Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith (1921–2014)

Arthur Smith passed away one year ago today.  At the time, I hurriedly started a V2H blog post to mark the occasion.  As I worked on it I kept finding more and more interesting material . . . and April 3rd slipped farther and farther into the distance before I just could wrap it up. It’s been sitting in the unpublished drafts section of the blog ever since.  Then a week or so ago, volunteer Jack Hilliard sent me post about Arthur Smith for use today.  After I finished working on Jack’s piece I dusted off this post, cleaned it up, and published it today even though it could use some more work.  The result? A twin bill!  This post is mine; the “special connection” post is Jack’s.  We hope you enjoy today’s double feature.

For many, if not most, Arthur Smith may not be a household name.  Have you seen Deliverance—or played an “air banjo” version of the well-known version called “Dueling Banjos” from the memorable scene in that 1972 movie?  If so, then you have a piece of Arthur Smith in the fiber of your being because Smith is the original writer of that song, which he played and recorded with Don Reno as “Fuedin’ Banjos” in 1955.

Arthur Smith and the Cracker-Jacks, probably 1952.

Arthur Smith (front, with guitar) and the Cracker-Jacks, including Ralph Smith (rear left, with accordion), Tommy Faile (rear, second from right), and Sonny Smith (rear, right) posing in front of a brick wall. A detail of Smith’s face appears in an advertisement for the Fifth Annual Azalea Festival in March 22, 1952 issue of THE STATE magazine. Arthur Smith and the Cracker-Jacks performed during the festival on March 29th.

Arthur Smith was born in Clinton, South Carolina in 1921.  The 1930 United States Census enumerated his family in Flat Creek Township in Lancaster County on April 4th, just a few days after Arthur’s 9th birthday.  He is the son of Clayton S. Smith and his wife Viola Fields, both North Carolinians by birth.  In the 1930 census Arthur had two older and two younger siblings: Ethel, age 13; Oscar, 9; Ruby, 7; and Ralph, 6.  Clayton’s occupation is listed as a weaver in a cotton mill.

The most likely matching “Arthur Smith” in the 1940 census shows Arthur as one of three lodgers at home of what looks like Dixon G. and Sybil Stewart (the census taker’s handwriting is difficult to read) at 442 Kennedy Street in Spartanburg, S.C.  Stewart and the lodgers all have their occupation listed as “Advertise” and written (again hard to decipher) in the Industry column is “Radio” and what looks like “Vine Herb.”  This is a nugget for a future researcher to resolve.

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Arthur Smith was already an accomplished musician well before “Fuedin’ Banjos.”  When Smith was in eighth grade, he and brothers Ralph and Sonny formed a Dixieland jazz band called The Arthur Smith Quartet.  At the beginning their financial prospects were bleak.  Smith said during an interview with Don Rhodes for his article “Arthur Smith: a Wide & Varied Musical Career” in the July 1977 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited,

We nearly starved to death until one day we changed our style.  We had been doing a daily radio show in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as the “Arthur Smith Quartet.”  One Friday morning we threw down our trumpet, clarinet, and trombone and picked up the fiddle, accordion, and guitar.  The next Monday we came back on the radio program as “Arthur Smith and the Carolina Crackerjacks.”  My brother, Sonny, came up with the name.  The Carolina was because we were from South Carolina, and the Crackerjack part came when Sonny found that the word according to the dictionary meant one who is tops in his field.

This would probably be as good a place as any in this story to state that there is no definitive biography Arthur Smith, and much of what is on the Internet or in print is anecdotal, sketchy or brief, and with a fair amount of rehashing of what someone else had already written.  Pulling this post together has been a bit of a challenge, so please leave a comment with corrections or clarifications.

When Arthur Smith was in tenth grade, the group made their first recording during a field recording session for RCA Victor in 1938.  According to one discography, the recording date was 26 September 1938 at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Rock Hill, S. C.  Smith recalled in the booklet The Charlotte Country Music Story, that their best song from that session was “Going Back to Old Carolina” (Bluebird Records recording B-8304).

Smith must have paid attention to the school books, too, because he was the class’s valedictorian.  Smith had an opportunity to attend the United States Naval Academy after graduation, but he declined because he knew he wanted to be a musician.

