Lesley Riddle, Collaborator with the Carter Family

June 11, 2019

The following essay is courtesy of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resource's blog.   

On June 13, 1905, old-time musician Lesley Riddle was born in the Silvers Gap community north of Burnsville. Riddle learned to play blues and gospel songs on the guitar after losing most of a leg in an accident at a cement plant. He had to adjust his picking techniques to use only his thumb, index finger and little finger after losing two fingers in a shotgun accident.

A.P. Carter, patriarch of the famous Carter family, first heard Riddle play and sing in Kingsport, Tennessee, in 1927, and quicky recruited him to help advance the Carter family’s fame. Carter and Riddle visited African American communities and churches throughout Appalachian Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina to find new songs for the Carter Family band. Riddle would memorize the tunes and words before returning to teach the songs to Sara and Maybelle Carter.

“Mother Maybelle” learned her trademark guitar techniques from Riddle, including using a pocketknife for slide guitar work.

Riddle never made a living at music, working as a shine boy, presser and school crossing guard. In the 1960s, he accompanied Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers on the folk festival circuit.

Riddle is celebrated by an annual festival, Riddlefest. This year's Riddlefest takes place on June 22. Get all the details including performers, schedule, and ticketing on their website.

Trivia Tuesday: Before the Everly Brothers, There Were The Blue Sky Boys

May 28, 2019

The Blue Sky Boys, made up by brothers Earl and Bill Bolick, were two of the most popular duet singers in country music in the 1930s. Raised in Hickory N.C., the brothers made nearly 100 recordings, and their music would influence groups like the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. The Blue Sky Boys left a vast repertoire of recordings and radio performances that continue to fuel country and folk musicians’ catalog of songs.

A Legacy of Music at the John C. Campbell Folk School

May 20, 2019

Music and dance have always been a central part of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Founded in 1925 by Olive Dame Campbell and Marguerite Butler along with the Appalachian community of Brasstown they created a unique school inspired by Denmark’s folk schools.

The traditional Scandinavian folk school model encouraged singing and dancing as a way for the staff, educators, and students to learn about one another. John C. Campbell offers experiences in non-competitive learning and community life that are joyful and enlivening. Through art, craft, music, dance, and agriculture, the school works towards its goal of bringing out the best in people. Campbell was a gifted musician and singer and the first to collect mountain ballads throughout Southern Appalachia. She collaborated with English scholar Cecil Sharp to produce English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1917), an internationally celebrated text on American music.

Today, the Folk School continues its rich legacy of supporting traditional music by offering a diverse spectrum of music classes on many different folk instruments and dance styles. Adults from all over the United States and abroad travel to the school to attend weeklong and weekend workshops in banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin, guitar, autoharp, ukulele, folk harp, and dobro. The music programming complements the school’s renowned craft programs including over 800 classes each year in subjects ranging from blacksmithing to jewelry to writing. 

The school hosts a free Friday night concert series featuring local and regional musicians performing old-time, bluegrass, folk, and gospel. During the winter months, the concerts are held in the Community Room of historic Keith House and in the summer, they are in the Festival Barn. Anyone is welcome to attend. On the first full weekend of October, thousands of people flock to the annual Fall Festival, a celebration of Appalachian heritage showcasing traditional music and dance, craft demonstrations, and artisans selling their work.

Live music is also featured in weekly community contra and square dances, and on most Tuesday nights locals and students are invited to join in on a free "Learn How to Contra" dance. There’s also a weekly music performance by folk school staff.

For more information about the concert and dance events: Link

For more information about music classes: Link

The John C. Campbell Folk School is funded by the North Carolina Arts Council in a category that supports exemplary arts organizations that set standards of excellence for the state, providing high-quality arts programs, educational and outreach opportunities for children and adults.

The school is located at 1 Folk School Road in Brasstown, N.C. www.folkschool.org; 828.837.2775.

Folklore Friday with John C. Campbell Folk School's Former Executive Director Jan Davidson

May 17, 2019

Jan Davidson, executive director of the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown from 1992 to 2016, is a native of nearby Murphy, North Carolina. A musician and a writer, Jan has a Ph.D. in folklore and museum studies.

