Liner Notes

VRCD 357 Billy Lee: Up Jumped the Devil

Billy Lee was born in January 7, 1929 in Wright City, Missouri, and served in the Army in Germany in the early fifties. There he played fiddle in country bands, and he grew interested in building and repairing violins and other musical instruments. Billy hails from an old Missouri German and English family, and his fiddling reflects both these traditions of music that continue to flourish in eastern Missouri.

On his father’s side, the Lees go back to 1680 in St. Marys County, Maryland; they migrated to Kentucky and from there to Missouri in 1841. His dad’s grandfather and grand uncle fought in the Civil War for the North, and had Kentucky cousins fighting for the South. On his mother’s side, the Kruegers came from Germany in the 1830s and settled in Warren County near Pinckney. They worked in a flouring mill, then moved to Warrenton, then bought a 400 acre farm where Krueger’s Bluff is. Her mother’s folks came from Lippe-Detmold area of Germany to the “Lippstadt community” of rural Warren County.

Billy’s dad, William Axford Lee, played guitar, but his uncle Billy Lee was the main musician in that generation. His father knew fiddling, and Billy recalls him urging him to “smooth it out, don’t jump your music, play it smooth, and he wanted a lot of notes put in it like a good whistler would whistle.” Billy’s grand uncle Frank Lee played second fiddle to his grand uncle Billy’s fiddling, an old tradition in Missouri seldom heard today. “He was rough, and did the violin chording behind the lead fiddling. He didn’t play melody at all, he just played chords like you would on a cello or a bass.” The two of them played dances alone.

Billy’s first violin was “one that my Dad’s brother had had. My grandmother had kept it and had it in the attic in a flour sack. And it had come all apart, so we took it home and Dad and a cousin of mine glued it back together and got some strings from somewhere or other. And then we had to have hair for the bow, so they went to the neighbor’s and got some out his white horse’s tail and haired the bow — and I was ready to start learning then. Before that, I’d always sawed on a ukulele neck with a - we had some kind of weeds growing across the road from us, and got about as big around as your finger. And get six to eight foot long. I’d always get some of them and cut off a chunk to be the bow.” Billy also made fiddles out of corn stalks by slicing the stalk and pulling some strands out, then putting a piece of cornstalk under it for a bridge, “and you could make squeaking sounds on it.”

You Are My Sunshine was the first tune Billy played, at around age 9, learned from listening to the Jimmie Davis recording on the radio. “I play a lot of the old Tin Pan Alley tunes, I guess you would call them, like Whispering, Dark Town Strutters Ball, Five Foot Two.” Billy calls his fiddle style “hillbilly hen-scratching fiddle ... conglomeration ... clabbered fiddle.” His role model was the famed radio and recording artist Chubby Wise. “I thought he got a better tone out of a fiddle than anybody I ever heard.”

Billy’s band, The Tune Twisters, formed in 1961, was a mainstay of the eastern Missouri round dance scene for many years. In 1976 Billy decided it was time to retire from the hectic pace of steady work in dance halls. At the same time, he was a professional auctioneer and building up his instrument repair business.

Billy is a good storyteller and has a droll sense of humor. “I always sat underneath the fiddler’s arm if I could get there, when I was so high. My dad was usually playing guitar, and I’d get up close as I could to the fiddle player. Generally they were house dances or something, you just got in a corner and played. Remember one time, I was always awful bashful. And we went to this house dance and they’d sat sticks of stove wood on end and then laid a plank on top of them for seats around the corner, edge of the room. This one (plank seat) didn’t go all the way to the corner, it ended back a seat or two. This old woman, she was a Mills, too, I’ve forgotten what her first name was, but I thought she was a thousand years old. Always dressed in black, with a little black bonnet on, and she come a-creeping in and come over there by me and was going to sit on that bench, and I was too bashful to tell her there wasn’t no bench there and she just kept sitting down till she got all the way to the floor.”

There used to be a lot of strong drink at those old dances, and homemade liquor was passed around. “I remember one old boy, had a terrible tooth ache. And that tooth kept aching him and he got about two-third drunk and he decided he was going to end that. So he got out his pocket knife, jabbed it in all round that tooth and loosened her up and pulled her. Would’ve killed a human.”

