Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame

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  John L. "Uncle Bunt" StephensJohn L. "Uncle Bunt" Stephens
1879-1951 - South-Central Tennessee


"On to Detroit!": $1,000, a Lincoln & a Suit of Broadcloth - UNCLE BUNT STEPHENS: Champion Fiddler
by Don Roberson as printed in "Old Time Music" Magazine, Summer 1992

Fully to enjoy and appreciate the music of another person, one needs to learn as much as possible about that person's life. Therefore, the purpose of this piece is to present as accurately as possible the story of "Uncle Bunt" Stephens.

"Uncle Bunt" (John L.) Stephens was born in Bedford County, Tennessee on February 2, 1879, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Eli Stephens. We was left an orphan at an early age and was reared by Aunt Winnie Bearden, who lived in Flatcreek, a small community in southern Bedford County.

A 1926 newspaper article quoted "Uncle Bunt" as saying that he had played the mouth organ (harmonica) since the age of six and he bought his first fiddle from a tramp for $25 when he was 11 years old. The fiddle had been made in Germany in 1699. "Uncle Bunt's" son, Haskell, once said, "He never took a lesson on the fiddle; he just took it up."

"Uncle Bunt" was married twice. His first wife, whom he divorced after they had reared five children, was the former Miss Pearl Pack of Shelbyville, TN. She survives "Uncle Bunt" and currently lives in Shelbyville. At the age of 46, he married his second wife, Mrs. Lizzie Stephens, now deceased, and they lived on his farm in Moore County, TN, about six miles from Tullahoma.

If it had not been for Henry Ford, the famous automobile genius, very few people would have ever heard of a fiddler named "Uncle Bunt" Stephens. Mr. Ford was the main catalyst in the revival of old time music in America in 1926. A January 2, 1926 "Literary Digest" article describes Henry's activities as "aspiring to revive the dances of our granddaddies, with all their innocent neighborly cavorting."

Mr. Ford loved the music of the "devil's box" and desired to hear it played by the best and most authentic old time fiddlers available. In order to attain this desire, he requested all his Ford dealers throughout the East and Midwest to hold local, state and regional contests to determine who should come to Detroit and fiddle for the championship. [see sidebar below]

"Uncle Bunt" had been fiddling for dances in the hills of Tennessee for almost 40 years when Henry Ford's word reached Moore County. However, because of lack of practice, he was not prepared to enter the contest sponsored by Mr. Will K. Parks, the local Ford dealer in Lynchburg. Although "Uncle Bunt"'s main occupation was farming, he had been very busy working on a road construction gang for 25 cents an hour. His boss was Mr. W. G. Evans of Shelbyville, who would later become "Uncle Bunt"'s personal representative.

After winning the local contest at Lynchburg, "Uncle Bunt" became one of approximately 25 other local champions to enter the state contest at Nashville. Even though this was to be a state contest, all the contestants were from the Middle Tennessee area.

With their battle cry "On to Detroit!", the fiddlers began the eliminations contest early on Tuesday morning, January 19, 1926. The six best fiddlers were chosen to battle it out in the finals that night. "Uncle Bunt" was one of the six that thrilled a "standing room only" crowd at the Ryman Auditorium. As described by the Nashville Tennessean, "It was nip and tuck from the start for the six good fiddlers...with amazing readiness as sections of the auditorium cheered for their favorites." Only the top three fiddlers would be eligible to go to Louisville for the regional contest. "Uncle Bunt" made it by placing third. "Uncle" Jimmy Thompson, a local favorite from Martha, TN, and Marshall Claiborne, a one-armed melodist champion from Hartsville, TN, placed first and second, respectively.

On Wednesday morning, January 20, 1926, the three winners left Nashville for Louisville, KY, where they were to meet the three winners from Kentucky and the two from southern Indiana. This contest, held at Brown Theatre on Wednesday night, was billed as the contest to name the "Champion of Dixie".

