Profiles of Virginia’s Banjo Players:
By Lew Stern
25 April 2016
I met Paul Bock, a five string banjo player from Virginia who started playing in the mid-1950s, in one of those encounters kindled online through Banjo Hangout and other internet-focused, banjo-driven platforms that we frequented . . . precisely the kind of relationship we warn our kids against. Paul started playing banjo in the mid-1950s, as a teenager, when the most common way of learning banjo was from watching and listening to banjo players, and the occasional book. He has long shown an abiding curiosity about all manner of musical forms, and in over 60 years of banjo playing eagerly sought to learn several picking styles, and enthusiastically sought to develop the capability to play multiple kinds of music – bluegrass, folk, country and gospel, classical and minstrel. That adaptability and flexibility intrigued me.
The “banjo biographies” of people like Paul Bock who learned in the 1950s, and continued expanding their banjo capabilities through a variety of interesting contacts and contexts, reflect very unique musical trajectories. Many of the Virginia banjo players with whom I have spoken, who immersed themselves in either bluegrass or old time beginning that long ago, learned their banjo skills in very specific local musical communities. Their playing reflected the uniqueness of those geographically specific sounds. They learned in an age when people-to-people learning was the usual course of action – “apprenticing” themselves to local banjo luminaries, and learning “on the job” in intensive jamming situations, without the technological innovations that video, DVD, internet streaming have brought to musical instrument instruction. That seemed to have defined the learning curves of that generation, equipping them with the capacity to get up and running in quickly changing musical contexts. Often, they matured musically in a manner that involved stints in the military – experiences that threw them together with other young men in uniform seeking the solace and comfort of familiar music. Those years in uniform exposed those troops to a variety of regional styles – and often led to bands that melded bluegrass, country, old time and other musical genres. Often, assignments to far-flung places exposed them to foreign influences and musical tastes, some of which crept into their musical consciousness. At the very least, they became extremely flexible and adaptable, capable of responding quickly to musical challenges, and working well in versatile ways with musicians of all stripes.
Sometime in 2009 or 1010, Paul and I began a discussion that eventually prompted him to pen what he called “The ‘Banjo History’ of Paul Bock.” Over time, he has responded to my questions, elucidating elements of this story. We continued this discussion – in an episodic fashion – for several years, and through at least two drafts of his “Banjo History.” This is my attempt to represent his banjo biography, calling on these discussions and exchanges, as well as other resources aimed at shedding light on an interesting musical journey.
Paul was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1942. The family moved to a farm in Powhatan County, Virginia, in 1951, where he lived until 1958 when the family relocated to Chester, Virginia, where he attended high school. Paul enlisted in the Navy after high school, served 14 years active duty, and 9 years in the navy reserve; he retired from the USN in 1983.
Paul’s interest in banjo derived from the country music he and his school mates heard in Powhattan, carried by WXGI, the daytime AM country station in Richmond, Virginia. He recalled that his parents “detested” this “hillbilly music,” and that he himself did not gravitate toward the Kitty Wells type tunes that were popular, but once in a while the radio DJ would play a tune that brought Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, and Jimmy Martin to his attention. As Paul recalled: “There was usually something neat going on with this one instrument in those bands that I later learned was a 5-string banjo. My best friend’s grandfather in Kentucky was an old clawhammer player, so my friend’s Mom (a widow) gave him a Sears & Roebuck “Silvertone” banjo for Christmas. After learning “C” and “D” chords he gave up and sold me the banjo for $20.00, and I began trying to figure it out. This was in 1956, when I was 14 years old.”
He picked up what he could by scrutinizing country music television shows, and deciphered the basics –he first learned about fingerpicks watching such TV shows, and taught himself the rudiments of an index-lead three finger approach that he credits to Don Reno, whose music he listened to very closely. Paul recalled seeing Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups at the old Lyric Theatre in downtown Richmond several times in the late 1950s, along with a host of other bluegrass luminaries such as Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, accompanied by banjo player Joe Drumwright, and Bill Clifton and his banjo player, Johnny Clark.
