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Chapel Hill NC Old Time Scene 1960 - 1963

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Friday, February 16, 2018

One of the things I’ve not been able to cover to my satisfaction in writing about Tommy is the old time music scene that existed when Tommy arrived in Chapel Hill in 1963.


I’ve got good info on the music scene that existed beginning in 1965/1966, and how that community evolved through the early 1970s. 

I’ve talked to many musicians, actors, teachers who helped me understand the venues, resources, jams, bands that existed in the mid and late 1960s, and that often carried on in one for or another through the early 1970s.


The period from 1960 to 1963 is an intelligence gap, so to speak. 


Here’s my understanding of that period on the basis of what I learned over the last two years.  Scanty stuff, admittedly, but maybe a BHO reader might be able to help me by sharing their memories of the years 1960 to, say, 1963 in Durham/Chapel Hill?


From what I could gather, there was not much in the way of depth to the old time music community in Chapel Hill during the early 1960s.  The Hollow Rock grocery store gathering may have been one of several small, local jams hosted regularly that attracted a specific population of friends and neighbors to musical opportunities.  However, there was little in the way of an interactive community, a network of friendships, a consistent and focused institutional basis for support of folk or old time music, or welcoming venues.  It may very well have been that the most coherent and consistent structure of activities for musicians interested in an intensified set of interactions derived from the smaller, local festivals – meaning that they were seasonal events off the beaten track that drew old time fiddlers and banjo players because they represented a chance to be in close quarters with like minded, motivated string band enthusiasts.  


There were no big-ticket old time or bluegrass festivals to speak of in Chapel Hill in the early 1960s.  There were a few bluegrass festivals throughout the year - until Carlton Haney staged his first effort in Fincastle, Virginia, in 1965.  What existed before Haney filled the gap were small fiddler’s conventions in the Piedmont area within driving distance of Chapel Hill.  These were scheduled in a staggered manner, so a musician could spend weeks puddle hoping from festival to festival, beginning in Star, North Carolina, followed a week later by a festival in Robbins, about ten miles from Star.  After Robbins, there was a festival in Seagrove that led up to Union Grove, staged around Easter weekend. 


Once summer rolled around, people focused on the Galax and Mount Airy festivals as well as some smaller summer events including one in Keane, North Carolina.  People could in effect synchronize their musical work, their plans for learning tunes, and goals regarding the expanstion of repertoire and development of skills and technique to this schedule, knowing they could compete for a prize, and do so in the embrace of friends and familiar faces, and that they could fill a long schedule of weekends as the result of what was in effect a rolling schedule of gatherings of like minded musicians.

These small festivals were opportunities to listen to the polished, accomplished acts of touring bands and professional musicians who still played school house concerts and included such modest, local festivals in their calendars – Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jesse Reynolds, Bill Monroe, among others, traveled a circuit that brought them to some of these smaller festivals, where they wouldd find a receptive, dedicated audience of musicians and fans that could be counted on to listen enthusiastically. 


What existed, though, was the scaffolding on which cultural and academic engagement in art, music, writing and acting had begun to develop and ultimately thrive in Chapel Hill as early as the 1920s.  A clutch of creative men and woman began the Playmakers Theatre in the 1920s.  Howard Odum established the Institute for Research in Social Science in the late 1930s that delved into the area’s mill villages, tenant farming, and the African American population.  Not long afterwards, also at UNC, Horace Williams built the foundation for a tradition of excellence in teaching philosophy, elevating “enlightened humanism” and beginning the stream of scholars that created the concentration of talent in Chapel Hill, and led to a proliferation of institutions that celebrated the life of the mind – such as Buies Creek Academy and Campell University.  


Those resources, that intellectual energy, suffused the town and made possible the development of the resources, institutions, venues, and markets that contributed to sustaining a community focused on various kinds of archaic traditional music.  That, coupled with an abiding interest in North Carolinian musical traditions throughout the Piedmont region, led to the development of organized research regarding, and active efforts to preserve, for example, shape note singings and other archaic forms of singing and instrumentation – activities in which notable scholars at UNC took an interest through the 1960s and 1970s, and beyond.  Additionally, by the early 1960s, there was already a link between music and the civil rights movement.  Prominent, rising entertainers such as Joan Baez performed concerts hosted by the University of North Carolina visited Chapel Hill and took to the stage in support of desegregation and civil rights activism.


This is the city Tommy found when he relocated to Chapel Hill in 1963. 


I’d be glad to be tutored about this.  Please jump in either with your own recollections, or the names of people with whom I should speak.






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