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The band’s success grew and at some point in time, possibly 1941, Smith moved to Charlotte when he and the Crackerjacks became regularly featured on WBT’s country music radio programs, among them probably Carolina Barndance.

As with most born in this era, however, WWII brought disruption and the Crackerjacks disbanded.  All three brothers served in the military, Arthur Smith in the Navy.  He played in his military band, and it was there that he wrote “Guitar Boogie,” his breakthrough recording that sold more than a million copies in 1945.  After the war, the Smith revived the Crackerjacks.

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I’ve not found mention of how Hugh Morton and Arthur Smith met, but I hope those that might know will comment below.  Morton photographed Smith with and without the Cracker-Jacks (that variant spelling, with and without a hyphen, was often used) on several occasions over many years.  Both were born in 1921, and both served in the military during World War II; Morton as a photographer and cameraman in the United States Army 161st Signal Corps, Smith in the United States Navy.  The photograph at the top of this post dates from 1952, used to promote the Azelea Festival in WIlmington that year.

Smith and Morton may have met earlier, however, at Singing at the Mountain in 1950.  In his book with Edward Rankin, Making a Difference in North Carolina, published in 1988, Hugh Morton recalled that it was around 1950 that Singing on the Mountain had a “big boost” in attendance.  Singing’s co-founder Joe L. Hartley soon thereafter gave Smith the designation “Music Master” for the annual event because Smith “played a major role in inviting other outstanding musical groups.”  Singing on the Mountain was already growing crowds prior to 1950.  A brief article about the 1949 “Singing” published in the Watauga Democrat noted that 25,000 people had attended, the largest crowd to date.  The following year, an article in the 29 June 1950 issue of the Wautaga Democrat about that year’s singing described the previous Sunday’s event: “One of the musical highlights during the beautiful summer day was provided by Hillbilly Headliner Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks from Columbia Broadcasting System and Radio Station WBT, Charlotte. . . . Highway patrolmen reported that during one period around noon, the highways leading to this convention were crowded by cars bumper to bumper, stretching four miles in one direction and three in the other.”

Morton wrote in Sixty Years with a Camera,

Arthur Smith is one of my dear friends, and for thirty consecutive years he was the singing master for “Singing on the Mountain” at Grandfather.  He of course wrote the Number 1 banjo song in the world, “Duelling Banjos,” [sic] and the Number 1 guitar piece “Guitar Boogie.”  He is also a very religious man, and he plugged the daylights out of the “Singing” and brought big crowds.  Mr. Joe Hartley, the founder and chairman of the annual event, thought that his homemade sign out on the highway attracted the people.  He never did understand that Arthur Smith’s promotion of the program on television was the reason for the huge crowds.

The next two photographs below may not have been published before this post.

Arthur Smith playing his guitar at Sining on the Mountain, date unknown.

Arthur Smith playing his guitar with the Cracker-Jacks at Singing on the Mountain, at MacRae Meadows near Linville, N. C. The date for this negative, one of four extent made at this performance, is unknown. Arthur Smith and the Cracker-Jacks first performed at the 1950 Singing.

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Unidentified group portrait of Arthur Smith with other musicians circa 1960s.

There’s no identifying information about this group portrait of Arthur Smith and the Cracker-Jacks. The colors, clothes, and art styles all seem to be singing 1960s. Can anybody identify people, place, time, or event? Was this photographed on the television set at WBTV for either “Carolina Calling” or “The Arthur Smith Show?”  Groovy points will be awarded for proper identification of this photograph.

Hugh Morton photographed Smith on numerous occasions, including many made for record album dust jackets.  Notice the photography credit for Hugh Morton on back of the following album’s cover . . .

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An Arthur Smith recording from 1965, from the Southern Folklife Collection in Wilson Library.

Verso of Arthur Smith Great Country & Western Hits

Verso of the album Arthur Smith Great Country & Western Hits showing credit to Hugh Morton for the cover photograph.

Hugh Morton may be the photographer for Smith’s LP album The Guitars of “Guitar Boogie” Smith published by Starday Records in 1968.  There is a 4″ x 5″ color transparency in the Morton collection that is an extremely similar pose to that on the album.  Smith moved his hands slightly but his facial expression looks to be identical.  I prefer the hand positioning in the one not used on the cover because his right hand is concealed.