In 1958, after the family relocated to Chester, Virginia, Paul remembers that he regrettably sold the Silvertone that was his first banjo, but not much later bought a Bruno open back from a high school friend for eight dollars and continued to learn, helped in this regard by 45 RPM recordings by Monroe, Reno and Smiley, and Flatt and Scruggs. He remembered purchasing his first 33-1/3 record album, Flatt and Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Jamboree.” At some point, a relative gave Paul a 78 RPM Mercury recording by Flatt and Scruggs playing “No Mother or Dad” on one side, and an early version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the second side; he still has that recording.
Paul completed high school in 1959, and remembers having the basics of five string banjo down to the point of being able to play credibly enough to join in with other musicians that he met at the USN Electronics Technician school in Great Lakes, Illinois, which he attended from October 1959 to April 1960, though he also recalls selling his Bruno banjo to a navy friend who played the guitar at the end of their training in the mid-1960s.
That was the first step of a life pattern shaped by periodic USN reassignments: Paul would land at a new duty station, ferret out like-minded musicians, drill down on the music with these friends, and after a few years find himself transferred to a new town where he would take up a new naval assignment with a new outfit, and begin the process of seeking out local musicians and similarly inclined USN colleagues looking to make bluegrass music. That made him flexible, kept him from developing too much of a comfort level in one playing situation or another, inclined him toward the adaptability necessary to play in a wide variety of contexts with a range of different musicians with unique and individual approaches, and interested him in a variety of banjo styles – bluegrass, country, and folk.
After a transfer to a duty station in Bethesda, Maryland, Paul purchased his first upgrade banjo, a Gibson RB-250 bowtie archtop. Paul recalled:
I was playing a rented Harmony “Roy Smeck” model and my father down in the Richmond area suggested that instead of buying that, I look for something better and more permanent. The family had an old clarinet and told me I could see if that could be traded in for partial credit on a banjo at the store where it was purchased, Walter D. Moses in Richmond, VA. They had several used Gibsons but the only models available new were the RB-100 (with a brass hoop but no tone ring), the “bowtie” RB-250 with the square peghead and archtop tone ring (same neck design as what Allen Shelton played), and the RB-180 long-neck for folk music. I chose the RB-250 and it cost me $355.50, which after the clarinet trade-in cost me $11/month for 20 months which I duly mailed in to the music store each month.
With that new banjo, Paul began jamming intensively with a talented bluegrass guitarist, Dave Gilligan, an enthusiastic singer with an abiding love for bluegrass music. Paul felt that he was making serious progress as a banjo player. The two played at local bars, and sometime in the early or mid-1960s entered the National Championship Country Music Contest in Warrenton, Virginia, as “The Stone Mountain Boys.” Paul recalled: “We neither won nor even placed, but on the second banjo break I played part of it “double-speed” a la Don Reno, and got applause from the audience after the break. When we finished the song and were leaving the stage we passed Red Smiley and he smiled and said, ‘Nice job, boys!’ You never forget such occurrences.”
Paul was transferred to the Naval Medical Research Institute at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda after completing ET School, and was there from April 1960 until May 1961, at which point he was transferred to a prep school at Bainbridge, MD, and from there to North Carolina State College in September 1961, where he attended a USN-sponsored college program. This was a music-intensive period for Paul. Sometime shortly after he arrived in Raleigh, after hearing Paul fooling around on the banjo on his front porch, Jody “Red” Rose recruited Paul for his “Dixie Mountain Boys” – not to be confused with Bill Clifton’s band.
In September 1962, Paul joined the band at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, where he met Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who ran the “folk music” show for the state fair, and was the “judge and jury” for the band, fiddle and banjo contests – and all other musical competitions. Paul secured second place in the banjo contest, and the band returned the following year when they locked down first place in the “best band,” and “Dixie Mountain Boy” band members nailed the first place in the “best fiddle” and “best banjo” contests. Paul remembered playing a version of “Dear Old Dixie,” using his index lead approach that – in his view – gave the tune a decidedly different flavor from Earl Scruggs’ version. He also recalls taking the stage with the band alongside of Bascom’s wife, Freda Lunsford, and a second banjo player, Ray Lunsford, Bascom’s cousin.
