Posts Tagged ‘string band music’

American Banjo Museum

September 21, 2009

This certainly isn’t in Randolph County, but it fits well with the previous two posts.

While the good people in Rockingham County may be working hard on the “National Banjo Center,” the citizens of Oklahoma City already have the American Banjo Museum. It moved last week from a temporary home in Guthrie, OK, to a 21,000-square foot, $5 million home in Oklahoma City’s “Bricktown” historic district.


The museum collection includes more than 300 instruments, from primitive African gourd contraptions to the banjos of modern Bluegrass legends. It also includes the “National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame.”

Here’s a link to a newspaper article on the opening from September 11th: http://www.newsok.com/article/3400062 .

And another: http://www.examiner.com/x-3814-Oklahoma-City-Day-Trips-Examiner~y2009m9d9-Grand-opening-of-the-American-Banjo-Museum-in-Oklahoma-City-Bricktown-September-11 .

And here’s a direct link to the TV news report http://feeds.newsok.tv/services/player/bcpid4659235001?bctid=38885403001 .

Maybe some day Randolph County will get its due mention one place or another.

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Manly Reece

September 15, 2009

Manly Reece, circa 1855.

In my entry on Charlie Poole I mentioned the Charlie Poole Festival, which is held each year in Eden, NC, the combined town in Rockingham County formerly known as Leaksville, Draper and Spray. Charlie Poole lived and worked in Spray in the second half of his life, and now there is an effort to create the “National Banjo Center” on the Dan River there. The banjo museum would highlight Poole’s contributions to American musical history at or near the Spray Cotton Mill site, “ground zero” or “hallowed ground, as far as the music world is concerned,” said one of the promoters. (see March 26, 2009 article at http://www2.godanriver.com/gdr/news/local/rockingham_news/article/eden_strums_closer_to_housing_national_banjo_museum/9995/ ).

Not to take anything away from Charlie Poole or the economic development activities of Rockingham County, but southern banjo history- even North Carolina banjo history- has a much wider sweep and deeper pull than is found just along the Dan River. Here locally, Charlie Poole’s teacher and mentor Daner Johnson (mentioned in the previous article) not only taught Charlie but a generation of other local banjo pickers. No recordings of Johnson are known, but his Randolph County pupils Kelly Sears and and Glenn Davis are both featured on “The North Carolina Banjo Collection,” musician/ folklorist Bob Carlin’s excellent 1998 Rounder double-album which demonstrates the evolution of banjo-picking through 20th-century recording history.

However, the history of the banjo didn’t start with Charlie Poole or Daner Johnson. The roots of the instrument are agreed to be found in Africa and the transplanted traditions of African-American enslaved people in the antebellum American South. Less certain is how the instrument made its way into white southern culture. Joel Sweeny (1810-1860) of Appomattox County, Virginia, is the earliest documented white banjo player, and popularized the instrument in New York with his group of blackface minstrels at least by April 1839 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Sweeney ).

Sweeny’s tour of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1843-44 is credited with introducing the banjo to Europe. (Bob Carlin recently wrote a book about Joel Sweeney, too- http://www.minstrelbanjo.com/SWEENEYindex.html ).

But in Randolph County, the roots of the banjo can be traced to Manly Reece (1830-1864), a native of the area between Franklinville and Liberty. For almost everything I know about Manly Reece I must give credit up front to Andy Cahan, musician, historian, antiquarian bookseller and former Chapel Hill resident.  Andy came South from New York where he had been a featured artist (along with Bob Carlin) on the influential Kicking Mule album “Melodic Clawhammer Banjo” (http://www.amazon.com/Melodic-Clawhammer-Sapoznick-Carlin-Perlman/dp/B001HGPTNY ). As a young music historian and grad student Andy conducted oral history interviews around Galax in the 1980s on Manly Reece that led him directly back to Randolph County. His research paper “Adam Manly Reece: An Early Banjo Player of Grayson County, Virginia” was written for a class at UNC in 1987, and I am much obliged to Andy for sharing the paper and accompanying photographs with me. [It is one of the most valuable works of Randolph County and southern banjo history that has never been officially published, and I hope that is remedied soon!]

Banjo built by Manly Reece ca. 1848.

Through born in Randolph County, Manly Reece introduced the banjo to the Galax, Virginia area. His father George Reece, a blacksmith, was one of the twelve children of William Reece and Elizabeth Lane, who are buried in the Sandy Creek Baptist Church cemetery (see the church’s prior entry). George’s sister Agnes was the second wife of Elisha Coffin, underground railroad conductor, builder of my house and the 1838 cotton mill in Franklinville (see his prior entry), making her the aunt and Elisha the step-uncle of Manly (all history is genealogy!).

Detail of Manly Reece banjo- the back of the neck.