Although a 60-year-old shoemaker from West Baden, IN, by the name of W.H. Elmore won first prize, "two Tennesseans won the applause and admiration of a packed house...where they placed second and third". The second place winner was a 47-year-old man who stood only five feet and weight less than 120 pounds, while the third place winner had only one arm and played with his bow between his knees and his fiddle in his left arm. These men, of course, were "Uncle Bunt" Stephens and Marshall Claiborne respectively. These three men had now earned the right to represent the South in the championship contest in Detroit, Michigan.

Upon his arrival in Detroit, the Moore County fiddle proceeded to place upon the ears of Mr. Ford the kind of sweet, authentic music that the people of Tennessee where accustomed to hearing. With the tying of a ribbon on his fiddle by Henry Ford, "Uncle Bunt" was given the title of "World Champion Fiddler". His masterpiece was "Old Hen Cackled", and it was reported that this tune won him the title. The neighbors of "Uncle Bunt" said he could make a cackling hen ashamed of herself when he imitated her with his fiddle. "Sail Away Lady" [sic] was another tune he used in fiddlin' his way to the championship.

Probably the happiest woman on the mountain plateau in southern middle Tennessee was Mrs. Lizzie Stephens when the news reached her that her husband had won first place over all the regional champion fiddlers at Detroit. During her weekly visit to Tullahoma on February 13, 1926, she reported that Mr. Ford had presented her husband with a new Lincoln car, $1000 in money, a broadcloth suit of clothes, paid for having his teeth repaired, and entertained him in the Ford home for a week. It was also reported that "Uncle Bunt" talked Ford into giving him cash instead of the Lincoln, whereupon he bought a Ford and had money left over. Mrs. Stephens also stated that Mr. Ford had sent a telegram to a neighbor asking him to look after her and see that she had everything she needed while "Uncle Bunt" was away. The telegram stated that Ford would see that all the bills were paid. Following the Ford contest, "Uncle Bunt" made various trips in the eastern United States. He appeared on the Grand Old Opry several times and made appearances on several radio stations. In 1951, his son Haskell said that "Uncle Bunt" had fiddled his way to fame on a national radio program. He could of course, been speaking of WSM in Nashville; however, he may have been referring to WLS in Chicago. The New York Times stated that "Uncle Bunt" had spent three days in Chicago fiddling for the radio prior to his visit to New York City in March 1926.

The main purpose of the trip to New York was to make recordings for the Columbia Phonograph Company. However, it also served as a honeymoon, since "Uncle Bunt" and "Aunt" Lizzie had been married over seven months. While there, "Uncle Bunt" had made four sides for Columbia using the fiddle that won the championship for him: "Candy Girl"/"Left in the Dark Blues" (CO 15085-D) and "Louisburg Blues/"Sail Away Lady" (CO 15071-D). Columbia Records' catalog described "Uncle Bunt" as an exclusive Columbia artist, and that he was, since these are the only known recordings he made.

In the summer of 1951, the people of Moore County and surrounding areas of Middle Tennessee removed their hats in mourning when they heard that "Uncle Bunt" Stephens had died. All the way to Nashville they said, "I heard him play the fiddle when I was just a boy." John L. Stephens had died at home on Wednesday night, July 25, 1951, at the age of 72. Although aging and gray, he had been able to get around pretty well until the last week of his life. About 10 days before his death he was seen in Lynchburg, where he had come into the store to sit and talk.

Old timers can still hear his fiddle tunes ringing in and around Moore County, where he played for many a Saturday night square dance. Among "Uncle Bunt"'s favorite selections were "Jennie in the Garden", "The Arkansas Traveler" and "Mississippi Sawyer".

"Uncle Bunt" was laid to rest in the hills of Moore County at the Hurricane Church cemetery on State Highway 55 between Lynchburg and Tullahoma, on Friday, July 27, 1951. To this date, his grave does not have a monument, and can be found and recognized only by the small, rapidly deteriorating, temporary funeral home marker.

Although "Uncle Bunt"'s bow is silent, his music is still being played. In 1952, Folkways issued the "Anthology of American Folk Music". This collection includes "Uncle Bunts"'s rendition of "Sail Away Lady". Listed as entry no. 28, it is thus described in the notes: "This performance is probably similar to much American dance music in the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars."