In the early 1960s, while still living in Raleigh, Paul met Steve Wiseman, and spent some time visiting Steve’s parents, Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman, in their retirement home in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. In the mid-1960s, Paul got to watch Earl up close and personal at a Flatt and Scruggs stage show in Raleigh. In the same time frame, Paul gravitated toward old time style up picking, learning what he recalled as the rudiments of folk banjo style, Kingston Trio style, in part because of the popularity of the folk genre on campuses such as North Carolina State. He also began spending a good deal of time at a local 50,000 watt radio station, attempting to learn a bit about broadcast engineering. In Paul’s memory, he started hanging around WPTF in the Fall of 1963 and early 1964 when he happened to meet the all-night “jazz jock” and they hit it off due to a common interest in sports cars.
All that time spent in decidedly un-naval pursuits – including his continuing interest in ham radio operation - Paul’s academic performance flagged, and the Navy dropped him from the program and sent him to sea.
In April 1964, Paul was assigned to serve as part of a pre-commissioning detail for the USS Belmont at the headquarters of the Williamette Iron and Steel Company in Portland, Oregon, where he met several other USN personnel including Ernie “Mac” MacDougal, an electric guitarist, and Jerry Chamberlain, a bass player. Paul and these two musicians formed the “Dutch Gap Ramblers,” whose name was taken from a highway crossroads near Chester, Virginia, where his parents were living in the mid-1960s. In 1967, Paul ordered a custom-made Gibson RB-800 – he played that instrument until the 1980s, when he sold it to Delbert Purkey who played banjo and sang lead vocals for his father’s band “Bob Purkey and the Blueridge Travellers.” Paul also jammed with John Egan, also assigned to the USS Belmont at the time, playing backup to Egan’s Chet-Atkins-style guitar work. Transferred in 1968 to shore duty in Norfolk, Virginia, Paul met and married his wife, and within a year’s time was reassigned to the Naval Communications Station in Morocco as a Warrant Officer. He served there until 1972, and filled his spare time with playing in informal ways, and at base functions, with a mandolinist and a washtub bass player who, together, constituted the “Down Home Trio.” In 1972, Paul was transferred to the USN facility at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He recalled that there were fewer opportunities for making music in what would be his last naval assignment, though he did spend his time attempting to grasp the melodic style. He served there until 1973 when he resigned his commission and was discharged to civilian life after 14 years of active duty. As Paul summarized the latter part of his career in uniform:
After my four years on USS BELMONT (1964-68) and a little over a year at the Nuclear Weapons Annex in Norfolk (1968-69) I transferred to NAVCOMMSTA Morocco in October, 1969 and rotated out of there in December, 1971. After that it was NAVFAC Cape Hatteras, NC, from February of 1972 until I resigned my Warrant Officer appointment and left active duty in September, 1973, as a Master Chief Petty Officer (my permanent grade). I subsequently affiliated with the USNR for 9 years, retired without pay in 1983, and transferred to the U.S. Navy Retired with retirement pay at age 60 (2001).
Paul’s life after his service in uniform demonstrated the same organized thinking about options in his career path, and replicated the pattern of seeking out alternative musical opportunities as crucial junctures in his life. He became a naval reservist, having reverted to his enlistment rank of Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9), purchased a home in Petersburg, Virginia, and started working as the Chief Engineer mof a local AM/FM radio station. Three years later, after earning a bachelors of science degree, he secured employment as a systems engineer with a defense contractor in northern Virginia, working on a project for the Naval Security Group, a path he followed until 1996 when he shifted to telecommunications hardware design, working as a senior design engineer in that industry. He earned a Masters of Science degree, was a co-inventor of a patented telecommunications equipment design, and retired from engineering in 2002.
