ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Forty years ago a young man named Charles Faurot traveled from New York City to southwestern Virginia. He was looking for older, traditional banjo players to record for a tiny country music record label. He found them and produced three albums of intense mountain music. They became the objects of devotion among a generation of younger players from around the world. One of them was NPR's Paul Brown. The recordings have been re-released on CD with additional tracks, and on listening to them again Paul Brown found himself swept away by their brilliance.
PAUL BROWN, reporting:
I've been playing five-string banjo since I was 10 years old. I like playing old styles. One of them is called Clawhammer. Here's an old traditional tune I know called Polly Put the Kettle On.
(Soundbite of song Polly Put the Kettle On)
BROWN: The style is called Clawhammer because your fingers are curved in the shape of a claw and your curved fingers hit down across the strings like a hammer. It's a style of playing that goes back to the African past of the banjo. Clawhammer.
(Soundbite of music)
BROWN: There are a bunch of other names for it. Frailing, Thrashing, Whomping, Framing, Rapping, Knock Down and on and on it goes. But Clawhammer is okay for now. So I was playing a lot as a kid and doing okay I guess. I heard recordings, everyone from Pete Sieger to old mountaineers on records my parents had given me. Then at college I ran into a few other players and one of them had two records I found amazing. The first was titled Clawhammer Banjo. The other was creatively titled More Clawhammer Banjo.
(Soundbite of song June Apple)
BROWN: These albums were concentrated, distilled, intense. This is Wade Ward. He's playing a tune called June Apple, he's on Volume One. He was from Independence, Virginia. I listened and for every single thing I thought I knew on the banjo there were suddenly a hundred or a thousand things out there to discover. The music sounded tribal, but no one was the chief because each player sounded so individual. Like Kyle Creed with his staccato single notes on a tune called Ducks on the Mill Pond.
(Soundbite of song Ducks on the Mill Pond)
BROWN: Or Gaither Carlton with his strange tunings and lonesome sound. Check out his version of Little Bert.
(Soundbite of song Little Bert)
BROWN: I was blown away. In 1976 I made it my business to go find some of these people. Some of them had died by the time I started out, but I had good friendships with several. As it turned out, I was one of thousands of teenagers and young adults who latched onto those Clawhammer banjo records, and one of several hundred, I guess, who actually went looking for the old players. And I wouldn't take a million dollars for those years now. I worked in truck stops, sawmills and factories so I could go play music with the old guys on my off hours, and head to a fiddlers convention on the weekend. But there was one person I had never met. A shadowy presence who was gone from the scene by the time I got there. He was Charlie Faurot, the guy who had made the three banjo LPs that were changing my life. Thirty years later I finally called him up. He's seventy years old now. Told me he was from Chicago. He got interested in folk music at home in the fifties when he discovered the banjo. He went to Yale and it was there in New Haven that he got his first old-time banjo. He loved playing Clawhammer.
CHARLES FAUROT (Banjo Player): You can get the basics of it, but then it takes forever to get all the ramifications, the different things you can do with it, different sounds. And that's always the feature of Clawhammer banjo that intrigued me.
BROWN: Eventually Charlie Faurot wound up in New York were he met a guy named Dave Freeman. Dave was reissuing 78 RPM discs of mountain music on LP. He had named his little label County Records. But he wasn't recording new material, and that's exactly what Charlie Faurot wanted to do.
Mr. FAUROT: I said Dave, what do you think about my putting together a Clawhammer record for you to do live? And he said okay, let's try it.
BROWN: So that was it. Charlie Faurot drove down to Gaylax, Virginia and started recording. First at Uncle Wade Ward's house.
Mr. FAUROT: And I figured I'd go in for 20 to 30 minutes, and record and then leave. I wound up spending from about 10 to four o'clock. And he gave us a super homemade lunch, you know, as only the southern people can do.
(Soundbite of music)
BROWN: Charlie recorded a bunch of Wade Ward tunes. One was called John Lover's Gone.
Mr. FAUROT: I remember that as soft, gentle. Funny words to describe of a banjo, which is usually considered to be a hard instrument. But I think that's more to me as the way I remember Wade.
BROWN: From Uncle Wade Ward's house Charlie kept on going.
Mr. FAUROT: I talked to one guy and he's, oh, you got to go over here to the next town and you ask for so and so. And I'd get over to the other town and they would say, oh, yeah I'll play for you, but you ought to talk, you ought to see this other guy as well.
BROWN: He wound up at the house of two brothers, Sidna and Fulton Myers who played banjo and fiddle. There was no electricity at the house. Fulton held his fiddle down at his chest, not under his chin. They played an archaic-sounding version of the classic old tune, Shady Grove.
(Soundbite of song Shady Grove)
BROWN: And there was a woman from Pulaski, Virginia. Her name was Matokie Slaughter. Charlie found her at a small local fiddlers convention. On his record, she played a strange tune called Big-Eyed Rabbit.
(Soundbite of song Big-eyed Rabbit)
Mr. FAUROT: And she was on stage, and I almost fell over because what a powerful sound. It's compelling. You just, you can't not tap your foot and get dragged into her music, drawn into it.
BROWN: All together Charlie Faurot produced three Clawhammer banjo LPs with 15 musicians total. Eventually, and sometimes collaborating with others, he did more than a dozen albums of field recordings for his buddy Dave Freeman at County Records. But probably none had more impact on so many people as the banjo records. More than 40 years after Charlie set out on his first field trip, all the people on these three records are dead. But you can still go to a fiddler's convention and find banjo players inspired by those old recordings.
And now, with the CD re-issues, I run into teenage banjo players trading these tunes on their iPods. For my part, I'm blown away all over again. Now I have my own memories of picking tunes, eating biscuits, drinking whiskey and going to fiddlers conventions with a lot of the people on the records. When I hang out with a kid who's playing, I can watch that kid get just as excited by these tunes as I was more than 30 years ago. I think to myself, without Charlie Faurot and his field trips a lot of this would have simply disappeared without anybody much noticing before we could have heard it. For NPR News I'm Paul Brown.
(Soundbite of music)
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
There are historic photos and more selections from the albums at NPR.org.
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