Bluegrass fiddle tends to get lumped in with what's called "mountain music." So it's funny that one of the most recognizable fiddle tunes of all time, "Orange Blossom Special," actually has its roots in the lowlands of Eastern North Carolina. Ervin T. Rouse, who wrote the song in 1938, was born in Craven County and lived most of his life in Florida. But that's not terribly uncommon.
"In the mid-'80s, I was doing fieldwork and found that some of the richest counties for fiddle music were actually in Eastern North Carolina," says Wayne Martin of the N.C. Arts Council. "But people have focused on the mountain traditions for the past 100 years, and it has become so firmly associated with that. Down in Eastern North Carolina, people who play this music and have hardly ever left their whole lives, even they call it 'mountain music' because it's been branded that way."
For more on the oft-covered "Orange Blossom Special" and Rouse's sad and fascinating life, see the story below from Sunday's paper.
"Special" writer gets the credit: Craven County native penned a bluegrass classic about a train
By David Menconi, News & Observer
June 22, 2008
Unless you're a true fiddle-music aficionado, you've probably never heard of Ervin T. Rouse. If you've gone to a bluegrass concert in the last five decades, however, it's a virtual certainty you've heard the Craven County native's most famous composition, "Orange Blossom Special," the 1938 fiddle tune about a legendary passenger train.
Look a-yonder comin',
Comin' down that railroad track.
It's the Orange Blossom Special,
Bringin' my baby back…
"Orange Blossom Special" has been recorded hundreds of times, most famously by Johnny Cash. Its showy double-time riff, which mimics the rhythm of a train hurtling down the track, has been a live-performance staple for every bluegrass fiddler who ever rosined up a bow.
But Rouse, who died in 1981, remains an obscure figure in part because he has never received full credit for his best-known song. Some of that obscurity will dissipate Saturday with the dedication of a state historical marker in Rouse's honor.
Standing at the corner of N.C. 55 and Wintergreen Road in Craven County, the marker identifies Rouse as sole composer of "Orange Blossom Special." That has been a matter of some dispute over the years, but the facts seem to back Rouse as the writer.
Were he still alive, Rouse would probably take this in stride, with little more than a shrug and a smile. People who knew him say he was just that kind of guy.
"He may have written a song everybody on Earth had heard, but he felt like 'Orange Blossom Special' belonged to everyone and he said so," says Joe Wilson, manager of the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Va. "The recordings Ervin made with his brothers didn't have a lot of distribution, but they just killed other musicians who heard them."
He put on a show
Ervin Rouse was born in 1917 on a Craven County farm a quarter-mile from where his marker stands. His family was large and musical, and Ervin took to music at a young age, leaving home as a child to play in vaudeville shows.
By his teenage years, Rouse was a renowned trick fiddler who traveled all over the Southeast, performing everywhere from theaters to street corners. Whatever the venue, Rouse put on a show.
"Ervin was a gifted, talented man," says David Paramore of Kinston, who played with Rouse in the early 1940s. "He could do classical if he wanted, not just bluegrass. But he catered to fiddle-type music."
Paramore recalled that Rouse would stick the bow between his legs and play the fiddle behind his back -- tricks like that. During the war, servicemen would gather around when he laid an old hat on the ground and took requests.
"Whatever they wanted to hear, he could play," Paramore said. "They'd pack that hat full of money every time."
Rouse was living in Florida by his 20s, but he spent most of his time on the road, living the life of the itinerant musician. His travels frequently brought him back to North Carolina.
"He'd go back to Florida and stay a while, then come back up here," says Shady Clark of Belvoir, one of his many playing partners. "The last time I ever saw Ervin was July 1957. He had a little ol' camper trailer he'd pull behind a car, and I let him park at my house for about two weeks. He and I fiddled around before he said it was time to move on and go back to Florida. So he did, playing all the way."
The train came rolling
It was in Florida that Rouse's destiny rolled in on two shiny rails. The Orange Blossom Special was a high-end passenger train that operated between New York City to Miami, at a time when trains were the choicest way to travel the country.
In 1938, the story goes, Rouse and a fiddler pal named Chubby Wise took a tour of the train when it came through Jacksonville, Fla., on a publicity tour. They then went to Wise's house and wrote "Orange Blossom Special" during an all-night picking session. Wise let Rouse have credit, which is why the song's copyright is registered to Rouse only.
That's been the "official" version for years, repeated in most of the history books (and the song's Wikipedia entry). Then about 10 years ago, a Florida writer named Randy Noles was researching a magazine article about "Orange Blossom Special." He called Rouse's widow and mentioned Wise co-writing the song.
"She about had a fit," Noles remembers. "'I'm so sick of hearing that,' she said. 'It's so untrue and it's in all the books, so everybody thinks that's what happened. Ervin never got the credit for how it really happened.' She was quite agitated, and she'd not been married to Ervin since 1955."
Intrigued, Noles did some detective work. He discovered that the facts do not support the oft-told legend, which Wise, who died in 1996, told for years.
But Noles' meticulously researched new book "Fiddler's Curse" (Centerstream Books, $14.95) leaves little doubt about Rouse being the sole author of "Orange Blossom Special." Rouse had registered the song's copyright before the 1938 train-tour date in Jacksonville, which is when Wise claimed they co-wrote it. Also, the song was based on an earlier Rouse composition, "South Florida Blues," to which he added lyrics and some flashy riffs.
"The mystery of who wrote it was not hard to solve because the copyright date is clear," says Noles. "Not as many people believe the Chubby Wise version as once did. But everywhere I go to give a talk, somebody comes up afterward to say, 'I knew Chubby, he told me that story and I just don't think he'd lie.' Chubby told that story so many times, he probably believed it was true toward the end of his life."
That song paid off
One reason for the confusion over authorship was the vastly different career tracks Rouse and Wise traveled. While he was never a bluegrass icon on a par with Ralph Stanley, Wise was a festival-circuit favorite who had a solid journeyman career.
Wise got a lot of mileage from his claim to "Orange Blossom Special," which Rouse never went out of his way to correct in public. Rouse was probably content with the money he made from the song, which was substantial.
Johnny Cash's version of "Orange Blossom Special" crossed over to the pop charts in 1965, reaching No. 80. The song also appears on "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison," an album that has sold 3 million copies since 1968; and on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 million-selling album, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
Jazzman Billy Vaughn, rock band Flying Burrito Brothers and the fusion group Seatrain are just a few of the acts that have put the song on charting albums over the years.
But even though he had a steady income stream from "Orange Blossom Special," Rouse chose to live like a hobo. He passed his later years in a shack in the Florida swamps, still playing for tips in roadhouses doing the same tricks and tunes he'd done his whole life.
"I have no idea why he'd live like he did," says Preston Rouse, his second cousin. "Marty Stuart tells a story about Ervin pulling out a royalty check for $25,000 that he'd never cashed. Evidently he did not need the money. He just didn't have something, the thing you would need to take advantage of this song."
Rouse was an almost-forgotten footnote by the time he died following years of failing health. In the picture accompanying his 1981 newspaper obituary, he looked decades older than his 64 years.
Noles says Rouse was mentally ill, an alcoholic and in poor health, and was not someone who stood up for himself.
"He was so obscure and avoided people beyond his circle of friends in the Everglades," Noles says, "even if he'd said he was the guy who wrote 'Orange Blossom Special' who would've believed him?
"He just seemed like a crazy old man, and he was. But he did write 'Orange Blossom Special.'"