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The Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships 1981-1990:

Carson J. Robison: Kansan and Music Pioneer

by Gloria Throne

Carson J. Robison 1890-1959
Carson J. Robison 1890-1959
With over 300 copyrighted songs, European tours, recording, and script-writing and performance for network radio to his credit, Carson J. Robison deserves much more than the mere mention the histories of country music give him. Robison was born in Oswego, KS in 1890. His family soon moved to nearby Chetopa. His father was a cowboy and a stock buyer. His mother played the melodeon, and his father and uncles played fiddle at square dances and social gatherings. By the time Robison was 15, he was earning money playing music.

My interest in Carson Robison began in 1979. I was living in Washington, DC and frequently attended the open-mic night at the now-defunct Red Fox Inn. Eddie Nesbitt, country music historian and singer/songwriter, was a regular at these Monday night sessions. Nesbitt learned I was from Kansas and began to include Robison songs in his song selections for the evening.

Since that time, I have had in mind to devote some time to poking around in southeast Kansas to see what I could find out about this incredible writer of songs like “Way Out West in Kansas," "Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie," and “Life Gits Tee-jus, Don't It?"

This July I went to Baxter Springs, Oswego and Chetopa and wound up sitting in the living room of 87 year-old W.A. O'Connell, who “knows everything about the history down here." O'Connell happened to know that Robison's son, Bob, had moved back to the area. He called him right up and our first interview was set up for 7 a.m. July 14. I asked Bob about the tours his dad did in Europe:

Well he was over there three times. He performed in England, Wales, Scotland, I think that's probably about it; but he did a command performance for the king and queen. I'll tell ya one story about him that's a knock-out. Everybody, you know, you mention royalty, somebody important, and oh, everybody gets nervous! My dad wasn't that way. He always said whether it was a president or a bum, we all put our pants on one leg at a time. “He's no better than I am!"  They were over there and I don't know if it was a command performance for the king and queen or what it was. All of a sudden, they were in the dressing room in the back and the stage manager or somebody came running in and said, “My God, they're comin’ back here. They’re comin’ to the dressing room!”

Everybody got excited, you know, flying around there, and it didn't phase Dad in the least. They walked in with the king and queen and the whole entourage.
The queen was a very gracious lady, and the king, he was kind of a stuffed shirt; but she walked right up to my father and, of course, the British accent that my father could imitate so good, “We just loved your delightful music!" and so on and so forth. He said, “I'm sure glad you liked it.” And she said, “But I particularly like your costumes, particularly your footwear.” And he said, “Oh, you liked the cowboy boots, huh?” She said, “Yes, I do. They're lovely!”

 Well, of course, Dad had all the outfits bought for the group and of course there was Pearl Mitchell, the girl in the group. My father asked the queen,
“Would you like to have a pair? Would you like to have a pair of boots like that for your own?” She says, “Well, I certainly would!” And he asked her, “What size shoe do you wear?" And everybody went, “AAAHHHH!”  You know terrible faux pas!

And she kinda looked at him with a twinkle in her eye and told him what size. He went over and picked up a pair of boots and asked her, “Do you like them!” She said, “I think they're magnificent!” Dad said, “I'll give them to you on one condition--as a gift from me to you. You take one boot by the strap in each hand like this (he stretched out his arms) and walk out through the lobby with 'em. She looked at him and grinned. “And I’ll do it!” she said. The king said, “You can't.”  She said, "I can, and I will!" And she did.

During Robison's first trip to Europe in 1932 he was featured or mentioned in numerous magazine and newspaper articles which referred to him as “a Westerner and a natural musician who can only read music in the tonic sol fa, the High Priest of this (hillbilly) type of music, the song king from Kansas" and many such colorful epitaphs. One reporter for the Evening News in London said if it were possible he would take room 66 at the Savoy Hotel, "for next door this genius and his three companions ooze the music of the West, the rich velvety dialect, and the gorgeous tunes which come right down the traditional years from the cowboy, from the hobo, from the mountaineer."

The writer continues, “They can't help it they were born on ranges. The songs they sing they've known from childhood, and the rest Carson has written himself. This man has sold in America twenty million records of these wonderful tunes, resurrected from the past, rescued from anywhere but all authentic.”

In 1938, when Bob Robison was 7 years old, he went along on his dad's third trip to Europe. He remembers the luxury of the Normandy and his own debut singing on the ocean liner with Robison's Pioneers. Back home in New York City, they had an apartment, but their haven was the 137-acre farm Carson had bought in Pleasant Valley. At one time they had four horses, 25 Brahma chickens and three pigs. I asked Bob if he remembered anything about his dad writing any of the hundreds of songs he wrote:

I remember the day he wrote "Life Gits Tee-jus, Don't It?" In 1947 I was 15 years old. Fifteen-year-old boys don't like mowin' the yard. They'd rather be out playin' ball or ridin' bicycle, and it was up there in Pleasant Valley on the farm.

And he had chewed me out because I had been shirkin' my duties. He said, “You get out there and you get busy with that yard!” We had five and a half acres of lawn. Now you know why I had shirked my duties!

I was mowin' pretty good--this pretty good-sized big, flat yard, and he was workin' on a terrace area, a picnic area, and he was setting' brick--gettin' it all level laid out--and afterwards he would sprinkle grass seed on it.

I'm watchin' him--makin' sure he's not lookin' at me; I noticed one time he was on his knees--hands and knees. I could see him talkin' to himself--he did that all the time--and pretty soon I'd see his shoulders shakin'. He'd get to laughin', and he'd lay his tools down, and he'd get up and walk in the office. And he'd be in a couple, a few minutes and come back out, and he'd get back to work.

Same thing would happen. This must have gone on two, three, four times: he got up and left and went in the office. Finally, he just laid everything down and went back in the office and closed the door, and we never saw him again until about suppertime that night. And he came out and he says (of course, we knew he had somethin' cooking). He says, “Well, I got a song for you.” He sat down there at the table with a guitar and he did “Life Gits Tee-jus, Don't It?” I’ll tell you what. We knew right away it had to be a hit. It had to be.  He got his ideas just from practical things.

Carson Robison's sense of the practical guided by his acute sense of what would appeal to listeners enabled him to become one of commercial music's most successful songwriters of all times. From his first song written for church choir when he was 12 to his hit rockabilly song, “Rockin'n Rollin with Grandpa” published the year of his death (1959), he demonstrated an amazing ability to reach a wide and varied audience.

The vocabulary of his songs- yearnin', mockin' bird, regret, silver moon, land that I love, a mother's tear-dimmed eye- tugged at the hearts and souls of his listeners who had left the loves of their lives to survive economically.

His topical songs, ranging in focus from WWII to Hitler and the John T Scopes trial, appealed to the politically aware, popular audience; and certainly the quaintness and charm of cowboys and hillbillies appealed to the royalty and common man of Europe as well as to the rural folks in America.

His 1949 verse from “More 'n More Tee-jus, Ain't It?” has a relevance to us here in 1990:

Some guy tears thru' life like a blizzard,
And folks point him out and say "he's a wizard"
Then he's dead at forty with a burned-out gizzard,
And I'Il be ninety-one, come April.
Can't help but smile at some of these guys,
Who git so big in the public's eyes,
Then six feet of earth make us all one size,
Nope, you can't take it with yuh.
Footnote: The author wishes to thank the following for their assistance in compiling information for this article: Phyllis Abbot of the Baxter Springs Historical Museum, the Chetopa Historical Museum, the Oswego Historical Museum, W.A. O’connell and Bob Robison.

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