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Charles Wolfe from Old Time Music #36 Summer 1981 used with permission. This article is also included amongst 49 other portraits of classic and old-time musicians in his new book Classic Country available at Amazon.
IN THE TEN YEARS since I have been studying, researching and writing about old time music, the name of John Dilleshaw has remained a tantalising and elusive mystery. An enquiry about Dilleshaw - or Dilly and His Dill Pickles, as the record labels read - became a standard coda to any interview I did with any older southeastern musician, and the enquiry usually drew a blank. Who was this tall, laconic guitar player who propelled such excellent, driving stringband music, and talked his way through a couple of solo performances besides?
There were abundant clues: his records are full of place-names like Bald Mountain, the Dog River, Bibb County and Kennesaw Mountain, and the names of his supporting musician appear on several of the skits the band recorded. Yet in spite of the clues, people digging after him kept drawing blanks. Repeated research forays into north Georgia unearthed a good many other musicians and some of these had heard of Dilleshaw but none really knew much about him. I had started hoping for the same fate that befell Donald Nelson in his hunt for the Allen Brothers: that the word would spread, and some morning I would get a phone call from a deep-voiced man who would identify himself as John Dilleshaw and invite me to his farm down on the Dog River for some barbecue and talk about old times.
All this scenario never developed, but what did happen, while not as dramatic, is about as interesting, and it does give us at least a rudimentary portrait of one of the last big mystery figures of old time stringband music.
Dilleshaw has not been a complete mystery; over the years several researchers have gotten scraps of information about him. Back in 1963 Bob Pinson, stopping over in Atlanta, contacted Raymond W. Lindsey, the 'Shorty' Lindsey of the Dilleshaw records, who played tenor banjo. In an informal conversation Bob learned that Shorty's father was 'Pink' Lindsey, also on the records, and that Shorty had played tenor banjo on some of John Carson's records, as well as on Pink Lindsey's Bluebird session. Dilleshaw, he said, was an Atlanta fireman and died in 1942 or thereabouts; Bill Kiker, the fiddler, might still be in Atlanta. Later, Joe Wilson talked to a personnel officer in the Atlanta Fire Department who knew Dilly and thought that he had come from the Sand Mountain area. This is not much of a lead as it sounds, for Sand Mountain extends for miles and miles through Georgia and Alabama. The Skillet-Lickers had their most devoted fans up there (and did a skit about the area), and stringband music was still strong up there. The lead eventually developed some information about the Johnson Brothers Band (no relation to Earl), the boss band in the area for years who did a memorable session for Okeh in 1928 that was never issued; but nothing about Dilleshaw.
Then, in the fall of 1979, when I was in Atlanta for a meeting, Wayne Daniel and Gene Wiggins, both of whom had been digging into old Georgia music, told me about a man named Wylie Rakestraw who was claiming to he related to Bill Brown, the old Columbia A&R man who had 'managed' the Skillet-Lickers session and who, I felt, had helped in Dilleshaw's career. The tip was misleading in one sense but productive in another; Rakestraw, it turned out, was the grandson not of Bill Brown but of Fiddler Joe Brown, the 'champion fiddler' who appears on Dilleshaw's skit A Fidders Tryout in Georgia (Vocalion 5432). His mother had known Dilleshaw and was able to lead me to a number of other people who knew him better: fiddler Glen Martin. Whose father played with Dilleshaw; fiddler Willie Teal, who knew Dilleshaw in his youth; fiddler Lon Newman, an old crony who had played in John Carson's band in 1922, and in Dilleshaw's early band for five or six years. Finally it was Willie Teal's wife who provided the final answer to the puzzle: when asked about Bill Kiker, she explained that while she had never heard of anyone of that name, Dilleshaw had a brother-in-law who fiddled named Harry Kiker. There has never been a Bill Kiker listed in the Atlanta directory, but there has always been Harry Kiker. While I was confirming all this, Wayne Daniel, a native of Atlanta, had been systematically calling Kiker and had come upon the same Harry Kiker. To all of these people I am indebted for data used in piecing together the following account.
