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The Root of It: Nora Brown on Lee Sexton

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys. 

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with Brooklyn, New York native Nora Brown. At the early age of six, Nora took an interest in old-time banjo music from the regions of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. She began traveling down south to learn from masters steeped in this musical tradition, including Eastern Kentucky banjo player Lee Sexton. Flash forward ten years later, and Nora is an inspiring and influential performer who has released successful projects on Jalopy Records, performed all over the country, and been asked to be a part of renowned series such as NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and more. Below, Nora shares her musical journey that inevitably led to meeting and learning from Letcher County’s Lee Sexton, who much like Nora, learned two-finger and drop thumb banjo styles at an early age.

Nora Brown performing “Miner’s Dream” based on a version she learned from a Virgil Anderson recording.

Nora Brown:

Like most people, I love being told stories. Whether it’s a firsthand experience being retold or a book being read aloud, listening to a story is something I’ll always enjoy. I remember when I was younger, staying over at my grandparents’ house, before bed I’d beg my grandmother – Nan – to tell me what she called “Rockaway stories.” As a child growing up in the Bronx, Nan would take the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) line to the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) line out to the far Rockaways where she would stay with her grandmother for the summer. Upon my requests, she would sit at the end of my bed and tell me about when Aunt Peggy got caught clipping roses from a neighbor’s flower-filled garden or about her grandfather who refused to leave the bungalow during hurricane season, stationed with his pipe and by the radio through the storm. It didn’t matter how many times I heard these stories, the best part about this was hearing her recall those memories from years ago.

Storytelling and oral traditions have served as a vital part of various cultures throughout the world. In West Africa, griots – also known as jalis – held the responsibility of learning and passing on oral history in the form of storytelling or song. Cool fact: an instrument often used in the griot tradition to accompany storytelling is the khalam or xalam, which happens to be an ancestor of the banjo! This position was extremely valued in the time when recording history was not easy; griots would serve as advisers for royal persons as they not only existed as living archives but were also extremely familiar with the geography of their region. The griot tradition continues to be practiced today in many parts of West Africa, demonstrating the power and timelessness of storytelling – that it continues to be empowering to honor the history of your community and tell the stories of those who came before you.

An old white man wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt with jean overalls and a white baseball / trucker-style cap. He is clean-shaven. He sits in front of some old oil barrels, tires, and other items in a yard area.
Master banjo player Lee Sexton at his Letcher County home in Eastern Kentucky. Photograph by Benton Brown

I have had the pleasure of spending time with an incredible person and musician: Lee Sexton. Living in Linefork, Kentucky, on the land he grew up on, Lee was a former coal miner and master banjo player. I had listened to Lee a lot and played a couple of his tunes prior to meeting him, but learning directly from him and hearing his stories changed my relationship with the music I play completely. The first time I went down to visit Lee, I felt really nervous, the kind of nervousness that you feel in your fingers – kind of an ache. I think this feeling probably stemmed from my belief that our differences in place of origin would create a divide between us, preventing any mutual connection. This feeling would persist as we pulled into his driveway and as he yelled “Come in” from the couch inside his home in response to our knocking. As we sat down and shared tunes, stories, and food, slowly my nervousness dissipated and was replaced with a feeling of comfort and security. I think that the act of sharing music or sharing a story with someone is not only incredibly generous, but ties the sharer and receiver together through their new shared experience.

A young white girl with blondish hair and wearing a plaid long-sleeve shirt, light-colored pants, a bucket hat, and converse sneakers has her arm around an old white man in a dark long-sleeved shirt and overalls. He is seated and wearing a white baseball cap and holding a wooden cane. She is standing beside him. Trees and an old wall can be seen in the picture too.
Nora Brown at 12 years old with Lee Sexton. Photograph by Benton Brown

Prior to my first visit with Lee, I hadn’t had the experience of learning from someone who had grown up with the tradition and learned the same way – person to person. Lee reminded me of the power of storytelling. Spending time with him taught me that there is much more to traditional music than just learning the old songs, that stories told alongside them provide context that gives them meaning. Lee has helped me build a personal connection to the music I play and has made me understand why so many of us love it so much.

Home performance of Lee Sexton at 90 years old playing a two-finger version of “Cumberland Gap” with Nora at 12 years old.

Lee Sexton playing an inspired version of “St. Louis Blues.”

Nora Brown’s latest project Sidetrack My Engine on Jalopy Records releases September 23, 2021, and her debut release Cinnamon Tree can be purchased at For more information about Nora and her music, visit

Nora Brown is a talented banjo player from New York. Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol.

Album cover design showing a pinky-brown background with different groupings of white birds drawn so that they are all heading upwards to form a pyramid-like design. The album's title of Sidetrack My Engine is shown in green at the bottom of the album cover.
Nora Brown’s upcoming project on Jalopy Records  “Sidetrack my Engine” releases September 23.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Personal Commentary on the Cycle of Various Changes in Country Music

For some, country music appears to be a genre that hasn’t changed much over time – too often, there is a perception of it being pretty much the same, no matter what song or artist is on the playlist. But over the years, it really has changed – from the subjects of the songs to the styles to the variety and diversity of its influences. We’ve seen the “big bang” of early commercial country music at the 1927 Bristol Sessions with artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, honky-tonk blues, the Nashville sound, outlaw country, traditionalists, and so much more.

Over the past decade or so, it feels like we’ve seen a conforming era in the sound of country music. As a country music fan, I can’t count how many times I’ve said or heard the words: “I don’t like new country music, only old country music.” When Taylor Swift emerged as a country artist, I was right there for it. I burned “Our Song,” “Tim McGraw,” and the Fearless album onto a CD as quick as I could. But after a while, Taylor Swift wasn’t so country anymore – and she wasn’t the only one. And so soon, I fell away from new artists because I felt like they were clinging too much to pop music, or really over-doing the country sound.

Within the last five years, however, I’ve once again started listening more and more to new country. Artists like Luke Combs, Kacey Musgraves, and most notably, Tyler Childers have become especially popular in country music. These artists seem to be moving towards a revival of that country sound I’ve been craving. They haven’t necessarily strayed away from a pop sound, but they don’t sing solely about the stereotypical boots, tractors, beer, and women either. For me, it feels like they’ve brought back the country sound with real emotion – from “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Whitehouse Road” to “When It Rains It Pours.”

