On March 11, 2007 musician Stephen Wade appeared at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland along with a group of young musicians to screen the 1987 documentary film about him and perform a selection of traditional music. Before the music, he gave an eloquent account of himself, the film and the changes “Time’s winged chariot” have wrought in the years since the film was made.
Twenty years have passed since we made Catching the Music. With the exception of those who attended the portions filmed at Arena Stage, and some of them–I hesitate to call them extras-have come here today, as well as fiddler Alan Jabbour, who’s out of town this weekend at a conference–otherwise he’d have been here too-everyone seen in the film has passed on. Seven months after it first aired, Doc Hopkins died, in January 1988, a few days short of his 88th birthday. And both Virgil and Mabel Anderson have gone on too.
Looking back, I guess if any line in the film still echoes for me, it’s when Fleming says, “We are a family, a family is not necessarily just blood.” I’ve come to realize over the years just how richly he knew that to be true, to be even possible. Fleming himself had been adopted as a boy, and that part of his life with a family not necessarily blood turned out well for him. Now, as his words linger in memory, his home, that apartment up in an attic, also comes to mind.
On those evenings there in his eagle’s nest we faced each other in the blue light from his color television and the yellow light from his collection of kerosene lamps. With his banjo in his lap, he’d drink bourbon after bourbon, the amber liquid spinning around the ice cubes in his glass. His long, gnarled fingers reaching always for another unfiltered cigarette.
At those times, too, lyrics surfaced in his mind from pools of memory many years deep. He would sing:
Long John said before he died,
Two more roads I’d like to ride,
What, oh what can they be,
The Southern Pacific and the Sanctifeed.
Sanctifeed? Fleming was rolling again. Although that last railroad was obviously the Santa Fe, he pronounced it Santa Fee, and then reconstituted it into Sanctifeed. He tied a local pronunciation to a liturgical word and locked it on to a rambler’s lyric. The song’s dimensions enlarged; a gospel railroad lay just ahead. When Fleming found notches like that, I’d be giggling, he’d be cool, and then, with a sly look on his face, he’d say, “Gotcha!”
The tradition had gone so far into his sinews, the music he knew had blended into his frame; the two became indivisible, and the eccentricities of the art and the man merged-inseparable, idiomatic, intuitive.
Fleming often cited a musician from western North Carolina, Bascom Lamar Lunsford. A lawyer by profession, but best remembered as a song collector and performer, Lunsford had recorded more than four hundred pieces for the Library of Congress, the largest contribution any one musician ever made to the folksong collection. Fleming particularly recalled his first visit to the old man’s Asheville home: “My wife and I drove a 1951 MGB roadster straight through to North Carolina. I still remember looking down the sides of those mountain roads. If you fall off in winter, they don’t dig you out till spring. When we got there, Lunsford’s greeting was to show us how he’d perfected the art of writing his whole name without ever lifting the pencil off the paper. After we’d driven fifteen hours from Chicago he wrote his name for the first half hour.” Nevertheless, Fleming maintained, this musician, called the Minstrel of the Appalachians “sang like he meant it.”
Lunsford had recorded an ancient one-chord song called “Darby’s Ram.” The tune, one of George Washington’s favorites, describes a mythical beast who
Had a horn, sir,
And it reached right to the moon,
A man went up in January,
Didn’t get back till June.
Fleming said Bascom sang “This old ramma had a horn.” Fleming wanted me to know this: “Ramma-he didn’t sing ram.” The lesson was: “You play it like you want it to be played. You make a statement. This is me-you’re exposing yourself–this is the way I see it. And that man knew he wanted to sing ramma.” Then Fleming picked up his banjo and sang the old song, and all of a sudden, you saw the mighty animal. He inscribed it, depicted it, captured it.
As these evenings unfolded in his apartment, Fleming would say, “Don’t be afraid to play things simply–what you want all the time is contrast. Play it two-finger, now three….” We’d drift through tunes, celebrating the players and their individual styles. “Here’s the attack of Roscoe Holcomb–that’s east Kentucky two-finger thumb lead…Listen to Wade Ward’s clean lope–that’s southwestern Virginia clawhammer….Look how Uncle Dave Macon rocked the rhythm–that’s the Tennessee black influence….” We were drawing from a national portrait gallery of performers, eliciting notes and reproducing licks the way a lawyer relies on precedents. Our renderings would be indebted to these masters. We might take a song recorded by two entirely different players and combine parts, or work out a whole repertoire from a single musician’s point of view. Either way, the musicians we learned from signified values. There was only one way to thank them: to learn their styles, to publish it to the world, and finally, to go our own way.
A traditional tune has recognizable contours, yet becomes most genuinely alive in the personal solutions brought by its individual practitioners. It is given to us freely, and kept in the public domain. It is cherished and remembered by old people, catalogued and conserved by scholars, saved and affirmed by fans. Discs left in a hat box, records found at a yard sale, instruments taken from a closet, recordings made at home-all of these survivals result from an ethic of taking care.
The lessons my teacher gave me came from another time, almost another world. He also gave me his banjo. It marks a special moment in my life, but Fleming’s banjo is merely on loan to me, and someday it must belong to someone else. In that, it is like the music itself, capacious enough that we can hold it close, and for a time, make it our own.
This process, then, marks not just ancestries but continuities. Present here today are several younger players who are themselves catching the music, making it their own. Over the past several years I’ve come to know Jason Byrd, Liberty Dawne Rucker, and Michael Monseur. I cherish their friendship. I’m not their teacher; they’re far too advanced for that, but I’m grateful that they’re interested in what I have to say, that they’ll listen to any number of recordings I thrust at them, and graciously read the materials I sometimes push across their kitchen tables.
Today, they’ll bring you bits of their own stories in the course of presenting their songs. To that end, I’ve asked my revered musical colleague of nearly twenty years, Zan McLeod, to help me as we place these young performers center stage. If they are like a rose, well, they’re about to be surrounded by two thorns. But Zan is a brilliant musician; small wonder he appears on over a hundred albums. He is a North Carolina native who grew up just a few miles from the birthplace of Earl Scruggs. His grandfather, the postmaster of tiny South Carolina town, played the banjo every Saturday night on the Spartansburg radio barn dance, and now Zan is the keeper of that instrument. It’s a joy to play with him as we welcome now Jason Byrd, himself a transplanted North Carolinian, and whom I’d never have met if it weren’t for Zan. Oh, just a week ago, Jason and his wife had their first child, Sophia, and he hasn’t slept much since. Like Catching the Music seen twenty years later, life moves on.
American Film Institute
Silver Spring, Maryland
March 11, 2007