Tag Archives: appalachian music

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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Diana Jones’ Road to the Museum of Appalachia

It was a homecoming in many ways. I was back in the Smoky Mountains, where I had found my birth family and discovered why old-time country music had resonated in me so deeply since I first heard it. I was recording the songs that came to me through knowing my grandfather in a place and in a way that made perfect sense to the tradition and the sound. The only thing missing was his physical presence, otherwise I knew he was there in spirit, tapping his knee and singing along.

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‘Can You Sing Or Play Old-Time Music?’ — The Johnson City Sessions

A few of the 78 RPM records made in Johnson City in 1928 sold well when released by Columbia in early 1929. One record by the duo of Earl Shirkey and Roy Harper, “Steamboat Man” backed with “When the Roses Bloom Again for the Bootlegger,” sold nearly 75,000 copies. Walker decided to return to Johnson City the following October to make additional recordings.

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