Jan Davidson: I Really Wanted to Get a Banjo

I’m from Murphy, North Carolina. My folks have been there since the 1840s. Back then they were farmers in the valley between Murphy and Andrews, but the last few generations have been town people. One of my granddaddies was a storekeeper, and my other granddaddy was a salesman for a wholesale company. I grew up in downtown Murphy in an old house that was built by my grandmother’s father, my great-granddaddy Robert Alexander Akin. He was a Confederate captain, and then after the war he was a schoolteacher. 

That house has always been in our family.  When I was a kid, there was a church on one side of it and a funeral home next to that, and then on the other side and across the street were filling stations. Those were the musical centers in towns like Murphy. In fact, there were four filling stations within an easy walk of our house, and they all played music. People came and played different types of music in each one. It was just great. It was good music.

My dad, who’s still living—he’s a hundred years old—was the Veteran’s Affairs officer for six counties here in western North Carolina. He helped people get their GI Bill benefits and so forth. He went to those counties every week, and in the summertime I’d go with him. I saw a lot of this whole end of the state, and I heard a lot of music. My dad knew I liked that.

When I first started listening in the 1950s, most of the guys tried to play like Flatt and Scruggs, but there were still a few old people around who did something that was obviously different from bluegrass. Once, I remember my father said he was going to see an old guy who had a banjo, a World War I vet named Caleb Mashburn. He’d had some health troubles, and his banjo didn’t have but about three strings on it, so I took him some new strings and he started playing things like “Mamma’s Darling Child,” which most people call “Soldier’s Joy” using a two-finger style. I worried a number of elderly people back then, asking them to play for me. I never saw clawhammer played around here. Nobody around here did it that I know of. The way they played the banjo here was up-picking, like Pete Seeger’s strum, which he learned from Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, who used to play a lot around Murphy.

When I was about thirteen, my daddy took me to Asheville to see a music show, and Frank Proffitt was in it. I really liked him. So I wrote him a fan letter, the only one I ever wrote in my life. And he answered it. I told him I really wanted to get a banjo just like he was playing. “I’m gonna get a job,” I wrote. I was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to get a banjo. [Laughs.] So I did, I worked at the Cherokee Scout newspaper folding papers, and then when I was fourteen I went to work at WC VP (Western Carolina Vacation Playground) as a DJ. The guy who’d been doing the job had gone off to college, so I became the early-morning DJ. So I had to get up at four in the morning. We signed on at five. A thousand watts! It was me and the farmers and the milkman and the cops. The yawn patrol. So I did that for a while, and then Frank Proffitt sent me a banjo. He said, “It’s got a crack in it, but you can have it if you’ll pay the shipping.” I’ve still got it. Then the guy who did the afternoon show went off to college, too, so I got that job, a teen show playing rock and roll records. I’d do the early-morning bluegrass show, go to school, and then do the afternoon rock and roll show.

While I worked at that radio station we had people like the Osborne Brothers come through here. Jim and Jesse were real popular, and they came here all the time. During that time I was playing commercial music on the radio and we’d change formats every couple of hours. Rock and roll, bluegrass, country—and live music, especially on the weekends. Church music. Whole congregations from places like Hanging Dog would come in the studio and sing and have preaching. Sometimes the station would sponsor music shows at the gym, and those bands would come into the studio and play live. I worked there from 1962 to 1966. Then I went off to Chapel Hill. 

I first came here to the Folk School as a small child at Christmastime. They had a great Christmas event here with a big tree and all that. That’s the first thing I remember about coming here. Then we’d come up in the summertime and eat lunch here. The food was great. They always had homemade bread and fresh vegetables, so I remember that pretty well.

I first took a class here when I was in high school—wood carving. Then, later, when I was in college and I’d come home to Murphy, I’d go up to Brasstown and find the other college kids I knew who’d come home from school at the folk school dances. I always liked to see what was happening here.

During the late seventies the school started to get into local music more than it had before. There had never been a total connection between local music and the Folk School until the late seventies. I got hired to play the guitar here for a clogging event around then, and I’ve been involved with the Folk School ever since. 

