Jimmie Riddle and the Lost Art of Eephing

The eccentric Southern tradition of "eephing" is best described as the hillbilly equivalent of the hip-hop human "beat box" vocal style — a kind of hiccupping, rhythmic wheeze that started in rural Tennessee more than 100 years ago.

Jimmie Riddle photographed in 1978, about four years before his death.

hide captionJimmie Riddle photographed in 1978, about four years before his death.

Ron Newcomer/CountryWorks.com

Just like human beat-box artists of the 1980s rendered perfect imitations of drum machines with their mouths, the original eephers of the 1880s imitated the hogs and turkeys living in their backyards.

The odd music genre — variously spelled "eefing," "eeephing" or "eeefing" — appealed to a young Memphis producer named Sam Phillips, who recorded "Swamp Root" as one of his first singles. It didn't really catch on, but another of Phillips' offbeat performers — a fellow named Elvis Presley — would.

Eephing jumping into the spotlight again in 1963, when singer Joe Perkins had a minor hit with "Little Eeefin' Annie," featuring the vocal skills of Jimmie Riddle, the acknowledged master of the genre. The song's popularity catapulted both Perkins and eephing onto the Billboard charts, where the song peaked at number 76.

Eephing finally had its day in the sun when in 1969 CBS launched Hee Haw, a country response to NBC's Laugh-In, featuring Jimmie Riddle as part of an eephin' and hambonin' act.

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