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Thursday, May 20, 2010

LAYIN DOWN THE OLD BANJO

by the side of virginia hwy 72


I fumbled about for several hours getting 22 songs on a cd to take to Woodlawn tomorrow to have made into several more. Made a copy to play Saturday morning. What a thrill that will be to play Jr and Art Wooten together on the radio show. They played well together, too. I've noticed times when Jr's banjo is riding the same wave as the fiddle, note for note. And there are times when he goes off into his own moment of abstract exploring new ways to dance with some of the notes. I want to take copies to his friends who are now my friends. I'll give them to radio stations, folklife centers, wherever archives are kept of mountain music that I can find. I'm doing it, like I do much of everything else, because nobody else is doing it and I believe it needs doing enough to do it myself. It's for the memory of Jr. It's for Alleghany County's heritage. It's a record of some musicians in the county who weren't afraid to make music, musicians who didn't record and weren't interested. Somehow they got recorded.


5 or so years ago Jr got a call from somebody in Boone associated with the University and the Appalachian program. He told Jr that his band was the first bluegrass band in the region. We both think he meant county. He said he wanted to visit and ask questions toward a book he's writing on early bluegrass in this part of the mountains. He never turned up. That was the end of it. Jr and I both forgot about it until a few years later when we had a good laugh. Jr didn't want to see him anyway. He asked me what good was all that. I had a hard time. What's important to me was not necessarily important to him. I want the county to have awareness that we have and have had some good musicians here. Bobby Johnson is another good banjo picker who never recorded anything as far as anybody knows. The people of the present and future will never know the sound of his pickin. That was how it looked for Jr, too. Every bit of music I've found by him, I've sent to the folklife center in Chapel Hill. I'm grateful for the field recorders who have traveled through these mountains saving the older ways of playing. The music changes in time, and Jr's band was in its place and time. Bluegrass took hold in these mountains from the start.


Jr figured out the banjo when he was 14 and played square dances in his late teens and early twenties. He tired of it. He called it "draggy," too slow. He was a mountain boy. Wanted it faster, faster, like a car. There was a time he had a 56 Ford and said it was the fastest car in the county. How do you reckon he found that out? I don't think he figured it out on paper. He quit playing several years. Bluegrass brought him back. He wanted to do that finger roll. Bluegrass was the only music he listened to. He could listen to country on WBRF afternoons in an empty house. He heard country, listened to bluegrass. Nothing else was even music to him. One of his sayings about old-time, was "if old-time aint got drive, it aint got nothin." Some object, but I'm with it. Whitetop Mountain Band, for example, is an old-time band with drive. Good musicians, good drive, good music


I've sat with him in the evenings listening to bluegrass on WBRF while we talked. When it was Wake Forest basketball, football or Nascar races, we left it off. Jr needed no white noise. He watched no television. Nothing interested him on tv except the few minutes of weather in the middle of the regional news. We had it timed pretty good so I could turn it on the momen the weather started and off the minute it's over. I like silence. Jr liked silence. Both of us were comfortable in silence. If he needed to have a tv on, I'd have never spent any time there. Of course, there's some that's good. There's good stuff going on in New York, too, that I'm missing, just like I'm missing the good stuff on tv. I miss almost everything in this world, because I can only be one place at a time and must rest now and then. So I rest a lot and miss everything. Tomorrow night at the Front Porch frame shop behind Bobby Patterson's Heritage Shoppe, where he sells mountain music, emphasis SW Virginia, Steve Lewis, Scott Freeman and Willard Gayheart will be pickin and singin. Small place, a dozen or so people, some of the finest musicians in our area. Steve can lay it to a banjo. He can tear up a guitar too. And he's a true human being. He's an artist.


I've been immersed in hearing Jr's banjo, Art Wooten's fiddle, Cleve Andrews's and Ernest Johnson's. Johnson is in Wilkes County. He was a fiddler Jr thought a great deal of, also Johnny Miller, another Green Mountain Fiddler, perhaps the last one. Now if something could be found with Tiny Pruitt on it. They say he could light up a fiddle. Jr told me that after Bob Caudill died, which was the end of the Green Mountain Boys, he with Tiny Pruitt and Vick Daniels, a guitar picker from Independence, decided to start working toward recording an album. One night at Jr's house they worked on a song of Vick's composition. On the way home that night, Vick died at the steering wheel of a heart attack. Not much later, Tiny, working in his alignment shop in Wilkes was up on a ladder, fell off, popped his head, that was it. Jr put up his banjo. His last wife didn't like bluegrass and despised banjo. He played despite her, but then there came the time he had nobody to make music with. He was out of heart. Peace with his Scorpio Yankee wife was an ongoing concession. Maybe if he quits playing, she'll like him better. LOL.


He sold the banjo to Richard Woodie, took the money from the banjo and put it in a redbelly Ford tractor that he kept parked in the shelter of a shed below the house. It was his banjo in storage. I mistakenly believed picking banjo again would help his spirit, which was dragging bottom a few years after his wife took him for all she could get and went back up north, but it hurt his noting fingers that had lost their calouses on the tips. He couldn't make his fingers do what he wanted them to do. The banjo was too heavy to hold comfortably standing up and he didn't like to play sitting down. He couldn't remember the tunes he used to play. The ones he could remember, he didn't remember the whole thing. It became a frustration for him I regretted bringing up. I wasn't the only one. Nearly everyone he knew was at him to pick his banjer up. Another lesson for me in letting things be as they are.








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