Charlie Melvin Stripling and his guitar-playing brother Ira "climbed to the heights of music fame from a beginning as inauspicious as the human mind can imagine," reported the Commercial Dispatch Columbus, Mississippi) in 1929, on the occasion of the brothers' first recording trip to Chicago:
Born twelve miles east of Kennedy in North Pickens County, a region whose only claim to fame lies in the great number of fiddlers which it has sent out into the world, the Striplings grew up among those sturdy self-reliant Pickens Countians' unassuming young men. Musical instruments did not have a place in the early years of the Stripling boys lives, as would be supposed, and it was through sheer accident that Charlie discovered his talent for music. At the age of eighteen years he ordered a toy violin costing forty-seven cents for a Christmas present for a nephew. The toy arrived several days before Christmas and Charlie, giving over to childish instincts, used the miniature violin while awaiting the proper time for its disposal, finding that he could "strike tunes" easily.
Well, I ordered a little toy fiddle from Roebuck for my nephew. It came in about four or five days before Christmas and I opened into it and set it up and tuned it up. The fiddle was about a foot long, a little tin fiddle, and the bow was about a foot long. And I tuned it up. I'd learnt how to tune one - there was an old man by the name of, they called him Old Uncle Pleas Carroll [pronounced "Plez"] that lived in our community. He played for dances and I'd been to-I was just a lad of a boy, but I'd been to a few dances and heard him play, and I remembered some of the tunes he played. And I got to sawing on that fiddle after I tuned it up and got to where I remembered one of the tunes he played was "Lexington on the Boom"; that's what he called it, and I remembered that tune and I got to where I could start it. After I gave my nephew the toy fiddle, that kind of got me interested. I decided if I could start a tune in that length of time, maybe I could learn to play. So I bought me a fiddle and bow it cost a dollar-from one of my neighbors.
Ira ordered a $6 guitar from the Baltimore Wholesale House and soon was backing his brother's playing.
A Series of Triumphs. The two practiced together for almost a year before entering a fiddle contest at Kennedy. At that contest, Charlie was surprised to take first place over a large number of fiddlers. Thereafter, said the Commercial Dispatch, it was "about as easy to win first prize over Stripling at a fiddlers convention as for the proverbial camel to gallop through the eye of a very small needle." After winning that contest, said Stripling:
I really got interested in it and I went to practicing . . . And I got to going to fiddlers' conventions, then, going to Fayette and Millport for awhile and then I got to getting invitations further off away from home. And I kindly felt like I couldn't go off, you know, to communities I wasn't known, in a strange place, and win a prize. But it looked like it was easy to get them-the further off away from home, the easier it was to win it! I went to Parrish, between here and Birmingham, four times at the high school. They'd have a fiddlers' convention every year, and I went up there four times and got the first prize every time. And then I went to Birmingham.
The 1925 fiddlers' convention in Birmingham has already been described. At it, Charlie was surprised to learn that "they wouldn't allow a guitar accompanist. You had to play the fiddle by yourself . . . and it didn't sound as good to me. I was used to having a guitar second for me, you know." Despite this handicap, the Birmingham Age-Herald listed "C. M. Stribling" [Stripling] of "Kentucky" [Kennedy] as one of the $25 winners.
In 1926 he learned of a major contest to be held in Memphis. That May, a half-page advertisement in the Lamar Democrat had announced that Uncle Bunt Stephens, "Henry Ford's Champion Fiddler," would perform in Sulligent, Millport, and Vernon. Stripling told Bob Pinson: "I'd heard of old Uncle Bunt Stephens. I think I remember reading where Henry Ford had picked him up in the mountains of Kentucky [actually, Tennessee] and he liked his fiddling. And he made him famous. And after he give him his start, he got to going around on tours, putting on musical concerts."
