Artist bios, Appalachian Journey
Compiled by William Lewis, with additions by Daniel W. Patterson
Adams, Sheila Kay
Boyens Liptak, Phyllis
Edwards, Kyle and Burton, and The Magnum Dancers
Hinton, Algia Mae
Holeman, John Dee
Norton, Dellie Chandler
Presnell, Edward Lee “Edd”
Proffitt, Frank, Jr.
Thompson, "Joe" Joseph Aquiler
Thrower, John “Doodle,” and The Golden River Grass Band
Adams, Sheila Kay
Excerpted from a citation written by Daniel W. Patterson when Sheila Adams received the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Folklore Award, North Carolina Folklore Journal, vol. 45, no.2 (Summer-Fall, 1998): 115-116.
Englishman Cecil Sharp said that in the Appalachians during the First World War he found himself for the first time in a community where singing was as common as speaking. Many persons gladly shared songs with him, and he may not have fully grasped that his guides were taking him mostly to people recognized as leading singers. We see more clearly than Sharp could the vital role played by particular individuals, families, and communities in keeping traditional music alive. Sheila Adams is one of these individuals. She has remarkable gifts—a lovely voice, great natural musicality, depth and feeling, and a memory that won’t let any good song or story escape. Her personal gifts got fostered by the highly musical families within which she grew up—the Nortons, Chandlers, Wallins, Ramseys, and Rays—who composed the community of Sodom, in Madison County, North Carolina. These families have made Sodom famous, out of all proportion to its size, for its music, particularly for ballad singing. Sheila Adams is, she tells us, the seventh generation of known ballad singers in her family. She now is fostering the singing gift of her own talented daughter, Melanie Rice.
I was fortunate to hear Sheila Adams in the first year she went out to perform publicly—in 1976, at Duke University, singing in a program with her “granny,” Dellie Chandler Norton (who taught her, she tells us, much about both songs and life), and with Dellie’s sister, Berzilla Wallin. Sheila gave a ballad rendition that night that has haunted my memory ever since. Only a month ago my wife, Beverly, and I heard Sheila again one rainy, rainy night in Greensboro. The two decades had taken nothing from the freshness of her voice, but only enriched her understanding of the songs and polished her skill in bringing her hearers into the world of their meaning.
In the interim Sheila had finished college, married, become a mother, taught school and performed in hundreds of festivals, schools, workshops, and music camps. She had been featured in a broadcast series with her friend Bobby McMillon. She had recorded two song albums—Loving Forward, Loving Back (1987) and A Spring in the Burton Cove (1990)—and played a lovely banjo in some of the recordings by her husband Jim Taylor; he helped in hers, too. She had recorded an album of tales, Don’t Git Above Your Raising (1992). She had appeared in several films, including The Last of the Mohicans. And she had written a book of her family stories, Come Go Home with Me, published by UNC Press in 1995. More recently she has made other recordings: My Dearest Dear (2000), All The Other Fine Things (2004), and Live at the International Storytelling Festival (2007). She is now nationally known and widely sought after—and for very good reasons.
Sheila’s songs, many of which come from her family’s repertory, are beautiful. Her singing, unaccompanied or with her own banjo or guitar backing, is lovely and moving. And best of all, she has found a way to frame the songs for outsiders by telling stories about the world in which she learned them. Somehow she has managed even the miracle of setting her stories down on the page in Come Go Home with Me. They read like Sheila talking. They are short and seemingly casual, yet they call up a whole world—not just the traditional Appalachian community that lives in her memory, but the human community and human experiences at their deepest.
Think of the story she calls “A Special Dance.” In it she tells of watching her grandfather and two other men struggle to move a heavy white tombstone to clear a walkway through a cemetery. She is a child, and this troubles her. With the stones set to one side, she and other people might step on a burial spot. Mama had said, “You ain’t supposed to walk on graves!” Her grandfather offers a few accommodating words. Then suddenly he said, “Far be it from me to let you get away with somethin’ your Mam wouldn’t let you do.” He “held out his hand to me as he began to dance a little jig on the grave,” singing an old fiddle tune, “Cumberland Gap ain’t my home and I’m gonna leave old Cumberland alone.” “I moved my feet in time with his, and we laughed,” she writes, “and did a right arm swing, our feet now flying above what remained of a man long gone.” We carry away that image: “a skinny little girl with brown eyes too big for her face, and with the promise of all life had to offer stretching out in front of her, and the old man in his final days, his face tanned and creased with age, and his eyes live blue-crystal—dancing.” To me this is a fitting` emblem of Sheila Adams’ art. She does her own dances of life—in hand with beloved family and elders, to sweet old tunes—on serious ground.
Boyens Liptak, Phyllis (1947-2009)
Born in West Virginia, one of the thirteen children of Nimrod Workman, a coal miner and singer, she grew up to be herself a strong singer and an actress as well. In both fields she drew on her family’s Appalachian traditions. Her recordings and film appearances were under her married name Boyens before her divorce and later remarriage. With her father Nimrod in 1975 she recorded the LP Passing Through the Garden for June Appal, and in 1983 she made the solo album I Really Care with Rounder Records, composed of songs she herself had written. Meantime she and her father had sung a song in the documentary Harlan County U.S.A. in 1977, and she had an acting role as Loretta Lynn’s mother in the Hollywood film Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1980 and subsequently a role in another film, The Dollmaker (1984).
Edwards, Kyle and Burton, Jim Hyatt, and The Magnum Dancers
Excerpts from “Clog-Dancing: Tapping into a Good Time,” a light-hearted newspaper feature on clogging in Maggie Valley, N.C., written by Steve Cohen for the Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1987. For a quick, broad historical background see Phil Jamison, “Square Dancing" in Haywood County, North Carolina” in the Old Time Herald.
The biggest attraction in this little town on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a dance hall for cloggers that reeks of popcorn and chewing gum instead of stale beer. "We're way ahead of everywhere else in this (clogging), but in other ways we're 50 years behind," says Kyle Edwards, the owner-builder of "The Stompin' Ground," otherwise known as the World's Capital of Cloggin'. "There's no drinkin' in here. The town has no drug problem, no crime. Cloggin' is better 'n joggin'." A corpulent, perspiring clogger coming off the dance floor proves that. "First time I ever did a day's work in seven minutes," he gasps while reaching for a frothy mug of root beer.
Edwards' barn-like edifice opened in 1982, the culmination of a 25-year dream. It is dedicated to the mountain square dance, a hybrid tap-dance called clogging, which originated nearly 200 years ago from the English reels, Scottish flings and Irish jigs of early settlers. Clog-dancing evolved as a way for mountain folks to celebrate. Nowhere can you find the whoopin' and hollerin' louder, or the dance steps sprightlier, than right here in this squeaky-clean, tongue-and-groove palace.
The dance floor is as big as a bowling alley, and surrounded on three sides by seats in tiers rising to a rear balcony. The fourth side is a stage. Live Bluegrass and country music reverberates from the rafters every night from May 1 to Oct. 31. "There's 200 people in this valley," says a man named Kyle, clad in blue jeans, flannel shirt and baseball cap. "The hall holds 2,000. Some nights the cars overfill the parking lot for a mile in each direction." The popularity of this dance is indisputable. The United States has more than 1,000 organized clogging teams. Members dress in coordinated uniforms, colorful ruffled crinolines for the ladies, pressed cowboy-style duds for the men, and all wear two-piece staccato taps on their shoes, which jingle when they walk and tap out an energetic rhythm when they dance. Teams come here to compete by dancing standard forms, then freestyle, much the same as competitive figure skaters. The competition draws an enthusiastic audience, who come to watch or just listen to the music and dance. People cheer for their favorites. Around here that would be the Magnum Cloggers, the current world champs. The team is led by siblings named Burton and Becky, who also are the individual U.S. and world champion cloggers. Burton struts about the Stompin' Ground as if his daddy owns the place, which he does. The Edwards' kids have been clogging all their lives. Burton lifts his booted foot to show me his heel and toe taps. Then he flashes his large gold champion's ring.
"This is good clean fun," Kyle says. "It keeps families together." That appears to be true. Kyle's wife Mary Sue helps run The Stompin' Ground. The house Cross-Country Band is led by Big John Wiggins, who was once a Texas Troubadour. The clean-cut girl-and-boy singers are his children, Audrey and John. Other families line the rows of seats. Cloggers typically range in age from 7 to 70. Evenings of song and dance will have team, individual and open dancing, in which teams mix comfortably with audience participants.
