The Story of George Booker
It is always interesting to encounter the title of a fiddle tune named for a real person rather than a title depicting some historical event or in honor of some exotic animal such as the possum or polecat or even a location such as "Natchez Under the Hill." Some of the titles that are quite familiar include such feminine appellations such as "Sally Goodin," "Sally Johnson," and "Sally Ann." Then there are some named for the masculine persuasion. One that comes to mind is entitled, "George Booker." The origin of this tune can be documented and apparently did involve a real person and is the focus of this discussion.
The tune, "George Booker," although rather obscure, nondescript, and not all that popular within the Texas fiddling tradition is still heard on occasion at jam sessions and was even recorded by Terry Morris. Carl Hopkins has played it on occasion as well as Smokey Butler. But the title alone seems to hold enough enigma and curiosity to justify further discussion.
Much of the information for this tale originates with Dr. J. B. Cranfill (1858-1942) from Parker County who was a very popular fiddler in the Dallas area, a medical doctor, and an important figure in the Baptist Church. He was also a newspaper writer who contributed a number of articles on Texas fiddling to Dallas and Houston newspapers during the 1920s. Also, his talent as a fiddler was such that he was one of the fiddlers in the 1929 recording session of "Eck" Robertson who played the second fiddle on "Big Taters in the Sandy Land" and "Run Boy Run." (Cranfill even wrote a detailed account of this session.)
Cranfill tells the story that a person by this name did actually exist. There was indeed, a George Booker and he was a fiddler from Nacogdoches. Unfortunately however, Booker was a convicted murderer and was in jail awaiting execution. The day before Booker was scheduled for execution he talked the sheriff into allowing him to perform for the last time at a dance with the sheriff as chaperone. Booker played and played well until about three o'clock in the morning whereupon he excused himself to the front porch for a breath of fresh air. That was the last that anyone had ever seen of him, vanished, gone without a trace. It is interesting to note however, that the last tune Booker played before disappearing was entitled, "Fine Times at Our House." This tune is now performed as, "George Booker."
One might question the authenticity of the above story. There are so many tales that go back even to Greek Mythology and relate to characters who have been in a predicament similar to that of Booker, have "played their way to freedom" and the Booker in this account is merely history repeating itself. On the other hand, the fact that a tune entitled, "George Booker," was published as early as 1839 by George P. Knauff in New York may provide this tale with a measure of credibility.
More importantly however that even though the tune may be a bit ordinary and nondescript, when good fiddlers such as Carl and Smokey attack the tune with their level of acumen and alacrity, makes it a real pleasure to hear it performed.