Jibbs McAllister – Lost Master of the Zydeco Fiddle

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For much of the material in this essay I am indebted to online musicologist ‘Sean’, who also brought Jibbs McCallister to my attention.

In October 1972, 37 years to the day last week, a temporary worker brought in to the Yazoo offices to catalogue a job-lot of donated shellac sides failed to extinguish a cigarette correctly and, in what has now become known as the Great ’72 Barn Fire (although it was no barn but a lock-up in the West Village), an entire department of Yazoo’s archive was destroyed. It could have been worse, or so many have observed. Once the smoke cleared, almost all the destroyed records came from the section named ‘Problematic’. These were the scratched records, the poor performances by forgotten jug and hoss-tube artists, the discs without labels and, famously, a near-complete set of White Star shellacs by Jibbs McCallister. Rumours persist that this was no accident.

Jibbs who?

Exactly. McCallister is as forgotten today as he was notorious in his time. In the categorisation frenzy of the 60s folk revival Jibbs was most commonly referred to as a Zydeco fiddle player but even this apparently simple piece of information crumbles when examined. The reference originates from a taped interview with folklorist Stuart Palmer. Palmer asks Jibbs what style he plays and Jibbs, slurring, apparently replies ‘Zydeco fiddle’ but recent digital analysis has suggested he may have said ‘psycho fiddle’ or even ‘zygote feel’ although the latter theory has few adherents within professional studies (Greil Marcus excepted).

Jibbs claimed variously to have been born in Peu Menteur, Croix Saint Nulle-part and Beletteville in Louisiana. His race was never successfully established and Jibbs appears to have adjusted his mannerisms according to his audience or in relation to the various legal and criminal representatives that dogged his travels. His only recorded reference to race is a claim that he was ‘one of them injuns’. In what is believed to be the earliest representation of Jibbs, in an etching submitted as evidence in a court case by illustrator Esau Mallory titled ‘The Last Time I Saw My Good Hound, Nutmeg, Alive, Jibbs seems unambiguously Caucasian although this may be due to the conventions of the time. The etching is reproduced above.

What is agreed upon is that Jibbs developed an extraordinary style and idiosyncratic fingering, visible on a post-war amateur film from Jukin’ Sam’s. Or so goes the received wisdom. True, Jibbs developed some ingenious techniques and posterity has been kind and attributed this to the desire for musical innovation but the fact is that Jibbs wanted to unsettle his rivals. The fingering was altered to confuse and he would detune by a quarter-tone so that anyone trying to play along would sound incompetent

For this reason, Jibbs’s influence has not been wide. Those of his contemporaries who were not put off by these strategies were often physically threatened. In a non-released cut from his only Library of Congress session, Jibbs breaks off from the middle section to Sweet Lindy Be My Undertaker, shouting ‘don’t be peepin’ at my goddamn fingers,’ to John Lomax. The sound of scuffling follows.

This unfortunate incident introduces perhaps the biggest reason for McCallister’s historical occlusion. He was renowned for what Lomax would later describe as ‘a belligerent, drunken lasciviousness and avariciousness that almost deterred one from the charm of his fiddling’. There were ugly fights over billing at Newport ’64 where, as Dave Van Ronck observed, ‘It’s a brave man who pisses in Dock Boggs’s banjo’.

In an extended version of the Jukin’ Sam’s film currently in private hands, Jibbs – despite the darkness of the venue and his obvious state of inebriation – appears to be manipulating his instrument in a manner that perhaps renders it spiritually unsuitable for the following number, Lord, Let the Jesus Guide Me. The visual evidence is backed by Stonehand Pikes who confirmed that Jibbs had indeed developed a variant on the ‘play it with your teeth’ trick in another case of obnoxious one-upmanship; Eck Dunford and he had been drinking but fell out over a woman. Eck was chatting to the lady after the dance when Jibbs barged over and allegedly shouted ‘forget the lily-boy. I can play Wake Up Jacob with my pecker’.  As Sean observes:

“Jibbs was so bawdy he made Big Joe Turner’s metaphors of balls and lemons look like Sunday morning programming. Evidenced by his versions of “Pinochle Bar-B-Que” and “Chitlins and Gravy”. Of course between the Yazoo fire and the ‘59 Baton Rouge First Baptist lewd record and book burning, these recordings are now as rare as a Quarrymen acetate.”

