Harp Guitar Player of the Month

George Dudley, America’s Most Famous Unknown Harp Guitarist  
by Gregg Miner, February, 2012

 

Introduction

Welcome to another obscure, but valuable, part of American harp guitar history.  As with so many articles and studies on this site of rare instruments and even rarer musician biographies, this story appears solely from the courtesy and help of the granddaughter of the subject.  Her name is Renee Ball, and her grandfather was George Dudley, one of those prolific and famous harp guitarists that somehow completely escaped the history books.

Which is both disappointing and surprising. 

For one thing, he may have been the first harp guitarist ever recorded – and, unlike most vintage American harp guitar recordings, we can hear the sub-basses.

For the second thing, he played with one of the most famous musicians of the turn-of-the-last-century, Vess Ossman, widely known as the “banjo king.” 

Perhaps his anonymity was a result of the simple logistics of the new group Ossman created in 1906, when Ossman formed a trio with two established entertainers, the Dudley Brothers (Audley and George).  As they were worthy of billing, their names were naturally used…but as they shared a last name, used necessarily only once!  And so, the curiously named “Ossman-Dudley Trio” came into being.

This was the topic of my Oct 28, 2010 blog, “A Two Person Trio?” – which I’ll paraphrase next.


Vess L. Ossman

The Mystery of the “Two Person” Trio

A hundred years ago, the Ossman-Dudley Trio recorded a few sides with harp guitar accompaniment.  I remember it occurring to me that the name read pretty strange, and over the years, I never resolved it.

Everyone knew that the “Ossman” was Vess Ossman, the “Banjo King” of the turn of the last century.  The “Dudley,” it seems, was unknown until more recent times.  He turned out to be one Audley Dudley, who played mandolin on the recordings.  The identity of the harp guitarist, the fellow that made it a trio – George Dudley, has been virtually unknown.

After all, what are the odds of having two brothers as part of a trio?  And having this line-up, should they have just called the group “the Ossman, Dudley & Dudley Trio”?  I guess that does sound a bit redundant.  So the Dudleys were listed just once, and it was left to the public’s imagination as to why two names equaled a trio.  Thus, Audley and George were relegated to “mystery men” to all except audiences who might have seen them at a live gig.

I myself found all this out the week I wrote the blog, after being contacted by Ms. Ball, and was naturally amazed by the “surprise twist ending.”  Her email included the complete aforementioned article –a lengthy piece by Jim Walsh, published in the February, 1953 issue of Hobbies Magazine.  There, Walsh wrote this dramatic “reveal”: 

The "mystery" which for years has surrounded the Ossman-Dudley Trio in the minds of thousands of record collectors will be a mystery no longer.

Vess Ossman's partners in the trio were two brothers.  Audley Dudley played the triple-string mandolin, and George N., the harp-guitar.  And there, with the addition of the immortal Sylvester Louis (Vess) Ossman, you have the Ossman-Dudley Trio!  Now that I look back on the mystery which is a mystery no longer, I wonder why it never occurred to me that there might be two players named Dudley in the trio.

In reading the piece, I realized that A) It was a big mystery to record collectors and early banjo fans in 1953, and B) it has remained a mystery to all but a couple of diehard record collectors.  In fact, in checking Wikipedia as I publish this article, no one yet mentions the harp guitarist.

Googling again specifically for “George Dudley” + “harp guitar”, I found that someone in the interim (after 1953) did become aware of the guitarist George Dudley, and speculated that either Dudley or Roy Butin was the harp-guitarist in the trio.  This short statement has been duplicated in several articles, perhaps copied from the first writer.  Walsh, in 1953, had guessed either Roy Butin (who “forty-odd years ago, was probably the best known guitar player in America”) or Parke Hunter, a multi-instrumentalist and frequent partner of Ossman’s. 

In digging deeper, I recently learned that record collector Mark Berresford knew, and disclosed, the names of Audley and George Dudley in his 2001 CD release From Ragtime to Jazz, Vol 3.  And I found that the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings website at UCSB also lists George Dudley (without the “or Roy Butin”).

But until now, I have found virtually zero information published on either George or the Dudley Brothers, nor a single image of them.  Hopefully, this article will contribute to the information trickling out amongst interested scholars, record collectors and fans.

 
 

George Dudley: Biography and Musical Career  

I find it odd that the Dudley Brothers remain all but unknown, as they were well established, popular entertainers even before Ossman came calling, and subsequently after. 

The relatively scant, but valuable, information we have on them comes from interviews and a memoir from George’s wife, singer Florence Taylor Dudley.  Her excellent recall is displayed first in the lengthy 1953 article by Jim Walsh.  And in the next chapter, we have her own unpublished short autobiography, shared with the public for the first time here on Harpguitars.net.  I was particularly entranced to read how young Florence toured with the equally young (then) Marx Brothers before they became Vaudeville stars.  If only she had written more, and earlier, on this period!

