Clyde McCoy, Wah-Wah Pedals and Feuding

February 2, 2012 § 3 Comments


"Sugar Blues" 10" record by Clyde McCoy

“Sugar Blues”, Clyde McCoy (Capitol Records)

I picked this record up the other week, spotting it at an antique mall in, of all places, Sherman Oaks. Another gap in my musical knowledge – I had never heard of Clyde McCoy, let alone what I was to discover was his role in inspiring the invention of the wah-wah guitar pedal, but I was attracted to the cover (of course) as well as the songs – there’s nothing like blues based on geographic location, not to mention “blues in the night.” But what really piqued my interest was reading on the back of the sleeve that McCoy’s ancestry dates “back to the famous, feudin’ Hatfield-McCoys of Kentucky.” That couldn’t be true, I thought; it had to be something cooked up for publicity.

It appears to be the case, though. It’s consistently mentioned, and moreover those two families seem to have spawned an awful lot of descendants (perhaps not surprisingly, as each of the families at the time the feud started had produced – forebodingly, in some people’s view – 13 children). One of them, interestingly, seems to be indie pop figure Juliana Hatfield. I’d known of her for 20 years, but in all that time it had never crossed my mind that she might come from “those” Hatfields.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud is fairly well known, at least in America, though I don’t think most people are likely to be very familiar with many of the details. Fuller accounts are of course readily available online, but briefly, the hostilities between the two clans living on opposite sides of the Tug River on the mountainous Kentucky-West Virginia border ran (if you date them from their earliest stirrings) for about 30 years  – from the Civil War through the 1890s – and eventually claimed 12 lives (though some sources cite a number more in the vicinity of 20). The first murder victim was returning Union solider Asa Harmon McCoy, and overall it looks like that family got the worst of it. Over the years there have been several reunions and ceremonial truces arranged, but as recently as 2002 there was a lawsuit filed by several McCoys who claimed they were being prevented from visiting a family graveyard located on the property of a Hatfield descendant.

The Hattfield clan pictured in 1897

The feud had ended by this point, but the 1897 Hatfield clan was not to be trifled with

One intriguing thing I came across when reading about the feud is recent speculation that a genetic disease that runs in the McCoy family could be partly responsible for some of the ill temper that fueled it. According to a widely published 2007 article, “The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare, inherited disease that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts.” The ailment, which causes tumors on the adrenal gland, is called Von Hippel-Lindau disease, and roughly 75% of McCoys reportedly have it. “Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have the disease,” the piece continues, “which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other ‘fight or flight’ stress hormones… No one blames the whole feud on the disease, but doctors say it could help explain some of the clan’s notorious behavior. ‘This condition can certainly make anybody short-tempered, and if they are prone because of their personality, it can add fuel to the fire,’ said Dr. Revi Mathew, a Vanderbilt University endocrinologist treating one of the family members.”

Explanation of the Hatfield-McCoy feud on local plaque

Mountain pride: The feud as encapsulated on a Kentucky plaque

Who knows exactly how much it may have contributed, but contemporary McCoys relate that “affected family members have long been known to be combative, even with their families.” One even recalled a grandfather this way: “When he would come to visit, everyone would run and hide. They acted like they were scared to death of him. He had a really bad temper.” And some commentators believe that the McCoys could be seen as the more tempestuous of the two families.

Of course there were other long-running clan feuds at the time in these sorts of rural areas, and that points to what to me is another interesting aspect of the whole story – the fact that most of the people who had settled in the backcountry were of Scots-Irish stock, and had essentially brought with them their retributive-justice culture, forged in the centuries-long turbulence of the Scottish-English border region and/or their time spent in Northern Ireland, where they were sent in the early 1600s to form a colony in an effort to drive the Irish from their land. There are books that go into great detail about this culture, such as Albion’s Seed, which talks about the violent and emotional tendencies of these people and how they differed from British settlers from other parts of the UK who settled other areas of the colonies. The University of Virginia has a fascinating online series on backcountry culture that speaks similarly of this history. A good illustration of this, as the writer points out, is the story of how Andrew Jackson – Scots-Irish, the seventh U.S. President and notoriously tough and aggressive – was told as a child by his immigrant mother never to sue anybody, but rather to “always settle them cases yourself.” The article notes that “that folk saying was a classical expression of backcountry attitudes toward order, which differed very much from other regions of British America. In the absence of any strong sense of order as unity, hierarchy, or social peace, backsettlers shared an idea of order as a system of retributive justice. The prevailing principle was lex talionis, the rule of retaliation. It held that a good man must seek to do right in the world, but when wrong was done to him he must punish the wrongdoer himself by an act of retribution that restored order and justice in the world.”