Despite his extraordinary talent, Jibbs was perhaps the only old-time musician to have bad blood with John Lomax. Jibbs misunderstood the purpose of the Library of Congress recordings and, having railroaded several hundred miles, arrived on Lomax’s doorstep clutching a .34 and demanding money. There was an altercation during which, allegedly, Gibbs grabbed a young Alan Lomax by the hair. Had Lead Belly not intervened, events could have become truly violent. Subsequently, during the early 60s folk revival, Alan actively opposed the search for Jibbs, apparently doctoring Carl Bleikwitz’s maps and muttering that Jibbs was ‘one motherfucker who should never be rediscovered’.

But there also rumours of a Robert Johnson-style unholy pact. Stonehand Pikes again, from a 1940 Lomax interview:

‘Well, ev’yone knowed Jibbs can’t hardly play and he can’t get no brown, black nor high yellow neither so he goes down to the crossroads like they says to do but the crossroads, way he telt it, was full of banjy players, so he walks along a little way and there sure nuff is an old gentleman sitting by the track with a fiddle. So Jibbs offers the feller a share of the heat in his pocket but clobbers his head instead an’ runs off with the fiddle. Fine one. And from that day he played fine, too.’

Lomax: ‘Do you think…did Jibbs think…was that man he saw the devil?’

Pikes: ‘Was he what? No, man. Just some poor sunvabitch. Jibbs was a asshole.’

Still, when asked why he excluded Jibbs’s definitive recording, a racially-divisive version of Train on the Island, from his Anthology of American Folk Music, the esoterically-minded Harry Smith claimed that Jibbs was ‘numerologically corrupting’.

Even Jibbs’s death is mysterious. The last documentation of his life is an arrest record from 1968 for ‘attempting harm upon a fellow street musician with a modified musical instrument, possibly a violin’. One rumour suggests that he ended his own life accidentally, a victim of E-string related autoasphyxiation. I heard another version at a Greil Marcus symposium. Marcus can be very obtuse but I think it had something to do with bathtub gin and a Confederate ghost.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Jibbs McAllister – Lost Master of the Zydeco Fiddle

  1. mishari

    C’mon…tell the truth. You just made him up…

  2. As the man who got me hip to Skip James and Josiah Stonemouth’s sacred harmonica, Mishari, I’m surprised you’re not familiar with Jibbs. I’m off to Granada for the weekend but enlightenment will follow soon (all being well)…

  3. ISA

    Baron, the Ars is up.

    http://arsnotoria.blogspot.com/

    Are you going to join in as a contributor?

    philiphall@london.com

  4. mishari

    Still waiting…tick-tock-tick-tock….

  5. mishari

    You have a ‘team coordinator’? Man…I’m gonna have to get me one of those…

  6. mishari

    Oh, that Jibbs McAllister. A splendid re-evluation and one that inspires me to seek out other forgotten musicians for re-assessment…

  7. Thanks, Mishari,

    Must admit, I’ve got a taste for it. The whole thing started over on music site Buddyhead, where the journalist was taking a lot of grief because his list of ’50 albums you’d save from a fire’ wasn’t hip or obscure enough. So I decided to post my own. Many of these artists, I feel, deserve more in-depth reassessment:

