Category Archives: Old-time music
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is a great start.
Earl Scruggs, “pioneer” as the Huffington Post put it, of the Three-finger Banjo style, has died. For some of us, he has been a mentor and inspiration our whole lives. He was not merely a pioneer, he was the King. And there are many legends on the banjo–Bela Fleck, Ralph Stanley, Jens Kruger, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, and many greats. But no one like Earl.
As a displaced North Carolina boy moving around the country, my Dad kept me connected to music. He had a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears and a Harmony archtop acoustic guitar. The electric would shock you if you played in bare feet on the garage floor so I tended to play the acoustic. I didn’t know much about Earl Scruggs, but I kept running into him over the years.
When we moved to Irving, Texas in the late Sixties, I learned to play very slow rhythm guitar to a very slow “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (LISTEN) with my seventh grade friend, Brad Phillips, who was the odd combination of a banjo playing Episcopalian. Read the rest of this entry
Weather. Someone said to me not long ago, “It is humbling to consider that when you come to die, the crowd that day will be determined by the weather and they’ll sum your life up in twenty minutes or less.” Humbling.
“Shelter” is such a “taken for granted” in America that we live more disconnected from the fragility of life as it is exposed to the elements. It breaks in on us now and then—in California, by earthquake, in other places, snow or tsunami. Here in the South, we live chronically subject to the tornado and hurricanes.
Hurricanes are different in that they are coming for days. There’s always time to get away if you want to skeedaddle, even though it is some sort of honorable foolishness in this part of the country that there is always some guy named Leonard or Dude who never leaves and is filmed with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth while he grins and nails up plywood on his flimsy house and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m going to ride ‘er out.” Sometimes Leonard is never seen again, but often he makes it.
I don’t have any expertise on weather, but this global warming issue seems persuasive. How could billions of us NOT have an impact? Now, what we can do, or whether it’s too far gone, who can tell? We’re going to have to ride ‘er out.
If a hurricane is like watching an approaching army from a mountaintop, a tornado is more like running
into Jack the Ripper. Here in Alabama, when our local weatherman star says, “The sky is falling,” the local Publix grocery store looks like the aftermath of a locust plague and everybody heads for the house and their safe place. My wife and I have sat through more than a few in the dark, sitting down in the basement where my office-studio is, listening to the weather radio and praying for strangers nearby. After last April, the anxiety only went higher.
The closest I ever got to death out in the elements, other than almost drowning when I was six (I got hit by a car crossing the street that year, too, so I have to say, vulnerability I do know as a friend), was out in a rainstorm on a mountaintop in Colorado in the summer of ’73. It came on quickly, and we were surveying in a remote area where there wasn’t even a road. All we could do was crouch under a little hollow in a mountainside and wait. By and by, a bolt of lightening and a thunder clap came simultaneously. I saw the lighting hitting the ground about 100 feet away. My arm hair was standing straight up.
The three of us on that survey crew hollered. I think I yelled, “Whoa!” Surely the most useless word I ever spoke, but I didn’t have time to compose any elegant thoughts. As fast as it came, it was over. And, Lord, we were glad to be alive, we were. Exhilarating.
That’s what tornadoes are like—Jack the Ripper comes down the street and goes on by, and you are so grateful. Missed it this time.
Reminds me, like the time I huddled in the rain, that life is very precious, never guaranteed, and worth treasuring every day. Electric lights, indoor plumbing and the delusion of endless electricity have fooled us. We’re riders in the rain who still have to take cover when the siren sounds.
Since the weather Chicken Littlin’ is going on today, thought I’d post a couple of storm songs. Bluegrass, country and folk have always written songs about duststorms, avalanches, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Take a listen to two if you’re huddling down somewhere. “Galveston Flood” by Tony Rice and “California Earthquake,” a Rodney Crowell song performed by the Seldom Scene.
This earth is where we live. You have to respect it. Like Clint Eastwood said, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”
“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song. Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite. I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written. It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches. (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)
It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble? Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right. This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church). My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best. Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music. Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite. “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested. “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.
I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here. I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church. But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down. I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down. It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.
It was our little church, where we came for comfort. We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our
Jesus.” Lawd, we loved that song. What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.
The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks. He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor. A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands. The website says that
The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”
Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”
The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.” We always were one and the same. Thank God we at least sang his songs. So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.” Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.
Wade Mainer died this week at the age of 104. A mountain banjo player who came out of the mountains of Weaverville, NC, Wade and his brother J. E. were part of my life even though I never met either one of them. They split up and had separate careers after 1936, and were a big part of the foundation of what Bill Monroe fused into “bluegrass” music. Wade became the more famous of the two, playing the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt.
Uncle Vance Furr, my Daddy’s oldest brother, died at the age of 74. He lived, all of the time I knew him, within several miles of the house where I first lived after I was born. He and his brothers, including my Dad, were all carpenters and brickmasons, men of the earth and builders. They worked with their hands. Dad built that first house we lived in himself.
Uncle Vance lived on a main road, on a corner with a long drive going to his garage and shop. If you turned and went on down the road, there were houses where moonshine could be had if they knew you. Uncle Vance loved to fish and he loved music, among other things. My brothers, Mike and Greg and I had nicknames he gave us–I was “Big Mully,” and Greg and Mike were “Middle Mully” and “Little Mully.” I think that was short for “mullet,” as in the fish. In those days, there were no mullet haircuts, and he didn’t mean we were stupid. It was affectionate. We were like three little fish.
Vance, Dad and all the six brothers played music. They lived near J. E. Mainer, who came to Concord to work in Cannon Textile Mill, so he could have a steadier living than music. Vance played in a lot of bands around Concord, and played with J. E. Mainer some, according to Dad, including on the radio. J. E. would come around and say, “Any you boys want to go to Charlotte with me and play?” That was the music business then.
My cousin, Vance Jr., shared Uncle Vance’s old guitar, a 1949 Gibson J45, with my Dad so he can play it and enjoy it as the last surviving brother. He played that guitar in a band he was in, “J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.” We took it to Nashville to Cotton Music, where the fine craftsman there put it back into stellar shape again. He insisted we leave the scratches on the guitar, where apparently the fellow he bought it from had his initials scratched onto the body and Vance scratched them off. Those are hallowed marks, he said, you leave ‘em.
It smells good and looks good–a guitar with a lifetime etched into its scars. They are meant to be played, banged, nicked and strummed and sung with. Remembering is important. Someone is alive as long as they are remembered. The Bible says that God remembers us–and that means everything about us, good bad and ugly. But that remembering is life. As long as we are remembered, inseparable from the love of God, we are still around.
Uncle Vance was never famous, never moved from where he lived during my life. He never got elected to anything, so far as I know. But he had a story. Some of it I know–an early marriage that ended with an early and untimely death of his wife during childbirth. Years of work and some hard-drinking and music and fishing. A journey back to the Bible in his later years and, I surmise, peace with God.
And then there are stories I will never know–his thoughts during the journey of grief, coming through the Depression and World War II, sitting alone with his guitar and deedling. It doesn’t matter. Somehow when I hold this guitar, I know those stories and those notes are nearby.
This old guitar ain’t mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It’s been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It’s been up and down the country roads
It’s brought a tear and a smile
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar (Listen to the song)
Old-time, folk, country, blues, bluegrass, jazz all share a reverence for the heritage that helped them be born. Somebody had the guitar before you. Somebody played those songs their own way and gave you some ideas. Before you change it and make it your own, tip your hat and honor your ancestors.