The Banjo: Southern Roots, American Branches

BILL BIRCHFIELD OF THE ROAN MOUNTAIN HILLTOPPERS, PHOTO BY ALICE GERRARD.

The Southern Folklife Collection is pleased to announce The Banjo: Southern Roots, American Branches, Saturday, August 25, 2012. This exhibit, symposium and concert is the first of the three-part Southern Folklife Collection Instrument Series. Panels, exhibits, and concerts in 2013 will feature the pedal steel guitar and the fiddle. The series seeks to provide an opportunity for music lovers to learn from leading musicians and scholars about the music, history, and culture of the American South.
Please join us first for the banjo symposium Saturday, August 25 from 10am to 4pm in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-CH, followed by a free concert in UNC’s Memorial Hall including master pickers Tony Trischka, Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Riley Baugus with Kirk Sutphin. This is a free but ticketed event. Tickets are now available at the Memorial Hall Box Office, 919.843.3333.
The symposium features lectures and panel discussions on the history of the banjo with:

  • Robert Cantwell, UNC Professor of American Studies; Author of Bluegrass Breakdown
  • Bob Carlin, Musician and Author of The Birth of the Banjo
  • Cecelia Conway, Appalachian State University Professor of English; Author of African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia
  • Laurent Dubois, Duke Professor of Romance Studies and History
  • Dom Flemons, musician (Carolina Chocolate Drops)
  • Phillip Gura, UNC Professor of American Studies; Author of America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the 19th Century
  • Jim Mills, musician (Ricky Scaggs, Vince Gill) Six time winner of IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Award.
  • Stephen Wade, Musician and Author of The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience

Don’t miss the accompanying exhibit tracing the history and development of the banjo, featuring instruments, photographs, recordings and ephemera from the Southern Folklife Collection.The exhibit opens August 25th and runs through Dec 31, 2012. on the 4th Floor, Wilson Library. Follow the Southern Folklife Collection on facebook or come back to Field Trip South for updates.
And now a couple more photos from the same roll as the one featured above from the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006). These photos feature Joe and Bill Birchfield of the great family stringband from Carter, Tennessee, The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers. Bill is demonstrating his unique banjo style, playing backwards, upside-down, and left-handed.

SFC Spotlight: Kitty Wells

It is no surprise that the “Queen of Country Music,” Ms. Kitty Wells, is well represented at the Southern Folklife Collection. Hundreds recordings, photographs, publications, and memorabilia chronicle her remarkable life and career. While we want to start giving peeks via Field Trip South into our plans for the upcoming symposium, exhibit and concert The Banjo: Southern Roots, American Branches, the passing of Kitty Wells deserves some attention here as well.
To start, we found a fascinating newsletter, the Macon News, announcing Kitty Wells signing with then independent record label Capricorn Records after her release from a lifetime contract she originally signed with Decca records in 1952 (click photo to enlarge)

The newsletter also features Miss Wells in the Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon, GA recording a cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young.” The photo of drummer Bill Stewart, producer Johnny Sandlin, and organist Paul Hornsby in the control room is a classic.
The 1973 newsletter also reminds listeners of one of the year’s best country crossover hits, “Behind Closed Doors,” performed by Charlie Rich, but composed by Capricorn artist Kenny O’Dell. Tomorrow, more information about the banjo symposium and concert, PLUS the Kitty Wells Cookbook.  

SFC Spotlight: Rank Strangers at Mrs. Hyatt's Oprahouse

“Opry” and “oprahouse” are regional vernacular often used to describe settings for folk jam sessions that are nestled in backyards across America. One of the most well-known oprahouses in the mountains of North Carolina is Ms. Nelia Hyatt’s, located in Asheville. Ms. Hyatt has been hosting musicians for over 50 years and gatherings still occur weekly. A jam at Ms. Hyatt’s is a colorful and familial scene of old couples dancing, tables of potluck food, musicians in folding chairs, and listeners leaning against the back wall.
Rod Murphy and Scot B. Morgan produced a documentary and a corresponding album about Ms. Hyatt’s OpraHouse, both of which are titled Rank Strangers.  The first release on Asheville’s relatively new label Harvest Recordings, an outgrowth of the truly fantastic West Asheville record store, Harvest Records, the CD highlights bluegrass favorites performed by jam-goers, family bands, and North Carolinian artists. A copy is housed in the Southern Folklife Collection, call no. CD-7421, and I strongly recommend listening if you enjoy live old time and bluegrass. Not only does Rank Strangers present a very real and authentic portrait of bluegrass dynamics, it showcases the professional talent of these “unknown” musicians. In other words, the players on Rank Strangers may be a mash up of locals, out-of-towners, and grandsons, but they sure can pick.
We have an affinity for field recordings at the SFC, and the sonic environment of the performance setting captured on this CD is remarkable; I have never heard a more live or lively collection of songs. Whether eavesdropping snippets of conversation, or listening to crickets singing in the background, the listener is transported directly into the jam session. One of the best examples of this on the album is the energetic rendition of “John Henry,” recorded live at the Oprahouse.
CD7421_Track 20_John Henry Hyatt;s Jam
Other tracks whose vivid mood and setting are particularly audible include “Home Sweet Home,” “Freeborn Man (With $50 Dollar Bill Rant),” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”.