BY CHARLES K. WOLFE—
Although he appeared at the Bristol sessions as a member of Ernest Stoneman’s assembly of musicians, Alex Dunford (1878-1953) was a remarkable fiddler, singer, and comedian in his own right. A native of Ballard Branch in Carroll County, Virginia, Dunford became part of the Stoneman family about 1908, when he married Callie Frost, a relative of Ernest’s wife Hattie. According to Stoneman biographer Ivan Tribe, people who knew Dunford recalled him as an odd person who spoke an unusual drawl that some believe was derived from a Scots-Irish dialect. Little is known about his early life – some thought he was born out of wedlock. After his wife’s death in 1921, Dunford remained alone until his own death in 1953.
Apparently, the Bristol sessions were Dunford’s first records, and while he performed on many of them, only three were issued under his own name. The best known was “The Whip-Poor-Will Song,” which Peer copyrighted in Dunford’s name, though it was based on an earlier song called “The Call of the Whippoorwill” from 1889. The second Dunford recording was “Skip to Ma Lou, My Darling,” which he sang solo, the first commercial recording of this well-known American play-party classic. “What Will I Do for My Money’s All Gone” was a duet with Hattie, the actual recording of which was described at some length in the Bristol newspaper article about the sessions. Another duet credited to Dunford and Hattie was “Barney McCoy,” a familiar nineteenth-century ballad that has appeared in numerous folksong collections.
Peer seemed fascinated with Dunford, and was especially intrigued by his comedic monologues. Although the latter recorded none of these at Bristol, Peer invited Dunford to come to a session in October 1927 in Atlanta, where he recorded four bizarre monologues in his distinctive accent: “Sleeping Late,” “My First Bicycle Ride,” “The Taffy Pulling Party,” and “The Savingest Man on Earth.” When Peer returned to Bristol in 1928, Dunford, again with the Stoneman Family, made two influential recordings under his own name, “Angeline the Baker” and “Old Shoes and Leggins” – The latter becoming known through its inclusion in the famed 1952 collection, Anthology of American Folk Music. In 1937 Dunford also recorded for the Library of Congress on fiddle as part of Galax’s Bogtrotters Band.
—From The Bristol Sessions: Writings About The Big Bang of Country Music – Edited by Charles K. Wolfe and Ted Olson