In addition, a scholarly paper entitled "The Technique of Variation in an American Fiddle Tune (A Study of 'Sail Away Lady' as it was performed in 1926 for Columbia Records by 'Uncle Bunt' Stephens)" was written by Linda C. Burman and published in the January 1968 issue of "Ethnomusicology". In this paper, the techniques of art-music analysis are applied to this fine old time fiddle tune of the folk tradition.

Whether one approaches the music of "Uncle Bunt" from a scholarly or entertaining viewpoint, it will be agreed that it represents the sound of folk activities such as husking bees, barn raisings, quilting parties, and barn dances from an era that is gone forever.

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WAS THERE REALLY A DETROIT CONTEST?

It wasn't until I started working on Bunt's page for the Hall of Fame that I started to encounter opinions that perhaps Ford didn't hold a national contest after all. I have decided to include a great deal of information about the contests, some of it conflicting with the above article, as well as other accounts. I'll leave it for you to read it all and form your own opinion.

In the article "Fiddles & Fords", published in the Journal of Country Music, Guthrie T. Meade writes of the Ford contests:

"The top three finalists then went on to Detroit, presumably to contend against winners from Michigan, Ohio and other states. No record appears in the Detroit papers concerning this event, but according to reports in several Tennessee newspapers, Bunt Stephens was the winner of this contest, which included the gift of a Lincoln automobile and a recording contract with Columbia. The event took place around February 15-16. The participants remained about a month in Detroit where they were entertained by Henry Ford."

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Paul Gifford contends that the Detroit contest never took place. He wrote and compiled the following information:

I don't have any special information about Uncle Bunt Stephens from Tennessee sources, but have looked at sources at the Ford Archives. Originally I was interested because what I had seen written about him (mainly Charles Wolfe's "History of the Grand Old Opry, 1925-35") repeated the statement that he had won a national fiddle contest sponsored by Henry Ford. An article in the Journal of Country Music, [by Guthrie T. Meade, from which the above passage is excerpted], indicated that Charles Wolfe had looked in vain in Detroit newspapers for evidence of such a national contest.

Wolfe, in the above book, pp. 65-66, says his name was John L. Stephens, and he lived in a shotgun house outside Lawrenceburg, TN. He implies his age was 47 during the 1926 contests, though another report I've seen says he was 55. He was alive in 1951. He had played for dances for 30 years, in 1926. He also cites newspaper stories describing the fiddler's contest held in Nashville on Jan. 19-20, 1926, in which Uncle Jimmy Thompson placed first, and Stephens second. The following weekend, the winners went to Louisville for a tri-state (apparently Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee) contest. These were sponsored by Ford dealers in those states (or at least KY and TN). [So far, this info agrees more or less with the Roberson article.]

In Acc. 285, Box 465, Ford Archives, there is a nice album of photos of the Kentucky contests, including good ones of the winners. This says that J. L. Stephens, of Lynchburg, TN, took second place, winning $50 in gold and a trip to Detroit. W. H. Elmore, of West Baden, IN, took first, winning a touring car. Third was Marshall Claiborne, 55, of Hartsville, TN, and fourth was Cooney Perdue, of Tompkinsville, KY. All four won trips to Detroit to play for Ford.

The Chicago Radio Digest for Feb. 3, 1926 says:

"Bunt Stephens, world's champion old-time fiddler, who won the blue ribbon at the recent contest held by Henry Ford in Detroit..."

Wolfe quotes a Nashville Banner story of Feb. 15, 1926, that said that Stephens's wife had come into Tullahoma for her weekly visit, and she said that Ford had presented Bunt with a Lincoln, $1000 in money, a broadcloth suit of clothes, and entertained him as a guest for a week. Wolfe says that later Uncle Bunt talked Ford into giving him a Ford instead of the Lincoln, whereupon he purchased a Ford and pocketed the difference (all of this is dubious, as will be seen). Wolfe also says he played on WSM first on Feb. 28, 1926, and that his touring act included a clog dance done by his wife.

