I was recently at the Portland Old Time Gathering (and had a great time, by the way, but that's neither here nor there). I was fortunate enough to have been asked to play some guitar for one of the dances, along with fiddlers Amy Hofer and Colin Harris, banjoist Charlie Beck, and bassist John Hurd. During the run-up to the Gathering, Amy, Colin and I were kicking around ideas for tunes, and Amy mentioned the four tunes that The Lewis Brothers recorded back in 1929 for the Victor Label: When Summer Comes Again (waltz), Caliope (schottische), and two reels--Sally Johnson and Bull at the Wagon.
Born in San Antonio, Denmon (guitar) and Dempson (fiddle) moved to Otero County in their childhood and remained there for the rest of their days, mostly ranching and playing music. I think it's kind of a travesty that they only recorded four tunes, but they're among some of my favorite old-time tunes. They're very idiosyncratic. Caliope can be found on a re-issue entitled "Turn Me Loose (Outsiders of "Old Time Music)", and the other three tunes can be found on the first volume of County's "Texas Old-Time String Bands." Unfortunately, I had purchased my copy of the County re-issue via iTunes, so I don't know what the liner notes have to say about the Lewis Brothers.
I also don't know much about the history of Bull at the Wagon, but it gets played occasionally for dances in the Twin Cities. It's an A tune, and some fiddlers cross-tune their fiddles whereas others will play it in standard. It's possible that Dempson learned it from a record, but I don't have any idea of what that record might have been. Here's what the Traditional Tune Archive has to say: tunearch.org/wiki/Bull_at_the_Wagon. The third part imitates the bellowing of the bull (there's a great scene in the documentary about 78 collector Joe Bussard where he mentions this while listening to the 78).
Oklahoma fiddler Earl Collins, who later moved to Los Angeles, learned his version from the Lewis Brothers 78 and included it on his release, "That's Earl: Collins Family Fiddling." His version can be listened to courtesy of the Slippery Hill website: slippery-hill.com/M-K/AEAE/BullAtWagon.mp3. I believe that Tom Sauber is the banjo player here, and it was recorded sometime around 1975 or so. It's a great record, and worth seeking out a copy if you're into this kind of thing.
Here's a quick version I did 9 Years ago. What I wrote about it was: "Used to play this in a band back in the '70s (though I played guitar) and it popped into my mind when I was looking for a tune on which to demonstrate a custom Ramsey banjo that came in for sale. It was a 12" banjo with a rolled brass tone ring--essentially the sound one gets from a Standard or Special. Anyway, I played the tune capoed to A, i.e. gDGBD capoed at the second fret. Feb 2005"
I've always like this tune, but IMHO, it needs a fiddle.
Adam, I'm thankful that you always come up with interesting, new tunes and their history to explore.
I'm currently reading The Devil's Box, Masters of Southern Fiddling and the Lewis Brothers recordings occurred during the pioneering era of commercial recording, described in Charles Wolfe's first chapter. There was less recording after the terrible economic recession in 1929. It must have been a great disappointment for musicians like them who wanted to get into the market at the time.
This version is from Earl Collins using the above Slippery Hill link. It probably wants to be simplified, but for now gives me an introduction to this delightful tune.
Thanks for all the notes and different versions of the tune. I think my favorite part of the TOTW is when people add their own version, especially when they take the time to learn it and put together their own arrangement.
Here's my quick and dirty recording--Tom Schaefer on the fiddle, Bob Douglas on the mando, and I'm on the banjo. We're called the Tune Jerks, but don't let the name fool you, we're nice guys (mostly).