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Once Upon a Time: Remembering and Sharing Family Stories

“Do you remember when…?”

“Let me tell you about your grandmother’s apple butter…”

“Uncle Roger, I want to hear the story about the time you thought you’d swallowed a water dog!”

November is Family Stories Month, and even though we are still in the middle of a pandemic right now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t share family stories with each other – whether it be in smaller, more socially distanced gatherings; through Zoom or WhatsApp or FaceTime; by writing them down in journals and scrapbooks; or whatever method takes our fancy!

Recording and telling stories – especially family stories – is a big part of southern and Appalachian culture and tradition. From fictional folk tales to the recording of your clan’s names in the family Bible, from the poetry and the storytelling of the region’s music to the family anecdotes we share around the table – all of these are ways for us to pass on our history, big and small, and to remember the good and the hard times.

My family is full of story tellers (my Uncle Roger DID think he swallowed a water dog once, and it is my favorite story to hear, over and over again – for those who don’t know, water dog is another name for a hellbender salamander). On my mother’s side of the family, meals and gatherings are filled with tall tales, stories, remembrances, exaggerations, all told in a southern fashion – in other words, slow and often rambling into other tangential realms. On my father’s side of the family, a cousin’s interest in genealogy has led to family trees and records way beyond the stories we’ve told to each other about more recent ancestors and descendants.


A hellbender is a type of giant aquatic salamander – also known as water dog, snot otter, and mud devil, amongst others. How my uncle was convinced that he had swallowed a water dog – in all probability an impossibility – involved my mother and her sister and their desire to make their younger brother sweat. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photographer: Brian Gratwicke

Family stories – and other historical and personal recollections – told through oral histories is one way that museums and other cultural institutions “collect” data and content for exhibits, research, archives, and programs – and for future generations. Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum we have incorporated oral histories and family stories into our exhibits and programming in multiple ways:

  • Upstairs in our permanent exhibits, a display titled “I Was There” shares excerpts from interviews with Ralph Peer, Ernest Stoneman, Maybelle Carter, Georgia Warren, and Clarice Shelor, giving first-person accounts of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
  • In 2015 we held a “Tennessee Ernie Ford History Harvest,” an event where we invited members of the public to come to the museum to share any photographs or paper items, objects, and stories related to Ford, his life in Bristol, and his career. We scanned the images, newspaper articles, and other documents; photographed the objects; and spent several hours recording stories and memories of Ford, still a Bristol hero to so many. Not only did this give the public a chance to explore local history more deeply, but the resulting materials are now part of the museum’s archive and can be used for future educational and programming purposes. We hope to hold other “history harvests” in the future – for instance a hoped-for partnership with Black in Appalachia to record stories of African American musicians in this region.
  • At the museum’s symposium on the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions in 2017, we recorded oral histories by many of the descendants of the 1927 Bristol Sessions artists to learn more about the musicians who played and recorded here, to give context to the wider history, and to explore the impact that moment had on them, their families, and beyond. We have also interviewed different family members for blog posts, such as our post on Hattie Stoneman.

Recent educational work has focused on creating learning activity sheets, including one related to Real Folk, a special exhibit at the museum earlier this year. This activity sheet encourages children to find master artists or artisans in their family by talking to their parents, grandparents, and other relatives about special talents or skills they have or activities they enjoy doing, another route to learning more about your family.

Left: Focus in one "I Was There" panel shows the quote "I Was There" in a speech bubble at the top, three photographs interspersed with text, and a TV screen with the oral history video running.
Center: Two blondish/white-haired women sit on a bench laughing and talking with an man with glasses, short white beard, and overalls.
Right: The activity sheet has the title "Interview a Master Artist" at the top, with descriptive text and a list of interview questions below the title.

Left: The exhibit panel “I Was There” includes text, images, and a short video recording the memories of the 1927 Bristol Sessions by Ralph Peer and several musicians. Center: Roni and Donna Stoneman, daughters of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, share memories and stories with a member of the public at the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Right: The “Interview a Master Artist” activity sheet provides some prompt questions for discovering your family’s hidden talents. All images © Birthplace of Country Music

There are lots of articles and guides out there to help you tell and record your own family stories. Here are just a few that can help get you started:

And if you want some inspiration, check out StoryCorps whose mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Over the years, they have recorded the stories of more than half a million people – from family stories to moments of history, from the small things to the big things in lives lived.

There are also tons of websites and books that will help you with some prompts to get the ball rolling on learning more about your family. Why don’t you try out a few of these questions at your next socially distanced family gathering?

  • What is your favorite story about your grandmother/father?
  • Where did you go to school, and what was your favorite subject?
  • Did you ever play a musical instrument? Which one?
  • Tell me about the places you have traveled.
  • What was the best concert you attended?
  • Did you play a sport in high school or college?
  • What is YOUR favorite family story?
  • Do you remember how you felt or what it was like when the Berlin Wall fell/Barack Obama became President/the Challenger space shuttle blew up – and, one day, when the COVID pandemic hit?

Finally, one last thing to remember: Family can be what you make of it – in other words, family stories can be those told by your relatives, but they can also be those told by the family you have created with your friends. All of these are part of your personal history and remembering them over the years will always bring you – and those you share them with – pleasure.

So start the conversation. Ask a few questions. Pull out some photographs to prompt the memories. Become the record-keeper and storyteller – for your family and friends!

The Power of Music: Suffrage Songs

Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, it finally gave American women the right to vote and be represented.

Congress ratified this amendment on June 4, 1919, but it still needed to be affirmed by 3/4 of the states in order to become law. Suffragettes and their supporters had been working for this day since 1832, and the very first amendment for women’s right to vote was introduced in 1878, taking 42 years to reach ratification. The road was long and hard with women fighting through words, negotiation and diplomacy, and acts of civil disobedience to gain the right to vote. American democracy has been a beacon to many outside our shores, but it makes one pause to think that women only gained this basic right 100 years ago.

A line of women crowd in front of a building. They are wearing early 20th century clotes, and one of the women looks out from the line and directly at the camera.
Women line up to vote for the first time in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, after passage of the 19th amendment. Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Association

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is fortunate to have two poster exhibits that explore this complex history, the people who fought to be recognized, and the acts that brought them to victory on August 18, 1920. The first – Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence – comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibit traces the story of women’s suffrage, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation while also examining the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. The second – To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote, created by the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives – digs deep into the history of the woman’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the years that followed. Both of these exhibits will be on display by September 1 and are definitely worth a visit over the next few months!