I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing Walsh’s article, for easier reading (and searching).  Jim Walsh was a long-time radio host and serious music journalist of popular music, and wrote a series on recordings for Hobbies magazine for decades.  This one is a long and fascinating piece.  (WARNING: Please note that Walsh matter-of-factly refers often to a famous recording by the trio with a less-than-politically correct title.  I should also point out that Ossman himself was a rather prolific performer/ recording artist of highly insensitive, racially bigoted material, as was the order of the day for white Americans a hundred years ago.)

George Nabb Dudley was born on April 24, 1875 and died on April 28, 1963.  Florence passed away in 1969.   

George’s brother Audley had passed away in 1916, due to tuberculosis.  After his death, George lost the desire to entertain, but his wife talked him into performing again on the radio in the early 1920's.  He and Florence then moved to Long Island around 1930, thus ending their careers.

It’s interesting that even now, only a handful of die-hard record collectors and researchers know the identity of George Dudley.

I would suggest at this point that you click on the link at right, and first read the Walsh article.

Article: Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists
by Jim Walsh


George and Florence Dudley circa 1952 (Long Island)

Here’s a list of documented recordings of the Ossman-Dudley Trio I have found:

Title

Label

Cat No.

Date

I've Got a Feelin' for You Edison Gold 8841 1904

Dixie Girl

Victor

B-3033

1/24/1906

Fantana

Victor

B-3034

1/24/1906

The Mayor of Tokyo : Selections

Victor

B-3035

1/24/1906

Al Fresco: Intermezzo

Victor

B-3036

1/24/1906

St. Louis Tickle

Victor

B-3037

1/24/1906

Koontown Kaffee Klatch

Victor
Columbia

B-3038
3476

1/24/1906
c. July, 1906

Chicken Chowder

Columbia

  A220

c. January, 1907

Florence Dudley, “The Little Girl with the Big Voice”

Renee Ball, who, as you read in the Walsh piece above, was the youngest of Florence Dudley’s four granddaughters, now shares the following personal document of her grandmother’s.  It was written as a memento to the family in June 15, 1967 (typed up later by one of the granddaughters), and, like her recollections in the Walsh piece, offers a rare first-hand account of this bygone era.  Note that Florence refers to her husband as “Gramps,” as she is addressing this as a letter to her granddaughters.

The Autobiography of Florence May Taylor Dudley

 
 
The 36-String Harp Guitar

If you diligently read Walsh’s Hobbies article above, then you spotted the reference George Dudley’s wife Florence made about his harp guitar: “…my husband, George…played a 36-string harp guitar…

Did your brain do a double back flip?  Mine also.  I logically assumed that it was either a typo, a mistake, or just misconstrued word of mouth.  And the quartet image in the poor Xerox of the Hobbies article didn’t tell us a thing.

Luckily, Renee had a better copy of that image, and a second, better photo of the same instrument.  Now we see that the unusual instrument had twelve strings on the neck (6 doubled courses).  But how many sub-basses?  Well, we can pretty easily count twelve, but look closely at the details.  Is it possible that there are actually two rows of 12 zither pins for the chromatic sub-bass bank?


 Audley with early tenor banjo, and George with his 36-string harp guitar, circa 1910-1915

Yes!  First step is to look for octave strings, and they can be seen on the neck’s low courses in the second image.  They are hard to resolve in the basses, but start counting and you’ll definitely go beyond 12 – so they’re probably all there.  Next, compare these two images with the otherwise identical instrument below that has just one row of 12 sub-bass tuners, to get a better idea of the appearance of the tuner layout.  Dudley’s remarkable instrument has a full 18 courses (12 bass + 6 neck), with each doubled for a total of 36.  Like taking the 12-string guitar concept and applying it to the entire range of a harp guitar!  (Yes, that is some serious string tension.)

Left: In a different quartet, George holds the tenor banjo, Audley holds a mandolin-banjo, and an unidentified performer holds George's harp guitar, c.1910-1915


I feared I wouldn’t be able to identify the builder, but then I dug up these photos sent to me by Mike Fleming, who photographed this instrument at Fred Oster's Vintage Instruments for a Fall, 2008 Fretboard Journal article.  It is an ultra-rare (only one, as far as I know) Holzapfel & Beitel harp guitar, with – guess what? – 12 strings on the neck.  This one has a full 12 bass courses also, but they are not doubled.  Every other particular seems to match: bass head, placement of the necks, bridge, body and fretboard particulars (Dudley’s are bound and have fancy markers), you name it.

I believe that George Dudley owned – perhaps custom ordered – the world’s first (and likely only) fully double strung 36-string Holzapfel & Beitel harp guitar.

The time and place were right. Holzapfel & Beitel were in Baltimore in the 1900's, and Renee Ball tells us that “My grandfather George Dudley and his brother Audley owned a music shop - I believe on 42nd Street in New York. They sold instruments and sheet music, so that is probably how he bought the guitar.”

