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Old-time duo serenades Historical Society from ‘Shady Grove’ to ‘… My Sunshine”
Joe Nelson, left, from Savannah, on mandolin and James Pittman, of Statesboro, on guitar tickle the strings and belt out old-time lyrics for the Bulloch County Historical Society, Monday, Sept. 26. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

James Pittman and Joe Nelson serenaded the Bulloch County Historical Society on Monday with old-time music, mostly tunes selected for having been performed by musicians who played and made records in Atlanta during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

More than half a century before Atlanta laid claim to being the hip hop capital, it was an early center for recording what is now called old-time, one of the musical traditions that evolved and recombined in the later categories of country and folk music. Atlanta was also the host city for a number of fiddlers’ conventions, Pittman noted.

Previously an independent trucker, Statesboro resident James Pittman, now 68, joined the Historical Society when he retired from the road in 2020. His friend Joe Nelson, 67, hails from Savannah and works for Gulfstream Aerospace. They have been playing and singing old-time and traditional songs and some early country music together for 25 years.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted gatherings, Nelson and Pittman played professionally at square dances and fairly often at Savannah venues. They also performed at history-themed events, dressing up at times as Revolutionary War or Civil War figures or as cowboys.

“We enjoy music and we enjoy history, and when we can put them together, it’s a riot,” Pittman said. “It’s a good time.”

He mostly plays rhythm guitar, and his guitar – acoustic, of course – was the only instrument he picked during Monday’s performance. A multi-instrumentalist, Nelson played banjo, then mandolin, then fiddle during their set. He has been playing stringed instruments since the age of 12.

More than 90 Historical Society members and guests gathered for lunch with music Sept. 26 in the Pittman Park United Methodist Church social hall.


‘Georgia Hobo’

The first song the duo performed, “Georgia Hobo,” was first recorded in 1927 by the Cofer Brothers, from Hancock County.

“You get on the tender. And I will ride the blind. We’ll go back to Georgia on the Seaboard Air Line,” one verse goes, mentioning a railroad company that served much of Georgia in the days of steam locomotives.

“Stagger Lee,” an old-time standard, is based on a folk legend about a notorious gambler, Pittman noted, and the chorus calls him “a bad man.” This song has many different verses and variations, and Nelson and Pittman said the version they played was learned from the late Tommy Jarrell, a well-known North Carolina fiddler.

Nelson and Pittman offered something like an apology for how some of the old-time songs were “politically incorrect” but also noted that the lyrics generally condemn the notoriously bad behavior described. For example, “Georgia Man,” first recorded in 1929 by the Georgia Organ Grinders, reports in detail how the title character, “whipped his woman with a fryin’ pan,” but the chorus repeatedly calls him “nothing but a low-down Georgia man.”

Nelson and Pittman also performed the rosy and better known, “You Are My Sunshine,” and one actual gospel song.

The gospel number was “Angel Band.” The lyrics, originally called, “My Latest Sun is Sinking Fast,” date from 1860, and many people today know it from the Stanley Brothers’ version that was included in the soundtrack album for the 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”


Not Bluegrass

“A lot of what we’re playing here today is from the 20s and 30s, and we do a little more modern stuff,” Nelson said. “But we call it old-time music, and a lot of times it gets confused with bluegrass music, and bluegrass is a more modern style invented by Bill Monroe in 1940s. … Bluegrass is based on old-time music the same way that rock and roll is based on blues.”

The oldest tune in the Historical Society set may have been “Shady Grove.” Although the song emerged with that identity in Kentucky around the end of the 19th century, it appears to have been based on a British song from the 1600s called “Matty Groves,” Pittman noted.

He and Nelson also performed a couple of tunes by a group called the Georgia Yellow Hammers. The song “Kiss Me Quick” was recorded in 1929.

But the final Georgia Yellow Hammers tune they played, “G Rag,” the only instrumental in the set, was one that made history with perhaps the first racially integrated recording session involving Georgia musicians, Pittman noted. Andrew Baxter, an African American fiddle player also from Georgia, travelled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to play with the Yellow Hammers, a white band, for the 1927 recording.
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