Paul’s banjo trajectory from the 1970s to the first decade of the 21st century involved several unique twists and turns.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he played with a variety of bands, bluegrass configurations that played “raw traditional” and modern crossover music. During the mid-1970s, Paul played with mandolinist Bill Russell and guitarist Hardy Green as the “Blades of Grass, and focused their musical attention on tunes played by the Country Gentlemen” and the Seldom Scene. From the late 1970s through the early 1980s, Paul played with “Sugarland Express,” “Ken Rogers and the Downhome Pickers” and “Bluegrass Bureaucracy.”
Through those years, Paul met many musicians in the Virginia/Maryland region including Bill Rouse from Maryland, Bill Emerson, Delbert Purkey, Chris Warner, Tom Adams, and Johnny Whisnant, who with his wife June was a musical fixture then living in Loudoun County, Virginia in the early 1980s, but who dated his first interest in banjo playing to the 1930s.
Whisnant’s playing and his personality captivated Paul, and in the early years of the 1980s, Paul thrust himself back into a student’s role, undergoing a “re-education” of sorts in the hands of Johnny Whisnant, who Paul recalls as a cantankerous old timer with an exacting teaching approach and a unique playing style.
That put Paul in touch with banjo playing dynamics, and enabled him to call on traditional methods, grasp elements of the Earl Scruggs approach that had, in his own telling, eluded him, and call on innovative melodic stylings to extend his throw weight as a banjo player. As Paul noted in his “Banjo History”:
My association with Johnnie was interesting. The first time he heard me play he snarled, “You’ve got a right hand like that Hank Satterwhite down in Richmond” – and I knew of Hank, had seen him on TV when I lived in Petersburg, and he was a very highly-skilled melodic-style player. But Johnnie played differently, and I wanted to learn from him, so after a lot of cajoling and almost-begging on my part he agreed to teach me on condition that I drop everything I was doing and do only what he taught. So I did, for a full year and a half. And in the process the light bulb came on and I finally understood how Earl played and how his playing differed from Reno’s, and how to use the fingerboard in ways that I’d never imagined.
During 1980 – 1985, Paul experimented with banjo building, completing four or five banjos, doing some “piece work,” and undertaking banjo repairs.
An injury sustained during that phase sidelined him, prompted him to put aside the banjo from essentially 1987 to 2005. Paul returned to local jamming in early 2005, teamed up with local musicians in several different bands during that timeframe, and when those disbanded in the 2005-2007 period, he continued experimenting with the banjola (to which he had turned his attention in 1999), shifted his focus to early classic style, taught himself the elements of minstrel style, and in the years from 2012 to 2015, worked at learning clawhammer.
* * *
Paul’s back to the basics immersion in bluegrass banjo technique, his re-education in the hands of Johnny Whisnant, offers some insight into the things Paul valued most about music, and the things that most captivated Paul about the banjo.
Paul wrote a series of articles for Banjo Newsletter about Johnny Whisnant, his teacher in the 1980s. Three parts appeared in BNL: Part 1 in November 1985, Part 2 in December 1985, and Part 3 in February 1986. The last lines of Part 3 reference a Part 4, but that installment never made it into BNL. The titles of the three pieces that were published stand as the “bumper sticker” for what Paul believed to be important about Whisnant:
There are some dimensions of Whisnant’s approach to banjo playing that were intrinsically similar to what Paul brought to banjoing: Over time, Paul examined his own banjo playing approach closely, as did Whisnant; Paul experimented with alternative ways of playing, and refined techniques developed by other plays to the point that they were relevant to his own playing, as was the case with Whisnant. Paul’s foray into banjo building confronted him with design choices, construction alternatives and set-up strategies that he had to work out himself, relying on his good engineering sense, his inventor’s instincts, and his personal taste – in much the same way that Whisnant’s banjo building experiences prompted him to solve problems, devise innovations of his own – including the peghead “cheaters,” and various capos of his design that Paul spoke about in his BNL articles. For Paul, all of that combined to yield his “Snowflake Special,” hand built flathead, two-piece flange with a mahogany neck and resonator, rosewood fingerboard, snowflake fingerboard inlay, and gold played hardware.
However, scrutinizing Paul’s articles reveals the elements of banjo music and banjo playing personally important to him.