George Reece is remembered by his descendants to have played the fiddle, and Manly is said to have learned to play the banjo while just a boy. Manly’s own banjo, which is still in the possession of family members, is said to have been built by him before the family moved to Virginia between 1846 and 1848. Once settled in Galax, Manly played with the legendary fiddler Greenberry Leonard (1810-1892), who trained Emmet Lundy, one of the earliest recorded fiddlers in the area.  Manly’s banjo originally had 4 strings, but before he went into the army he’d converted it to 5 strings.  The family remembers that Manly played first in the clawhammer style, and later learned to fingerpick.  He could play many Stephen Foster songs, so Andy theorizes that Manly could have learned from a passing minstrel show (though I’ve found no references to those playing the Randolph County area).  Andy believes that Manly introduced the banjo to the Galax area, partly based on letters written to Manly after he went into service with the Confederate Army, where women write that they miss him and haven’t heard the banjo played since he left. His banjo was returned to his family after Manly was killed in March, 1864, while riding on top of a troop train in the Petersburg area.

Julia Reece Green and unknown fiddle player (original from Kahle Brewer)

Manly’s sister Julia Reece Green (1842-1911) learned to play the banjo from Manly, and passed the skill to her grandson Kahle Brewer. Kahle Brewer was a well-known old-time musician in Galax of the 1970s and 80s, and became a mentor to Andy Cahan and other expatriate students of southern musicology.

L-R: Allen Hart (banjo); Wayne Martin (fiddle); Kahle Brewer (fiddle); Alice Gerard (guitar); at Brewer house in Galax, VA, August 1988.

[From Kerry Blech website, http://home.comcast.net/~blechfam/gallery3.html .]

Andy Cahan’s initial research is still the last academic look into the antebellum roots of Randolph County music.  We’re missing fifty years or more from the story of 19th century music in the county, and perhaps some day that link can be uncovered. Between the time the Reeces moved to Galax in 1848 and the time a young Daner Johnson began to play circa 1890, at least a generation or two of musicians passed their banjo knowledge along. Whoever that was-–Daner Johnson’s teacher and mentor– is currently unknown. But Manly Reece, Daner Johnson and Charlie Poole were all born in northeastern Randolph, within a 5-mile radius of each other, so it is obvious that “ground zero” for the Johnson-Poole banjo tradition rightfully can be located somewhere just north of Franklinville, in Randolph County.

Charlie Poole

August 23, 2009

[Charlie Poole- in his early twenties.]

The last week has seen a flurry of news and reviews that concern the man who may be Randolph County’s most famous native musician. All the publicity arises over the release of Loudon Wainwright III’s excellent new album, “High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.”

I first read the story in the Washington Post [Charting the Deep Waters of Old-Timer Charlie Poole], and then heard a really great interview with the singer by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=13 ].

Courtesy of my friend Tom Hanchett, music historian and a curator at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, here are a couple of more story links: Rogue State: High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project and I [from the Washington City Paper]; Loudon Wainwright III leads salute to bluegrass legend Charlie Poole [New York Daily News]; Loudon Wainwright dives into country music’s past [The Tennessean ].

But this story is new only in that Loudon Wainwright’s double-CD album is new. Back in 2005 the excellent 4-disc box set “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music” (Legacy/Columbia Records) was produced by old-time banjo player Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, and Charlie Poole was the subject of symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also remembered annually at the Charlie Poole Music Festival in Eden (www.charlie-poole.com), so it appears that we’re in the midst of a full-blown Poole revival.

On September 28, 1985, the first (and only) Mill Village Music Festival was held in Franklinville, as part of the Franklinville Fire Protection Association’s annual “Fun Day.” (That was something volunteer fire departments used to do before tax support meant they didn’t need to raise money the hard way anymore). Local musician Gary Lewis produced the show, which had a number of bluegrass and old time musicians playing, including Poole biographer Kinney Rorrer’s group the Sweet Sunny South String Band. (Rorrer’s 1982 book Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole is the definitive biography.)

[Bob Johnson of Millboro showing the Poole house to a Greensboro News and Record photographer in 1984).

The reason I engineered this special event in Franklinville was to call attention to the fact that Charles Cleveland Poole was born March 22, 1892, in Millboro, part of Franklinville Township, in a tiny house still standing on the south side of the road from Millboro to Worthville.   Poole’s Wikipedia entry [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Poole ] is actually incorrect on this point, but his Dictionary of North Carolina Biography entry [ http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/movingday/bio.html ] gets it right.

With all this awesome documentation available, I won’t run through his whole life story, but I will sum up the significance of Charlie Poole like this:

Charlie Poole (L) and The North Carolina Ramblers.