Billy now lives in Wright City, Missouri, with his wife Betty. In retirement, Billy once again plays dances with a band, Frank Stanek and the Country Limits, in the Montgomery City and Warrenton area on Saturdays and Sundays.

1. Hollow Poplar. A big Arthur Smith tune from the 1930s via Paul Warren. We understand it was Smith’s favorite tune from his days playing over WSM’s Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s

2. I’ll Always Be in Love with You. From Blackie Lewis. “He was a good fiddle player, but awful temperamental.” An old sentimental song, composed for a Hollywood movie in the 1930s, which makes a fine dance une. Several Missouri fiddlers played it in former times, particularly the great Ed Tharp of Callaway and Boone Counties, who liked it in F.

3. Up Jumped the Devil. Another tune from Blackie Lewis, “born and raised” at Augusta. Billy says, “Don’t hear that much anymore. Sort of a western swing sort of tune.” Related to Berlin Polka. Early recordings were by Tommy Jackson and Pappy Sherrill, and it is still common among older fiddlers.

4. The Butterfly Waltz. Billy says some people today call it “the kitchen waltz.” This is another tune Lee learned as a child by hearing his German-speaking grandmother, Wilhamena Sprick Krueger, hum and sing it around the house. When Billy plays the tune at dances, older people still do the “butterfly” dance, where a man dances with one women on each side. First they march side by side in stately fashion up the hall, and when the waltz part of the tune starts they turn in place and do a right and left figure. The song, originally entitled Freut Euch des Lebens, was written in 1796 by Swiss poet Martin Usteri and composer Hans Georg Nageli, and soon became immensely popular in America as Life Let Us Cherish.

5. Lady of the Lake. “Played it all my life but didn’t know the name of it till four or five years ago when I heard Art Stamper play it.” “We played it for circle dances all the time.” Known throughout Britain.

6. After the Ball. “A good waltz, don’t know why nobody plays that anymore.” Tin Pan Alley composer Chas. K. Harris composed and published this sentimental parlor song of lost love in 1892. It first appeared in the variety show A Trip to Chinatown. It was an instant success and became the first million-selling sheet music, selling 10 million over the next twenty years.

7. Walking in My Sleep. An old song, sometimes played as a two-step or a breakdown, brought to wider audiences in the 1970s by the gifted bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker.

8. Missouri Waltz. President Harry S Truman was asked to play this tune on the piano at every opportunity but he secretly disliked it. Attributed to several different black jazz piano players, such as Dab Hannah, in Missouri railroad towns of the early 20th century, many now believe it was composed by a white jazz pianist in Missouri named Jelly Settles.

9. Put Your Little Foot. German-Americans call this tune Kick a Dutchman. Missouri tradition is to call all German-speaking people “Dutch” (Deutsch) or “Dutchman.” This tune is about the only survivor of the many tunes formerly used for the Varsouvienne dance.

10. Red Apple Rag. One of Arthur Smith’s signature fiddle tunes from the 1940s, quite popular among bluegrass fiddlers as well as old-time fiddlers.

11. Du Bist Verrückt Mein Kind. A German folk song whose title means “You Are Crazy My Child.”

12. Goodnight Waltz. Andrew Kuntz says that the Leake County Revelers’ version (backed by Wednesday Night Waltz) was the second best-selling country music record for the year 1927. Most of the seasoned fiddlers in Missouri play this fine waltz.

13. Carroll County Blues. This familiar two-step comes from Mississippi string band recordings of the 1920s and was composed by Will Narmour.

14. Lisa Lynn Waltz. Billy got this tune from Tater Tate.

15. Snow Deer. This classic dance tune played as a foxtrot or two step was a popular song composed by Percy Wenrich in the early 1900s.

16. Du, Du, Liegst Mir Im Herzen. An old German song, often played for a waltz. The words are: “Du, Du, Liegst Mir Im Herzen, Du, Du, Liegst Mire Im sinn, Du, Du, machst mir viel schmerzen, Weisst nicht, wie gut ich dir bin?”

