Clarence “Tom” Ashley : Country Music Pioneer

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Clarence “Tom” Ashley (September 29, 1895 – June 2, 1967) was an American musician and singer, who played the claw-hammer banjo and the guitar.  He began performing at medicine shows in the Southern Appalachian region as early as 1911, and gained initial fame during the late 1920s as both a solo recording artist and as a member of various string bands.  (Wikipedia)

Ashley was born Clarence Earl McCurry in Bristol, Tennessee in 1895, but when Clarence was very young, he was nicknamed “Tommy Tiddy Waddy” (after a nursery rhyme) by his grandfather Enoch, and thus became known to friends and acquaintances as ‘Tom’. As he was raised by the parents of his mother, the name “McCurry” was dropped in favor of “Ashley”.  (Minnie Miller, Scott Moore (ed.). Tom Clarence Ashley: An Appalachian Folk Musician. Masters Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 1973.)

By 1927, Ashley was performing with numerous string bands including the Blue Ridge Entertainers, Byrds Moore and His Hot Shots, and the Carolina Tar Heels. His solo debut came in 1929 when he recorded “The Cuckoo Bird” and “The House Carpenter” for Columbia records. Signed to a solo contract by both Columbia (as Clarence Ashley) and Victor (as Tom Ashley), he recorded for both labels until 1933.

Clarence Ashley was discovered by a new generation when his early recordings were included on the Folkways album Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. He came out of semi- retirement during the 1960s folk revival, became a popular staple of music festivals and recorded a pair of albums that introduced influential flatpicking guitarist Doc Watson. (American Roots Musicians, “Claraence Ashley”. PBS.org., accessed August 28, 2017.)

The Coo Coo Bird

Clarence Ashley’s “Coo Coo” is by far the most well-known version of the tune.  Many performers learned the song from his recording on the Anthology of American Folk Music created by Harry Smith.  Greil Marcus wrote about Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” in his book The Old, Weird America.

The Coo-Coo bird is known to not build its own nest but deposit its eggs is the nests of other birds.  For this reason, it has been associated with unfaithful spouses or even treason.  The phrase “cuckolded husband” refers to a unfaithful wife and is derived from the word “coo-coo”.

One verse that is often sung is:

O, meeting is a pleasure and parting is a grief,
An unconstant lover is worse than a thief,
A thief can but rob you and take all you have,
An unconstant lover will bring you to the grave.

Recorded by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in Johnson City, Tennessee on November 23, 1929:

The House Carpenter

The other song often associated with Clarence Ashley, and included in the Smith anthology, is “The House Carpenter”.  “The House Carpenter” is a version of Child ballad #243, under the title “James Harris (The Daemon Lover).”   The song is a cautionary tale in which the ghost of a dead sailor revenges himself on his unfaithful lover.  “The House Carpenter” may already have been an old ballad when Samuel Pepys (who collected broadside ballads) acquired a copy circa 1685. The Pepys version runs to 32 verses, and includes specifics:

James Harris was the returning sailor, who, unfortunately, had already drowned. His ghost came to tempt his betrothed, Jane Reynolds, to get on a ship with him leaving here carpenter husband and three children.  Harris was really a “Demon Lover”, and caused the ship to sink, so he could have Jane to himself.  The house carpenter (we don’t know his name) was so distraught at Jane’s abandonment that he hung himself, leaving the babes to care for themselves.

JSP Records has released a very good 4CD collection that includes all of Ashley’s recorded performances: Clarence Ashley – Country Music Pioneer.   Other contemporary musicians linked to Ashley such as Dock Boggs are also included.  Boggs’ early recordings a hard to find and the set is worth it to hear these recordings.

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