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Ms. JENNIFER SHARPE (Writer): Until recently I had never heard of an eccentric Southern tradition called eephing.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's DAY TO DAY contributor Jennifer Sharpe. She's here to share a story about her latest obsession, the musical form eephing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHARPE: The article I read about eephing described it as a hillbilly equivalent to rap's human beat box phenomenon. A kind of hiccupping rhythmic wheeze that started in rural Tennessee over a hundred years ago.

(Soundbite of human beat box)

Ms. SHARPE: While the human beat box artists of the 1980s like Doug. E. Fresh rendered perfect imitations of drum machines using their mouths, the original eephers of the 1880s imitated the hogs and turkeys living in their backyard. Unable to imagine what this sounded like I looked it up online and found evidence of a parallel universe.

Mr. JIMMIE RIDDLE (Eephing Master): You start out with the letter E. You say E. That's an E and then you hhmmmph and then you kind of gasp. Huuuppp!

Ms. SHARPE: When I first heard this recording of eephing master Jimmie Riddle I was so impressed and repulsed that I immediately tracked down the author of the article I'd read, Deke Dickerson and asked if I could come listen to some of his eephing records. Indulging my curiosity he had me over to his Burbank bungalow and started me off with Swamp Root, eephed in 1951 by a former hobo named Harmonica Frank Floyd.

(Soundbite of song Swamp Root)

Ms. SHARPE: To the 1950s ear, this would have sounded retro, like something you'd have heard while waiting for a bottle of snake oil in a medicine show tent. It was there at the turn of the century that eephing first leapt off Tennessee's remote plantations and back porches and into the mouths of traveling performers, like Harmonica Frank.

(Soundbite of song Swamp Root)

Mr. FLOYD: She said I come from a hunting race.

Ms. SHARPE: In 1963 another down and out singer, Joe Perkins, turned to his friend, Nashville session player Bob Moore, for help. Moore sat down and wrote his friend a song about a girl with a speech impediment. Enlisting Roy Acuff's harmonica player, Jimmy Riddle, to play the part of the verbally challenged girl, the three of them went into the studio and recorded Little Eefin' Annie.

(Soundbite of the song Little Eefin' Annie)

Ms. SHARPE: The song's popularity catapulted both Perkins and eefing onto the billboard chart, where they briefly peaked at No. 76.

(Soundbite of the song Little Eefin Annie)

Ms. SHARPE: In the wake of songs that Little Eefin' Annie inspired, evidence of how deeply eefing drilled its way into the American psyche lay in the fact that even the Chipmunks recorded an eefing single. Sadly, Deke, my eefing guide, lost his copy of Eefin' Alvin, and in my search to find another, I got in touch with Eefin' Alvin himself, Buzz Cason, a now-legendary Nashville songwriter and producer.

Remarking on the single's scarcity, Cason told me he didn't think it ever sold more than two copies. Although he no longer had his copy of this elusive bomb, I was lucky enough to find a Chipmunks completist who did.

(Soundbite of Chipmunks song)

Ms. SHARPE: By 1969, who would have thought that eephing's greatest moment was yet to come. To the delight of rural America, CBS launched Hee Haw, a country response to NBC's Laugh-In that featured Jimmy Riddle as part of an eephin' and hambonin' act.

(Soundbite of Hee Haw)

Ms. SHARPE: Suddenly, a whole new crop of fans like young Deke Dickerson were beguiled. According to Deke, Riddles talents were best showcased in his solo single, Wildwood Eef, the so-called eefin' Stairway to Heaven.

(Soundbite of Wildwood Eef)

In 1981, long past eefing's peak, Jimmy Riddle walked into a studio to do the voiceover for a sausage commercial. The copyrighter, Alan Ross, threw himself against the door and wouldn't let Riddle leave until he eefed. With the tape still rolling, Riddle freestyled for the small audience of agency people. Recorded just a year before his death, and sitting in Alan Ross' garage until now, this is, as far as I know, Jimmy Riddles' last recorded eef.

(Soundbite of Jimmy Riddle's last recorded eef)

Ms. SHARPE: As though touched by an invisible spark, Doug E. Fresh stood somewhere in the Bronx that very same year and human beat boxed for the first time. And just a few years ago, a found-sound remix artist from a band called The Evolution Control Committee picked up a record at a garage sale, pulled the vinyl out of its sleeve and unleashed an old undying spore.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Sharpe.

(Soundbite of eefing song)

BRAND: To listen to more examples of eefing, go to our web site, NPR.org.

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