About The Artist
Jess Young was an east Tennessee fiddler who made some records for Gennett and Columbia in the later 1920s. Born in Alabama, the Young Family moved to the mining town of Whitewell, Tennessee near Chattanooga, during Jess' childhood. While a youth he entered the mines, but within a few years encountered more health problems than the average miner. By 1920 he left that work and determined to make his living with the fiddle which he had learned to play as a child.
In 1925, Jess Young first entered the recording studio for Gennett with banjo picker Homer Davenport and his nephew Alvin. They did six (or eight) numbers as Homer Davenport and the Young Brothers. The next year with a group known as Jess Youngs's Tennessee Band, the fiddler did the first of ten numbers.
His best known number was "Sweet Bunch of Daisies" with a title called "Fiddle Up," a recomposed Irving Berlin tune as a close second. Dan Hornsby did vocals on some numbers.
Jess was among several champion fiddlers in the east Tennessee-north Georgia-northeast Alabama region, often competing with such noted figures as Lowe Stokes, Clayton McMichen and Bert Layne.
To research the life of Jess Young takes you into the world of fiddling contests in the days of old, not the commercial events that were promoted decades later. One gets the impression that the fiddlers took their 'business' and 'talent' seriously.
On Saturday, December 26, 1925, a fiddling contest was held to determine whou would challenge Mellie Dunham, Henry Ford's "Yankee Fiddler." In all there was a field of 35 contestants. However, the president of the Old Fiddlers' Association, J. H. Gaston announced that there would have to be a 'run-off' contest between four contestants because each of them had received the same ovation from the large audience that attended the event. The run-off was to take place at the courthouse auditorium in Chattanooga at 10:00am, Saturday morning January 9, 1926. "Competent judges" were to be there to determine who would represent the Chattanooga Association of Old Fiddlers. The four contestants were to be: Tom Smith of Harrison; Arthur Reed of Ridgedale; Walter Duncan of Chattanooga and Jess Young of Whitewell. As part of the contest, there was also to be discussion of the oldest violin used and the list of types of violins used. The Saturday event was said to have 15 different makes with the "...name of Antonius Stradivarius" appearing more than any other one make."
The "run-off" contest was held and "Sawmill" Tom Smith of Harrisonwon the right to challenge Mellie Dunahm. But the contest had an interesting back story. It seems after the contest, one Uncle Dave Macon entered the auditorium, got on stage and literally took othe house 'by storm'. A concert by the fiddler's came to an end because the crowd in attendance did not want Mr. Macon to surrender the stage. The article termed Uncle Dave as a "high class entertainer." He mesmirized the audience a bit by playing a tune he called the "Magic Solo" - the banjo kept playing in perfect time while he swung it all about him and dragged it under the chair on the floor of the stage. It kept the audience in side-splitting laughter per the article. The four contestants were to be part of a WDOD broadcast later that night. The judges were reported to be 'Sqire G. Russell Brown, John Castle, Bixll Hixon and Bill Rodgers. Judge Oscar Yarnell was said to have an early ambition to be a great fiddler, but instead his studies took him into the field of law; he gave Smith the fiddle he played twenty-five years earlier.
A few months later, the first annual Tristate Fidders' convention was held over two days. More than 200 fiddlers, banjoists and guitarists were in attendance. Handsome prizes were to accompany the blue ribbon awards. The convention attracted primarily contestants from Tennessee and Georgia, but others from Florida and Alabama also entered. Programs would be available would be distributed on the first day of the competition which would begin at 10:00am. Admission charge was to be 50 cents for every performance. For example, MOnday would be from 10:00am to 5:00pm, then later at 7:00pm to 10:00pm. The routine would be repeated on Tuesday. Admission was basically to pay expenses and prize monies. On March 5, 1926's first day of competition, the favorites were seen to be "Tom Cat" Payne, a banjoist from Polk County; Jess Young and his string band that consisted of Jess, Alvin Young and C. C. Thomas; "Saw-Mill" Tom Smith of Hamilton county; and, Lorine Sorrell of Powder Springs, GA with her sister, Mrs. J. P. Wheeler of Atlanta.
Attendance was seeing good crowds and the closing competions on Tuesday night, March 9, 1926 where contestants would play dance music and a full house was expected. A full list of contestants were included in the article that listed Jess Young as well.
Winners were announced from the March 9th competion and four fiddlers were "adjudged equally first" and each received $25 in gold. Those four were: Tom Smith of Harrison, TN: Jess Young of Whitwell, TN; Arthur Readof Ridgedale, TN; and, R. B. Hunt of Jacksonville, FL.
In July of 1928, another fiddlers contest was to be held, but the article almost deemed it more akin to a "professional fiddling concert" to be held over three nights. Jess Young was to participate after winning a contest in Birmingham, AL playing "Sweet Bunch of Daisies." "Sawmill" Tom Smith was to play his "title" number. Col. Charles Fisher would play "an out-of-date, but never new, number entitled "Give The Fiddler A Dram." "Tomcat" Payne was to be on hand for some banjo numbers.
In January 1927, plans were underway for a three day old-time fiddlers' contest to be held at Chattanooga's Memorial auditorium on January 27, 28 and 29. Once again, J. H. Gaston was heading up the arrangements. Among the local contestants expected to take part were Jess Young, "Sawmill Tom" Smith, Clayton Schultz and "Big Bert" Layne. From Georgia, none other than Clayton McMichen, treasurer of the Old-Time Southern Fidders' Association and ten-time champion of Georgia would also participate. Reportedly other outstanding Dixie fiddlers to be on hand included Fiddlin' John Carson, then 60 years old and seven-time champion of the south; Low Stokes of Rome, GA; Mrs. J. P. Wheeler of Atlanta and the then current champion of Tennessee, Earl Johnston of Knoxville.
