Tag Archives: appalachian music

Rediscovering the Roots of Bluegrass: Historically Significant Recordings from the Great Smoky Mountains Released

According to Olson, the recordings he discovered, made in Haywood County, NC, by folklorist and linguist Joseph S. Hall in the 1950s, represent “the missing link between old-time string music and bluegrass, two music genres . . . whose connections are not widely understood.”These historically significant recordings, featuring music performances by the late five-string banjo master Carroll Best and some of his friends, document that Best was a pioneer of the melodic, three-finger banjo style.

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Used today by numerous banjo players, including Bill Keith, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, the melodic style allows the banjo player to play more melody notes than the more widely known “Scruggs-style” bluegrass banjo. A new CD, “Carroll Best and The White Oak String Band: Old-Time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, 1956 and 1959,” is a collection of informal jam sessions that occurred during Hall’s postwar forays into the Smokies.

In 1956, Hall recorded such local musicians as Best, destined to become one of the most significant banjo players of his generation, along with his wife, Louise Best, S.T. Swanger and Don Brooks, while in 1959, he recorded Best, Raymond Setzer, Billy Kirkpatrick and French Kirkpatrick.

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Making Music: The Banjo, Baltimore, and Beyond

The banjo is frequently associated with Appalachia, appropriately in some regards, but many people still believe, wrongly, that the banjo originated there. Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), correctly pointed out that the banjo had its roots in Africa: “The instrument proper to them [enslaved African Americans] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.”

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Johnny Mull, Fiddler of the Mountains

But Johnny did not limit his playing to Clay County and dances on Tusquittee. No Sir! When he was in his early twenties he took off to Canton, OH, and got a good paying job at Timken Roller Bearing Company. That was exactly what his older brother, Joseph David (1900-1992), had done when he was 22 years old. I always thought if my daddy, (Joseph) had not gone up to Canton to find work, Johnny might never have left the mountains. But you never know what life will hand out to you!

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Cousin Urbin was a Musician, a True Troubador

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.

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