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.
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.