Elizabeth Cotten: Resource and Subject Guide

Elizabeth Cotten holding her guitar, Sparky Rucker on the left
Elizabeth Cotten holding her guitar, Sparky Rucker on the left. Photo from Mike Seeger Collection. (PF-20009/23)

With the recent announcement of Elizabeth Cotten’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I thought today would be the perfect time to release this resource guide. So much of the writing about Elizabeth Cotten is marred by misogynoir – the combination of sexism and racism. Music writers often underplay Cotten’s musical and technical skill, instead describing her as gentle and humble. Many of these writings also focus on her childhood and then skip to her musical career, avoiding discussion of the first half of her life doing housework for white families. While her style and repertoire has influenced many other musicians, she remains underappreciated and undervalued. There are not enough secondary sources about her life and music, and I hope this blog post can be a starting guide for anyone interested in researching and writing about her.

In addition to this resource, check out the the Southern Folklife Collection’s special event from 2020,”When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten”, featuring Elizabeth Cotten’s family, Yasmin Williams and Alice Gerrard. 

Unless otherwise noted, the following biographical details and quotes interspersed throughout this blogpost come from the album notes from Elizabeth Cotten Vol. 3: When I’m Gone. The quotes are taken from interviews with Elizabeth Cotten conducted by Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger throughout the 1960s and 1970s. You can read the full album notes here or listen to the original interviews in the Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger collections linked below.

Black and white photo of Elizabeth Cotten as a young woman, sitting in grass with her legs crossed and her hands behind her head.
Elizabeth Cotten (PF-20009/16). in the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Elizabeth Cotten’s mother, Louisa Price Nevills was from Siler City, North Carolina and came from a farming family but she worked as a midwife and did housework. Cotten recalls that all of her uncles on her mother’s side played fiddle and her mother would sing old songs such as “The Man is Burning” and “Hallelujah T’is Done.” The name Nevills came from the enslavers of Cotten’s father’s family. Her father, George Nevills came from Chatham County, made liquor and worked in an iron mine as a dynamite settler. He died early in Elizabeth Cotten’s life and some of her fondest memories of him include braiding his hair with her sister. 

As a child, Elizabeth Cotten (born 1893 in Chapel Hill, N.C.) always loved music and was especially drawn to organ and piano. She recounts a man who lived nearby her childhood home who played guitar:

“He let the children come when he’d have this music, and dance in his yard…That’s where I learned how to dance, waltz and two-step, do the cakewalk, Frisco… buck dance. And I just danced my little head off…  My brothers were there and we’d all dance together, my sister, me, and my brother… In the band they had some kind of horns, the drum, and this big, old guitar – double bass thing.”

Since the banjo and guitar were the instruments around, those were the instruments she taught herself to play. She would stay up all night practicing. Cotten went to school until 4th grade and generally liked it but eventually had to start making her own money, earning $0.75 per month which she saved up to buy her own guitar. 

After Elizabeth Cotten was baptized at around 14 years old, the church told her she couldn’t play the “worldly songs” she had been playing on guitar. She explains,“I didn’t stop all at once ‘cause I couldn’t. I loved my guitar too good. And then it weren’t too long ‘til I got married and that helped me to stop because then I started housekeeping”. When she was 15, she married Frank Cotten and had her only child at age 16. During this time she still lived with her mother and sister while her husband worked in New York as a chauffeur. She moved between Chapel Hill, New York and D.C. primarily doing housework for white families. When her daughter got married, she divorced Frank. In interviews with Alice Gerrard, she talks about how hard domestic work was:

“I worked awfully hard there because she liked you to wash her floors and things on your knees. And she had plenty of floors for you to wash… had me crawlin’ on my knees savin’ her boards in her house– and the house is there yet. She says, “Elizabeth, you put your detergent in this bucket, [and] this is the bucket of clean water…” and I, fool, did exactly what she said. I would wash the floor, wipe it up with that rag, put that in the bucket, then over here I’d take my clean water and wipe and rinse my cloth in that. And I’d do that from her attic all the way downstairs…”

Elizabeth Cotten didn’t start working as a musician until the late 1950s, when she was in her sixties. While continuing to do house work, she recorded her first album in 1957 with the help of Mike Seeger. There are many retellings of how Elizabeth Cotten met the Seeger family which you can read about in other publications. By the time she was in her seventies, she had a solo career, performing at the top folk venues and folk festivals. She became most well known for her composition “Freight Train”, which she wrote as a tween in Chapel Hill. Cotten didn’t receive any royalties or credit for the song until a lawsuit that still only gave her one third credit (you can hear her family talk about this in an interview from the McCabe Guitar Shop Collection). When she was in her eighties, she was still working as a musician and won a Grammy for Best Ethnic and Traditional Recording in 1984 at age 91. That same year she was named as a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. She is a 2022 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

“I love to feel independent, I do… I feel good. I’m proud of myself. I didn’t know I could do all these things that I’m starting and the more I think about it the more I think I can do it.” 

Archival collections with significant amounts of materials related to Elizabeth Cotten:

Mike Seeger Collection, 1923-2013 (20009)

Given the close connection with the Seeger family, the Mike Seeger collection holds many recordings of Elizabeth Cotten playing in both formal and informal settings, as well as a handful of photos. Recordings include live shows, practice tapes, and interviews. The Smithsonian Folkways LPs and CDs also come from this collection. 

Two clips from SFC Audio Cassette FS-20009/12936

St. Louis Blues, Elizabeth Cotten with Mary Jefferson singing. January, 1979. 

Rueben’s Train, Elizabeth Cotten with unidentified singer. January, 1979.

Alice Gerrard Collection, circa 1872-2009 (20006)

Alice Gerrard considered Elizabeth Cotten a friend in addition to having toured with her and interviewed her. Gerrard’s collection includes recorded interviews, informal recorded music and several photographs. The conversational interviews between Cotten and Gerrard are particularly moving, talking about childbirth, domestic house work and dealing with racist encounters.

“You could watch a person the way the act, and that makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes the act might not be towards you, but if you’re the only one there you watch their actions. I’ve been in many a place and they ask you to eat, for an instance. And the way they ask and the way they do you say, “no thank you.” You might be hungry… It’s different with you. You’re white. And I’m Black. That gives me a different feeling. That makes me kind of watch them where you wouldn’t, see? It makes you watch people and know what they say and see if you think they mean it or not, you know? I know I’m Black, see, and the old way back times, the way white people treated Negroes… I heard my mama talk about it… And I think that growed up in the Black people by hearin’ about it through their parents or maybe their godmothers or their godfathers, whoever raise them. And it makes them have that little drawback kind of feelin’ that maybe you wouldn’t think about, see?  And that makes me sometimes sit – and I say nothin’, and they don’t know what I’m thinkin’. I’m thinkin’ deep… and I’m not sayin’ anything. And listening to what they say. And you can near about know which way to go – know whether to run or sit…” (6)

McCabe’s Guitar Shop Collection, 1967-2013 (20511)

McCabe’s Guitar Shop has hosted many legendary musicians, including Elizabeth Cotten. In this collection, you can watch a 7-part interview with Cotten and her family in 1984 conducted by Nancy Covey. The interview goes into Peter Paul and Mary taking credit for Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Freight Train.” You can also listen to recordings of Elizabeth Cotten performing at McCabe’s Guitar Shop throughout the 1970s and 1980s. 

