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Even though he spent much of his life farming and performed mainly on weekends, Kentucky long bow legend Fiddlin' Doc Roberts was a well-known and influential musician who, during the years 1925-1934, cut 70 sides under his own name, most of which were reissued by Document at the close of the 20th century. Rightly identified with Clayton McMichen and Clark Bessinger, Roberts' technique also places him in alignment with Daniel Huggins Williams of the East Texas Serenaders. Roberts' impact upon rural North American music is still being felt. His latter-day followers include Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders.
Roberts was born near Richmond, KY, southeast of Lexington, on April 26, 1897 and named Dock Phil Roberts in honor of a certain Doc Phillips who assisted at the birthing. Little Dock appears to have learned to fiddle on his own by emulating his big brother Liebert. His first public role model was a fiddling African-American bandleader named Owen Walker who worked out of Richmond. Later in life, Roberts made a point of expressing his gratitude by saying that Walker "helped me every way in the world." Roberts also acknowledged the influence of fiddlers Dave and Uncle Dude Freeman from Beattieville and Elzie Stone, who hailed from Mount Sterling.
While participating in a fiddling tournament in Winchester, Roberts hooked up with guitarist and fiddler Edgar Boaz of Paris, KY. The duo took to performing at schools and theaters, and in early 1925, traveled north 80 miles to Cincinnati to audition for a Gennett field recording unit which was stationed there at that time. After playing "My Baby Loves Shortenin' Bread" they were invited to visit Gennett's main facility in Richmond, IN and did so in October and November of 1925 and again in October of 1926. During these excursions, the duo provided accompaniments for vocalist Welby Toomey, a barber who lived near Lancaster, KY. In 1927, after Boaz decided to relocate, Roberts teamed up with mandolinist Ted Chesnut and guitarist Dick Parman to make records for Paramount as the Kentucky Thorobreds.
On August 26 and 27, 1927 Roberts had his first opportunity to record with an electrically powered microphone, now in the company of African-American guitarists John and Joe Booker. Amidst those sessions, their brother Jim Booker played fiddle with John Booker and Asa Roberts when they recorded as Taylor's Kentucky Boys. The intermingling of black and white musicians was still uncommon in recording studios at that time, and is indicative of the shared traditions that flourished in east-central Kentucky during the early 20th century.
History repeated itself in 1928 when Roberts met guitarist Asa Martin at a fiddling contest in Winchester and struck up a working relationship that would result in what are now regarded as Roberts' best recorded works. Most intriguing are a series of blues records they cut during the early ‘30s. Martin sang a little, blew harmonica, and even emitted square dance calls on a few of their records, as had Ernest Legg with Clark and Luches Kessinger. Roberts also performed with his son, guitarist James, fiddler Oney Muse, and Lexington guitarist and vocalist Arthur Rose over the radio, first on WLAP in Lexington, then in at a facility in Council Bluffs, IA where, sponsored by Georgie Porgie breakfast cereal, they entertained listeners in Davenport, Des Moines, and Omaha. After visiting Chicago and disliking it, Roberts declined an offer to audition for the National Barn Dance show on WLS.
Doc Roberts was a capable mandolinist, and used the instrument on at least five different records made over the course of six years beginning in 1928. His final Gennett recording date took place in August, 1934. Although James Roberts and Asa Martin would continue to play professionally, Doc withdrew from public performance. James recorded his father at home during the '50s and some of this material was released in 1981 on Visits, a compilation produced by Ray Alden. Late in life, Doc Roberts did emerge from retirement to perform at Berea College in southernmost Madison County. His final appearance there was in July, 1971, in the company of his son and Asa Martin. Doc Roberts passed away in 1978, and Asa died the following year.