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THREE NIGHTS ON THE BLUE RIDGE by Mary Murphy


THREE NIGHTS ON THE BLUE RIDGE
by Mary Murphy

First published in English Dance & Song   Vol.55 No. 4   Winter 1993

Ask any ‘country’ person in the Southern United States where and when to see the most spectacular autumn colours and first, they will take you out to their front yard to show you the sourwood and black gum trees their great grandfather planted near the old home place when he settled his family in the Tennessee valley, then they will tell you to go over to North Carolina, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in mid-October if you really want to see a sight to behold.

Sourwood Trees

This is as true today as it was in the fall of 1964 when Barry and I struck out from Nashville, Tennessee heading northeast to Knoxville, Johnson city, Tennessee, Banner Elk and Boone, North Carolina and on to Independence, Virginia.   We were on a journey to the mountains to visit folks Barry had met soon after arriving in America in 1963.  When, crazed by the sound of the five-string banjo and the Appalachian dulcimer, he had left Eltham, S.E. to hear the ‘real’ thing.
With luck we would find people at home, not too busy to play a tune or two for us and with early frosts permitting, witness a ‘sight to behold’ during our travels.  By the time we reached Sevierville we were well into hilly country and at Banner Elk the roads were narrowing, winding snakelike along the ridge tops.  Shadowed bluffs of the mountains rose hard against our left, while mist-shrouded valleys opened to the sky on our right.  We wound down into the valley searching the dirt roads for Edd Presnell, dulcimer maker, a legend in the mountains and now, in England.  He lived in a ‘Holler’ somewhere between Banner Elk and Valle Crucis.
At every cabin where we stopped to ask the way barefoot children scurried to hide behind sheds, trees or their mother’s skirts as she, with a wariness and a weariness, pointed down the track in answer to our queries and viewed us with courteous suspicion.  Few strangers dare venture down mountain roads unless their wheelbases fit the washboarded, pot holed surfaces, (custom-shaped by countless wagons and timber tugs), and unless they have a damn good reason for being there in the first place. Our reasons were sound but our wheels did not fit and so we bumped and we grounded until we finally reached the clearing at the end of a long, lonesome track.  There was no one at home.
Distances can be deceptive in the states, with what appears to be a five-hour drive more likely to be eight.  We arrived late in Boone at sundown, Deep Gap after dark and down Wildcat Road (with our fingers crossed and a prayer for the oil pan), well past suppertime.
Willard and Ora Watson were at home with their children, his Aunt, her sister, her sister’s husband, their children and numerous grandchildren, all of whom were standing out on the porch to see who had pulled into the yard.  A matching pair of raw-boned hounds stood guard at the bottom of the wooden steps, their fangs visible in the light from the house.
By the way, if you ever go to North Carolina to visit with old-timey musicians or see the spectacular colours in the fall, a good habit to cultivate is one in which you leave plenty of time for friendly ‘howdies’ and conversation before you state your business.  This time, ‘howdies’ over, the business was to make as much music as possible in the time and space (in the front room) available.  But, before Willard would strike a lick on Barry’s banjo he turned to me and said, “So, yer his’n fee-ance are ye?  Tell me, are ye funny?”