North Carolina Folklore Broadcast Collection, 1976 (20105)

This collection contains several recordings from the North Carolina Folklife Festival (pre-curser to the Festival of the Eno) that Elizabeth Cotten performed at in 1976. 

Stefan Grossman Collection (20578)

Although this is a collection level finding aid, the collection does contain multiple items related to Elizabeth Cotten including videos of multiple performances by Elizabeth Cotten solo, with Mike Seeger and a guitar workshop with Elizabeth Cotten and John Fahey. Published versions of these are available through the UNC libraries (listed below). 

black and white photo of Elizabeth Cotten performing in a tent with her guitar.
Elizabeth Cotten performing. Photo by Steve Kruger in Baltimore, MD, 1972. From the Mike Seeger collection #20009, pf0018_0003.

Archival collections with more limited items related to Elizabeth Cotten:  

Highlander Research & Education Center’s Audiovisual materials, 1937-2008 (20361) 

The Highlander Research & Education Center comes with a long history of civil rights activism and education. This collection includes one video of Elizabeth Cotten performing.  

Pete Kuykendall Collection (20546)

Through the Kuykendall Collection finding aid, you watch Elizabeth Cotten perform on Pete Seeger’s TV show “Rainbow Quest” from the 1960s. This video is available for streaming on the UNC campus. A published version is available in the video resources below. Some clips are also available on YouTube. 

Sing Out! Collection, 1937-2014 (20550)

This collection includes a recording of a gospel workshop with Elizabeth Cotten, Janette Carter, Lily May Ledford and Ola Belle Reed in 1980. 

Paul Brown Collection, 1950-1999 (20382)

Paul Brown’s collection includes the “Libba Cotten Special”  episode of his NPR show “Across the Blue Ridge”  with recordings and interviews about her life and music.

Dick Waterman Collection, 1960-2003 (20533)

This collection contains several photographs of Elizabeth Cotten at festivals and venues suchs as Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Newport Folk Festival. 

Bill C. Malone Collection, 1950s-2016 (20315)

Music historian Bill C. Malone’s collection includes one recording from the Oklahoma State University Festival in 1972.

Gary Kenton Collection, 1971-1989 (20321)

This collection includes an audio recording of an undated telephone interview with Elizabeth Cotten by music journalist Gary Kenton. 

Alan Kanter Collection, 1972-2009 (20549)

Audio engineer Alan Kanter’s collection includes a recording of Elizabeth Cotten at the San Diego Folk Festival in 1977.

North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Films, 1951- 1988 (20448)

This collection includes a 30-minute documentary titled Got to tell it: A tribute to Mahalia Jackson from 1983 about Mahalia Jackson and Elizabeth Cotten directed by Studs Terkel. 

Greenhill Family/FLi Artists/ Folklore Productions Collection, 1947- 2014 (20542)

This collection includes some photographs of Elizabeth Cotten and a recording of a live performance in 1978. 

Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, 1965-1989 (20004) 

The SFCRP organized tours throughout the south with both Black and white musicians. Elizabeth Cotten participated in some of these tours and this collection includes her artist file with correspondences and publicity about her involvement with the project.

DK Wilgus Papers, 1883-1996 (20003)

This collection includes an artist file containing clippings and other items related to Elizabeth Cotten collected by folklorist DK Wilgus. 

“You know the tune and you just learn it. Just keep the tune in your mind and just keep on workin’ with it ‘til you get something. The way I do, I play it to my own sound, the way I think it sounds. If I’m playing a song and if I don’t quite know it, you could finish it off with some kind of sound. I just do it according to my sound… you just get a sound. You just put the sounds together and what sounds alright you just go on with it. And all of them little things you heard me playin’, that’s the way I got it. I don’t know nothing about no notes, I can’t read music. You just get a song and know it and just keep fooling around with it ‘til you get it to sound like you want it to sound. And whether it’s right or wrong I just go on with it if it sounds to suit me… I tried hard to play, I’m telling you. I worked for what I’ve got, I really did work for it.”

Archival collections and items without finding aids: 

National Public Radio Collection, 1975-1984

This collection includes interviews for profiles about various folk musicians, including Elizabeth Cotten. 

NC folklife festival and Alan Jabbour Folklife Section Collections (1974, 1976, 1978)

These recordings are from the NC folklife festivals in 1974, 1976, and 1978 that Elizabeth Cotten performed at.  

Folklife festival 1974:

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454337 https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454111 

Folklife festival 1976:

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454083 

Folklife festival 1978 :

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454121 https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454295 

Elizabeth Cotten (right) and Bessie Jones (left) at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1969. From the Alice Gerrard Collection #20006, pf0076_0003.

Request copies at Wilson Library

Wilson Library FAQ page

Commercial video recordings in the library catalog: 

Cotten, Elizabeth, and Mike Seeger. Mike Seeger & Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 1991.

Cotten, Elizabeth, Mike Seeger, and Keith Newman. Ramblin’ Mike Seeger & Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 1991. 

Cotten, Elizabeth, Mike Seeger, and Mark Humphrey. Elizabeth Cotten with Mike Seeger. Sparta, N.J.: Vestapol Productions, 1994. 

Cotten, Elizabeth, and John Miller. The Guitar of Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2002.

Cotten, Elizabeth, and Mike Seeger. Elizabeth Cotten: In Concert, 1969, 1978 & 1980. Place of publication not identified: Vestapol Productions, 2004.

Fuller, Jesse, and Elizabeth Cotten. Jesse Fuller and Elizabeth Cotton: Masters of the Country Blues. Newton, NJ: Yazoo Video, Division of Shanachie Records Corp, 1992.

Homemade American music.” Aginsky, Yasha, Carrie Aginsky, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Tommy Jarrell, Lily M. Ledford, Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Sonny Terry, Dewey Balfa, Dopsie Rockin’, Allie Young, Nathan Abshire, Tony Balfa, Raymond E. François, Dennis McGee, Wallace Read, Canray Fontenot, Leopold François, and Robert Jardell. Four American Roots Music Films. Sparta, N.J: Vestapol Productions, 2007.
16mm film print: Folkstreams.net Collection (Film F-20384/74)
Streaming: https://www.folkstreams.net/films/homemade-american-music

Me and Stella. Directed by Geri Ashur. Place of publication not identified: Phoenix Films, 1977.

Travis, Merle, Kirk McGee, Sam McGee, Mance Lipscomb, Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Josh White, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Gary Davis. Legends of Traditional Fingerstyle Guitar. Sparta, N.J.: Vestapol Productions, 2003. 

Wenders, Wim, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Richard Pearce, Charles Burnett, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, Paul Allen, Jody Allen, and Ulrich Felsberg. The Blues, a Musical Journey. New York: Sony Music Entertainment, 2003. 

Commerical audio recordings in the library catalog: 

Cotten, Elizabeth. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes. Recorded 1957-1958. Smithsonian Folkways, vinyl LP. 

Online version: (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6648585

Cotten, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Cotten: Vol. 2, Shake Sugaree. Recorded 1967. Folkways Records, vinyl LP. 

Cotten, Elizabeth, and Mike Seeger. Shake Sugaree. Recorded in 1965. Re-released in 2004. Smithsonian Folkways Records, compact disc.

