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Apr 19, 2024 - 8:29:28 AM
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zach w

USA

144 posts since 9/2/2012

I’ve chosen “Portsmouth Airs” as this week's TOTW. This is another fantastic Ohio fiddle tune that comes from Portsmouth, Ohio native Jimmy Wheeler.  It's a lovely mid-west fiddle tune played in the Key of G.

Portsmouth, OH is located about 2 hours directly south of Columbus, OH along the banks of the Ohio river across from north-eastern Kentucky, and east of the mouth of the Scioto river.

James ( Jimmy) R. Wheeler jr. was born in Scioto county, Ohio in 1918, graduated from the local Portsmouth High School in 1935, and passed away in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1987. fiddlehangout link. He was a self taught and accomplished instrument repair man and musician who played multiple instruments including the bass, guitar and fiddle. Jimmy played guitar with Forrest Pick on fiddle for many years as ‘the Personality Boys' on radio station WPAY in Portsmouth.

His father, Jim, played fiddle and passed many tunes down to his son including: Blind steer in a mudhole, Dads Tune, Six White Horses, Cauliflower and Dover. Other musical influences include Buddy Thomas, Ed Haley, Asa Neal, and Forrest Pick. Many tunes Jimmy knew or played were also recorded on the Buddy Thomas album “kitty puss” showing the regional influence and style of southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

Here are some excerpts from Jeff Goehrings notes on Jimmy Wheeler. (Jeff Goehring collected and documented music from many Ohio fiddlers for the Field recorders collective) Jeff Goehrings notes

  • Jimmy’s style in general sounds very French-Canadian, utilizing trills as ornaments, and “turns” too, as well as certain use of double stops and a kind of sharp broken choppy bowing simultaneously.  This could and should be described more accurately with proper musical terminology.  But it’s the best I can do for right now with my current degree of accumulated knowledge, self-learned perceptions and young viewpoint. 

  •  I realized he was no ordinary run-of-the-mill Ohio fiddler.  He was the real thing, a very bright creative unique style reminiscent of Buddy Thomas and Ed Haley, both of whom he knew, especially Buddy, whom he’d played with on several occasions.  This is reflected in his style.  I don’t think he actually made an effort to sound like Buddy, but in fact they are both representative of a regional style occurring in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.  Many of Jimmy’s tunes come from his father, Jim Wheeler….

  • He plays very notey and fluidly, utilizing trills when they work.  Kind of his own creative touch.  Buddy Thomas and Ed Haley both used “trills'' to enhance their sound.  Jim also cited older area fiddlers as sources for some of the tunes, which led me to the conclusion that these tunes weren’t strictly Kentucky tunes but also were popular among Portsmouth area fiddlers of an earlier era. 

And finally any time I’ve heard or read about Jimmy Wheeler his personality is always brought up. Again here are some excerpts from Jeff Goehring:

  • He was indeed a difficult man.  Almost childish.  Kind of sheltered, eccentric all the way, nervous, self-conscious, unpredictable, a bit evasive, or perhaps all this to become evasive because of fears.  I often felt very intrusive and overbearing.  He’d obviously shown some signs of being slightly unnerved at times by me and my insistence, and kind of goading and pleading for tunes, although I wasn’t as much as I usually am. 

  • Somehow through word-of-mouth, probably from Cyrus McQueen, I’d heard that Jimmy not only was an incredible repairman, but quite an eccentric type who was extremely anti-social  and maladjusted.  These things tend to create a negative impression, but, to the contrary, Jim is actually a very nice fellow – a bit self-conscious of the fact that he’s a bit abnormal, for lack of a better term, though I honestly am not sure what normal means.

If you want to here Jimmy play, his recordings are available here: fieldrecorder.org

Below are Youtube links to listen to “Portsmouth Airs”. Enjoy!

My Version of Portsmouth Airs.


Apr 20, 2024 - 2:33:07 AM
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483 posts since 9/9/2006

I love this tune, and I’m glad to see it here as a TOTW! I’ve heard a recording of Jimmy Wheeler playing it, but I learned it from my friend Harry Liedstrand, who’s fiddling it in the video you’ve posted of the New Vintage Revelers. In fact, I was at that concert! Harry has made ithe tune his own, and you play it much like he (and I) do. Very nice!

