Clarence Ashley, known as Tom to his friends, married Hettie in 1914. He was 17 and she was 14 years old. In the Tennessee mountains where they lived it wasn’t unusual to marry young. Tom was a fine banjo player and made recordings with groups like “The West Virginia Hotfoots”, “The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers”, and “The Carolina Tarheels”. Tom also recorded as a solo act. The first known recording of “House of the Rising Sun” features Tom on banjo.
But with the arrival of baby J.D. and then Eva, there was a family to support and you couldn’t make a living from playing banjo. Tom was always working at odd jobs here and there. He got on at a mill in West Virginia but, three days after Hettie joined him, the place closed down. It took eight months for the couple to scrape together enough cash to travel back to Tennessee where Hettie dug up the canned food she had hidden away before travelling to meet Tom. That’s what they lived on until Tom got his next bit of work.
Tom played the medicine shows. He was an entertainer, not a salesman for the patent medicines, playing in between pitches from Doc Whitecloud for Swamproot Tonic. He enjoyed this work: “I always loved show business.”
Every once in a while, Tom would record a tune. “The Coo Coo” is probably his best known:
The coocoo is a pretty bird,
She wobbles as she flies.
She never hollers coocoo
Till the fourth day of July.
(hear entire song recorded 1929 here)
“My Sweet Farm Girl” is a double-entendre song that probably brought a blush to Hetty’s cheeks:
So early in the morning,
I cut her grass, you bet,
Pull up the hose,
I keep her lawn all wet.
(hear entire song recorded 1931 here)
Eventually, the War brought jobs. The mills were hiring and Tom laid down his banjo and went to work. The children grew up. Eva played and sang with her father some and even recorded a few songs of her own.
Then, in 1960, Tom was persuaded to play music again. The folk revival was under way and several of Tom’s early recordings appeared on Harry Smith’ s influential Anthology of American Folk Music. Tom performed at concerts and events and toured England before cancer took him in 1967.
J.D. had a house next door to his parents and, after Tom passed away, looked in on his mother every day. Hettie died in 1973. Tom and Hettie’s great-grandson, a computer programmer for IBM, has put up a web page about them.
Without knowing these people, except through their photos and recordings, I like them. They outlasted hard times, raised family, and made music. That’s about all you can ask of anyone.
Discussion of “The House Carpenter” with downloads of a lot of Ashley material.