Music fills the hall as the Magnum Cloggers step into the spotlight. It looks as if the routine has been tightly choreographed until you look down at their feet. The very best cloggers, exemplified by a near-floating Burton, move their upper body hardly at all, while their feet kick and buck in a blurring, barnyard-inspired frenzy of motion, punctuated by the clicking taps on the polished hardwood floor. Although team members move in careful time to the peppy music, the independent mountain heritage is evident in the completely idiosyncratic steps each dancer performs. Every pair of feet stamps its own pattern by private design, and then, one by one, members step out to "hammer down" for a few measures in a solo spotlight, while the rest of the team vamps in the background. After a round of respectful applause, the seated audience empties onto the floor. Big John calls out various square-dance routines, turning the hall into a large rhythm instrument vibrating with the cadence of the taps and fueled by the stamina of the hearty dancers.
Eller, Lawrence (1916-1988) and Vaughn Eller (1918-1984) (mistakenly called Laurence and Bob in the film)
Excerpted by Daniel W. Patterson from Art Rosenbaum, Folk Visions and Voices: Traditional Music and Song in North Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983), pp. 20-25. Succeeding pages in this book hold texts and tune transcriptions of songs Rosenbaum recorded from the Ellers. Rosenbaum also edited a CD with the same title. See his website.
A small road turns north off the highway between Hiawassee and Clayton in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the northern most edge of Georgia. Pavement gives way to dirt as you head up into increasingly beautiful country. The place is known as Upper Hightower, because Hightower Creek arises here, and the mountain called Hightower Bald dominates the landscape. Lawrence Eller also calls it “the garden spot of the world,” and there is far more affection than irony in his tone as he considers the creek-bottom, ridge, and mountain country where his family has lived, labored, and made music for over four generations. He and his brother Vaughn have lived on the family land all their lives, with the exception of Lawrence’s few stints doing industrial work in the North and Vaughn’s hitch in the navy during World War II. Most of the time they survived on subsistence farming, keeping bees, and doing work for others in Towns County—clearing land, construction, “work rougher ‘n anyone else would do.” Now they live with their wives in houses about a quarter-mile apart on the road; their mother, Leatha, a spry, diminutive woman in her eighties, still able to sing old-fashioned gospel songs and songs of her own composition to her rolling piano accompaniment, stays in a third house between them with another of her sons, L. P., who can neither hear nor speak but has been a fine traditional chair maker….
Lawrence and Vaughn, with their old friend Ross Brown, were the main string band, the most called-upon music makers in the county in the thirties. They have recently been getting some satisfaction in seeing a revived interest in their music, close to home at the Georgia Mountain Fair and at the Georgia Grassroots Festival in Atlanta. After an LP we produced of their music was released on the British label Flyright, they were invited to perform at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and the National Folk Festival. Their rough, honest, and intensely emotional mountain music can cut like a Barlow knife through audiences accustomed to Nashville pop-country groups and the pyrotechnics of the young bluegrassers. The brothers, who thought that musical tastes had passed them by, now feel vindicated by renewed interest and appreciation. Yet their musical expression is still rooted in the rich experiences of their formative years: memories of their mother singing old love songs and ballads at the spinning wheel, of the lonesome sound of their grandfather’s fife or song bow, and of the music they themselves learned and played during their courting years. Recently Lawrence was looking up past the near ridges, up toward the peak of Hightower Bald. “Used to be full of houses there,” he said. “I could take you up there, show you rock chimleys yet. And ever’ Easter Sunday, back yander when I commenced to pickin’ the banjo, we’d go to the bald fields up there, a bunch of us, and they’d run a reel in that old field. And the whole field would be covered up, with young people. I’d pick the banjer and Vaughn’d play guitar, and they’d run a reel in that old field. That was in our best days.”
The Eller family settled in Towns County before the Civil War, having come down from Buncombe County, North Carolina. Family tradition recalls a hard, simple life of clearing the land, building log houses, plowing steers, and raising corn on the hillsides to be hauled off on the old-fashioned sleds that Lawrence remembers how to make. There was little enthusiasm for the Confederate cause in many mountain areas of Georgia during the Civil War, and Lawrence and Vaughn’s grandfather Uncle Alf Eller hid out from conscription by the Rebel cavalry in the brush along Hall Creek. . . .
Grady Eller, Lawrence and Vaughn’s father, died in 1975 at the age of eighty, having passed on to his sons the traditional arts of log construction, shingle making, and other skills necessary in an age of self-sufficiency. He was also a fine old-time singer and played the organ for family gatherings. He also taught Vaughn how to fashion and play the mouth bow, or “song bow.” Leatha taught her boys and Paralee several of the old songs and ballads, and gave them a sense of the exuberance of mountain music. . . . Lawrence Eller was born in 1916 and Vaughn in 1918, into a large family: Grady and Leatha Eller raised six children. There was more hard work than schooling in their childhoods, but this was relieved by family and neighborhood gatherings at which music played an important part. “People back then used to visit each other more than they do now,” Lawrence remembers. “They’d come in, and there’d be a houseful. They’d set and tell jokes…. They’d sing. I’ve heard my mother’s brothers coming out there, and they’d sing, most of the night, them old songs.”
In this musical atmosphere it was not surprising that the boys took up music making at an early age. Lawrence began playing the banjo at about eight or nine. “I got ahold of one, had an old catskin head on it, a home-made banjer, didn’t have no frets, but I could note hit, make it say the words plainer than this one here,” Lawrence told me, between picking tunes on the solid Bacon instrument he has played for the last thirty years. His first piece, which he worked out for himself in the evenings on the front porch of the family home, was the railroad song “Count the Days I’m Gone.” Soon thereafter he started to get some pointers from a neighbor named Will Ogles, who had moved into Towns County from around Fontana, North Carolina. Ogles was a chair maker by trade, and word had it that he had been in some kind of trouble in his home state. He sang many of the old songs associated with the rowdy mountain banjo pickers, “Ground Hog,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and others, and played in the typical thumb-and finger style of western North Carolina. Lawrence remembers that Ogles double-noted, that is, brought the thumb over to play extra notes on the inside strings; but Lawrence never learned this. He did develop a serviceable and distinctive personal approach, with an emphasis on melody, and embellished by chokes, slides, and work high up on the neck.
Vaughn began playing the guitar when he was ten or eleven, and his start was, like his brother’s, typical for that time. He ordered a Sears Roebuck mail-order guitar and “set around and beat around on it, beat around on it.” Soon Vaughn and Lawrence were playing together, and by the time they were in their early teens, they were making music not only for neighborhood dances but for the people who would converge on the county seat on court day.People in Hiawassee still remember the two teenagers picking and singing for the crowds that would gather under the big oak trees on the square when the court recessed at noon. “I heard them talkin’ the other day,” Lawrence told me, “that they would long for Saturday to come, so they could come down and hear us.” Usually it was not possible to catch a ride, as cars were few on the dirt mountain roads, so the boys would walk the twelve miles to Hiawassee and back with their guitar and banjo. They were also called on to play in the new Holiness churches that were coming into the country, because they could set the people on fire at revivals with fast gospel pieces like “Shouting on the Hills of Glory” and “Honey in Rock.” The old-fashioned Baptist church the boys were brought up to attend would not have accepted this kind of music in their services.
In the early thirties Lawrence and Vaughn started ordering large numbers of records from the hillbilly catalogs, and what they learned from this source greatly expanded their repertoire and influenced their way of performing many of the songs they had learned from family and local tradition. They learned the tight-harmony style of “brother” teams like the Callahan Brothers and the Monroe Brothers; the Carter Family and Mainer’s Mountaineers were other favorites.
The boys married in their early twenties, Lawrence to Ruby Hunter, Vaughn to Louise Allen. Lawrence and Ruby have no children; Vaughn and Louise, one daughter. Through the hard times of the depression they continued to make music for Saturday-night dances, sometimes joined by fiddler Ross Brown from Hiawassee. The dances would be held in people’s homes up and down the creek, and there would usually be a caller who could call an eight-handed or sixteen-handed reel. If there was no caller, “they’d just get out and flat-foot ‘er”; that is, individuals would tear loose in their own sorts of buck dance. There was little drinking and no trouble at these neighborhood dances, in contrast to their counterparts in other areas, where there was often heavy drinking and fighting. When Vaughn was off in the navy during World War II, Lawrence would often play all night for dances by himself.