Right: The introductory panel for Votes for Women bears text and images on the subject, including a woman dressed in classical garb in front of a government building and a portrait of Ida B. Wells. Center: The graphic poster reads "Votes for Women" and "Equality is the sacred law of humanity" and bears the image of a woman's head with wings at her hair and a sculpture of a double-headed axe behind her. Left. The introductory poster for To Make Our Voices Heard has portraits of several suffrage leaders, text, and a picture of suffragettes marching.
Right and left: The introductory panels to the Votes for Women and To Make Our Voices Heard exhibits. Center: Graphic poster from the suffrage movement. Equality Is the Sacred Law of Humanity, c. 1903–1915; Lithograph by Egbert C. Jacobson Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

As a music museum, there is one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact, and so I wanted to explore some of the songs that helped fuel the suffrage movement. Artists have long used songs to throw light on the world around them – for instance, Hazel Dickens and other musicians who highlighted the tribulations and dangers of Appalachian coal mining communities or the anthems, often with their origins in African American spirituals and traditional hymns, that powered Civil Rights activists in the struggle. Music is a way for people to express their contemporary burdens and their dreams for a better future.

The women of the suffrage movement also lifted themselves up with song, highlighting the rights they were fighting for and inspiring them in that fight. The lyrics to these songs were often set to popular tunes or traditional hymns, thus making them easier to sing and remember. For instance, “Human Equality,” written in the 1870s by William Lloyd Garrison, was sung to the tune of another popular song used in support of labor reform and abolition. While not about women’s right to vote, the poem”Rights of Woman,” written by “A Lady” in 1795, declared women free and was later set to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee.” “Daughters of Freedom” was published in 1871 and was composed by Edward Christie with lyrics by George Cooper, while a song by Frank Boylen from 1881 asked “Shall Women Vote?” America being the melting pot that it is, some songs also came from immigrant sources, such as “Damen Rechte (Suffragettes),” a popular Yiddish song that not only called for women’s right to vote but also extolled other freedoms and equality in society at large. Some songs were also written specifically for suffrage marches and meant to be played by brass bands, such as “Fall in Line.” Around 1880, D. Estabrook wrote “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” which on first glance seems to be anti-women’s rights with various men declaring that women should stay in their traditional roles and not expect equal rights. However, the last verse turns this notion on its head with the assertion:

I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”
The answer came sincere —
“Her rights are just the same as mine,
Let woman choose her sphere.

Left: The sheet music cover has bold script with the title of the song, and notes that it is for solo quartet and records the names of the composer and lyricist. Center: A female suffragette band marches down a wide city street. Left: The cover of the Songs of the Suffragettes album is bright pink and has an illustration of a suffrage meeting, with several people around a large table and an audience ranged behind them.
Right: Cover of the sheet music to “Daughters of Freed! The Ballot Be Yours.” Library of Congress. Music Division, Microfilm M 3500 M2.3.U6A44
Center: National American Woman Suffrage Association parade held in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. LC-B2- 2505-7, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress
Left: Unfortunately, very few suffragette songs were recorded at the time of their usage, but you can hear many of these rousing songs on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight.

Where there was a fight for women’s rights, however, came societal and political push back – also expressed through music. Songs that mocked the suffragettes’ struggle and emphasized women’s “proper” place abounded, such as “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette,” “The Anti-Suffrage Rose,” “Mind the Baby, I Must Vote Today,” and “Your Mother’s Gone Away to Join the Army” both published in the early 1910s. Various songs also questioned the other changes women were embracing, often deemed as “unladylike.” This was especially true as women pushed for less restrictive clothes like the “Bloomer costume,” which was attacked in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” Women riding bicycles were also seen as a sign of these times; indeed, Susan B. Anthony viewed bicycles as doing “more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.” “Eliza Jane,” a song from 1895, brought all these horrors together – less restrictive clothing, bicycles, and the desire to vote!

Was there any connection between suffrage and the songs of early country music? I don’t know of any hillbilly songs that embrace the suffrage movement in song, but there are certainly a few songs that reflect the changes that were happening on this front and give hints to women moving beyond their stereotypical roles. For instance, The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and sung only by Sara and Maybelle, contrasts the freedom of the singleton with the restrictions a married woman bears taking care of husband, babies, and home. And as with the anti-suffrage songs, there were also reactions from hillbilly musicians to the ways women’s roles were changing. Blind Alfred Reed, another 1927 Bristol Sessions singer, later recorded “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?,” which declared that “every time you bob it, you’re breaking God’s command,” and “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” which bemoaned the early days of Eve in the Garden of Eden and all the ways women were trying to be like men in contemporary society. More disapproval of women’s ways can be found in Ira and Eugene Yates recording “Powder and Paint” from the Johnson City Sessions in 1929.

Finally, it’s worth noting a couple of great songs that teach the history of the suffrage movement and celebrate its achievement. The first is from a much-loved slice of my childhood, Schoolhouse Rock“Sufferin’ till Suffrage,” sung by the wonderful Etta James. And then, of course, there is Dolly Parton (it’s ALWAYS Dolly…). In 2018, she contributed to 27: The Most Perfect Album, “a collection of songs about the Constitutional amendments that have shaped our democracy, and yet are often at the center of fierce political debate.” Dolly’s song about the 19th amendment starts with a brief spoken introduction to the suffrage story, and soon transitions into a rousing song about the fight for the vote.

Off the Record: The Hobo’s Convention

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our “Off the Record” posts, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record or artist they love. Today we hear from Brody Hunt, host of Land of the Sky, as he tells us some tales about hoboes and their songs.

One of the public’s most enduring fascinations with the American hobo tramp is their fabled system of mysterious and secretive signs or codes. The concept of carved or chalked hobo hieroglyphics left by a Knight of the Road for his fellow Brethren of Bumdom, warning of a lousy calaboose (that is, a local jail) or showing where to find a kind woman for a handout, just won’t fade. Newspapers of the classic hobo era printed countless articles about hobo signs, seemingly a surefire way to sell a sheet. Tramps themselves were at times interviewed and enticed to divulge these secret signs for publication, doubtless in trade for a solid feed or a pint of gin. In one instance, the local town clowns themselves even made use of hobo signs in an attempt to detour a convention of ‘boes around their city.

Newspaper article reporting the story of how Cincinnati cops painted hobo signs around town in order to give hobos the impression that it wasn't a good place to stop.

A 1912 article in the St. Louis Star and Times records how the Cincinnati police painted hobo signs as a way to deter hoboes from coming into the city.

But are there solid facts that confirm the widespread use of hobo signs? The Historic Graffiti Society has recently published their remarkably well researched Hobo Signs Zine, and an excerpt of their conclusion reads:            

In our opinion, hobo signs were not the secret language of hoboes. While they definitely found a place in popular culture, mainly thanks to newspapers throughout the decades, there is little to no concrete evidence to prove their existence. It is possible that a very simple set of signs (good, bad, safe, dangerous) were used by a small minority of the traveling population, but nothing that ever took hold or was widespread. The real language of the hoboes was, and is still to this day, word of mouth. Information including what towns were hostile and where a hobo could find work traveled up and down the railroad lines without the need for signs and symbols… In our travels we have documented over 1,000 individual pieces of hobo graffiti. These marks generally contain the hobo’s moniker (assumed name), the date the mark was made, and the direction of travel. For how many instances of hobo moniker marks we’ve found and documented, we have never come across a single hobo sign. Perhaps the Oregon Daily Journal said it best in 1907, stating that the only secret sign is “Help Wanted” and that “It is so baffling that the average tramp never tries to fathom its depth.”

