Ken Smelser-Traditional Dance Music

Southern Indiana is a peculiar region – it is not quite South and not yet West, clearly not North, and certainly not East. This geographical ambiguity is reflected in our traditional music. Local fiddlers often know delicate jigs and hornpipes as well as rough-hewn hoedowns and back country waltzes. Ken Smelser, for one, can play them all with expressive style and spontaneous harmony. As a boy, he learned many tunes from his grandfather, Arthur Chapman, who had come to Indiana from the Northeastern states by way of Kansas; he learned other tunes from Alec Moon, a neighbor who had immigrated to Indiana from Eastern Kentucky. Through his life, Ken has supplemented these early tunes with others gleaned from a few fiddling friends, 19th century tune books and 20th century commercial records. I first heard Ken Smelser’s fiddling in the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music, while listening to the Art Rosenbaum/Pat Dunford collection of Indiana folk music. About a year and a half ago, during a camping trip to Orange County with Kathy and our friend Dan Willens, I took a chance and looked for his name in the local phone book. An hour later we were all happily playing music together. Since that time Ken and his wife Mildred have not only helped Kathy and I with our music, but also have helped us settle in Orange County, and learn to feel at home here. The first side of this album (tunes 1-6) is devoted to tunes associated with the Northeast, while the second side (7-13) features tunes more common in the Southeastern states. Bob, Kathy, and I accompany Ken on all selections and Dan Willens helps out with guitar on several tunes. WOODEN SHOE CLOG is a version of CINCINNATI HORNPIPE. Ken plays his banjo on POOR OLD WOMAN, with Dan on triangle. FLOWERS OF EDINBURG and TEMPERANCE are two of the many reels Ken remembers from Arthur Chapman. THE CAMPBELLS ARE COMING and HASTE TO THE WEDDING are double jigs. THE MOUNTAIN RANGER is a hornpipe in the key of B flat, which I attempt on the fife. Finally, OLDROSEN THE BEAU is a song tune in waltz-time, also known in the United States as ROSE CONNOLY and THE WILLOW GARDENS. We play it in a medley with GO ROSIN YOUR BOW, the same melody in common time and a more Southern style. On side two, SALLY’S GIT A WOODEN LEG is a close variant of MISS McCLOUD’S REEL. FORKED DEER is not the tune usually meant by that name, but another which Ken learned years ago from a Tommy Jackson record. KEN SMELSER’S FIRST TUNE is indeed the first tune Ken learned to play on the fiddle. His father made him practice in the barn until it was of listenable quality. He never knew the tune’s real name. BILLY IN THE LOWGROUND is a good example of the twin fiddle harmony found in this region. CINDY and OLD JOE CLARK are two common dance tunes from the Southern Mountains. GREY EAGLE was originally a hornpipe and can also be played throughout this country; in New England it is known as MINE HOME. The photograph on the front cover was taken on an autumn day in 1962 by Winnie Lashbrooks, a friend of Ken’s who was walking through the Smelser farm after morning of squirrel hunting. Dillon Bustin October, 1975 The drive from Clarksville, Tennessee to “just North of” English, Indiana takes several hours, but it also takes one through some very beautiful countryside, Hence. It is, at one and the same time, an enjoyable trip and a trip that gives you a chance to reflect and think. By the time I had arrived at Ken Smelser’s house (“just North of” English, Indiana), where the recording for this album was done, I was anticipating some fine old time music. This album is proof that I was certainly not disappointed! My only regret is that all of the music that was played and recorded that day won’t fit on one record . . . . hopefully, a second volume will be forthcoming shortly. Interspersed with the music was talk about; the origin of this tune, how that tune is played in other parts of the country, and so on. In addition to being accomplished performers (on a wide variety of instruments), Ken Smelser and the members of the Rain-Crow Countryside Band also have a deep and knowledgeable interest into the origins of the music they perform . . . . in short they give life to the unique folk heritage of the Ohio River Valley where they are located. And, as one might expect, the music contained here reflects the bend of British, African, New England, and Southern Appalachian traditions that have produced this truly unique folk heritage. To this emerging picture of a talented and heritage-conscious¬ group of musicians, we must add yet another dimension. The Rain-Crow Countryside Band is one of a mere handful of old-time groups that is making its entire livelihood by performing the music that they love. But even in this respect the band would seem to be in a category by itself, because in addition to performing musical selections, they pay considerable attention to the traditional dance forms . . . . and these form an integral part of their concert and workshop presentations. In fact, it was the interest in traditional folk dancing that led to the formation of the band. Banjoist Dillon Bustin had become interested in the traditional dance forms of the Northeaster U.S. while living there, and brought this intense interest with him when he moved to Indiana. Unfortunately, there were very few, if any, musicians to play for dances, and as a result Dillon began to make his own music. And so the nucleus of the Rain-Crow Countryside Band was formed. Gradually the band, as it exists in its present form, began to take shape. Older musicians were sought out as a source for new tunes and techniques. Among these was Ken Smelser. Ken is outstanding in several respects: his fiddling is exceptionally fine, and, he is a living example of the heritage of the Ohio River Valley with its distinctive blend of cultural influences. Lastly, some mention must be made of the music contained on this album. It is, most definitely, old-time music . . . . but even here it would appear to be in a class all of its own. The concept of the album was to depict the merging of Northern and Southern traditional styles as they exist in Southern Indiana. In doing this wide variety of instruments and combination of instruments has been effectively utilized. Combined with the exquisite twin fiddling of Ken Smelser and Kathy Restle, we feel that these tunes will provide the old-time enthusiast with a rare treat both culturally and musically. Steve Davis DAVIS UNLIMITED RECORDS October, 1975 PRODUCED BY: DILLON BUSTON AND STEVE DAVIS

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