The wood fire crackled, sending a flash of yellow light across the green, linoleum floor.  The hounds, asleep either side of the door lifted their broad heads and focused deep, dark eyes upon me.  Considering my situation as the only outsider in the room, not to mention a deathly silence from the entire Watson clan, assembled to hear my reply – a lot was at stake here.  I took a deep breath, looked him straight in the eye, (where an unexpected twinkle gave me courage) and said, “Well, Willard, I know I’m funny looking, will that do?”  He clapped me on the shoulder, reached for Barry’s five string banjo and announced, “She’ll do!”  The door was opened and the dogs went out.  The women crowded into the kitchen to gossip and to watch Ora make up and bake a pan of buttermilk biscuits and fry a batch of sausage patties.  The men sat in the front room keeping time to ‘Ramblin’ Hobo’ and ‘Cousin Sally Brown’ with heavy boots while barefoot children danced before them.  Soon, everyone was dancing or playing, or both, and devouring sausage and biscuits.
By ten o’clock the children and grandchildren had left and we were all in our beds –  Willard and Ora upstairs above the rising warmth from the front room and we, in a deep, goose feather bed just off the kitchen where the constant sound of running water, piped down from a mountainside spring, sang into the sink.  Down the drain, under the house, it happily bubbled toward a quick running stream across the road.
Morning was announced by several roosters, strutting and parading their finery before the hens.  Younger roosters, their adolescent voices yet to break, croaked in broken tones, their necks stretched as far as possible, their eyes on the hens’ responses to their songs.  In the kitchen, Ora was already busy at the stove frying slabs of home-cured ham and sausage meat.  Nearby, a pale blue bowl of fresh laid eggs sat in a shaft of pink sunlight, their large yolks visible through translucent shells.  On the table a cluster of colourful jars: wild strawberry and blackberry jam, plum jelly, honeys from wild bee trees cast rainbows onto a white cloth.  Cooling in the spring-fed sink was a pail of frothy milk, still warm from the cow and a dish of fresh-churned butter.
We moved the pail aside and dashed our faces.  The smell of lye soap reminded me of my childhood when the big iron pot was turned up in the back yard, set over the fire, filled with water drawn from the well, stirred with lye soap and brought to a boil on washday Mondays.
‘Made that there lye soap myself,” Ora told us.  “It’ll clean up near ‘bout anything you want.”  She offered her prized, lye soap recipe. “First, you save up all your wood ash, then you kill your pig and render the fat down real clear.”
Ora’s buttermilk biscuits came hot from the oven, double-yolked eggs slipped onto our plates, sunny sides up, and a couple of hens tiptoed in to peck about our feet as we bowed our heads for the blessing of ‘This food to the nourishment of our bodies.  Amen.’
Tales of travelling and of hunting vied with the food for our attention.  Our mouths full, we listened as Willard told us tales of the Montana forests where he was once chased by bears and tales of being chased by women at country dances, so far away he would drive all day to ‘git thar’, dance all night and drive back to the lumber camp in time for a bear-steak breakfast before felling trees.  Unable to keep from amazing us, he poured Barry a glass full of his finest elderberry wine and dared him to find a better taste this side of Heaven; took down his long-barrelled muzzle loader from above the mantel, slung his powder horn over his shoulder and stepped out onto the front porch.  He loaded his rifle with powder, dropped in the shot, packed the wadding and took aim at a row of old tin cans set up on fence posts across the road.  Chickens scattered and the hounds looked disappointed that it was only target practice.  Ora turned to me as she mounted the stairs. “Come away from all that there foolishness.  I’ll show you my quilts.”
Upstairs, we unfolded and I admired a dozen patchwork quilts: Log Cabin, Bear Tracks, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Drunkards Path, all bound for New York City to be sold in a ‘fancy store’ for, “Nigh on two hundred dollars apiece!” she told me, proudly.  She would get twenty dollars a piece.
Across the road every tin can gone, Willard was showing Barry his workshop, a lean-to shed that supported the remains of an old log barn.  The cow peered out from the open door.  In the workshop the men discussed the finer properties of spring steel, from wrecked cars, as a source for handmade carving tools.  On the window shelf a variety of automated toys, animals and farmers, were ready to be painted.  A fat farmer kicked a lean pig at the turn of a handle or switched a walking mule as he sauntered along behind, going nowhere on a double crank.
It was time to be on our way.  We backed out of the yard.  The hounds did not stir. Willard was whittling and whistling in his workshop.  As we passed the corner of the house Ora stepped out into the road, her faded calico apron full of apples.  One by one she handed them to us through the open car window and waved us out of sight.
A few miles away, ‘Doc’ and Rosa Lee Watson, only having returned from California the day before, where they had performed to packed audiences of young, appreciative, college students at Berkeley, were busy with chores. We found them in the kitchen, Rosa Lee making Apple Butter and Doc at the table, his neighbour’s old, wooden-works clock spread out in an orderly semi-circle before him.
“You don’t need eyes to fix a clock,” he explained.  “Just ears to hear it tick and a really pretty chime on the hour.  Now, don’t those apples smell good?”  With a delicate touch he felt the open face of his wristwatch and told us the time.
Outside, a heaving truck lumbered into the yard.  Rosa Lee’s father, Gaither Carlton, her step-mother and her sister had come to fetch us.  They were moving house and needed our help.  “We all like our old house better than this new one,” said Rosa Lee’s sister, “But, we gotta move ‘cause that old roof leaked so bad we all woke up buried alive under two foot of snow last Christmas.”
We followed the truck out of Deep Gap and up into the rugged mountains on narrow, twisting roads built on stony outcroppings which, still in shadow, were covered in hoarfrost from last night’s dip in the temperature.  Around a sharp bend the two-story cabin came into view.  In front of it a shallow, stone-bottomed creek ran down to a little clearing, surrounded by a split rail fence. In the middle of the clearing was a roofless, log barn, one wall leaning downhill.  “I sure to like your new home, Daddy,” Rosa Lee teased, pointing to the barn.
