Here's a video that I recorded for Dr. Dan Patterson. Here Bobby tells a great version of a "Fair Days Hunt." It's a "Big Windy," but he starts of the tale with such believable details and eases the listener into a more and more elaborate and humorous story. I also asked him to sing "Bold Reynard the Fox," an old English folk song that he learned from Watauga singer and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Ellison. Ralph accompanied the song with the fiddle, something Bobby has asked me to work on. I awfully like paring the tune to the banjo though.
I've often heard it said; "look for the helpers." I couldn't agree more, and I have always been inspired by depth of human potential for altruism. It's feels like a sigh of relief, a surge of what's actually right in a screwed up mess of a world. When I think of helpers, the first thing that comes to mind is the kind of brilliant lightning strike acts of heroism--when a man leaps down in front of a train to hold down a stranger having an epileptic fit. But after this wave of cancellations, I've been thinking about the artists.
In times of great strife, creative people find new (or sometimes old), ways of addressing what's crashing down on us, or what's welling up inside of us. A lot of professional creatives are being hit very hard, very quickly by this. It's frightening, and frustrating, but I have this silver-lining itch on the back of my neck that beautiful, important, hilarious and hard things will spring to life in 2020. Perhaps this is the wake-up call we needed. What will we do in a new normal? How will we grieve? How will we play?
I think the things we take for granted will become richer. Around a camp-fire that old hippie with a guitar and an off key warble just sounds damn good when you've got nothing else to turn to. Maybe we'll distill down all the junk that's being thrown at us all day, and appreciate the honest dirt under our feet. Maybe we'll actually go barefoot again and grasp onto things that are real. Maybe we will actually memorize stuff again, and not just "memorize" where to find it online. Maybe we'll talk to our neighbors (about the weather at least). Instead of going to a gym, let's get out and work the land. Less screentime, more sunshine.
Right before all of this broke, I made a decision to resign from my job and really dedicate myself to stewardship of Appalachian heirlooms. I thought that I could supplement my farm work with the small amount of income I get from performing and organizing folklife events (GAH I HAD SOME GREAT IDEAS). That's all very up in the air now, and I am just going to be really careful. There are too many people in my life that are under real threat from this pandemic, and I treasure them. For everything I can control, I'm going to act in their best interest.
On the other hand, seems like a hell of a good time to be planting beans. I'm going to lean into my creativity. I'm going to be out grubbing stumps, growing food, and putting my mind towards ways we can help each other through this.
Recently I had the privilege of sitting down for a chat with Carl White for the Life in the Carolinas Podcast and I have a mug to prove it!
The Darby Ram
I have had an absolute blast taking Bobby to a gig here and there. I'm pretty well versed in this old music (I mean it's kind of my thing), but Bobby never ceases to amaze me with his rare and unusual melodies or extra complete versions of some of these old tunes. It seems like he's always pulling out a verse I haven't heard before, even to songs I've heard him sing often.
The other night I stayed with him and Joyce, and photographed pages and pages of these astonishing blue notebooks that Bobby has spent years carefully filling up with ballads, and verses, and hymns. I copied 3 books, but there's something like eleven of them. They really offer a portrait of not just Bobby's incredible ballad and folk-song memory collection, but also his original songs, and popular pieces that caught his eye (or ears I guess).
I also noticed that he had a pretty good collection of JRR Tolkien books. And when I asked him how long he had been a fan of Tolkien, he said along about 1965. Then he broke out into one of Tolkien's songs, using a melody a 13-year-old Bobby had invented to suit it. I didn't actually have the recorder on for that one, but I've sure got plans to document that. I've been a Tolkien fan my whole life--just ask my mother. I was a baby sleeping by when she read the Hobbit and the Lord of The Rings to my brother and sister (She later read them to me when I was in elementary school.)
All this to say that in working with Bobby, I am constantly reminded how much it matters to "Learn from warm hands" (I think that's a Richard Bowman quote). I always loved Bobby's music, though I didn't really know him, but now that I've spent time with him, it just makes all of his material that much more special, somehow adding even more depth to already rich songs and stories.
I also get to learn all of the good "unprintable" verses, like:
It took all the boys of Darby to haul away the bones,
and All the girls of Darby to haul away the stones.
Tom a-fall, tom a-fall, Diddle Day.
