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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW - 12/27/13 - Little Billy Wilson

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

ChuckJo - Posted - 12/26/2013:  14:11:36

To close out 2013, I'd like to offer Little Billy Wilson, typically played in A (aEAC#E).  This Wilson fellow seems to be quite a rascal, present in the earliest recordings of old-time music, a possible instigator of the Banjo Hangout Tune of the Week phenomenon, who like all good tricksters, is widely traveled and appears in different guises in different circumstances.

Our story might begin with Jesse Donald "Uncle Jimmy" Thompson (1848 – February 17, 1931) who was born in Smith County, Tennessee, near the town of Baxter. Around 1860, his family moved to Texas, and Thompson began playing fiddle shortly thereafter. He likely learned a number of tunes (from veterans returning from the Civil War.  He is best remembered as the first performer to play the Grand Old Opry (then called the WSM Barn Dance), appearing with founder and host George D. Hay on the evening of November 28, 1925.

Thompson's performance began at 8 P.M. that night, with Hay introducing Thompson and stating that Thompson would take requests from listeners. Phone calls and telegrams immediately began pouring into the station. At the end of the hour, Hay asked Thompson if he had done enough fiddling, to which Thompson replied, "a man don't get warmed up in an hour," and showed Hay the blue ribbon he had recently won at the eight-day fiddle contest in Dallas.

Thompson continued making appearances on Barn Dance (renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927) throughout 1926 and 1927, but as the show became more structured, Thompson's role was minimized. Hay grew impatient with Thompson's general unreliability, and the two bickered over such things as Thompson's penchant for drinking a jug of whiskey before each program to "lubricate" his playing arm, and Thompson's tendency to play well over his allotted time.

 In 1926, Thompson went to Atlanta where he recorded Billy Wilson for Columbia Records.  I count four parts in Thompson’s version. Thompson claimed to have known over a thousand fiddle tunes, and once boasted he could "fiddle the bugs off a tater vine.

(Sources for Uncle Jimmy info:  )

However Thompson wasn’t the only early fiddler to be associated with Billy.

Eck Robertson (born November 20, 1887 in Delaney, Arkansas, died February 15, 1975 in Borger Texas) is famous as the first person to record a commercial country music record. This he did, in company with fellow fiddler Henry C. Gilliland, on June 30 and July 1,1922, for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studios. Eck and Gilliland, a Civil War veteran from Altus, Oklahoma, after entertaining veterans at the 1922 Old Confederate Soldiers' Reunion in Richmond, Virginia, decided to go to New York for the express purpose of making records. Gilliland, a former justice of the peace, knew an influential lawyer there named Martin W. Littleton. After their first night in New York, the two men stayed with Littleton who provided them with grand tours of the city, including a visit to the Steinway piano factory, a visit Eck remembered fondly forty years later. The image of Gilliland and Eck touring New York, attired respectively in full dress Confederate uniform and flashy western "regalia" (satin fuchsia shirt with pearl studs, wide-brimmed black hat, leather cuffs and pants tucked into high-topped boots) and undoubtedly carrying fiddle cases, would be striking even today.

Just how much influence Littleton exerted to get the two fiddlers an audition for Victor is not known, but Littleton did, on occasion, do legal work for the company. Eck recalled that Littleton's "lawyer" first introduced he and Gilliland to the Victor people and that when he first appeared for an audition, the Victor manager insisted he take out his violin right then and there:

[In Eck's words:] "You couldn't fool that man was running the shop in the Victor office...But then he come at me, he just come into the room in a hurry with a long piece of paper with names on it. He done that on purpose, you see, thought he'd get rid of me just like he had all the rest of them. He said `Young man, get your fiddle out and start off on a tune.' Said `I can tell that quick whether I can use you or not.' Well, I said back to him just as honest as I could `Mister, I come a long ways to get an audition with you. Maybe I better wait and come back another time. You seem like you're in an awful hurry.' `No,' he said, `Just start off a tune...' Well, I didn't get to play half of Sallie Gooden; he just throwed up his hands and stopped me. Said, `By Ned, that's fine!' And just smiled, you know. Said, `Come back in the morning at nine o'clock and we'll make a test record."

And he did.

Eck and Gilliland recorded "Arkansas Traveler"and "Turkey in the Straw''on June 30th,with Gilliland playing the melody and Eck a high harmony. The next day Eck returned alone, this time recording "Sallie Gooden" and "Ragtime Annie" solo, and two additional tunes accompanied by a studio piano player. Two tunes from these sessions, "Sallie Gooden" and "Arkansas Traveler," were released in April, 1923, thus becoming the first commercial record ever released by a country musician. Eck stayed in New York ten days, finally returning home to Vernon, Texas, full of memories and stories.