Out back, behind the cabin, was a large spring overflowing into the gravely ditch it had worn on its way to meet the creek.  It was overgrown and littered with rusted tin cans and bottomless saucepans.  Barry and I ‘set to’ clearing it out while the others began unloading the truck.  Doc did most of the carrying. Having been ‘shown ‘round’ the place on Rosa Lee’s arm before we unloaded he sailed up the steps and into the house without a stumble while the rest of us teetered beneath boxes and bags which obscured our view of stairs and doorways and we bumped into everything and each other.  Before we left we all had a good look at the roof.  It was as sound as a dollar.  However, the back door was jammed shut.
Doc, Rosa Lee, Barry and I headed back to Deep Gap, slipping down the narrow inclines a lot faster than we had slipped up them.  At the junction with the hard road a handwritten sign brought us to a halt.  APPLES FOR SALE $1.00 A BUSHEL.
None of us has ever forgotten the taste of those cold, crisp and sweet mountain apples that day – apples ripened by frost and the reflections of trees turned gold, orange, purple, crimson, yellow, scarlet, pink, pearl and pale, pale green.
We found the house full of people when we got back.  They had come over to see Doc and Rosa Lee and to ask them about California and to find out if they had seen any movie stars.  Merle and Nancy were there and soon the banjos, fiddles, guitars and Mr. Benfield’s autoharp kept the women tapping in the kitchen as they prepared lunch for everybody present, plus three more seen coming toward the house!
In the mountains no one asks you if you want to stay for lunch.  If you are in their home at lunch time, supper time or breakfast (by chance or design), a place is set for you and you sit down, bow your head and ‘Thank the good Lord for his many blessings.  Amen.”
Before sunset, Merle took us on a long walk through the woods, his rifle at the ready should we see danger or a free meal.  He wanted to share with us his favourite spot, his lookout from a high, rocky bluff that towered over a long, deep valley.  We watched the sun dip below the far mountain, its rays just catching the tops of trees nearer our view, their colours a cascade of jewels, poured out at our feet.
We had dallied too long and the night was upon us.  But, the full moon rose in a starlit sky and we hurried along, more to keep warm than from fright.  We neared the house, the lights were on – the moon, behind it, revealed Doc up on the roof, installing an aerial for his new radio!  Barry, upset at seeing him up there called out without thinking.  “Doc! You shouldn’t be doing that in the dark!”  The joke was on Barry.  Everyone thought this the funniest thing they had heard all year and the story was repeated to anyone who hadn’t yet heard it.
Mountain folk love a good joke and will spend hours telling them again and again – the best ones told only by the ‘best’ teller of jokes.  They will also go to great lengths to arrange one if it strikes their fancy and many a person has found themselves keeping company with strange objects in their beds – their screeches setting off hoots of laughter from all around the house.
By dawn frost had carpeted the yard and iced our car.  A deep mist rested in the valley.  Above it, the sun swept sweet accents of light over the treetops.  The yellow ones seemed to glow from within.  The smell of wood smoke and bacon lured us back inside, rubbing our hands. With the taste of red-eye gravy on our tongues, the sound of mountain music in our ears and the sight of Doc at the kitchen table repairing yet another clock, we waved our farewells and took the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Independence, Virginia.
With time to spare, we found ‘Uncle’ Wade Ward and Granny Porter sitting, rocking in the sun on their front porch.  It took very little coaxing, once we had stated our ‘business’, to get Uncle Wade to play for us his famous ‘Fox Chase’, ‘Old Joe Clark, ‘Sally Anne’, ‘Half Shaved’…the tunes fairly tumbled out.  Granny rocked and jigged her high top boots beneath her long black skirt.  At the end of one familiar tune she smiled a broad, toothless smile from beneath her blue and white print poke bonnet and said, “Yessir, Wade can sure ‘nuff take the rag oft bush.  He can sure do that!”  She lapped her knee and Uncle Wade struck up another ‘rag stealin’ tune before I could ask her exactly what she meant.
Such a statement on the quality of banjo playing may be lost in the mists of time and lonesome valleys.  I can only hazard a guess that Uncle Wade’s tunes were so lively that even the washing, draped over bushes in the sun to dry, would leap off and dance around the yard.
Indoors at sundown, the music continued with Granny beside the woodstove, Barry and I seated on the patchwork covered bed and Uncle Wade in the only other chair.  In the kitchen, Granny’s youngest, a woman in her thirties, prepared supper.
Once more the table was laid with a feast of home grown fare of wild fruit and home-cured meats.  Afterwards, dishes done, the oil lamp lit, we were shown the washbasin, the gourd dipper, the water bucket (a sliver of ice already evident on its surface), and the path to the privy.
Granny’s youngest plumped up our bed, which was in the kitchen near the stove and still warm from the day’s cooking.  Beneath the stove a pair of blue tick hounds lay sleeping.  “I ‘spect them hounds’ll be in bed with ya’ll before daybreak.”  Laughing to herself she took the lamp away.
The sound of sausage sizzling in the pan woke us and we dressed beneath the covers while our breakfast cooked nearby.  A quick trip to the privy, our backsides on icy, wooden boards, our hands and faces lathered in an icy basin, we were ready for anything – especially after milk gravy poured over hot pepper sausage, sweet potato fritters, biscuits, eggs and huckleberry jelly.
Uncle Wade was playing a few more tunes as we left his house.  Granny Porter was slicing apple circles into her lap and stringing them up above the stove to dry while her daughter begged us to take her back to Nashville where she hoped to find work. “I’m a good cook,” she said.  There was no disputing that.  Only, we knew she would be lost in a city, knew she would miss the quiet, peaceful valleys, the wild mountains, the good people.  We hope we were right to tell her that we were headed north and that we would write her if ever anything turned up in Nashville that we thought might suit her.
Now, if you ask us where and when the autumn colours are at their most spectacular, we will get out our maps of North Carolina and then we will show you our 35-mm transparencies taken in mid-October of 1964.

