Charles T. Bowman ranks among the best of the southern fiddlers from the early days of commercial recording. Bowman, who was born on July 30, 1889, on a farm in Gray Station, Tennessee (in the tricities area near Johnson City, Bristol, and Kingsport), actually made an Edison wax cylinder recording of "Turkey in the Straw" for a neighbor in 1908. When he was twelve, Charlie Bowman, who was also known as "Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman" and "Fox Hunt Charlie," played a homemade banjo and soon after started on the fiddle, playing one borrowed from a friend. Later he bought his own for $4.50. Charlie's father, Samuel Bowman, and his grandfather, Jim Bowman, were old-time fiddlers. Charlie Bowman told Mike Seeger that another of his influences was John Mitchell, a fiddler who moved from South Carolina to the tricities area.
Charlie's four sisters all played music but did not perform with him in public, although his youngest sister, Ethel, is said to have had a unique guitar style. Three of Charlie's four brothers, Walter, Elbert, and Argil, formed the Bowman Brothers band with him. The Bowman Brothers played at local theaters, schoolhouses, square dances, ice cream suppers, and political rallies. They had to walk to their performances with their instruments wrapped in newspapers. At a good show, they might make 75 cents each.
In the 1920s, United Commercial Travelers sponsored a fiddle contest in Johnson City. Clayton McMichen, the Georgia state champion, won, but Charlie came in second and won $25 in addition to $5 a local businessman paid him to enter. Impressed by his $30 in earnings, he went to more contests. A log he kept showed that he won twenty-eight or thirty-two contests he entered in Tennessee (Bluff City, Bristol, Boones Creek, Erwin, Embreville, Johnson City, Jonesboro, Kingsport, Limestone, Mountain City, Washington College, Knoxville, Lamar), Georgia (Atlanta, Rome), North Carolina (Boone, Bakersville, Wilkesboro), Virginia (Dante), and Washington, DC. It was common in those days for politicians to bring bands on the campaign trail. Tennessee Congressman B. Carroll Reece traveled with the Bowman Brothers. Charlie wrote his "Reece Rag" for the congressman.
In 1923, Victor offered Charlie Bowman a recording contract. He turned it down, and they signed Uncle Am Stuart instead. Charlie later considered that to be one of his biggest mistakes. Charlie met Al Hopkins at the second Johnson City contest. Hopkins led a popular band called the Hill Billies (when they recorded for Vocalion) or the Buckle Busters (on related label Brunswick). He offered Charlie a job with the band, but Charlie did not accept. They met again in 1925 at the Mountain City fiddler's convention, where Charlie won second prize with "Sally Ann." Hopkins renewed his offer, and this time Charlie accepted.
The Hill Billies
The original Hill Billies consisted of Al Hopkins on piano, Joe Hopkins on guitar, John Rector on banjo, and Tony Alderman on fiddle. The Hopkins' father, John B. Hopkins, was a well-to-do farmer and state legislator in Watauga County, North Carolina. In 1904, the elder Hopkins moved to Washington, DC. Al Hopkins and three of his younger brothers went with him and formed a singing group called the Old Mohawk Quartet. Another of the Hopkins brothers opened a medical clinic in Galax, Virginia and invited Al to be office manager. In 1924, Joe Hopkins met Alonso Elvis "Tony" Alderman, a local barber, who had learned to fiddle from his neighbor, Ernest Stoneman. They began to play together and were soon joined by clawhammer banjo player John Rector from Fries, Virginia. Rector had recorded with Henry Whitter and persuaded his new friends that they could play better than Whitter and should go up to New York to record. In the video Legends of Old-Time Music, Clarence Ashley told folklorist D. K. Wilgus how the band got its name. On the way to their first recording session, they stopped off to visit the Hopkins' father and told him they were going to New York to make records. Their father reportedly said, "Now what can you hillbillies do in New York?" They took that as their name. However, it quickly became used as the generic name for hillbilly music, and they used the name Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters as an alternative.
By today's standards, the Hill Billies were an unusual configuration for a southern string band, especially since their leader played the piano. But there was a lot of diversity at that time with cellos and other instruments common in such bands. The four men recorded six tunes in New York (Jan. 15, 1925) for Ralph Peer of Okeh before Charlie Bowman joined the band. Three of these, "Old Joe Clark," "Silly Bill," and "Cripple Creek," were recorded again when they returned to New York (April 30, 1926) with Bowman on fiddle and banjo, John Hopkins on ukelele, and Elmer Hopkins on harmonica. This time, they were recording for Brunswick-Vocalion.At that session, Bowman's banjo can be heard clawhammer style on "Mountaineer's Love Song" ("Liza Jane"), "Old Joe Clark," "Silly Bill," and "Cripple Creek." Bowman told Charles Wolfe that on many of their recordings, such as "Mississippi Sawyer" and "Long Eared Mule," he and Alderman played "fiddles in unison to get more volume on the old acoustic 78s." The next day, Bowman recorded "Hickman Rag" and "Possum up a Gum Stump, Cooney in the Hollow" ("Sally Goodin") with only Al, Joe, and John Hopkins backing him up.
In 1926, after the death of the senior Hopkins, the band moved to his house in Washington, D.C., where they performed on radio station WRC on Saturday nights to tremendous listener response. An article in the March 6, 1926 edition of Radio Digest was titled, "Hill Billies Capture WRC: Boys from Blue Ridge Mountain Take Washington with Guitars, Fiddles, and Banjos." The 500-watt station's signal reached from New York to Virginia. When they traveled north to record, they played the Broadway Theater in New York City and on radio station WJZ. They were booked on package tours from New England to Florida and often made $25 to $30 a night.
[For the rest of this article, purchase the Spring 2002 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Steve Goldfield plays old-time banjo and fiddle. He writes articles and reviews for Bluegrass Unlimited, Fiddler Magazine, and the Old-Time Herald. His weekly radio show, "Shady Grove," airs on KCHO-Chico and KFPR-Redding, California.]
Photo (courtesy Bob Cox): Charlie Bowman, right, and Tony Alderman. "Fox