I’m really happy that there’s this richness at the folk school in such a rural area. We have great concerts here; we have dances once or twice a week, a great classical concert series, jams on Sunday afternoon, and often more jams on Tuesday nights. What I like best about all this is that it’s accessible to everybody and local people feel comfortable with coming here and participating. That’s what I like to see.

Jerry Jackson has served as director of the John C. Campbell Folk School since 2017. For more information visit their website

The essay was reprinted from Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina Guidebook, published by the North Carolina Arts Council in partnership with UNC Press.

“It’s the hurt that brings the songs, and it’s the songs that heal the hurt. Jonathan’s songs bring us there, and back.”

April 26, 2019

Songwriter Mary Gauthier once wrote: “It’s the hurt that brings the songs, and it’s the songs that heal the hurt. Jonathan’s songs bring us there, and back.”

A preacher’s son and Gulf War veteran born in Fayetteville, Jonathan Byrd’s family history in North Carolina stretches back seven generations. His style ranges from old time to rockabilly, and his lyrics and poems weave colorful landscapes home to working-class heroes, eccentrics, and freedom-seekers, all rooted in the spirit of his native state, particularly on his 2010 album "Cackalack." As well as the title track, the record features songs such as "Wild Ponies," honoring the wild horses of the Outer Banks. “Velma,” a murder ballad Byrd wrote about the last woman to be executed in North Carolina, has been covered by Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, and others.

Now based in Carrboro, he performs weekly at The Kraken with his band, Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys, as part of the Shake Sugaree Americana Residency. Named for the song by Libba Cotten, the residency began in 2018 as a way to help the band get back on its feet following the death of their cellist, Paul Ford, but has since developed a cult following, drawing huge crowds to the tiny, tin-roof roadhouse off Highway 54. The three-hour show features a different guest artist every week, introducing listeners to a variety of local, national, and international musicians, including Joe Newberry and Raleigh-based singer/songwriter Rod Abernethy.

The other Pickup Cowboys have strong North Carolina connections as well. Multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken and drummer Austin McCall have both performed with Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and McCall also performs with Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba.

When he’s not at The Kraken, Jonathan Byrd tours across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and continues to write poetry. His most recent collection, “You’ve Changed,” was published in 2017 and met with rave reviews.

“Music has always been a thing in North Carolina,” Byrd says in our interview at The Haw River Ballroom. “It’s valued in our culture, but it’s not just one kind of music; it’s all kinds of music, and I think that’s really the strength of the statewide scene.”

Meet The Man Behind Johnny Cash and June Carter's "Jackson"

April 14, 2019

Billy Edd Wheeler says a good song just grabs you from the start. He would know.

The 86-year-old Swannanoa resident is one of North Carolina’s most successful songwriters. Most famous for writing “Jackson,” the iconic duet popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Billy Edd’s songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, Neil Young, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers and more. Over 150 artists have recorded his lyrics including the famous “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Coward of the County.” He is a member of the Nashville Association of Songwriters International’s Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. A true renaissance man, Billy Edd Wheeler is also playwright, novelist, poet, painter, singer, and sculptor.

His story is an American story. Born in West Virginia, Billy Edd grew up in a coal-mining community named Highcoal. His childhood, poetically documented in his new memoir Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout, was difficult, and he left town and an abusive step-father at 16 to attend college at Warren Wilson. He says his life began there.

Billy Edd reflected on his journey from Highcoal to his first break which includes a special North Carolina connection in an interview for Come Hear NC.

What about living in North Carolina influenced you musically?

My whole life started here after I got out of the coal camps of West Virgina. Thankfully a Presbyterian missionary came to Highcoal to teach vacation Bible school, but she told us about this school – Warren Wilson – in Swannanoa. She said, “You can go there early, like a month or two before school starts, and if you work on their dairy or farm or the wood working it cuts your tuition in half.” I had a step-father, and I knew he didn’t want to pay for my college tuition, but he could pay half. Tuition back then was $325 a year.  So I thought, “I want to go there.” I was in a bad [situation]. My mother didn’t get married until I was 5, and I had a step-father and he and I didn’t get along, and I ran off from home twice, so when that chance to come down here to Swannanoa, I wrote a letter in longhand, and the dean of the college, Dr. Jensen wrote me back and said come on down. So I went. 

