Rounder Records has been a major force in bringing American roots music to the broader public since its founding in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in 1970. Boston had been an epicenter of the folk revival and it was that creative and dynamic musical environment that motivated the label’s founders (three university students) to try their hand at record making. They named their fledgling label Rounder because of its numerous meanings. According to the label's bio on their website "this was the right name, for all that 'rounder' represented folklorically (hobos, travelers) and the [folk music iconoclasts] Holy Modal Rounders, and record shapes..on and on...round and round.” Their little label became a major purveyor of a broad range of musical genres including Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, rock, Cajun/Zydeco and children’s music. Thousands of records make up their catalog.
Recently the company relocated from Massachusetts
The move may not be just a geographical one, but may be indicative of a turn in
a more commercial direction as well. Or
maybe our idealism and quaint romantic notions of folk music are just clouding
our judgment. Either way today on American Pastimes we go back to the
beginning: Rounder Records album #0001 “George Pegram” and #0002 The Spark Gap Wonder Boys "Cluck Old Hen...."
George Pegram (1911-1974) was a life-long banjoist but a
professional for only the last three decades of his life. He worked odd jobs
and in saw mills and furniture factories, and then served at Pearl
Harbor during WWII. In
1947 he became a professional musician when famed folklorist and festival promoter
Bascom Lamar Lunsford heard him play and began to book him for festivals.
A three-finger plucker (aka ‘double-thumbing”) known for his
humor and animated stage performances that fed off of audience response, he became
a fixture at southern fiddler’s conventions, music festivals, and on the
passenger cars of the Southern Railroad where he performed regularly. He performed with numerous bands or with
harmonica player Red Parhorn or just by himself. As a band member he usually
eventually became the focus of the act, telling humorous stories, interacting
with the crowd, and leading the other musicians through each set.
In 1957 he made his first album when he and Parhorn were recorded by Riverside Records, but he wasn’t well known outside of North Carolina. His next release, in 1970, would be for Rounder.
Rounder co-founders Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin first saw
George at a North Carolina
fiddler’s convention in 1967. It was a memorable performance. Two years later
while hitch-hiking to Mardi Gras Irwin and co-founder Marian Leighton-Levy
stopped in to visit acquaintances Ken and Sherri Davidson who were proprietors
of the small record label Kanawha Records in West Virginia. Sherri played a tape of
George. The Davidson’s didn’t own the tapes, but they put Ken in contact with
the owner (who had made the recordings) and Ken purchased them for $125. They
were released a year later as Rounders’s first record. (On the tapes George is accompanied by Clyde Isaacs on mandolin, Fred Cockerham on fiddle, and Jack Bryant on guitar).
Soon after the record came out Rounder tried to bring George
north for a series of concerts. When his
flight arrived he wasn’t on it. George had become confused and missed a
connecting flight. So he turned around and flew back home.
The Spark Gap Wonder Boys album “Cluck
Old Hen, Cluck six-ten, the Dow-Jones average is down again” (Rounder Record #0002) was released
at the same time as George's album. The Spark Gap Wonder Boys were a New England based string band featuring young musicians, mostly amateurs at that time; Neil Rossi, David Doubilet, Dick Fegy and George Nelson.
Both #0001 and #0002 were modestly successful. That meant more recordings
could be made. And more were. Many more.