Community dances and music sessions declined after the war. People were moving away in search of work, and the influence of mass-produced entertainment made inroads on the tradition. Vaughn pretty much neglected his music for thirty years after his return from the navy, though Lawrence continued to play for his own satisfaction. In recent years, stimulated by the interest in old-time music that was emerging locally and away from home, they have been working up their old numbers again, getting used to each other’s “time.” Now their voices and instruments blend into their old sound.
When Ross Brown played for dances with the Eller Brothers back in the thirties, they would generally stick to a small number of tried and true breakdowns. Recently they have added the fiddle to a larger number of tunes and songs as they rehearse to perform the old pieces. . . . . Ross’s musical relationship with the Eller Brothers has its ups and downs: he is not above criticizing Lawrence for picking too hard, a habit Lawrence acquired when he started wearing a thumb pick and metal finger pick to make himself heard at dances before the day of microphones and amplifiers. Lawrence in his turn will comment that Ross doesn’t bear down enough on the bow; but the driving banjo line, backed by Ross’s thoughtful and moody fiddle and Vaughn’s tightly melodic guitar bass, forms the special sound of their band. Their admirers would not want it to be different.
Vaughn Eller is a quiet and reflective man who can put tremendous energy into his music, despite some recent poor health. He has composed several lyric and Jimmie Rodgers “blue yodel”-style songs of his own. I asked him about the unique quality of mountain music, and he said, “It has a special atmosphere about it. It rings clearer here than it does in the flatlands.” Lawrence is a more outgoing and demonstrative person, equally passionate about mountain music. He loves to jam with other string musicians but resents flashy bluegrass pickers who try to upstage him—with little success, incidentally. “I tell them they have their style, and I have my old-time style.” There is little doubt about which he prefers. He will play alone for hours, for his own satisfaction. “I love that old mountain music,” he told me. “There’s some times, I’m at the house, I’ll kindly take the blues, and get on that porch there, and I just pick the fire out of that thing. Lots of ‘em hear me a-singin’, down the creek. I really get the blues, that’s when I shear down on that thing. That man ain’t livin’ that loves it more than I do. That man never picked it that enjoys it more than I.”
Fairchild, Raymond (b. 1939)
From Wayne Erbsen, "Making His Own Way - Raymond Fairchild," Bluegrass Unlimited (March 1982).
They call him "The Old Man of the Mountains." At the spry age of forty-two, that makes Raymond Fairchild a rather youthful "old man." No matter. The mountains can age you before your time and Raymond has lived far enough back in the Smoky Mountains to be several generations old by now. This man, who many consider to be the fastest and the best banjo player alive, lays a genuine claim to playing mountain music. He's lived it.
Born near Cherokee, North Carolina to a Cherokee Indian mother and a father whose duties in the military kept him gone most of the time, Raymond Fairchild grew up in the hard times. Long back roads and winter snows kept Raymond from the one-room school house for most of the year. He did manage to finish the fourth grade but has never completely mastered reading and writing. There were other teachers for Raymond. His mother's people taught him the ways of the woods. Completely at home deep in the forest, Raymond the mountain man, knows his way around. In the fall of the year he still goes hunting ginseng, which has a root that is highly valued for its legendary curing properties. Although some ginseng hunters in the mountains take their sack of "sang" to nearby Asheville, North Carolina, or Knoxville, Tennessee to sell for over $200 a pound, Raymond keeps all that he digs. Drawing upon lore learned from his mother's people, he combines the ginseng along with eighteen other roots and herbs to produce a medicine which he takes daily as a tonic. Going far into the woods in search of ginseng and other roots, Raymond has been known to stay gone for nearly a month. After one such trip he told of killing more than one dozen deadly rattlesnakes. Besides bringing home a poke full of wild roots, he often returns from the mountains with a fat ground hog in his sack. Claiming that groundhog is the finest wild meat in the world, Raymond also renders the grease from the woodchuck to make a tonic for the croup. "Just a spoonful or two," he cautions.
Growing up near Cherokee, Raymond spent most of his early years working the family farm, doing odd jobs, and walking the trails in the woods alone. Occasionally on a Saturday night he would go over to his aunt's house to listen to a little old-time music. Being left-handed, Aunt Ballew played the 5-string banjo upside-down in a three-finger style. This was the first music Raymond ever listened to, and he did not forget the sounds he heard in his aunt's cabin. Sometimes, Aunt Ballew would be joined on guitar by Uncle France or Raymond's mother on the mouth harp. Banjos, Raymond remembers, were scarce back in those Smoky Mountains. Religious people thought the banjo was the work of the devil and would have nothing to do with it. Guitars, fiddles, and harmonicas were fine, but the banjo had a mark on it. "You were Hell-bound if you picked a banjo." Raymond was just ornery enough to want to pick the banjo. Although he listened to Aunt Bellew play for years, it wasn't until Raymond was eighteen years old and nearly grown before he could afford one of the instruments. His first banjo was fretless with a squirrel hide tacked over the hoop. He next ordered a Silvertone model from Sears and Roebuck. The banjo came with an instruction booklet but Raymond had always shied away from book learning. He was learning to play it his own way. His dad noticed his progress on the instrument and finally took the young man to Dunham's Music House in Asheville and bought him a Gibson RB-150 model. Along with the banjo, his dad bought him some picks but it was some time before he realized that Raymond had been trying to play with the picks on backwards!
On one of the rare trips to Asheville, Raymond discovered juke boxes. There's no telling how many hard-won quarters Raymond dropped in the slot to listen to Earl Scruggs play tunes like "Flint Hill Special," "Earl's Breakdown," or "Randy Lynn Rag." Like many struggling banjo players in the early 1950s, Scruggs' playing set Raymond on fire. But unlike many who learned from Scruggs' records by sitting in front of the family record player, Raymond did not have the luxury of electricity, not to mention a record player. Even to this day, he does not own a record player. By the time he was nearly fully grown, his family did purchase a battery-powered radio. Then Raymond could tune in to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night broadcasting from Nashville, or listen to the Stanley Brothers on Farm and Fun Time out of Bristol, Virginia. He also tuned in to pioneer banjo player Snuffy Jenkins with Pappy Sherrill and the Hired Hands over a station near Statesville, North Carolina. Except for this limited exposure to the professional banjo players he heard on radio, Raymond had to make his own way with his music. He had to "hold it in his head," as he has said. Besides his Aunt Ballew, there were scarcely any other banjo players around who could show Raymond how to play. But even though banjo players were rare in the mountains, there were plenty of good fiddlers to learn from. Raymond fondly remembers the fiddling of oldsters Carrol Massey and Robert Richards. These and other fiddlers gave Raymond contact with a large store of traditional mountain tunes from which he would later draw in making his own music.
Unlike most banjo players, Raymond has always had a deep feeling for the blues. To some, however, the banjo seem unsuited to playing the blues. But that's before they have heard Raymond. Many years ago as a boy of ten he would often see the black convicts in stripes work on the road crews under the watchful eye of an armed guard. Raymond would often creep up to where they were having their dinner break and listen while they sang the blues. The lonesome sound of their singing made a strong impression on the young man, and this influence would weave a deep thread in his music.
Occasionally, Raymond would get to see some of the professional banjo players in person on their show dates in school houses and tiny auditoriums in western North Carolina. He was especially impressed with Wade Mainer from nearby Weaverville, North Carolina who he called "the real McCoy." He also sat in rapt attention to the music of Bill Monroe, who he often heard on the radio. It wasn't until some time later that he realized that the banjo player he was listening to in Monroe's band over the radio was actually a string of different players who played with Monroe at various times. He does recall that Rudy Lyle was one of his favorites.
Even though Raymond did get to hear some of the professional banjo players in person and on the "piccolos," the name Raymond calls jukeboxes, he stubbornly refused to copy anybody else's playing. Even as a beginner, he was determined to go his own way. But he does admit that "a lot of it came from not getting to hear nobody. You'd hear parts of a tune, and that's as much of it as you'd get. You'd have to pick out the rest of it in your mind. My style is just something I came up with, something I had to do. If I had a record player and had people to show me, I'd probably have done just like anybody else. But I always listen to all kinds of music. Chet Atkins, the Delmore Brothers ...I do yet. You don't know where you get it from. If you see a young kid who only knows two tunes on the banjer, don't ever walk by him because you're liable to pick up something that nobody else can show you."