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FULL CIRCLE – Long may the music live!


Barry Murphy remembers those early days of the folk revival

Originally published in The Old Time Herald Magazine – Volume 8, Number 8 / here reproduced with permission from the Author,… my Dad.

Barry Murphy on left playing Gourd Banjo with Dave Arthur

My journey towards an almost total infatuation with American Folk culture and music, in particular, was a long one, starting in the mid 1950’s in England, still a drab and gloomy place; not yet free of the scars of WWII that I had been born into, my childhood spent in the heavily bombed area of South East of London.
For many young people the appearance in the pop charts of the many familiar names of early Rock and Roll was a welcome distraction.  My path, however, was set a little later when, as if by magic it seemed, the other half of the teenage population carried cheap guitars in even cheaper, soft cases and those that didn’t, toted a washboard or struggled with a tea chest, tub bass.  Thanks to Lonnie Donegan and his hit with Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’- skiffle music had arrived.
One evening, at a local skiffle club, my musical horizons expanded greatly, for, apart from the local groups performing, there were two ‘real live Americans’.  One short, in denim jacket and jeans with a huge grin beneath a cowboy hat to suit, the other sombre in black hat, black trousers and a partly unbuttoned jacket revealing a fancy gambler’s style waistcoat.
This duo was Derrol Adams from Portland, Oregon and Jack Elliot from New York, Los Angeles, and apparently, everywhere in between.  Jack was half hidden behind a huge, battered Gretsch 75 guitar and Derrol held a banjo with a peg halfway down the neck; unlike any of the jazz band tenors with which I was familiar.
With Jack’s intro and patter over, they began to play ‘Danville Girl’.  I craned my neck to see across the crowd, for apart from terrific singing, these guys were actually playing tunes on their instruments.  I was dumb-founded.  I didn’t know you could do that.  We skifflers relied on a steady, syncopated strum and a magical three-chord trick.

Deroll Adams

As I rode home on my motorcycle, highly elated after this evening of entertainment, I just knew I had found the meaning of life.  My skiffle period of six months was over.  I couldn’t get that modal sound of Derrol playing ‘The Cuckoo, She’s a Pretty Bird’, out of my head; nor Jack’s finger style guitar on ‘Railroad Bill’ or his greasy flatpicking of ‘The Talking Blues’.  By the end of the following week I had exchanged my weekly, apprentice patternmaker’s wage of approximately $8.00 for a Lyons and Healy 40 bracket banjo, extracted from a workmate’s attic and sporting that essential 5th string.
But, what now?  My American heroes had drifted to pastures new, leaving me with a faint remembrance of those delicious sounds, but not a clue as to what those magic fingers were doing.
I spent endless evenings in front of a mirror trying anything that would get me those sounds, but apart from having noticed Derrol playing an up-picking style and knowing the open G tuning, I was up against a wall.  I could see this had no future.  I couldn’t even get a copy of Pete Seeger’s little red book – which I had somehow gotten wind of.  Then, I hit it lucky a few weeks later when I saw an ad in a London music newspaper stating that the American folk singer, Peggy Seeger, was to appear the coming Sunday night.  I made a beeline for the venue.
After the show, despite my shyness, I approached her about lessons.  She agreed to teach as long as at least half a dozen other people were interested in learning.
Fortunately, they were found and lessons began: Tuesday nights, Carter family and Libba Cotton guitar styles and Thursdays, five string banjo.
At last I was learning, slowly, but I was on my way.  Then, catastrophe hit in a two-pronged attack. Riding my motorcycle to my Tuesday guitar lesson I hit an icy patch and on picking up myself, and the machine from the road, I realized the soft case strapped across my back felt ominously limp.  Inspection revealed, apart from the neck, nothing larger than a matchstick had survived.  Arriving at the lesson Peggy loaned me a guitar, but announced the sad news that, due to a travel violation of visiting Communist countries, she had sufficiently upset the U.S. Government enough that they, in turn, had pressured the British to revoke her work permit.  She went to France to live and, although we corresponded, that was it for those precious lessons.

Peggy Seeger

Out of the blue another American appeared and was living, as Peggy had done, with folklorist A.L. Lloyd and his family not five miles from my home. Ralph Rinzler, a happy-go-lucky guy with a penchant for brown woolly sweaters, corduroy trousers and leather moccasins, wild about traditional music and sporting a large record collection, which he was very willing to share, popped upon the scene. We hit it off well and became good friends.
Ralph, with his deep interest in traditional culture soon got me listening to Uncle Bunt Stephens, Kelly Harrell, Clarence Ashley and many others and also made me increasingly aware of American crafts – weaving, patchwork, and pottery. He also owned a Gibson mandolin, a Bacon banjo and, most timely for me, a D18 Martin guitar which I quickly loaned in order to make a tolerable copy for myself.
Many hours were spent in the Lloyd’s 17th century townhouse.  The more I learned of Southern people and culture, the more I wanted to find the links to the traditions and people of the British Isles.
Eventually, Ralph went back home, but would regularly send me records from the steadily increasing flow of albums from Folkways, Tradition, Riverside etc. Now, Jack and Derrol were back in town and Guy Carawan sketched for me his impression of a mountain dulcimer on a scrap of paper.  I built one right away, having become enamoured with the instrument after finding an old 78 recording of Jean Ritchie, issued in England in 1948.  My dulcimer, although looking more like a piece of folk art, played a decent tune and eventually decorated Ralph’s wall in Washington until his untimely death.
Within another year, Ralph was back in England.  Now, his passion was Irish music and the purpose of his stay was to gather together Irish musicians living in London and record their music.  This we did, combing pubs in Irish communities and having Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman, Paddy Breen, even the great piper Seamus Ennis to sing and play for us.  Ralph graciously mentioned my help in the notes of what became, Folkway’s 3575 ‘Irish Music in London Pubs’, though my contribution mainly consisted of lugging Ewan McColls huge, heavy, ‘portable’ tape recorder from place to place and helping to consume tidal waves of Guinness, freely given by pub landlords, grateful for all the publicity.
Ralph had always wanted me to go to the states, travel with him, and so, at the start of the gloomy winter of 1962 I decided I would and started selling most of the things I owned to raise the money for the voyage out on the old Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth with a return voyage booked on the sister ship, Queen Mary.
In those days, with austerity still firmly in force, only £50 per person, (about $180), was allowed out of the country.  In early April 1963 I walked towards the railway station, leaving behind parents, friends, and twelve, vintage motorcycles, in store.  I carried a suitcase and in my other hand a nearly finished, 12string guitar – as yet another passion of mine was Leadbelly.  My plan was to stay for six months, but I returned to England thirteen years later with my Alabama wife, Mary, and two Tennessee-born sons.