Arthur Smith posing for album cover portrait for "The Guitars of Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith", circa 1968.

Arthur Smith posing for album cover portrait for “The Guitars of Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith”, circa 1968.

Interestingly, CMT used a tightly cropped pose from this sitting in its obituary of Smith.  The image source is Getty Images.

There’s a lot more Arthur Smith images to parse through in the Morton Collection, more than can be featured in this post.  Needless to say, when someone writes the definitive biography of Arthur Smith. the Hugh Morton collection is a “go to” collection for visual research.

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ANY RELATION? The 1940 United States Census enumerated a James Arthur Smith, age ten months, living with his family on Florida Street in Clinton, Laurens County, South Carolina.  James Arthur was the second son of Broadus E. and Annie Mae Smith.  He had an older brother Edward, age 4 years old.  The census taker’s handwriting for his father’s name is hard to decipher, but a Google search revealed a Broadus E. Smith who wrote four church hymns.  Is this is likely connection.  Broadus’s occupation is listed as a carpenter in the building construction industry.

 

 

Another special connection with another legend named Smith

In February we shared a blog-post about the special connection that Hugh Morton had with Legendary UNC Basketball Coach Dean Smith.  Today, April 3, 2015, on the one-year anniversary of the death of another legend named Smith, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard shares the special connection Hugh Morton had with Music Legend Arthur Smith.  In case you landed here first, be sure to check out today’s other post on Arthur Smith by Stephen Fletcher, the second half of today’s doubleheader.

Arthur Smith and band "The Crackerjacks" performing on an outdoor stage at "Singing on the Mountain" gospel festival, Grandfather Mountain, Linville, NC. L to R: Ralph Smith, Sonny Smith, Don Lear, Arthur Smith. Photograph illustrates article about Smith, "Another Tar Heel Booster," in September 2, 1950 issue of THE STATE magazine, with caption that says Smith is "singing his original composition, 'Foolish Questions.'"

Arthur Smith and band “The Crackerjacks” performing on an outdoor stage at “Singing on the Mountain” gospel festival, Grandfather Mountain, Linville, NC. L to R: Ralph Smith, Sonny Smith, Don Lear, Arthur Smith. Photograph illustrates article about Smith, “Another Tar Heel Booster,” in September 2, 1950 issue of THE STATE magazine, with caption that says Smith is “singing his original composition, ‘Foolish Questions.'”

When the folks at Grandfather Mountain staged their 90th Singing on the Mountain festival on June 22, 2014, they dedicated the event to Arthur Smith. Smith had passed away a little over two months before on April 3rd, just two days after his 93rd birthday.

Smith and his “Crackerjacks” had served as Music Masters of the event from about 1950 through the early 1980s.  I think it’s safe to say that Smith had a standing invitation from his dear friend Hugh Morton to be a part of every Singing on the Mountain.  During the 1960s and ‘70s, Smith was responsible for inviting his friends Johnny and June Carter Cash in 1974 and Rev. Billy Graham in 1962, plus many other famous names.  Smith was the featured speaker at the 1991 event.

The 2014 speaker was noted evangelist Leighton Ford who had been the main speaker at the event in 1969 and 1989.  Ford built his ‘14 message around the words of some of the gospel songs Smith had written over the years. In an interview before the event, Ford said, “I do plan to include some of Arthur’s songs and thoughts in this, because our faith is a singing faith.”  Legendary Charlotte television broadcaster Doug Mayes introduced Rev. Ford.  Mayes had helped Clyde McLean serve as the chief announcer on The Arthur Smith Show, which was taped at WBTV, Channel 3 in the Queen City.  Mayes also shared some of his memories of Smith and the “Crackerjacks.”

The 2014 musical lineup included a noon tribute to Smith by his son, Clay, and “Brother Ralph” Smith’s sons, Tim and Roddy, playing instrumentals with David Moody of The Moody Brothers.  Vocalist Keith Dudley offered several of Smith’s most well-known hymns, and George Hamilton IV, who performed with Smith for years, came in from Nashville and his job as backstage host of the Grand Ole Opry to sing Smith’s most famous hymn, “Acres of Diamonds.”  The Cockman Family of Sherrills Ford, NC added several of Smith’s secular hits including “Feudin’ Banjos” and “Guitar Boogie.”

