Log Cabin Music

By Wayne Erbsen

Now and then I write a column called “Log Cabin Music” for several bluegrass music magazines. I don’t call it that fer nuthin’. In fact, my wife Barbara and I own two log cabins. The one that sits next to our primary residence in Asheville, North Carolina, is home to our business, “Log Cabin Cooking & Music.” In the retro kitchen of this 1940s cabin, Barbara teaches workshops in old-timey Appalachian cooking on our 1928 Home Comfort wood cookstove. In some of the classes she uses our rock fireplace to teach hearth cooking skills.

The large and rustic living room of this log cabin is where I hold my bluegrass music classes. Of course, a log cabin makes the ideal setting to teach classes in old-time and bluegrass music. I joke with my students that they only have to breathe deeply inside the cabin and they’ll soon be able to play any old-time or bluegrass song they want. In the photo you can see my student band, which is called the Log Cabin Band. (What else?) This past fall I took this group of intermediate students busking out on the streets of downtown Asheville. We actually made over $100 in tips, which went into a fund for a youth scholarship so a young person could get a jump start in learning the banjo, fiddle, or mandolin.

Our other log cabin is a rustic and totally authentic 1880’s handhewn log cabin made of huge poplar logs. This cabin is located in a secluded hollow in a remote and mountainous part of Madison county about an hour northwest of Asheville, North Carolina. The cabin is totally off the grid, so we rely on kerosene lanterns and candles to light our way. As you can see, it has a great front porch with killer views of the surrounding mountains.

For almost a hundred years, this porch has witnessed some great old-time music. In the 1930s Effie Worley and her brother Dewey often sat on that porch and played and sang songs by the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers, to name just a few. The photo of Effie and Dewey Price was taken as they performed on WWNC radio in the early ’40s.

Recently, the old log front steps started to deteriorate. Last November I replaced one of the bottom steps with one huge rock, which I managed to move about 250 yards using only a come-along and brute strength. Not able to find any more rocks of that size, I decided to hew out new steps from a gigantic red oak tree that the wind brought down in the back yard of our home in Asheville. It’s been quite an adventure to use a broad axe and chain saw to rough out the logs to make the steps.

First I cut the log to length and then, using wedges, managed to split the logs in half. By the way, this is the technique that was used to make what were called “puncheon floors.” It meant that after splitting the logs, you turn the flat side up, to make a flat but rough surface for your floor. There’s actually an old-time tune called Puncheon Floor that I recorded on my album, Log Cabin Songs.

After splitting the logs lengthwise, I plan to trim off the round side using both a chain saw and a large hewing axe. To get in the mood for hewing the logs flat, I started to sing the old song Little Log Cabin in the Lane, that was written in 1870 by William S. Hayes. His considerable songwriting skills got him thrown in jail during the Civil War after he wrote a “seditious” song critical of President Lincoln. Hayes’ more benign compositions included well-known songs like Jimmy Brown the Paper Boy, Molly Darling, and I’ll Remember You in My Prayers. I had the pleasure of recording Little Log Cabin in the Lane on my Log Cabin Songs CD. You can find more history and the musical notation to Little Log Cabin in the Lane in my book Log Cabin Pioneers.

Little Log Cabin in the Lane

Oh, I’m getting old and feeble and I cannot work no more,
My rusted bladed hoe I’ve laid to rest,
And my mama and my papa they are sleeping side by side,
While their spirits now are roaming with the blessed.

Oh the chimney’s falling down, and the roof is cavin’ in,
Letting in the sunshine and the rain,
And the only friend I have left is this little old dog of mine,
In that little old log cabin in the lane.

Oh the happiest times to me was not many years ago,
My friends all used to gather ‘round the door,
They would sing and dance at night while I played that old banjo,
But alas, I cannot play it any more. (Chorus)

Well, the paths they have growed up that led us ‘round the hill;
The fences have all gone to decay,
The creeks they have dried up where we used to go to mill;
Things have changed their course another way. (Chorus)

Well, I ain’t got long to stay here, what little time I’ve got,
I’ll try to rest content while I remain,
Until death shall call my dog and me to find another home
Than the little old log cabin in the lane. (Chorus)