When I listen to these artists, I definitely feel the connection to 1990s country, which was a very successful decade for the genre. We saw unforgettable artists like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, the Chicks, and many more come to the stage, and their legacy and music is still insanely popular almost 30 years later. Not only did the 1990s see these successful and “modernizing” artists, but there was also a roots revival in country music where some musicians hearkened back to earlier bluegrass and hillbilly stars and took a step away from a commercialized sound.

While we have seen numerous waves between the popularity of country-pop and traditional country, we can connect our dear fondness of that old-time sound to the 1927 Bristol Sessions and other early recording sessions of “hillbilly music.” The Bristol Sessions led to the mainstream commercialization of the traditional sound we’ve now been listening to for almost 100 years. When we’re relaxing outside on a hot summer day to the embrace of fiddles, tangy harmonies, and the sounds of music floating through the air, we must give credit to that foundational moment at the Bristol Sessions.

The box set cover has the title "The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music, 1927-1928 at the top with an image of the Bristol sign and State Street, probably in the 1930s or 1940s.
Cover of The Bristol Sessions box set from Bear Family Records.

So, how does this compare to what we are experiencing today in country music? While I think we do find ourselves within the roots revival and traditional influences of the genre, we also have to look at how society is today – we naturally have major divisions in the genre over the sound that is created and viewed as “country,” but now we also have divisions within politics and social activism that are also being expressed through music. We also have greater technological advances that allow the industry to produce many different styles of country music, even some we might not have heard before.

And so, for me, I think as the cycle continues to go on, we will never see exact repeats and can never exactly compare one cycle to a previous one, but we will always have the influence of country music’s history as part of this wonderful musical story.

* Title images: The Carter Family (courtesy of Dale Jett); Garth Brooks (Fatherspoon); Kacey Musgraves (BruceC007)

Caitlyn Carter is an honors student and psychology major at Western Carolina University. She is a fan of country music and enjoys exploring different trends of the genre between decades.

Celebrate Record Store Day with History!

Record Store Day, celebrated on June 12, was established in 2007 to support independent and small business record stores, and it has become a highlight for the record-buying public. The height of record store popularity ranged from the 1950s to the 1980s, but wherever you purchase your music these days, it’s obvious that vinyl is having a resurgence in popularity. Taylor Swift recently broke a modern era record for vinyl sales in a single week. So, in celebration of Record Store Day, here’s a brief look at the history of recording records.

Customers browsing and buying records in a record store. Records are on display on a central table and in rows of boxes, while the walls are decorated with album covers, t-shirts, and a sign about Record Store Day.

Record Store Day 2014 at Drift Records in Totnes, United Kingdon. Photo by Sophie means wisdom, Wikimedia Commons 

The first audio recording and playback machine was invented by Thomas Edison. It worked by carving the audio into a piece of metal foil wrapped around a cylinder. The original purpose of this invention, called the phonograph, was not for listening to music for pleasure but as a machine to record short notes for business meetings. Edison actually never thought of his invention as a means for music or entertainment, and these early cylinders certainly weren’t viewed as items for posterity – the recordings could only be played back a few times before they were too degraded to hear. Later, through the work of other inventors, cylinders began to be coated in wax, which provided a slightly better sound with more playbacks. 

Emile Berliner improved upon this invention by converting the bulky and hard-to-store cylinders into flat discs. With the invention of these more durable discs, listening finally started to take the shape we now know and love. Berliner’s hand-cranked invention to listen to these discs was dubbed the gramophone, which is where the Grammy Awards get their name and their trophy gets its shape in honor of this piece of music-listening history.

Technology is always a story of constant evolution and, usually, improvement. Eldridge Johnson, a machinist who worked with Berliner to improve the gramophone, founded the Victor Talking Machine Company and began making and his own version of the playback machine, as well as producing 78 records that were made with a new and improved technique resulting in a higher quality sound. With changes in the recording technology – including the electric microphone and the electric amplifier – recorded music became more and more popular from the 1920s. And technology continued to develop over the years with a whole host of different record playing machines and changes in the format of records – from the early 78s to the later 33 1/3 and 45rpm records. The museum’s collections hold a multitude of the older 78s, while 33 1/3s, or LPs, are most widely sold now.

Left: A small Victrola phonograph on display at the museum. Top right: A cylinder player and cylinders. Botom right: A modern record player with a 45rpm record on it. Credits: © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples; Photo by Petit Louis, Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons

The invention of magnetic tape offered a clearer sound and portable listening, and record technology faded into the background, but the appeal of listening via records never quite died. A surge in popularity of record listening in the 1960s ushered in a golden age of records that lasted through the 1970s. And once again innovation came to the fore, influencing musical styles and techniques – for instance, in the 1980s and 1990s, hip hop artists created new and unique tracks from the sounds that were on the records using mixers and samplers.

In the past few years, a new wave in the popularity of vinyl has increased the appeal of owning and listening to music on records. Popular artists are releasing their albums on vinyl to be sold in record stores, big and small, as well as box stores with growing shelf space for these records. Record players are easy to find at affordable prices, and some of these modern players now offer multiple listening formats including cassette players, CD players, AUX jacks, and Bluetooth connection. This lets you listen to your music in just about any format you want. 

Despite vinyl records not being as convenient as the common digital technology, there is something really special about owning the physical song etched into a disc and building a collection of your favorite albums – and it’s not just about the record itself, but also about the cover artwork and the liner notes. And so, embrace vinyl once again, and celebrate this Record Store Day by going out to your nearest record store and treating yourself to an addition to your collection – or starting one! Because even if it’s the first record you’ve ever bought or your 101st, there’s nothing quite like the first play of a new record.

A set of shelves (4 high) filled with records. A Star Wars-themed "record tote" is on display on the 3rd shelf.

Museum staff member Scotty Almany is an avid record collector. © Scotty Almany

Pick 5: Songs about Travelling

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team or our BCM staff to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs and friends of the museum and radio station, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!