Saturday I was extremely blessed! I got to share the stage with three great performers and storytellers: Bob Plott, Bobby MacMillon, and Aaron Ratcliffe. It was a really powerful show, if I do say so myself. I think that there's all too few shows like this around, where artists get a chance to share what they want to share in a relaxed, attentive environment (without having to do the heavy lifting of carrying an hours worth of a show by themselves). Mountain Memories, as it's called, has a kind of "live, from the front porch" feel, that I really appreciate. From years helping Gary Carden with the Liar's Bench, and helping Dr. Cece Conway with their presentations of folk traditions I saw how there is a real sweet spot for gathering regional artists to perform, but also giving the tradition-bearers the freedom to share what they want to share.
I'm so pleased that the Folkmoot Center has given us such a splendid platform to bring audiences to a place where we aren't in a hurry, where there's something to be said for savoring something. It's the "slow food" of traditional music and storytelling.
Earlier this year I learned that Bobby MacMillon and I were selected for the in these mountains Folklife Apprenticeship Grant. When I submitted the proposal paperwork from our end, I expressed that I especially wanted to document our car-rides to and from performances. Anyone who has had the privilege of riding with a storyteller knows that this is the place where the stories really live! I drove Bobby and Rick Ward to the Library of Congress once, and I think that might have been the most fun I have ever had--And we got stuck dead in traffic for 3 hours! I'm still sorting out how best to use the action camera I bought for the project, I don't think it likes long exposures very much!
Anyway, here is a brief snippet from one of our trips. We were driving through Loafers Glory, and Bobby shared a story about the Thomas family settling (well, taking) the bottoms opposite the mouth of Roses Branch. He also mentions a corpse that fell out of a steep slope in the turn before you come around to Loafers Glory.
A Morning Poem.
I sat in a river, Maybe the river
Tried to hold on as it swirled and surged
Sometimes I could find purchase
On a piece of rock
All covered with that black, coarse watermoss
(I’m not sure what it’s called)
But I know it, it helps hold me there--Us there
In the relentless
Once, I came to the river at night,
the current was mild, and I heard it then
A flute, maybe the flute,
Dropping, running, plopping, and pouring over the water
timeless , ancient, and gone.
Like what you thought you saw
I haven’t heard it since
But i’ve tried, I’ve strained for something
That only appears
when you aren’t looking for it
The river finally spoke to me
And that, I did not expect
Relentless, exposing, honest
Like a bone chilling visit
to a craggy mountain top
It just said go.
It’s time for you to go
So I did.
I said goodbye
To a place that held me
My legs scraped over more reminders of that hold-here moss
Dark stones surprised me
And I let the river take me down
To an unfamiliar spot.
This year I was deeply honored to be selected to study with Bobby McMillon for a significant apprenticeship grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. It is the first time that an apprenticeship program of its kind has been offered by the state of North Carolina. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Bobby this year and the next!
The North Carolina In These Mountains Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeship program supports 12-month apprenticeships in the folk and traditional arts of the many cultural communities within North Carolina’s Appalachian Regional Commission counties. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, the apprenticeship program application will focus on the traditional folk arts and culture of North Carolina’s Appalachian communities as part of the three-year In These Mountains project sponsored by South Arts. Applications will be reviewed by a panel, and two mentor/apprentice pairings will be selected each year.
I recently found this poem on my google drive, saved from phone oblivion by the "cloud." I wrote it one day in a flurry, after I returned home from an open mic. A man came up to me and said, "thank you for keeping our heritage alive."
Am I a hospice care worker for a culture
Grafting from fallen apple trees
Ancient ones, who have lived glorious lives
Are they ready to return to the dust of life?
ready to feed fungi and meandering eaters
Like they once fed lovers, stretched across
Aunt Tillie's Quilt.
I keep them on life support and carve them into young trees
The tree's children we'll dismiss
From the seed they won't come true
Don't they have the right? To surge out into the world?
As different, or as similar from their parents
as delicious or sub-par as they'll taste
"that's just a seedling"
It'll take years to raise that child, and
We've lost too much time to wait
Seven years (when we're lucky to hit 70) before we can unfold our knife
Shave back from the core, and lay her crisp flesh to our tongue
Taste is tied to memory, most deeply
Memory is rewritten every time we remember it
Perhaps that one tree in the meadow of your youth
wasn't as good as you think it was?