JOHN DILLESHAW, then, was born about 1896 on Pumpkinvine Creek, back of New Hope, Georgia, in northern Paulding County. More hilly than mountainous, Paulding County is a somewhat remote and sparsely settled area with its county seat in Dallas, about 25 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. It borders on Kennesaw Mountain to the east and Hamlson County to the west. The Dilleshaw family farmed in the northern part of the county until about 1912, when an epidemic of typhoid fever raged through the area. Apparently the entire family was wiped out except for John, his mother and one sister. Out of either emotional or economic necessity they packed up and moved to the Southam end of the county, to the southwest corner of Garnett Mountain, near the town of Hiram. Dilleshaw's mother, Mattie, was not especially musical; she was a schoolteacher, and soon took a job teaching at a nearby rural school. John himself, a strapping boy of 16, made crops, hunted and farmed. Still tragedy dogged the family. The sister, Ruby, had another bout with typhoid fever and died. Then, a year after that, when Dilleshaw was about 17, he shot himself in the foot while hunting. This accident was to have more far-reaching effects, though, as Harry Kiker tells it:
John learned to play up there by Hiram. He was in his late teens, 17-18 years old, he was in a hunting accident and shot a hole in his foot. Had the gun sittin on his foot, crazy like, you know, and it went off. So he was laid up a good long while there with that, and there was an old colored gentleman who lived up the road named Bill Turner. He was a good guitar picker and he liked John, and he'd come down there and brings his guitar, pick for him. John got interested in it, and bought himself a guitar. So while they [the family] was at work, Bill would come down and show him and teach him. And that's how he learned to play, from this colored gentleman named Bill Turner. I don't think Bill ever made any records or anything -he was a good deal older than John is even then.
One of the tunes John learned from Turner was Spanish Fandango, which was later to become one of his first records. About this time John and his mother moved off the mountain down closer to Hiram, on the Douglassville highway, near Slick Log Creek. John had begun to play a lot with a local fiddler named Dave Puckett, playing square dances and entertainments. Puckett became one a John's closest friends and later worked with him on the Atlanta fire department. Willie Teal recalls that the last time he heard Dilleshaw play, it was with Dave Puckett:
The last time I heard John, it was 1928, and it was down there at the end of the old car line on Bankhead in Atlanta, at the old place they use to call Center Hill. We was coming in one night, and we stopped at a cafe went in to eat supper, and it happened John and Dave was in there. John grabbed me and hugged my neck, Directly I told him, 'Pick that thing. I ain't heard no guitar, man.' And he said, 'all right. Here I go,' and he lit out . You ain't never heerd a guitar picker - he was an old farmer boy, He weren't no extra singer, but he was real on the guitar. Them old timers didn't go in for foolishness, they went for the sound o'them boxes.
Willie Teal, as well as other people around Hiram, remembers distinctly that Dilleshaw's first record was made with Dave Puckett. 'One side was Sweet Fern and the other was Sweet Wildwood Flower. It come out about 1925, and it was listed an by John Dilleshaw and Dave Puckett.' I have been unable to trace this record in company files, or even anything remotely resembling it. Misremembering a date would be understandable, as well as misunderstanding who played on a record, but people seem adamant about hearing Dilleshaw play his favorite piece, Sweet Fern, and I am at a loss to explain this. Dave Puckett, incidentally, eventually stopped fiddling, and died about 1960.
After he moved to Hiram, John formed another band, this one featuring Lou Newman on fiddle and a woman banjo player whose name Newman can't recall. Newman was born about seven miles from Villa Rica, where he still lives, and picked up his fiddling rather casually. For three or four years he played in Dilleshaw's band, performing for dances and schoolhouse entertainments around Paulding County. Dilleshaw was still farming for a living, and the band was an informal affair.
