Eefing (sometimes spelled eeefin' or eephin', among other variations) is a jarringly weird hillbilly vocal tradition that traces its birth back to at least the 19th century. Sometimes described as sounding like a wheezily rhythmic asthma attack, eefin' afforded those without musical talent or instruments the opportunity to hop on stage and be part of the entertainment. It's pretty hard to convey the essence of eefin' with mere words, however, so by all means go ahead and watch the short video clip up above if you haven't already done so. In the clip, from 1971, Jackie Phelphs (left) hambones while Jimmie Riddle eefs. In addition to being superb at hamboning, Phelps was an accomplished guitarist. Riddle's resume included a long stint playing harmonica (as well as the accordion and piano) in Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys.
Long ago, before I even knew what eefing was, I caught the Dave & Deke Combo in action at the Star Bar here in Atlanta. In the midst of the show, with no introduction or explanation, Deke Dickerson started eefing with what I can only describe as full-throttled and wide-eyed intensity. I was thunderstruck by the absurdity and kookiness of the situation and Deke's total willingness to perform, with a straight face, this odd vocal stunt that made him sound.....well, deranged. I literally could not stop laughing. Later, I found out that I'd just seen eefin' for the first time. Yeah, up to that point, I'd led a pretty sheltered life, I guess.
Later still, upon learning that there existed actual eefin' records, I set out to track them down. Here are the fruits of my "labor."
Harmonica Frank - Swamp Root (2:33) This 1951 disc by Harmonica Frank Floyd is the first eefin' record that I'm aware of, though there are almost certainly earlier examples. Recorded by Sam Phillips in Memphis the year before Sun Records was officially launched, this track was leased to Chess Records. Floyd, a "modern day hobo" as Phillips once referred to him, was an itinerant musician with a medicine show background who made records that combined blues and country influences.
Jimmie Riddle Gives An Eefin' Lesson (1:06) This fantastic 1981 audio clip comes to us courtesy of Alan Ross, at the time a copywriter for the Nashville ad agency that hired Riddle to do radio voice work for a sausage commercial. Before the end of the session Ross politely informed Riddle that there was no way he was getting out of there without giving the crowd an eefin' lesson. Riddle obliged and here is the result, where we learn that he was taught how to eef as a young child by his Uncle Ralph, who called it hoodlin'.
Jimmie Riddle - Wildwood Eeeph (1:33) Jimmie Riddle probably did more to popularize eefin' than the rest of humanity combined. For several years he eefed with great regularity on Hee Haw along with the hamboning Jackie Phelps. That's them in the video clips above. Riddle was born in 1918 in Dyersburg, Tennessee though his family relocated to Memphis a month or so later, where he spent all his early years.
Jimmie Riddle - Yakety Eeeph (1:41) This late 1968 release, available only as a 45, features Jimmie Riddle at the top of his game. Despite Riddle's amazing performance, the record went nowhere. Several months later, in the summer of 1969, Hee Haw hit the television airwaves giving Riddle the opportunity to eef for a vast audience on a weekly basis.
Above: Joe Perkins appears on the Nashville TV program Night Train to perform Little Eeefin Annie.
Joe Perkins - Little Eefin Annie (2:06) With a title like Little Eefin Annie, it's impossible to go wrong. This song, in fact, represents eefin's only Billboard-certified chart appearance, making it to #76 on the Pop chart in 1963. The eefin' on this record was done not by Joe Perkins (who handled the lead vocal chores), but by the king of eefer madness himself, Jimmie Riddle. Believe it or not, sheet music for this tune (complete with transcribed eefs!) was available for purchase when this record was released. See below.
Joe Perkins - Uncle Eef (2:53) Joe Perkins' story is a despairingly sad tale. While doing construction work for famed Nashville bassist Bob Moore (yes, that's the father of R. Stevie Moore) at Moore's home in nearby Madison, Perkins managed to convince Moore to give him an opportunity as a singer. As a co-owner of Monument Records, Moore was easily able to set up a recording session for the aspiring singer. Moore, with the help of Johnny MacRae penned both sides of Perkins' debut 45. Sadly, Perkins died before realizing his full potential as a singer. His death, still shrouded in mystery, was the result of drowning in the Cumberland River, a tragedy made more bizarre by the fact that the song Uncle Eef referred to a death on the banks of the Cumberland River.