Online version: (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6647067

Cotten, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Cotten: Vol. 3, When I’m Gone. Recorded 1979. Folkways Records, vinyl LP. 

Online version: (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6648426

Cotten, Elizabeth. Live. Recorded in 1983. Arhoolie Records, vinyl LP.

Ledford, Lily M, Ramona Jones, Ola B. Reed, Suzanne Thomas, Elizabeth Cotten, Janette Carter, and Rose Maddox. Women of Old Time Music. REcorded in 1981. Heritage Records, vinyl LP.

New Lost City Ramblers., Seeger, P., Cotten, E., & Highwoods String Band. 20th anniversary concert. Recorded in 1986. Flying Fish, vinyl LP. 

Online version. https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6128401

Other repositories with related materials:

American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress 

Ralph Rinzler Collection at the Smithsonian 

Tatiana Hargreaves is a first year graduate student at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science Master of Science in Library Science program. She is a lecturer of bluegrass fiddle in the music department at UNC and performs internationally with banjo player Allison de Groot. She received her BA in ethnomusicology and music performance from Hampshire College in 2017.

Ola Belle Reed: Resource and Subject Guide

Tatiana Hargreaves is a first year graduate student at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science Master of Science in Library Science program. She is a lecturer of bluegrass fiddle in the music department at UNC and performs internationally with banjo player Allison de Groot. She received her BA in ethnomusicology and music performance from Hampshire College in 2017.

Ola Belle Reed: Subject Guide

There are numerous published recordings of Ola Belle Reed and her music, but biographical material outside of album liner notes are harder to find. The book Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line (2015) by Henry Glassie, Clifford R. Murphy and Douglas Dowling Peach is the only released biography of her life. The Southern Folklife Collection holds many resources relating to Reed, including the manuscript for her unpublished autobiography “High on a Mountain”.

This blogpost can serve as a starting guide to resources about Ola Belle Reed in the Southern Folklife Collection, UNC libraries, and beyond.

Ola Belle Reed, Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, 1974. From the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006)

Born in 1915 in Ashe County, North Carolina, Ola Belle Campbell Reed grew up in a large musical family. During the Depression, her family joined the many migrants moving from the Southern Mountains to more urban areas farther North. By the time she was a teenager, Reed was already performing with her brother in the North Carolina Ridge Runners. After marrying Bud Reed in 1949, Ola Belle, Bud and her brother Alex Campbell opened the New River Ranch music park which became a popular stop for bluegrass and country performers throughout the 1950s. Throughout the 1970s, Reed performed at many folk festivals and in 1986 was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship. She passed away in 2002 after thirteen years of illness. Reed’s prolific songwriting has endeared her to the country, bluegrass and old-time music communities where her songs are performed frequently.

Collections in the Southern Folklife Collection that include Ola Belle Reed:

Ola Belle Reed Collection

This collection primarily includes audio recordings, some news clippings and the manuscript for Reed’s unpublished autobiography. The audio recordings are a mixture of live performances and more intimate interviews, conversations and home music recordings. The conversation topics range from music, religion and politics to pollution, sex education, love and more. Reed’s unpublished autobiography, “High on a Mountain” was written with the help of David Reed and Josh Dunson.

Ola Belle singing “If I Could Read My Titles Clear”

Hazel Waltman and Ola Belle Reed. From the Mike Seeger Collection (#20009).

Ola Belle singing “Old Pal of Yesterday” with her old friend Hazel Waltman

Listen to the full tape here (SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20010/9663) 

Robert D. Bethke Collection

This collection includes four open reel recordings and two videos of Reed and her family from 1972.

Alice Gerrard Collection

This collection includes audio recordings from performances and parties and photographs of Ola Belle Reed, primarily from the New River Ranch Music Park in Rising Sun, Maryland that Reed ran with her husband Bud Reed. 

On the two clips below, you can hear Ola Belle Reed in a more casual setting at a party at George Holt’s house in Durham, North Carolina on November 2nd, 1986. The recording features Ola Belle with Alice Gerrard (guitar) and Andy Cahan (fiddle). 

Wild Bill Jones

What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul

Listen to the full tape here (SFC Audio Cassette FS-20006/8695)

Ola Belle Reed, Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, 1974. From the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006)

Mike Seeger Collection

This collection also includes audio recordings and photographs of Ola Belle Reed, primarily from the New River Ranch Music Park in Rising Sun, Maryland.

Standing from left: Lily May Ledford, Janette Carter, Ramona Jones, Ola Belle Reed, Rose Maddox. Seated: Elizabeth Cotten. From the Mike Seeger Collection (#20009_pf0072).

Eugene Earle Collection

The Eugene Earle collection contains several open reel recordings of Ola Belle including recordings from Sunset Park, New River Ranch and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Ola Belle is spelled “Olabelle” in the collection. 

Pete Kuykendall Collection

Ola Belle Reed appears on two open reels in the Kuykendall collection, both at New River Ranch. SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20546/259 features Reno and Smiley with a brief appearance by Ola Belle reed and the New river Ranch Gang. SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20546/80 features the Monroe Brothers and others, including “Aunt Ola Bell”. An open reel for the Carter Stanley memorial concert also references Ola Belle’s band “The New River Boys.”

North American Traditions Collections 

This collection contains six sides of Reed’s recordings for the 1977 album Ola Belle Reed and Family, including several unissued cuts. 

William Ferris Collection

This collection includes photographs of Ola Belle Reed at Yale University in 1975-1978 and recordings from Calhoun college in 1975 and 1976. 

Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project

Correspondence, publicity, tour planning and photos related to Ola Belle Reed’s involvement with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, an organization that presented integrated concerts, tours and other events with Black and white musicians in the South during the late 1960s – 1980s.    

Mary Katherine Aldin Artist Files

This collection includes an artist file for Ola Belle Reed.

Sing Out! Collection

SFC Audio Cassette FS-20550/2: Gospel Workshop, 1980 with Ola Belle Reed, Janette Carter, Elizabeth Cotten and Lily May Ledford.

Festival of the Eno 1976 (from North Carolina Folklore Broadcast collection )

Ola Belle Reed performs at the 1976 Festival of the Eno in Durham, North Carolina.