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Arthur Smith (center, with banjo), posing with his band "The Crackerjacks." Back Row (L to R): Tommy Faile, Wayne Haas, Kaye Murray; Front Row (L to R): Ralph Smith, Carl Hunt, Arthur Smith, Carlene "Sam" Howell, Jim Buchanan. Possibly taken on the deck of the USS North Carolina in Wilmington, N.C.

Arthur Smith (center, with banjo), posing with his band “The Crackerjacks.” Back Row (L to R): Tommy Faile, Wayne Haas, Kaye Murray; Front Row (L to R): Ralph Smith, Carl Hunt, Arthur Smith, Carlene “Sam” Howell, Jim Buchanan. Possibly taken on the deck of the USS North Carolina in Wilmington, N.C.

Arthur Smith and Hugh Morton go back a long way.  There are pictures in the Morton Online Collection of Smith and his “Crackerjacks” at the 1952 Azalea Festival in Wilmington and a decade or so later on the deck of the Battleship USS North Carolina.  But it was in 1962 that the Morton–Smith “team” set out on its most famous project.

In the mid-1950s, the National Park Service was preparing for the final 7.7 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the state planned to gain, by its power of eminent domain, a portion of Grandfather Mountain in order to build a road higher on the Mountain than Morton wanted.  Here’s how Morton described the situation in his 1988 book, Making a Difference in North Carolina:

To accommodate the requested “high route,” the state condemned additional land and we protested to Chairman A.H. Graham of the North Carolina Highway and Public Works Commission. . . The Chairman promptly arranged for a hearing before the State Highway Commission for the National Parks Service and me.

Almost immediately I received an invitation from WRAL-TV, in Raleigh, to debate the Grandfather Mountain right-of-way controversy with National Parks Director (Conrad) Wirth. . . Later I was notified that Wirth was bringing his engineer, and suggested I bring my engineer or lawyer to even up the sides of the debate.  I had neither engineer nor lawyer.  So I invited my friend Arthur Smith . . .

Wirth obviously did not know Arthur Smith when I introduced them, and was unaware that he performed daily in nearly every television market in the southeastern United States, including WRAL-TV.  The Park Director and his engineer spoke first. . . I made a brief statement and then Arthur Smith, in his Southern drawl said, “When a man like Hugh Morton owns a mountain and loves it like he does, it don’t seem right for a big bureaucrat to come down here from Washington and take it away from him.”

The telephone switchboard at WRAL-TV lit up with support for our position and it was soon obvious that Conrad Wirth had lost the debate. . . . The State Highway Commission voted to return the illegally condemned land.

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Hugh Morton almost never promoted himself, but he did try once, with a little help from a few of his friends.  Hugh’s longtime friend Charles Kuralt described the start of that effort at the 1996 North Caroliniana Society Award ceremony.

On December 1, 1971, in the shadow of the Capitol in Raleigh, surrounded on a chilly day, by shivering pretty girls in shorts wearing “Morton for Governor” hats and carrying “Morton for Governor” signs, with Arthur Smith playing “Guitar Boogie” for the crowd, with Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice on hand to declare “I have been on Hugh’s team all my life,” Hugh Morton formally declared his candidacy for governor.

Morton chose to withdraw his candidacy a couple of months later.  It was likely the only occasion when the Morton–Smith duo failed to achieve its goal.

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Ralph Smith, Don Ange, Jackie Schuyler, Dick Schuyler, Maggie Griffin, George Hamilton IV, and Arthur Smith at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Taken on 1973 trip Hugh Morton took to the "Holy Land" along with musicians George Hamilton IV, Arthur Smith, Ralph Smith, and others, possibly for filming of television special.

Ralph Smith, Don Ange, Jackie Schuyler, Dick Schuyler, Maggie Griffin, George Hamilton IV, and Arthur Smith at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Taken on 1973 trip Hugh Morton took to the “Holy Land” along with musicians George Hamilton IV, Arthur Smith, Ralph Smith, and others, possibly for filming of television special.

In March of 1973, Arthur Smith took his syndicated television program to the Holy Land to record shows in Nazareth, Jericho, Mt. Sinai, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and of course at the River Jordan. The group also visited Rome.  Morton, along with wife Julia and daughter Catherine, went along to take photographs that were later used for album covers.

