Another “Bringing You Historical Harp Guitar News Wherever It Occurs” bulletin!
This one has just the teensiest peripheral harp guitar inclusion, but is such a great piece I had to share it.
My friend Guy DeVillez (you may remember his baritone Walton harp guitar that I blogged about, since passed along to another friend) found this the other day amongst the late R. C. Allen’s effects, which he continues to explore.
It’s a 4-page article from the May, 1945 Popular Mechanics magazine which describes various inventions, re-purposed instruments and homemade Spike Jones-like musical noise-making contraptions utilized by an assortment of “Hillbilly Mountain Music” bands.
You can read about them and their “gooch gadgets” and other contraptions in the PDF – but who stuck out like a mad genius was “Herman the Hermit,” presented as an eccentric, musically- and mechanically-gifted hillbilly. Who was he and where did he perform on his incredible one-man-band rig?!
Google revealed nothing further on any solo outings of the painstakingly-assembled set up that enabled Herman to play up to five instruments at once and completely switch over to a different batch six times during a single song. The implication is that he actually did this act on record and on the radio; to enable him to pull of the feat, he practiced locating and playing all the instruments in the dark! I’ll return to these instruments again later.
Whether we’ll ever find any further evidence of his over-the-top multi-instrumental madness, I was able to learn a bit about the “more normal” musical career that Herman the Hermit stumbled into, and who he really was – apparently a colorful character whether he played dozens of instruments or just one.
Born Clifford Herman Snyder in 1884, Herman settled in Stockton, California and moved in 1922 to Burbank, where, amidst the first movie studios, he and his wife opened the 5 acre Snyder Nursery. With his several hound dogs in tow, he would go hunting in what was then a very rural area. Soon, with his growing contacts and friends in the film biz, he would rent out his hounds as “atmosphere dogs” for movies, often appearing with them as the appropriate background character (One source claims he appeared in 100 films).
His unusual “big break” occurred during the filming of 1930’s “The Big Trail” (which featured John Wayne in his first leading role). After playing “Oh Suzanna” on his banjo for the film crew’s evening campfires during the three month location shoot, he was later asked by director Raoul Walsh to play it on the film score. When a popular KEHE radio show host/singer named Stuart Hamblen went to the movies one day and heard the banjo on the soundtrack, he tracked down and hired Snyder for his radio show band.
Snyder happened to show up in the long hair and full beard that he had been asked to grow for his Big Trail “pioneer extra” role, whereupon Hamblen christened him “Herman the Hermit,” which immediately became his professional stage name for the remainder of his career. I wonder whether he ever longed to return to a short-haired, clean-shaven appearance – he certainly seems to have embraced the “hermit” character, with a joyous inviting smile in every photo he appears in. When Herman later got his bassist son – also named Clifford (G.) Snyder – a spot in Hamblen’s band, Hamblen nicknamed the lad “Cliffie Stonehead,” simply because he wanted to keep his dad’s “hermit” character intact! The younger Cliff would eventually shorten it to become “Cliffie Stone” for the remainder of his life. Stone’s second wife now runs a web site preserving his long career.
From cliffiestone.com: Stuart Hamblen’s ‘Lucky Stars’ radio band on KEHE. Top Row (L to R): Archie Wallace, Skeeter Hubbert, Joe Espitallier, Jerry Hutchison, Rufus “Goofus” Brewster, Darol Rice, Cliffie Stone. Bottom Row (L to R): Vince Engel, Lyn Dossey, Stuart Hamblen, Sonny Dawson, Herman ‘the Hermit.’
Snyder father and son would play together in Hamblen’s and others’ bands for the next decade, but by 1945 when Herman was featured in the Popular Mechanics piece, his son Cliffie Stone had become a name in his own right. After taking over Hamblen’s program, by the mid-forties Cliffie was “doing 28 radio shows a week” and leading bands, increasingly including well-known musicians who were traveling through or had relocated to Hollywood. When he next joined Capitol Records as an A&R man in 1946, he made starts out of at least two of these radio band members: Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford. But throughout all these clean cut country and western lineups, you’d always see his long-haired, bearded father (still, all this time!). Both were described as fine musicians and also comedians.
From merletravis.tumblr.com: 1948 KXLA photo – Standing (L to R): Harold Hinsley, Billy Leibert, Eddie Kirk, Judy Hayden, Cliffie Stone, Herman “the Hermit”, Merle Travis (Bigsby fanatics – note his brand new custom guitar, pre-alteration!), Tennessee Ernie Ford. Seated: the Armstrong Twins.
While the young Cliff Snyder was fast becoming a successful radio star, recording artist, producer, talent scout and promoter, the elder Cliff Snyder – when he wasn’t performing with his son’s band – apparently reveled in his permanent “Herman the Hermit” stage persona as a solo act. The Popular Mechanics article highlights how he enjoyed incorporating his ongoing interest in and skill on diverse musical instruments and obvious talent for mechanical ingenuity into his musical endeavors.
From the same 1945 year I found a recording (for now) that Herman put out as “Herman The Hermit & His Mountain Men”: “Blackeyed Peas and Cornbread,” written by “Stonehead (his son, going by his original stage name) and Rice” (probably Darol Rice, another member of Hamblen’s band). I also found a mention of another Herman record (Side A: “Big Sue,” Side B: “Hitler Lives”).