Coincidentally, just last Sunday, my wife Maxine Gerber and I were playing with Susie Goehring and Karen Celia Heil, and Susie pulled out Blind Steer in a Mudhole, which she and Jeff learned from Jimmy Wheeler. I asked her if she played Portsmouth Airs, and she said she used to, but it’s been so long she couldn’t quite remember it. I asked her a bit about Jimmy Wheeler, but she didn’t get into his quirky personality much, though she did mention that he was well-known in the area as a jazz bass player. Now I want to ask her more about him!!

By the way, Susie Goehring is a fine fiddler, with a great touch and a wonderful repertoire, but these days, it seems like she’s better known for her great guitar playing in bands like Bigfoot, so we’ve been encouraging her to play lots of fiddle when she’s out here in San Francisco visiting her mom and daughter. I’m glad she’s fiddling more (at least here!), and I’ll have to encourage her to pull out more tunes from Jimmy Wheeler, as well as from the other Ohio fiddlers that she and Jeff visited years ago!

Thanks for posting this fine tune as a TOTW!

Apr 20, 2024 - 4:16:49 AM
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zach w

USA

144 posts since 9/2/2012

Thanks. I've spoken with Susie through email and she's help me with info about Estil Adams for a previous TOTW. She's so nice. I've only heard of her guitar work but not I hope I get to hear her play fiddle some day.

The group I play with turned 'Blind steer in a mudhole' into a medley with 'Jenny ran away in the mud in the night's. It's out "mud medley" haha

Apr 20, 2024 - 9:14:29 AM
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dbrooks

USA

4672 posts since 3/11/2004

Here's some quick clawhammer tab for this really fine fiddle tune.

Portsmouth Airs Tab - Details and Ratings - Banjo Hangout

David

Apr 20, 2024 - 12:54:24 PM
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Players Union Member

dbrooks

USA

4672 posts since 3/11/2004

I have added another tab that seeks to capture the tune as played by the Orpheus Supertones.

Portsmouth Airs - after Orpheus Supertones Tab - Details and Ratings - Banjo Hangout

David

Apr 20, 2024 - 4:23:27 PM
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7129 posts since 6/27/2009

Nicely done and good choice, Zach.  On my laptop there is the Buddy Thomas' version from the collection called "Traditional Music of Kentucky, Up the Ohio and Licking Rivers", produced by John Harrod and Mark Wilson.  Portsmouth Airs is the first track -- upbeat and skillfully played.  Buddy learned it during his visits to Portsmouth to play with Jimmy and others.  From the liner notes: "Contrary to what one might expect, the young fiddler's settings are markedly more melancholy and old-time than Wheeler's versions, who sometimes gravitated to what Buddy called 'hot-dogging' -- adding variations employing standard contest-style bowing tricks and the lick.  Buddy would systematically eliminate such accretions and endeavored instead to 'fatten the tune up' with the double stops and lonesome slides that make his playing so instantaneously recognizable."  (There's actually nothing melancholy about Buddy's take on Portsmouth Airs.)

I saw the up-the-neck challenge you played, Zach, and immediately though to avoid it by trying the cello banjo.  :)  Interestingly, it was already tuned to Buddy Thomas' version in the equivalent tuning of double C, but tuned down four steps.  I still had to go to the 7th fret.  One of the things that makes 9th fret more challenging is because I'm tabbing the arrangement and reading the tab.  It's much easier to play a tab that doesn't jump around the neck.  (Because I normally learn and arrange more than one tune a week, I'm not focusing on mastering or memorizing the tunes, something Dwight Diller disapproved of, and told me so!)

Hope you enjoy what I came up with.


Edited by - JanetB on 04/20/2024 16:24:36

Apr 21, 2024 - 4:38:03 PM
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dbrooks

USA

4672 posts since 3/11/2004

That's a really nice arrangement and played extraordinarily well, Janet. I listened to Buddy Thomas' version on Slippery Hill, and you capture the spirit of the tune.

David

Apr 21, 2024 - 5:30:05 PM
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zach w

USA

144 posts since 9/2/2012

Excellent arrangement Janet. I really enjoy listening to your playing. Thanks for the opportunity to present this tune.

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