Goodlettsville 5 - Eef (1:46)
Ardells - Eefananny (1:53) This tune was written by Jerry Reed and if I'm not mistaken, that's him singing as well.
Chipmunks - Eefin' Alvin (1:50)
The Billy Hutch tracks below came from the Eefin-Nanny Down Home LP pictured nearby. Unfortunately, only a handful of the album's tracks contain actual eefin' calls and the rest are merely undistinguished instrumentals.
Billy Hutch - Ida Red (1:57)
Billy Hutch - Red Wing (1:50)
Holy Modal Rounders - Livin' Off The Land (2:16) This tune, from the Holy Modal Rounders' 1971 LP Good Taste Is Timeless, features the eefin' efforts of Jimmie Riddle's son Steven, a Nashville drummer who learned at the feet of the master.
Above: The apex of surrealism? Mac Davis tries to give eefin' lessons to some Muppets.
If there's one individual who strives to keep alive the Jimmie Riddle eefin' ethic, it's Deke Dickerson, a Southern Californian whose musical interests cover country, surf, rockabilly, garage, hillbilly, western swing, jazz, and rhythm and blues among other genres. He frequently incorporates eefin' into his live shows and has also been known, every now and then, to press the "record" button while eefin' in the studio.
His scholarship and dedication to the subject led to his being interviewed by NPR when they were doing a story on the subject of eefin' back in 2006.
Deke Dickerson - Eefin' Rock (2:10)
Deke Dickerson - Muleskinner Blues (3:11) Deke attempts to explain eefin' to a live audience in Finland.
As Deke and others have pointed out, there seems to be a strong connection between the otherworldly sounds made by hillbilly eefers and the practitioners of the art of human beatboxing. Perhaps Wayno put it best when he wrote that this connection might just represent "a neat switch on the typical appropriation of black styles by white artists."
Wm. Alan Ross - Rappin' Eef (2:19) And speaking of the eefin' / rap / beatbox connection, here are a couple of tracks that bring those worlds together. Though this CD was released under the name Wm. Alan Ross, this is the same individual who talked Jimmie Riddle into giving the room an eefin' lesson at a radio commercial recording session back in 1981. This track comes from his Poet Warrior CD, available here.
Evolution Control Committee - Hillbilly Beatboxin' (4:38) The Evolution Control Committee is an experimental music band based in San Francisco. They've been creating mash-ups and assembling various cut-and-paste sound collages since 1986. Hillbilly Beatboxin' is a selection from their forthcoming All Rights Reserved album, which should be out later this year. Their website can be found here.
The Olde Lamplighter - I'm Movin' On (:33) The Olde Lamplighter is, I think, virtually unknown outside of the Norwood Inn, located in North Hills, California, where he recorded this disc. Now in his late 80s, The Olde Lamplighter is an irate WW II veteran who resides in a rest home in Canoga Park and despises hippies and un-American activities, which makes him OK in my book.
His entire recorded output consists of one CD, a country karaoke masterpiece called The Olde Lamplighter Live At The Norwood Inn, which is where I found these two examples of eefing. If you're like most people, the thought of a country karaoke CD probably isn't very appealing, but the Olde Lamplighter has a knack for brilliantly and subversively rewriting the lyrics of old country favorites and his album is something that any Homer & Jethro fan would probably enjoy. For some reason, the only place his disc seems to be available is on the merchandise page over at Deke Dickerson's website. My speculation is that Deke distributes The Olde Lamplighter's CD out of some sort of weird eefin' professional courtesy.
Above: Bob Luman sings Guitar Man with harmonica accompaniment from Jimmie Riddle. Riddle briefly eefs to the roaring approval of the crowd at approximately 1:25 into the clip.