The series points out that both the Hatfields and the McCoys “were of border stock; their feud arose more generally from an entire culture and its concept of order as retributive justice.”

Covers of "The Other Irish" and "Born Fighting"

A couple of books on the Scots-Irish: rascals and fighters

I realize I often travel far afield from my original inspiration in many of these posts, and I want to get back to Clyde McCoy himself, but one recent personal encounter struck me as I was reading about the origins of backcountry culture, and I thought it might be worth mentioning. It connects to something I wrote extensively about in another post, on the somewhat wild idea I had that perhaps the well-known link between American country music and traditional Irish and Scottish music might actually be more interesting than it first appears – that since the Vikings had had a large role in settling both Ireland and Scotland (Scandinavian blood is still prevalent in large numbers of the population of those countries), and that in my view those are the areas that have produced the largest number of great pop/rock bands and musicians (and part of this involves the notion that a surprising number of English musicians, such as the Beatles, actually have Irish roots), perhaps the Vikings had something in their sensibility that has translated all these centuries later into musical and literary talent. Again, if that doesn’t sound too fantastical, you might want to read my other piece, but the fact that what I would call ‘good’ pop music traditionally has scarcely existed in Roman-influenced Continental Europe, while Scandinavia (and of course the UK, and especially its more Gaelic-influenced regions) has turned out great bands for decades, and that moreover, roots-based, often-melancholy music (meaning, basically, country music) is still very popular in places like Norway, makes one at least think.

But what I was going to relate is that a few months ago I had the chance to meet a remarkable guy – an actual genius, I’d say, with such an impressive track record in science and technology that he is on a TV show dealing with that at the moment – who mentioned one day in conversation both that he was “100% Viking” in terms of his family background (he is originally from a small Baltic state), and that because of that he has had to battle all his life against a compulsion to retaliate in whole-hearted fashion whenever anyone has wronged him, even in a small way. The conversation was prompted by a recent incident in which he had experienced a surge of that feeling after a somewhat innocuous encounter in which someone was essentially joking around with him. I can’t recall his exact words, but it was along the lines of his instinct being “to hunt you down and kill you, then find your family and kill them,” etc. Anyway, I think the idea is clear enough, and while perhaps one might say that that sort of feeling is not necessarily so unusual, he described it dead seriously as being something he has had to particularly struggle with because of his background. And this is an incredibly intelligent, super-nice person saying this. I guess I would have assumed a Viking could probably be described in those terms, but it was kind of illuminating to get such a first-hand, interior account.

Cover of "Rediscovering the South's Celtic Heritage"

The South: does its storytelling tradition stem from the Scots-Irish?

And it aligns quite well with the idea of the Scots-Irish (insofar as they are at least in part a Celtic/Viking people, albeit a group also forged by their specific experiences that shaped them in a distinct way) being a fiercely independent, emotional people prone to violence and retribution. I am aware that there is a lot of debate about, for example, how “Celtic” the Scots-Irish actually were, that there were differences between lowlanders and highlanders, that Appalachia had a mixed population, etc., but as one of the books pictured above, Born Fighting, points out, whatever they “are,” the Scots-Irish, hardened by centuries of war, have certainly made up a disproportionate share of America’s military from the very beginning, playing major roles in both the Revolutionary (one British writer at the time even called the conflict the “Scotch-Irish Presbyterian rebellion”) and Civil Wars, and continuing to do so today. They have also contributed an outsized portion of  the country’s political leaders (including, among a remarkable 20 presidents, a half Scots-Irish Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton), writers and musicians. It is just striking to me that those last two categories in particular seem to be especially associated with parts of the British Isles that the Vikings, and not the Romans, influenced more strongly. And did those tendencies carry over to form the basis of the storytelling tradition the South is known for? A 2002 book from Louisianna State University called The Companion to Southern Literature says yes, even if the Scots-Irish component became slightly diluted, but if I continue this line of thought this post will turn into a thesis.

