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About Hoyt Ming & His Pep-Steppers

The roots of this classic American old-time music band are traced back to a fellow named James Menge, who settled in James City County, VA, in 1650. This family spread to North and South Carolina by the next century, and somewhere along the line, somebody got the idea to change the family's name to Ming. A Charles Ming settled in Mississippi in the 1840s. Charles Ming's son, Clough, went to live in Choctaw County, where he gave birth to Hoyt Ming on October 6, 1902.

More than half the kids in this family learned instruments. Hoyt Ming was inspired to pick up a fiddle at 15 after his father invited a string band over for a house party. He picked up the instrument by ear with simple tunes such as "Shortnin' Bread." The Ming Family Band started playing at parties with their classic lineup of fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Early in 1928, a Victor talent scout, Ralph Peer, showed up in Tupelo to audition local musicians, which Hoyt found out about while ogling the Victrolas at a local drug store. At this time, Hoyt was playing mostly with his wife, Rozelle, and sister-in-law. When the latter gal was not available for the audition, brother Troy filled in on mandolin, charming Peer enough to warrant a trip up to Memphis where he had a recording studio. One of the results of this was a record that may not have changed the history of music, but is memorable nonetheless: "Indian War Whoop." This, in combination with the family's name, has led listeners to believe they were an Indian group, expanding the Ming's mythical international base. Fans of old-time music point to this recording as a great example of hollering as well as real old-time fiddling, as Hoyt shouts along with the high notes at the end of phrases. Apparently, this style of shouting or inserting Indian-style war whoops in the body of a fiddle performance was something a variety of old-time fiddlers would do, although each player had their own trademark whoops.

Another aspect of the band that producer Peer apparently liked very much was Rozelle's foot tapping, and he would instruct her to stomp her foot as loudly as possible when they were recording, a huge departure from the standard practice of muffling musicians' feet, or forcing them to remove their shoes for the duration of a recording session. Rozelle herself hated the sound of her feet on the records, but it is actually the source of the band's name, as everyone agreed that it sounded like stepping and was peppy to boot. Rozelle's objections didn't bother Peer, who liked to take charge of everything. He decided to change the names of their songs, and Hoyt himself wound up as Floyd Ming on the record label. Ironically, one of Peer's changes had far-reaching consequences. He took the song "Florida Blues" and changed the locale to his own town, so that it came out as "Tupelo Blues." It really didn't mean much to Peer, but it would mean a lot to the group decades later.

Work at that time for this group consisted of events such as fairs, picnics, fiddle contests, political rallies, and the occasional dance. Family duties made it difficult for the group to continue professionally, but they remained prominent in the regional music scene through the '30s. Hoyt Ming's full-time profession was potato farming, an undertaking that he and Rozelle prospered at through hard work; they have recalled a day when they counted and bunched 30,000 plants. As the years went on, they played less and less. By 1957, Hoyt's fiddle was in rough shape and the couple considered music a thing of the past. Over the next two decades, the only Ming recording available was the good old "Indian War Whoop," reissued on a Folkways anthology, part of a miniscule amount of existing documentation on the entire Mississippi old-time music scene. County records producer David Freeman became interested in tracing the Mings in 1972, using the title of the song "Tupelo Blues" as a starting point. This led to their rediscovery, and if producer Peer had left the song title alone, Freeman and his cronies would no doubt still be searching for traces of the Pep Steppers somewhere in the Panhandle state.

Right around the same time, Hoyt was rummaging through some of his belongings and pulled out an old photograph of the Pep Steppers. When a letter came from Freeman a few days later inquiring about the band and their old recordings, Hoyt saw it as some kind of sign, occurring exactly 15 years from his retirement from fiddling and 45 years from the original recording session. Freeman went to visit the Mings that summer, accompanied by musicologists Richard Nevins and Gus Meade. They found the elderly couple in fine fettle and promptly got them booked at the 1973 National Folk Festival. They cut a new album for Homestead at that time with their son, Hoyt Ming Jr., on guitar. In 1974, they were the Mississippi performers in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and also played at the Mississippi Folk Voices concert in Jackson. Hollywood even briefly opened its gates to the Mings shortly thereafter, with an appearance in the largely forgotten film Ode to Billie Joe.

The Mings appreciated the chance to have a second music career late in their lives, and kept a band going with a series of younger pickers contributing their time and zest. The couple's own advancing years eventually dictated Hoyt and Rozelle Ming, putting aside their fiddle and mandolin for good. ~ Eugene Chadbourne