    1) V/Vm: Collected white labels. Awesomely disrespectful and illegal distortions on Band Aid and others
    2) Sloppy Henry: Long, Tall, Disconnected Mama. Deeply unprofessional pre-war blues
    3) Les Rallizes Denude: Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes. Sheer despairing trauma.
    4) Big Horse: Bigger Foal. Cassette-only VDGG-style madness.
    5) Lance Corporal: Westway Comedown. Britpop before its time, weird MBV/Menswear vibe
    6) Decks2-Fletcher: Press Gang-inspired early 90s ravecore.
    7) Cheeks Cooper: High Blue. West-coast jazz with very young Eric Dolphy
    8 ) Samuel Benghu: Zulu Guitar -1948-61. Brother of better-known John, Sam was the Zulu Lightnin’ Hopkins.
    9) Ying/Yan: Lightspeed Continental Shift. 3 CDRs, one track, no overdubs. Drum/bass/harmonium combo summon Om and Pablo Augustus.
    10) Michael Bentine: Ying Tong Groovy. Post-Goons, pre-breakdown attempt to get with the kids. Shelved by Parlophone, bootleg-only. Proto-Shatner.
    11) Bastion: Alluvial. 2001 CD single with awesome 20+min extra track.
    12) Mickey Malarkey: Showtime favourites. Legendary 30s recordings from Music Hall deity.
    13) Bloof: I Carved a Sestina to Your Vapidity into My Thigh. Trying-too-hard post-Manics over-reaching. Glorious.
    14) Blank Shark: Politicians = Yeah, right. The only 80s US hardcore record I like.
    15) La Pileta: Cuevos. Andalucian post-rock. Tortoise-meets-Goblin.
    16) Eyelid Donor: Sesquiquadrate. Just noise.
    17) Judge Gilchrist: Calypso King, 1950s Jubilee recordings. Pro-capital-punishment partytime calypso.
    18) Epistle Missile: Wittenberg Live. Rare example of Christian rock that actually rocks.
    19) Bittle Problem: Rag & Bone. UK hip-hop. Unstoppable flow.
    20) Miles Davis: Ultima Thule. Problematic 1974 bootleg.
    21) Biet Het: Vol 1. Fantastic Nederbeat collection, the Dutch Nuggets.
    22) The Paisley Blimp: Tomorrow is Too Soon for Yesterday. Psych classic.
    23) Spasm Chasm: Crucified. East Anglian demo but a personal favourite.
    24) Hookhand McTier: Complete Library of Congress Recordings 1927-42. The hook was a gimmick, the guitar skills weren’t.
    25) Ruth on a Hot Tin Cat: ‘Eponymous’ LP. Ruth Holloway solo project. Avoid if you don’t like sitars or Jews’ harp.
    26) The Potting Sheds: Unsaid. The only essential flexi-disc I’ve ever owned.
    27) Groupthink: Fourway Nailing. Sleazy-as-fuck sludge.
    28) Flumps: Pootle’s Greenhouse. The reason everyone thinks children’s TV producers were on drugs. They were.
    29) Enki’s Mourners: The Underpass. Clever, ambitious prog.
    30) Reverse Funeral: Hunting of the Quark. If I’m honest, it’s just for the three-tier gatefold.
    31) Demiurge: Yaltabaoth. Okay, I’m a sucker for prog.
    32) Nick Seymour: Double-neck. Singer songwriter, more epic that Stormcock.
    33) Constantin Metaxas: Europa Suite. Suite, not sweet. What’s Greek for Krautrock?
    34) The Dopes: I’m a Pain. Fuzzy, bratty punk. Probably left off Nuggets because of the swearing.
    35) Instalation: Oil tin Satan. So pure-strain Grebo they spelt their own name wrong. PWEI for smackheads.
    36) Not On the List: Doorface. Early industrial, a la Gaye Bikers on Acid.
    37) Sun Arise: Desiderata. Rare New Age music that actually makes you feel good.
    38) ɸ: Superstring Vestments. Alternately soporific and terrifying electronica. Pre-Aphex.
    39) Liposuction: Liposuction Wears The Beef. Shouldn’t own up to this one, not hip, but it got me through high school.
    40) Lolly Dollies: The Complete Buccaneer Singles 1964-67. Exploitative, but this is girl-group Nirvana (the paradise, not the group). Never sold a record outside Providence, RI.
    41) Dr Fell: Ozymandias. Psych latecomers. Altamont and bad marketing stopped this being a smash.
    42) DJ Balloo: Sidewinder. Baltic ripples.
    43) Hissy Fit: Choked on a Scream. Three girls, twenty-five songs, 32 minutes. Mindblowing.
    44) Red Beak Crow: Arroyo. Owes a lot to Neil Young, sure, but RBC were the real deal. All dead by 1976.
    45) Circuit Breakah: Playas’ Gathering. Only non-Wu-affiliated Staten MC. Favoured Magic: The Gathering metaphors over Wu-style chess and martial arts. His only album.
    46) Lucas Logic: Borges Barge. 2006 album of furiously authentic Sonics-esque garage.
    47) Innana’s Hem: Tragic Canterbury scenesters. Missed chance to play first-ever Glastonbury after van broke down.
    48) The Leith Boys Pipers: O Flower of Scotland. This was made for charity so I feel bad laughing but it’s the funniest record I’ve ever heard.
    49) Pflegende Sonnemilch: Ohlauer Strasse. Kreuzberg Krautrock, Guru Guru with phasers up to 11.
    50) They Beatles. Okay, but only with Tony Sheridan.