Unfortunately, there’s no date in the extent specimen, and the two photos of Dudley’s instrument are undated.  Renee thought them to be before 1910, but that seemed too early, due to the presence of the tenor banjo in each photo.  I put the question – and possible identification of the banjos - to the Banjo Hangout Forum, and the conclusion (mine as well) seems to be that the tenor is an Orpheum banjo and the mandolin-banjo is a Vega.  Neither model has specific provenance denoting the year of their introduction, but both could have been introduced as early as 1910.  They were certainly bought (and modified to include the sound hole in the skin head) by 1915, as Audley died of tuberculosis in September, 1916; so we can reliably date both photos to between 1910 and 1915.  Ultimately, this only tells us that the harp guitar was built by that time, but could of course have been built anytime before.  How much earlier?  In following up with Mugwumps’ Michael Holmes on my recent “Birth of the American 12-string” article, he shared this fascinating tidbit:

"Music Trades in 1900 (I didn't record the month, so perhaps the MT Annual) had an article about Holzapfel & Beitel building 'large 24 stringed guitars and 12 stringed mandolins for The Hollywood Mandolin Orchestra' of Baltimore. They were probably 12 stringers, not 24."  

In fact, it is no typo – The Music Trade Review was almost certainly announcing the very instrument shown above!  The term and concept of string “course” (paired or tripled strings played as one “note”) remains confusing today, and was completely ignored a hundred years ago.  So it was up to the reader’s imagination as to how Holzapfel & Beitel’s “24-string guitar” might be configured.  And who at the time would have imagined such a cutting edge instrument as a harp guitar with twelve sub-basses and doubled neck strings?  In fact, if Holmes’ date is correct (and you can usually take Michael’s notes to the bank), then this is important new information for both this article and my 12-string article.  The firm of Holzapfel & Beitel, a very obscure name today, is known mainly to a handful (but growing number) of 12-string guitar historians and enthusiasts.  As demonstrated in my 12-string article, the firm may very well have built America’s first 12-string guitar (1901-1902).  What I’m suggesting now is that their first experiment could have actually have been a 12-strings-on-the-neck harp guitarThink about it.  One of the main ideas behind American harp guitars was bigger + more strings = more volume.  Doubling the neck strings would have been an easy way to get even more volume.  And so it would not surprise me in the least if the “birth of America’s 12-string guitars” wasn’t jump-started with harp guitars by Holzapfel & Beitel and other builders (many pre-1920 harp guitars with doubled neck strings by different makers are known). 

Dating provenance aside, I can imagine either the makers (Holzapfel & Beitel) or player/customer (George Dudley) thinking: Hey, if doubling the neck strings is useful, why not double all the strings on an otherwise-18-string harp guitar?!”

And so they did.  Dudley’s instrument then could have been built as early as 1900, or at any time Holzapfel was in business (with, then without Beitel), up until the date when the photos above were taken.  I suspect early, as Dudley’s 36-string so closely resembles the extant 24-string Holzapfel & Beitel harp guitar, and that instrument matches the description in the c.1900 Music Trade Review ad.  As a side note, the 12-string mandolin (triple-course) that Audley was described as playing in the Walsh article was quite possibly the “12 stringed mandolin” also listed in the c.1900 Holzapfel ad.

Did George play the Holzapfel on the Ossman-Dudley recordings?  That would be extremely cool to hear, would it not?  Well, I find it impossible to tell, so perhaps readers/listeners can help me out.  The first good news is that we can easily hear sub-basses being played on the Trio's recordings.  Why is this so surprising?  Because until now, on every American 78rpm recording that includes a harp guitarist that I’ve heard (usually Roy Butin or Horace Davis), the sub-basses never seem to have been played.  (See my Harp Guitar Music listings for some of those examples)

On this sample of Chicken Chowder, you can easily hear George hitting a low B, A and later a D (assuming the song pitched in E).  On all other songs with available sound samples, you'll always hear at least 1 sub-bass, usually a B or a D, once even a chromatic Eb.  However, I'm not hearing doubled octave strings.  In fact, on any Ossman-Dudley recordings, does anyone hear octaves on any notes; neck or subs?  I can’t hear them, though of course recording fidelity is problematic at best (I’ve learned that the only real way to listen to  78’s is “live” on a great 78 player, preferably with the right kind of acoustic “speaker.”).  The closet I come to imagining that I'm hearing a higher octave string with the low courses on the neck is Dixie Girl .

It’s of course possible that Dudley didn’t use the 36-string for the recordings, or got it after they were done, (after 1907).  There is also the possibility that he removed some or all of the octave strings during recording for one reason or another.

Walsh quotes the 1908 Victor record catalog in describing the trio’s sound: “…the combination has made some extremely pleasing records.  The harp-guitar gives a support to the other instruments which is decidedly effective."  This doesn’t tell us much either.  Remember that the other instruments in the group are Ossman’s bright banjo and a triple-strung mandolin; there hardly seems room for more high strings from Dudley’s 36 octave-strung courses!

Sadly, no one knows what became of George Dudley’s amazing Holzapfel 36-string harp guitar, or the brothers’ other instruments. But at least now, we know a bit more about the famous “unknown” Dudley brothers.


READERS: If you have additional information about George Dudley, the Ossman-Dudley Trio, or their instruments, please let me know!



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