Just to clarify something, though – some of what I am talking about here and especially in the other posts on this general topic involve reflections on the Irish and Scottish in general, not just the Scots-Irish; it’s just that the latter group possesses some distinct traits that led it to play a specific role in American history, and for the purposes of this post, both the McCoys and Hatfields were of that particular extraction. For more related musings, if you are interested you can also see this older post, which talks about country music and (the Scots-Irish) Hank Williams, described in the book The Other Irish as “the embodiment of the mountain culture contradiction – a poet that could move people to tears with his sincerity, yet terrify them with his violent self-destructive streak.”

So I do finally want to get back to music and Clyde McCoy, or at least touch briefly on his role in the development of the wah-wah pedal. McCoy (born in Kentucky in 1903, he was a little young for the feud) had a career that spanned seven decades, and during the 1920s he became known for using a mute when he played. Please see the above clip from youtube to give him a listen, playing his signature tune “Sugar Blues” that he debuted in 1930. It’s definitely a trip down memory lane. Miles Davis would later use a similar mute on such tracks as “All Blues.”

But during the 1960s the Thomas Organ company – accidentally, while working on the redesign of an amplifier – developed a pedal that replicated his sound. At first they thought they had hit upon something to be used for wind instruments, but then, according to wikipedia, guitarist Del Casher “suggested to Joe Banaron [head of the Thomas Organ Company] that this was a guitar effects pedal rather than a wind instrument effects pedal.” Apparently Casher also mentioned the sound McCoy had achieved in “Sugar Blues,” and Banaron “decided to market the wah-wah pedal using Clyde McCoy’s name for endorsement.”

Bottom of original Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal

Weathered Clyde McCoy pedal showing his image

Original models thus came with his picture on the bottom, as shown above, and then merely his signature. Shortly thereafter the name of the pedal was changed to Crybaby, and you can listen to a great 1967 demonstration record – featuring Del Casher – playing one below. The narration starts at the 30-second point, and is worth waiting for.

Apparently this was not the first time such a sound had been concocted, however. As the same article points out, “Country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins had used a similar, self-designed device on his late 1950’s recordings of ‘Hot Toddy’ and ‘Slinkey.'” Still, the pedal’s release was the first time it had been commercially available, and it quickly made its mark, with users such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream-era Eric Clapton famously adopting it. Here is Hendrix going to town with one (and check out that percussion):

In a 2008 New York Times Arts Beat piece, it was reported that a Rob Jennings had bought a wah wah pedal Jimi Hendrix was supposed to have used at auction for $15,500. “My Morning Jacket wants to borrow it,” the piece said, “and word has been spreading among the other musicians–so many that Mr. Jennings is floating the idea of making a benefit album around the pedal sometime.” Somehow I bet that never got made.

To conclude, I thought I would return to the theme of Scots-Irish clan hostilities, as apparently that spirit lives on in places, as evidenced by this recent comment I came across in researching the Hatfields and the McCoys:

“My dad’s side of the family are Scots … from the hills of South Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia, and he and our neighbor have an ongoing feud over the possession of a small boulder/river rock by our property line. The neighbor says that rock is his, my Dad says different. After crossing the property line a few times, that rock is now sitting in our garage, and I now keep my head down when in front of the windows.”

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§ 3 Responses to Clyde McCoy, Wah-Wah Pedals and Feuding

  • Lyle E. says:

    Loved this post. It combines wah pedals, vikings, and history. All of which are among my favorite things.

    • hungrycalico says:

      Thanks very much. Glad you came across the blog – you sound like the perfect reader for these sorts of journeys…

  • Monty Howard says:

    Amazing bit of history here! Who would have guessed, from the Hatfield McCoy feud to Jimmy Hendrix. What a delightful journey!

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