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Arthur Smith and North Carolina governor Jim HuntNorth Carolina Governor Jim Hunt called Hugh Morton in March of 1981.  The Governor wanted a 3-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to finance road improvements.  Morton, as always, stepped in to help.  Hunt had polling data that said support for the gas tax was weakest among blue collar workers and farmers.  The Governor’s plan called for Morton and retired Charlotte banker C.C. Hope to lead an effort to change the opinion of that segment of the population.  Well, Hugh Morton had better idea. Rather than banker Hope, why not recruit Arthur Smith?  Morton believed that a country music legend like Smith would do better than a banker when trying to convince blue collar workers and farmers to support a gas tax.  Smith agreed to take on the challenge.  The plan worked; on June 26, 1981, the legislature approved the tax.

Also in 1981, Morton completed work on the award-winning film The Hawk and John McNeely.  The music track for that film was done by Arthur Smith and the film was narrated by Woody Durham, “The Voice of the North Carolina Tar Heels” football and basketball teams.

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Musicians Arthur Smith (far left), Raymond Fairchild (second from left), and others performing at the dedication of the final piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain, N.C.

Musicians Arthur Smith (far left), Raymond Fairchild (second from left), and others performing at the dedication of the final piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain, N.C.

It was a beautiful September day in 1987 when the Blue Ridge Parkway was officially opened for traffic to travel the entire 469.1 miles through 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties.  The dedication ceremony brought together again Arthur Smith and Hugh Morton.  They had come full circle, from that famous debate 25 years before in Raleigh, to the official dedication at the Linn Cove Viaduct on September 11, 1987.

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Almost five years later, on September 2, 1992, another celebration took place at Grandfather Mountain.  This time it was the 40th anniversary of the Mile High Swinging Bridge.  Many familiar faces turned out for this party as well: Kuralt, Justice, and of course Arthur Smith with guitar in hand to entertain the crowd.

Arthur Smith was best known for his music, but he was a serious Bible student and Sunday school teacher throughout his career. In a January, 1992 book titled Apply it to Life, he shared his practical applications of the Scriptures. By combining his favorite verses of Scripture, humorous stories that he had collected over the years, and ten of his most popular inspirational songs, he was effectively able to apply the messages found in Scripture to one’s everyday life.

“He had a very strong faith and considered being the musical host for the ‘Singing on the Mountain’ to be part of his ministry,” said Harris Prevost, vice president of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

According to Hugh’s wife Julia, Hugh and Arthur had only one serious disagreement during their long friendship.  That disagreement came during the campaign to get “Liquor by the Drink” in North Carolina.

Both men were teetotalers, but Morton saw the tourist value in Liquor by the Drink and fought hard to get it approved.  He was finally successful in 1978 without Smith’s support, but he never lost Smith’s respect.

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From Swinging on the Bridge to Singing on the Mountain . . .

From the Azalea Gardens in Wilmington to the Holy Land and Rome . . .

From the Deck of the “Showboat” to the Linn Cove Viaduct . . .

Hugh Morton and Arthur Smith stood shoulder-to-shoulder carrying out numerous projects and celebrating others across the state of North Carolina for more than 50 years.  And on this day, one year after Arthur Smith joined Hugh Morton once again, I choose to believe that their special connection continues.

Hugh Morton and Arthur Smith during their March 1973 trip to the Holy Land.

Hugh Morton and Arthur Smith during their March 1973 trip to the Holy Land.

Epilogue:

When The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte published its 2002 book The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000, they chose a Hugh Morton portrait of Arthur Smith to support the Smith profile.

Doc Watson, 1923–2012

Legendary, inimitable, iconic . . .  Today will be a day filled with adjectives as people describe guitarist Doc Watson, born eighty nine years ago in Deep Gap, North Carolina.  Watson passed away yesterday in a Winston-Salem hospital.

Doc Watson and Jack Watson

Hugh Morton’s photograph above of Doc Watson, seated, and Jack Williams in 1953 appears in his book Hugh Morton’s North Carolina with a caption stating that Watson and Williams “were members of a band that played for small dances and family gatherings . . .”  That caption is all we know about this photograph.  Morton made this photograph very early in Watson’s career—the year Watson and Williams first met, eleven years before Watson’s first recording.