I know this--
I asked an orchardist, "What's your favorite apple?"
He said, "I've only every eaten one kind..."
"A good 'un."
I’ve known for a while that I was going to be added to the Blue Ridge Heritage Area Artist Directory, but now it’s official! I never would have imagined that my little foray into trying to build a fiddle in college would lead me on this journey. Being included here means a lot to me, on multiple levels. It also leads me to feel so grateful for the huge list of people that have encouraged me, and believed in me, and welcomed me into their lives. To those that have shared wisdom, and tales, and tunes, and seeds, I will never stop being grateful.
I’ve been asked many times why I do what I do. So, I have had a lot of opportunities to ruminate on that. I’m not sure that I have a concrete answer, partially because there are so many reasons why I do what I do. It is a confusing swirl of why. There are all of these story arcs, and they weave up who I am.
More and more I’ve thought that “connection” has something to do with it. The other night I joked that “I was born and raised in Mitchell County, but I can’t be from there until my family’s been there for seven generations.” Fact of the matter is that my people don’t go back for generations upon generations in that place, and no matter how I talk, or what I wear, or how many old songs I learn, I’ll always be one foot on the outside. My people came from off. Granted, they came and dug in and fixed up an old farmhouse and helped their neighbors and community. We became a part of that dense kinship network.
When I got to college, I realized very quickly how much Mitchell County was a part of me. And, I began to celebrate it and think about it. I grew up thinking I had more in common with urban intellectual types than I did with my best friends. Yeah, I was somewhat wrong about that. Music was a way in for me, or a way back in for me.
Somewhere before and around this time I started going to Cloudland Baptist, and I found love, compassion, music-straight-from-the-soul, life-changing Casseroles (oh why did I think about this on an empty stomach), and salvation. Turned out my 1% of Roger Williams DNA was still a burning baptist, despite growing up in a household that was more spiritual than religious. I was baptized in a freezing cold creek and I wear that memory like a badge of honor.
I really threw myself into learning as much as I could from the people around me. I might have overdone it. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I “put it on,” just because I was sincere in it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to try to appreciate who I am. As Ray would say, “I is who I is, and I couldn’t get no izzer.” The weird artist kid who grew up in Mitchell County is me. I firmly believe that it’s helped me in life to have one foot here, and one foot there.
I hope it’s going to help me bring people together, and wow, do we need that now more than ever.
I've been awfully busy this winter, between moving, starting a new job at the Patterson School Foundation, launching a podcast, starting fiddle lessons at the Jones House, Shipping out Draft-a-Dragon (FINALLY), and playing out with my buddy Tim McWilliams. I've posted up a few things below if you are in the Caldwell County area. If you don't live all that close, but would like to attend, you can always stay at our Air B&B here in Wiese Dorm with me and my new feline, Mac!
Our workshop series (which supports our incubator farm program), curated by Michelle Dineen and I, looks to be wonderful. I'll be leading a few of them myself, and can't wait to add more offerings as time goes on. I'm particularly pumped about Bean Stringing Ballad Singing. Right now we only have 3 events posted on eventbrite, but you can see the entire workshop series list below. And we'll be working on the events page on PSF's website.
Also, I'll be performing period music for Love Makes a Home: The Life of Rebecca Boone. It's a beautiful play and we are going to give it in a stunning venue called the Chapel of Rest. Terra is really special in this role, and she'll be coming a long way to perform it. My Theatre Degree is rusty, but it still runs!
One thing that has been a huge treat for me is playing with my buddy Tim McWilliams. We lived in Boone for three years but never played out together once! He asked me to fill in for Sun the Bassman (who has cut off his hair and is headed out to become a lawyer) and we just have a big old barrel of fun. Follow us on Facebook to get some updates on when we maybe be playing near you!
And, coming up soon, I'll have the pleasure of playing with Brett and Pan at the Jones House in Boone. They are some of the best and kindest old-time musicians I have ever met. They've taught me some great tunes this year that I can't wait to share. Joel Savoy will be playing right after us, and I am really excited about it, I'm an ignoramous when it comes to cajun music, but even I have heard of Joel. He is just awesome. I am glad I'm playing first!