  8. mishari

    Brilliant…had me spluttering into my coffee. bootleg Miles-problematic…what’s Greek for Krautrock…Bentine attempts to get with the kids…missed 1st Glasto because van broke down.

    So comically/tragically close to the real obsessive McCoy. Wonderful stuff and it’s inspired me to start a series on ahem, ‘lost’ artists.

    Musicians, writers, poets, painters, film-makers…

    First up will be the forgotten giant of bluegrass mandolin Ezekiel ‘Cotton Mouth’ Jobs (the founder of Apple has hinted that he’s descended from ‘Cotton Mouth’ but genealogists dismiss the claim as ‘fanciful’)…

  9. mishari

    BTW, I still have that very entertaining Garage compilation for you, if you have an address sorted…

  10. Glad you liked it! Three or four of them are actually real (except the ‘Beatles’ obviously).

    ‘Wonderful stuff and it’s inspired me to start a series on ahem, ‘lost’ artists.’

    I’ve been thinking something similar, perhaps on a separate thread here at R&R. But would you consider a jointly-produced occasional journal of unjusttly-neglected genius?

    Re the garage comp; would love to hear it but we’ve had trouble with the post here and I’d hate for you to go to the trouble to no purpose. I’m finally back in London in December so perhaps I can trouble you for it then? My mother brought over Mother London last week, from my teen-bookshelf; it’s strange sitting here in 30 degree heat, looking over the mountains and reading about spontaneous combustion in Streatham.

  11. mishari

    No sweat. I’ll just keep it warm for you ’til you get back.

    I know exactly what you mean by the weird sensation that can be brought on by reading matter/location discordance.

    I first read Outer Dark in Barcelona in August. Blinding light and heat and the sounds and smells of a bustling Med port outside, gothic darkness and apprehension inside…very odd.

    I think a joint-journal of ‘neglected’ artists would be highly entertaining. I’m certain MM, Al, para and some of the other old lags would have their own ‘lost’ artists to expound on.

    Given that wordpress lets you have as many blogs as you like, we could even set up a blog purely for that purpose. But I leave it up to you. However you want to do it, I’m easy…

  12. I think it could be fun.

    Perhaps a separate blog, updated when the mood strikes? Better cast out for names. Misplaced Genius, Art-chaeology, Forgotten & Misremenbered, The Secret Canon, Unwritten & Unrecorded (my favourite so far), I’m Tired and Should Stop…

  13. mishari

    Forgotten & Misremembered and Unwritten & Unrecorded both sound good to me. My only suggestion is that the blog theme be an easy-to-read design. This blog looks good but I must confess, even with my glasses on, I have to squint a good deal…I dunno if it’s just me but I always find white-on-black (or light-on-dark) a bit hard on the eyes. On the other hand, I can live with it if you’re absolutely married to the idea.

  14. mishari

    BTW, I meant to ask you, do you know an LP called The Hot Spot? It’s Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder doing the soundtrack for a Dennis Hopper-directed film of that name. There’s some lovely stuff on it. Here’s a track I posted:

  15. Always felt Taj Mahal “tidied” the music up a bit too much for me. THe edge and also the kitsch elements of tunes dissappear to be replaced by taste. I like much of his stuff but find certain aspects ( particularly when the music is enhanced with brass and bigger ensembles ) just a little too controlled. I feel the same with Ry Cooder. His first few albums are really touching but he gets a bit slick at other times. Am I wrong????

