Tim Steil Takes The Musical Challenge: Highwoods String Band’s Feed Your Babies Onions: Fat City Favorites (Live) –
I’ll fess up here. For the last half of the 1970s I was in kind of a cult. Not the boo-scary shave your head and sell flowers at O’hare kind of thing. In fact I think the only prayer we ever spoke was…
“Lord willin and the creek don’t rise.”
Everyone had an acoustic guitar back then. I kind of knew the first time I got one that was going to be it for me. I loved the sound, and there is something about feeling that vibration against your heart as you play. It’s rather transcendent.
My brother had got into Old Time music somehow, started playing the fiddle, and soon enough made sure I had one and a pile of records and transcriptions to learn. I was just plain blown away.
I listened to old 78’s from Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Uncle Dave Macon. The Grand Ole Opry was my Saturday nights, often setting up several AM radios in the basement.
Just to be clear, Old Time, or Old Timey as some called it, is way different than what most consider country music. It’s old string band stuff, played for square and contra dances. Usually a fiddle (or two!), a guitar, a doghouse bass, and a clawhammer banjo. Most of the tunes came over on boats in the early 1800s. It’s raw, and incredibly wild, like nothing you have ever heard.
You think metal is hard core? Sabbath plays two hours and goes home. We played all night.
At numerous folk festivals we would set up camp and commence, and it was a freaking free-for-all.
Players came and went throughout the night. Some would just take a break to go dunk their head in the creek, do a line or two of pure cocaine (none of that baby laxative cut in) and jump right back in.
The highest honor in this setting, was to just play till the sun came up, and god knows we did. All frickin night. Last man standing sort of vibe.
These old fiddle tunes usually have two, sometimes three parts, and you just play them over and over again for as long as you can stand. It didn’t matter if you could sing, you just had to shout. It was immense to me that these nonsense refrains we were howling, were probably played 150 years ago all over America. It made me feel like a citizen, a bit of a historian, and whole in my heart.
Dancers would come and go, gorgeous long haired bra-less vixens. 70 year old farmers would just start cutting a rug. Sometimes folks would form an actual square and then we pretty much worked for them.
Whenever the song got old, one of the fiddlers would just raise his leg off the ground, and that was the signal. Either we are just going to shave and a haircut the bitch, or he’s going to go straight into another tune in the same key, and it’s up to you to pick up on that. Sometimes they would call out the name of the next tune, but mostly like a roller coaster. There came a point where the music was playing you.
There is a thing, known in this scene as “twin fiddling”, to where two guys lock together, but with always just a little variation from either that made it beautiful. This was known as…
“Ragged, but right.”
I fiddled a bit, and once in a while you would find a fellow and a tune that just suited you. Then it goes it goes off the rails. A train that started rolling with no engineer in sight.
Screw raves man. You should have seen the way these hippies could rock it, ALL NIGHT LONG.
You would go flop face down in your tent, brain dead. And with the smoke from a dwindling fire wafting in, you would hear people begin to stir as the sun came up. Moaning and coffee making. and there was always the designated puker.
Then you would hear someone start playing softy. You look down at your blistered and bleeding fingers, wrap a piece of duct tape around each, go dunk your head in the creek, and there would be a hot cup of Joe and maybe some breakfast waiting for you.
As far as that “twin fiddling” lock, I was only lucky enough to achieve it a few times in my life. When 1980 rolled around, I had traded my fiddle and overalls for a fire-proof flight suit and a 9mm I wasn’t supposed to carry..
But I still remember one of those nights so clearly, the smiles on people’s faces, the dancers, the guy passed out in a chair a foot away, oblivious. There was just so much pure joy in everyone.
This was a crowd favorite. I couldn’t find a YT clip with the actual album cover, so this is from a greatest hits collection.
Still one of my favorite bands, and records.
And if you’re wondering what the hell “Feed Your Babies Onions” means, there was a second part to that old saw.
“So You Can Find Them In The Dark.”