For this “Pick 5” post, we have a special guest blogger – Meghan Zuzolo, a student at Western Carolina University who helped us with social media and content creation as part of an honors student project led by Assistant Professor Lyn Burkett this past spring. Meghan chose songs that are about traveling to and from places for different reasons, thinking about loved ones while you’re – or they are – gone, and the good feelings that traveling gives us. Traveling has always been a theme in music, from the very earliest recordings to the most recent. And after this past year of “safer at home,” social distancing, and quarantine, traveling, and missing far-away friends and family, is probably on all of our minds!

“Hey, Porter,” Johnny Cash

“Hey, Porter” was released by Johnny Cash in June 1955. This tune describes the story of a man on a train ride to Tennessee who keeps on asking how long it will be until they reach their destination. The passenger in the story makes it very clear that he is excited to make it back home, perhaps to his family or a loved one. I picked this song because I think everyone can relate to the feelings of excitement of returning home after being gone for too long or having a loved one return home.

“We Shall All Be Reunited,” Alfred Karnes

“We Shall All Be Reunited” was recorded by Alfred Karnes at the 1928 Bristol Sessions and released in 1929. This song describes the story of how loved ones and family members may travel far away and pass away, but we will be united in the afterlife. I chose this song because I enjoy the hopeful message that no matter how far away you are from your loved ones, or maybe those who have passed, one day we will see them again.

 “Carrying Your Love with Me,” George Strait

“Carrying Your Love With Me” was released by George Strait in 1997. In this song, Strait describes having to be away from the one he loves, but no matter what, he carries the love of his significant other with him when he’s gone.

“It’s my strength for holding on
Every minute that I have to be gone.

I’ll have everything I’ll ever need
Carrying your love with me.”

I chose this song because I think everyone can or has been able to relate to this song at some point in their lifetime. Whether you are the one who has had to be away from the ones you love, or you’ve had someone that you love that had to be away for a period of time, this is an uplifting song that can be a reminder that the ones you love are with you, always in your heart.

“Sailing,” Christopher Cross

“Sailing” was released by Christopher Cross in 1979. This tune focuses on how liberating and relaxing being out on the open water can be.

“Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be.
Just a dream and the wind to carry me
And soon I will be free.”

I chose this song because I think everyone has their own version of sailing, whether it be taking a drive on a nice Sunday afternoon, watching the sunset, or just spending time with those you love. Everyone has something in their life that makes them feel free and takes them away from the stress of everyday life, and I think this song is a gentle reminder of that.

“Travelin’ Man,” Ricky Nelson

“Travelin’ Man” was released by Ricky Nelson in 1961. This song is about a man who travels the world and sees beautiful women everywhere he goes! I picked this song because I think it’s a happy and uplifting song, and it’s a reminder that there is beauty everywhere in the world. I also appreciate the way the song takes the listener with him to the many different places he visited, from Mexico and Berlin to Polynesia and Hong Kong.

* The “featured image” for this blog post is from Pixabay.

The Root of It: Joseph Decosimo on Dick Burnett

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys. 

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with banjo and fiddle extraordinaire Joseph Decosimo. Joseph was raised in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and has had a lifelong passion for the music of the region centered upon banjo and fiddle. Through his illustrious performing and recording career with projects like The Bucking Mules and The Rocky Creek Ramblers, and through his solo work, Joseph celebrates and reimagines the music of the Cumberland Plateau, Central Appalachia, and the broader American South. Currently based in Durham, North Carolina, Decosimo continues to engage with traditional music not only through performance but also through scholarship as a recent PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. By exploring the history of a tune and theme that has permeated old-time traditions for generations, Joseph shared some of the artists that inspire him and his music.

A man standing on a screened in porch with the side of the house and trees/yard showing behind him. He is bearded and wearing glasses,a tan sweater, a baseball cap, and dark pants. He holds in fiddle in one hand and a bow in the other.
Joseph Decosimo with fiddle.

Joseph Decosimo:

Last spring, I found myself visiting a little city park down the hill from my house in Durham. There’s a stand of persimmon trees there, surrounded by a tangle of blackberry bushes that are slowly reclaiming a field. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid much attention to blackberry blossoms, but something about that early pandemic moment led me to attend to the smaller details – smells, sights, sounds – of the natural world. In this corner of the park, these five-petaled blackberry blossoms burst into clouds of linen whites and soft pinks against a backdrop of late spring greens. I hadn’t noticed them before. The blossoms were graceful and delicate. And they were gone almost as quickly as they came.

There’s a musical idea that circulates through Southern fiddle repertoires, taking on the name “Blackberry Blossom” after these delicate and understated flowers that precede the summertime berries with their clash of tartness and sweetness. (My friend Kerry Blech offers a handy primer on the fiddle tune’s recorded life.) The most widely circulating versions, inspired perhaps by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s mid-1930s recording of the tune, takes a turn towards the tart – overlaying a puckeringly sour chord change over the first few beats of the tune’s second part. Over time, most players, perhaps following the lead of the Nashville studio musicians who accompanied fiddler Tommy Jackson, have decided to turn this chord into a minor chord – a rather grand gesture given the subtlety of the namesake blossom. Whatever the case, most folks have decided to resolve the tension of the tune. This variety of “Blackberry Blossom” has come to be the dominant one, spread far and wide by radio and recordings and frequently heard at bluegrass and old-time jams alike.

Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s rousing version of “Blackberry Blossom,” featuring the Delmore Brothers and recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company in 1935.

However, deep within this bramble of musical creativity, another strain of blackberry blossoms can be found. This rare strain is known for its ethereal beauty and tantalizing subtlety. These sprout along the West Virginia and Kentucky line. On an old field recording from the 1930s, Kentuckian Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison offers an origin for the piece, explaining: “This tune was learned from General Garfield by my father during the Civil War. He whistled it all the time on his march up Big Sandy River to Middle Creek.” You can hear Morrison’s version here. Morrison’s fiddling neighbor, the legendary blind fiddler Ed Haley, explored all the territory the tune could muster as he busked around Ashland, Kentucky. In the placement of their fingers on the violin’s fingerboard, both Morrison and Haley located the tune in an unquestionably tart tonal space. At a fiddle contest in Paintsville, Kentucky, Dick Burnett, another blind musician, heard a fiddler named Bob Johnson play the piece. Johnson, in turn, had heard Haley playing it somewhere along the Ohio River. After the contest, Burnett cornered Johnson and had him play the tune over and over until it fell under Burnett’s fingers.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired man seated on a chair outside. He has a large moustache and is holding his fiddle to his shoulder with the bow poised to play.