It changed my life.  One of the most important things I learned at Warren Wilson is that work is noble. It’s a necessary part of living. In West Virginia I was working with some of the boys on a job and they’d say, “Hey Billy! When the boss is not looking, lean on your shovel. Let the dummies do the work.” Warren Wilson flip-flopped that for me. They said don’t try to get out of work, get into work. When you do, it will make you a better person because labor is a necessary part of living. That was a mindbender. But it was good. It was good information. 

Warren Wilson is responsible for my painting and my songwriting development, and it’s just really where I was reborn creatively and partly spiritually because of labor concepts.  I owe everything to Warren Wilson. 

Were you a musician when you got to college at Warren Wilson?

I wouldn’t call myself a musician. When I was 13 I got a guitar. It was $14 from Sears & Roebuck. It was not a good guitar. Boy it was hard on your fingers. The frets were high. But it was a start, and there was a couple of coal miners that I got to know pretty well. One of them could sing like Eddy Arnold, and he showed me a couple of chords, so basically every song I wrote for a long time was three chords. Later on, when I met some pickers in Kentucky and North Carolina, I learned a couple more chords. 

[Years later] I got to know Judy Collins pretty well. When she did an album, she researched. She came to my place in Brooklyn and wanted to hear every song I’d ever written. Then the next meeting was in her place up on the East Side in New York. [When] we finished our interview there, she showed me a nice chord that a lot of folk singers used. I can’t remember it because I don’t know music. I don’t know how to write it down. But anyways that chord…I put it into action and used it a lot. 

It was just trial and error. I never considered myself gifted at all. I just barely knew enough to write songs with. For a long time, it was no minor chords, just three chords. There’s been a lot of songs written with just three chords and a capo.

The Kingston Trio's rendition of Billy Edd Wheeler's "The Reverend Mr. Black," landed the singer/songwriter his first hit song. The song was inspired by John C. Campbell

I got my big start in New York. I’d been trying to write a whole bunch of songs up there, and luckily I’d met a man who got me a record. His name was Harold Newman. He published music, but he didn’t produce records. He interviewed me and, “He said have you ever had a record?” I said, “No.”  And he helped me get one. 

I studied playwriting at Yale, and I came down to the city a couple of times. I met a man there just by pure accident whose name was Norman Gimble. He wrote the lyrics to “Girl from Ipanema.” He got an Oscar for a song called “It Goes Like It Goes” from the movie Norma Rae. He used to call me and just chat. [I remember] he was working on a song with the phrase “killing me softly” and I said, “Norman that’s a hell of a phrase. I love it.” Well it was his phrase, and I said, “That’s beautiful. I never heard anything like it. 

When I first met Norman my little record was out on the folk label Monitor Records, and he was at that manager’s office, and he came out and instead of going straight to the elevator he saw me over to the side with my guitar, and said “Hi I’m Norman Gimbel.” And I said, “I’m Billy Edd Wheeler.” And he said, “No kidding! My wife saw your album in the Monitor Records window on her way to work. Billy you’re a natural. You write songs like people breathe. But you’ll never make any money.” 

So here I am elevated and then he brought me back down to earth. So I said, “Well what can I do to improve?” And he says, “I cannot tell you the creative process. It’s intricate. But I have a couple of friends who make more money in music than anybody on Broadway. Their names are Leiber and Stoller. I’m going to take you and you’re going to meet them and sing for them.” 

They were producing Elvis, The Coasters, The Drifters, Peggy Lee, I mean tons of people. They wrote “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me.” He got me hooked up to play for them in person, which was very unusual because big-time producers and publishers don’t want to have to deal with you personally. They want to hear a tape [that] they can throw in the wastebasket. 

So I got [through] the first verse of a song and they said, “That’s enough next.” Second one they said, “That’s enough.” The third one they said, “That’s enough. Billy we don’t want to hear anymore. We can’t use any of this stuff.” 