It was seven years before Eck recorded again, this time in Dallas with his family band. The band included his wife Nettie on guitar, his daughter Daphne on tenor guitar and his son Dueron on tenor banjo. October 11, 1929 the band recorded "Brilliancy Medley", released in September 1930.  This wild, careening medley of exemplary fiddling includes "The Drunken Billy Goat,"  a two part "Billy Wilson," "Wake Up Susan,"  and "Bill Cheatum".

Sources for Eck Info:

In the banjo community, I generally hear Billy as a three part tune.  The source of the contemporary versions seems to be fiddler Joel Shimberg. Joel assembled an arrangement of the tune, which seems to be the most common structure played today, by taking part from from Eck Robertson, and part from a recording of an Alabama fiddler, Bill Owens.  Joel heard Bill’s playing from a recording made in 1968 at the Athens, AL fiddlers' contest by Joel's friend Fred Coon. Joel writes, "Eck and Owens each played two-part versions of Old Billie Wilson, with one common part. I took the other two parts and played them all together as a three-part tune. As far as I know, that's where everybody's three-part version comes from.”  Joel wasn’t aware of the Uncle Jimmy Thompson version at the time he combined elements from Eck and Bill.(Joel was kind enough to share the recording of Bill which I have attached below as an MP3 "Billy Wilson").

I asked Joel how he thinks his arrangement became the basis for the Billy’s resurgence.  Joel states “I played it at Glenville for a few years, and I think that Bill Hicks and Armin Barnett picked it up from me there. Beyond guessing that they might have had a place in the transmission of the tune, I just don't know.”  Joel is puzzled as to how Billy got “Little”.  Joel says “I'll note, for what it's worth, 'Little' Billy Wilson -- it's always been 'Billy Wilson' or 'Old Billy Wilson', but I understand that there's nothing to do about it by now.” 

Here is a little info on Bill Owens: 

Bill Owens, an Athens man who won the 1966 fiddling contest held at West Limestone High School before the contest was moved to the campus of Athens State. Owens got his first fiddle at 15, when his father swapped a calf for it. He and his brother formed a band, the Elk River Drifters, playing on occasion with the Delmore Brothers. It was Owens’ rendition of “Gray Eagle Hornpipe” that won him the 1966 title. He continued to attend the Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention virtually every year until his health precluded it in the 1990s. The 2001 contest was dedicated to Owens, who died shortly thereafter.


Billy Wilson also seems to have spurred the creation of Banjo Hangout’s Tune of the Week according to this thread of LBW from 2008.

I am not sure when I made Billy’s acquaintance, but I have always been a pushover for his charm and grace. 

For the current version, I have added two variations, just to spruce Billy up a little, although it may be argued that such a gentleman doesn’t need any sprucing up.

Some other links of interest:!little-bill...l3/i01698

Here is a fine version from our friend and upstanding banjo citizen, Donald Zepp:

Happy New Year!

VIDEO: Chuck Levy Plays Little Billy Wilson
(click to view)

VIDEO: Uncle Jimmy Thompson-Billy Wilson
(click to view)

VIDEO: Eck Robertson-Brilliancy Medley
(click to view)

Billy Wilson

Eck Robertson

Eck Robertson

Uncle Jimmy Thompson

Uncle Jimmy Thompson

J-Walk - Posted - 12/26/2013:  16:16:52

Excellent write-up. I forgot all about the fact that this tune spawned ToTW!

ndlxs - Posted - 12/26/2013:  20:19:20

I think Uncle Jimmy Thompson's version is wildly crooked: Take a listen; the extra/dropped beats are not always in the same place, either.  

Most people I hear do this tune play it straight, though; the version my band does is based on one our fiddler heard Rafe Stefanani do.

Listen to Uncle Jimmy:

EggerRidgeBoy - Posted - 12/26/2013:  22:58:42


Originally posted by J-Walk

Excellent write-up. I forgot all about the fact that this tune spawned ToTW!


It did indeed, in May of 2008:

ajisai - Posted - 12/27/2013:  13:04:41

Nice tune. Nice post. Thanks!

Little Billy Wilson was the subject of Paul Tyler's "Tune of the Week" for Fiddle Club of the World back in 2012.

He linked a fiddle version by Chirps Smith and went on to talk about similarities between Little Billy Wilson and a tune found in a book of ballroom and country dance music. He also linked a dulcimer version of the tune.

His post is worth a read.


John D - Posted - 12/27/2013:  15:19:35

Good tune selection and background info.  I first heard this on an LP by the group Trapezoid.  I always thought it was about the AA guy, Bill Wilson, but I guess not.  I like Chuck's variations and Zepp's fast run thing in the 2nd part.

Here's a quick take:

Little Billy Wilson


Don Borchelt - Posted - 12/28/2013:  08:45:00

A fine choice for TOTW by Chuck, and some truly fine picking, too, smooth and bright, with some stunning variations.  I like  Doctor Zepp's performance, especially that lush third part and all those fancy triplett runs.  And of course, John D is always right on, with his elegant, creative rendition. 