Pictured is Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison whose father Christian Morrison allegedly learned “Blackberry Blossom” from the whistling of Col. James Garfield (he did not become a general until later) in 1863 during the Civil War activity in Kentucky. Photo and sound clip (linked in paragraph above) courtesy of Kerry Blech via Florida State Fiddlers Association

Burnett stored the tune away in his mind and carried it back to Monticello, Kentucky. In the process, the tart angles and tones of Haley’s version softened into something more ambiguous and delicate – something more gently rolling like the hills around Monticello. By the time Burnett made it down to Atlanta to fiddle the piece for Columbia in April of 1930, his fingers had pushed the notes of the melody into a place of beautiful uncertainty. The twists and turns and more certain tartness of Haley’s setting gave way to something simultaneously sweet, tart, and delightfully ambiguous. Burnett’s rendition conveys a smoky quality that prevents things from being seen or heard with total clarity or certainty.

I realize that this post is supposed to be about a musician whom I’ve found influential, and I’ve burned through a lot of words describing a tune. But it’s hard for me to think about a lot of these older players and not think about a specific tune. And so let me turn my attention fully to Dick Burnett whose rendition of “Blackberry Blossoms” I find so compelling. I’m pretty sure that Dick Burnett isn’t my favorite old fiddler. There’s a good chance that his longtime playing partner Leonard Rutherford might be, but my preferences for these kinds of things change with the weather. I love trying to fiddle his version of “Blackberry Blossoms” – it’s slippery and subtle. I enjoy playing his slippery “Wild Good Chase” – a piece that I learned from mentor Clyde Davenport. As a young man, Davenport learned it from hearing Burnett play it at the courthouse in Monticello. These are fun tunes to play, however, I’m sharing some thoughts on Dick Burnett because he links a network of traditional musicians whose music has inspired and charmed me over the last two decades. I guess Burnett serves as the common thread running through a handful of my favorite artists from the Upper Cumberland region along the Tennessee/Kentucky line.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, clean-cut man seated in a chair in front of a white picket fence. He holds a banjo on his lap, ready to play.
Dick Burnett with banjo.

There’s Retta Spradlin – one of my favorite old singers and banjo players. She sang a powerfully beautiful version with her banjo of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that she learned from Burnett as he was traveling through her rural community. Burnett played an important role in popularizing the song, and his neighbors sang some fine versions that treated his version as a jumping off point. There’s the fiery fiddler John Sharp who spent time playing music with Burnett and his musical partner Rutherford. In Burnett and Rutherford’s repertoire and stylings, we hear traces of the local Black fiddle tradition as performed by their neighbor and aesthetic companion Cuje Bertram. Bertram’s slippery approach to the fiddle and subtle infusions of vibrato into tunes like “Billy in the Lowground” can also be heard in Burnett and Rutherford’s take on the tune. It’s this world of musicians that captivate me.

While I thoroughly enjoy Burnett’s playing, singing, and cutting up, I’m writing about him because I wanted to write about his “Blackberry Blossoms” and because he speaks to ways that music can flow through and create communities. I’m interested in the network of musicians of which he was a part. He links a world of repertoire, artistry, and sound that inspires my own music making. Over the last two years, the repertoire and aesthetics of Burnett’s world has inspired a forthcoming recording project.

Burnett’s music recalls a way of knowing these old pieces and making music that eludes recording technologies and industries. Part of the beauty of his “Blackberry Blossoms” is felt in the way that the tune shifted in his hands. This older stuff resists being fixed in the grooves of a record, on a bit of magnetic tape, or as a digitized abstraction. It eludes formal educational programs and fiddle camps. It’s a reminder of the fact that this is ultimately ear music. It’s music that we pull into ourselves and make something with, music that invites us to trace relationships and discover communities of taste. It’s about repertoire as shared experience and concepts open to exploration. It’s durable stuff.

*To learn more about Joseph Decosimo, visit and be sure to check out his latest project “The Aluminum Wonder” featuring rare banjo tunes played in various banjo styles. And be on the lookout for a new solo project featuring collaborations with Alice Gerrard, Cleek Schrey, Joe and Matt O’Connell, and Stephanie Coleman.

The Root of It: Vivian Leva on Texas Gladden

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music. These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys.

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with standout roots duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno. Leva and Calcagno have been stalwarts within the old-time community since they were children, both coming from a lineage of celebrated old-time performers. Leva and Calcagno not only shine within the bounds of old-time string band traditions, but they also skillfully break outside the barriers often set by traditional music with well-crafted songwriting and unique singing and arranging, exemplified on their recent self-titled release on Freedirt Records. Their songs breathe with maturity beyond their years, eloquently speaking to the current state of our times while managing to retain a timeless sound built upon the foundation of old-time and classic country. Leva, a native of Lexington, Virginia, has long been inspired by renowned Saltville, Virginia, ballad singer Texas Gladden. Though Gladden was celebrated as a skilled singer and considered an important figure within Appalachian music culture, she never commercially recorded. Thankfully folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax recorded Gladden in depth for the Library of Congress and the Southern Journey series (worth seeking out for a listen). We asked Leva to share with us some of the reasons why the music of Texas Gladden keeps her inspired.

Left image: A young woman and man sitting on a concrete wall. The woman is white with her brunette hair pulled back in a ponytail; she wears a white t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The man is white with dark hair and a beard; he wears a patterned button-down shirt, black pants, and holds a banjo. You can see a house, trees, and a telephone behind them. Right: The album cover shows a white man in an untucked grey button-down shirt and dark pants, looking towards a white woman with shoulder-length brunette-blondish hair and wearing a floral dress. They are inside what looks like an old, run down house and you can see fields outside the windows; the sun is shining through so that you see sun glare in the camera. Their names -- Vivian Leva and Riley Calgano -- are written in script acoss the photograph.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno have been steadily garnering public praise and critical acclaim for their skillful songwriting and unique singing. Image and album cover art courtesy of Leva and Calcagno for Free Dirt Records.