It was during the middle 1960s that Raymond first attempted to take his music to the public. By this time he had moved from Cherokee to Maggie Valley, North Carolina and had found a receptive audience at "The Hillbilly Campground," located in Maggie. For over twelve years Raymond played for tips next to the road that ran in front of the campground. He was often joined by Roy Mull on guitar, Frank Buchannan (who had earlier recorded with Bill Monroe) on guitar and mandolin, the late Wilford Messer on fiddle, and Buck Duncan on bass. According to Raymond, they'd play on the corner and really pull the cars in. Raymond remembers playing seven days a week in front of the campground from eight in the morning until midnight.Trying to raise a family with three kids, Raymond also worked as a stonemason to supplement the money he made playing for tips. He hired on as a helper to James Worley but soon they became partners, doing contract work around Maggie. In addition to being an expert stonemason, Worley was somewhat of a musician himself, and had a harmonica rack bolted to his autoharp to enable him to blow the french harp and strum the autoharp at the same time.
It was during this period that Raymond was approached by Uncle Jim O'Neal to record for Rural Rhythm records. The result was a string of albums produced over the next several years including "Mama likes Bluegrass Music" (RRFM 159), "Smoky Mountain Banjo" (RR 46), "Raymond Fairchild and The Maggy Valley Boys" (RRMVB 170), and "Hon key Ton kin' Country Blues" (RRRF 245). These records were a long ways from Raymond's mountain music background or.even bluegrass. Included on several of these recordings were drums, saxophone and steel guitar. Raymond seemed willing to experiment with sounds and styles that few others had ever attempted on the banjo.
As Raymond's style on the banjo became more inventive, his reputation as a unique individual and musician started to spread. By 1972 he had totally and forever quit the bottle which once had quite a hold on him. Things were looking up for Raymond. In early 1970 he made a contact which would later bring him to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Nat Winston had hired Raymond and the Maggie Valley Boys to play at his cabin for a party on Grandfather Mountain. A struggling banjo player himself, Winston recognized Raymond's genius and set up an informal audition backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Roy Acuff's dressing room. While Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb were entertaining the Opry audience with "Sweet Thing," Raymond was playing the daylights out of "Whoa Mule" and "Orange Blossom Special" to the slack jaws of the crowd that Raymond gathered.
The assembled group included such dignitaries as Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Archie Campbell, Bill Carlisle, and Billy Grammer. Hal Durham, manager of the Opry, who was also listening in, asked Raymond to appear as a guest at the Opry and Archie Campbell approached Raymond about appearing on "Hee Haw." For Raymond, playing the Opry was the break he needed. As he put it, "When you step in front of those WSM microphones on the Grand 0le Opry, that's the highest you're going in this type of music, buddy." Raymond's first appearance at the Opry literally drove the audience wild. Even though he stands motionless when he plays and never smiles, sings, or talks on stage, his playing makes him, in the words of Roy Acuff, "the best showman I've seen." In addition to having the distinction of being the first banjo player since Earl Scruggs to bring down the house at the Grand Ole Opry, he is also the first known musician to walk out in front of the WSM microphones with a loaded .38 revolver in his pocket. Raymond explains that "there's a lot of meanness in this world."
Although playing the Grand Ole Opry does symbolize success to country and bluegrass musicians, the real success—or failure—happens at the end of the long drives down those same old roads when the artist stands in front of his audience. Here is where the real stuff of country music lives. Raymond can tell you that things haven't always come easy for the musicians who drive the roads and face the crowds night after night. "If you're out there playing a show, you've got to play from the heart. You've got to feel it; you've got to live it. A lot of people sing, but they have their mind on something else while they're singing. You can tell by the sound of it where it's coming from. The people who've made bluegrass music what it is today, buddy, they've lived it. Back when bluegrass first started, you know they couldn't have been making much money doin' it. But they wouldn't change; they wouldn't quit. Just the other night I done a show with Don Reno in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Man, he was so sick. Most of these young musicians who claim to like bluegrass would have been at home in bed with somebody rubbing their chest with Vicks salve. But Don Reno was up there doing his show. Any minute it looked like it was going to be his last breath. Now, I ain't kidding. He told me he had something like bronchitis and felt like he was smothering. He'd talk a while and then take a deep breath. That's love. That's what's helped bluegrass music out, people like that. Bill Monroe's traveled the roads many, many times and didn't always make money. So did Ralph and Carter Stanley. Ralph has told me many times they'd have to play a show before they could eat. I've seen Ralph and Carter come into Spruce Pine, North Carolina, back in the fifties and play for eight or ten people. They were playing on a percentage basis and people were paying thirty or forty cents to get in, so you can figure out how much they made. It was the love of it that kept 'em going. I love it. There's some great young musicians, but they don't understand what the hard life is. If it boiled down to the hard times again, they'd be quittin'. They wouldn't have the backbone to stand up. They don't love it well enough where they'd hang with it and play for nothing. Them fellers played for years and years and never made nothing—Bill Monroe, Reno and Smiley, Mac Wiseman, Ralph and Carter, the Goins Brothers. That's who we can thank now. They're the ones who handed it down on a silver platter. It was fellers back then that held er together."
For Raymond, one of the hardest things has been finding musicians who had the sound he was looking for. "A lot of people will tell you the woods is full of guitar pickers. The woods is full of frammers, not guitar players. You can name rhythm guitar players on your right hand. What I like to hear is straight solid pickin'. I've been into it for twenty-five years and with all honesty, I'll have to say I've had one, the one I've got now, Wallace Crowe. He's the best rhythm picker I've ever heard in my life. The bass player too, Wayne Crowe, he's the best bass man I've ever heard. It don't take a stage full to play music. You take three men and all of them pushing time, and it sounds right. A lot people tell me to pick one with drive. They think you have to be playing fast to have drive. But the "Tennessee Waltz" has drive if the timing's right. Time is drive. Drive is time. You can drive a waltz just the same as when you're burning one up, if everbody's there. Listen to Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz" or Jimmy Martin's "Widow Maker" and you'll hear drive. That's one thing a lot of 'ems got to learn. I've played with a lot of fellers who had time, but didn't know the melody. And I've played with fellers who knew the melody, but didn't have time. I've always known in my mind what I wanted but I never found it until I run up on the Crowe brothers. That was in 1975. When I met them, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for."
"I never did try to get hired by any of the professional bands. I knew if I did try to play with any of those guys I'd have to change my style. I never did want to change what I started. When you go to pick with a man like Bill Monroe, you've got to pick the Monroe sound. I could have changed, but I didn't want to leave my work behind. I knew someday I'd put it out, my way. You can't do that working as a sideman for somebody else. You know, I've played for years with these fellers and they wanted to do all Bill Monroe, or all Jimmy Martin, or all somebody else. You can't get nothin' going doin' that. You can play your head off playing like somebody else, but that ain't going to do you no good. Them fellers are great, they're the ones who made it, but you can't get on stage in front of them at a festival and do their stuff. That's what's a matter with bluegrass. They claim they love it, but they don't love it enough to sit down and learn some new songs or new chords. Bluegrass musicians are the laziest people on earth. They want to play something they can use one chord, or something somebody else already has out. You've got to take the old stuff and make it your own way."
Making his own way for Raymond meant breaking new ground on the banjo. He had made banjo showcases out of tunes that have seldom been featured on the banjo such as "Yakety Sax" and "Steel Guitar Rag." And when Raymond plays his version of "Orange Blossom Special," you can see the steam rise off the engine, smell the smoke pour out of the stack, and feel the ground shake as the train pulls out of sight. And like that train, Raymond Fairchild is going places. Besides making frequent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, he is being considered to do the music sound track for a major Hollywood movie. His new record on Marc Pruett's Skyline label is getting the exposure it deserves. Named after his youngest boy, "Little Zane," the record features Raymond's unique banjo style along with Wallace and Wayne Crowe, plus Mike Hunter on mandolin, Steve Sutton on lead guitar, and Tim Galyean on drums. Although the summer festivals take Raymond far from his home in the Smoky Mountains, in the winter he stays close to Maggie Valley, where he plays at "The Stompin' Ground." If you don't find him there, you can guess that Raymond's gone off in the woods hunting ginseng, ground hog, or solitude.
Hicks, Ray (1922-2003)
Courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council, https://www.ncarts.org/ . More information is available online at the Ray Hicks website. In 1983, Ray Hicks was presented with the National Heritage Fellowship of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts. See his Citation. https://www.arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/ray-hicks .