Newspaper cartoon showing various hobos encountering good times and positive experiences in Pittsburgh, even with the police. The headline reads "Hobo Accepts Pittsburgh as 'Good Stopping Place.'"

Newspaper cartoon from the Pittsburg Press, 1927.

While the myth of hobo signs will undoubtedly persist as long at the hobo retains even the smallest nook in the American psyche, the use of nom-de-rails by those who work and inhabit the rails also endures. Freight cars today are often covered in spray paint graffiti, but a closer look will quickly reveal the grease-paint monikers of railroad workers and train riders alike. Even if they don’t mark a substantial number of rail cars or other trackside canvases, nearly everyone who spends more than a year or two bumming on the rails eventually ends up with a moniker, often with a distinctive character or symbol. In the summer of 1921, Portland, Oregon was the scene of a hobo convention resulting in a moniker song that has left a small impression on hobo balladry. Titled “The Hobo Convention at Portland,” the song is included in George Milburn’s 1930 volume of tramp prose, The Hobo’s Hornbook. His introduction to the piece is seen below, followed by the printed lyrics.

Text reads: The Hobo Convention at Portland
This, very likely, is the most recent hobo convention song. The gathering described took place in the summer of 1921, and came off successfully without any assistance from the Portland, Oregon, Chamber of Commerce. A delegate named George Liebst has been credited with the present song, but it follows closely earlier convention anthems, and its purpose, that of introducing monikas, is the same.
You have heard of big conventions, 
And there’s some that can’t be beat,
But get this straight, there’s none so great 
As when the hoboes meet.
 
To Portland, Oregon, that year 
They came from near and far; 
On tops and blinds where cinders whined 
And hanging to the drawbar.
 
Three hundred came from New York State, 
Some came from Eagle Pass; 
That afternoon, the third of June, 
They gathered there en masse.
 
From Lone Star State came Texas Slim 
And Jack the Katydid. 
With Lonesome Lou from Kal-mazoo 
Came San Diego Kid.
 
And Denver Dan and Boston Red 
Blew in with Hellfire Jack, 
Andy Lang from longshore gang, 
Big Mack from Mackinac.
 
I saw some ‘boes I never met; 
A ‘bo called New York Spike, 
Con the Sneak from Battle Creek 
And Mississippi Ike
 
Old Joisey Bill, dressed like a dude, 
Shook hands with Frisco Fred, 
And Half-breed Joe from Mexico 
Shot craps with Eastport Ed.
 
St. Looie Jim and Pittsburg Paul 
Fixed up a jungle stew 
While Slip’ry Slim and Bashful Tim 
Creaked gumps for our menu.
 
Then Jockey Kid spilled out a song 
Along with Desp’rate Sam; 
And Paul the Shark from Terror’s Park 
Clog-danced with Alabam.
 
We gathered ‘round the jungle fire, 
The night was passing fast; 
We’d all done time for every crime, 
And talk was of the past.
 
All night we flopped around the fire 
Until the morning sun; 
Then from the town the cops came down,
We beat it on the run.
 
We scattered to the railroad yards 
And left the bulls behind; 
Some hit the freights for other states 
And many rode the blind.
 
Well, here I am in Denver town, 
A hungry, tired-out ‘bo; 
The flier’s due, when she pulls through, 
I’ll grab her and I’ll blow.
 
That’s her—she’s whistling for the block— 
I’ll make her on the fly’; 
It’s number nine—Santa Fe line. 
I’m off again—Goodbye! 

The Oregon Daily Journal announced in a headline “Railway Police Declare War on Brakebeam Rider” the following September. It seems doubtful this was a result of the Portland convention. The cinder dicks, or railway police, were and will always be unsuccessful with their goal of the “Elimination of Every Weary Willie.”

Two songs titled “The Hobo’s Convention” were recorded onto 78rpm discs in the 1930s. One with lyrics nearly identical to those in Milburn’s book was recorded by Goebel Reeves for C. P. MacGregor in Hollywood, California, in either 1938 or 1939. This disc, with hand-stamped catalog number and handwritten artist and song credits, was not meant for commercial consumer release, but intended for radio broadcasts. Reeves, or “The Texas Drifter” as he was sometimes known, was indeed a Texan from the burg of Sherman. By the time he cut the MacGregor disc, Reeves had already been traveling the country since 1929 as a hillbilly radio entertainer and recording artist. Wounded in action in World War I, Reeves took up tramp life upon his return to the States and may well have learned the song on the road, or even been at the Portland Convention himself. At any rate, it is a pleasure to have a hard-boiled ex-hobo on record singing the piece. You may listen to his record here: https://soundcloud.com/brody-hunt-138211625/goebel-reeves-hobos-convention.

Left: Close up of record label for C. P. MacGregor with The Hobo's Convention, The Texas Drifter handwritten on it. Right: Portrait of Goebel Reeves -- he has his back turned and is looking over his shoulder at the camera. He wears a dark jacket, black hat, and holds a guitar.

Record label for “The Hobo’s Convention” by Goebel Reeves, known as the Texas Drifter, and a photographic portrait of the musician. Record label image from the author’s collection; portrait from the collection of Tony Russell

An earlier recording of “The Hobo’s Convention” is more elusive, but there is a version that was waxed in 1932 by Boyden Carpenter, known as “The Hillbilly Kid,” who was raised around Cherry Lane, North Carolina. It was possibly similar to the above, or at least some form of moniker song. Although it’s unclear if he ever flipped a freight, Carpenter certainly had an adventurous spirit and a strong taste of beating his way across the country as he attempted to start a career in radio during the onset of the Great Depression.

In Carpenter’s own words he describes leaving the mountains bound for the broadcast powerhouses of Chicago:

Well, Folks, it was back in 1930 that I decided to leave Alleghany County and get on the radio. Most of the programs coming in on the old battery set down at John Miles’ store was comin’ from Chicago, so that’s where I headed for. Now I didn’t have but a few dollars, but I’d been savin’ my nickles and dimes, in case I’d need a little money on my trip, but I didn’t have enough money for a ticket to Chicago. I got my ma to fix me up a few pones of bread, a rasher of meat, and some Irish potatoes, and I struck out for the big city on foot. I never will forget the way the fellers laughed at me as I passed down there at Miles’ store. They all said “There he goes, he ain’t got no sense, why they’ll have him in the asylum before he gits out of Alleghany County. That boy will never amount to a hill of beans out runnin’ around over the country, why he’d better stay around here and work on a farm.” Why I just paid no ‘tention to them fellers and kept on my way. Now, it wasn’t long before my rations that I left home with played out, so I had to find little odd chores, such as cutting wood and things like that for a meal here and there. You know I didn’t want to beg for a handout, and be a regular bum, I wanted to make my way… Yeah on that trip to Chicago I slept in straw stacks, hay lofts, depots and a little of everywhere. Well, rides was mighty scarce on that trip, and I don’t blame them folks for passin’ me by so much ‘cause I wasn’t such a good lookin’ prospect fer company. So, as much as I had to walk, it tuk me right at thirty days to get to Chicago.

