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!