Ray Hicks, North Carolina's celebrated storyteller, lived atop Beech Mountain in Watauga County. Though his home place was very near Boone, it was culturally distant from the fast-developing college town down the road. He and his wife Rosa lived in a manner more common to the pioneer than the modern mountaineer. A visitor to the Hicks’s striking two-story frame house was likely to find Rosa busy drying apples and "putting up" produce from the garden, while Ray entertained a group of friends and neighbors in the front room.
One was struck first by Mr. Hicks' physical appearance--his lanky frame approaching seven feet. But the true marvel of the man was his verbal presence. He spoke a dialect of English that retained much of the vocabulary, phrasing, expression, and accent of earlier English and Scotch-Irish immigrants to the region. So much so that he was featured on Robert McNeil's PBS series The Story of English.
Mr. Hicks relished the spoken word and was a natural storyteller. Folklorist and former director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, Bess Lomax Hawes, once said, "There isn't any other Ray and never has been another Ray, except, maybe, back in the Middle Ages. He moves into a story, and is totally engrossed. He talks about the characters as if they'd just stepped 'round back of his house, or gone up the road a piece."
Mr. Hicks was particularly fond of telling a group of stories known as Jack tales, which are kin to the well-known stories "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Jack and the Giant Killer." The tales have ancient antecedents in Celtic and European folklore. In Ray's interpretations, which might have taken the better part of an hour to complete, there was a wonderful weave of fairy tale elements with realistic trappings of Southern Appalachian culture.
Less well known were Mr. Hicks' musical abilities. He was a powerful singer of traditional British and American ballads and a soulful harmonica player.
The North Carolina Arts Council was not the first organization to honor Ray Hicks. In 1983, he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Though his distaste for traveling limited his public exposure, Ray appeared in a number of film documentaries and was profiled in The New Yorker magazine.
Mr. Hicks regularly performed at the annual National Storytellers Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee, which was a good place to experience first-hand the extraordinary qualities of the man. The event attracts large crowds each year to hear the country's best storytellers, and Mr. Hicks was the star of the festival. He remained at the forefront of a national revitalization of a venerable art form until his death in 2003 at the age of 80.
Hicks, Stanley (1911-1989)
Courtesy of the Watauga Arts Council, N.C.
Stanley Hicks was born on October 12, 1911, on Beech Mountain [North Carolina] in a very self-relying family and community surrounded by rich storytelling, music, craft and foodways traditions. Both of his parents, Roby Monroe Hicks and Buna Presnell Hicks, were well-known singers and musicians. His father also made banjos, and he taught Stanley how. Stanley’s grandfather, Samuel Hicks and his father, Roby Monroe Hicks both made not only instruments, but all of the tools they needed as well. Stanley began by helping his father make banjos. They used native woods—mostly walnut, maple, and cherry—and the banjo heads were usually made from groundhog or cat skins. “Back then they didn’t care, you know. They ’uz too many cats anyhow, and they didn’t care much. But they just didn’t want to see you come to the house! I wouldn’t get the last cat a man had [laughing]. When I got down to one, I’d leave it fer him!” (Stanley Hicks, quoted in Foxfire 3.)
Stanley was one of the featured banjo makers in the third Foxfire book. “You have to be careful at this,” he says, “I make my instruments to play. Before I’d send you one, I’d take ’em all out and make ’em right. That’s what I make ’em for is to play ’em.” Stanley also made folk toys, such as the “pecking birds,” and other wood-carved animals. He used to sell instruments out of his home and at Jack Guy’s store on Beech Creek.
Stanley was a very humorous and entertaining character, and he eventually gained international fame for his hand-made instruments, dancing and playing, and endless supply of stories. Stanley was very welcoming to visitors, and he always had a tale to tell and song to sing. Stanley also helped a number of interested wood workers learn how to build instruments. Charlie Glenn built his first banjo and dulcimer with Stanley’s help. Charlie continues to make instruments today, refining his style, but continuing the tradition passed on by Stanley.
In 1980, the North Carolina Folklore Society presented Stanley Hicks with its highest honor, the Brown-Hudson Award. A federal honor followed in 1983, when he was presented with the National Heritage Fellowship of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts. See his Citation.
Hinton, Algia Mae (1929–2018)
Courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council
The blues, as performed by guitarists, harmonica players, and singers in rural communities throughout piedmont and eastern North Carolina, is primarily a form of dance music. For Algia Mae Hinton of Johnston County, blues music and buckdancing are inseparable from one another. As she herself says, "it takes both to make it sound right."
Mrs. Hinton is the youngest daughter in a large family of music-makers. Her mother, Ollie O'Neal, was a talented musician who played guitar, accordion, autoharp, harmonica, and jaw harp. She taught her children music, and at the age of nine Algia Mae could play the guitar. By the time she had reached her mid-teens, she was able to entertain at local dances and houseparties.
Mrs. Hinton's passion for playing music was exceeded only by her love of dancing; indeed, her mother referred to her as "that dancing girl." There were many fine dancers in her family, and Mrs. Hinton closely observed the buckdancing techniques of her older siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles. An air of friendly competition prevailed within the family, which served to bolster her performance skills. She even learned to execute a buckdance while playing a guitar behind her head, never missing a step or a note!
Mrs. Hinton remembers her parents, and the music-making and dancing of her childhood, with deep affection. Since leaving home to marry and start a family of her own, life has been much harder. Her husband's premature death left her alone to raise seven children, and dependent on seasonal farm work in tobacco, cucumber, and sweet potato fields to support them. In 1985, on a frigid January night, she barely escaped with her life in a fire that destroyed her house and all of her belongings. Her music and dancing has provided a small, but crucial source of solace and income throughout these trials and tribulations.
Like her mother before her, Mrs. Hinton is passing the family arts to her children. Her son Willette has become an especially fine musician and dancer, and most of the dozen grandchildren have learned at least a few buckdance steps under her tutelage.
Beginning in 1978 with an appearance at the North Carolina Folklife Festival, Mrs. Hinton has been invited to bring her artistry outside of Johnston County. Her honors include appearances at the National Folk Festival, the Chicago University Folk Festival, and Carnegie Hall, among many. A woman of few words on stage, she speaks passionately through her dancing and her guitar. As she said after one performance, "I enjoy doing it, though I liked to work my legs overtime. But, I tell you, I had those folks jumping."
Holeman, John Dee (b. 1929)
From the “N.C. Piedmont Artist Directory” of PineCone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music.
Holeman is among the most widely celebrated of traditional Piedmont musicians. A native of Orange County, North Carolina, Holeman has performed at the National Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall, and has conducted multiple overseas tours—many of which were sponsored by the U.S. State Department—to such faraway locations as Thailand, Africa, Singapore, and Turkey. Now in his 80s, Holeman continues to perform regularly throughout North Carolina. He is featured in Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America, a book with CD edited by Tim Duffey in 2002.
Born in 1929, Holeman spent the first six years of his life in Hillsborough before his family moved to a 100-acre farm in northern Orange County. Holeman grew up on the farm and began playing the blues at the age of 14. His first guitar was a Sears Silvertone model that he bought for $15, and he began to learn the rudiments of blues chording from his uncle and cousins. "I listened to 78s like 'Step It Up and Go' by [famed Piedmont blues musician] Blind Boy Fuller, the Grand Ole Opry, and I heard others play at pig-picking parties," remembers Holeman. "I was good for catching on."
Working the tobacco grown on his family's land, a chore that required the budding guitarist to stay up through the night in order to tend to the fires that cured the crop, provided Holeman with another opportunity to hone his rapidly developing musical skills. "My guitar kept me company . . . so I wouldn't go to sleep," recalls the musician.
Holeman moved to Durham in 1954 to take a job with the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company after concluding that farming wouldn't bring in enough money to support himself and his family. By day, Holeman operated heavy machinery for the tobacco giant; by night, he supplemented his income by playing blues and "patting juba." Juba, the use of complex hand rhythms to provide timing for dancers, is a centuries-old tradition among Africans and African Americans. Where Holeman grew up, it was customary when party musicians took a break for the males to engage in competitive solo dancing accompanied only by hand or "patting" rhythms. Juba refers to both the complex hand rhythms and the dance traditionally done to them. The dance done to the juba rhythm is also called "buckdance," "bust down," and "jigging." "Patting" is distinguished from clapping by virtue of the varied pitches the patting hand elicits from the arms, chest, thighs, and flanks.