North Carolina Folklife Festival in Durham (no finding aids) 

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454121 

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454111 

Ola Belle Reed’s Published Recordings available via UNC Libraries 

Ledford, Lily M, Ramona Jones, Ola B. Reed, Suzanne Thomas, Elizabeth Cotten, Janette Carter, and Rose Maddox. Women of Old Time Music. Galax, Va: Heritage Records, 1981. Sound recording. (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb1968852 )

Reed, Ola B. Ola Belle Reed. Somerville, Mass: Rounder Records, 1973. Sound recording. ( https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb3694398

Reed, Ola B. Ola Belle Reed & Family. Somerville, Ma: Rounder Records, 1977. Sound recording. ( https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb3760572 )

Reed, Ola B, Bud Reed, and Kevin Roth. All in One Evening. New York: Folkways Records, 1978. Internet resource. ( https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6647946 )

Reed, Ola B, Bud Reed, and David Reed. My Epitaph. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways, 2001. Internet resource. ( https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6646754

Reed, Ola B. Ola Belle Reed. Croton, N.Y.: Field Recorders’ Collective, 2005. Sound recording. (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb7849893)

Reed, Ola B, Alex Campbell, Sonny Miller, Deacon Brumfield, and Paul Sidlick. Campbell’s Corner: The Ola Belle Reed – Alex Campbell Radio Shows. Place of publication not identified: Field Recorders’ Collective, 2009. Sound recording. (​​https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb7849907)

Reed, Ola B. Rising Sun Melodies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways, 2010. Sound recording. (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb8619409

Compilations with the North Carolina Ridge Runners (available via UNC libraries & special collections)

Grayson, G B, Henry Whitter, Frank Blevins, Ephraim Woodie, and Jack Reedy. Music from the Lost Provinces. Raleigh, N.C: Old Hat, 1997. Sound recording. (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb3813077

Authentic Rare Bluegrass Cuts. London, England: JSP Records, 2008. Sound recording. (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb7868996 )

Books about Ola Belle Reed available via UNC Libraries 

Anderson-Green, Paula H. A Hot-Bed of Musicians: Traditional Music in the Upper New River Valley-Whitetop Region. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002. Print.

Camp, Charles, and David E. Whisnant. “A Voice from Home: Southern Mountain Musicians on the Maryland-Pennsylvania Border.” Southern Exposure. 5 (1977): 2-3. Print.

Murphy, Clifford R, Henry Glassie, Douglas D. Peach, and Ola B. Reed. Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line., 2015. Print.

Fussell, Fred, Steve Kruger, and Cedric N. Chatterley. Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina: A Guide to Music Sites, Artists, and Traditions of the Mountains and Foothills., 2018. Print.

Henry, Murphy. Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Print.

Other resources related Ola Belle Reed: 

UNC electronic resources for online newspaper, magazine, journal articles and reviews 

The Ola Belle Reed Collection at University of Maryland, Baltimore County:

Ola Belle Reed collection (umbc.edu)

Jason Pate Collection (University of Maryland, Baltimore County https://library.umbc.edu/speccoll/findingaids/coll123.php)

Information about an upcoming documentary, “I’ve Endured”: The music and legacy of Ola Belle Reed can be found here: https://mdfolklife.org/ive-endured-the-music-and-legacy-of-ola-belle-reed/

This 2005 blogpost by Stephen Winick at the American Folklife Center includes a list of Ola Belle Reed related collections housed at the AFC: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2015/09/on-ola-belle-reed/ 

To end, here is a beautifully written quote from Cathy Fink about her experiences with Ola Belle Reed:

“A visit with Ola Belle was always an amazing experience. The door was open, soup was on the stove, and an afternoon of conversation and music always left you with a full feeling. A philosopher and a philanthropist of the heart, Ola Belle was always there to help out a kid in need or a musician getting their feet on the ground…Ola Belle was ready for the world to change during the civil rights movement. Her song “Tear Down the Fences” questions why we spend energy building fences and not bridges between us. She was a feminist before that movement ever took hold, penning a powerful song, “Only the Leading Role Will Do.” But most importantly, she was an egalitarian.”

Fink, Cathy. “Last Chorus: Ola Belle Reed – 1916-2002.” Sing Out, vol. 46, no. 4, 2003, pp. 27-29.

ICYMI – Folk Legacy Series: John Lee Hooker; Hazel & Alice

Early in November, the Southern Folklife Collection wrapped up its two-part Folk Legacy Series celebrating great legacies in American vernacular music.  The series was sponsored through generous support from the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation.

You can view the recordings of both events below, or via UNC Libraries’ YouTube page.

In “Boom Boom! The Music of John Lee Hooker,” Alvin Youngblood Hart and Bobby Rush both gave foot stomping performances to boogie along to, and then, in a lively discussion with Wayne Goins, reflected on the career and influence of Hooker.

Our first event of the fall — “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me?  The Music of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard” — featured a set from Tatiana Hargreaves and Alison DeGroot, followed by Dudley Connell and Sally Love Connell.  The evening finished with a roundtable discussion led by Laurie Lewis, and involving Gerrard, Peter Siegel – producer of the first Hazel & Alice record — Hargreaves, DeGroot, and Connell.

Thanks to all who joined us, and stay tuned for more SFC related content and events here on Field Trip South, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The Music of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard

In preparation for the upcoming event “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The Music of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard” here are some thoughts on a recording of a Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard  performance in 1973 by guest writer Tatiana Hargreaves. 

Tatiana Hargreaves is a first year graduate student at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science Master of Science in Library Science program. She is a lecturer of bluegrass fiddle in the music department at UNC and performs internationally with banjo player Allison de Groot. She received her BA in ethnomusicology and music performance from Hampshire College in 2017. 

Event Details:

Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The Music of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard

Thursday, October 14th at 7pm Eastern time. 

This virtual event will feature performances by International Bluegrass Music Association vocalist of the year award winner Dudley Connell, fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves and clawhammer banjo player Allison de Groot. Following their performances, the musicians will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Laurie Lewis and Gerrard with record producer Peter Siegel. This event is the first in the Southern Folklife Collection’s two-part Folk Legacy Series celebrating great legacies in American vernacular music: bluegrass pioneers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard and legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker. The virtual events are free and open to the public. The series is sponsored through generous support from the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation. The second event, Boom Boom! The Music of John Lee Hooker, will take place November 4, 2021.

Sign up for the event here: http://go.unc.edu/HazelandAlice

AG 453: Alice and Hazel, recorded on 24 September 1973, in concert at Washington Square Church in N.Y.C. 

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, often described as “pioneering women of bluegrass,” are two of the most iconic and visible women in the bluegrass music community. Their first album released in 1965 is considered the first women duet-led bluegrass recording and as a duo they recorded three more albums and toured extensively throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They performed at festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival, Smithsonian Folk Festival and Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival and regularly participated in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project where they toured with artists such as Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Ola Belle Reed, Johnny Shines, and many others. In 2017 they were the first women to be inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame. But even with musicians as visible as Hazel and Alice, there are so many details that go unnoticed. 

Hazel Dickens, second from right, at the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, Summer 1974. Photo by Alice Gerrard. Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006)

The standard Hazel and Alice narrative focuses on their powerful harmony singing and repertoire choice. What isn’t recognized as much is their instrumental performances, attention to detail in song arrangements and overall artistry. On their professional recordings, you hear a selected and curated outcome of both traditional and original material, mostly in the context of a full band. Their last album has some more stripped down duo arrangements, but listening to this live performance of Hazel and Alice from 1973 shows another side of the duo. This concert recording of just the two of them demonstrates the versatility of their musicianship. Throughout the performance, you can hear Gerrard playing lead guitar, lead banjo, and lead autoharp in addition to both Alice and Hazel being featured as solo vocalists. 

Hearing their stage banter and tuning on stage also gives a more intimate perspective on the duo. Sometimes you can hear Dickens say “too fast” at the beginning of a song as they adjust their speed during the performance. Other times you can hear the two of them moving around, deciding where to stand and how close to the mic to get. Other times, you can even hear them reminding each other how a tune starts or what the next verse of a song is. Dickens does most of the talking as she shares stories about her family, touring anecdotes and the backgrounds of the songs. Meanwhile, Gerrard tunes the various instruments that she plays and adds in commentary, only introducing a few of the songs such as her banjo feature “Fortune.”