Photograph showing man in check shirt with dark pants, one foot up on a chair and holding a guitar. He has a harmonica around his neck. Written on the photograph is "Hillbilly Kid / 705.AM 1340, / WAIR

Promotional photograph of Boyden Carpenter, also known as “The Hillbilly Kid.”  From the collection of Marshall Wyatt

After three days of finding no interest in “what I had brought with me from Allegheny County,” Carpenter started walking back home. On this return trip, he eventually landed his first radio job on WCKY in Covington, Kentucky. In his “drifting days,” he would go on to work the airwaves of WHAS, Louisville; WKRC, Cincinnati; WFBM, Indianapolis; WJJD, Chicago; WIOD, Miami; WDBO, Orlando; WJAX, Jacksonville; WMBR, Jacksonville; and WFBC Greenville. He then broadcast for Crazy Water Crystals on WGST and WSB, Atlanta; WMAZ, Macon; WBT, Charlotte; and WPTF, Raleigh, before moving on to WAIR, Winston-Salem.

Boyden Carpenter twice recorded for Gennett Records at their Richmond, Indiana studios. On the first trip, he accompanied the blind North Carolina street singer Ernest Thompson on the hitchhiking journey up north, and both men recorded on January 22, 1930. (This date is seemingly at odds with Carpenter’s account of first leaving home on the bum alone in 1930. More realistically, his first trip out of the mountains was actually in 1929.) The two sides that Carpenter waxed were rejected, but he returned to Richmond and recorded two more sides, including “The Hobo’s Convention,” on September 13, 1932. By this time Gennett was in a state of economic collapse, with individual record sales at times below 100 copies. The coupling of “The Hobo’s Convention” with “The Old Grey Goose Is Dead” was given a catalog number on Champion, a Gennett stencil label. Shipping figures are not available for Champion 16519, and no copies of the 78 are known to exist.

* Special thanks to the Historic Graffiti Society, Jonathan Ward, and the research of John Edwards, Charles Wolfe, Tony Russell, Bob Carlin, and Marshall Wyatt, all integral to the content of this “Off the Record” post. The Historic Graffiti Society’s Hobo Signs Zine may be found here.

Real Folk: A Few of My Favorite Things

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program. While the COVID-19 situation meant that for three months no one was able to visit the exhibit – except virtually – we have now reopened, and the exhibit is waiting to be enjoyed through its closing date in August!

This is one of my favorite special exhibits that we’ve had on display at the museum – the images by photographers Pat Jarrett and Morgan Miller are stunning, the stories of the master artists and apprentices told by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman are fascinating, and the range of crafts, trades, and traditions astounding.

Here are just a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from Real Folk:

A Virginia Town’s Salty Past

Saltville – found in the Southern Appalachians – is named for its unusually high number of salt marshes, or as locals call them, salt licks. Not only is the salt source extensive here, but the salt from Saltville is also especially salty – around 10 times saltier than ocean water! Saltville’s natural salt deposits have influenced the history of the region from the late Pleistocene period, when they attracted Ice Age mammals and Paleoamericans to the area, to early European traders to the Civil War when nearly two-thirds of the South’s salt was produced in Saltville and two bloody battles were fought here.


Jim Bordwine’s family has lived in and around Saltville since the 1770s. He has dedicated his life to educating the public about Saltville’s history and continuing its traditional craft of making salt, including passing down this knowledge to son Baron through an apprenticeship. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Quilt Signals

We have quite a few quilt connections in our museum – from the huge Birthplace of Country Music quilt hanging in our atrium to the quilt “tapestries” on sell in The Museum Store to the museum’s color scheme based on old quilts and flour sacks. Master Artist Sharon Tindall has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages integral to the success of the Underground Railroad, codes that told enslaved people about what to expect next on their journey and how to find safe haven.


Sharon Tindall specializes in early African American quilt patterns and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She shared her experience with apprentice Nancy Chilton. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

A Connection Between Music and Language

The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord or one-stringed instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Playing the đàn bâu can create microtones capable of imitating the six essential tones and variations of the Vietnamese language, nearly impossible to achieve with any other instrument. Traditionally, it is also used as an accompaniment to Vietnamese poetry readings.


Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing an instrument called the đàn bâu at 17, later touring and performing throughout the United States with her family. She is seen here with her apprentice Anh Dien Ky Nguyen. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

From Everyday Object to Musical Instrument

Music has often been made from everyday objects – for instance, think of a washtub bass or the spoons. The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around World War II, when island locals resourcefully crafted these instruments from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55-gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as sinking. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel, resulting in a melodic percussive instrument that can play three full octaves.


Master Artist Elton Williams, who worked with apprentice Earl Sawyer, grew up in Trinidad and immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the U.S. © Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program

For the Love of Fonts

Prior to the advent of photocopiers, short-run quick print, email, and social media, the local letterpress was the primary producer of the vast majority of materials for mass communication – from church bulletins to wedding announcements to commercial advertisements, and so much more. My favorite elements of letterpress are the individual letters used in the printing process (and so many possible fonts!) and the wonderful act of rolling out the ink ready to print. We have our own letterpress studio here in Southwest Virginia at the Burke Print Shop in the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Left: Images from the letterpress apprenticeship between Garrett Queen and Lana Lambert in the Real Folk exhibit. Right: Letter blocks at the Burke Print Shop. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program; © Rene Rodgers

Different Dulcimers

When I used to think of a dulcimer, I thought of one particular type – an hourglass-shaped instrument – because we had one like that hanging in our home when I was a child. Since then, I’ve learned there are many types of dulcimers (all from the zither family) that are played in many places throughout the world – from the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer to the banjo dulcimer and the bowed dulcimer – with different shapes and different ways of being played. The dulcimer from my house – and the one most familiar around our area – is the mountain dulcimer, a fretted string instrument that first appeared in the 19th century among Scots-Irish communities. It is also known as the lap dulcimer.


Left: Phyllis Gaskins, seen here with apprentice Anna Stockdale, plays the Galax dulcimer, which is lozenge-shaped, has four strings all tuned to the same note, and is played with a turkey or goose quill. The Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal instrument in old-time string bands, mirroring the fiddle. Right: Master Dulcimer Maker Walter Messick apprenticed Chris Testerman, an award-winning fiddler who is already considered one of the great up-and-coming luthiers in the region. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

An Unorthodox Route to Creativity

The late Pastor Mary Onley, known as “Mama-Girl,” was a self-taught artist who came from generations of farm laborers, working in the fields herself at the age of 12. Severe allergies resulted in several hospitalizations, and during one of these, she reported being visited by a spirit who instructed her to create art out of paper and found objects – something she had never done before. She went on to become one of the most celebrated folk artists on the East Coast, creating lyrical newspaper and glue sculptures that reflected her inner visions and unique creativity.