Like many other fiddlers of that area, Stripling attended one of Stephens' performances and was unimpressed, perhaps feeling that Henry Ford should have listened to the fiddlers of Pickens, Lamar, and Tuscaloosa counties before choosing his champion. Said Stripling: "He played this old-timey 'Leather Breeches,' you know, and these old-timey fiddle pieces. And I didn't fancy he was so good. Some of them asked me, 'Charlie, why didn't you bring your fiddle down here? You'd show that old man how to play the fiddle.' I said, 'Well, I was expecting to hear some real fiddling,' but he wasn't as good as what I expected him to be."
During the performance, someone from Memphis called Will Waldrop, the local Ford dealer, to invite Stephens to take part in a convention to be held on Henry Ford's Day, June 2. According to Stripling, Stephens already had an engagement on that date, so Waldrop told the Memphis promoter, "I've got a man here that can beat him a'playing the fiddle." The reply was: "Just bring him on over there."
The Memphis contest, entitled the Dixie Fiddlers' Convention, took place on June 2, 3, and 4, and was sponsored by the Dixie Fiddlers' Association, the Shelby Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, and "the Ford enterprises of Memphis." It was well publicized, and according to the Memphis News-Scimitar, "The convention has created so much interest that [the] manager of the auditorium is making arrangements to use the large north hall for the sessions at which the contests will be staged." This hall reportedly seated 8,000. During the days preceding the contest, groups of fiddlers gathered to play at Court Square, and some were taken to the Ford plant "to serenade the manager and employees, in recognition of the part Henry Ford has taken in popularizing old-time tunes." The Memphis Commercial Appeal on Thursday, June 3, announced that "more than a score of contestants have already arrived and others are arriving on every train.... Charles E. Stribling [sic], who claims the Alabama championship, accompanied by his brother, I. L. Stribling [sic], guitar picker, arrived yesterday and was entered in the contests by W. W. Waldrop, automobile dealer of Millport, Ala., as the representatives of the Millport Motor Co."
Stripling recalled that, as in Birmingham, fiddlers were required to play unaccompanied. He felt he could not win; he told Bob Pinson:
Of course, the first two nights they didn't give prizes out. They'd have large crowds, though. But the third night, on Saturday night, was the final contest, and that's when they'd give the prizes out. I know there was a bunch of fiddlers there was a large number . . . And I realized I had competition. And I was talking with Lester Howell that moved from Kennedy and had a clothing store in Memphis . . . I told him, "I won't win no prize. I got too big a competition. There's too many up agin me." Well, he said, "Don't get scared. You just sit down there and play that fiddle and just imagine you was home by yourself." And that's what I done.
After the rosin had settled at the end of three nights' playing, "Sawmill" Tom Smith, of Harrison, Tennessee, was declared champion fiddler of the Dixie Old Fiddlers' Association. The Commercial Appeal reported that "the contest was so close that the judges called back five of the best for a second trial. Second prize went to Charles Stripling, of Millport, Ala." Stripling was awarded $25 in gold.
A year later Stripling won another important competition in Tuscaloosa. This contest, held on March 3, 1927, at the Casino Theater, was unusual in that only well-known fiddlers were asked to participate. The Tuscaloosa News reported: "Plans are being made to bring eight of the select fiddlers of the southern states to Tuscaloosa for a fiddlers contest," though it did not name them. Stripling recalled the contest:
They didn't invite all the fiddlers; they just selected eight of the best fiddlers. And the champion fiddler of Alabama, then, was Y. Z. Hamilton. And he was down there that night . . . all the seats was full and [people were] standing around on the edges.
They arranged that a little different to what they'd been, all that I'd been to before . . . That time they let the audience judge. They just had three men to go with cards up and down from the front to the back and back up handing them cards out. And they let every person judge the fiddler and give him grades, so much per cent. And after they all played, I told my brother "I won't get nothing." They went to counting, gathered tie cards up, telling out the points, how many points each one got, and when they wound up, I had 156 points more than everyone in the bunch. I got first prize.
The following day, the Tuscaloosa News described
The Fiddlers' contest at the Casino last night played to a capacity house. More than a thousand people were present and all enjoyed the program. Judging was done by secret ballot, every adult in the audience participating. They awarded first prize, $25 to Charley Stripling of Kennedy, Ala; second prize, $15 to Henry Ledlow of Tuscaloosa County; third prize to E. D. Monkey Brown, a local insurance man.