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, 1975. From the Mike Seeger collection (#20009)

While Gerrard tunes the banjo in between the songs “Train on the Island” and “Steals of the White Man,” Dickens talks about changing their song choices when they started doing the Southern Folk Festival (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20004/). She adds, “I don’t want to say ‘repertoire’, that’s too uptown” and laughs. The tours couldn’t afford to pay for the full band, so they rearranged their material as a duo and added new repertoire (I know, too uptown). You can hear some of the practicing recordings of Hazel and Alice working on these arrangements on the 2018 release ‘Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969’s. 

Some of the stage banter is humorous, such as Dickens’ story about her father who used to play banjo. She talks about how he would play square dances, barn raisings, apple butter makings, and many other events but stopped once he “got religion.” When Dickens and her brother encouraged their father to play the banjo again by getting him a new instrument, she says, “he got up in the middle of the night one night and destroyed it.” 

Dickens and Gerrard also include anecdotes about their song choices. For example, before singing “Steals of a White Man,” Dickens talks about the influence of the Southern Folk Festival tours (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20004/) on her conception of class. She jokes, “I never even knew that I belonged to the working class [before these tours]. I didn’t even know I had a class.” Although she’d been singing working class songs her whole life, she just didn’t know that they were called that. Later, when Dickens announces “Mining Camp Blues,” she talks about Trixie Smith being the only Black woman singer she knew of who wrote a song about mining. On the second tape, Gerrard introduces her song “Hey, Mr. Nixon” by saying “I wrote it after I saw the Indo-China peace campaign with Jane Fonda.” She also adds that she has only  performed it once before and needs a lyric sheet, which you then hear her try to pin up on the mic stand. 

One of my favorite moments from the performance is when Gerrard plays the tune “Fortune” on banjo. She announces the tune with, “This is my favorite fiddle tune”, to which Dickens replies, “that doesn’t look much like a fiddle to me, Alice.” Alice admits, “I wish I could play it on the fiddle, but I can’t play it on the fiddle so I decided to try and learn it on the banjo.” Gerrard is in fact a fiddle player, and you can hear some of her playing throughout her collection. (Check out this footage of Alice playing fiddle with Bertie Dickens playing banjo https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sfc/id/56594/rec/1

Alice Gerrard with banjo. 16th Southern Grassroots Music Tour, 1980-81. Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (#20004)

These spontaneous moments of Alice and Hazel in concert reveal a nuanced version of themselves that gets lost in the “pioneering women of bluegrass” narrative. Having never seen Hazel and Alice perform as a duo, I found that the talking, tuning and spaces in between each song offered a more complete perspective of the duo than I had heard before. I look forward to joining Alice Gerrard, Laurie Lewis, Dudley Connell,  Allison de Groot and Peter Siegel in conversation about the music of Hazel and Alice on October 14th at 7pm. You can sign up for the event here: https://lnkd.in/dzmhHcZf

 

 

 

 

ICYMI – When I’m Gone: Remembering Elizabeth Cotten

I was reflecting on this crazy year recently, and feeling grateful for our Elizabeth Cotten event earlier in November, a heartwarming hour amid all the noise of the previous few months that was fun to share and experience with all who tuned in.

In case you missed it, the full event is available to stream below from the UNC Libraries YouTube channel.

Cotten’s great-grandson John Evans, Jr. and his family, along with Yasmin Williams, bookended the event with performances that recalled the origins of Cotten’s music, along with how it continues to inspire contemporary musicians.

Alice Gerrard’s segment offered an intimate recollection of life on the road with Cotten on tours organized by the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project.  The SFC is proud to hold both the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20004/), as well as the collection of Anne Romaine (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20304/), one of the co-founders of the SFCRP with Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Reverend Pearly Brown, Anne Romaine in background (P-20004/2805). In the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection #20004, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There was also a glimpse and mention of Dick Waterman in Gerrard’s slideshow, and the SFC holds the Dick Waterman Photography Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20533/), a rich resource of photographs documenting the blues, country, and rock music scenes from the 1960s to the early 2000s.

Elizabeth Cotten (PF-20009/16). In the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In addition to the Cotten-related collections mentioned in the previous post (and check out one of the earliest known photos of a young Elizabeth Cotten above from the Mike Seeger Collection) (When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten), we invite you to explore those associated collections held by the SFC that were referenced in the event.

The Elizabeth Cotten appearance on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show that opened the event can be found here a little more smoothly than the video capture over Zoom.  The SFC has the original 2″ quad video of that show in the Pete Kuykendall Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20546/).

When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten

 

The Southern Folklife Collection and the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are happy to invite you to an evening of stories and music celebrating the life of legendary North Carolina musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten.  Please join us Thursday, November 12 at 7pm.  Register for this free, live event here: go.unc.edu/ElizabethCotten

Elizabeth Cotten and children (PF-20009/17). Photo by Mike Seeger. Ca. 1957 in the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This hour-long virtual program will feature guitarist Yasmin Williams, musician and scholar Alice Gerrard, and Cotten’s great-grandson John W. Evans Jr., who is pictured above as a young boy listening to Cotten.

The SFC is proud to hold a number of collections related to the work of Cotten, including Alice Gerrard’s own collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20006/).

Elizabeth Cotten, Live! | FC-17741 in the Southern Folklife Collection

Many live concert recordings are held in the McCabe’s Guitar Shop Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20511/), which also includes a video interview, from around 1984, of Cotten and some of her family.  The Grammy-award winning Elizabeth Cotten, Live! recording (pictured above), a sampler of live performances from Cotten in her 80s, includes selections from sets recorded at McCabe’s and preserved in the collection.

The Stefan Grossman Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20578/), picked up in December 2019, also offers some classic Cotten material through his Vestapol label, a deep source of a variety of video recordings of jazz, blues, country, and folk artists.

Perhaps the richest source of Cotten material is held in the Mike Seeger Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20009/).  It was while in employment as a housekeeper for the Seeger family that Cotten picked up a guitar again after a period of musical inactivity, and Mike Seeger’s reel-to-reel recordings of her playing propelled her to becoming a popular figure on the folk circuit, and a touring and performing career that lasted into her 90s.

Elizabeth Cotten and Mike Seeger (PF-20009/22). In the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Many thanks to a generous grant from the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation for making this event possible.

And if you ever find yourself down our way in Elizabeth Cotten’s hometown, check out this recently installed mural by North Carolina artist Scott Nurkin, near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro border, as part of the Musician Murals Project.

You Gave Me A Song

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, 1975
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, 1975. From the Mike Seeger Collection (#20009)

On Monday, May 11th, Reel South, a cooperative documentary series among the South’s PBS-member stations, will make the Alice Gerrard documentary You Gave Me A Song available to stream.

Reel South -You Gave Me A Song

Directed by Kenny Dalsheimer, You Gave Me A Song (http://www.alicegerrardfilm.com/) “offers an intimate portrait of old-time music pioneer Alice Gerrard and her remarkable, unpredictable journey creating and preserving traditional music.”