Living in Hiram at that time was a family named Kiker, and one of their number was an attractive young woman named Opal. John Dilleshaw began to court her - occasionally bringing the band along for support - until in 1918 they were married. Both were in their early 20s, and John, possibly wanting to develop his music, possibly seeking a better living for the family he planned, began to think about moving off the farm into Atlanta.
Meanwhile Opal's kid brother Harry had become fascinated by the musicians who would congregate at his sister's house or the Kiker home to make music with his now brother-in-law. 'I pretty much picked up my fiddling by listening to the ones that would come to the house, first one and then the other. I'd get to fool with it. And Dilleshaw could fiddle a little bit, make a few chords, and he helped me get started on it.' Later the young Kiker got a chance to learn a lot more fiddling from one of the local masters A A Gray of Tallapoosa.
As World War II - what the oldtimers in Hiram call 'the old war' - was winding down, Dilleshaw was getting married and by 1922 he had moved to Atlanta and was working for the fire department He must have made a good fireman sturdy, tall, raw-boned. He wasn't quite seven feet tall, Kiker remembers, 'but he was a good six foot seven.' While many of his musician friends got to calling him 'Dilly' the sobriquet 'Seven Foot Dilly' was a later invention of the record companies - probably thought up by Bill Brown.
By 1925 Dilleshaw had teamed up with Charles S Brook, a carpenter from the Atlanta area who also played guitar. Some newspaper references discovered in 1974 by Gene Wiggins, in his research on John Carson give us some insight into what success Dilly and Brook were having. In July the two of them, billed as the Gibson Kings, were appearing on the noon shows over WSB singing and playing their Gibsons. (There is a suggestion that the two of them were also featured in the Gibson catalogue about this time, but I haven't been able to confirm this.) A further note about the duo, with a photo, appears in the August 2, 1925 Atlanta Journal.
A note is in order about Charles Brook. He later signed a management contract with Phil Reeve the manager of the Georgia Yellow Hammers and a Victor talent spotter, and a copy of the contract dated January 4, 1930, indicates that he was then working with a new partner, one Clomer Jinks and living in Chattanooga. (The correct spelling of his name, by the way, is Brook, without the 'a', since he signed it that way on the contract,)
Apparently Reeve never got him on Victor, but a year later he did manage to make a record or two for Columbia. The first, My Mammy's Cabin/Baby (Columbia 15733-D) was a solo effort [with piano accompaniment]. The second, Mama I Wish' I'd Listened to You/Will You Love Me When I'm Old (Co 15756-D), made a few days later, was a pair of duets with one Charlie Turner with guitar accompaniment. The records, like most recorded then, were less than successful; the former sold 473 copies, the latter possibly even fewer, and Brook dropped back into obscurity. He died in Atlanta some time before 1940.
In the Atlanta of the mid-'20s it was easier to make a date with a fiddle band than with a guitar duet, and soon Dilleshaw was working with a more traditional stringband. As early as 1926 he was, with Brook, playing with the Dixie String Band which also included the 17-year-old Lowe Stakes on fiddle, a Dr W M Powell on fiddle, and an F G Dearman on mandolin. It is conceivable that this band or a version of it, was the Dixie String Band that recorded a pair of waltzes for Columbia in 1927, Dixie Waltz/Aldora Waltz (Co 15273-D), but there is little direct evidence to support this. Besides, by February 1926 the band's name had been changed to the Gibson Kings Dixie String Band a combination of the two names. Also by 1926 Stokes and Dearman had dropped out, and Dilleshaw had replaced them with another Hiram area musician, Forest Mitchell.