After Poole and his band “The North Carolina Ramblers” went to New York in 1925 and recorded “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” for Columbia Records, American popular music was never the same. At a time when there were no more than 600,000 record players in the south, their recording sold 102,000 copies—five times more than any other record that year. Up until that time, “hillbilly music” had never sold more than 20,000 records, and Poole’s success led the music industry to seek out new performers such as Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family. Poole didn’t write his own songs, but combined elements of ragtime, blues, Victorian parlor songs, and even the old minstrel music popular before the Civil War, with his own unique three-fingered style of banjo picking.

[The Charlie Poole bithplace in Millboro, Randolph County, 2009.]

Poole is identified with the mill village of Spray in Rockingham County, where his family moved in 1916, but his formative years were without doubt spent in Randolph County. Both his father Philip Poole and mother Betty Johnson Poole had been mill workers at Haw River in Alamance County, and their relocation around 1890 put the family in the center of the Deep River mill villages.  The house is more or less equidistant between the Worthville mill to the west (with the Randleman mills another 2 mills west) and the Cedar Falls mill to the southeast (with the Franklinville mills another 2 miles east).

Millboro had just been created in 1889 when the “Factory Branch” of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway had reached that point from Climax.

[The last remaining early store in Millboro]

For several years while construction of the line continued towards Franklinville and Ramseur, Millboro served as the shipping point for all the mills in the area, and a number of stores and boarding houses grew up in the area.

The Halliday hunting lodge in Millboro was a prominent draw for sportsmen, and featured its own shingle-style water tank above the tracks (see entry FT:10 in my book, p. 93).

By all accounts, Charlie Poole was already playing the banjo before 1900.  Poole’s first wife said she once had a photograph of him as a child, playing a banjo made out of a gourd. Only after Poole began work in one of the mills could he buy himself a real banjo for $1.50.

One story has Poole’s distinctive banjo-picking style growing out of a childhood accident where Poole caught a baseball bare-handed, breaking his thumb and permanently deforming his dexterity and grip.

Daner Johnson

But another story, from Homer Johnson and Loray Allred of Randleman, says that their uncle Daner Johnson taught Charlie Poole to play the banjo in Johnson’s own distinctive style.

Daner Johnson and his brother “Nep” (Napoleon P.) Johnson were first cousins to Poole’s mother, and Daner Johnson was 13 years older than Poole. According to Homer Johnson, Daner Johnson told Charlie Poole to “throw away them finger picks—anybody who has to use a pick can’t play a banjo.”

Daner Johnson popularized banjo-picking not just in Randolph County, but all over the region.  It was said that at age 25 Johnson won a gold-plated banjo by beating banjo recording star Fred Van Eps in a competition at the 1904 World’s Fair (officially, the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition”) in St. Louis. (As an aside, the St. Louis World’s Fair created the 20th century American diet: among the foods first popularized at the Fair were hamburgers, hot dogs, the ice cream cone, peanut butter, cotton candy, Dr. Pepper and iced tea!)

Daner Johnson must have been a major influence on Charlie Poole’s ability to play their shared favorite instrument. Johnson and Poole continued to play together as adults, on visits to Poole’s sister’s home in Spray, or Johnson’s brother’s home in Draper.

[Daner Johnson tombstone at Melanchthon Church, Liberty, NC.]

Daner Johnson was almost as much a “rambling man” as Charlie Poole; he never remarried after the death of his second wife Pearl from pneumonia, and wandered from friend to friend, playing music, doing farm work and drinking heavily. He died in 1955 and is buried in the cemetery at Melancthon Lutheran Church near Liberty.

[Addendum:  I’m indebted to a post at banjohangout.org [http://www.banjohangout.org/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=155578 ] for a reference to Patrick Huber’s book “Linthead Stomp,” which features Charlie Poole’s photo on the cover.  Says Barnes and Noble, “Linthead Stomp celebrates the Piedmont millhand fiddlers, guitarists, and banjo pickers who combined the collective memories of the rural countryside with the upheavals of urban-industrial life to create a distinctive American music that spoke to the changing social realities of the twentieth-century South.”   Huber explores how the culture of industrial work and mill village life contributed to the music of Poole, Fiddlin’ John Carson, the Dixon Brothers, and other pioneers of the mis-named “hillbilly music.”  Finding the roots of old time string bands in mill village culture fits right in with Randolph County’s pioneer contributions to cotton mill village life.]

Addendum:  Reading through the local columns of The Courier, the local Randolph County newspaper, for 11 August 1927, I discovered this note:

“A reunion of the Poole family will be held at Nixon’s Pond, Sandy Creek, on State highway 62, Thursday August 11.  A picnic dinner will be served.  All relatives and friends of the family are urged to attend.  Charlie Poole, of near Leaksville, promises to have his string band at the reunion.  Mr. Poole’s band has recently been playing for records for the Edison Phonograph Company, and have been in New York City for some time on this mission.”