Cousin Urbin was a Musician, a True Troubador

Posted by | October 10, 2017

Cousin Urbin was a Musician, a True Troubador (abridged)

‘The Mountain Eagle,’ Whitesburg, KY, January 28, 1965

By Larry Caudill


Back in the first decade of the 20th century the grandmothers of us mountaineers were apt to believe that such frivolities as dancing, card-playing and banjo picking were erosive of character if not downright sinful—wasters of time which could better be put to useful work. So she didn’t allow such capers around her home.

Detail from William Sidney Mount (American genre painter, 1807-1868), ‘The Banjo Player’ (1856)

Detail from William Sidney Mount’s (American genre painter, 1807-1868), ‘The Banjo Player in the Barn’ (1855); collection of Detroit Institute of the Arts

My older brother Fred, who died in 1946 as Dr. F.W. Caudill of the State Board of Health, clung always to those principles, though not to extreme in practice.

Me, now—I have noticed over the decades that skill in a youth at dancing was conducive to the poise and fast reflexes that made great college athletes; that contract bridge is the finest discipline for the mathematical mind and orderly thinking of all card cames;  that few things can revive sagging spirits like a rollicking rondo or evoke the delicious agony of nostalgia like a sad sweet ballad on the old banjo.

Among the unforgettable characters of our boyhood was a kinsman, Urbin Cornett. Orphaned early, he was a true and beloved vagabond. He lived here and there among the kith & kin.

At every household he was accepted simply as just another of the young ‘uns and took his share of the work or play.

If the work became too onerous or he became otherwise unhappy, Urbin simply moved on. He traveled lightly, with little more than the shirt on his back, a pocket knife — and his beloved banjo. For he was a musician, a true troubadour.

When Urbin came to Grandpa Arch Cornett’s for a sojourn he carefully cached the banjo in the barn before going to the house.

After supper of a moonlit autumn evening Urbin was apt to saunter out to the barn and with his banjo, rest against the back of the barn and play and sing the ancient ballads which now make fortunes for professional folk-singers with guitar and dulcimer.

Urbin at other times was a master storyteller around the hearthfire, especially ghost tales. It was said that he believed in ghosts.

In the household were some eligible girls—and there were the inevitable wooers. These young men knew of Urbin’s banjo in the barn and his penchant for indulging his loneliness with lonesome songs behind the barn.

They decided one night to test out his belief in ghosts. One of them took a white sheet to the barn, hid at a corner and put the sheet over his head in the manner of the most approved ghost.

As Urbin sang the saddest climax of the tragic ballad, the youth stepped out of hiding into his view.

Urbin got one glance, sprang up and ran headlong for the house, reaching the outlying cookhouse as the nearest haven of refuge.

There sat Grandma, beside the warm kitchen stove, calmly smoking her clay pipe.

To his horror, Urbin suddenly realized that he still had his banjo in his hand.

He escaped, but it was quite a passage of time before he was again seen around Grandma Martha’s premises.

Maybe there’s a moral here: it’s all right to let yourself get carried away with your music, but don’t let it carry you into trouble.

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