Ralph Rinzler recording..

On board ship I whiled away pleasant hours each day, enjoying luxury that had, before and since, eluded me and, when weather permitted, sat on deck putting the finishing touches to my 12string.  At New York I was greeted by an ever-ebullient Ralph who whisked me through the deep canyons of the city to his Greenwich Village apartment, recently taken over from Alan Lomax.  Here, I was introduced to a man sitting quietly at a table. “This is Doc Watson.”  Less than an hour later my first hero Jack Elliott breezed in.  Johnny Shahn, village artist, came in with the artwork for the Watson Family Album, which was ready for release by Folkways.  Things were certainly off to a good start.  It seemed that if you knew Ralph Rinzler, you knew everybody.
Within a couple of days of my arrival in America Ralph, Doc and I were heading for North Carolina, taking Doc home.  Ralph stayed with the Watson’s and as their house was full, I was dropped off at Willard and Ora Watson’s way down a then, rough, unmade road called Wildcat; named by Willard many years earlier.  Willard and his family made me most welcome and by the end of the day I had fired Willard’s black powder, long rifle, learned to pitch horseshoes, spent hours looking through piles of Ora’s wonderful quilts and been down in Willard’s woodshed for demonstrations of his mechanical toys.  This was all a dream come true.
Willard was one of those most enterprising mountain people, virtually self-sufficient in all things.  Later, when I showed him a set of English woodcarving tools, he inspected them most carefully and, on my next visit, proudly showed me his excellent, homemade versions, hand forged, ground and hardened from car spring steel.
On the second day of my stay at the Watson’s a huge ox-drawn, covered wagon, pulled up outside.  Willard and other local men had built it as a part of a Daniel Boone Bicentennial, a remembrance of the pioneers’ long trek from the Yadkin Valley to Kentucky.  That night we travelled miles down Wildcat to Darby where tables were bending beneath the weight of pot-luck supper offerings and a stage, set up for Old Time and Bluegrass music and dance. Willard was obviously well known for his dancing – the crowd loved him, and I was experiencing things that should have been totally alien, when in fact it all seemed to so wonderfully natural.

Clarence Ashley on Left, with Doc Watson

Too soon, Ralph and I returned north, mainly for Ralph to play his final gigs with the Greenbrier Boys in Philadelphia, before preparations were made to get Doc and Rosa Lee out to the U.C.L.A. Folk Festival plus a week’s booking at the Ashgrove.  This trip out west with the Watsons had been one of Ralph’s inducements to my coming to the States.  However, at the last moment it was decided that Fred Price and Clint Howard would go out as well, and the blue Chevvy station wagon was full.  I, instead, was given the job of taking Clarence (Tom) Ashley out by train. Ralph dropped me off at the Ashley’s house in Shouns, Tennessee.  From there we drove in his big, black old car to the nearest bus station and rode to Bristol, then by train to Knoxville, then another to Louisville and yet another to Chicago.  It occurred to me, in the palatial booking hall, trying to keep my companion from wandering off, that this was a strange situation – a young fellow from London guiding his most favorite banjo player across a country he knew very little about.  There was time on the Union Pacific, ‘DomeLiner’ to get the banjo out many times and have Tom play and sing.  I never gave a thought to what middle class travelling companions thought of this spectacle.  Gradually, I got the hang of his accent but still, always had the feeling he rarely understood me at all.
We finally arrived in L.A.   Ralph took Clarence Ashley off while I, along with Doc, Rosa Lee, Clint and Fred went to Ashgrove owner, Ed Perl’s, seaside cottage on Malibu beach.  It was small, but we all packed in.  Ed also loaned us a tiny, little British car, a Hillman Minx.  Absolute rubbish, it was treated with disdain by its chosen driver, Clint Howard.  Doc still laughs remembering my comments from the back seat as Clint pulverized the gears to dust, “Sort them out, Clint.  They’re all in the same box.”
In the first week everyone was performing at the U.C.L.A. festival, and in the evenings at the Ashgrove.  The second week was more relaxed and in the mornings we sat on the beach, joined by Roscoe Holcombe and Clarence.  They all played together, including Rosa Lee singing and playing guitar.  It was a marvellous way for me to hear these people.  I had a job at the Ashgrove, dishwasher, doorman and some nights, running the little record shop in the foyer.  This didn’t stop me watching the performances.
In the second week, apart from Doc and friends, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Clarence and Roland White and the Country Gentlemen were on stage.  When the two weeks were over everyone left but me.  I went with the Dillards and stayed with them out at Topanga Canyon, waiting for Tracy Schwartz and Johnny Herald (that wonderful singer with the Greenbrier Boys), to find a car to carry us all back East.