Check your local member stations for when it might air in your area, but North Carolina’s UNC-TV will air it in the coming days over its various stations:

Reel South – You Gave Me A Song

  • Thursday, May 14, 10:00 pm – UNC-TV
  • Friday, May 15, 04:00 am – North Carolina Channel
  • Sunday, May 17, 10:00 pm – North Carolina Channel

Explore a few of the SFC’s resources featured in the film and related to Alice Gerrard below:

Alice Gerrard Collection:
Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection:
Hazel Dickens Collection:

Old Time Herald Collection:
https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20067/

 

Field Trip South: Picking Up The Bobby Patterson Collection

Album Cover for Old-time Fiddling and Clawhammer Banjo, Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, Audine Lineberry, and Bobby Patterson, Mountain Records #

Welcome back to Field Trip South. This period of isolation is a great time for recollections of a couple of our own recent field trips—my first collection pickups as Collection Assistant with the SFC.  It might help during this time to remember ventures outside and connections with people, the history we all share, and the community that shared history creates.

Bobby Patterson (#20574) connected people for years from his hub in the Coal Creek Community near Galax, Virginia, as a musician, producer, and documenter of the old time mountain music of the region, operating Mountain Records with Kyle Creed before building his own studio and starting his Heritage Records label.

Bobby Patterson seated, holding a banjo with a mandolin and electric bass on either side of him
Bobby Patterson poses with banjo, mandolin, and electric bass

As another SFC connection Paul Brown (#20382) mentions in his excellent celebration of Patterson’s life and work here (Across the Blue Ridge – episode 95), many of the musicians recorded on both the Mountain and Heritage labels would not have been heard without Patterson’s dedication to recording and preserving this culture.  Patterson could also pick a bit himself, accompanying on a variety of instruments with a number of collaborators like Kyle Creed and the Camp Creek Boys, the Highlanders, Tommy Jarrell, and Fred Cockerham.  He later played regularly alongside his long-time musical partner Willard Gayheart, who offers his own recollections in the episode, which highlights not only Patterson’s playing, but a number of sessions recorded by him for the labels, and his documentation of performances at festivals and conventions throughout the region.

 

Album cover of the Heritage Records recording of the 1978 Brandywine Music Festival, showing a square dancing troupe
Heritage Records Release of the 1978 Brandywine Music Festival (Heritage Records #24); from the Norm Cohen Collection (#20480)

 

In 1987, Patterson was instrumental in launching the Old Time Herald (#20067) with founder and editor Alice Gerrard (#20006), a magazine that celebrates traditional music and dance, particularly in the southeastern United States, which still operates out of Durham.

SFC Curator Steve Weiss, AV Archivist Anne Wells, and I traveled to Galax in early Fall 2019 to pick up Patterson’s collection from the studio he built next to his home just outside Galax.  Our local guides Kilby Spencer and Mark Sanderford, without whom we would have struggled to navigate through this pickup, provided context to the collection and pointed out recordings and musicians that could be of particular significance. Steve and Anne assessed the condition of the different formats and began the organization process. I helped them pack, tote, and haul, and learned a great deal.

It was a rewarding and satisfying experience to work with these colleagues and friends, reminding me why we do what we do, and reinforcing the importance of this work, preserving not only the physical materials but the spirit they capture.  We would also like to thank Kelley Breiding, and—most of all—Janice Patterson, for their support of this project.

a guitar and two banjos leaning up against a desk in Patterson's studio
The house instruments of Patterson’s studio

We are happy and honored to host the Bobby Patterson Collection (#20574) at the SFC.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside Galax, VA

First Impressions: CMH Records

First Impressions banner featuring Country Music Heritage logo
First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


THE ALBUM

LP album cover, features Don Reno holding banjo, Bill Harrell holding guitar, both wearing suits and sunglasses
Don Reno & Bill Harrell & The Tennessee Cut-Ups, Dear Old Dixie | FC-17121

center label from Country Music Heritage first record, wood grain background with silver textIn 1975, country music industry veterans Martin Haerle and Arthur Smith started CMH Records, and Don Reno, Bill Harrell, and the Tennessee Cut-Ups were a perfect fit for the label’s first release. Haerle had many connections from his experience at Starday Records and in the radio business, and Don Reno had performed with Arthur Smith on several occasions. Don Reno, Bill Harrell, and their band were, by 1975, long-established bluegrass musicians. Performing with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and, most famously, Red Smiley, Don Reno was a member of the first generation of bluegrass musicians that established the sound of the genre in the 1940s and 50s. Bill Harrell, too, was one of bluegrass’ most popular musicians, most successfully recording and performing with his band the Virginians. CMH, short for Country Music Heritage, aimed to give a home to these prominent, if aging, artists, many of whom had been dropped from the rosters at major labels. Don Reno and Bill Harrell had been performing together for over 10 years by the time they recorded Dear Old Dixie at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. The album features mostly original and arranged tunes by the pair, and Arthur Smith even steps in to join Don Reno on guitar on  “B.G. Chase,” an instrumental he co-wrote with Reno.
Listen to a segment of “B.G. Chase,” from Side 2 of Dear Old Dixie, here:

And here’s “Make Believe (You Didn’t Set Me Free),” also from Side 2:


The label

CMH Records advertisement, album covers and descriptions
An early CMH Records advertisement shows the prominent names in bluegrass already recording for the label. Folder 211 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

Country Music Heritage (CMH) Records was founded in 1975 by Martin Haerle, a former vice president of Starday Records, and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, famed performer, TV host, and composer of “Guitar Boogie” and “Fuedin’ Banjos.” Their vision of the label was to release contemporary country music recordings, with a particular focus on bluegrass music. From the beginning, CMH signed long-established musicians, from the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Lester Flatt to the Stonemans, Benny Martin, and Joe Maphis. Most of these early releases, like Dear Old Dixie, were produced and recorded at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. Soon after the launch of the initial album series (starting with Dear Old Dixie, CMH-6201), CMH began releasing their popular “Bluegrass Classics” double LP series (starting with CMH-9001). These two primary series, featuring modern recordings of bluegrass and country greats, carried the label into the late 1980s. In 1990, after the death of Martin Haerle, his son David Haerle took over operations of CMH. The younger Haerle started the “Pickin’ On” series in the 1990s, which offered bluegrass cover albums of classic and popular songs, from Pickin’ on the Beatles (1999) to Pickin’ on Nirvana (2017). In this same spirit, CMH is now home to other labels offering interpretations of classic music: Vitamin Records, an outlet for the Vitamin String Quartet, releases instrumental interpretations of popular artists from Radiohead to Kanye West, and Rockabye Baby! releases lullaby versions of popular rock songs.


The Artists

Bill Harrell with guitar on stage, promotional photo
Promotional photo of Bill Harrell, Folder 236 in the Art Menius Papers (20406).