The Stripling Brothers-Recording Artists. Stripling's success at fiddle conventions made him something of a local hero. His admirers in the community saw to it that Stripling was not passed over by commercial recording companies, as were so many Alabama fiddlers. According to Ira Stripling, their first recording session came about in the following manner:
Mr. Carey Walker down here in Kennedy noticed they was going to take some trial recordings up in Birmingham, and so he asked me if we would go. And I told him we would. And so he called the man up and talked with him and I was standing by him when he was talking. So the first thing he asked, he asked if we sung. We just played mostly. He told him he wouldn't be interested unless we sung.
Mr. Walker says, "They're good. I'd love for you to hear them."
He said, "Well I don't think I'd be interested unless they sang."
Mr. Walker turned to me and asked if I'd be willing to pay our expenses up there for him to listen at us play, and I told him, "Yeah." He says, "They'll pay their expenses. You won't be out nothing just to listen at 'em."
He said, "Well, I'll listen at 'em but I don't think it'll do 'em any good."
On November 15, 1928, the brothers traveled to Birmingham where the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company had set up a temporary recording studio in the Bankhead Hotel. Ira Stripling recalled the occasion: "When we went up there that night, they had some bands that sounded good to me and he [Manager Jack Kapp] just frown up and ask them if they didn't have anything better than that. Bands just sounded real good to me and he wouldn't take anything they had. I didn't think there was any use for us to even wait for a trial. I told Charlie, 'We'd just as well go.'"
They stayed, however, and finally got their opportunity to audition. In Ira's words, "The first piece Charlie started, he [Kapp] started smiling. Didn't play over what you'd call-what old people called a stanza-you know, played only one stanza and he motioned to him to stop. Says, 'We'll try that. What else do you have?' Charlie told him and started to playing that. And so he didn't play but a little piece and he stopped him again. Then's when he told us he'd try us and if it made good, we'd hear from him in about two weeks. We didn't hear anything from it till Charlie heard it playing in a music store in Fayette."
The first tune recorded by the brothers in that session was "BigFooted Nigger in Sandy Land," a piece Stripling had heard Henry Ledlow play at a fiddlers' convention. The second was "Lost Child," which Stripling learned from Pleas Carroll, but embellished. It is believed to be the source of the popular fiddle piece "The Black Mountain Rag" and has been re-released on the "Old-Time Fiddle Classics" album produced by County Records (#507) and on the Stripling Brothers album (County 401).
Before returning to Kennedy, the two brothers played on Station WAPI, which had moved from Auburn to Birmingham during the previous year. "After we went up there," recalled Stripling, "then we just got calls far and near, and we got more than we could fill." While playing for dances and contests, they awaited word about the trial recording. Ten months passed before it came, in unexpected form. According to Charlie Stripling:
It went on a couple of weeks and we didn't hear from him and there was people asking me every once in a while, "Didn't y'all make some fiddling records?" I got to where I'd tell 'em we didn't. I thought he'd made a flash out of us and it was no good.... But over in August, I was in Fayette, and Mr. Williamson, a jewelsman, when I walked in the jewelry shop, he had that record, now, we made up there at Birmingham, playing it. And he says, "Charlie, didn't you all make some fiddling records sometime past?"
I says, "Well, we made one, but I haven't never heard nothing from 'em and I decided it wasn't no count."
Well, he says, "It's good." And he asked me how much they paid, and I said, "Didn't pay anything."
And he says, "If I was you, I'd
get in touch and find out where they're coming from."
Eventually Stripling contacted the Brunswick Company in Chicago. Jack Kapp, who had supervised the recording in Birmingham, expressed surprise that the Striplings had not been paid. He told them to come to Chicago prepared to record a dozen selections, and promised to pay them when they came. According to Stripling, "I didn't have much confidence in him, because he hadn't paid us for the first one. And I said, 'Well, what about sending us our expenses to pay our way over there?' He said, 'Find out how much it is.' I went out there to the depot and found out, and he wired it to me. The next morning we left and went to Chicago."
