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First Recording Session with Jimmy Wheeler
Oct. 5, 1982
First recording session with Jimmy Wheeler in Portsmouth, Ohio
Arrived approx. 2 p.m. unexpectedly.
Found Jimmy and two of three sisters sitting under awning between house and
shop/garage, smoking cigarettes and drinking old milwaukee in red and white
cans, a welcoming wave. Jimmy didn't remember my name though I'm positive he
remembered me. His sisters Dottie and Merle were friendly. Dot remembered me,
Jimmy's first question was "What's your problem?" or something to the
effect of what kind of problem do you have? I had an old Stella guitar which belongs
to my wife Susie, that was busted up with a few cracks in the top & open joint
on the top & no bridge - the old one had snapped in two. I also had with me
a fiddle belonging to Mark Haas. The fiddle was originally made in Columbus, but
Mark got it in Missouri. Jimmy knew all about who made it and when they were around
plus some details on their particular method of mass producing fiddles by "pressing
the backs" into shape by use of a mold.
He said they were O.K., some "good, bad & worse" as he put it. So
he hem-hawed around a bit as to which project he would take on, at first a bit
hesitant to discuss the fiddle. A picture frame had dropped on it and cracked
right through the top, though the fiddle was in the case at the time. It penetrated
the case and all and left a nasty gash about 1 by 1-1/2" long. The thing
that made Jim mad was the fact that none of the hardware was present: tuners,
tail piece, etc. He kept complaining of having to deal with "busted tuners"
meaning unfretted pegs which would require shaping and fitting and an added expense
for parts which I think was the main problem. He was proud of the fact that he
was only going to charge about $30.00 to do the repair for the work only not counting
parts and strings. This made him very upset and was ready to not take on the job
as a consequence. Though I knew he would if I played my cards right, which meant
not being too pushy or impatient about when the projects would be completed.
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 "mal-adjusted. 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.
But indeed Jimmy is a bit difficult to get acquainted with. One thing that is
immediately obvious is that the man is extremely gifted musically and intellectually.
A self-taught instrument repairman of unsurpassable skill. And quite knowledgeable
about "real," valuable fiddles of ancient European vintage. He once
repaired for me a Russian violin, a "muley" he called it, my first exposure
to the word and I was immediately overwhelmed by the thought. How great. But what
he was actually referring to was the unique design feature that makes the Russian
design stand apart from all the others-the edges of the fiddle top and back do
not overlap as in most other types of fiddles where they stick out about 1/8 to
1/16 of an inch. Well in the muleys the top and back edges are "flush,"
kind of rounded in, kind of giving the fiddle and interesting, almost stream-lined
I got the muley approx. December of 1978 while on Christmas break from O.S.U.
Tom Smith had tipped me off on the where-abouts of a decent looking fiddle in
an antique shop in Dublin, Ohio so I went and checked it out with Joe Kastor,
and old buddy-musician friend. We had a few tokes of hashish and drove in the
country and in downtown Col. in my '67 V.W. microbus. Well the fiddle turned out
to cost me $10.00 and she even threw in a couple hairless bows. I thought the
wood was promising-nicely (mottled ?) curly-maple back and sides, and I was real
freaked to see another fiddle like I'd seen Bob Herring play in 1977 at the Glenville
Festival. he was with Dave Molk and I assumed it was some bizarre cosmic fiddle
of unknown origin. Well actually muleys weren't all that uncommon and not really
considered a good make of fiddle. The one from Dublin was uncommonly good and
Jimmy was anxious to give it a go. I took it down the following spring. When I
went to pick it up I realized I had an excellent instrument thanks to Jim Wheeler.
He repaired all the cracks in it, fitted new tuners, and refinished it; "
I suppose that was the most amazing part. Refinishing an old instrument is very
risky, it's like trying to give a leper a face-lift without cutting its head off!
You can easily damage the natural aged sound of the instrument, as the wood arranges
its particles in response to the vibrations produced while being played. Well
Jim didn't blow it-actually I think he by setting it up and adjusting it brought
out sounds that weren't even present in the first place_he tone was rich and clear
and the intonation was accurate and easy to catch-hold of.
So that was all I saw of Jim for quite a while. Then I broke my fiddle up again
in Ireland. I dropped the "Muley" when I got off a train in a drunken
stupor in Kilarney, Co. Kerry Ireland. I took it back to Jimmy later that summer
78 and he did an excellent repair once again. It was on the return trip that fall
that I actually got to hear and play with him. 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 which 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 Ky. Many of Jimmy's
tunes come from his father, Jim Wheeler who was apparently a miller from points
east of Portsmouth, more detail and background later.
He plays very notey and fluidly, utilizing trills when they work. Kind of his
own creative touch. Buddy Thomas and Haley both used "trills" to enhance
their sound. Jim also sited 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 amongst Portsmouth area fiddlers of an earlier era. Acey,
"Aca" Neal was one of those fiddlers. Many of the same tunes Jim learned
from Acey were recorded by Buddy Thomas on his "Kitty Puss" record on
Rounder: Brown Button Shoes, Big Indian Hornpipe, Yellow Barber, Going Back to
Ol' Kentucky, Martha Campbell. These were played by Jim's dad too. I'm not real
specific on which tunes were particular to each. more detail later.