The French Lick (IN) Herald, Feb. 19, 1926, says:

"William H. Elmore, of West Baden, who won the coveted title of the 'Champion Old Time Fiddler of Dixie' at the Brown Theatre in Louisville, a few weeks ago, was the guest of Henry Ford at Detroit Tuesday and Wednesday of last week. Lewis Bedster, local Ford dealer, accompanied him. While there, they were conducted through the immense Ford plant, in company with several Ford dealers and old fiddlers...On Wednesday night a banquet was given at the Book-Cadillac Hotel for the entire party. Mr. Elmore...was highly honored by the auto king. Immediately following his introduction to Ford, Mr. Elmore inquired if there was to be a contest. Ford looked at all the old champion's medals, laughed and said, 'No, no contest. You have won enough.' So there was no contest but all the old fiddlers played their different selections. The champion was allowed the privilege of playing on a genuine Stradivarius, valued at $6500.00, belonging to Mr. Ford. Mr. Elmore was born in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri in 1865 and has been fiddling for more than 50 years...Ford is having an artificial arm made for Mr. Claiborne."

The Chicago News, Mar. 6, 1926, says:

"Bunt Stephens to play on WMAQ this evening. Henry Ford tied a blue ribbon around his neck."

The New York Times, Mar. 26, 1926, says:

"'Uncle Bunt' Stephens of Tullahoma, Tenn., champion fiddler in the nation-wide contest conducted by Henry Ford at Detroit in February, arrived in New York yesterday for a short visit...The two tunes he played on it - 'Old Cacklin' Hen' and 'Sail Away, Lady' - for Mr. Ford won him the championship over 1,876 contestants, a ribbon around the fiddle tied by Mr. Ford's own hands and a substantial check. 'Henry's a fine fellow,' Uncle Bunt said yesterday after a short sightseeing trip about the city...'He knows a real tune and real music when he hears it...' 'Henry entertained me good, and give me two pairs of pants and sent Lizzie, my wife, a toilet set. But somebody stole my pants and the toilet set when we were staying at a boarding house in Nashville.' 'Uncle Bunt' said at first glimpse he likes New York better than Chicago, where he spent three days recently for the purpose of fiddling for the radio."

Finally, a letter from Stephens to Ford, dated Aug. 20, 1926 (Letter 285.5, Ford Archives):

"You will probably recall that I won the blue ribbon at your last old time fiddlers contest. On returning home I signed a contract to travel and play for one Winston Evans of Shelbyville, Tenn., at a salary of $300.00 per month and expenses. We traveled four months. Then Mr. Evans decided he would Placard the Chevrolet car as follows: 'Uncle Bunt Stephens, Henry Ford's champion old time fiddler representing the Chevrolet Car.' I then refused to go any further with him and came home...I just thought you possibly might arrange some way for me to use a Ford car to travel in and give entertainments and at same time advertise your car by placing a Ford banner on it..."

An "Uncle Bunt Stephens Memorial Day" was to be held in 1970 in Lynchburg (correspondence at Ford Archives).

I'll leave it to the readers to sort out whether he was from Lynchburg rather than Lawrenceburg, exactly his age, and what he did in 1926. Clearly he or his manager wanted to capitalize on the visit to Ford as much as possible, and exaggerated everything. Elmore's account (above) is likely to be an accurate representation. Stephens obviously didn't get a Lincoln or a Ford, and probably wasn't successful in replacing the Chevy. All of this should be placed in the context of the fiddling phenomenon of late 1925/early 1926, which resulted from the publicity created by Nellie Dunham's visit to Ford - something like the Tonya Harding tabloid phenomenon of a few years' back. Stephens was one of many fiddlers who appeared on vaudeville at that time.

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DISCOGRAPHY

There are only a handful of recordings made by Bunt Stephens. "Sail Away Ladies" can be found Disk 2-A of The Harry Smith Anthology and "Candy Girl" can be found on County CD 3521: Nashville, The Early String Bands, Volume 1.

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