In Chicago, on August 19, 1929, the brothers recorded sixteen tunes, all of which were released on the Vocalion label. Some also were released on Australian and Canadian labels. The tunes included traditional breakdowns like "Wolves Howling" and "Dance All Night with a Bottle in Your Hand"; four waltzes; and the only two vocals the brothers ever recorded, "Weeping Willow" and "Railroad Bum."
Before the recording session Kapp informed the brothers that they should not play anything that had already been recorded. "You know, the old-timey pieces like 'Turkey in the Straw' and 'Hen Cackle' and 'Leather Breeches' and all like that had been recorded," said Stripling. Thus he played several tunes of his own composition, among them the "Kennedy Rag," named after his hometown, and "The Coal Mine Blues." The latter was composed when Stripling, a cotton farmer who had never been near coal mines, began playing for dances in the mining camps of Walker County. The tune was very popular among the miners who inspired it. Stripling's "compositions" were committed to memory and to the recording machine, but not to paper, as he had never learned to read or write music.
The records made in Chicago were well received. Charlie Stripling recalled: "The records come out and made a hit and was selling like hotcake. Every where I went they had 'em and was selling 'em. We could have got on, then, with the Victor Company. That agent come through there. He told us, said, 'I could take one of these records down there and play it. My company would give you a job, right now.' "
However, the brothers had a contract with Brunswick-Balke-Collender. Upon its expiration, Dave Kapp, brother of the Brunswick agent, invited them to record for Decca in New York. There, on September 10, 1934, they played fourteen tunes, ten of which were issued. Except for the traditional tune "Chinese Breakdown," most were waltzes, fox trots, and "ragtime breakdowns," such as "Down on the L & N," that Stripling had composed for round dancing. Kapp was not difficult to please, recalled Stripling: "He'd tell me to play over one, and I'd play over it, and I'd think to myself, 'Well, he won't take that,' but he wouldn't grumble about it. He'd just say, 'Okay,' and then he'd ask me what was the name of it and ask me how come it's the name it is, and make a record of it then."
On the recording trip, the two brothers from Kennedy, population 277, were able to see a small portion of New York City. Later they told local historian Joe Acee, "The excitement of the big city was a curiosity to us, just as we might have been a curiosity to the people there. "
Their final recording session was March 12, 1936, in New Orleans, where Decca had set up a temporary studio. The fourteen numbers they recorded were again a mixture of traditional tunes, such as "Mayflower," and original compositions, such as "Coal Valley," named for a mining camp where they performed, "Big Four," named after a local fishing hole, and "California Blues," named after a state they had never visited.
As was the case with most country artists of the day, the Striplings did not get rich from their recording efforts. When given a choice between being paid a flat fee of $50 per record ($25 per tune) or receiving a 1¢ per-record royalty, the brothers chose the former. Stripling explained: "He was going to hold us back, now, if we took a royalty. Hold us back until the last record was released. But you see, he was so long about paying us for that one we made in Birmingham, I was afraid we wouldn't get anything. So that's the reason we made the choice of just a'getting paid. I told my brother, 'I've always heard it said a bird in the cage is worth two in the bush. We might go back and wait for that pay and not never get nothing,' so we took it."
Thus the brothers received $50, divided between them, per record, plus expense-paid trips to Chicago, New York, and New Orleans in exchange for recording forty-six tunes. It was not grand pay, but the fact that they were artists for a major recording company helped them get other jobs that did pay well. For instance, Charlie remembered a job at a theater in Fulton, Mississippi. "In two nights down there, just me and my brother . . . we got more than I got for a bale of cotton. I sold a bale of cotton the next week and we got more out of them two nights playing down there than I got for a bale of cotton. And that man, owned that theater, told me, 'You got us the largest crowd we've ever had here."'