Herman’s singing on “Peas” is definitely “hillbilly,” with character but not great pitch control. I don’t think his multi-instrument routine is captured here – I assume that Herman is simply playing banjo (quite nicely) while one of the other Mountain Men plays the guitar solos.
Surely he must have performed his solo act in public – he obviously would have had to spend way too much time working up the difficult tricks of playing vastly diverse instruments simultaneously.
He obviously enjoined collecting original musical instruments of all types, and he seems to have done a pretty good job, pre-eBay!
Here he sings while playing a c.1905 Dolceola keyboard zither with one hand while plucking a Chinese yueqin (moon guitar) with the other. He might also be playing a drum with his left heel. Apparently, he will soon switch to a German bowed zither and his bulb-horn cornet. Other “vintage” (to Herman, just “used”) instruments are seen below.
But he also re-purposed some, along with building from scratch hillbilly-style instruments like the one-string broomstick bass, which was apparently just the tip of his creative iceberg.
Here, he plays his “foot banjo,” an ingenious invention wherein his left foot would press pedals that fretted the instrument (in what was likely a simple open-tuned I-IV-V chord pattern), while the right operated the (motorized?) “strumming wheel” (my term) – with its hamster wheel of plectrums “spaced for foxtrot time”! This guy must’ve been a riot!
And finally, his ultimate creation: the One-Man-Band rolling three-sided rack rig!
Thanks to the folks at Popular Mechanics (who are geeks about this stuff), we get a pretty thorough list of his setup. I love how he created a “tuned” set of seemingly every noisemaker and percussive material he could find: temple blocks, frying pans, Shakaphone chimes (these were possibly the rare c.1900 Deagan “organ chimes,” an American version of Indonesian anklung – you can see the Dapper Dan barbershop quartet play them at Disneyland), horse’s hoofs, coffee pots, sheep bells, dinner bells, sleigh bells, door bells (“etc.”), and bulb horns. Surely this is a record?
But then he adds a dozen string instruments that he somehow has to grab and play one-handed. From a “ten-string banjo” (I have no idea what that one is) to a full size pedal harp! The “banjola” is actually a nice ~15-year-old National Tri-cone plectrum guitar, while the rest seem fairly generic.
Perhaps because it isn’t visible in the second photo, his harp guitar is omitted from the list, as are a bowlback mandolin and a guitar or banjo behind the harp. The harp guitar is a common c.1910-1930 model made by many firms (L&H, Oscar Schmidt, etc), which Herman has retro-fitted with a beefy added tailpiece. Sadly, we can’t know whether he utilized it as a harp guitar or a double-neck steel guitar.
The triple-neck shown on the first page of the article is a combo steel guitar, standard guitar and mandolin. It looks like a produced instrument, though I haven’t identified it. The left-most “slide guitar” neck looks like it was originally a ten-string fretted something.
It makes an appearance in the hands of a bandmate in this c.1947 staged session with Jo Stafford. Herman, with bowler, plays banjo.
A fellow on the blog where this was found stated that Herman played the triple-neck on his son’s Hometown Jamboree show (1949+ on KXLA out of Pasadena). I haven’t been able to source that, but Hillbilly-Music.com includes a compelling photo of Herman playing his tuned coffee pots, possibly from the show.
Airing five nights a week for over five years, I can imagine that Cliffie Stone must have struggled to constantly come up with new entertainment for his program – even with a band that would include creative virtuosos Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
Surely his audience must have been treated to the hillbilly-meets-vaudeville talents of his eccentric multi-instrument-playing father!
I believe there is one more shot from this session. It was only in it’s original form for a couple of months.
Did the top of it snap-off? Was it hard for Merle to get to the E tuner? We’ll never know.
Getting pics from the Stone family is impossible, I have heard.
What a fantastic post, and the PDF of the Pop. Mechanics article is such a treat, thank you!
When I found the remarkable photo of the KXLA radio band with Merle holding his pre-alteration Bigsby guitar I went crazy with excitement. I wrote Cliffie Stone’s widow, whose website the Tumblr pic came from, asking – begging really – her to email me a higher resolution copy, promising to never use it for profit, offering money if necessary, but no reply at all. Was so disappointed, because this must truly be the only existing photo of the entire guitar in that state.
You can see a partial one in the book “Paul Bigsby, father of the modern electric solidbody guitar”, but the headstock isn’t shown. In her website Mrs. Stone gives a lot of photo credits, but impossible to know which that pic belongs to. Makes me sad just remembering it, but your post here makes me happy – bravo for a great exposition on a really interesting subject!
Cliffie Stone was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. His son, Curtis Stone, was a studio musician in L.A. who “played on most the West Coast country records that were cut in the 70’s.” Curtis went on to success with the popular country band Highway 101. http://www.countrystarsonline.com/CSO/Christian%20Reviews/Highway101_CI.htm
Great blog Gregg. Herman the hermit what a guy! I think I would have gotten along really well with him, he’s my favorite kind of crazy inventor and very musical too. Thanks for turning me onto him. Keep up the great work .
All the best