I asked them the same question – [What can I do to improve]? And Jerry [Leiber] says, “All I can say is to start listening to songs more critically. [Listen to] what’s it about. That’s the main thing – what’s it about? When you decide what it’s about, you write an opening verse, you get to the chorus as quickly as you can, and then you write another verse if you have to, and then end it with the chorus.” 

He said, “We can’t use your stuff, but Norman tells us [that] you’re going to keep writing. If you get an idea that’s commercial give us a call, and if we like it you can bring it in.”

Well, that was the carrot that they held up for me. 

I was trying to write a shoot ‘em up ballad, and I wrote a verse: “He rode easy in the saddle/ He was tall and lean/ First you’d a-thought nothing but a streak of mean could make a man look so down right strong/ but one look in his eyes you knew you was wrong.”

Well I got that far, and I said, “I don’t know a dagon thing about western lore. I don’t know a sorrel from a roan,” so I just threw it aside. But as luck would have it, I got a letter from a lady at Warren Wilson, and she sent me a picture of John C. Campbell who founded the folk school in Brasstown on horseback. Boy what a great picture. It was a beautiful horse. He had high-top boots. He had a nice hat. And the way he sat…I thought “Boy that song I was starting that could be him.” Then I found out that he was not only an educator, he was a preacher. He used to go to these places out from Brasstown and preach, bury people, and marry people. That really intrigued me. Then I remembered a verse in a song called “Mule Train” [that went] “There’s a Bible in the sack for the Reverend Mr. Black.

That was it.

I said, “Dang my hero is a preacher! He’s not a gun fighter.” So I wrote eight verses, and when I got down [to New York City] a few months later I called Jerry [Leiber]. I finally got him on the phone he said, “Alright what you got?” I started reciting the verses. I could tell he was almost ready to give up, and I sang a verse that he liked. He started snapping his fingers he said, “Yeah baby. Yeah baby.” New York talk. He got to the chorus, and he said bring that one in. So I took it in. 

Now he and Mike [Stoller] sat down [with me]. I’ve never heard of producers and songwriters who are extremely busy to take time to rewrite a song with you, but they sat down they trimmed my eight versus down to two-and-a-half and the chorus, and we demoed it. He told his song plugger to get out to L.A. [where] the Kingston trio were recording. Within three months I had 50% of a hit song. Whoa. That’s luck. Coincidence. My life is built on accidental meetings with people. And that John C. Campbell… I mean he was quite a man, and he gave me a song.

That’s my best North Carolina connection.

The Kingston Trio's recording of "The Reverend Mr. Black," was Billy Edd Wheeler's first hit song

What makes a good song?

One that just grabs you…you know? [You hear] the first verse, and you want to hear the rest of it. Some of them don’t. It partly depends on how it’s performed, but if you’re a songwriter, you’re listening to it for something you might use as a picker yourself. 

I know you’ve probably answered this a million times, but what was the source of “Jackson?’

Well it’s really convoluted. When I was at Yale we were studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We got a copy of it at Yale before it really was opened on Broadway. So we analyzed it, and if you saw the movie – I mean [remember] how the man and woman fightand go at each other like crazy? He’s working for the college and his wife is the daughter of the president of the college, and she gives him the dickens. I mean it’s mean. Mean spirited. It is natural for a couple to spar in good faith, good spirit, but this was not [that]. This was mean. For some reason when I was trying to write a song I remembered that, and it really inspired me. Now that’s a stretch isn’t it! Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfends up being “Jackson!” 

I needed a town, and I tried Nashville and some others and that was too soft. I wanted something that really got you, so I finally got Jackson. Of course that was my most successful song and still is. 

That’s a great song and it’s a great performance. Was hotter than a pepper sprout was just a phrase you’d grown up hearing?

Well that’s a convoluted idea. Lily May Pennington was in a folk group, and she got bit by a baby rattlesnake. It was only about a foot long. Her foot swelled up as big as a cantaloupe, and she said that the young snakes have not learned to regulate the venom. For some reason that helped me write “hotter than a pepper sprout” because I had heard that the sprout is hotter than the mature (pepper). I don’t know how they relate, but they do! From a snake bite to the sting of a hot pepper. That’s the way songs work! You put the pieces together. I never got the pieces put together until I heard “there’s a Bible in the sack,” and boy then all those pieces came right together.