Bill Monroe on left with Mandolin.

We arranged a deal with a company that shifted people’s cars – where the owner had travelled back by other means but wanted his car taken home.  We needed a big, big car as my companions had loads of stuff.  I finally met them at a motel where they had just taken delivery of a monstrous Chrysler New Yorker. Glee turned to despair when we opened the trunk to find it packed to the brim with salesman’s samples.  As the non-paying passenger in the group, I was jammed in the back with all the stuff, hardly able to see out.
Somewhere in Arizona, or it might have been New Mexico, who could see out to tell?  We were pulled over by a Highway Patrolman for not having an outside mirror -in fact not having any rear view at all, due to all the stuff.  On checking Tracy’s driver’s license, something clicked, and the patrolman realized he was talking to a member of a band he followed, the New Lost City Ramblers.  After Tracy and John played him a couple of his favorite tunes, standing out in the desert, he waved us on our way, reminding us to get our mirror fixed.
We stopped, next, in Amarillo, Texas to visit Uncle Eck Robertson, the Texas fiddler.  He must have been in his 80’s then. I had heard plenty of his fiddling from tapes in Ralph’s collection.  I wanted a photo of the occasion, but had to wait as Uncle Eck disappeared to put on clothes suitable for a champion Texas fiddler.  He reappeared wearing a white hat, string tie and fancy shirt.

