When I first started playing banjo, I was a teenager in high school in rural Wisconsin (1969). There was no local “old music”, or at least none that I found. Around 1972-1973, after a few years of playing banjo (I was frailing by then), I stumbled into LPs of Frank Proffitt, Frank George, the Fuzzies, the NLCR, the LOC collections edited by Alan Lomax and Alan Jabbour, and more. I have always felt that I did not catch the music, as music as the music caught me. But why would all this stuff appeal to a kid in the middle of Wisconsin dairyland who had no connection to the culture and ways of life that created this traditional music? I recently read Lew Stern’s biography of Dwight Diller, which gave me some deep insights. Accordingly, Dwight was drawn into the “old music” and the “old ways” in large part because of his alienation and isolation, his unrootedness. Even though he lived near the Hammons, he had to discover them, and discover the essence of their lives, their stories, and their music. The key here is the alienation and isolation. I felt much of that growing up—the 60s were difficult times for anyone who was coming of age. When the music caught me, it was the rootedness of it that I could feel in a very immediate way. They were not my roots, but they were roots nonetheless, and they came with stories and ways of living, which my roots seemingly lacked. The music caught me, and saved me from a grand fall and crash landing.
In 1974, I began traveling to southern Appalachia to imbibe the music and the culture, and to start making sense of my own roots, and my own memories of life in the middle of Wisconsin. I met, and played with, many great musicians in the mid-70s who profoundly influenced me and brought me ever closer to the music and its meaning. Later, I spent most of my adult life working in Appalachia as a geologist (West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland) and got to know the lay of the land and the people pretty well (and the underlay of the land too).
But with all that, I am, at best, an adopted son of the southern Appalachians. The Appalachians are deeply embedded in my life experience, but I try to draw from the totality of my life in bringing expression to the old music—a misty spring day in Wisconsin standing in freshly plowed black loamy soil with geese flying overhead, the solitude of an unnamed holler in West Virginia that even most of the locals don’t know about, a blustery day of Chinook winds in the foothills of the Rockies, and the many, many friends and generous souls who have provided guidance, steadiness, and camaraderie through good as well a difficult times. The music caught me so long ago, but now these are the things I try to bring to the music. Maybe it isn’t so much about rootedness in the physical/geographic sense, but about connection to the world around us, the here-and-now moments, both present and past. Maybe it is about connecting to ourselves, and by so doing we are better able to connect to our milieu, whatever it is. Maybe the wellspring is more ubiquitous, and universal, than we typically imagine.
And maybe even a middle-class kid from small-town Wisconsin can be part of maintaining and transferring the heritage of a music that graced his young life and stayed with him into his senior years.
Note: This reflection was first appeared in a forum discussion started by R.D. Lunceford with the subject line, "The experienced ear is more important then the educated fingers" (a quote from Don Borchelt). It was a great discussion with many insightful contributions, but unfortunately, it was accidently deleted.1 comment
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