On weekends he played at private functions and house parties, often in the company of musicians who had learned first-hand from blues greats like Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Reverend Gary Davis. It wasn't until 1976, when he played at Durham's Bicentennial Festival, an event that drew more than 100,000 people, that Holeman received wider public attention as one of the Piedmont's most gifted bluesmen. Since that time, Holeman has been a highly visible performer of Piedmont blues, in the process meeting musical luminaries such as B. B. King and Lightnin' Hopkins, and recording with Mebane natives Joe and Odell Thompson, as well as with Cool John Ferguson and Taj Mahal.
Though he never chose to pursue music as a full-time profession, Holeman has played in concerts in Europe and Africa, where he also conducted workshops for students and other performers. He has played also in this country, including at the National Folk Festival and at Carnegie Hall. In 1988 John Dee Holeman was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1994 he received a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award.
Jarrell, Tommy (1901-1985)
Written by Thomas Reavis Lyons for the Old-Time Music Home Page. Used with permission from webhost David Lynch.
Thomas "Tommy" Jefferson Jarrell was born March 1, 1901 in Surry County, N.C., to Benjamin "Ben" Franklin Jarrell and Susan "Susie" Letisha (Amburn) Jarrell. He was born in his parents' home at the foot of Fisher Peak and was raised in the Round Peak area of Surry County, N.C. He had one foster sister (a first cousin) that was older than Tommy and ten younger brothers and sisters. The family raised corn, buckwheat, rye, beans, cabbage, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and apples to feed this large family. They also raised tobacco and owned cattle.
Tommy would tell of how hard he had to work. He began plowing at the age of eight or nine and would work from sunup to sundown. He said his grandfather Rufus Jarrell never knew when to quit working, that he'd try his best to find something for you to do on a rainy day. The family had hired Bauga Cockerham to help on the farm and he was the one who taught Tommy his first tune on the banjo. Tommy was probably around seven years old when Bauga taught him to play “Ol' Reuben.” About a year later, Tommy's father bought him his first banjo. At age thirteen, he began to fiddle on his dad's fiddle. His dad had bought the fiddle from Tony Lowe's widow for five dollars. When Tommy was 14, in 1915, he bought his own fiddle for ten dollars from Huston Moore, having borrowed the money from Ed Ward. Tommy said he like to never got the fiddle paid for. Tommy still had this fiddle in the 1980s. Tommy's fiddle is now part of the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington, D.C.
Tommy grew up playing dances or "workings" all over Round Peak. Back then, neighbors had "workings" such as wood choppings, barn raisings, apple peelings, bean stringings and corn shuckings. There was always a dance at the end of these gatherings. Tommy could sing to most of the tunes he played, but he would admit that he was a better fiddler than a singer.
Tommy attended Ivy Green School and quit in the seventh grade. He took his first car ride around 1916 in a T-model Ford. He said his daddy drove him and a couple of his sisters to the fair in Mt. Airy. He said he would never forget how that thing looked coming up the road. He said if he hadn't known what it was, it would have scared him to death. Tommy's uncle, Charlie Jarrell, taught him how to make sugar whiskey back around 1918. He said they made a pretty good turnout. In 1920, Tommy made a six-month trip to South Dakota to make whiskey for an ex-North Carolinian there who was dissatisfied with the local supply.
On December 27, 1923, at the courthouse in Hillsville, Carroll County, VA, he married Nina Frances Lowe, daughter of Charles and Ardena Leftwich Lowe. Tommy had known Nina about two years before he married her. He proposed while they were hoeing corn one day. He said "Nina, we'll get married if you want to. But I'll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, and I go to dances, make music, and I don't know whether I'll ever quit that or not. But, if you think we can get along now, we'll get married - and if you don't think we can, right now's the time to say something."
"Well," Nina said, "I believe we'd get along all right." And that was the way it happened.
Tommy and Nina lived with her parents during 1924. Both of her parents had died by the end of that year, and Tommy and Nina moved to Mt. Airy, N.C., and lived for a year with his parents. Children born to Tommy and Nina were Ardena "Dena" born February 25-27 [long labor?!], 1925, Clarence "Wayne" born February 8, 1927, and Benjamin Frankin "B.F." born September 19, 1933. Tommy and his family later lived on the South Franklin road in the Toast community near Mt. Airy, N.C. He was an employee with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for 41 years, beginning work in April of 1925 and retiring in 1966.
By 1975, Tommy had recorded seven albums. He had traveled to many colleges and universities around the country to play. He had played at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. And many festivals around the country have played host to Tommy and his music. In 1982, he was selected as one of the fifteen master folk artists in the first National Heritage Fellowships of the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a certificate and monetary award at a ceremony at the annual American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. A film titled "Sprout Wings and Fly" was made by Les Blank about Tommy.
The Round Peak area is well-known for its history of Old-Time Music and the Jarrell family contributed to that tradition. Tommy was the community's most famous old-time musician. His legendary fiddle playing brought him worldwide recognition. His father Ben had also recorded numerous songs [with DaCosta Woltz's Southern Broadcasters] and was considered one of the best musicians in his generation. Tommy was always eager to share his music with anyone. He enjoyed people and could entertain his visitors for hours with his music and storytelling. His favorite stories were about relatives, neighbors and friends who grew up new Fisher's Peak and in the Round Peak community. After Tommy became popular, people came from everywhere in the United States and from overseas, especially Europe, to see him and get him to teach them his style of fiddling. People ended up staying such a good length of time that a friend of his named Steve made a sign for him to put over his door that read "First Two Nights Free and After That $20 Per Night".
Nina died February 13, 1967, and Tommy died January 8, 1985, at age 83. Both are buried at Skyline Memory Gardens in Surry County.
Norton, Dellie Chandler (1898-1993)
By Burgin Mathews, courtesy of the AllMusic Guide, www.allmusic.com.
Dellie Norton sang the old, unaccompanied ballads and love songs passed down from her family and other members of her Blue Ridge Mountain community; in her own ninety-five years, she helped spread the songs to younger generations and gained national recognition as a ballad singer. Her singing style featured elaborate and spontaneous ornamentation, highlighted by vocal hiccups and elongated notes; her repertoire consisted largely of English and Scottish ballads like "The House Carpenter" and "The Silk Merchant's Daughter." Though she is best remembered for her singing, her long life embraced many aspects of traditional mountain living, making her a favorite among folklorists. Not only a singer, she was a banjo player, a quilter, a weaver, and an herbal healer.
Norton was born in North Carolina's Madison County, an area well-known for its vocal and instrumental heritage. Her own extended family included the Wallins (Berzilla, Doug, and Jack), the Chandlers (Lloyd and Dillard), and fiddler Byard Ray, all of whom were acclaimed performers of traditional music. In 1917 and 1919, British folklorist Cecil Sharp combed the region for its retention of ancient ballads and published the results in his English Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians; in an often-quoted passage, he proclaimed singing as universal as speaking in Madison County. A young woman, Dellie Norton offered to sing for Sharp, but he was more interested in the elders of the community. In the years to come, however, Norton would be much visited and respected by scholars (but not, ironically, until she herself was an elder). She was recorded in the 1960s by John Cohen, who included three of her performances on his High Atmosphere anthology; she also appears in Cohen's film The End of an Old Song. In her later years, Norton performed occasionally at festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, TN; in 1990 she was the recipient of a North Carolina Heritage Award. She died on October 3, 1993, within a mile of her birthplace.
An addendum excerpted from the Heritage Award citation:
Mrs. Norton spent most of her life farming and raising a family that included five children of her own and five from her husband's previous marriage. They represent only a few of the younger folk she helped guide through life. One of these for whom she was especially influential is her great niece Sheila Kay Adams, a fine singer who now carries on the tradition that Dellie Norton so lovingly preserved for the better part of the twentieth century.
Presnell, Edward Lee “Edd” (1916-1994), mistakenly called Estil Presnell in the film.
From the Traditional Artist Directory of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
Edd Presnell was raised in a musical family and community near Beech Mountain. The area was home to storytellers, ballad singers, banjo pickers, instrument builders, and toy makers. He was particularly interested in woodworking. He first heard a dulcimer when his future wife, Nettie Hicks, came by with an instrument her father, Ben, built. “I was 15 or 16,” Presnell recalled, “and Nettie brought the dulcimer over and played it.” With help from his future father-in-law, Presnell made his first dulcimer in 1936.