Uncle Eck

Finally, my companions dropped me off in Louisville, Kentucky where I caught a Greyhound bus to Nashville. Ralph was now managing Bill Monroe, trying to get Bill’s career up and running and taking advantage of the Folk revival and Festival scenes.  His plan was for us to find an apartment with Del McCrory and Bill Keith, share the costs.  I alighted, just as so many hundreds before me, with a suitcase in one hand and a guitar in the other and checked in, as arranged, at the Clarkston Hotel, only to find that Ralph and the ‘boys’ weren’t in. I took the cheapest room in the place at three dollars a day, no air conditioning, (it was June and I had no idea that the world could be this hot).  Next day – still no Ralph and I was now down to nine dollars to my name and a check from the Ashgrove for forty-five dollars that was useless if you had no bank account in town.  I lived off of 10 cent Krystal burgers and 5 cent orange drinks.  That night, I handed over most of what was left of my worldly riches for my final night’s stay and the next morning went to WSM radio station and boldly asked for Bill Monroe’s phone number. Bill had said at the Ashgrove, ‘If you’re ever in Nashville, look me up,’ and so, with the innocence of youth I was taking him at his word.  Of course, the people at WSM were reluctant to help me, but I pestered them all day until, eventually, they called him and in an hour he appeared.  At once, he took me down the road to a steakhouse where I ate more beef in one sitting than a British family devoured in a week.  Bill also cashed my check for me, so now with riches untold I could endure one more night on the top floor of the Clarkston.
Ralph and the ‘boys’ appeared the next day and we began apartment hunting. The words, ‘Musicians’, or ‘Bluegrass Band’ had the effect of sending previously friendly landlords back into the gloom, accompanied by the slow squeak of closing, screen doors. It was decided that my bearded face and funny way of talking wasn’t helping, so I was banished to hide in the car. When this failed, Del McCrory was also banished.  Finally, at nightfall, the two, city slickers, Ralph and Bill Keith convinced a young family in West Nashville to have us.  This apartment became known, unofficially, as the ‘Blue Grass Rest Home’. Over time, the list of people who stayed there was a who’s who of Bluegrass musicians.
On weekdays the band was often out fulfilling small engagements that Bill had, himself, booked in nearby states’ High School gyms etc.  Ralph was starting to get College Festival bookings for them and, virtually without exception, Saturdays would see them all back for the Opry.  I would carry someone’s case and get in backstage.
It was always sweltering hot back there and the ageing stars had a constant battle with riverlets of make-up slithering down onto spangled suits. Most of the music was not to my taste at all, but Sam McGee, the Crook Brothers, Stringbean and Grandpa Jones made it all worthwhile.  Plus, I was warming to Bluegrass and certainly enjoyed Flatt and Scruggs, Bill and the boys of coarse, and the occasional visit of people like Jim and Jessie. After the Opry was over, we would usually drift down to Ernest Tubbs’ record shop where the show seemed to transfer itself till 2am, or later.
Some week ends we would pack into a couple of cars and head for Bean Blossom, Indiana, where Bill and his brother Birch had a little country music park.  These journeys were arduous, as Bill would not let his ancient Buick be driven faster than fifty miles an hour. That old car was all he had to get to performances.  Even if he were asleep, as soon as we exceeded the magic speed, he would awake and admonish the guilty driver.  It had 350,000 miles on the clock and he intended to make it last a lot longer.  Being skinny, I was invariably squashed in the back between Dell Wood, ‘Queen of the Ivories’, and Bill’s partner and bass player, Bessie.  At Bean Blossom I would sit out in the sun at a little table and take the entrance money.  When this was done, I’d sit up on the edge of the stage and enjoy the music.
On one occasion, Bill dropped a bombshell when, without warning, he suddenly announced, “There’s a young feller from England’s gonna come up and sing you a song.”  I don’t know to this day how he even knew I played.  I certainly had never done so within his earshot.  I had with me my trusty 12string, as Bill liked to play it now and then and had said he would like to use it for a gospel album.  My12 string interest was in Leadbelly and Jessie Fuller numbers.  I doubted a Bean Blossom audience would go for that.  What to play?  Somehow, the guitar was about in tune and, with a dropped bass string, I played ‘Down in a Willowy Garden’ in D, with Bill playing delicious tremolos on the mandolin and Kenny Baker bowing out soulful sounds. I was terrified, but got through it somehow; disappointingly I wasn’t approached by talent scouts with open check books.
Ralph and I made a trip to the Mountain View Arkansas Festival run by Jimmy Driftwood where it seemed people just flocked around the courthouse.  There was a stage, but as much activity occurred right there on the sidewalk with people fiddling, an older lady had set up her hammer dulcimer and was playing for a big crowd.  Someone had brought a collection of un-restored, ancient homemade banjos and lap dulcimers of every design and had simply leaned them against the wall for people to appreciate.  It was so non-commercial.  I loved it.
By the end of the year Ralph was off to be a part of Newport Folk Festival and the Bluegrass Boys scattered back to their respective home places to gather again, when necessary, for the larger gigs they were now booking.  Unable to afford the apartment on my own I negotiated with the landlord to fix up a little shack at the very end of the garden, set hard against a L&N railroad freight loop where, at night, my little house came alive and trembled with the passing of thundering freight trains.  My rent was ten dollars a month.
My work, employed on commission as a motorcycle mechanic, hit a brick wall at the onset of my first Nashville winter.  My pay one memorable week harvested a princely, seven dollars.  Fortunately, some newly made friends had started a folk club, ‘The Bookstore’ on second Avenue North and here, I could earn the same sum three times a week plus piles of free pizza and jugs of beer.  The club members bought me a very nice Goya /Levin guitar and, on the kitchen table in the shack, I was making a five-string neck for a Vega Whyte Laydie Tenor banjo I was buying on time for $40.00.  I kept warm by burning, in my potbelly stove, what was left of a nearby rotten fence.
With the arrival of spring, Ralph seemed to stop by quite often.  He was doing what he could to get any older, remaining Cajun musicians recorded and playing before the public.  I didn’t manage any of those Louisiana trips, but did go with Ralph, and my new Alabama, lady friend, Mary Brown, to hear and record Sacred Harp singers in Franklin, Tennessee and even better in Hackleburg, Northern Alabama where the tradition seemed purer, less affected by scholars and revivalists. We spent a wonderful day at a country church hearing the very best of this music. Not only that, the dinner on the grounds was absolutely, amazingly, scrumptious.
That spring also saw the arrival of an old motorcycle pal from London who came to stay with me. The landlord raised the rent to fifteen dollars a month.  He and I went on our motorcycles to the mountains of Kentucky in search of dulcimer players and makers.  At this period the coal towns were very depressed and the people suspicious of any stranger.  In Manchester, Kentucky we were refused service in a little restaurant, just about the only place that wasn’t boarded up in the town.  A few miles further on, in Hazard, the police took us into the Police Station where they grilled us incessantly, unable to understand why any ‘outsider’ would have any business in ‘their’ town   Alarmingly, they asked us why we were displaying Japanese flags on our helmets, evidently never having seen a British Union Jack before.  They were extremely unpleasant and showed no sign of letting us go.  Fortunately for us, two, newly graduated F.B.I. agents, who were there at the time, had heard of the Folk revival and eventually convinced the police that we weren’t union agitators or communists. The rest of our trip was wonderful and we visited Edna Ritchie in Viper and dulcimer makers and players Homer Ledford and Jethro Amburgey. We ended our trip at Roscoe Holcombe’s, (whom I had met in California), now in his remote, home patch.  Soon after, Mary and I married and could afford to rent the ‘Bluegrass Rest Home’ apartment.