In 2016, Mama-Girl taught son David Rogers her unorthodox artistic techniques and how to open his mind to receive his own divine artistic inspirations. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

Radio Bristol Book Club: Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month, readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The title of July’s book club pick – Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam – says it all, and as you can imagine, the story told is a wild ride! In 1917, John R. Brinkley arrived in the tiny town of Milford, Kansas where he set up a medical practice. This was a time of patent medicines, each often more outlandish than the next, and Brinkley had been creating and selling these quack remedies throughout the southeastern United States. In Milford he soon introduced a surgical method that used goat glands to restore the fading virility of local farmers – it was an instant hit despite being total nonsense, making Brinkley’s name famous and making him rich. Soon Brinkley was being pursued by Morris Fishbein, who swore to put America’s “most daring and dangerous” charlatan out of business. Charlatan tells this true story with all of its bamboozles, cons, and detective work, but it also explores the impact Brinkley had on politics, along with the world of broadcasting through border radio, musical genres, and even The Carter Family!

Left: Cover of Charlatan is black with ornate red font for the word Charlatan (main title), white font for the subtitle, and red font for the author's name. There is a white male billy goat in the center of the cover.
Right: Low, one-story building in a barren landscape with a massive radio transmitter behind it reaching up to the sky. XER is written above the building's doore.

The cover of Pope Brock’s Charlatan, and a photograph of XER’s radio transmitter on the border of Texas and Mexico. XER image found at www.theradiohistorian.org (probable “orphan” work)

Pope Brock is a writer, teacher, and DJ living in Arlington, Massachusetts. Along with Charlatan, he is the author of two other books: Indiana Gothic, about the murder of his great-grandfather, and Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon, a work of what might be called speculative nonfiction. Brock also writes for a host of other publications, and his articles have appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the London Sunday Times Magazine, amongst others.

Black and white headshot of author Pope Brock wearing a dark button-down shirt.

Pope Brock. Image from his website

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, July 23 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam and listen to an interview afterwards with the author! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time – the librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this book’s interesting story!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for August is Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, August 27. Happy reading!

The Night I Met Lesley Riddle: June 14, 1974

The first time I ever met Mr. Lesley Riddle and also, the first time I ever played guitar and sang with him, just happened to be the day after his 69th birthday. He was born on June 13, 1905, and we met on the evening of June 14, 1974.

That evening Lesley Riddle was billed to perform at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse in Rochester, New York. It was a big hangout for the many musicians and people that were just plain savvy about great music and art (many of whom were “hippies”!). I have to tell you next that this date was my most significant night ever spent at that venue.

Newspaper clipping that notes the various musical artists that had performed at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse in the past year, along with noting that Lesley Riddle will be playing for the next two nights with various other musicians.
This newspaper review of the Genesee Co-op Teahouse highlights the amazing musicians regularly featured there, including Lesley Riddle. It also notes that the high caliber of the music performances outweighed the taste of “all those weird teas they serve”! Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

But let’s go back to the beginning first: Recently, my father had gone to hear Mr. Riddle, an elderly southern country-blues artist, at a big music festival, and he’d not been able to stop talking about it ever since. I’m still trying to recall where he had seen him play, to no avail, but I definitely know he went to that festival because he really wanted to hear him. I was sick at the time, and my mom stayed home with me, so we missed his performance. When my dad came home that night, he was just ecstatic! He couldn’t believe that a musician like this was living in Rochester. He compared him to the legendary blues-picker Mississippi John Hurt, a family favorite – we had all of his records and I had learned to play many of his songs (my two favorites were the “Candy Man” and “Creole Belle”).

My dad could not stop talking about Lesley Riddle, and he also mentioned that he had a direct connection with The Carter Family. I knew all about The Carter Family, especially Mother Maybelle Carter who played the autoharp and wrote “Wildwood Flower,” a song we sang at Tuesday night Golden Link Folksinging Society meetings. Mother Maybelle also had three daughters, including June who was married to and performed with the legendary Johnny Cash. I grew up knowing that the Carter and the Cash families were “country music royalty” and that they played a major part in the history of country music. However, I had not heard of Lesley Riddle prior to this. Not only did I not know then what a significant role he played with the Carters and their music, but I didn’t even get a full sense of his important contribution from the bits and pieces of our conversations over the years after we met. These puzzle pieces would take a very long time to formulate, and then sadly, most of it rose to the surface long after he was gone.

So, the night my dad heard Mr. Riddle play at this previous concert, he had quite a talk with him, and my dad even convinced Mr. Riddle that his daughter – me! – should play and sing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” with him at his next concert at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse on Friday, June 14, 1974. He informed him that my style of guitar picking and the songs we played meshed directly with his repertoire. I guess Mr. Riddle was intrigued, and he graciously accepted the offer from my father. In the years to come, I witnessed just how gracious and thoughtful Mr. Riddle was, so I can only imagine that night he would have said “yes” to anything my father was pitching him on just because he was truly a gentleman. Also, my father had a very “pushy” and somewhat demanding demeanor, and when he wanted to make something happen there was pretty much no stopping it!

Lesley Riddle on stage with his guitar; a man with a long brown ponytail sits in front of the stage in the audience.
Lesley Riddle on stage at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse. Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

In my diary entry for that evening, I wrote that my musical partner “Mark” met us at our house at 8:15pm, and then we all headed out for the Teahouse together. When we arrived, we found out that not only was the Mr. Riddle still scheduled to perform, but he’d also just celebrated his birthday. I remember that night very vividly because it was such a turning point with my music! I remember me, my mom, and Mark taking our seats and saving one for my dad as the venue was filling up quickly. This gave my dad time to go over and catch Mr. Riddle to let him know I was there and had my guitar in tow.

After Mr. Riddle played a few of his blues numbers to a very enthusiastic audience, he called “14-year-old” Nancy Park to please come up to the stage. I didn’t know he would have me up so soon, and I was also shocked to receive such a big reception. I guess it was because my parents had been dragging me to the Teahouse every weekend, and we had gotten to know most of the regulars, plus my weekly Golden Link meetings were connecting me with many of the people that attended the concerts there. This helped to ease my nerves quite a bit because I was among friends. I also couldn’t help but laugh or smile when I saw our friend Larry Scahill, who ran the concerts and as far as we knew the Teahouse, and also Mike Brisson, a quiet and bashful man who ran the sound system.

Lesley Riddle in check pants and a tie standing beside a shorter bearded man in front of the Genesee Co-op Teahouse.
Lesley Riddle standing in front of the Genesee Co-op Teahouse with Larry Scahill. Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

As I got up on stage, I demonstrated my typical “grace” – the reason why I took dance lessons was so I wouldn’t do things like this – and proceeded to knock over Mr. Riddle’s big glass of ice water all over the stage! I do remember Mike coming up to wipe up the water and get his electrical microphone chords dried off so none of us would get electrocuted! Mr. Riddle just smiled at me and made some type of joke where the audience laughed and that helped to ease the silence and embarrassment I could feel welling up in my face.