I'm gonna stick mine up, too, no fancy fourth part, I'm afraid, just the usual three.  I am three-finger picking my semi-fretless Paramount with the short-scale neck, tuned aEAC#E, which is just open G tuning up a whole tone.. 

- Don Borchelt

VIDEO: Little Billy Wilson
(click to view)


ChuckJo - Posted - 12/28/2013:  10:43:33

Hey John and Don,

Thanks so much for adding to the discussion.  It is great to see how you each make Billy your own.  FIne fine playing.

Thanks Cyndy for the link to Paul Tyler's post.


Happy New Year!

aeroweenie - Posted - 12/28/2013:  18:25:33

Chuck - informative & entertaining write up, great job.   The banjo versions are all excellent, and all different.  I love TOTW!

vrteach - Posted - 12/28/2013:  20:37:01

Great tune! I don't know where I learned it, but when when Lyle played it a few years back I realized that I knew it and had played it in the past. I bet I learned it from him in the early 1980s.

I didn't know LBW's role in TOTW history. Makes me like it even more.

Little Billy Wilson


LyleK - Posted - 12/28/2013:  21:05:35


Originally posted by vrteach

​... when Lyle played it a few years back I realized that I knew it and had played it in the past. I bet I learned it from him in the early 1980s.

I think I only heard it after the move to Chambana, so maybe 2008 at the earliest.  Figures that I'd have to move from Tennessee to Illinois to learn a decidedly non-Illinois tune.

Scoured the hard drive and for reasons that escape me my wife (on autoharp starting on the second A) and I did an *.mp3 a while ago that I don't think I ever posted to BHO.  So here 'tis.


Little Billy Wilson


vrteach - Posted - 12/29/2013:  09:03:18

Well, then I have no idea of where I learned it. I don't believe I had it on any of my LPs in my collection. Maybe one of those other fiddlers who came through Kampsville: Debbie who lived in Winchester for a season, or that geomorphologist whose name I can't recall.

Anyway, it's a great tune.

JanetB - Posted - 12/29/2013:  14:09:51

These versions are so much fun to hear, both the old recordings and the new, and especially Uncle Jimmy's.  Chuck, thanks for a good history lesson in fiddle tunes and the Grand Old Opry.  I'll be studying this one all week!

Little Billy Wilson


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 12/29/2013:  16:30:40

I learned the tune about two years ago from Bill Wellington, a local Staunton VA banjoer-fiddler-guitarer of note with a long lineage in the northeastern Old Time scene dating t the 1970s.  He had it on his list of “must know” tunes that I needed to bring with me to local jams as I attempted to integrate into the local Old Time scene in Staunton, now our home for about four years.

He learned it from the Critton Hollow Stringband, with Joe Herrmann on fiddle, about 35 years ago.  Bill was not sure where Joe Hermann got it, but thought that he might have picked up this Texas tune from the recording by Eck Robertson played as part "The Brilliancy Medley." 

Here’s my stab at it:



Very nicely executed TOTW essay, Chuck.  Thanks for all your energy and inventiveness on this, and on all the musical efforts you share on BHO.

And thanks to the TOTW community for all the tunes that came our way during 2013. 

Looking forward to more TOTW adventures in 2014.

Happy New Year to all.

Play hard.





ChuckJo - Posted - 12/31/2013:  13:42:44

Wonderful additions from Erich, Lyle, Janet and Lew.  It is a GREAT to hear each of your interpretations!  Thanks thanks thanks!

Here is Billy from his days as a professional athlete:

Billy Wilson

Billy Wilson

Tamarack - Posted - 01/01/2014:  11:35:36

Colorful tune and colorful characters!

stigandr5 - Posted - 01/02/2014:  18:54:25


What a fun tune! Considerably more challenging than I first expected it to be. I modeled my version most off Bill Owen's fiddling (it appeared simplest to me!). Although I may not be 100% satisfied with it, it's better than yesterday.

It's a New Year's resolution of mine to post a version of every tune of the week in 2014, so I thought I get started right with this guy.



Edited by - stigandr5 on 01/02/2014 18:55:10

Little Billy Wilson


EggerRidgeBoy - Posted - 01/14/2014:  11:31:56

Sorry about the late response to this TOTW - I have been either very busy or out of internet range for about a month (and now that I have read it carefully and thoroughly I see that my quick initial response - providing a link to the 2008 Little Billy Wilson thread that sparked the TOTW - was unnecessary, as Chuck had included that link in his post; sorry about that).

Anyway, it is a great, very well written and researched TOTW . I appreciate entertaining and informative details, and enjoyed the character sketches of those who have passed the tune down to us.  Great photos, too.

Thanks to Chuck for the post and his version of the tune, and to everyone else for their versions and contributions.

Edited by - EggerRidgeBoy on 01/14/2014 11:44:45

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