To Paul, practicality in a musician meant keeping up with changes in style, the emergence of new techniques, while balancing that with a commitment to defining an entirely personal approach to music. Putting “personality” in one’s banjo playing mean playing what you care about. Paul cared about sticking to a distinctive stylistic approach, and figuring out how to vary and intermix techniques to make arrangements pleasing. He felt that devising easy, economical ways to play tunes, with simple right hand patterns, was the best approach – or the best approach for him. And he was fully in favor of exercising the right and the left hands to achieve maximum coordination; to Paul, that meant learning to use full chords, and stretching the left hand to achieve maximum reach. When Paul sought to think about the effectiveness, the talent, of a banjo player, he appears to have looked first to identify unique features in technical approach.
And when he thinks about effective teaching, articulate and helpful ways of conveying how to make the five string banjo work, he looks to simple, straightforward ways of getting to the instructional point. He thrived himself in a context where the teacher placed a primacy on “note to note learning,” and seems to have embraced dissecting tunes and teaching recognizable elements of those tunes as the best way to push through learning a song on the banjo. Whisnant taught in “blocks of material,” breaking things up according to an instinctual feel for the capability levels of each student, and he integrated practice into lessons, sending his students to the “back room” to work through what he conveyed to them. Paul seems to have seen that approach as effective, coupled with the practice of beginning new lessons with careful reviews of old material to consolidate student capabilities. Paul shared Whisnant’s understanding of the importance of establishing “foundation,” by focusing on roll patterns, playing out of full chord positions - synchronizing right and left hand work to get the rolls to work across the chords - and selecting tunes strategically so that the lesson focuses on tunes that incrementally build capability. Finally, Paul appears to have accepted Whisnant’s view that a teach can impart “a way to play” a tune, not the way to play a tune, leaving room for the student to exercise initiative and use imagination.
* * *
From the start, Paul struck me as an organized thinker, a rigorously disciplined man who spent time in uniform in his early years, gained a technician’s competency in electronics courtesy of the U.S. Navy, worked as a radio station engineer after his 14 active duty years, and wended his way toward a “second” career as a systems engineer before seguing into telecommunications hardware design.
Interestingly, throughout those years Paul found profound opportunities to make serious music with all manner of people, rubbed elbows with some bluegrass greats, and learned banjo at the feet of some big-ticket teachers.
I presumed that a man with a deliberate, structured career and a strategic way of organizing life and employment, a man with a decidedly technical capability, would look at music in a “scientific” manner, searching for patterns, reasons, theories, and efficient approaches.
I presumed wrong. Paul has approached music systematically, and he has attempted to “decode” elements of bluegrass banjo playing, as one might expect from an engineer-trained mind, but in an otherwise squared away life he has allowed music to introduce mystery, anarchy, and wonder that help remind him that sometimes sound isn’t nearly as predictable as radio waves.
 “Country Music Contest Begins at Warrenton,” The Free Lance – Star, Fredericksburg, VA, 31 July 1965; “Country Music Contest Set,” The Free Lance – Star, Fredericksburg, VA, 23 July 1966. The contest in Warrenton was first held in 1950. In the mid-1960s, it appears to have been sponsored by the Warrenton-Fauquier Jaycees. In 1965, Connie Smith was the guest star, and Bob Taylor and the Stringdusters provided back up music for her. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1298&dat=19650731&id=sP5NAAAAIBAJ&sjid=z4sDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6379,5362488&hl=en and https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1298&dat=19660723&id=GflNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=bIsDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4846,7220627&hl=en
 Paul and Dave lost contact after Dave, a Navy Hospital Corpsman, was transferred to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he served in the Marine Corps.
 In 1984, the Travellers recorded an album, “Old Dominion Bound” (WLPS-0112), with Webco Records. The tune “Purk-O-Lator” - the fourth cut on the second side of the album - was written by Delbert who still had that RB-800 through at least 2012. http://www.discogs.com/Bob-Purkey-Blueridge-Travellers-Old-Dominion-Bound/release/3311177
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