Kenny Roger's recording of Billy Edd Wheeler's "Coward of the County," inspired a television show

One of your other popular songs is “Ode to the Shack in the Back.” Will you talk about that one?

The easiest thing is to write about something you know, and I was about 12 before I experienced indoor plumbing.  That little brown shack out back was a part of my life, and I hated it on those cold days like today, but I thought it’s a good subject and I’ll make a funny song out of it. I’m not going to tell the truth about how I hated it.

Will you talk about how Judy Collins came to record some of your music?  

Well Judy Collins was coming up. She wasn’t established totally, but she was on her way up and she did research like nobody else in the world. When she heard one of my songs – I think it was “The Coming of the Rose,” which I wrote here in North Carolina on my honeymoon with Mary – she called the publishers and found my phone number and she came over to Brooklyn Heights and made me play as many songs of my own as I could. Then we had a second session up on the East Side where she was, and I went there and spent two or three more hours [with her]. Boy she would go through hundreds of songs to get two or three. 

She did “Winter Sky,” which also comes back to North Carolina. When I was on the dairy at Warren Wilson my boss would wake me up at 4:30 in the morning and take me to the dairy barn, and as I went out to get the cows it was not morning, but not night. It was that magic period [under] a winter sky. I still get shivers thinking about the inspiration, and I wrote  “Out under the winter sky stars come trembling on my eye,” and then another verse, “I feel like something’s going to die,” and in another verse, “I feel like something’s being born.” It’s really a disguised Christmas song. I thought to myself, “Ain’t nobody going to record this song. It’s too esoteric. It’s too out there.” But when she heard it, she cut it right off. I don’t who else would have sung that song. I loved it. I used to sing it myself with the dulcimer.

Take a listen to some of Billy Edd Wheeler's greatest songs in this playlist! 


Throwback Thursday: The Avett Brothers and Record Store Day

April 11, 2019

In 2009, the Avett Brothers premiered songs from their forthcoming album, I and Love and You, at a Record Store Day event in Nashville. 

Record Store Day 2019 is this Saturday! Head to a local participating store for a variety of limited releases and some more special moments.

She Changed The Sound: Amelia Meath

March 25, 2019

When most people think of electronic-pop music, they probably don’t associate it with folk music. 

That is not the case for Amelia Meath. The singer-songwriter behind the internationally acclaimed synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Meath cut her musical teeth writing and performing sparse, tightly harmonized ballads in the band Mountain Man. In 2011 she offered musician and producer Nick Sanborn of Made of Oak the opportunity to remix the Mountain Man song “Play it Right” with an electronic flair. Three years later, that song, along with nine others penned and recorded as a duo in Sanborn’s Durham apartment, made up Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut. 

Meath writes her songs “in the air,” while on walks around her neighborhood. She chooses not to limit her melody building with accompaniment or an existing beat, instead writing hooks and choruses with her voice and building in the instrumentation with Sanborn as the final step – a technique that harkens back to Western North Carolina’s ballad singing tradition. The appetite for the band’s sound is big, and Sylvan Esso has risen to fame with hit songs like “Hey Mami”, “Coffee”, and “Radio.” 

“Radio” is perhaps the greatest example of Meath's skill as a melody writer and thoughtful lyricist. The melody sounds conventional, but a closer listen reveals intricate melodic intervals accompanied by a driving and repetitive synth backdrop. The song’s lyrics serve up a harsh criticism of the music industry – attacking consumerism and mocking dated song-length guidelines for pop success in the chorus’ lyrics, “Slave to the radio, three point three oh (3:30).” Her roots in folk music – long recognized as a powerful tool for marginalized voices – are made most apparent when she criticizes the very genre she’s found success in. One can only imagine what Durham’s Amelia Meath has in store for us next.

She Changed The Sound: Libba Cotten

March 4, 2019

Necessity is the mother of invention, and for an early matriarch of American folk music, that sentiment rings true.

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1893–1987) was left-handed. Raised in a musical household near current day Carrboro, she gravitated to her brother’s banjo and guitar, which were set-up to be played right-handed.