Mitchell was a highly skilled young fiddler Dilly had apparently known from his youth. He died prematurely, in the early '30s, from cancer of the liver. In November 1927 Dilleshaw and Mitchell appeared on a special Thanksgiving program broadcast over WSB and sponsored by Sears. Sears, then as now one of the country's leading chain stores, frequently sponsored programs featuring old time Atlanta area musicians, perhaps in deference to the fact that Sears' sales were drawn from rural customers; once they sponsored Lester Smallwood in a similar show. This Thanksgiving they announced an 'old-time Thanksgiving party' replete with 'olden songs, old-time fiddling, comic numbers and other variety'. Paul and John, 'the Two Disciples of Harmony', dreadful singers who could not possibly have appealed to any sober Atlantean, were on the show, and then came 'the old-time fiddling team of J N Dilleshaw and J F Mitchell rending the atmosphere with breakdown music'.
By this time Dilly was beginning to form his regular band Harry Kiker thinks it was 1926 when he first came to Atlanta to play the fiddle with Dilly's band. Kiker would have been only 18 at the time.
He got to calling his band Dilly and His Dill Pickles. We played for square dances all around town, all over the country and we played a little over WSB. We had a program for some grocery store, a fellow named Wells had it, and we played for him. Shorty Lindsey played tenor banjo and his father Pink played bass fiddle. I wasn't able to make a living at it I was working as a sheet metal worker, and Dilleshaw was on the fire department.
Whether the Lindseys were with this band as early as 1926 is questionable, but they certainly were by 1929 - when the recording activity starts for all parties. On March 22, 1929 Dilleshaw made his first documented record, Spanish Fandango/Cotton Patch Rag, issued on Okeh 45328 as by John Dilleshaw & The String Marvel. Fandango features Dilly and a second guitar player; Cotton Patch Rag features him and a mandolin player. Thus The String Marvel must be adept at both mandolin and guitar - and have a reason for concealing his name.
At first glance it would seem that Dilly and Charles Brook would qualify as the guitar team, by virtue of their earlier association. This still may be correct, but no one recalls that Brook could play mandolin, and there would be no reason for him to conceal his name. Harry Kiker feels sure that the mandolin player is Pink Lindsey, who often played Cotton Patch Rag with Dilleshaw. Furthermore, Pink was able to play mandolin, fiddle or guitar, in guitar, in addition to bass. This would make it possible for him to play backup to Dilly's lead on Fandango - everyone agrees that Dilly played lead on that and the mandolin on Cotton Patch Rag (which is, incidentally, probably black derived, containing a Salty Dog variant). Pink would also have had reason to disguise his name: he had lined up a recording date with Columbia three weeks later, under his own name. Columbia at that time was very picky about not recording artists who had already recorded for a rival company. On April 13, 1929 Pink Lindsey & His Boys did record two sides for Columbia in Atlanta, Love Ship and For Old Times Sake. Neither side was issued. Did somebody from Columbia find out about The String Marvel?
There are other mysteries about Dilly's first session. Recently two test pressings were discovered in Columbia's vaults bearing the master numbers immediately preceding those of Fandango and Cotton Patch. These are two vocal numbers which, though untitled, appear to be a version of Bad Lee Brown and a parody song which I have dubbed Where the River Shannon Flows. The vocalist sounds very much like Dilleshaw and he is backed by a strong guitar and a rather polite fiddle. Friends recall that Dilleshaw liked to sing Bad Lee Brown but no one recalls anything like the parody; however its dry irony is very much in line with the Dilleshaw humor shown on later records. Most experts who have heard the tests agree that it sounds like Dilleshaw singing and if so it might be feasible that Pink Lindsey this time backed him on fiddle.
None of this, however, could have anticipated the direction Dilly's next recording session was to take. It was to be a year later, and under circumstances that require a little explanation.
By 1930 the highly successful, albeit highly unstable, combination that was Georgia's most commercially prospering stringband - the Skillet-Lickers - was coming to an end. Bill Brown, who had functioned as Frank Walker's assistant during the most successful years of the Skillet-Lickers and other old time bands, left Columbia in 1929. He was quickly hired by the Brunswick-Vocalion company, and set about duplicating for them what he had managed to do for Columbia.