  16. mishari

    I’m only really familiar with Taj Mahal’s early stuff, which I liked and which I think was fairly raw. I have almost all of Ry Cooder’s albums and I think it’s impossible to actually classify him.

    As much an archivist as a musician, I think he can be a bit slick when he feels the material calls for it. But I have great respect for him, not just as a fine guitarist but as someone whose love for and openess to any and all kinds of music is indisputable.

    Only someone who was either a fool or dishonest would accuse him of being in it for fame or money. If you ever have any doubts about Cooder’s integrity, just allow an image of Bongo at Balthus’ funeral to slip into your mind.

  17. Thanks for the music, Mishari. My internet’s been down for a few hours and doesn’t seem quite ready to play YouTube yet but I’ll let you know. Never heard of the Hot Spot. Is it original recordings for the film?

    Also never heard Taj Mahal; he’s on a very long list of artists I must attend to. The only Ry Cooder I have is some of his work with Beefheart, which I suspect doesn’t really count. I know he rates Blind Willie Johnson as the greatest slide player, which bodes well. Was listening to Wille on the beautiful train journey back from Granada a few days back, perfect for the silvery landscape, along with John Wesley Harding, Sufjan Stephens and a Bjork record I’ve never before made it to the end of.

  18. XB Ry Cooder’s first 2 albums are lovely. There’s a nice one with Hawaiian music and the Buena Vista album has some lovely work on it ( though as a pedantic percussioinist I find his son’s additions rather unnecessary ).

    Taj Mahal is of a similar persuasion – unearthing tunes and finding connections between different styles. There’s a big Big Bill Broonzy influence in his early work – a definite plus in my books.

  19. mishari

    The Hot Spot is an original soundtrack for the film. Hooker and Miles sound great together (and unmistakable). I’ll pass the LP along when you get back.

  20. Jesus, Hooker & Miles together? I thought these were individual tracks. I had no idea. Sounds fantastic.

  21. mishari

    Yeah,Miles and Hooker play together on 10 out of 13 tracks. Recorded in late Aug. 1990 (exactly 12 months before Miles’ death) it’s one of his last recordings.

    I only discovered it a month or so ago and I was actually quite resentful. I kept thinking, ‘I’ve been a huge fan of both men for all of my adult life. Why have I never heard this before?’

    I love it. Hooker moaning over his trademark blues chug and Miles coming in over, under behind and in front with bluesy, jazzy licks.

    It sounds like what it is, a film soundtrack, but a great film soundtrack.

  22. Captain Ned

    What do you make of this Sufjan Stevens? I know he has a big reputation, but I’ve never been able to listen to any of his songs all the way through, despite trying a few. There’s something gratingly thin and fey about his voice, and the music itself strikes me as being very bland. He seems to be quite prolific, though, so maybe I’ve just been unlucky in my selection of tracks.

  23. Cap’n

    I only have one Stevens album, his more devotional Seven Swans. I’d never really given it a proper go but I went through the whole thing on the train from Granada to Ronda, as it sat very well with the landscape. There are three or four great songs, particularly the spine-tingling mini-Book-of-Revelation title track, but I did skip a number of tracks.

    He’s good but for me there’s very little in the ‘new’ folk that isn’t deeper and weirder in the original 20s artists, for a variety of reasons to do as much with recording technology as the usually cited cultural isolation (over-emphasised and not always true) and ‘authenticity’ of the artists. I hear that Will Oldham is very good but it’s only Joanna Newsom that seems to have taken the old songs and done something at all new with them. imho, obviously.

  24. I’m surprised by how much I like Sufjan Stevens. His weedy voice and precious lyrics are the sort of thing that would usually make me grind my teeth. But it’s the music and the brass/string/choral arrangements that really make it stand out for me. Illinois and The Avalanche are folky but also have touches of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich in the keyboard parts to toughen it all up. Those two are much more musically developed than Seven Swans which is a more simple record. The fact that he plays 80% of the instruments also gives it a sort of primitive quality ( I wonder if that’s to do with over-dubbing ????) that combines nicely with the intricacies of the arranging.

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