Roscoe Holcombe

Ralph, evidently, had never forgotten that I had missed my promised trip out west with him, Doc and Rosa Lee. One cold February day in 1966 the phone rang and it was Ralph calling from Nova Scotia, offering to pay my way if I would come up and travel around Cape Breton with him.  His passion was, now, all things Gaelic and we visited singing lobster fishermen, wool spinners and weavers; travelling throughout the island in deep, winter snows in his, still trusty, blue Chevvy station wagon.
Something that I found most humorous, but Ralph soon didn’t, was that when he would make important phone calls to folklorists and other colleagues in New York, Washington etc., the Cape Breton people, who all seemed to be connected to one, circular phone line, would pick up the phone and felt it quite normal to join in his conversations; commenting or advising him on various points.
To me, the most memorable event was an eighty-four year old man’s telling, in detail, of his grandfather’s sad story of when, as a boy of nine, he, his sister and widowed mother were herded, along with hundreds of others, onto a harbor during the last of the west of Scotland’s highland-clearance days and forced onto sailing ships.  In the confusion the mother had, unknowingly, boarded a ship bound for Australia and the children, both under twelve, were, eventually, off-loaded onto the shores of Cape Breton, never to see their mother again.  Our storytellers’ eyes were filled with tears as he told us that, twenty years further on a letter arrived from his grandfather’s mother who had been searching for them all that time.
Mary and I and my London pal, John Price, made occasional forays into the mountains to stay with Fred Price, Doc and Rosa Lee, Willard and Ora Watson, and Wade Ward, (who played his famous Fox Chase and when done, Granny Porter, who was on the porch listening with us said, “Uncle Wade sure can take the rag off the bush”, a saying I’ve never had an explanation for.
Through the folk scene I met local folklorist, Dick Hulan, curator at Belle Meade Mansion.  He and I went up to Westmoreland, Tennessee near the Kentucky line to interview Granny Cline, the lady who had played hammer dulcimer on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920’s.  I took a few photos of her there.  She entertained us with her dulcimer laid across the kitchen table and told us how the drive to Nashville on Saturday nights was, in those days, a long and arduous one.
Ralph Rinzler had discovered another, early regular on the Opry, De Ford Bailey, who was still around Nashville.  Ralph was hoping to interest him in participating in the Folk Revival performances taking place in colleges all over America.  We visited with him a number of times in the small shoeshine shop he ran.  He could still play up a storm on his harmonicas and we discovered that he had played banjo, left-handed, on the Opry, as well. He said he still had his banjo but it wasn’t playable.  I had a look at it and saw that I could fix it and I took it away.  When it was repaired, it was Christmas and Mary tied on a large, red bow.  He was very pleased to have it back and some months later, when he appeared at a show at Vanderbilt University – along with the Sea Island Singers and Bernice Reagan – he had kept the red bow tied to the peg head and, seeing me on the front row of the audience, announced that I had fixed his banjo and thanked me in front of everyone.
Dick Hulan and I also investigated the South West Tennessee tradition of the double, ‘courting’ lap dulcimers and with these examples to hand I was able to build and sell a few.
He and I drove up to Cookeville, Tennessee one weekend where we took part in the music competitions at the County Fair.  We both came home with trophies – Dick became ‘Tennessee State Champion Dulcimer Player’ that year and I, the ‘State Champion Old Time Banjo Picker’.  I cannot honestly say the competition was fierce, in fact I can’t honestly say there was any competition, but win we did!
Some years later, after consuming too much Mogen David, I placed my little trophy into the redhot embers of our fireplace and watched as my glory turned into a rather small puddle of molten zinc.
Now married, I was attempting to become a responsible and reliable provider.
However, this didn’t prove to be as simple as it could have been.  My workshop was a small ex-chicken shed built as a lean-to against the shack I had once rented out back.  Suddenly, Bill Monroe’s new guitarist was in town, wanting to rent the shack.  I soon found out how hard it was to concentrate on difficult engineering problems when your – very near – neighbor is a wonderful singer-songwriter like Peter Rowan.  When it was sunny he would sit on the step and play, either practicing the band’s repertoire, or his own, constant stream of wonderful, new material.  It was almost impossible not to abandon my responsibilities and just listen to him all day.
With a new son born to us, Mary and I eventually broke away for the BG Rest Home property and bought ourselves a house out on Pennington Bend on the Cumberland River, only twenty minutes from downtown Nashville, where we lived most happily; enjoying a rural life that suited us just fine.  While we were there we were happy to receive musicians and became the ‘Pennington Bend Rest Home’ for a few years.
Then everything changed.  Suddenly, Opryland chose to build on 280 acres of this largely unspoilt area that then, naturally, attracted every other business in search of the tourists’ dollars. We felt we just couldn’t sit idly by while our idyllic life was slowly ruined, so we decided to move.  I had been in America for thirteen years and, with my widowed, ageing mother to consider, we decided against moving to Asheville, North Carolina and moved, instead, to Herstmonceux in East Sussex, England, which, unlike Asheville, cannot be considered the Old Time music capitol of the world.
Looking back, I could easily regret not having been more observant about players’ styles, or regret not having been more studious, made notes, more photos, recordings, etc.  But, this was not my nature.  I was always very content to just absorb the people, the surroundings and the music. At the time, being young, I did not give a thought to mortality and, so quickly, most of my heroes were gone.

Pete Rowan

Keeping good friendships alive we have, from time to time, here in England, been host to stateside friends and musicians, Ralph, Peter Rowan and his brother, Christopher, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Jim Rooney, and Bill Keith.  Happily, a few years ago we met two fine musicians here, in Sussex, who had played Bluegrass and some Old Time for most of their lives and, together, we formed the ‘Old Faded Glory Stringband’.  Mary is learning the banjo uke, so all is well with the world.
Our two sons both live within a mile of us – one, a landscape painter/web designer and member of a California based rock band, is crazy about Cajun music.  He plays his Marc Savoy accordion with great skill and enthusiasm, (having met the maker in Louisiana in 1993 while on his honeymoon), while his older brother, web designer and composer of his own particular music, is just as mad about Reggae and hopes to one day travel to the West Indies.
So, things go full circle.  Long may the music live.

Barry Murphy
Banjo player and maker of Blue Diamond Musical Instruments

PS  This article has been written at the kind suggestion of Alice Gerrard, once a visitor to the Pennington Bend Rest Home, whom we met again in February 2002 at the Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance Festival held in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England – where she performed with Tom Suaber and Brad Leftwich.