When I got through all that drama, I tested the microphone, and everything was fine. According to the notes in my diary, I wanted to impress the audience of mostly strangers mixed in with some of the folks I knew with my ability to play the guitar and sing. (In other words, I had a very strong driving ego at a very young age and liked to entertain and be the center of attention!) My diary entry continued by noting this night as one where I gave the best performance I had ever given in my entire lifetime (which wasn’t all that long…), even better than when I played in the Variety Show at our high school for 250 people! I loved to perform and have folks compliment me on my playing or singing, and so this night just continued to feed my ever-growing ego at the time.

My diary also recorded the memory of Mr. Riddle telling me I did a fantastic job while the folks were still clapping, and then asking me to stay on stage and play along with him as he finished his set with a couple more tunes. I do recall the songs were familiar to me, and our style of playing blended great together. When he finished he told me before we left the stage that he wanted to play together again. I was just beyond excited about that, and the evening proved to be the start of a long-lasting, music-making, enduring and loving friendship.

Left: Lesley Riddle sitting in a living room chair holding a large guitar.
Center: Lesley Riddle, dressed in a pale suit with tie and dress shoes, plays guitar beside Nancy Park. Nancy is a teenager with brown hair in a long 70s-style dress.
Right: A group shot in a living room with Lesley Riddle in the central chair, Mike Seeger to his right, Alice Gerrard to his left, and Nancy Park sitting in front of him on the floor. Mr. Riddle has one hand on Nancy's shoulder and holds a guitar in his other hand.
After I met Lesley Riddle, he spent a lot of time with my family and playing music with me. He’s seen here playing my 1930s National Steel Body guitar, which we believe belonged to Son House, a legendary blues artist (left); playing with me at my high school graduation party in June 1977 (center); and in his home with me, Mike Seeger, and Alice Gerrard (right) in the late 1970s. Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

Finally, that night’s closing performance was local musician at the time (now New Orleans recording artist) John Mooney, Mr. Riddle, and another blues artist (whose name I didn’t write down), and they did two numbers that they called “heart and soul” songs, which ended up being the big hits of the night. There was a birthday cake in the shape of a guitar for Mr. Riddle, which we all enjoyed afterwards. Mr. Riddle came up to us before he packed up to leave, and he said that my voice and guitar playing was fantastic and that, they, my parents, needed to pursue my performing even more in the years ahead. I was ecstatic – and as I recalled earlier, it was probably one of the best nights of my life.

One interesting final note: I have a diary entry from 1975 – exactly one year later to the date – when we celebrated Mr. Riddle’s 70th birthday again at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse, where he performed that evening. Maybe that will be a blog for next year’s anniversary!

*Nancy (Park) Drum has loaned various items from her time with Lesley Riddle to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. We hope to feature these in a special display in the museum later this year. She has also shared some of her stories from making music with Mr. Riddle in an oral history.

Mother’s Day Spotlight: What You Might Not Know about Mother Maybelle

Today – May 10, 2020 – is both Mother’s Day here in the United States, and the anniversary of Mother Maybelle Carter’s birthday (May 10, 1909).

For so many of us, when we think of our mothers, it’s hard to look beyond the maternal. In other words, it’s hard for us to think of them as anything other than our mothers. But everyone’s mother has a life outside that – interests, stories, dreams, regrets, adventures, achievements, and so much more.

And that idea made us think about Maybelle. We all know about the significance and legacy of Maybelle Carter in the history of country, and American, music. That is a huge part of her story – but what about the other parts of her story? Some of you may know all about her, some may only know about her music, and some may not know much at all. And so let’s explore just a few of the lesser known aspects of this great woman!

Mother Maybelle

First, we’ll start with a musical aspect: Why was she called Mother Maybelle?

Of course, Maybelle was a mother herself to Helen, Anita, and June, and after the original Carter Family stopped performing together in 1943, Maybelle and her daughters took to the road as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Maybelle was only in her early 30s at the start of this period – imagine performing on the radio and on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, traveling the country for performances, living out of hotels and eating at diners, all with three young girls in tow!

The Mother Maybelle name might have been part of their band persona, but she kept this moniker for the rest of her career. And everything she did underlined this role – as matriarch and mentor to so many. For instance, she took on some younger musicians as part of her act, musicians like Chet Atkins who played guitar as sideman with Maybelle and her daughters for a time – Maybelle seeing Atkins potential and talent before it was more widely recognized. She also looked after a host of other musicians in the midst of their personal struggles, including Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. And, of course, she influenced many with her extraordinary guitar playing and all-around musical prowess, including Earl Scruggs, and later, acts like the New Lost City Ramblers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who invited her to perform with them because of the legacy she carried with her from the early days of country music. When she appeared on stage with these bands or at the folk festivals of the 1960s, the 20-something audiences looked up at this maternal figure and saw greatness.

As Tift Merritt noted on NPR’s All Things Considered: Maybelle Carter “defined a genre with her musicianship and her grace. More than as the great mother of her craft, her contributions as a caretaker, female and exemplar human deserve our deepest admiration.”

Life in the Fast Lane

Maybelle may be revered as a musical legend, and she may have been a steadying force to her family and her surrogate family of young, and often troubled, musicians, but she had a bit of a wild side herself. When on tour, Maybelle often drove – and she put her foot down hard on the pedal. Apparently, her husband Eck was also known as a speed demon so one imagines that when either of them was behind the wheel, there might have been a lot of backseat driving going on from the girls. And Maybelle wasn’t only a lover of fast cars; she also rode an Indian-model motorcycle!

Sepia-style image showing Eck at the front of the motorcycle with Maybelle seated behind him. Both wear helmets. They seem to be in a field or yard in front of a white house.
Maybelle and Eck on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Found on www.worthpoint.com

Maybelle also looked to Lady Luck as she indulged her love of bingo and cards, and when on tour in places like Las Vegas and Tahoe, she played the slots. She enjoyed horse races and also went down to the dog tracks frequently, looking to pick a winner. Her bets on all of these gambles were low-stakes but that didn’t take away the pleasure she got from playing.

The Everyday Life

With any famous person, it’s sometimes hard to imagine them out of the spotlight and living an “everyday life” – taking part in the day-to-day domestic tasks, having hobbies and interests, not performing but just living. But, of course, they do, and Maybelle was no different. She was quite a mean cook – from tomato gravy to chicken gizzard soup to other homestyle favorites, many of which are recorded in June Carter Cash’s Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook, along with a host of family stories. She also enjoyed hunting and fishing – grandson John Carter Cash has a photograph of her and Eck standing in front of a truck bed covered in fish they’d caught. And she let loose and had a good time bowling and playing pool with family and friends. And while music on the stage may have been Maybelle’s livelihood, making music at home was often just as important.

Hunting and fishing licence with Maybelle's name, address, descriptive details, and signature. It was issued in 1975.

