Feature articles and album reviews
Fiddle player Lee Stripling
found new audience later in life
To watch Alabama-born Lee Stripling play the fiddle was to witness the magic of an elderly gentleman becoming young again.
His eyes would light up, his body would rock to the beat, and — in an oft-requested rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel" — he would play the fiddle with the bow held between his knees, under his leg or behind his back.
But even the restorative power of music has its limits: Mr. Stripling, 87, a Seattle resident since World War II, died Monday of lung cancer...
Second Time Around:
An old fiddling pro takes the stage — again
After laying his fiddle down for decades, Lee Stripling is enjoying his newfound popularity in Seattle, thousands of miles from the cotton fields of his native Alabama and six decades from his professional fiddling heyday. Stripling, age 85, was very young when his father Charlie and uncle Ira, known as the Stripling Brothers, recorded their first “sides” in the 1920s. The instrumental duo “climbed to the heights of music fame from a beginning as inauspicious as a human mind can imagine,” reported the Commercial Dispatch [Columbus, Mississippi) in 1929.
— Matt Sircely
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The music in my dad’s soul
Twice in his life, fiddle music has been my dad’s salvation: First as a sharecropper’s son in rural Alabama and then as a man in his late 70s, adrift in grief for my mother.
The story of Lee Edwin Stripling playing as a youngster is the simpler and more charming of these two tales of redemption.
That story’s set in the Great Depression. It has cotton fields, mules and the image of my dad so young his feet dangle from his chair as he plays at dances with his famous fiddler father to earn coins tossed on the stage.
But the story of him being rediscovered is at least as inspiring, if not more so.
Stripling Brothers 2000 Tour
Many readers of this magazine spend a good number of summer weeks at music festivals and gatherings. We’re drawn as much by the chance to stay up half the night visiting and playing with rarely seen old friends as by the opportunity to meet and hear first hand the masters and tradition bearers of the music. One of the better results of such gatherings is the delight, inspiration, and rejuvenation felt by older players who suddenly find themselves surrounded by enthusiastic fans of their music, in some cases experiencing a sense of being valued as musicians for the first time in many years. At last July’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Pt. Townsend, Washington, I was fortunate to be close by as Lee and Robert Stripling had just such an experience — one which left both of them renewed and excited and planning a new musical career as they start their ninth decades.
The Lee Stripling Trio review
This is a wonderful CD . . . There are three good musicians on this CD, and I'd like to know more about the rest of the Lee Stripling Trio. I do know enough, however, to give this an unqualified recommendation. Buy this CD!
— Pete Peterson
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Hogs Picking Up Acorns review
Fans of the Stripling Brothers will immediately recognize several of Stripling tunes from the program list, including “Whiskers,” “Horseshoe Bend,” “California Blues,” and “Wolves a-Howling.” Lee’s versions of these tunes are a tribute to his father’s fiddling, but Lee definitely puts his own stamp on them. The more commonly known fiddle tunes included here were learned from Charlie as well and all have a unique twist to them which often kept me guessing as to what was going to happen next.
While Lee does a wonderful job on the fiddle tunes, it is on the pop tunes and swing numbers, which make up over half of the selections on this CD, that he really cuts loose and shines. Lee’s fiddling on these pieces is relaxed and playful. It would be hard for me to pick out a favorite as they’re all a a great deal of fun. Another reason this material sounds so good is that Lee has a great supporting cast throughout. W.B. Reid and Tony Mates keep things moving right along on the guitar and bass, respectively, while Kerry Blech and Glenn Dudley occasionally join in on mandolin and plectrum banjo. The effect is ragged but just right.
Excerpt from Roses in Winter
In 1929, at the tender age of eight, Lee began his career as a dance musician on mandolin, and took up the fiddle a few years later. With his famous father, Charlie Stripling, on fiddle and his older brother Robert on guitar, he played at dances and concerts in and around his home town of Kennedy, Alabama. One afternoon the Striplings stopped in to play with the well known local fiddler Uncle Plez Carroll. Lee still plays some of the tunes they played there and treasures the memory of the afternoon visit that links modern Seattle with pre-Civil War Alabama. “Uncle Plez was born in 1850, before the Civil War, and yet I played some tunes with him. I’m still alive, 152 years later!”
Charlie Stripling —
Alabama’s Most Recorded Fiddler
On November 15, 1928, the brothers traveled to Birmingham where the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company had set up a temporary recording studio in the Bankhead Hotel. Ira Stripling recalled the occasion: “When we went up there that night, they had some bands that sounded good to me and he [Manager Jack Kapp] just frown up and ask them if they didn’t have anything better than that. Bands just sounded real good to me and he wouldn’t take anything they had. I didn’t think there was any use for us to even wait for a trial. I told Charlie, ‘We’d just as well go.’ ”
They stayed, however, and finally got their opportunity to audition. In Ira’s words, “The first piece Charlie started, he [Kapp] started smiling. Didn’t play over what you’d call — what old people called a stanza — you know, played only one stanza and he motioned to him to stop. Says, ‘We’ll try that. What else do you have?’ Charlie told him and started to playing that. And so he didn’t play but a little piece and he stopped him again. Then’s when he told us he’d try us and if it made good, we’d hear from him in about two weeks. We didn’t hear anything from it till Charlie heard it playing in a music store in Fayette.”
The Legacy of a Neighborhood:
Charlie Stripling and Uncle Plez Carroll
I have been revisiting Charlie Stripling’s neighborhood lately. I hadn’t been there since the 1980s when I was doing research on the great Stripling Brothers for my book on Alabama fiddling, “With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow.” What took me back to West Alabama was the desire to learn something about how Charlie Stripling learned to play the fiddle. Comments by two old-time musicians whose knowledge I respect inspired me to do this new research. I remember a late-night session at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in 1998 with Whitt Mead, Jim Cauthen, and myself that was dedicated to Stripling tunes. When we finished, Whitt said that the thing that amazed him most about the Striplings was that they were so great even though they learned to play in isolation. Just a few months later Kerry Blech’s review in the Old-Time Herald (fall 1998) of Document’s two-CD set, “The Stripling Brothers Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order,” said that Stripling had told an interviewer that he had taught himself to play because there were no other fiddlers in the area during his childhood. Though I know that Kerry and Whitt came by this opinion honestly, I am ready to put the myth of the isolation of the Stripling Brothers to rest and proclaim that there were plenty of fiddlers in Charlie Stripling’s community when he learned to play. Perhaps none were as good as he became, but they were there and he learned from them.