He was especially interested in finding a stringband to replace the Skillet-Lickers -a band that would have their drive and versatility but could also be used in humorous skits. For a time, he thought Dilly and His Dill Pickles could be that band, and to that end he scheduled a substantial recording session for the group in March 1930. What he didn't know, of course, and the band couldn't know, was that the deepening Depression would wipe out the market for old time music, and that the fine records made at that session would wind up as rare collectors' items.
The March session for Vocalion was to yield 18 issued titles. In addition to the core band of Dilly, the Lindseys and Harry Kiker (henceforth to appear on the record labels as Bill Kiker), the group was on occasion joined by two champion Georgia fiddlers, A A Gray and Joe Brown.
Ahaz Gray, a seven-time Georgia champion from Tallapoosa, was an older fiddler by now. Lowe Stokes recalled being intrigued by the fact that Gray could play so well holding the instrument down low on his chest. Kiker also admired Gray and learned a good deal from him. Dilly recorded four pieces with Gray. and Streak a' Lean -Streak o'Fat are fiddle and guitar duets, with a bizarre running commentary by Dilly behind Gray's fiddling: 'Tallapoosa - that's the home of yellow-legged chickens. . . .' On Nigger Baby and The Old Ark's A'Moving both men sing, Gray in a high, squeally harmony to Dilly's strong baritone; this was the only time Gray sang on record. Nigger Baby, the tune also recorded by Dr Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers from Arkansas, and others, is a splendid driving performance that shows off Gray's skill in a breathtaking way. Kiker recalls that Dilly first met Gray at one of the annual fiddlers' contests in Atlanta, and the two had presumably played together before the recording session.
Such contests were celebrated in one of the skits recorded at the session, A Fiddler's Tryout in Georgia (Parts 1 & 2). Of course the Skillet-Lickers had recorded a takeoff of the Atlanta contests as early as 1927 - it was their very first skit - and similar efforts had been made by other groups since. Tryout is interesting in that all the fiddling is unaccompanied, and it gives us a glimpse of some tunes Gray never otherwise recorded, Gray's Buckin' Mule and a delightful version of Sally Goodin. Also on the Tryout skit is fiddler Joe Brown, whose only recording this was. At the time he was living at Burnt Hickory, near Dallas - just as the record says. He was born, as was A A Gray, in northern Haralson County. He reportedly won the state fiddling championship in 1925 and frequently attended fiddling conventions. He played a lot with A A Gray, and, his daughter thinks, recorded with Clayton McMichen. She also recalls:
Once Dilleshaw and my daddy broke up a fiddling convention up at Dallas. They didn't like the way they were running it, and they broke it up, standing up there and playing on a bale of cotton.
Brown died in 1951. On the skit record Brown proves himself a skilful traditional fiddler, playing Arkansas Traveler and an unusual piece called Blue Tail Fly (which is not Jimmy Crack Corn). In addition, Gray and Brown twin-fiddle a chorus or two of Leather Britches and Katy Hill.
On another skit recorded at this session, A Georgia Barbecue at Stone Mountain (Parts I & 2), A A Gray and the band play Turnip Greens and Pot Licker Hog JowlsandBack Bone, Pretty Little Widow, Turkey in the Straw and Merry Widow Waltz, the last of which Gray had earlier (1924) recorded for Okeh as a solo.
The core band of Dilly, the Lindseys and Harry Kiker did eight selections. Bust Down Stomp was a version of that old Georgia standard G Rag, whilst their version of Chinese Breakdown came out as Georgia Bust Down. (Kiker says they knew it as Georgia Breakdown.)
Throughout each of these instrumentals Dilly offers a wry running commentary. On Lye Soap he sets the band up playing a dance on the Dug River be worries about whether they will be able to ford the creek on the way out, and remarks toward the end 'I ain't heard anybody say anything about money yet'. On Hell Amongst the Yearlings he assumes the role of the good-ole-boy farmer, talking about his ghosts and describing a country baseball game where a player 'slid into something he thought was first base'. Such banter, along with Shorty's fine tenor banjo and Kiker's fiddle, makes the sides unique in the annals of old time music. In some selections the boys even try some rudimentary takeoff solos. Rounding out the session were two talking blues by Dilly with his guitar, Walkin' Blues and Farmer's Blues.
