Final Notes, Lee Stripling

Lee Edwin Stripling died in Seattle on April 20, 2009, after a brief battle with cancer. He was 87 years old.

Lee grew up in Kennedy, Alabama, and was the second son of legendary fiddler Charlie Stripling, who recorded over 40 tunes in the late 1920s and early 1930s with his brother Ira on guitar as the Stripling Brothers. “Kennedy Rag,” “The Lost Child,” “The Big Footed Man In The Sandy Lot,” “California Blues,” and “Wolves Howling” all come from Charlie. When Lee was eight years old, he and his older brother Robert became Charlie’s principal accompanists at fiddle contests, dances, concerts, and pass-the-hat barbeque gigs. Charlie was a cotton sharecropper at this time, having lost everything as the Depression was starting, and the small amounts of hard cash from music were vital to supporting the family.

At age 17, after nine years backing up Charlie on mandolin, Lee joined the CCC and promptly started his own band, Lee Stripling and his CCC Ramblers, turning away from his dad’s tunes to focus on his new love: Western swing music. He went directly from the CCC into the service at the start of WWII and was stationed in the Northwest, where he continued to form bands and play for dances in his off hours.

After the war, he married Lucille, a Northwest gal, settled in Seattle and all but quit playing music. In the mid 1980s, after retiring from his day job, he gradually began playing with the local old-time community and, in 1999, started playing out professionally again with several groups of middle-aged youths accompanying him. He recorded four CDs (the last to be released soon by Swing Cat Records), played numerous dances, concerts, and clubs, taught twice at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, performed at MerleFest, the Portland Old Time Gathering, and the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, and toured in Alabama three times. With Robert, he was featured on the cover of the Old-Time Herald in the summer of 2001, and a documentary film about his life, Winging My Way Back Home—The Stripling Fiddle Legacy, is in the works. Lee played at least four fiddle tunes in his hospital bed the day before he died, and two weeks earlier played an afternoon gig before joining in at our local bar jam session later that evening.

We all revered him as a fiddler and singer with great tone, pulse, and heart, not to mention his fine guitar and mandolin accompaniment. He eagerly shared his vast and broad repertoire, which included his dad’s tunes, Western swing songs, early pop songs, swing music from the 1940s, gospel quartets, and a number of tunes he learned more recently from younger fiddlers. But the main thing we’re saying to each other now is that Lee was a true gentleman, an infinitely generous human who encouraged and inspired everyone around him. In party sessions, he would so politely ask everyone in the circle to start a tune, and was especially excited to get the youngest children joining in. He remembered everyone’s name and favorite tune, and always had something nice to say, or a corny old joke, and a twinkle-eyed smile. He epitomized growing old gracefully.

In addition to Robert and sisters Elsie Mordecai, Christine Johnson, Sarah Jo Duke, Rubye Ball, and Jean Gaston, and his large network of friends, Lee is survived by his two daughters, Carol and Sherry Stripling, who also became part of our music community over the last decade. They can receive mail at Lee’s address: 810 NW 107th St., Seattle, WA 98177. In lieu of flowers, Lee’s daughters ask that donations be made to the Lee Stripling Young Fiddlers’ Scholarship, which will provide tuition and room and board at Centrum’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes . A wealth of information about Lee can be found at his website, www.leestripling.com.

Here’s to you, Lee Stripling.

WB Reid


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