Vivian Leva:

“I remember the first time I heard the plaintive, clear tone of Texas Gladden’s voice. I was 13 or 14, sitting in the car with my dad. The sound of Texas Gladden singing ‘One Morning in May’ drifted through the speakers. I was captivated by Texas’s voice, and by the story of a young woman and her tragic death. Over the course of the next few months, I listened to that track and to my dad singing it over and over again. It wasn’t before long that I learned it as well. At the time, my dad was working on a project with Stephen Wade, who wrote about Texas in his book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The two of them asked me to join them on their trip to visit and perform for Texas Gladden’s family. We went first to Salem, then to Saltville, Virginia, where I had the privilege of singing ‘One Morning in May’ for Texas’s kin.”

This black-and-white image shows a young man with dark hair and a short beard with an older woman with her grey hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. The man is smiling at the woman, and she looks at him with a small smile and holds a fan below her chin.

Texas Gladden was a celebrated ballad singer from Smyth County, Virginia, who recorded regularly with Alan Lomax from the early 1940s into the early 1960s. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

”Most of the information I have about Texas comes from a chapter in Stephen Wade’s book. According to him, Texas was born in Saltville, Virginia, about two and a half hours from where I grew up in Lexington, Virginia. My parents were one of her many appreciators, and thoroughly considered naming me Texas. It would have fit into a long tradition, as Texas had sisters named Kansas and Virginia, and a cousin named Tennessee.

She was born and raised in a musical family. Both of her grandparents played the fiddle, and her parents played the banjo. Often, her family held square dances at their house, where people would come to dance and play. Texas inherited many of the ballads that she sang from her mother, and formed a close musical bond with her brother, Hobart Smith. Although she never pursued a career in music, her songs nevertheless reached many through the recordings made by the Lomax family and other folk song collectors.

I didn’t realize how much Texas’s music was woven into my everyday life. One of my favorite tracks off of the Troublesome Creek Stringband’s CD was the song “Three Babes.” I listened to it all the time, and loved singing along to the sad tale. Later, I realized that they had gotten it from Texas, and, after listening, I was similarly intrigued by her version. Texas’s voice, to me, somehow is both soft and cutting. She is gentle, but also sharp and clear. The way she sings, it is almost impossible to not become absorbed in the story.”

Texas Gladden singing “Cold Mountains,” one of the songs recorded in Salem, Virginia by Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax in 1959. 

“In October of 2016, my bandmate Riley sent me a YouTube video of Texas singing “Cold Mountains.” We decided to arrange it into a string band version and to write a chorus for it. It was exciting to not just try to imitate Texas, but to expand upon the song and imagine what she might like. Texas Gladden was one of the first singers that inspired me to learn ballads. She continues to be an example to me of not just how to sing pretty, but how to tell a story.”

To learn more about Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, visit their website. Their debut, self-titled album released in March 2021 on Free Dirt Records. Check out the music video for “Will You” from the album:

The Root of It: Brad Leftwich on John Dykes and the Magic City Trio

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music. These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their unique musical journeys. 

For our first installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with legendary Oklahoma fiddler Brad Leftwich. Brad has long been considered the gold standard for old-time fiddling and banjo, learning directly from some of the masters who came before him like Tommy Jarrell, Melvin Wine and the Hammons Family, and more. Brad has been a performer and educator for over 40 years and continues to record projects with his group Brad Leftwich & the Humdingers; he has also crafted genre-defining teaching materials and continues to tour internationally. Brad shared with us his interest in the music of old-time pioneer John Dykes and the Magic City Trio, a celebrated local Tri-Cities band that recorded in the late 1920s.

Brad Leftwich performing at Wheatland. Courtesy of Brad Leftwich

Brad Leftwich:

I still remember when I met John Dykes. Well, I didn’t “meet” meet him, because he died a couple of decades before I was born, but from the moment I first heard his fiddling I felt like we had a connection that bridged space and time.

Linda and I were visiting our friends Gail Gillespie and Dwight Rogers. This was in the days before CDs and the internet, when it was actually difficult to get hold of recordings of old-time music; musicians who wanted more than the few Folkways and County LPs that were available resorted to swapping cassette tape copies of field recordings and old 78s. By the time they’d been recopied several times, the sound quality (usually not good to begin with) was pretty awful.

Dyke’s Magic City Trio, pictured left to right: John Dykes on fiddle, Myrtle Vermillion on autoharp, and Hubert Mahaffey on guitar. This legendary local group was named after Kingsport, Tennessee, which was coined the “Magic City” as it flourished as one of the key Appalachian “planned cities” built on industrialism in the early 1920s. Photo from

While we were there, Gail put on a recently acquired cassette and asked with a sly smile, “Do you recognize this fiddler?” Linda and I had to admit it sounded like a distorted, muddy recording of me – or at least what I hoped to sound like. Except it couldn’t be me because I didn’t know the tune, and I certainly never recorded a 78. She made us a copy (maybe seventh or eighth generation at this point), and when we returned home I set about finding as many (and clearer) recordings of Dykes’s Magic City Trio as I could.

“Tennessee Girls,” recorded in 1927 by Dyke’s Magic City Trio, is often credited as one of the groups most influential recordings.

I originally learned to fiddle mostly from visiting Tommy Jarrell, but although his bowing structure formed the bones of my fiddling, I never really sounded like him (who does?). After several years on the road learning from many more fiddlers – from the Appalachians to Oklahoma to the Ozarks – I felt like I had taken the bits and pieces that appealed to me from those sources and built my own distinctive sound. But listening to John Dykes was different: I thought, “I know you!” Even now when I listen to him I feel not just that I understand every bow stroke, but that I would put together tunes in pretty much the same way. His fluid, driving sense of rhythm and the clarity of his sound are the ideals that I strive for, not only when I play his tunes, but in my fiddling in general.

“Dusty Miller” performed by Brad Leftwich & the Humdingers.

To me, John Dykes is among the greatest fiddlers I’ve heard, and certainly the Magic City Trio is one of my all-time favorite bands. I love to play with guitar players who can lay out a hypnotic, elegant bass line like Hub Mahaffee, and although Myrtle Vermillion’s autoharp merges with the guitar and thus is not clearly audible on the recordings, I like to think she is filling out and driving that band like Linda’s banjo uke does in ours. The Magic City Trio has been an inspiration and model for my band, the Humdingers, in both its old and new incarnations.

