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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 12/26/2014 Little Boy Working on the Road

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Mtngoat - Posted - 12/26/2014:  04:24:07

I’ve chosen Little Boy Working on the Road, which comes from the western rim of the Cumberland Plateau in north central Kentucky, for this installment of TOTW.  

The tune was first recorded for Victor in New York on February 27, 1928, by Rowan County native J.W. Day (1861 – 1942) who played the fiddle left-handed and upside down.  You can hear it here:   J.W. Day Recording

John Harrod collected a field recording of the tune from traditional Owsley County fiddler Effie Pierson (1902 – 1981) in 1979. You can listen to it here:  Effie Pierson

Harrod also recorded Razor Wolfinbarger (1912 - 1992) playing a banjo version from Estill County in 1981.  The Wolfinbarger recording, released on the Rounder Kentucky Old Time Banjo CD, was my introduction to the tune.  You can view a Wolfinbarger video clip here:  Wolfinbarger Video

There is a dearth of information about the tune itself.   Harrod and Wilson, in the liner notes for the Rounder CD,  write that “ The plaintive melody reminds us of early days in the mountains when young boys, orphaned or otherwise impoverished, were forced into men’s work in the mines, in the logwoods, or out on the roads.”

And the excerpt from the Traditional Tune Archive has only this to say:  “Old-Time, Breakdown. USA, East Kentucky.  A Major/Mixolydian. AEae tuning (fiddle). AA'B.  Words sung to the melody, according to Razor Wolfenbarger, were “Little boy, little boy, working on the road, Working for a dollar to pay his board.”

So to flesh out the write-up I decided to research the traditional performers.

J. W. Day led an interesting life.  He was born blind but had his sight surgically restored as an adult,  he was present at the final battle of the Tolliver- Martin Feud in 1887, he composed a popular ballad about the “troubles”  preceding  the shootout,  and he played for the King and Queen of England during a 1931 visit to London.  Here’s some information on Day and his association with folk music promoter Jean Thomas:  Day Bio

Effie Pierson was born into a rural male dominated society and lived through a period of changing attitudes about the role of women in America.  A product of her times and culture, she was married at 16, she was handy with a gun, and she never learned to drive a car.  On the other hand she expanded community acceptance of active women through her practice of midwifery and her musical performances on radio and stage.   By all accounts she was a competent, confident and hardworking woman who was well respected in her community. 

Anna Roberts-Gevalt has assembled information and remembrances of Mrs. Pierson and several other women musicians on this web page:  In Her First HeavenAnna also authored a biographical article on Mrs. Pierson for the Old Time Herald here:  Old-Time Herald .

Razor Wolfinbarger was a contractor from Estill County, Kentucky.  In the 1970’s he teamed up with Billy Stamper and Earl Thomas, Jr. and played regularly on the Courthouse Square in Irvine, the County seat.    Harrod says this was probably the last occurrence of an activity that was once common across the south.   Clyde Davenport for instance talks about musicians playing on the square in Monticello, Kentucky in the 1930’s.

Mr. Wofinbarger is buried in the Sunset Memorial Gardens, on Dark Hollow Road, across from the Calvary Baptist Church, not far from the Kentucky River, near Irvine.  Someone once told me he had small hands for a banjo player.

A few modern players have taken up the tune.  Here are some fiddle versions:  Clare Milliner and Walt KokenChristian Wig, and Amy and Karen

Here are some string band versions: Seattle String Band Class, harrod  and the Rhythm Rats.

The Wofinbarger performances were the only solo banjo versions I could find.

Titon gives standard notation for both the Day and Pierson versions in his book Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes and Maya Whitmont’s tab for Little Boy Working on the Road can be found here:  Mossyroof Tab 

Viewers are encouraged to post observations, opinions, performances and tabs contributing to this thread.

Tatersoup - Posted - 12/27/2014:  03:12:29

Nicely done. Thank you!

mworden - Posted - 12/28/2014:  09:06:25

I really like this tune.  

I have a few other recordings of it that I can recommend:  Bruce Greene and Don Pedi on their album "Stranger on a Mule".  A group called Poor Benny does a nice version on their eponymous album.  And Christian Wig does a nice solo fiddle version on his album with Mark Ward "Come Back Boys and Feed the Horses".

