Banjo Master Baugus Looks to Old Times Riley Baugus is a 41-year-old banjo player from North Carolina, and for him, music could have stopped a century ago. Using homemade banjos, he plays old-time music: the tunes from the Scots-Irish who settled and farmed in the southern Appalachians.

Banjo Master Baugus Looks to Old Times

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's something about a banjo that can take you back to a century past, to the grassy fields, the mountain coves, the dance in the schoolhouse on a Saturday night - especially if it's old-time music from the hands of Riley Baugus.

NPR's Noah Adams will do the introductions.

NOAH ADAMS: Old-time music isn't bluegrass. That came later and it's a lot sharper and more driving. Old-time style is softer, usually, with easier rhythms. The early tunes and the instruments came together in the American south: the fiddle, straight from Scotland and Ireland and Continental Europe; the banjo, not much later, from Africa. And today, if you play old-time music, you'll be thinking about people getting together for a laugh and a dance.

Mr. RILEY BAUGUS (Banjo Player): Most old-time musicians were not doing it to make a living. Most of this music was played because people needed entertainment. It was a hard life quite often. You know, you go out and you work in the fields all day. And when nightfall comes, you're tired and you want something different.

ADAMS: Riley Baugus plays the old music on a fairly new instrument.

Mr. BAUGUS: My banjo is a banjo that I actually made myself. The neck is made from a piece of cherry. It used to be a pallet skid under a machinery pallet.

ADAMS: Homemade banjos now, and especially back then, the banjo picked up in popularity when wire made its way into the mountain communities. You could find that scrap piece of cherry and skin of a groundhog and maybe even use screenwire for the banjo's strings.

Riley Baugus talks with me one night on a college campus in West Virginia. With a banjo on his lap, comfortably under his belly, he demonstrates his favorite sub-style of old time. If you look at a good map of Surry County, North Carolina, you'll find a place called Round Peak. The players there started using more of the melody in the tunes.

Mr. BAUGUS: When you're playing for a dance, you don't really have time to put in a lot of note. You're hitting the high spots.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

Mr. BAUGUS: Now, in the Round-Peak style, I'm playing more notes and doing a lot of what they call the double noting, which is...

(Soundbite of banjo music)

Mr. BAUGUS: And I'm just playing more of the melody, and I'm playing west(ph) of the rhythm stroke. It more closely matches what the fiddle player will be playing, and that is my goal. And the Round-Peak style is to play closely to what they play, but not by any means play as many notes as they play.

ADAMS: A few weeks back, Riley Baugus came to Elkins, West Virginia, for the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops. He came to teach in advanced banjo class. Donna Xander of McLean, Virginia, says she started out learning blues guitar, but has been seduced, as she puts it, by the dark side, entranced by old-time music in the banjo.

Ms. DONNA XANDER (Banjo Player): I mean, I love all kinds of music. I love Irish music and Cajun music, and I dance Cajun and I love Gregorian chant. And Riley seems to not be one of these purists who says it has to be this way and this is the only way.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

Unidentified Man: Good morning, Riley.

Mr. BAUGUS: (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: Excellent.

ADAMS: Tuned up, the students sit around in a circle in chairs - four sessions in the morning and the afternoon.

Mr. BAUGUS: Here. You know we talked about it yesterday, the gal(ph), actually. This is sort of an extension of the same idea. We're going to start on the third fret of the first string, and you're just going to slide to the fifth fret.

(Soundbite of banjo playing)

Mr. BAUGUS: And once you approach the fifth fret, you play your fifth string. And then we come right back to the third fret. And then we're going to just -we're going to do a drop thumb roll back down. So it's going to be...

(Soundbite of banjo music)

ADAMS: Then Riley plays the tune, and he is watched intently.

(Soundbite of song, "Jack of Diamonds")

Mr. BAUGUS: (Singing) Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds, I know you from old. You robbed my poor pockets of my silver and my gold.

So the reason I sang that verse is so that you can see in context what's happening, because there's not really a melody happening in the B part. It's, sort of, you're blocking out for the vocal.

ADAMS: Baugus is 41 years old. He travels to play music out of his home in Walkertown, North Carolina. This is his second career.

Mr. BAUGUS: I was a welder and blacksmith for 18 years. And our - my next-door neighbor, when I was a kid, his name is Henry Clay Bowman(ph). He was a welder, and he had farmers and he had all these people from the community coming to his shop. And I saw the respect and amazement that these people had for him because of this seemingly mystical talent that he had, to be able to take fire and electricity and put things together and make things from just metal. And then the first time you get to look at the little blue light through the shield or through the lens of the welding helmet it's - that's a pretty fascinating thing.

ADAMS: If you like that, why did you leave it for music?

Mr. BAUGUS: Music is a lot of fun, too, and it's just as mystical to me. You sit down and you hear somebody play a great piece of music and you think, well, who do they do that? I want to learn to do that. I want to do that.

Mr. BAUGUS: Banjo player and singer Riley Baugus now looking deep into old-time music.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

SIMON: And to hear more picking and songs by Riley Baugus and to discover other new music, you can come to npr.org/music.

This is NPR News.

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