* To learn more about Brad Leftwich or to purchase his band’s latest record Rise and Bloom Again, visit

Images courtesy of Brad Leftwich

Instrument Interview: The Kazoo

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we mark National Kazoo Day by talking to the kazoo!

I thought kazoos were just silly party favors, but you’re an actual musical instrument?

Well, I do have a reputation as a birthday party favor, probably to the extreme annoyance of many parents! But I am so much more than that. Kazoos are membranophones, where the tonal qualities of the instrument are produced as the player hums. I am also related to mirlitons, which are vibrating membrane instruments.

A metal kazoo on a display stand within a glass case with an interpretive label in front of it with a brief text about the kazoo.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a George D. Smith metal kazoo in our instrument gallery. It is on display courtesy of Kazoobie Kazoos, a plastic kazoo manufacturer in Beaufort, South Carolina. © Birthplace of Country Music

Where do you come from?

My ancestors go back to early mirlitons from Africa. They were made from cow horns or gourds, and their membranes were from spider egg silk. It must have been a tricky business to make them! These African horn-mirlitons were used for ceremonial purposes as a way to distort or mask the human voice.

Kazoo-like instruments are also known in ancient Mexico, though these looked more like recorders and the membrane was made from slivers of corn husk.

A lot of people think of the kazoo as an American instrument. How did you come about here in the States?

Different types of kazoo-like instruments, based on the African mirlitons and common in folk music, could be found in North America in the 1800s. But the kazoo as we know it is attributed to an African-American man named Alabama Vest who came up with the idea of this small instrument and then worked with Thaddeus von Glegg, a German clock manufacturer, to make his concept into reality in the 1840s.

How the kazoo went from Alabama Vest to mass production follows a couple of possible routes. The Historical Folk Toys site notes that a traveling salesman named Emil Sorg was charmed by Vest and von Glegg’s instrument, and so took the concept to create his own kazoos in New York, partnering with die-maker Michael McIntyre and starting production in 1912. McIntyre knew that to succeed, mass production was necessary and so he soon went into business with Harry Richardson, a large metal factory owner. By 1914 they were mass producing kazoos as the instrument’s popularity, and sales, skyrocketed. In 1916 their company became known as The Original American Kazoo Company, and McIntyre was awarded a patent on their kazoo in 1923. In 1994 The Original American Kazoo Company was producing 1.5 million kazoos per year! The company stayed in business until 2003, and the factory site now houses a kazoo museum.

However, the Vest-Sorg-McIntyre-Richardson kazoos were not the only ones being developed in America over this period. Another instrument – a “toy trumpet” that worked in a manner similar to the kazoo – was patented by Simon Seller in 1879. And the first instrument patented under the name “kazoo” was one created by Warren Herbert Frost – his patent was issued in 1883. However, the first metal kazoo was patented by George D. Smith in 1902.

What do you look like?

My basic shape is a tube where one end is larger and slightly flattened and the other is in the shape of a circle; both of my ends are open and uncovered. On top, I have another circular hole – known as the membrane hole – and a wax membrane can be found in the small chamber below this hole. I’ve been called “the Down South Submarine” because my shape resembles these underwater vessels.

Over the years, however, I have taken on many other shapes and forms, including being made directly in the shape of a submarine. Another example, a circa 1930 paper kazoo, was shaped like a 1920s-era microphone. Many kazoos have also been made in the shape of saxophones – Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library notes that “a good player could easily imitate a saxophone and create a debate: ‘kazoo or saxophone’”!

A variety of colorful plastic kazoos -- from common kazoo shapes to a pink saxophone shape to submarine/military ship shapes, to a trombone shape.

A collection of differently shaped kazoos. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

How are you played?

To play me, you should hum into the flattened opening. This makes the membrane vibrate, creating a sound that can be changed by the pitch, loudness, and nature of your humming. You can also alter the sound I make by covering the membrane hole, either in part or completely. Check out this video for a tutorial.

Many people make the mistake of blowing into me and then thinking I am broken as no sound comes out, but this will not work for creating kazoo music!

Are there any famous kazoo players or performances?

There are! Unsurpisingly you can hear the kazoo’s comic effect on Frank Zappa’s first album, Freak Out! Comb-and-paper kazoos appeared on the Beatles’ song “Lovely Rita” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and Sir Paul McCartney played the kazoo on the 1975 Ringo Starr single “Sweet 16.” World Wrestling Federation duo Edge and Christian often brought their kazoos into the ring, driving their foes to distraction with their playing and often winning the bout as a result. Jimi Hendrix used a comb-and-paper kazoo on his 1968 recording of “Crosstown Traffic.” Kazoos – to imitate the sound of electric razors in an executive washroom – were also used in the song “I Believe in You” in the Broadway comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Some performers made a career of their kazoo playing, such as Barbara Stewart who even performed at Carnegie Hall! And some composers have written their own kazoo music – for example, Mark Bucci composed his “Kazoo Concerto,” which premiered at a Leonard Bernstein Young Peoples’ Concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1960.

I’ve named just a few, but if you look for them you can find all sorts of famous kazoo performers or performances!

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I sure was! Kazoos were commonly used in jug bands and comedy songs, and that is where you will find me on the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. Ernest Stoneman joined together with different configurations of friends and family to record several songs for Ralph Peer in 1927. One of those configurations was made up of Stoneman, Bolen Frost, George Stoneman, Iver Edwards, Kahle Brewer, and Uncle Eck Dunford to form the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers singing “Old Time Corn Shuckin,’ Parts 1 and 2.” As the song progresses, Stoneman invites each musician to introduce himself, play a little bit, and then take a sip from the passing jug!

Even though you are a light-hearted – and fun to play – instrument, do you get used for serious purposes too?

Yes, indeed, I am sometime used in speech therapy to help strengthen oral and speech skills – for instance, kazoos can help children in the production and awareness of speech. We can also be used to help speech recovery for people who have suffered a brain injury, and to help in speech production and awareness for the deaf or hard of hearing. Kazoo use can even play a role in increasing respiration and oxygenation.