The original 35mm slide or a color negative has not turned up in processing the Morton collection.  There is, however, an inkjet print and the low resolution digital file within a PowerPoint presentation shown here, in the unprocessed files of non-original items.  Morton’s portrait of Watson playing a guitar in front of a woodpile, published in Making a Difference in North Carolina, has also not surfaced.  To date, fifteen photographs of Doc Watson can bee seen in the online collection.

“Some of those holy rollers really cut shines…”

This past Sunday, the joyful hordes descended on MacRae Meadows at the base of Grandfather Mountain for the “Singing on the Mountain” gospel festival, just as they have done every year since 1925. If you read this blog, you know that we’re all big fans of Hugh Morton’s evocative photographs of the “Sing” throughout the years. From the wonderfully-bearded Shelby Ever Gragg, to George Pegram, Johnny Cash, “Happy John” Coffey, Robert Harris, Jerry Falwell . . . they’ve all been to the Sing, and Hugh Morton was there to photograph them.

For more information on the Sing (and some choice quotes, such as the title of this post), please have a look at our latest WORTH 1,000 WORDS essay by authors DAVE HANEY and LISA BALDWIN entitled The Singing on the Mountain. Haney and Baldwin (recent exports from Appalachian State University to the faraway lands of Black Hills, South Dakota), offer unique interest in and perspective on the topic as traditional musicians themselves. Enjoy!

Granville Oral Roberts, 1918-2009

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Many news outlets have been reporting the death on Tuesday of pioneer televangelist Oral Roberts. You probably know some of the more interesting and controversial stories about Roberts, including his claims of being able to raise people from the dead and of receiving visions from a 900-foot Jesus; or his famous 1987 fundraising stunt where he told viewers that unless he raised $8 million, “God would ‘call him home.'” (He raised $9.1 million).

But you may not have known that Roberts made at least a few visits to Grandfather Mountain, NC, most notably as a speaker at the 1976 “Singing on the Mountain” gospel festival. Roberts shot a nationally-televised prime time special at Grandfather that year, featuring Roy Clark (among others).

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Roberts apparently enjoyed the golfing opportunities afforded by the Grandfather Golf and Country Club (if you look very closely at the image above, you can see he’s wearing a “GGCC” sweater). One fall visit, Roberts got a personalized Hugh Morton tour of the natural wonders of the area. According to Julia Morton, “Mr. Roberts came to Linville to visit a friend of ours from Tulsa. Rain kept him from playing golf so Hugh entertained him by showing him the countryside.” It was during this visit that Morton took the lovely portrait of Roberts below.

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Who Am I?–Folk Music Edition

As I pick my way through images in the disturbingly large “People, Unidentified” pile, I find myself particularly troubled by the portraits of traditional musicians who remain nameless. Maybe it’s because I’m a musician myself, or because I know that these images may document little-known players — at any rate, this is where you, dear readers, come in. What can you tell us about the people shown below?

I have a feeling the woodcarver on the left must be a well-known individual. I’ve certainly seen his work before, but I don’t know his name. As for the banjo player on the right, the only clue I can offer is that his banjo is autographed by Roni Stoneman, of Hee-Haw fame.

Here’s a very well-dressed gentleman playing a dulcimer with a turkey feather, as per Appalachian Mountain tradition . . .

And another dulcimer player, not quite so well-dressed, sitting on a split rail fence with Grandfather Mountain behind him (not visible in this shot). This man’s dulcimer is a real work of art — hand painted with birds, flowers, and the letters “N, M, P,” and with hand carved pegs also in the shape of flowers (I think these are dogwoods, the North Carolina state flower) and birds (cardinals, the North Carolina state bird).

I’m uncertain as to whether the fiddler below might be Roby Coffey, brother of previously-blogged-about “Happy John” Coffey, or Shoner Benfield, previously identified in a “Singing on the Mountain” image. I’m leaning towards Benfield. But what about the young guitar player? (Apologies for the streak partially obscuring his face).

And finally, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite images of “Happy John” and his compatriots at “Singing on the Mountain.” Is that Roby to the right of Happy John? Does anyone know these other characters?