Maybelle’s Tennesee hunting and fishing license, issued in 1975 only a few years before she passed away, was on display in the museum’s very first special exhibit, The Carter Family: Lives and Legacies. Carter/Cash Family Collection, Ms2009-090, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Caregiver

Maybelle’s kindness, generosity, and care for others – so much a part of her musical story – also came into play with her “second” job. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, though Maybelle was still performing at the Grand Ole Opry on the weekends and with other gigs, her daughters began to go their separate ways with families and their own careers (plus the music world was changing), and so Maybelle needed to supplement her income. Therefore, for a while, she worked at a local hospital as a certified practical nurse at night, helping to sit with and care for the elderly.

And so…Happy Mother (Maybelle)’s Day

These are just a few of the things that both define Maybelle Carter as the matriarch of a genre and also take us beyond her life in music to see her as an everyday person too. In Maybelle’s story, we can find inspiration, good memories and stories, and a continuing influence down through the ages. Once again, Tift Merritt sums it up well, defining Mother Maybelle not only in relation to her musical legacy but also in terms that define so many of our own mothers: “A woman of craft rather than of spectacle, Maybelle Carter was more than a great guitar player: She was a perfect bandmate. Deep in the House of Music, down the halls of life-long practice, Maybelle Carter, the unspoken Great Mother of rhythm guitar, blends in with her harmony singing, steps out when asked and breezily holds down the rhythm and the lead on her instrument as if it were no big deal.”

* If you want to know more about Maybelle as a guitarist, check out Greg Reish’s Instrument Interview with her 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar.

Catching Up with Virginia’s Real Folk

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Two weeks later the museum closed its doors in accordance with the state mandate in response to the COVID-19 situation. Sadly that has meant we haven’t been able to share this wonderful exhibit with very many on-the-spot visitors, but happily we are able to share some of it with our virtual visitors! The curatorial team is hard at work on pulling together a virtual tour of Real Folk (so watch this space!), but in the meantime, we wanted to give you the chance to learn a little bit about the exhibit and the apprenticeship program right now.

Since 2002, the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program has drawn from a wide range of communities and traditional folkways to pair more than 150 experienced master artists with dedicated apprentices for one-on-one, nine-month learning experiences, in order to help ensure that particular art forms are passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition. The master artists are selected from applicants in all forms of traditional, expressive culture in Virginia – from decoy carving to fiddle making, from boat building to quilt making, from country ham curing to old-time banjo playing, from African American gospel singing to Mexican folk dancing. These crafts and traditions come from the Appalachian hills to the Chesapeake shore to new immigrant traditions brought to the state  – and everywhere in between! The Folklife Apprenticeship Program helps to ensure that Virginia’s treasured folkways continue to receive new life and vibrancy, engage new learners, and reinvigorate master practitioners.

Out of these apprenticeship pairings, deep friendships and relationships have grown as the master artists pass on their knowledge, skills, and passion for the various crafts and traditions, along with the history and cultural importance that attaches to each. For instance, Sharon Tindall, who worked with gifted quilter Nancy Chilton in 2014, specializes in early African American quilt patters and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She is also a quilt historian and has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages that were integral to the success of the Underground Railroad.

Close up of Sharon Tindall's hand holding a bright red pin cushion, filled with yellow head pins, over a red and white cloth.
Sharon Tindall holds a pin cushion above some brightly colored cloth. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Several apprenticeships have focused on music, from music making to instrument building to the related art of dance. The variety of traditions on display within this realm is astounding, including African American gospel, Chickahominy dance, bluegrass fiddling, mandolin making, Sephardic ballad singing, steel drum making, and so much more. Because music is so central to the cultural heritage of southwest Virginia, numerous musicians, singers, and makers from this area have taken part in the program. Musician and luthier Gerald Anderson spent more than 30 years apprenticing in the shop of legendary instrument builder Wayne Henderson in Rugby, Virginia. Fellow musician Spencer Strickland recognized his mastery and skills, and asked if Gerald would take him on as an apprentice. Their time working together in 2005 turned into a deep friendship, musical partnership, and one of the longest running and most successful apprenticeships in the program’s history. Though barely out of his teens at the time, Spencer took to building instruments immediately, and the two soon opened their own shop in Gerald’s home in Troutdale. They also played and toured together as a duo and with the Virginia Luthiers. Gerald passed away unexpectedly in 2019, and Spencer has continued to build instruments and carry on Gerald’s memory.

Black-and-white image with a close up of two hands carving the body of a mandolin.
Working on a mandolin in Gerald Anderson’s workshop. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Morgan Miller

Many of Virginia’s cultural traditions have been brought here by immigrant communities, and the state is all the richer from this. These immigrants have shared their heritage not only within their own communities, but also more widely through educational programs, touring and performances, the creation of larger cultural organizations, and partnerships with other groups. For instance, Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing the đàn bâu at 17, later touring throughout the United States with her family as the Nguyen Đinh Nghĩa Family and performing at prestigious concert halls and festivals. The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord (one-stringed) instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Guitarist Anh Dien Ky Nguyen met Nam Phuong while playing at a music club, and he asked her to teach him the đàn bâu, partnering with her in the apprenticeship program in 2011.

Nam Phuon Nguyen in a green dress stands beside a seated Anh Dien Ky Nguyen in a brown vest. He is playing the instrument while she instructs. The shelves behind them are full of knick knacks, bottles, and sculpture.
Nam Phuon Nguyen and Anh Dien Ky Nguyen work together on mastering the art of the đàn bâu. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

These few images are just a taste of this fascinating and beautiful exhibit, and we hope that you will be able to visit it later in the year. In the meantime, you can engage with the exhibit in another way by listening in to Radio Bristol’s Toni Doman as she talks with Virginia Folklife photographer Pat Jarrett about his work with the apprenticeship program — check out Episode 60 on March 12, 2020 in the Mountain Song & Story archives here. And you can support the artists who are so important to Virginia’s cultural heritage by going to Virginia Folklife’s website and exploring TRAIN (Teachers of Remote Arts Instruction Network). Created in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on the livelihoods of artists, TRAIN connects interested students of all skill levels with a diverse range  of master musicians, craftspeople, and tradition bearers offering online instructional opportunities. Start your lessons today!

Finally, keep an eye on our website for a virtual tour of Real Folk coming soon!

Bristol Rhythm: The Roots & Branches

“Bristol is the absolute bedrock upon which the entire empire of country music and many tributaries therein are built.” ~ Marty Stuart

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion began as a community bluegrass, old-time, and gospel music festival. Acts like Ralph Blizard and Reeltime Travelers led the lineup, and there was even a soup bean and cornbread dinner. In 2003 we really began to examine what it meant to honor the 1927 Bristol Sessions in addition to the influences those recordings have had on other genres of music.

2001 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival program, an insert in the Bristol Herald Courier.
2001 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival program, an insert in the Bristol Herald Courier.

A conscious decision was made to expand the lineup to include more progressive acts like Leftover Salmon, Old Crow Medicine Show, Corey Harris, and Donna the Buffalo. This changed the entire landscape of our festival. Younger audiences were drawn to the music like never before and the energy downtown became absolutely electric.