Left: Three popsicle kazoos decorated with stickers and colored markers. Right: Four toilet paper roll kazoos, painted to look like different fruits.
Fun and colorful make-at-home kazoos.

How do I make my own kazoo?

There are a few ways to make your own kazoo. You can make one using popsicle sticks, a straw, and rubber bands as seen here; using a toilet paper tube and wax paper as seen here; or the classic comb-and-paper version as seen here. Get crafting!

Anything else you want to share with us?

Special thanks to Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library for his help with kazoo facts and photos! The Library has hosted special events around National Kazoo Day for the past few years. Starting off from a challenge to use “serious library tools to investigate a light, playful topic,” the Library’s “kazoo salute” has included exhibits, live kazoo performances, and the commissioning of original kazoo music.

Finally, the kazoo is known as “the most democratic of all instruments” because ANYONE who can hum can play it! So give me a try!

Left: A man wearing a dark suit and glasses stands behind a tabletop glass case filled with kazoos. Right: A piece of kazoo music with two kazoos superimposed on top.

Scott Paulson with a UC San Diego Library kazoo display; “Fanfare for as Many Kazoos as Possible,” an original composition by Linda Kernohan. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

Pick 5: Songs to Ring in the New Year

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team or our BCM staff to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!

For this final “Pick 5” of the year, four members of staff shared songs with us that made them think of a new year, new beginnings, new resolutions, basically anything that rings in the new and says goodbye to the old, along with the fifth pick, an old and traditional favorite. This past year has been difficult on so many fronts – from the heartbreak and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice issues to economic hardship and natural disasters to the isolation we’ve all felt, along with “murder hornets” and other oddities. While 2020 has been incredibly challenging, we’ve also found strength and courage, empathy and compassion within it, and so we can hold onto those feelings as we head into the new year – with just a few songs to help create a “new start” soundtrack to help us take those first few tentative steps forward!

“New Year’s Eve,” Jerry Douglas – June Marshall, Museum Manager

“On New Year’s Eve, swear I can change, become a child again… Let myself believe that the days to come are mine.” 

I love remembering what it was like as a child when there were no adult worries yet and just taking things as they came and staying in the moment. Enjoying those moments for what they were.  Some of these lyrics take me to that place again and bring joy to my heart once again…

“This Will Be Our Year,” The Zombies – Toni Doman, Grants Coordinator

In regards to new beginnings, The Zombies said it best:

  • “You don’t have to worry
  • All your worried days are gone
    This will be our year
    Took a long time to come.”  

I picked this song because of the positive vibes and message within the lyrics, lighthearted and catchy melody, and references to the good things to come just over the horizon if we can just hang on a little while longer. We could all use a little more positivity; the forecast may call for rain but there are brighter and sunnier days ahead! 

“New Day Rising,” Hüsker Dü – Scotty Almany, Digital Media, Programming, & Exhibit Logistics Manager

A song that comes up for me within the theme of “newness” is the title track from seminal Saint Paul, Minnesota punk rock band Hüsker Dü’s third album, New Day Rising.  

The emotion from this song comes from its sound and delivery, especially because the lyrics are about 99% of the song’s title repeated throughout. There is an urgency that can be translated as triumph or motivation to persevere all depending on your current mood when you hear this one. It really gives me the same feeling that I felt from the “This too shall pass…” parable of King Solomon’s Ring, which is a lesson that has been a constant in my life since I first heard it as a teenager. For me, this makes it a perfect anthem for embarking on 2021. There is light on the horizon but plenty of work still to be done. There is a New Day Rising and how it goes has a lot to do with how we approach/navigate it.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Israel Kamakawiwo ‘ole – René Rodgers, Head Curator

I’ve always liked this song, ever since first hearing it sung by Judy Garland during my childhood viewing of The Wizard of Oz. But this tune became even more magical to me the first time I heard it sung by the much-missed and revered Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo ‘ole. The lyrics are simple and familiar, but Iz’s version with his lovely voice backed by ukulele (the happiest of instruments) just makes me feel hopeful and joyous. It makes me imagine that we can look beyond the rainbow to a better day, wish on stars for dreams, large and small, and move forward into the new year with purpose.

“Auld Lang Syne,” various

“Auld Lang Syne” is a New Year’s Eve tradition, and therefore there are hundreds of versions of this song out there in live performances, recordings, and movie and television soundtracks. You can find a version in every genre and by numerous artists — including a traditional “Celtic” version by Mari Campbell and Emily Smith, a Lou Rawls’ R&B cover, a punk rock interpretation by MxPx, a stringband performance in a stairwell by the US Army’s Six-String Soldiers, a sweet and soulful version by Daniel Dye and the Miller Road Band, and one wonderfully adorned with the Scottish pipes by the rock-fueled Red Hot Chili Pipers. But my personal favorite is the home-recorded bluegrass version by Reina del Cid below that I found on YouTube just by chance.

The song’s lyrics are from a 1788 poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and it was popularized in the United States by Guy Lombardo from his first New Year’s Eve performance of the song in 1939. “Auld Lang Syne” is literally translated as “old long since” and more familiarly thought of as “days gone by,” “long long ago,” and “old time.” The song is sung as a way of bidding goodbye to the past year, something I think so many of us are feeling we want to do to 2020 with an additional “good riddance.” However, leaving behind 2020 can’t be done without the remembrance of friends and family we’ve missed seeing and those we’ve lost, and without looking back on the hard lessons and truths we’ve learned with the intent of coming together to make the world a much better place. And so I take to heart certain lyrics in the song, from the additional meaning behind “for auld lang syne” as “for the sake of old times” to “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! / And give me a hand o’ thine!” to “a cup of kindness,” and look to the year ahead with those sentiments in mind.

Instrument Interview: The Bones

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with the bones.

What are you?

I am a type of percussive instrument known as a “concussion idiophone,” which refers to me being made of up of similar objects that make a sound when struck together. I’m also called the “rhythm bones,” which gives you a clue to the role I play in music.

Two views of two sets of bones, made of animal bones. One is larger than the other, and they are each connected by a leather cord.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has two sets of circa 1927 bones in our collection, donated by Dom Flemons in 2015.

Where do you come from?