UPDATE 6/10/09: Many, many thanks to the commenters who have identified nearly all of the individuals above: Tom Wolfe and Floyd Gragg, Shoner Benfield and Randall Calloway, Edd Presnell. Only turkey feather man remains a mystery.

Now that we know Edd Presnell‘s name, we can find several resources having to do with him and his wife Nettie: 1) Nettie was featured on the poplar CD Appalachian Breakdown; you can hear brief clips of her playing on Amazon; 2) Edd was featured on UNC-TV’s Folkways program (the audio link on this page doesn’t work); 3) Both Edd and Nettie were interviewed in 1984 as part of the Southern Oral History Program (no transcript or audio available online, unfortunately).

One “golden roll”

From Elizabeth: Allow me to introduce our summer student assistant, David Meincke, the author of this post. David grew up in the small town of Hebron, Connecticut, received his BA in English from the College of William and Mary in May of 2007, and began the Masters of Library Science program here at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science (“SILS”) this summer. Since he came in with experience digitizing film, slides and photographs, we put him to work at the HR Universal Film Scanner. He surfaced from his cave long enough to write the following. Note: I suspect the images below were taken at “Singing on the Mountain.”

This is my first post on the Hugh Morton blog—up until now my work on the project has mainly been spent in a dark room with a high-powered scanner the size and shape of a Galapagos tortoise. I spend most of my time digitizing film negatives, the majority of them black and white, from various stages of Hugh Morton’s life and career.

I’ve grown accustomed to watching faces, bodies, rivers, lakes, arenas and street corners fly by on the monitor before me. The number of images in the collection is the hundreds of thousands, and it is difficult to retain anything of the image beyond the few seconds it lingers on my screen before it is sealed away on a hard drive somewhere. Occasionally, however, a “golden roll” falls out of the slim acid-free envelope, and it, for some reason, creates such a vivid impression that I have to study, stare, and tell others about it.

These pictures were taken at an event that seems to be a cross between a religious revival and a country music jamboree: an accordionist, banjo player, and a few guitarists play, while the crowd assembled around them raise their hands in exultation (and in one woman’s case, what appears to be religious ecstasy). I wonder, do any of these faces look familiar to you?

Here a boy stands, surrounded by motherly figures, and only his head is visible amid the confusion of blouses, as if he were coming up for air. Despite the crowd around him, though, he has a serene look, and his face is the only one in sharp focus as he stares into the camera.

The picture that initially caught my attention was the one below, a man with bright sunlight coming in behind him that provides a nice contrast to the picture without obscuring any details. In addition to the nice dynamism of light in the picture, I appreciate the drama that is contained in his face: his eyes, downcast and to the side, make it seem as if he’s slightly removed from the revelry around him, and the blur that envelops those around him further emphasizes his aloofness.

Before I continued the next roll of film, I wondered what the people within these photographs, especially this last one, were thinking. Had the music transported him to a different place? Were existential doubts plaguing him? Or was he considering what to have for dinner that night?

Thank you very much, and I hope you enjoyed these photographs too.

David Meincke

UPDATE 8/13/08 from Elizabeth: See the comments on this post for a discussion of whether the above photos might have been taken at “Singing on the Mountain.” Here’s a shot that shows performers in a tent-like enclosure, and that was taken at the Sing (according to Morton’s caption on the envelope). That caption is provided below.

Grandfather Mountain, Linville, NC, circa 1957

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, known as “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” is one of America’s foremost authorities on the folk music of the Southern mountains, shown here singing with Miss Freida English. Lunceford [sic] is from South Turkey Creek, NC. All songs at “Singing on the Mountain” are religious, but Lunceford [sic] is famous for “Good Old Mountain Dew” and other songs which he wrote.

“A glorious place to praise the Lord”

This coming Sunday marks the 84th “Singing on the Mountain,” the gospel convention held annually at the base of Grandfather that over the years has featured such well-known personalities as Johnny Cash and the Reverend Billy Graham. As you may have gleaned from my earlier post on Happy John Coffey, Hugh Morton’s photos from “the Sing” are some of my very favorite in the collection.

The early images (from the 1940s-50s) are especially striking—beautiful, black-and-white portraits of old time mountain musicians and preachers that are so evocative of a particular time, place and culture. I just wish I knew more about the performers, speakers and attendees of the Sing. (Shouldn’t somebody write a book? I’ve got illustrations for you!)

