Updated: August 18, 2011
Sam Moore's 1921 "Laughing Rag" (Victor 18849) is one of those records that astonishes:
a blending of Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences unlike anything recorded
to that point. But his guitar work was only a part of the picture. Moore also championed unconventional instruments ranging from the sublime to the intentionally ridiculous, and
for a time he made even jaded New Yorkers sit up and listen.
Sam Moore with his family
(left panel, far right), and with
The Moores had already established
a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in
Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore,
was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor.
Music, however, was only an avocation for the Moores, who owned a
Sam Moore on Stage
In 1919, Moore left Georgia to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The happy result was a two-year run with Ziegfeld's Follies (1920 - 1921). For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the Musical Courier for Enrico Caruso and other Metropolitan Opera luminaries. "Those eminent artists," a New York paper reported, "were so delighted by Mr. Moore's playing on a carpenter's hand saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play."
There followed many years as a headliner on the Keith
and Orpheum vaudeville circuits. The Columbus (Georgia) Ledger
for April 9, 1924, reported that "Among the most appreciative of
Sam Moore's audiences are the negroes who go north... [they] often talk
to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act 'go big'..."
and Freed in a pitch for Washburn instruments (April 4, 1924).
Rag" and the Octo-Chorda
Moore's greatest hit was undoubtedly his infectious
"Laughing Rag," which he recorded for three companies in 1921
as an octo-chorda solo. Although several accounts credited Moore with
the invention of the octo-chorda, a 1926 news article reported that
Moore's eight-string steel guitar was "the recent invention of
Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago. It is tuned on an entirely
different principle from other guitars.... At present, he says, he is
the only performer using such a guitar on the stage."
Moore's most successful recording of "Laughing Rag," musically as well as financially, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921. For this session Moore again brought along Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically. Victor inexplicably delayed release of the disc for six months, until February 1922, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor's version (18849) remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been reissued several times, the latest instance being RCA's 1998 "Classic Ragtime" CD. In the program notes to that CD, historian Richard Spottswood praises Moore's "aggressive mainland verve...which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver."
Seen Him Get Music out of a Pitchfork"
guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat
instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924
Moore's father told the Columbus Courier, "That boy can
music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I've seen him get music
out of a pitchfork." Moore didn't leave any known recordings on
the pitchfork, but by 1918 he was experimenting with the hand saw (which
had a long, if little-studied, tradition in Southern folk music), first
tapping it with a pencil but eventually perfecting a bowed technique.
1920s studio portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot
By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur's novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. A 1920s newspaper article reported that Moore's hand saw was "the same kind you see carpenters use every day.... The saw has to be pulled with great strength - measures show the pulling strength exerted to be 200 pounds - before the metal is in the exact condition, or tension, to give the marvelous results produced by Mr. Moore."
In the 1930s Moore switched to radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical "blackface" act called "Sambo & Mandy" for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.
Moore suffered from asthma,
and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There
he was featured in the cast of KFSO's "Country Store." He
died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.
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