I’ve been around for a long time, and you can find versions of bones all the way back to several ancient cultures. Archaeologists have excavated bones (as instruments) from graves and tombs in prehistoric Mesopotamia and Egypt, and also discovered images of musicians playing the bones on Greek pottery. There is also evidence of the bones being played in the Roman Empire and ancient China. More recently – that is, in the 18th and 19th centuries – I came to North America with Irish and English immigrants, who used the bones as a way to keep a steady beat for their jigs and reels.

A pottery sherd with a red-figure dancer, gender unclear holding two bones-like instruments in their hands.

Fragment of a terra cotta red-figure kylix, Greek, 510-500 BC. The image is of a dancer using a bones-like instrument as part of the performance. Public domain

Are you really made from bones?

My original versions were made from animal bones, usually the rib or shin bones of sheep, cows, and sometimes horses. I’m often slightly curved, reflective of the natural shape of these bones, and I typically measure between 5 and 7 inches in length. While modern bones are still made from animal bones, you can also find ones made from wood and plastic. A variety of woods can be used, such as cherry, mahogany, walnut, and maple, with different woods producing different tones as is seen in other wooden instruments.

How are you played?

Players hold a pair of bones between their fingers with the convex sides facing one another; one is held fairly tightly and the other more loosely. By shaking the wrist, the bones hit one another, creating a loud “clack.” The connection between the two bones is carried by the momentum from the player’s arm and hand movements rather than any effort to force the bones to knock together. In North America, players tend to play with a pair of bones in each hand, while in Ireland the tradition is to play one-handed.

It’s hard to get a sense of what the movement looks like and the resulting sound by describing it, so check out Dom Flemons playing the bones. It’s actually quite amazing – and beautiful – to watch:

What type of music are you typically found in?

You can hear bones being played in a wide variety of genres, such as traditional Irish and Scottish music, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, French-Canadian music, and Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia) traditions.

Because bones were also often used by African American musicians, they became a common facet of 19th-century minstrel shows – where white performers appeared in blackface; later Black entertainers appeared in minstrel shows too – and the bones’ popularity in the United States grew within this context. One of the first bones-playing minstrel performers was Frank Brower, and the first documentation of him playing the bones in front of an audience are from 1841 in Virginia. He played with a much larger pair of bones than is usual today – two 12-inch lengths of horse rib bones!

An image of an exhibit case with William Sidney Mount's "The Bone Player" -- a black musician wearing a hat, jacket, waistcoat, and cravat-like tie, and holding two pairs of bones in his hands.
This image of William Sidney Mount’s “The Bone Player,” 1857, is on display in the museum exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Are there famous musicians associated with the bones?

There are many famous bones players! Freeman Davis, known by his stage name “Brother Bones” and also as “Whistling Sam,” was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1902. He recorded several songs in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in three movies, and performed at Carnegie Hall and on The Ed Sullivan Show. His most famous recording is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which became the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme tune in 1952. He took bones playing to an intense high of four bones in each hand and even playing knives like bones!

DeFord Bailey, best known for his wonderful harmonica playing and as a regular on the Grand Ole Opry in its early days, included bones playing in his performances along with yo-yo tricks and guitar picking. He was country music’s first African American star.

John Burrill learned to play the bones in his teens during the Depression. One viewer described Burrill’s style of bones-playing as looking like his arms were upside-down windshield wipers. Over the years, Burrill played with a host of other musicians and acts, including the Brattle Street Players, Steve Baird, Clifton Chenier, Spider John Koerner, Molly Malone, and even the Infliktors, a punk band. When asked what key he played in, his reply was “the skeleton key”!

Peadar Mercier was a percussionist in the Irish band The Chieftains, playing both the bodhran and the bones. He was with them from 1966 to 1976.

Dom Flemons, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now a solo artist, is known as the American Songster, whose “repertoire of music covers over 100 years of early American popular music.” Flemons is a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, quills, fife, and, of course, the bones. He has bones made out of cow rib and shin bones that he plays in the double-handed style.

I’ve heard of someone called “the Rhythm Bones King.” Who was he?

The Rhythm Bones King is a man called Joe Birl. In 1945 Birl applied for a patent for his black molded plastic bones that bore a groove to help keep the bones from slipping out of a player’s hand. Birl produced and sold around 150,000 pairs of these plastic rhythm bones. After the plastic mold broke, he made wooden rhythm bones with his patented grooved design. He passed away in 2012, and Joe Birl Jr. continued to sell bones made in his father’s design.

Left: Joe Birl’s original plastic rhythm bones; Center: A store placard advertising the sale of rhythm bones; Right: A photograph of customers holding Birl’s rhythm bones in a store. All objects from the Dom Flemons Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I was! Black musician El Watson played me when he accompanied the Johnson Brothers on two recordings – “Two Brothers Are We” and “I Want to See My Mother (Ten Thousand Miles Away).” He also accompanied them on harmonica for their recording of “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy,” and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s two harmonica recordings, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” These are some of the earliest integrated country music and blues recordings.

Are there other instruments related to you?

There are many other types of percussive instruments that are used in a similar way to the bones. For instance, clappers – consisting of two solid pieces made of wood, metal, ivory, and even plastic that are slapped together – are found in a lot of musical traditions, from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand to medieval France and modern Western symphony orchestras.

Castanets are made of two concave shells joined with string at one edge. They are usually made of chestnut wood, and they are played two-handed. Castanets are also used in several musical traditions, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Swiss, Moorish, Ottoman, Sephardic, and Italian.

Playing the spoons is especially common in American folk music and often seen in jug bands. Like the bones, the spoons are held in one hand and played against each other as a percussive instrument. To see some amazing spoon playing, check out Abby the Spoon Lady.

Anything else you want to share with us?

Remember singing the nursery rhyme song “This Old Man” when you were a child? Well, that song is thought to refer to bones playing! The first verse goes like this (and so on):

“This old man, he played one,

He played knick-knack on my thumb;

With a knick-knack paddywhack,

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.”

A paddywhack is a ligament – known as the nuchal ligament – in the neck of sheep and cattle.

*Want some of your own bones? Then stop by The Museum Store where you can buy wooden bones (and spoons) made by local artisan Walt Messick of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.