17. Peacock Rag. A fine old tune from the early 20th century heyday of ragtime, played by every Missouri fiddler worth his or her salt. Another great tune popularized by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

18. Katy Hill. This old southern hoedown has been recorded by several Missouri fiddlers including Lonnie Robertson, Cyril Stinnett, Pete McMahan, Gene Goforth and Jim Herd. It was made famous by Arthur Smith and others, and is also part of the bluegrass fiddle repertoire.

19. Fiddler’s Dream. A superb tune and demanding of superior skills, learned from the bow of Arthur Smith.

20. Johnson’s Old Grey Mule. We couldn’t put out this CD without at least one example of Billy’s wonderful singing. Here he renders the famous song made popular by Curly Fox.

21. Peekaboo Waltz. No self-respecting Missouri fiddler would play a dance without bringing this sentimental favorite forward. Recorded in 1927 by Uncle Dave Macon and by fiddler J.C. Glasscock (Steppville, Alabama) on Gennett Records.

22. The Old Spinning Wheel. An old sentimental song, often played as a two-step or foxtrot by Missouri dance fiddlers.

23. In the Garden. Among the long favored Protestant hymns played by fiddlers at church services, funerals, and other occasions. Found in most hymn books.

24. Fire on the Mountain. A hot fiddlers’ war horse made famous by show fiddlers like Scotty Stoneman and by Tommy Jackson’s records. Its first appearance in print in the U.S. seems to be as “Free (Fire) on the Mountain” in Riley’s Flute Melodies of 1814 or 1815.

25. Sweet Bunch of Daisies. On Clark Kessinger’s and Chubby Wise’s big fiddle recordings from the old days and published in most of the popular tune books.

26. Florida Blues. Another great Arthur Smith composition, which Billy learned from Chubby Wise. It’s a hot tune many fiddlers play, though very few play it as well as Billy.

27. Over the Waves. Probably the most popular waltz of all time, from the pen of Mexican composer Juventino Rosas (1868-1894). Rosas was an Otomi Indian who played the fiddle, also famous as a concert violinist. He wrote the tune in 1891 as a set of waltzes called “Sobre las Olas.”

28. Sugar Tree Stomp. Another of the great Arthur Smith inventions, named for Sugar Tree, Tennessee and recorded in 1936.

29. Lonesome Indian. A different tune from Lost Indian, this has been a favorite in Missouri for a long time. 30. Lauterbach Waltz. An old German waltz, sometimes called The Little Brown Dog Waltz (“Oh, where, oh where, has my little dog gone?”).

Guitarist Phil Peters was born in Illinois in 1935, moved across the Mississippi with his family in 1941 and “soon became a native.” His mother and grandmother both played guitar and piano. Phil has played with many bands since he was 17 years old. He played guitar with the Tune Twisters for 16 years and says he was in “hog heaven” playing in this great band.

Vera Blum, an outstanding country singer and musician, plays electric bass. She started playing music at age 14 and has played in several prominent country bands since then. Vera says she “made a few records but did not have a hit. I used the name Marie Mills because they didn’t think Vera Blum would do anything for the public. Neither did Marie Mills.” Vera lives in Wright City and continues a busy musical career.

Dr. Howard (Rusty) Marshall of Fulton, Missouri, produced Billy’s album and plays old-time banjo on it. He is a fiddler and a teacher, and does programs about the history of fiddling. In 2000, he retired as professor and chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He and Margot operate a small livestock farm in Callaway County, where they raise beef and lamb and put up their famous Fiddler Bee Honey.

I wish to thank Nate Kemperman (a fine fiddler in his own right) for running the recording equipment as we played in Billy’s front parlor in March 2002. We also thank Dr. Sharon Graf of the University of Illinois at Springfield for her help with the German tunes, and Andrew Kuntz, whose “Ceolas” website is a gold mine of information on fiddle tune histories. I want to thank my old friend Billy Lee for allowing me to have a role in bringing out this much-anticipated CD. And finally, thank you Betty Lee! — Howard Marshall, Timber Hill Farm, Fulton MO

(Seven photos of Billy Lee and his bands are in the liner notes, though not shown here.)

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