Between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, Presnell made more than 1,100 dulcimers. He and Nettie received the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award in 1974 for dulcimer making and woodcarving. In addition to making dulcimers, the Presnells hand-carved animals from wood, and they traveled around the region to fairs and festivals to sell their work, including at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh.
Presnell had a strong work ethic. “We’ve been through every age,” he said in a 1970s interview. “The Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Machine Age, the Atomic Age put together, only to find ourselves smack in the Money Age. The Money Age. It’s got to where a fellow won’t speak no more than twelve words to you unless there’s money in it. Me, I work because I like to work.”
Edd Presnell’s instruments are still found in the area and coveted by dulcimer enthusiasts and folklorists around the globe. He helped establish the Beech Mountain craft and instrument-building tradition.
Proffitt, Frank, Jr. (1946-2005)
From Jeff Warner’s article “Frank Proffitt, Jr.: 1946-2005” in Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine (Winter, 2006). Used with permission of author.
Frank Proffitt, Jr., of Todd, North Carolina, died suddenly on August 7th at the age of 58. Frank died too young, like his father Frank, Sr., who died at 52 in 1965.
A few weeks after Frank, Jr.'s passing, I was in Gloucester England, visiting with folklorist Peter Kennedy and his wife Beryl. I mentioned that I was giving a workshop at the Wadebridge, Cornwall Folk Festival, based on the songs that my parents, Anne and Frank Warner, had collected from, among others, Frank, Jr.'s father. Peter asked me if I would like to borrow his Frank Proffitt banjo for the festival. Only then did I remember that, indeed, he had one, and that I had been present when it was delivered to Peter's father in 1961. In a taped interview that summer, Frank Proffitt said "I have never felt more honored than to have my banjo go to England ... to have my banjo over there makes me feel a little closer to the land from which my people probably come." Now, I was about to play that same black walnut-groundhog skin banjo for a British audience. There was a circle of coincidence and joy forming, and I was honored and happy to be in it. I played the Proffitt banjo for Peter that day. It was transforming: the feeling was of playing better than I play.
Frank Proffitt, Jr., and I never felt the need to move beyond our fathers' music. We have spent our lives interpreting the songs our fathers sang and preserved. We played together several times both in the north and the south, the last time at Appalachian State University in 2001, with my brother Gerret. Over the years, I had the pleasure of introducing Frank to Smithsonian audiences and the honor of writing the introduction to his 1992 recording Kicking Up Dust. Gerret and I featured his dulcimer playing on our 2000 Appleseed Recording Nothing Seems Better to Me: The Music of Frank Proffitt and North Carolina.
Frank Proffitt, Sr., grew up on the North Carolina, Tennessee border. He and my father met in June of 1938, on Beech Mountain, N.C., and formed an important friendship that lasted almost 30 years—and a connection between the families that has lasted longer. That first day of their meeting, Proffitt sang "Tom Dooley" to Warner. Warner thought it a fine song, and sang it to Alan Lomax, who published it in his 1947 book Folk Song, U.S.A. The song finally made it to the consciousness of the burgeoning Kingston Trio, who recorded it in 1958. "Tom Dooley" became a commercial hit and a bellwether of the folk revival. Through that song, Frank Proffitt gained recognition as its source, as a preserver of song, and as a maker of fretless mountain banjos.
In the early 1960s, Frank Warner took Frank, Sr., to the Chicago Folk Festival, the World's Fair in New York and the Newport Folk Festival--and to Pinewoods folk music camp in Massachusetts. Frank Proffitt, Jr., and I grew up together, in different parts of the country, watching this phenomenon of a nation coming to respect and revere his father as a craftsman and source singer. It was at Pinewoods in 1961 that Frank Proffitt, Sr., gave his hand-crafted banjo to Douglas Kennedy, Director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Until I had it in my hands in that Gloucester flat, I had not seen the banjo since.
Continuing the traditions of his father, Frank, Jr., preserved the songs, stories and folklife of Appalachian culture. A skilled instrumentalist on mountain dulcimer and fretless banjo, Frank was also a fine singer of ballads and songs, and a talented storyteller. Encouraged by George Holt of the North Carolina Arts Council, Frank joined a Visiting Artists Program, taking his family and community songs and stories to audiences all over the state. I think with delight of this mountain boy, able to offer his Scottish-American ballads and mountain dance tunes to the flatlander/fishing folk of Dare County and the Piedmont students of Raleigh. Frank Proffitt, Jr., was in that program for many years. He sang, and told stories and traveled with his uncle, storyteller Ray Hicks, a National Heritage Fellowship Award winner. Frank, Jr., even got the chance to take his music to Scotland once: to sing Scottish songs—removed to a distant land since the 1760s—to a Scottish audience.
Frank Proffitt's epitaph is now his son's as well: "Going Cross the Mountain, Oh, Fare Thee Well." Well done, Frank. I'm glad you had a chance to do what you loved to do. I will miss your participation in the celebration of the old songs. But, they were there before us, and will continue afterwards.
Thompson, Joseph Aquiler "Joe" (1918 –2012), mistakenly called James Thomas in the film.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council
It is not widely known in this day that the fiddle and banjo were commonly played by African Americans from slavery times to well into this century. The two instruments in combination once provided much of the dance music for the balls and frolics of both white and black Southerners. And thousands of dance tunes—waltzes, schottisches, and reels—were adapted and composed for the fiddle and banjo.
Scholars have long established the African origins of the banjo, the prototype of which was made of hollow gourds and animal hides. The fiddle, of course, is the familiar name for the European violin, which was brought by early settlers from the British Isles and Germany. No one knows exactly when or how the instruments were first played together, but it was a marriage of two radically different cultural traditions, giving rise to one of America's first truly indigenous musical forms.
Joe and Odell Thompson were among the few "old-time" string-band musicians still active in the South. They were first cousins who made their homes near the Alamance and Orange County line north of Mebane. Born and raised on farms in the area (Odell in 1911; Joe in 1918), they grew up helping their parents tend crops of tobacco, cotton, corn, and wheat. Music-making was much valued in their households, and the sounds of the banjo and fiddle could be heard often in the evenings and on weekends, whenever the work was done. Joe and Odell's fathers, Walter and John Arch Thompson, were constantly sought after by neighbors, black and white, to play for square dances.
The Thompson boys soon began performing at Saturday-night dances with their dads. Joe recalls taking his position in the doorway between rooms filled with dancing couples. "We were playing [four- and eight-hand square dance] sets--I was only seven years old. We had straight chairs, and my feet couldn't touch the floor. And we were running them folks, man, a half an hour."
As popular tastes in music and dancing changed through the years, there was less call for fiddlers and banjo players. Joe played his fiddle at dances and parties throughout the 1920s and '30s, while Odell took up the guitar and learned the blues. But the Thompsons’ love of the old-time dance music persisted in more private settings, and they continued to perform favorite traditional standards such as "Georgia Buck" and "Hook and Line" at home and family reunions.
The early 1970s brought a revival of interest in African American folk music traditions. The Thompsons were "discovered" by folklorists who encouraged them to play publicly again, only this time for predominately white audiences at folk festivals and special events. In more recent years, they appeared at the National Folk Festival at Lowell, Massachusetts, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Washington state, and at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Until Odell's untimely death in 1994, the Thompsons’ playing was as inspired and vigorous as ever, thanks in large part to the love and support of their wives, Susie and Pauline. Their dynamic instrumental styles and soaring vocals packed plenty of punch and brought attention to the rich tradition of African American string-band music in the South. Joe Thompson, however, continued to play his fiddle for appreciative audiences. In 1999 Rounder Records issued a CD recording entitled Joe Thompson: Family Tradition. Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops sought him out, learned from him, and performed with him. Joe Thompson was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007 with its National Heritage Fellowship. Addendum: Its website includes a sampling of performances, a transcribed interview, and a recorded statement by Rhiannon Giddens on “the importance of tapping older musicians.”
Thompson, Odell (1911-1994), mistakenly called Odell Thomas in the film.
From an Artist Biography by Steve Leggett on the AllMusic website.
