The Red Fox Chasersthe Depression-era, northwestern North Carolina string band that’s chronicled on the new two-CD set I’m Going Down to North Carolinagot the name honestly. As Kinney Rorrer, a Danville, Va., radio host, musician and writer explains in the essay that begins the collection’s liner notes, the quartet’s fiddler, Guy Brooks, was an avid red fox hunter. And Brooks, Rorrer goes on to note, convinced banjoist and bandmate Paul Miles to join him and others in the chase, as well as the around-the-campfire bonding that followed.
The subtitle of the anthology, The Complete Recordings of the Red Fox Chasers (1928-31), is just as truthful: The two discs contain the entire recorded output of Brooks, Miles, A.P. Thompson and Bob Cranfordthe latter two a gospel-rooted pair recruited after Brooks and Miles heard them singing with another quartet at the 1928 Union Grove Fiddlers Convention. After signing on, Thompson took to the guitar, Cranford to the harmonica. The Red Fox Chasers’ sound took shape.
It wasn’t a strictly defined string-band sound, though. The 42 tracks on I’m Going Down to North Carolina, which include a skit presented in four parts and a couple of sides recorded by Thompson and Cranford as a duo, showcase a rangy repertoire. Fiddle tunes and British ballads give way to gospel numbers and songs born of Tin Pan Alley. Sharply detailed originals share space with songs borrowed from contemporariesThe Carolina Buddies, The Carter Family and, of course, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers.
“They gravitated toward a variety of styles,” explains Rorrer from Vicksburg, Miss., after spending the day at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in nearby Meridian. “Any music that sounded good to them, they were attracted to. It didn’t make any difference as far as the source goes.” It was with an eye on that variety that the Independent analyzed a cross-section of the Red Fox Chasers’ catalog with Rorrer.
“Budded Roses,” a Charlie Poole hit
“By Columbia’s standards, anything that sold 20,000 copies was a hit record,” Rorrer explains. Based on that bar, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers’ 1926 record, “Budded Rose,” which sold over 35,000 copies, was a smash. With those figures probably not lost on Brooks and company, the Red Fox Chasers’ version, recorded three years later, stuck close to the Ramblers’ style.
“The Red Fox Chasers were obviously influenced by Poole. Some of their guitar runs and the banjo style were direct copies of Poole,” Rorrer says, citing “What Is Home Without Babies?” and “Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee” as two other Poole hits that the Chasers tackled. “It was a compliment to Poole.”
The timing wasn’t good for the Chasers’ version of “Budded Rose,” though. Tough times were afoot in 1929, obviously, and folks weren’t buying a lot of records. In his 40 years of collecting records, Rorrer has come across exactly one copy.
“Mississippi Sawyers,” a fiddle tune
This one, often titled simply “Mississippi Sawyer,” has certainly been around: It first appeared in print in 1842, though reports link it to the 1830s, too. Either way, it was pushing its centennial when the Red Fox Chasers recorded it in 1928, and people are still playing it today. So how does a song endure for over 175 years, especially when it’s an instrumental without a story to pass down?
“It might be simply that it has a catchy tune,” says Rorrer, recalling another song, “Green Mountain Polka,” that a fiddling friend was especially fond of. “I remember he said about that fiddle tune that because of the change in key, going from A to Dand, of course, ‘Mississippi Sawyer’ does the same thing, but going from D to Athat every time you made that key change, it sounded new. It sounded fresh.”
Rorrer offers two possible title explanations: “It referred to the people who lived along the Mississippi River who cut wood for the steamboats that ran on wood fire. So they’d be, ‘Mississippi sawyers.’ Another is that it referred to the trees that had fallen over in the river, so you’ve got a limb that’s sticking out of the water that’s like a saw blade.”
“Devilish Mary,” a British ballad
This ballad, sort of a female cousin to the venerable “Black Jack David,” was a favorite of many string bands in the ’20s and ’30s, with the Red Fox Chasers’ version beating one by the popular Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers to the post by a year. The Chasers covered the song at a laid-back, almost leisurely pace, whereas the Skillet Lickers’ went at it with three fiddles blazing. It’s another enduring tune, too, with the likes of Bob Wills, Pete Seeger and Odetta recording it during subsequent decades. It’s a number favored by Rorrer’s string band, too. “We play it more in a Piedmont style than a North Georgia style,” he offers. “We don’t play it quite as fast or as raucous as the Skillet Lickers. We play it somewhere between the Red Fox Chasers and the Skillet Lickers.”
“Otto Wood,” a Red Fox Chasers original
When one-handed outlaw Otto Wood was gunned down on the streets of Salisbury, N.C., in 1930, he was already a folk hero of sorts. Nicknamed “the Houdini of Cell Block A,” he was truly a no-jail-can-hold-me kind of a guy, having busted out of the prison in Raleigh no fewer than four times. Wood, naturally, was the kind of character that string bands liked to immortalize in song. Cranford and Thompson were the first to write about Wood, with a completely different Wood-centered composition soon to follow from Walter “Kid” Smith and his Carolina Buddies.
“Yeah, they beat the Carolina Buddies to the studio with that one,” says Rorrer of Cranford and Thompson’s straightforward, harmonica-spiked take. “The Red Fox Chasers did theirs in January of 1931, and Kid Smith and the Carolina Buddies did theirs in March of ’31. I figure they must have just taken the newspaper account of Otto Wood and sat right down and wrote the song. It’s very factual and contains a lot of information that’s not in the Carolina Buddies song.”
But Rorrer’s a fan of Smith’s version of the tale as well. “I always thought an appropriate epitaph for [Wood] would be the line from the Kid Smith song: ‘He loved the women and he hated the law/ And he just wouldn’t take nobody’s jaw.’”
“We Shall Meet on That Beautiful Shore,” a gospel song
Not all string bands carried gospel numbers in their bag of tricks. But considering Cranford and Thompson’s background as shape-note singers, such songs were a logical fit for the Red Fox Chasers. The first thing you should notice about the quartet’s take on Sanford Fillmore Bennett’s hymn-book staple, “We Shall Meet on That Beautiful” (more commonly known as “In the Sweet By and By”), is the striking vocal arrangement. The singers execute their appointed twists and turns on the chorus deftly, delivering a performance indebted to the premier vocal school known as church. Rorrer notes that Guy Brooks’ membership in his church ended rather abruptly, though. He was kicked from his congregation for recording the Miles-composed song “Virginia Bootleggers.” The sinful subject matter was shameful enough, but it probably didn’t help that Miles lifted the melody for his bootlegging ode from “The River of Jordan.”
Apparently, the elders weren’t big on irony.
I’m Going Down to North Carolina: The Complete Recordings of the Red Fox Chasers (1928-31) is available on Tompkins Square Records. For more information on the two-disc set, see www.tompkinssquare.com. To read more about the set and Loudon Wainwright’s new Charlie Poole set, visit our music blog, Scan.