The image above came in an envelope labeled as follows:

SINGING ON THE MOUNTAIN: Crowd shots, Grandfather Mountain in background. Significant fact of location at Grandfather of the Sing is that the mountaineers hold the mountain in high regard kin to worship. It is ‘The Mountain’ as far as they are concerned, because it is likely the most rugged in the East. The mountain folks get a feeling of altitude on it since Grandfather juts right up into nowhere with no other comparable mountains nearby to dwarf it. It’s [sic] altitude is 5964, which is 600 less than Mitchell, but Mitchell and others taller are rolling mountains with tall ones near, not jagged rock like Grandfather.

Can anyone help with identifications for the following two images?

The image below (which I love) shows Joe Lee Hartley, founder and longtime Chairman of the Sing, with an unidentified tiny performer. (This is a cropped version of the original). The poem below that (first and last stanzas only) was written by Hartley and appears in his “History of the Great Singing on the Mountain,” a circa 1949 pamphlet held by the North Carolina Collection.

Morning on the Grandfather Mountain
Composed by J. L. Hartley, Linville, NC

Morning on the Mountain
And the wind is blowing free
Then it is ours just for the breathing.
No more stuffy cities where we have to pay to breathe
Where the helpless creatures move and throng and strive to breathe.

Lonesome—well I guess not
I have been lonesome in the towns
Yes the wind is blowing free
So just come up into God’s beautiful country—
Get a breath and see.

“Happy John”: Not that happy?

Scene from “Singing on the Mountain,” Grandfather Mountain, ca. 1957

I recently had this fantastic image scanned as a possible submission for the cover of College & Research Libraries News, as (yet another) way to publicize the Morton collection—but I thought it was too good not to share on the blog as well. Morton took this photo on Grandfather at Singing on the Mountain (“the oldest ongoing old time gospel convention left in the Southern Appalachians”) in about 1957. I love the colors, the hats, the bustle of activity, and the variety of people’s postures and expressions— especially the fact that neither Happy John nor his assistant (with the microphone) look particularly happy.

In “History of the Great Singing on the Mountain,” a circa 1949 pamphlet held by the North Carolina Collection and written by Joe Lee Hartley, longtime Chairman of the Sing, I see a mention on page 12 of “that old esteemed and lovable friend John Cable from Butler, Tennessee, who has always attended and helped out in the work of the Lord and we all hope some day to meet him in Glory.” Is John Cable Happy John, perhaps?

This image really makes you curious about the stories of the people pictured in it. Can anyone provide those stories? Is there someone here you recognize?

UPDATE 5/13/2008: I’ve been able to gather a bit more info about John Wesley “Happy John” Coffey, thanks to his granddaughter Thelma Coffey of Blowing Rock, NC, and to Jerry Burns, editor of the local paper The Blowing Rocket. Jerry sent me a copy of an article by Ruby P. Ellis called “Remembering Happy John” that originally appeared in “a state newspaper in the 1950s” (re-run in the Rocket in October 2006). From the editor’s note for the 2006 reprint:

Happy John Coffey remains a legend in the mountains and is considered one of the pioneer musicians whose tunes reflected the deepest roots of the mountaineer—his tragedies, his sorrows, and his happy-go-lucky lifestyle. Happy John, as best we can find out, was born in the early 1870s and lived until around 1967. He was the most important attraction in the settlement at the time and as Blowing Roc becase chartered as a villave in 1889 and until he died, Happy John continued to draw the attention of visitors who delighted in listening to his music played on a contraption he built himself that he called his “mountain harp.”

From Ruby Ellis’ article we learn that a since childhood burn prevented Happy John from being able to pick a banjo or bow a fiddle, he invented his own instruments and “picks” (kind of a combination of an autoharp and a hammer dulcimer). He was a fixture at “Singing on the Mountain,” usually performing with his brother Roby Coffey on fiddle (pictured in the red cap above), and could often be found at the Blue Moon filling station near Blowing Rock “an hour or two each day ‘pickin’ and singin’ for the folk.'”

A wealth of genealogical information about Happy John and many other Coffeys/Coffees can be found on the blog Coffey/Coffee Call. Thanks to all (Jerry, Thelma, Robert Hartley) for contributing information, and please share whatever else you may know!