Despite the supplemental income the Striplings received from their recordings and performances, Ira Stripling eventually found that he could not afford to continue as a musician: "It was in the thirties, during that Panic. Got to where we couldn't get enough out of it to justify all of us a'going. I had some business in town . . . I'd have to hire someone in my place for the business when I left. And I just turned it over to he and the boys [Stripling's sons]. They could realize more out of it than I could and do about as well. The boys got to where they played real good."
Thus, for financial reasons, the 1936 recording
session in New Orleans was one of the last performances for the Stripling
Brothers, as a duo.
Local Fame. Charlie Stripling, however, continued to perform regularly with his children and other local musicians-at theaters, schoolhouses, dances, and contests-for the next thirty years. He farmed for a living, supplementing his income with his fiddle: "I made enough playing the fiddle from the first start to have done me, I guess, to have lived on the rest of my life, but I had a lot of sickness and hospital bills and doctor bills, and it took a lot of it to pay it. But that was a way to pay it."
Stripling had married Tellie Sullivan, age 14, in 1919. They farmed and ran a country store in Pickens County before moving to Kennedy in 1926. In 1934, Tellie died, leaving Stripling with six children, all under 15. He later married Myrtle Wheeler and three more children were born. Eventually all nine children could play one or more instruments. A tradition developed at family gatherings: During a musical session, the family would play a tune, then each member would pass his instrument to the next musician and play the following tune on a different instrument.
The oldest sons Robert and Edwin were accomplished performers by the time they were 10 and 11. With their father, they played for dances held in homes all over the area. Robert Stripling recalled how the host of the dance would send someone with a car to pick them up and bring them over unpaved, sometimes impassable, back roads to the dance. Later Stripling bought a used Graham-Paige for $160 and traveled to dances and contests in it, fabricating broken parts when needed and stuffing tires with rags when they went flat on the way. At many dances, the younger son, Edwin, appeared to fall asleep. Said Ira Stripling, "A lot of people think he was asleep. Said he'd go to sleep, but he'd sit there and play that mandolin right on; he'd never miss a lick of time or chord or nothing." Stripling also performed with his sons at schoolhouses during the Depression. He said, "I'd take my boys and we'd go out to these little country schools and just charge 10¢ for admission. But see, we got it all, and we could buy a bag of flour for $3.50 or $4, and I could still make my living thataway."
Dannie Strickland of the tiny Moore's Bridge community, twentyfive miles from Kennedy, remembered such performances: "There was always a big crowd. Everybody enjoyed them. And when they played in Birmingham, we always had our radios on ready to hear them." She said that people in her community liked Charlie Stripling, not only because he was a good fiddler but because he was a religious man who attended church regularly and could speak about the Bible well. It was his custom to include sacred numbers, such as "Jesus, Hold My Hand," at every performance.
Stripling also continued to enter contests with much success. A. K. Callahan has said, "All Charlie Stripling had to do was stick his head in the door at a contest and they'd give him first prize." Besides having a full rich tone, good technical ability, and a driving style, he was a showman who won many prizes with his trick fiddling on such tunes as "The Lost Child" and "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Stripling recalled that he frequently won at Palmetto, in Pickens County: "I was playing at Palmetto one night-Palmetto High School down below Kennedy-I went down there seven years and got the first prize ever time. And I come out that night, and there was a bunch of them standing out in the front yard of the school, and there was high steps, and when I come down them steps I heard somebody say, 'Who got the first prize?' Somebody said, 'Charlie Stripling, the one that always gets it.' And I walked on down there close to them and I said, 'Well, I have been lucky.' The way, they give prizes, I didn't know if I won them or not, but if they give them to me, I took them. And there was a fellow standing there that was a stranger to me-I'd never seen him before-and he said, 'My friend, it ain't just luck with you. You fiddle for it. I heard you play.' That made me feel good."
