Travis, Merle Robert (1917–1983). Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Folk musician known for his distinctive guitar style, folk- and country-music vocal
performances, and original compositions. Travis perfected and popularized the
Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, guitar-playing technique known as the “thumb style”
and, later, “Travis-picking,” in which the thumb and index finger play simultaneously a
song’s melody with rhythmic, harmonic, and bass accompaniment. Although the
paradigm of this mediod was introduced to the region in the 1920s by the African
American folk musician Arnold Shultz, Travis learned it from White coal miners, Mose
Rager and Ike Everly in particular. The technique was subsequently adopted by numerous
musicians, including the master guitarist Chet Atkins, becoming a prominent instrumental
element of the commercial country sound of the 1940s and 1950s.
Travis was also a folksinger, performing such pieces as “John Henry,” “I Am a
Pilgrim,” and “Nine Pound Hammer” throughout his career, and a composer who wrote
both folklike and popular country-western songs. Many of the tunes in Travis’ “folksong”
mode dramatized and celebrated the lives and work of coal miners in his native region
during the 1930s, some becoming popular nationally. “Dark as a Dungeon,” for example,
has been widely recorded, as has “Sixteen Tons,” which was a No. 1 hit forTennessee
Ernie Ford in 1955.
In the mid-1940s, Travis became a major figure in the Los Angeles country-music
scene, writing and recording several hit “honky tonk” songs in the Western Swing idiom,
among them “No Vacancy,” “SweetTemptation,” and “Divorce Me C.O.D.” Travis was
given a Pioneer of Country Music Award in 1974 and was inducted into the Songwriters
Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of fame in 1977.
William E.Light foot
Green, Archie. 1972. Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, pp. 279–367.
Humphrey, Mark. 1982–1984. Merle Travis Talking to Mark Humphrey. Old-TimeMusic 36:6–10,
37:20–24, 38:14–18, 39:22–25.
Travis, Merle. 1979. The Merle Travis Story. CMH Record 9018.
Wolfe, Charles K. 1982. Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky. Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, pp. 109–118.