In the second edition of our mini docu-series, we talk about how our expansion paved a wider path on that “road home” to Bristol’s music legacy by exploring its roots and far-reaching branches.

Sidebar: I get a little misty watching these videos. I think I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries that I began serving as a volunteer for the festival in 2002, prior to our third annual event. To hear country music icons like Marty Stuart and Jim Lauderdale speak so passionately about my hometown and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is life goals for me and many others who have worked so hard and truly believed in the magic we were creating.

“Within tradition there is always innovation and pushing forward.”~Amythyst Kiah

Amythyst Kiah at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019.
© Birthplace of Country Music; Photographer: Eli Johnson

I am especially proud that our event plays a role in the success and evolution of so many artists, including my good friend Amythyst Kiah (also featured in the series) who just received her first Grammy nomination. Artists like Amythyst are true innovators, taking bits and pieces of what they’ve learned from the past and folding it into their work – making something completely new and relevant and exciting. Knowing what an important role Bristol has played in the art and careers of Amythyst – and so many others – is extremely satisfying.

In those early days I used to say we were the “little festival that could,” charging slowly and determinedly up that steep hill, struggling to reach our destination. Have we arrived? In many ways we have, but we continue to refine and grow each year. To everyone who has believed in Bristol Rhythm and helped push us along these past 20 years, we are eternally grateful. It’s been one heckuva ride!

Clothes Make the Man – and Woman – in Country Music

Perception has always been integral to country music. From the very beginning with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s debut in Okeh Record’s “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog to Garth Brook’s record-breaking stadium tours, the way country music has been marketed to the public has relied heavily on its appearance. It’s been something the genre has taken with pride, shunned with disdain, or constantly parodied throughout its history.

Garth Brooks on stage wearing jeans, a purple button-down shirt (untucked), and a black cowboy hat.
This photograph was taken during Garth Brooks’ 2015 concert tour, and while Brooks is wearing fairly everyday clothes – jeans and a shirt – he is also sporting his trademark black cowboy hat. Photograph from Flickr; user: fatherspoon

One of the most common perceptions about country music is the idea of the stereotypical country singer as a “lonesome cowboy” singing in a smoke-filled honky tonk to beer-drinking, blue collar workers in nasal, piercing tones. However, in the early 20th century, country music catalogs were filled with images of overall-wearing “hillbillies” playing fiddle and banjo breakdowns for square dancers in plaid shirts and gingham dresses. In the 1920s, country music was marketed to a specific type of audience, though of course, that did not mean that this specific audience was the only one buying the records. These listeners were conceived as displaced ruralites who saw the rapidly changing landscape around them as too fast-paced and carried with them a nostalgia for earlier times, times when parlor songs and mountain reels dotted the backcountry of Appalachia.

Record companies, therefore, often encouraged their artists to “play up” their rural heritage and soon records by groups with homespun names like Al Hopkins and His Hillbillies, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers started selling by the thousands. Some of the first entertainment outlets to notice this association with country music and a created image or persona were the radio “barn dance” programs that were growing in popularity in the late 1920s. Radio listeners quickly developed attachments to their favorite performers, and soon, fans were showing up in droves outside of studio air rooms to catch a glimpse of this new genre of radio star. To keep alive the illusion of a “Good-Natured Get Together,” George D. Hay – founder of the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville (soon to be renamed as the Grand Ole Opry ) – sent a memo to his performers of string bands and soloists to encourage them to wear work clothes and straw hats. And over time he renamed his “string orchestras” to more hillbilly titles such as Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters and Paul Womack and the Gully Jumpers. Soon, The Grand Ole Opry stage was dominated by “hoedown bands” and remained largely that way until the late 1930s.

Black-and-white image of Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters, 6 band members all dressed in country or rural-style clothes, including suspenders, floppy hats, and work pants.
Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters were the first group to play country music over Nashville’s airwaves in 1924. Here they are shown as Grand Ole Opry members, having adopted the “Rube” dress code by 1929. From www.alchetron.com

Meanwhile in Chicago, the WLS National Barn Dance had a brand-new star on its own barn dance show. Inspired by Jimmie Rodgers and western poets such as Jules Allen and Carl T. Sprauge, yodeler and guitarist Gene Autry was bringing the heroic idea of the American cowboy to audiences across the country. Clad in a 10-gallon Stetson hat and strumming a plaintive guitar, Autry soon brought Depression-era audiences to a frenzy with his move to Hollywood to become “America’s Singing Cowboy,” inspiring future generations of country musicians to don cowboy hats and western wear.

Soon, this image of a cowboy’s life was adopted by fellow WLS star Patsy Montana, bringing “girl singers,” as they were called, to the fore – and offering a new image, independent of Mountain Men and traditional gender roles, in the romanticized image of the cowgirl. Patsy’s long cowhide skirt and pushed back cowboy hat embodied her free and adventurous spirit, characterized by her anthem “I Want to Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Overnight, female country performers dropped the gingham dress, “milk maid,” “pure mountain gal” personas for the exciting image of the American cowgirl.

Gene Autry with June Storey to the left and Patsy Montana to the right, all three wearing cowboy hats and cowboy/cowgirl outfits.
Gene Autry and Patsy Montana (right) grew from being Chicago radio stars on the WLS National Barn Dance to being among America’s top stars appearing in several motion pictures. They are seen here with June Storey in a Hollywood publicity still from the early 1940s. Chicago Tribune historical archive photograph

Among this new group of independent female performers was Rose Maddox, who, along with her brothers, pushed hillbilly and cowboy performance to new heights with their eccentric and electric performance style. The Maddox Brothers & Rose grew to prominence on the west coast in California in the immediate post-World War II era, and their proximity to Hollywood fashion designers lead to one of the clothing designs most associated with country music – the rhinestone western suit. Designers like Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohn had been creating wardrobes for western movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter for years, but the innovation of rhinestones and brash and bright colors insured the Maddox Brothers & Rose not only stood apart musically from other country and western bands in the nation, but now they could truly bill themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”! Soon performers such as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Little Jimmy Dickens were knocking on Cohn’s door and “Nudie suits” became the most prominent form of country music stage attire of the mid-20th century.

The Rockin' Rollin' album cover for the Maddox Brothers & Rose shows all of the male band members in green, highly decorated suits and cowboy hats, with Rose in a matching cowgirl-style outfits covered in fringe and beadwork.
This album cover shows The Maddox Brothers & Rose in the late 1940s wearing matching highly-decorative outfits, accented by embroidery, fringe, and rhinestones, that were designed by tailor Nathan Turk.

Country music has always had an interesting way of presenting itself. From the mountaineer attire of the 1920s to the loud and bold Nudie suits of the 1950s – and all the other clothing-enhanced personas in between (think of Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black” and Minnie Pearl, for instance) – country music has reflected elements of our own nation’s history: plaintive and nostalgic in the days of the Depression to excited and flashy in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, and beyond. Perception has always played an important part in how the nation saw country music and how country musicians and record companies saw the nation. Country music and its attire has, and always will be, an important marker not only of who we are but the people who made us that way.