Others, however, thought that he was often given the prize because of his reputation as a contest winner and as a recording artist. Stripling remembered the year in Palmetto when some contestants spoke to the manager before the start of the competition: "They suggested concealing the judges where they couldn't see the one that's playing and said I wouldn't get it. I didn't know they'd done that and I noticed, though, when they went to playing that I didn't see no judges; usually had 'em picked out and set out on a seat separate. And after it got around and all of 'em played, why Mr. Smith, he says, 'Now, it's been suggested we conceal the judges here tonight at this fiddlers' convention where they couldn't see the fiddling. Now they are awarding the prizes. They'll call the numbers that won the prizes and I'll call the name.' And one of the judges back behind the curtain said, 'Number three won first prize.' Says, 'That was Charlie Stripling.' And after it was all over with . . . Mr. Smith come around there and patted me on the shoulder and he told me about what they had done. He says, 'I think they ought to be satisfied now. If they're not, they should be.' "
Though Charlie Stripling won a prize in almost every contest
he entered, it was not always the first prize. He admitted to Pinson that
there was "a bunch of fiddlers from around Tuscaloosa that I dreaded at
fiddlers' conventions, because they was good." E. D. "Monkey" Brown and
his brother Charlie were good fiddlers as well as crowd-pleasers, and were
hard to beat. Another strong contender was Jimmie Porter of Steens, Mississippi,
who had a beautiful tone and could play waltzes very well. Robert Stripling
recalled that his father also dreaded playing against Pearl Duncan Morgan,
the vigorous young fiddler from Caledonia, Mississippi.
Keeping Up With the Times. After World War II, Stripling remained an active fiddler even though the frequency of fiddlers' conventions and home dances decreased. He became the fiddler of choice at large community dances because, over the years, he had developed a repertoire of dance tunes that pleased many tastes:
When we was playing for dances, I played for so many dances 'til I learned different kinds of time. I first commenced playing old breakdown music for old-timey square dancing, and back then when I first started playing they didn't know anything about round dancing; you never seen nothing like that when you were out in the country where they had the dances. And when I got to going to Columbus, Mississippi; Parrish, Birmingham, places around towns where they round-danced . . . I didn't know much time for that, but I learned it. I seen I had to if I kept my job, if I kept a'getting called. After we got broadcasting stations-radio, I'd listen and get a lot on that.
[When] I first commenced playing for round dances about all I could play was something what they called a Fox-trot. But sometimes somebody would request me to play a two-step. I didn't even know how to play it, but I sure learned it . . . course, I could play a waltz. And I found out there was different times to all that. Some wanted a real slow draggy kind they called a "toddle" and I just sorta begin to get on that when they got that "Twist," a new kind of a dance. That was a different time.
After Stripling's sons married and moved away from Kennedy to raise their families, Stripling was able to find other good musicians to play for dances at all the American Legion huts and National Guard armories in west Alabama. He recalled the first dance he played at Berry with a new band, called, simply, "Charlie Stripling's Band," consisting of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, and tenor banjo: "They had it on a Thanksgiving night . . . and there was a large crowd out there that night; it being a holiday, and them folks liked our music. They got to coming from Birmingham; there was people coming from Tuscaloosa, Meridian . . . Columbus. That was a large building; you know, the National Guard armory is a large building, and they got to where they'd just fill that place up. There's lots of folks just come to listen to the music, told me they did-but they got to where so many come they didn't hardly have room to dance."
The band continued to grow in popularity, and by 1958 Stripling was playing to large dance crowds two or three nights a week-in Mississippi on Fridays, near Tuscaloosa on Saturdays, and frequently at Mayfield on Thursdays. It was at the Mayfield Community House one Thursday night that Charlie Stripling, aged 62, played for the last time. Suffering severe stomach pain, he was taken from the dance to the hospital. After a long stay in the hospital, he fell victim to arthritis. He said that eventually "I got back to where I could play a little, but the boys had all left me and I lost interest and got out of practice." When he was interviewed in 1963, Stripling no longer had a fiddle in the house.
Charlie Stripling died in 1966. In 1971, County Records
reissued thirteen of the Stripling Brothers' recordings, enabling the music
that once delighted audiences in west Alabama to reach new generations
of old-time music lovers across the nation.