However, on the eve of the event, trouble was brewing. An article indicated that Clayton McMichen was the promoter of the event. He noted that he had been told that Sawmill Tom Smith had withdrawn his participation because he claimed the event was a 'cut and dried' affair to hand the awards to the folks from Georgia. He hinted as to other controversial aspects of his competing. Mr. McMichen commented that he found he got better results using a standard bow rather than a six inch one. He also played on rawhide strings instead of wire. He said that does not make him a 'violinist.' He stated he was ready to 'frazzle with them' to such tunes as "Arkansas Traveler," "Old Hen Cackle," "Sally Gooden," Ida Red," "Fiddlers Dream," "Turkey in the Straw," "Soldiers Joy," "Hop Light, Lady, Your Cake's All Dough," Shortenin' Bread," "Leather Britches," "Bile The Cabbage Down," "Katy Hill," "Devil's Dream," or any of them he said.
He finished his remarks by stating, "I'm a full-blooded American and I haven't got any feathers on my legs, nor I haven't got any crawfish about me at all, with all due respect to Mr. Smith."
But a local fiddler, H. W. Duncan disagreed with Smith and Jess Young bowing out; he said it 'looked yellow' to him. He felt that Smith and Young were not justified in bowing out.
Readers learn that there had been an early 'falling out' with J. H. Gaston at a similar convention earlier. It seems one John Hardin of Birchwood had gotten up on stage and denounced the manner of the way the contest was held and felt it was 'loaded' for Smith to win. He also pointed to the fact that Mr. Gaston was one of the judges and had appointed the others. He also objected to the 'special favors' allowing Jess Young, Sawmill Smith and Arthur Reed in doing comedy stunts when they played but other fiddlers were forced to confine their participation to "straight fiddling."
But cooler heads prevailed and a meeting was held at the Hotel Patten and the old-time fiddlers of Tennessee and Georgia decided to go on with the "fiddling convention" as scheduled. Judge Will Cummings was to pick the men who would judge who was the best fiddler. Clayton McMichen, promoter of the event, stated that the fiddlers would not know who the judges were until the last moment. Walter Duncan, Jess Young and Arthur Reed were elected chairmen of the Tennessee Old-Time Fiddlers' Association. "Sawmill Tom" Smith was not invited to join the association, but was to be allowed to comptete.
News accounts the next day indicated that Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers from Decula, GA were seen to be the favorites at the convention at Memorial auditorium and almost stopping the show from time to time. Clayton McMichen and "Saw Mill" Tom Smith ironed out their differences and "adjusted their difficulties" and also got a large round of applause for their contribution to the convention.
Those who would take part in the final performance the night of January 29 were to be: Happy Jackson, John Harden, Jess Young and his string band, Reed Brothers' string band, Clyde Cannon's band, J. S. Rodgers, Jackson's band, with Gibbs Brothers, Jim McDowell and Lowe Stokes.
The newspaper article indicated that Walter Duncan had called the newspaper and stated that "all music of a classical nature should be eliminated from consideration by the judges and the judging should be done on the basis of "old-time fiddlin'." He was quoted as stating, "We do not want the impression to be gained that we are trying to influence the judges, but we feel that it is unfair to the Tennessee fiddlers or any of the old-time fiddling element that any consideration should be given to anything that appears to them as note reading or classical music." Judge Will Cummings was to tell the judges that evening of this sentiment.
When the dust had settled, disagreements vented, the fiddling convention went on. Jess Young won the first prize of $50 of the Tennessee-Georgia olld-time fidders' contest at Chattanooga's Memorial auditorium, giving him the title of acclaimed 'champion fiddler of both Georgia and Tennessee.' Second place prize of $25 went to Clayon McMichen of Georgia. Third prize and $10 was awarded to A. A. Gray of Tallapoosa, GA.
"When Jess Young played "The Old Hen Cackled," the audience was carried back to the days when barn dances were popular and they showed their approval when the number was ended by applauding wildly."
Prizes for best guitar went to H. J. Gibbs of Huntsville, AL; best banjo picker was John Harding; and best string bands were awarded to Gibbs brothers and the Lane Melody Boys.
While not a sell-out, the auditorium was packed with over 4,500 in attendance. "Sawmill" Tom Smith was good, but not his usual self perhaps. The evening got rolling with the antics of Gid Tanner getting the crowd to laugh at him before it all started. He noted, "All this foolishness is over now," and he settle down to the real business of attaching McMichen as champion of Georgia and Smith as champion of Tennessee. But the night belonged to Jess Young who got the most applause from the crowd. It was written, "A pin could have been heard if dropped while he was playing 'Sweet Bunch of Daisies.' "
The judges were all from Chattanooga, M. N. Whittaker, J. E. Dickson, Tom Byrd, Claude Gray, and W. F. McManus.
In a 1929 column where the newspaper asked several musicians the question,"What is your favorite piece of music?" Jess Young was one who was asked. He is said to have responded by:
"Fiddler's Dram," that's my favorite. Why? Because I just naturally like my dram. You see, I was raised in the mountains where a dram is a dram. And I just naturally like my dram. The name appeals to me. The piece that I find most popular is "Sweet Bunch of Daisies." It's a waltz. I've won quite a few prizes playing "Sweet Bunch of Daisies."
He also appeared on WDOD radio regularly. In 1937, he was offered a job at WSM Nashville, but turned it down for health reasons. Jess died a year later due to pulmonary tuberculosis. The death certificate lists his profession as a miner, coal digger.
He left behind his wife, Virginia (Cannady), whom he married on December 23, 1926.
This entry is based on research furnished by the late Charles K. Wolfe and includes information found during subsequent research by the webmaster.
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