STARTING in July 1930, with The Square Dance Fight on Ball Top Mountain (Parts I & 2)(Vocalion 5419) and Sand Mountain Drag/Bust Down Stomp (Vocalion 5421) by the core band, the records from this session were released one or two a month, to the financially troubled public. Willie Teal says that the records sold like hotcakes back in Paulding County, and the sales must have been enough to encourage Bill Brown to talk the company into further sessions. Meanwhile, though, problems were developing, and the original group - the working band - was breaking up.
Harry Kiker says that Bill Brown got to using Dilleshaw as a guitarist on sessions with other groups -'remember that Dilleshaw was a pretty good guitar man'- and that by the time the next session came along, Brown had decided to create a studio band with Dilleshaw in the center. None of the old band wag retained for these last recordings, which took place in November 1930.
This band, introduced on Brunswick 489 'Dilly and Big New Group', included Lowe Stokes on fiddle. as well as; Archie Lee, Dan Tucker and 'Pops' Melvin. Stokes, by this time effectively split from the Skillet-Lickers, was doing all kinds of recording for Brown and Brunswick. 'Pops' Melvin was probably Sterling Melvin, a comedian who did other skit work for Brunswick. It is very tempting to suggest that Archie Lee is in fact Archer Lee Chumbler, the autoharp player for the Chumbler Family (who recorded for Columbia) and the Lee Brothers Trio, who recorded their Cotton Mill Blues at this game Brunswick session. However, when Gene Wiggins and I played a tape of this skit for Archer Lee's sister-in-law, she did not feel the voice was his. The other personnel are unknown but must include a tenor banjo, washtub bass and possibly second fiddle. It was this new lineup that produced the group's only Brunswick recordings, Parts 3 and 4 of the Bootlegger's Joint in Atlanta skit and the excellent Kenesaw (sic) Mountain Rag and Bibb County Hoedown Brunswick files also reveal a number of alluring unissued titles from this session.
With the collapse of the old time music recording industry in Atlanta, Seven Foot Dilly's career pretty much came to an end. Pink Lindsey & His Bluebirds did manage a final record, for Bluebird in 1935, when they did 12th Street Rag and The Story of Adam. Shorty Lindsey told Bob Pinson that Dilleshaw played guitar on these, but Marion 'Peanut' Brown, who did the vocal on The Story of Adam told me that he did not think Dilly was on the session.
Dilleshaw continued to play informally around Atlanta through the late '30s, but about 1940 he got sick, and in 1941 he died from uramic poisoning. His son, John Jr, followed him into the Fire Department, and died fairly recently of a heart attack. Three other Dilleshaw children ' in a bizarre twist of fate, all killed themselves, and a fifth, a daughter, died recently. Opal Dilleshaw was in a rest home as recently as 1967, but Harry Kiker says she too has now passed on. Pink Lindsey died some years ago, and Raymond just a year ago, from cancer. Harry Kiker keeps his hand in by playing fiddle with a local kitchen band that includes an ex-violinist of the Atlanta Symphony, and he hangs on to a battered old flyer from the Vocalion Record Company. a flyer dated June 1930 and boasting a faded picture of a tall left-handed guitar player, grinning good naturedly in front of a band he called The Dill Pickles.
Acknowledgements: Harry C Kiker Logansville, Willi, Teal, Hiram; Lon Newman, Villa Rica.; Glen Martin, Dallas; Mrs. Odell Rakestraw, Dallas; Marion Brown, Atlanta; Gene Wiggins, Dahlonega; Wayne Daniel, Chamblee; Mr. Phil Reeve (now Mrs. Jewell Alverson), Culhoun (all GA); Bob Pineon, Country Music Foundation, Nashville TN.