One of the last links to the prewar African-American string-band tradition, banjo player Odell Thompson was born on August 9, 1911, the son of John Arch Thompson, who was also a pretty fair banjo player. Thompson was raised in the northeastern part of Orange County in North Carolina, and when he began playing banjo, he absorbed his father's traditional repertoire, and was soon playing in string bands for square dances and frolics with his cousin, fiddler Joe Thompson. Odell took up guitar (he also played a little fiddle) and began playing the blues in the 1920s, but continued to play banjo in the old style in string bands with Joe until the 1940s, when pressure from bluegrass and other newer musical forms made their approach all but obsolete. In the early '70s, folklorist Kip Lornell discovered the duo and convinced them to start playing the old music again, which led to a new career of festivals and concerts for Thompson and his cousin. Odell played banjo in the old clawhammer style (a down-stroking technique that is known by several names, including frailing, thumping, and drop-thumb) on a fretless resonator banjo, and his sound had a wonderfully wild and archaic feel. Odell's banjo, coupled with Joe's ragged, swerving fiddle style, effectively re-created the feel of black string bands from the 1800s, and the duo's performances were literally living history lessons. Joe and Odell had just completed a set at Merlefest on April 28, 1994, when Odell Thompson was struck and killed by a car while crossing a road outside the festival grounds. He was 83. His passing broke the last link to the black string-band tradition as a living, breathing art form.
Thrower, John “Doodle” (1927-1994), James Watson (1936-2017), Randy Franks, and The Golden River Grass Band.
Courtesy of Randall Franks, “Just doodlin' aroun,” Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, Nov. 29, 2007, and “Legendary Clawhammer Banjo Stylist James Watson Dies,” Cybergrass Bluegrass Music News Network, June 4, 2017. Franks wrote that he was not the fiddler in the clip in Appalachian Journey: “I took over the fiddle duties from Bill Kee in 1984.” He had “passed away. His tenure was from about 1970. The footage was shot prior to his death and ultimately released five or six years after I joined the group.”
The Golden River Grass was the standard bearer for the Georgia Fiddle Band sound from the 1970s through the 1990s carrying on the traditions started by The Skillet Lickers, Fiddlin’ John Carson and Moonshine Kate and so many others. I had the honor to be one of four fiddlers including Bill Kee, Paul Wallace and Jerry Wesley who carried that torch joining in early 1985.
Doodle was a country comedian whose stories sometimes pushed the envelope. When I came to work with the group, my mother Pearl sat Doodle down and said “The only way my son can work with you is if you keep your act clean and family friendly.” Doodle agreed and he kept his promise, although he made it a point to stretch just a bit whenever mother was in the audience just to pick at her a bit.
During my time with the group, clawhammer banjo stylist James Watson’s strong right arm established a rhythm that made it a breeze for a fiddler to play, acoustic bassist Gene Daniell’s fingers forged a rock solid bottom which pushed the music along like the driver of a train, guitarist C.J. Clackum, and mandolinist and guitarist Wesley Clackum both provided a steady and consistent rhythm. All of this created the energy with which we hit dozens of stages from Ohio to Florida, South Carolina to Alabama. This group was a fixture on the biggest bluegrass and folk festivals in the East.…
“We had old time Georgia fiddle sound more like the Skillet Lickers,” [Watson] said. “We had a lot of humor through Doodle.” James got his beginnings on radio with Pappy Lee (Farmer) and the Chillun’ but it was his Uncle Jack that sparked his initially sparked his interest in music. While Doodle enjoyed a long musical career beginning at the age of 15 performing most of his life for square dances and local gatherings, he found his voice on the national scene when the musical magic of the Golden River Grass started reaching audiences. James and Doodle were a perfect stage team with James usually finding himself quietly receiving the focus of Doodle’s jokes. “Doodle could mesmerize the people,” Watson said. “We had a following. Our style — we done as good job as anybody that was out there. It wasn’t bluegrass, it wasn’t country, it was kind of hoedown. More like the old time.”
Brown’s Guide to Georgia cited the group as one of the top 10 acts in the state. Their talents won the attention of the National Council on the Arts bringing them to make repeat appearances at the National Folk Festival. Folklorist Alan Lomax sought out the group to document and feature in his PBS documentary “An Appalachian Journey” for the ”American Patchwork” series. They also starred in the PBS series “Tonight at Ferlinghetti’s.”
In its career, the group recorded about 100 songs of which I had the honor of fiddling about 60. I consider these recordings some of the most representative of the traditional sounds of Appalachia and closest to the music of my fiddling Great Grandfather A.J. “Harve” Franks and Great Uncle Tom Franks.
One of my fondest memories is of a Golden River Grass jam session at Holiday Hills Music Park in Florida. Adding to the energy of the jam session as we sang The Carter Family song “Foggy Mountain Top” was my friend Marty Stuart. I remember Marty telling me how much he’d like to bring Doodle to the Opry if he ever had the ability to make it happen. Sadly, by the time Marty’s star had risen to that level he could make it happen, Doodle’s health failed him. Marty told me after he heard of Doodle’s death that we lost a true American treasure. I agree.
In his memorial tribute to James Watson in 2017, Franks quoted him as saying, ““Doodle was amazing at working a crowd, he brought a smile to everyone’s face and shared the audience’s love with all of us and especially with me with his jokes,” he said. “We both grew up playing those old time tunes and when we got to going, me and him would stand for hours having a good time. It just made people’s hearts want to dance. After Doodle went on, while the music was still there, it took so much away from what we did, it wasn’t the Golden River Grass no more.”
Editor’s addition: Both Watson and Franks went on to gain recognition and honors. Both were made members of The Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame. (Watson lived in Roanoke, Ala., but most of his musical career was centered on Georgia.) Randall Franks had a career as an actor in films and TV programs, but he also continued to perform music. The International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., honored him as a Bluegrass Legend in 2011. He was inducted in 2013 into the Independent Country Music Hall of Fame. For a decade he served as Celebrity Host of the Grand Master Fiddler Championship at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and IBMA. See his Randall Franks website.
Workman, Nimrod (1895-1994)
Based on the citation accompanying his NEA National Heritage Fellowship.
Nimrod Workman's farming family eked out a living in Martin County, Kentucky, in the remote Tug River country. He was named after his grandfather, a full-blooded Cherokee who fought in the Civil War and who taught his namesake the old ballads from Britain about lords and ladies and the ancient Scottish wars. Nimrod's mother was also a singer, and his sister, Laura, played the banjo and the guitar. "My race of people," Workman said, "seem like they pick up music, they can learn it, seem like it's in 'em."
When Workman was fourteen, his parents signed a minor's release so that he was able to work in the coal mines, where he labored until 1952, when he retired with back and lung problems. On his last day in the mine, he fainted and his fellow workers carried him home to his wife, Mollie, whom he had married in 1929. Workman received no compensation for his illness and injuries, but in 1969 a public program was introduced to help miners with black lung disease. Still, Workman did not qualify for this support until 1971.
Over the years, Workman was active in the bitter struggles for unionization, and he memorialized the hard-fought legacy of his generation in songs that he wrote and sang for his family and community. "I've wrote a lot of coal-mining songs," he said. "I've done a lot of old-timey Christian songs. I've made quite a few of 'em. I worked in the coal mines about forty-four years, maybe a little longer. I've worked many and many ten hours for fifty cents."
Workman and his wife had thirteen children, two of whom died at an early age. "I raised my children by the hardest in the mines," Workman said, "from the old punchers, all the way to the 'Double-B,' to the conveyors, all the way to the 'Joy,' shooting from the solid with an old breast auger. I'm a man who knows mining. I done it. No other way to raise my children but that way. And I thank God that I've raised 'em."
Workman's song "Coal Black Mining Blues" exemplified the hardships he endured and the plight of his fellow miners.
Went to my place and I looked in,
Slate and the water up to my chin.
I've got the blues, I've got the blues,
I've got the blues, Lord, Lord.
Coal black mining blues.
I looked at my boss, and he looked sad,
The worst dang place I've ever had.
I've got the blues, I've got the blues,
I've got the blues, Lord, Lord.
Coal black mining blues.
Well, they sent me to the office,
Looked at the roll
Counted up nine dollars in the hole.
I've got the blues, I've got the blues,
I've got the blues, Lord, Lord.
Coal black mining blues.
Workman continued to perform into his nineties at community events and festivals around the country, singing to children and adults alike about the deep history of Appalachia. He was the subject of the Appalshop film Nimrod Workman: To Fit My Own Category and of the recordings Mother Jones' Will (Rounder 0076) and Passing Thru the Garden (June Appal Recordings JA0001), produced by his daughter, Phyllis Workman Boyens, who is herself a fine singer.