Here's a try at it from this morning.  I'm tuned to sawmill.  Might have lost count on the number of A or B parts somewhere along the line.

Little Boy Working on the Road


banjukebox - Posted - 12/28/2014:  11:26:21

That's a great tune, One I'd never heard before - and nicely presented. Thanks for posting.

Mtngoat - Posted - 12/28/2014:  15:56:34

Mike,  That's great playing.  I'm always amazed at how good banjoists consistently incorporate both melody and rhythm into their playing.  It's something I've not been able to achieve thus far. 

Also thanks for the tip leading to this Poor Benny recording:

Edited by - Mtngoat on 12/28/2014 15:58:13

blanham - Posted - 12/28/2014:  17:20:18

Nice tune choice, Mtngoat!  Even though I have "Just Tunes" and "Come Back Boys and Feed the Horses", I'd never heard that J.W. Day recording.  There's something about the original source recording that's hard to beat.

Mtngoat - Posted - 12/28/2014:  18:18:19


Originally posted by blanham

There's something about the original source recording that's hard to beat.


I agree,  I liked the guitar playing on that track too and it led me to his bio.  You can read it here:

Carson Robison Bio    There's some interesting history there.

mworden - Posted - 12/28/2014:  18:51:30

Mtngoat - I missed that you had already pointed to the Christian Wig album.  It's great album (check out that low tuned banjo on Cluck Old Hen!).


mworden - Posted - 12/28/2014:  20:07:57


Originally posted by Mtngoat

Mike,  That's great playing.  I'm always amazed at how good banjoists consistently incorporate both melody and rhythm into their playing.  It's something I've not been able to achieve thus far. 

Thank you for the nice compliment.  I don't really consider myself a "good banjoist" yet but a good blend of rhythm and melody is what I'm always working toward.  

JanetB - Posted - 12/29/2014:  12:30:14

Mountain Goat, you have a knack for choosing tunes with multiple levels of interesting pursuit.  I really like Mike's gentle version with the higher note in Part B that, for me, connote the hard work of the youngster working on the road.  I could listen to that one all day.  Effie Pierson's recording is also pretty and my preferred melody, but.... 

I went ahead and also played the bit more strident note of J.W. Day in Part A (second and seventh measures), as did the Canote Brothers in the Seattle Stringband link above.  It was odd that the notation in Titon's book for J.W. Day didn't reflect that note (it's a G# in the book, though I'd play it as a G, as that's what I hear). I'd class it as a mixolydian tune.

In themes, I'm reminded of the song Orphan Train, which moved me and prompted me to read stories of actual people who road them.  Little Boy Working on the Road gets one to thinking about the hard times many have had.  They may grow up to be hard-working survivors, but hopefully have a rich, enjoyable life as well, better appreciated because of the hard work.  I know many families in past eras needed their children to work at a young age, and it still occurs in many parts of the world today.


Little Boy Working on the Road

Little Boy Working on the Road tab

rickhayes - Posted - 12/29/2014:  15:45:30

Fine versions by both Janet and Mike

Zischkale - Posted - 12/30/2014:  06:16:22

Awesome work, Mtngoat! Should also be noted (just came across this while trying to find out in what manner he was playing his fiddle upside down) that J.W. went by the stage name Jilson Setters, and appears on the Anthology of American Folk Music. "The Wild Wagoner" appears on volume 2, and is a pretty cool fiddle tune, with these quick little sixteenth note bursts. 

Also pretty fascinating that he was at the last battle in that feud -- I need do my homework on that event. Would like to hear the ballad too. 

Apparently his full pseudonym was "Jilson Setters, the Singin' Fiddle of Lost Hope Hollow." Man, that's great.


Mtngoat - Posted - 12/30/2014:  16:15:24


Thank you for posting the exquisite performance and tab.

You like the Pierson version.  They're all good but I favor the Wofinbarger version myself.   I also like the raucous Rhythm Rats recording.


strokestyle - Posted - 01/08/2015:  10:17:36

I just finished the book The Signin' Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow. Excellent read. The book reminded me of Erwin Thompson (however Erwin is not blind) he is living a rich and wonderful life still spreading his ballads at age 99. More info on Erwin here too.  Thanks for all the TOTW's.

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