Joe Maphis: Fire on the Strings

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By Barbara Flaska

TThe notes of the first tune had barely ended. Already, I was sorting through the repository of personal recollection, fanning through what some people would call trash, some might regard as treasures, and others would dismiss as irrelevant to their own present, precious moment. By the miracle of memory, I came across this mental cinema from my early childhood.

The Time: An evening sometime in the 1950s

The Channel: KTTV, Channel 11

Broadcast by the modern marvel of “kineoscope,” it’s Town Hall Party! Gut bucket country music played live onstage! Hillbilly music broadcast throughout the Southland from that Mecca of country music—Compton, California.

Because you may have not been there at that exact point in history, you may in spite of yourselves have certain ideas and impressions about Compton, California. Similar to the real South, there were “colored people” though perhaps unlike the real South with a smattering of Asian and recent European immigrants. Due to the inrush of Dust Bowl refugees from Texas and Oklahoma, and so perchance more like the real South, there were way lots of hayseeds, crackers, rednecks, hillbillies, Okies, and lint-heads, not to mention poor white trash in Compton in those old days.

Nor was Compton in living memory always an area of urban density. A boy down the street from me corralled horses in his back yard. A more questionable neighbor poached for deer at night in the riverbed. Large, ancient apricot and shady walnut trees spread out through the neighborhood, many empty fields lay fallow though occasionally active with tumbleweeds, and even a dairy farm was clinging on for dear life at the edge of the city. The family on the corner had a player piano in their parlor and a producing oil well in their back yard. Next door to them, the Holy Roller church would be in full swing two nights a week and once in a great while a service would include burlap sacks full of wriggling rattlesnakes let loose on the floor. Kitty-corner from the church, was a small corner lot crammed full of house trailers, some rented out by the week. The only strangers who found a way to any door in the neighborhood were the peddlers—people selling brooms made by the blind, foot soldiers who exchanged a red paper poppy for a donation to disabled veterans, or the occasional Bible salesman.

But enough of average days in average lives in the Compton of that time—illiteracy, disposable workers in low-paying industries, small territories in small cities sometimes perilous to their inhabitants, and uneasy racial relations, those problems surely are no longer with us.

It’s time for Town Hall Party! Even the very name went deep into history. Rural farmers had the rare festivity at the town hall as their only respite from back breaking work from sunup to sundown. Now, the hardworking tire monkeys at the Firestone plant and oil-smeared factory workers alike could gussy up and celebrate their time off from work every weekend with Town Hall Party!

Town Hall Party was broadcast from a large club with room way in the back for the dancers. Onstage, Joe Maphis was the bandleader for every show. He didn’t like rehearsals, he just wanted to turn on the lights and go. Weekly regulars included Spade Cooley for a time and the Collins Kids who performed on every show. The program was so long-lived the whole Los Angeles Basin watched those kids grow up.

Everybody with real talent in country music appeared playing live. Among the guests were the genuine country greats—Lefty Frizzel, Bill Monroe, the Carters, Tex Ritter, Ernest Stoneman, and one of my personal favorites, a “full-blooded Cherokee Indian” named Jenks “Tex” Carman. Carman played a regular flat top guitar laid flat and once in awhile after a dazzling break, he would surprise the audience by stamping his foot and letting out a real Indian war whoop. In fact, a young cowpoke named Dick Dale made his televised debut on that program, and as Dick Dale himself remembered for Jake Austen and Roctober, “Guys that would come on this show were guys like Johnny Cash before he ever wore black . . .” That’s how very long ago it was.

This is all a long way around, but it may help you appreciate the time and something of the place when this record was made. Town Hall Party, blessed with talent and a long run from 1953-1960, did much to set the stage for “folk music” in the Los Angeles area in the early sixties, and the glory years of the LA folk-rock movement that soon followed. Joe Maphis was a master of all things stringed. His playing on Town Hall Party influenced a broad range of musicians. Mike Seeger tape recorded nearly every show and went on to transpose more old timey fiddle tunes to guitar and “vicey versey” with his group the New Lost City Ramblers. Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar, credits Joe Maphis as his major single influence. By all reports, Joe Maphis regarded Mother Maybelle Carter as his own inspiration.

