Today’s guestpost was written by Ethelene Dyer Jones
A Story about ‘Fiddler of the Mountains’ Johnny Mull
and How Both His Life Story and Some of His Music Were Preserved
by Ethelene Dyer Jones
First, know that Johnny Mull, born and reared in the Tusquittee Mountain area of North Carolina, known as “Fiddler of the Mountains,” learned to play fiddle when quite young on a homemade instrument fashioned of an old cigar box with strings drawn tautly to produce music when plucked in a certain way.
Johnny Mull, born May 30, 1922, grew up in a music-loving family, which set him in line to follow his father, Calvin Monroe Mull, and other relatives playing banjo, guitar and fiddle. He heard the music from the time he was born. You could say he was born and raised on mountain music. It flowed through him, his mind and his fingers, like water ripples over rocks in a melodious mountain stream.
Author Eva Nell Mull Wike with Johnny Carter, sound engineer, of Rome, GA, who restored the old Johnny Mull acetate records onto disks.
Johnny Mull’s niece, Dr. Eva Nell Mull Wike, now of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but like her uncle Johnny, reared in Clay County in the shadow of the Tusquittee Mountains, wrote the story of her Uncle Johnny. The biography entitled “”Fiddler of the Mountains” was published in September, 2013. But the book is only part of the story. Author Wike discovered that Johnny Mull’s landlady at a time when he worked in Canton, Ohio in the 1950’s had some old home recordings of “Johnny and Friends.” She just might be able to get the recordings together and send them to Dr. Wike. And this is the story of how, more than sixty years later, the recordings were found and restored.
Much credit is due to Mrs. Myrtle Vaughan Steiner (04-23-1922 – 09-04-2013) of Canton, Ohio, her husband, Art, who played there with Johnny Mull and other of Johnny’s friends, also working in Canton, in their off-hours from the Timken Roller-Bearing Company. Mrs. Steiner recorded the group’s music on a home recording device. Dr. Mull received the records from Mrs. Steiner’s daughter, Karen, after Mrs. Steiner’s death in September, and proceeded to get the music restored on disks. Who would believe that some old scratchy recordings more than sixty years old could be restored?
She turned to the knowledgeable sound engineer, Johnny Carter, whose National Recording Corporation Studio is located in Rome, Georgia. He has the technical knowledge as well as the musical expertise to transform old recordings to modern-day disks.
This Johnny, like Johnny Mull of Tusquittee, was “brought up” on music. Some of Johnny Carter’s fondest and earliest memories are of going with his grandfather,the late Mr. Frank Dyer of Blairsville, to shaped-note singing conventions. He also went with his grandfather to churches where he taught “singing schools” using the shaped-note method of learning music.
Johnny Carter gives this account of restoring the “Johnny Mull and Friends” old records: “The recordings of Johnny Mull’s music were early 1950’s direct-cut acetates, recorded at different speeds—33 1/3, 45, and 78 revolutions per minute. Sears Roebuck originally sold the home recorders that cut grooves into blank acetate. These were aluminum discs coated with acetate plastic. At that time, there were no tapes being used generally by the public. Most radio studios didn’t have or make tapes then. People today are used to everything being digital, but the acetate discs on which the Johnny Mull music was recorded represented analog technology going back to the 1920’s. It is rare, indeed, that these old recordings even existed, as acetates were limited to the number of times they could be played. Hearing Johnny Mull’s music preserved now, in digital form, is like going back in ‘sound’ in a time machine.”
Fiddler of The Mountains. Johnny Mull, about 1952 when he played with a group after his work at the Timkin Roller Bearing Company in Canton, Ohio.
Thanks to the late Mrs. Myrtle Steiner who thought “the boys” were worthy of recording and faithfully cut records on her Sears and Roebuck home recorder, to Dr. Eva Nell Mull Wike who persisted both in writing the story and in getting the recordings for restoration, and to Johnny Carter whose expertise made the music into disks, we can now hear and read about Johnny Mull, Fiddler of the Mountains.
The author, Dr. Eva Nell Mull Wike, will appear at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC on April 17, 2014, at 7:00 p. m.. She will also be at the Dahlonega, Georgia “Bear on the Square Festival” on April 26-27, 2014. At both events, she will talk about this noted “Fiddler of the Mountains” of yesteryear. Her book is listed on Amazon and other online sellers. She is also available for speaking engagements to organizations.
Whether or not you are a fan of mountain and country music, the tradition is a well-known part of our heritage. Dr. Wike’s efforts in saving both the fiddler’s story and his music are commendable, and her enthusiasm and determination make us the richer for knowing about people like Johnny Mull whose “fingers did the talking” on his faithful fiddle.
I hope you enjoyed Ethelene’s guestpost-and I hope you’ll go see Eva Nell Thursday night at the folk school if you can!