Born in South Carolina, Don Reno was raised in Haywood County, North Carolina, where he first picked up a banjo at the age of five. After a decade or two in the country music business, Don Reno achieved lasting fame through his partnership with Red Smiley as Reno & Smiley. Bill Harrell, another successful bluegrass musician, had been touring and recording with his band the Virginians. Reno and Harrell first started performing together in 1964, after Red Smiley retired from music performance. Backed by the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Don Reno could usually be heard playing the 5-string banjo while Bill Harrell joined him on the guitar and sang lead. When Red Smiley returned from retirement in 1969, he performed with Reno and Harrell until his death in 1972. After parting ways in 1977, Reno and Harrell continued to tour and record with their respective bands for the rest of their lives.
Here is a brief segment of an interview between Alice Gerrard and Bill Monroe, from the Alice Gerrard Collection (20006), in which Bill Monroe discusses Don Reno’s impromptu “tryout” for the Blue Grass Boys:

Alice Gerrard: How'd you happen to meet Don?
Bill Monroe: Don Reno?
AG: Yeah.
BM: Oh, uh, I guess he'd heard that, you know, that Earl [Scruggs] had
quit, and he was going to be the next banjo player, you know, whether
or not.
AG: Yeah. [Laughter]
BM: He got into Nashville and we'd done gone, we'd left on Saturday
night, and he -
AG: Oh no...
BM: He followed us right on back into Taylorsville, North Carolina,
and -
AG: Persistent, anyway...
BM: And Earl was working his two weeks down there, and he [Don Reno]
came right down through the audience with his banjo, take the banjo out,
walked right out on the stage where we were.
AG: Oh, that's great, that's really great. And did he just -
BM: Nobody didn't ask him to come out or nothing.
AG: [Laughter] Did it tickle you at the time or were you kinda mad?
BM: No, it came as a surprise, and tickled us, too. But Earl would take
a break while Don would get up and play.
AG: Oh no! That's a riot, Bill...
BM: I tell that on Don now, but you know, that kinda gets away from him,
but that's really the truth.
AG: That's really funny... How old was he then? Do you have any idea?
BM: Uh, I don't know - he's a little older than Earl, or a little
younger, I believe, isn't he?
AG: I guess he's probably a little bit younger. Was he pretty young,
though, when he came? Well, he must have been, to have that much nerve!
I tell you, only a young kid would have -
BM: He wanted that job, though, he knew what it would mean to him.

Listen to the full interview, on FS-20006/8640, here. Streaming access to this recording were made possible through the SFC’s ongoing audiovisual preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


The local connection

Arthur Smith was born in South Carolina, where he also began his musical career, but he achieved most of his success in Charlotte, North Carolina. After moving to Charlotte in 1943 to appear on WBT radio’s Carolina Calling, and was also featured on the later TV iteration of the show. Arthur Smith’s own The Arthur Smith Show was the first nationally syndicated country music television show, and ran for 32 years. When Smith’s 1955 recording “Fuedin’ Banjos,” which he had recorded with Don Reno, was reinterpreted without credit as “Dueling Banjos” in the 1972 film Deliverance, he successfully sued Warner Bros. for a substantial settlement and a songwriting credit. In 1957, Smith established Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, the location of many seminal recordings and prominent radio shows, as well as much of the CMH Records catalog of releases.

In a recording studio, seated in front of microphones, Arthur Smith, late middle aged, wearing headphones, in a red short sleeve shirt and purple boots holds a guitar, Don Reno, wearing headphones and classes, with blue longsleeve shirt, blue pants, and cowboy boots, playing a banjo
Don Reno and Arthur Smith (in the purple boots) in the studio recording “Feudin’ Again” on Nov. 17, 1978. From Roll Film Box P081/120C-2 in the Hugh Morton Photographs and Films (P0081) in the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives. Search the Hugh Morton Collection here.


Show me more!

There is plenty of more information related to Don Reno, Bill Harrell, Arthur Smith, and CMH Records in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the CMH catalog on LP, CD, and cassette. Check out a few other documents of interest below or search the collection yourself.

Song folio cover, features two red stars, with the faces of Don Reno and Red Smiley on each star
Don Reno & Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Song and Picture Folio No. 4. Song Folio FL-184 in the Southern Folklife Collection Song Folios (30006).

Cover of a CMH Records newsletter called Midnight Flyer, featuring an illustration of a train
Midnight Flyer, no. 1 (1980). Several of these newsletters can be found in Folder 211, SFC Discographical Files (30014).

Cover of a song folio, featuring Don Reno and Red Smiley dressed as Union and Confederate soldiers leaning against a tree with their guns
Don Reno & Red Smiley: Song and Picture Folio No. 2. Song Folio FL-185 in the Southern Folklife Collection Song Folios (30006).

 

Sprout Wings and Fly turns 35

title card of the film, Sprout Wings and Fly, that depicts the film's title over an image of Tommy Jarrell playing fiddle.
title card of the film, Sprout Wings and Fly (1983)

Sprout Wings and Fly, a short documentary film about the life of old-time fiddler and banjo player, Tommy Jarrell, turns 35 this fall. To celebrate this coral milestone, we’ve gathered related materials found across the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006) to share with you all.
In August 1977, Alice Gerrard approached Tommy Jarrell about her, Cece Conway, and Les Blank making a film about him. In a letter to Tommy, Alice wrote:
“We would like to make a short film about you and your music…we would like to make the movie with a man named Les Blank who has made 6 or 8 other films about musicians. He would do all the camera work and Cece and you and I would decide what goes in the movie.”
Tommy Jarrell’s response to Alice a month later:
“I have decided I will help you all make the movie if there is no commercial TV. You know how I feel about commercial TV. They will have to set the money bags down to me if they want a commercial TV…I am looking forward to seeing you all soon. Come on down as soon as you can and we will talk a lot, fiddle some, drink a little, have a hell of a good time.”
After securing funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, North Carolina Arts Council, and the English and Folklore Departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Sprout Wings and Fly production team traveled to Tommy Jarrell’s home in the small unincorporated community of Toast, North Carolina, located just west of Mt. Airy in Surry County.
Like most documentary film projects, the film was a collaborative effort – directed and photographed by Les Blank, produced and co-directed by Alice Gerrard and Cece Conway, edited by Maureen Gosling, and sound by Mike Seeger. And let’s not forget about the contributions of those who appeared in the film: Tommy Jarrell (this one goes without saying); Tommy’s sisters, Julie Lyons, Togie McGee, Edith Hicks; Tommy’s brother, Earlie Jarrell; Tommy children, Wayne Jarrell, Ardena Moncus, and Benny Jarrell; Tommy’s friends and neighbors, including fiddlers, Robert Sykes and Art Wooten; and visiting admirers and musicians, including a brief appearance by Blanton Owen.
The film, which was originally shot and distributed on 16mm motion picture film, premiered in the fall of 1983 at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Photograph of filmmakers Les Blank and Cece Conway standing by camera that points towards Tommy Jarrell and others sitting on the porch of his home in Toast, NC.
Filmmakers Cece Conway and Les Blank and sound person, Mike Seeger, standing in front of Tommy Jarrell’s home in Toast, NC. Tommy Jarrell, Robert Sykes, Blanton Owen, and others are seen sitting on the porch. From folder PF-20006/80 in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

Filmmaker Les Blank and sound person, Mike Seeger, standing in front of Tommy Jarrell's home. Tommy Jarrell and others are seen sitting on the porch.
Filmmaker Les Blank (left) and sound person, Mike Seeger (right), standing in front of Tommy Jarrell and others. From folder PF-20006/80 in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

Filmmakers Les Blank and Cece Conway and sound person, Mike Seeger, talking in front of three women who are leaning on a station wagon car.
From left to right: Les Blank, Cece Conway, Mike Seeger, and three unidentified women. From folder PF-20006/80 in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

