and still played there and Ireland, where it is called Miss MacLeod’s Reel. In the United States it is also sometimes known as Have You Ever Seen the Devil, Uncle Joe, or Hop Light Ladies. Cliff says he “picked it up from hearing it played around.”
21. Rachel. Cliff maintains that he learned this from Tommy Jackson’s early 1950s recording, although through the years he has subtly and creatively modified the melody.
22. Grey Eagle. This piece is a favorite of fiddlers just about everywhere in the Ozarks and elsewhere among both dance fiddlers and contest fiddlers. Cliff’s vigorous bowing and solid timing suggest that he’s played this one for many a square dance.
23. Wednesday Night Waltz. Cliff doesn’t remember when or where he learned this popular waltz. It was a hit in 1927 for the Mississippi string band, the Leake County Revelers. That recording was reissued in the late 1940s, which might account for the tune’s continued popularity among musicians of Cliff’s generation.
24. Billy in the Lowground. “Everybody played this but Hiler had the best version.”
25. Soldier’s Joy. This is one of the older tunes in fiddlers’ repertories, having found its way across the Atlantic from the British Isles, where it was known as King’s Head.
26. Crying Baby. Another rare tune which does not seem to known or played outside of Howell County. In fact, Cliff may be the only fiddler who still plays it. He learned it from Emerson Briles, a local fiddler who Cliff described as older than his dad.
27. St. Anne’s Reel. Probably of French Canadian origin, this tune was first recorded in the late 1920s by Quebec fiddler Joseph Allard as Reel de Sainte-Anne. It has spread throughout the U.S. and is frequently played at dances and informal jam sessions.
28. Stone’s Rag. Cliff heard Oscar Stone play this on a Grand Ole Opry broadcast in the 1940s.
29. Black-Eyed Susie. A popular dance tune in the Appalachian South, not commonly played by Ozark fiddlers. Cliff thinks he might have heard this one played on the Grand Ole Opry, which he began listening to after his dad bought a radio in 1938.
30. Stony Point. This tune can be traced back to the Revolutionary War battle in New York in 1779. It seems to have taken hold, and versions of it are played everywhere one hears old-time fiddling. According to Cliff, “I mighta got it from Lee Laswell.”
31. Tennessee Wagoner. Both this tune and Grey Eagle are said to have been written in commemoration of a race between horses Grey Eagle and Wagner that took place in 1838 in Louisville. Tennessee Wagoner is one those tunes that have remained popular among old-time fiddlers everywhere. Cliff probably learned it from Charlie Hiler.
32. Got a Little Home To Go To. Sometimes known as Waitin’ for the Federals, this melody has long been popular with Ozarks musicians. Fiddlin’ Sam Long recorded it for Gennett in early 1926 as Seneca Square Dance. More recently Lee Stoneking and his son Fred recorded it as No Little Home To Go To. Cliff thinks that George Edson may have been his source.
Recorded by Jim Nelson in April and May 2000 and by CLinton Shurtz in February 2012.
Guitar accompaniment by Jim Nelson.
Liner notes by Jim Nelson.
Thanks to Rusty Marshall and Dedo Norris for their keen editing and suggestions; to Phil and Vivian WIlliam for seeng this through from start to finish; to Rachel Reynolds Luster for her photographs; to Bill COnley and Barbara Weathers for introducing me to Cliff twenty years ago. To Paul Tyler for the loan of his Sony digital recorder. A very special thanks to Cliff's wife, Sue Bran, for allowing us to take overher living room and kitchen for an entire weekend and to Cliff for being a such good sport and for his fine fiddling.
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