When Joe’s debut album Fire on the Strings was first released in 1957, this style of country music was being pushed into the background. Eclipsed on the metro airwaves by the very “countrybilly” artists (think Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent) that the show had introduced to country fans and by the vocals of Patsy Cline and Elvis, Elvis, and Elvis on the charts. Fire on the Strings was nearly destined to be ignored except by old-timey country music diehards. For me, Joe’s music just worked better live and that’s what I found myself remembering while listening to this record.

Joe had spent his life onstage in the South. He grew up on the vaudeville and barn dance circuit in his family’s band. In 1947, after traveling to Chicago to play, Joe decided to go electric. In 1951, Merle Travis encouraged his friends Joe and Rose Maphis to move to Southern California, where country music was becoming as popular as in Nashville. The next year, Joe and Rose composed what has become a country standard, “Dim Lights (Thick Smoke And Loud, Loud Music)” after working in a Bakersfield honky-tonk that featured everything that was in the title of the song. Bakersfield, also known then as Way Western Oklahoma, was home to Semie Mosley, who worked with Joe to design the double-necked Mos-Rite electric guitar.

Maphis was “King of Strings,” playing fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar with speed and precision. He invented “Maphis” picking, a style of fast double-picking the bass strings while using the free fingers of the same hand to pick out a melody. Joe’s followers have since credited him with many things: he invented flat-picking, he was the first to transpose fiddle breakdowns to the guitar, and he was country music’s first flash guitarist. I don’t know whether he really was the first in any of those endeavors.

I do know Joe Maphis just burned on guitar, and this record shows off but some of Joe’s immense skills. His signature tune “Fire on the Strings” and “Flying Fingers” are samples of his dazzling, non-nuanced, lightning-fast picking with not a single imprecise note. Instrumentally, Joe painted from a broad palette of material in terms of phrases and references. Here on the sweet swinging “Lorrie Ann”, Joe jumps to the other neck on the Mos-Rite to throw in some pedal steel effects before a flawless transition back to a muted soft-picked run up and down the other neck, similar in that riff to a style Chet Atkins made famous. These kinds of effects became common for the more facile of the country guitarists who followed, but Joe is the first person I remember hearing do that.

Joe even flat-picks his banjo on “Floggin’ the Banjo”. Despite all the showmanship, when modifying old tunes into two-stepping Western swing Joe maintained the integrity of his source material, as in “The Bully of the Town”. This disc includes seven pieces not on the original 1957 release, which not only display Joe’s willingness to experiment, but provide a sample of how he played on stage. Joe and his young protégé Larry Collins each play their Mos-Rites note-for-note on “Hurricane”. “The Rockin’ Gypsy” and especially the easy lope of “Bye Bye” are elegantly bouncy.

Unfortunately, the essay on Maphis by the near-ubiquitous country writer Rich Kienzle was not included with my promo copy or I could tell you more of what little has been written about Joe. Neither he nor Rose were “keepers”, they traveled light the way people always did on the vaudeville circuit. The costumes Rose sewwed for them are long gone and they didn’t even snap many Kodaks. Mos-Rite Company is out of business, the owner long since dead, and many of the existing guitars are becoming items for rich collectors in Japan. The “kineoscopes” of some of the Town Hall Party shows are preserved at the Country Music Foundation. Better yet, some of the shows are being released on video piece by precious piece in England, a country of archivists with a penchant for writing about and cataloging whatever music is disappearing in America.

When many writers trace country music, they suffer the forgetfulness of history and emphasize vague geographies like “Southern California” or “Los Angeles”. You may have heard of the Bakersfield influence in country music. Compton, in spite of the notoriety that media affords and a population over tenfold of what it was when I spent a few childhood years there, is not even listed as a town in the current Thomas Guide of California. Pretty much what it always was, not even a point on the map, but now just a place where the present intersects with the past.

Although what is now called C&W once again is crowding the AM dial along with the right-wing gas-bags and Bible-beaters, surely this is not necessarily the best that America has to offer in entertainment. As I doubt you’ll hear Joe Maphis played on any of those new country stations, that’s why this record might be so important to everyone who enjoys real country music.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/maphisjoe-fire/