Filmmaker Alice Gerrard and sound person, Mike Seeger, posing with Tommy Jarrell in front of a tree.
Filmmaker Alice Gerrard (left) and sound person, Mike Seeger (right), posing with Tommy Jarrell (center). From folder PF-20006/81 in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

Tommy Jarrell became well known for his music late in life. Before Alice, Cece, Les, and company showed up in 1981 to begin filming (pictured above), musicians and admirers had already been taking advantage of Tommy’s open door policy to observe and learn from Tommy, who was known for his old-time clawhammer style and participating in the Round Peak music tradition of Surry County (more on Tommy and Round Peak music over on NCpedia).
One of the many admirers who reached out to Tommy for lessons included Alice Gerrard, who received this handwritten note from Tommy.
Copy of note handwritten by Tommy Jarrell in 1978 that reads "This is to say I know Alice Gerrard Seeger and she is one of the nicest persons I ever met. And so is Mike her husband. They are good and honest to god people. I would trust them with my pocket book. I would be glad to give Alice fiddle lessons."
Handwritten note from Tommy Jarrell to Alice Gerrard. From the Sprout Wings and Fly scrapbook (SV-20006/1) in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

As mentioned and exhibited above, the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006) contains a wide range of materials relating to the pre-production, production, and screening of Sprout Wings and Fly, including photographs, scrapbook clippings and ephemera, and two audio recordings.
Much of the scrapbook materials and both of the audio recordings relate to the film’s November 1984 screening at the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mt. Airy. As the poster and ticket stub below announce, this was not just your typical film screening. It was also a stage show!
Items from Sprout Wings and Fly scrapbook, a green photocopy flier advertiesing Sprout Wings and Fly Movie and Stage Show, at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mt. Airy, with stringband music, Saturday Nov. 3, 1984 (left), a yellow ticket to the 3:00PM show (top right), clipping from Mt. Airy News about the show with picture of dancing and one of the speakers at the event, headline "Documentary, Special Day Salute The Master of Old-Time Music) (bottom left)
Ephemera related to the November 1984 screening of Sprout Wings and Fly in Mt. Airy, N.C. From the Sprout Wings and Fly scrapbook (SV-20006/1) in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

The two audio cassette recordings (FS-8685 and FS-8686, pictured below) document the stage show portion of the event, which included musical performances by Tommy himself, as well as The Pine Ridge Boys, Art Wooten, Robert Sykes, Bert Dickens (aka Bertie Dickens), Steve Haga (only 9 years old!), Mike Seeger, and Tommy’s sister, Julie Lyons, among others.
two audio cassettes with their handmade Jcards with notes on the recording contents, Sprout Wings and Fly Show, Mt. Airy, NC Nov. 3, 1984, tapes numbered 502 and 503
Audio cassettes FS-8685 (left) and FS-8686 (right) found in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006).

Both recordings are streaming in full on the Alice Gerrard Collection #20006 finding aid, thanks to an ongoing grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Below is a sampling of some of our favorites performances…enjoy!
Julie Lyons, “Wildwood Flower” (FS-8685, side 1, 23:35-24:44)

Mike Seeger: A woman that a lot of you know and that we worked with
in the film, Tommy's sister, Julie Lyons, I believe is going to sing
a song for you. Julie. Excuse me folks she's going to play the harp
[harmonica] for you. Why don't you give her a nice, warm welcome.
[applause]
"Wildwood Flower" [instrumental]

Steve Haga,  Shuckin‘ the Corn” (FS-8685, side 2, 22:58-24:55)

Steve Haga: I'm going to play a little [?], "Shuckin' the Corn"
[applause]
"Shuckin' the Corn" [instrumental]
Steve Haga: Thank you!

Robert Sykes and the Surry County Boys, “Black-eyed Susie” (FS-8685, side 2, 25:2528:53)

Alice Gerrard: I'd like to introduce the next band. Robert Sykes has
been a member of this community for a real long time. He used to be a
fiddle player. I have an old picture of Robert when he played with
his brother, playing fiddle and guitar. He quit for a long time and
nobody ever thought he played the fiddle, or at least we didn't know.
He was in the movie, just briefly at the dance, as a dancer. We
didn't know he ever played the fiddle, although Tommy said he used
to play the fiddle. Well a little bit later, he started picking it
up again, and I believe it a lot of the reason he took the fiddle
back up was due to Tommy's encouragement to go ahead and try to get
back into playing again. And he certainly has. He's been going like
a house of fire ever since. And I'd like you to make welcome to
Robert Sykes and the Surry County Boys.
[applause]
Robert Sykes: We're going to try one called "Black-eyed Susie"
"Blackeyed Susie" [instrumental]
Robert Sykes: Our next tune is a tune that I made up. I was mowing
the yard one day and a tune kept coming over my mind and I killed
the motor on the lawn mower and went into the house and played it.
I live about a quarter of a mile from Tommy Jarrell and I went up
there and "Tommy, I got a need a tune. I'll play it. If you don't
like it, tell me. And if you do, name it." And I played it for him
and he said, "I'll call that 'Robert Surly[?].'" He didn't say he
didn't like it.

Tommy Jarrell, “June Apple” (FS-8686, side 1, 00:00-04:40)

Tommy Jarrell: Does that sound right? I'm going to try and sing a
little a "June Apple", I don't guess I'll get the job done, but
I'll try it.
"June Apple"
Wish I was a june apple
Hanging on a tree
Every time my true love pass
Take a big bite of me.
Can't you hear that banjo sing
I wish that gal was mine
Don't you hear that banjo sing
I wish that gal was mine.
I'm going 'cross the mountain
I'm going in my swing
It's when I get on the other side
I'm going to get my woman sing.
Charlie he's a nice young man
Charlie he's a dandy
Charlie is a nice young man
Feeds the girls on candy.
Goin down to the river to feed my sheep
Going down to the river Charlie
Going down to the river to feed my sheep
Feed them on Barley.
I wish I had a [?]
'Cuz every time it rains and snows
It's sun down on my fire.
Tommy Jarrell: Thank you
[applause]

Tommy Jarrell, “Big Eyed Rabbit” (FS-8686, side 1, 09:50-12:57)

Andy Cahan: we got a request for "Big Eyed Rabbit"
Tommy Jarrell: "Big Eyed Rabbit". Alright, here we go...I don't
believe I can think of it.
♪ "Big Eyed Rabbit"
Yonder comes a rabbit,
Down skipping through the sand
Shoot that rabbit,
He don't mind
Fry him in my pan
Lord I fry him in my pan.
Yonder comes a rabbit,
Just as hard as he can run
It's yonder comes another one
Gonna shoot him with a double barrel gun,
Shoot him with a double barrel gun.
Rocking in a weary land,
I'm rocking in a weary land.
Yonder comes my darling,
It's how do you know?
I know her by her pretty blue eyes
Shining bright like gold,
Shining bright like gold.
[applause]
Tommy Jarrell: I'm sorry about that singing. I just couldn't get up
there. One more?

We invite you to continue exploring materials found in the Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006) related to the production. And if you’re interested in viewing Sprout Wings and Fly over the long holiday weekend (highly recommended, of course!), it is available on DVD via Criterion Collection and as of November 2018, the film is streaming on Kanopy, a streaming service that is available for free to all UNC staff and students.