For most aspiring musicians, that obstacle would have been enough to extinguish the creative flame, but Libba played on, developing an unconventional style now known to the world as “Cotten Picking.” Playing the lower strings with her index finger and the higher strings with her thumb established a unique sound, placing more emphasis on the bass lines and effectively serving as her own accompanist when playing.

By working odd jobs around town – picking vegetables, sweeping porches, and setting fires in wood stoves – Cotten eventually saved up the $3.75 needed to buy her first guitar, a Stella from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. It was on that guitar that she wrote “Freight Train,” her most famous song. “Freight Train” was popularized in the 1950s thanks to recordings done by the Seeger family, who Elizabeth Cotten worked for as a maid, launching the 60-something songwriter to newfound fame in the folk revival movement.

“Freight Train” has been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Doc Watson, and Taj Mahal. Cotten’s debut album Folksongs & Instrumentals with Guitar (1958) is credited as one of the most influential folk albums of all time. Often imitated, but never replicated, Libba Cotten and her “Cotten Picking” changed the sound forever.


-Story by Samuel Gerweck

Women! Mount Airy Old-Time Workshops Preview

February 9, 2019

Some of the most esteemed and respected women in old-time music will lead workshops in fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin, flat foot dance/square dance calling, and harmony singing during the Women! Mount Air Old-Time Workshops scheduled Thursday, Feb. 28 to Saturday, March 2.

Hosted by the Surry Arts Council with support from the N.C. Department of Natural & Cultural Resources the workshops are being held in conjunction with the Tommy Jarrell Festival, which also kicks off on Thurs., Feb. 28 with old-time dance lessons. 

Registration is still open, and students and adults of all ages are invited to participate. Register online through the Surry Arts Council's secure Eventbrite site. Tuition is $300 and includes classes, meals (lunch and dinner), event tickets, and a t-shirt.

Classes will be held at the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Historic Earle Theatre in Mount Airy, N.C.

The following musicians are leading the workshops:

Caroline Beverley teaches mandolin, singing, guitar and string band classes at Alleghany JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) at Surry Community College in Dobson and plays mandolin for the Virginia based old-time band, the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, as well as other N.C. bands.

Trish Kilby Ford started playing old-time music as a young teenager under the instruction of Emily Spencer and many other old-time and bluegrass musicians around her hometown of Lansing in Ashe County, N.C. In the 26 years of playing old-time music, Trish has been influenced by legends in traditional music, including Thornton and Emily Spencer, Dean Sturgill, the Birchfield Family, Ola Belle Reed, just to name a few. She has played with many groups and traveled internationally.

Erynn Marshall is an old-time fiddler who lives in Galax, Virginia and is known nationally and beyond for her traditional music she learned Appalachian old-time fiddling from rare recording and visiting 80-95-year-old southern fiddlers for decades. Erynn performs at festivals and music camps around the globe and often tours with her husband – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones.

Terri McMurray has great chops on 5-string banjo, banjo uke, and guitar. She studied with many masters including the late Tommy Jarrell and has played with great banjoists including Dix Freeman, Fields West, Benton Fllippen and Kyle Creed. Terri co-founded the Old Hollow String Band and has also performed with the Toast String Stretchers, the Mostly Mountain Boys and the Mountain Birch Duo with Paul Brown. She has taught at numerous banjo camps, including in England.

Emily Spencer is a certified PK-12 teacher and has taught fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer and bass in the schools and at Wilkes Community College and Wytheville Community College. She has played music since childhood and started playing with the Whitetop Mountain Band in the 1970s with Thornton Spencer and continues with the band today.

Martha Spencer is the daughter of Emily and Thornton Spencer, the leaders of the Whitetop Mountain Band. She began dancing and playing at a young age and currently plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and dulcimer. She has won countless competitions for her Appalachian dancing and has taken part in master dance workshop at the National Folk Festival (USA), Woodford Folk Festival (AU) and Lowell Folk Festival (USA). Her music passion includes passing on the traditions and she has been an instructor in the Junior Appalachian Music (JAM) program in Ashe County and plays with numerous bands.


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