Other tunes were strictly from Jim's father, like "Blind Steer in the Mudhole,"
and one which he called affectionately, "Dad's Tune." Other ones I also
have never heard anywhere else, like "Six White Horses," "Cauliflower,"
"Dover." Plus some standards played by most Ohio fiddlers like Stonewall
Jackson, Liberty, and Raggedy Ann. He also played a couple other Canadian type
tunes: Joys of Quebec and the No Name Polka.
The tune "Blind Steer in the Mudhole" struck me as one of the most unique
tunes he played the whole session. He learned the tune from his father. The first
part of this tune was uncanny. I've never heard anything like it before. It starts
out in the E chord, though the tune is actually, according to Jim, in the key
of A. The second or "B" part of the tune is almost note-for-note derived
from the Scottish, French-Canadian piece "Money Musk." It kind of makes
one ponder upon the origin or creation of fiddle tunes once again.
The "A" part of Blind Steer is very bizarre and uncommon. I'm pretty
sure I've not heard that particular melodic strain in anything else. The use of
the open strings, double-stopping and drones is familiar to other pieces of earlier
vintage. But that particular one is a first for me. Not that I've got that broad
of a background anyways.
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 terminology (musical). But it's the best I can do
for right now with my current degree of accumulated knowledge, self-learned perceptions
and young viewpoint.
It's getting late and I'm groping for words, but want to discuss Jimmy's mannerisms
and personality-wacked out, that's for sure-who do I mean? me or him? Both probably.
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 over-bearing.
He'd obviously shown some signs of being slightly unnerved at times by me and
my insistence, and na?e kind of goading and pleading for tunes, although I wasn't
as much as I usually am. I was firm with him because otherwise I would have gotten
nowhere whatsoever. He certainly wasn't going to volunteer to tape me some tunes.
And was real hesitant about committing himself to doing a recording.
I kind of had to march out and grab my recorder and tell him he would play! He
refused, of course, as he showed me into his shop in the garage for a second round
of tunes, this time for the machine. This was after a brief discussion about the
record and how he wouldn't take that one on, because I already had enough out
of him with the guitar and fiddle repair.
At first, when I mentioned the record, he said "a fella would have to have
a tape with him," or something that implied he would make the recording there
but not be coaxed into going anywhere else, either in a studio or anywhere but
But when I called his bluff and said I had a good machine in the car, he immediately
dismissed the idea and refused once again. Then again another bull and small talk
and cigs. Finally I just headed out into the driveway and grabbed my gear which
needed to come in from the sun and hot car anyway. He said no and I stood a firm
yes " we headed in " he requested that I accompany him on guitar. I
was actually pretty nervous once we actually got down to it myself. It's as if
we both realized the ultimate intensity capable, but also the fact that this was
going w/ the recording so there was a bit of anxiety in regard to "getting
it right" for the tape, which was actually a drag in a way and partly the
reason I often haven't recorded the most intense playing I'd ever heard-often
the case at Ward Jarvis's and in Ireland and at other festival type events where
music is occurring in spontaneous ways and the excitement is strictly for the
sake of the enjoyment of sharing that moment. Perhaps as if it were a fragile
magical experience whose existence depends on its flightfulness, the fact that
a tune will magically appear in a certain form at a certain instance spontaneously
based on the mood & temperament at the time. This sacred situation or moment
can be greatly hampered with when a recording machine is introduced-suddenly it's
recorded for eternity-held accountable for some reason that almost hampers with
the actual nature of the art. When people are participating in a beautiful and
exciting session when the music is oh so grand, or ever listening, full attention
and total appreciation, (???) I feel as if it's very unique to that moment and
hope that there will be many more like it. So philosophically I guess I see eye-to-eye
with Jim. Possibly, maybe he truly plays for self-enjoyment & for & with
his friends who simply enjoy it for it's own sake.
This hero star business is weird-everything gets turned into a performance art,
has to be documented, on display, gig, crowd, gallery, whatever-is that what old
time music was actually all about? I think Neh! It's back to that for-the-moment
business! People used to just enjoy hearing fiddle music in a different way. Maybe
they figured there would always be great fiddlers and tunes around, dances. But
now it changed, people documenting this stuff because it's been giving way to
modernization and mainstreamization. But people are also into performing it and
that I believe is different.
A whole other animal-maybe. At least at a folk fest. there has always been a performance
situation event, of course. Much solo fiddling in solitude I'm sure, but lots
of occasions-social for performing regional, local, familiar faces. No such an
emphasis on analyzing and specifying that this is "folk, trad. Appalachian,
whatever. More on this later.
This concludes Phase 1 for now. More of odd Jimmy Wheeler to come.
When I complimented his playing (if you can), he said something to the effect
of "fascinating yourself and fascinating other people." That describes
accurately his playing - fascinating. Very fascinating.
He could also mimic the gimmicks used by more modern mainstream players, mockingly
running through the Bluegrass and fancy fiddle double shuffle lick like in Orange
Blossom Special and many other tunes of that vintage and style. A common technique
Who would you want to fascinate? Yourself or other people? Interesting questions
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