On the eve of New Year’ Eve, we wanted to share a story from the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina guidebook about a famous outlaw memorialized in song. Enjoy below.
On New Year’s Eve in 1930, one of North Carolina’s most famous outlaws was killed in a barrage of gunfire. Otto Wood was born in the Dellaplane community of Wilkes County. He spent most of his short life traveling across the country as a bootlegger, a bandit, and a fugitive. As the song would later say, “He loved the women, he hated the law and he just wouldn’t take nobody’s jaw.”
Wood committed his first crime (stealing a bicycle) as a teenager. He did time in the Old Wilkes County jail, also the temporary home of another North Carolina music legend, Tom Dooley. In 1923, Otto shot and killed a pawn broker in Greensboro named A. W. Kaplan. Allegedly, the argument arose when Kaplan sold a watch Wood had pawned containing a photograph of his beloved mother. Though he was sentenced to thirty years in prison, Wood managed to break out of the North Carolina State Prison four times, quite a feat considering he had a lame foot and lost a hand in a hunting accident as a teenager.
Despite his many crimes, Wood was beloved by many people in western North Carolina. In a time of severe economic hardship, he was a Robin Hood character, a generous man who robbed only the rich and was kind to all who remembered him. His exploits are still vividly recalled around Wilkes County to this day. Thousands of people attended Otto Wood’s funeral and the citizens of Salisbury, where he died, raised money to send his body to his mother in West Virginia.
Two songs about Wood were pressed the year after his death. Walter “Kid” Smith and the Carolina Buddies recorded perhaps the most enduring version on the Columbia label just two months after he was laid to rest. The song has gone on to be recorded by Doc Watson. It is also a favorite of Wilkes County musician Herb Key.
Story From our Friends at the Blue Ridge Music Trails
In the Blue Ridge, the Christmas season was celebrated for days on end, with gatherings of family and friends, good food, and lots of music. This was especially true in the area known as Round Peak, around Mount Airy, North Carolina, and Galax, Virginia. The tradition was called Breaking up Christmas, and December 25th was just the beginning. Starting on Christmas and continuing for 12 days,people in the mountains would go from house to house viisiting neighbors, dancing and playing music.
Learn more by listening to this podcast here.
On January 4, the Surry Arts Council will present Breaking Up Christmas ft. The New Smokey Valley Boys, at the Historic Earle Theatre in Mt. Airy, N.C. The evening of music pays homage to the community's Breaking Up Christmas tradition, celebrated in a classic song by Mt. Airy fiddler Tommy Jarrell below.
Jim Shumate was a North Carolina Heritage Award winner from Wilkes County, N.C. He was the first fiddler to record with Flatt and Scruggs, and an influential player in the early development of bluegrass music, notably contributing the “fiddle kickoff” to the genre’s repertoire. Below you’ll find an excerpt about Shumate from the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina Guidebook, followed by an early example of one of his famous fiddle kickoffs.
Jim Shumate (1930-2014) was born in northern Wilkes County and learned to play the fiddle from an uncle who lived nearby. He spent his teenage years working in the furniture factories until he had a lucky break. Bill Monroe was traveling through the area and happened to hear Shumate on Hickory’s WHKY. Impressed, he called and offered the young man a job. Shumate played with the Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1945, while Howdy Forrester was serving in World War II. He is credited with inventing the iconic “fiddle kickoff,” a way of leading into a song with a few staccato notes and a short instrumental. Shumate is also credited with introducing Bill Monroe to Earl Scruggs in 1945. After Flatt and Scruggs left to form their own group in 1948, they hired Shumate to play on their first recording session. He can be heard on one of their earliest and best-known recordings, “My Cabin in Caroline.”
One hundred years ago famed folk-song collectors Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles visited North Carolina and documented hundreds of ballads and folk songs that had their roots in the British Isles. The epicenter of our state's ballad singing tradition is Madison County, NC. In the second installment of Director's Cut, a special mini-season of Arts Across NC, Wayne Martin shares a "Jack-A-Roe," a ballad performed by Doug Wallin.
Doug lived far up a holler in Madison County, and he learned how to sing ballads from his mother Berzilla. He once told Wayne Martin he sung all the time...even when he was falling asleep at night.
"Doug himself was an extraordinary ballad singer for two reasons. The texts of his tunes were very full and well developed...plus he was very musical and he was able to put beautiful tunes to the songs themselves," says Wayne.
The National Endowment or the Arts awarded Wallin the National Heritage Award in 1990. He passed away in 2000.
Director's Cut is a special music themed season of Arts Across NC, curated in celebration of Come Hear North Carolina, a campaign for the 2019 North Carolina Year of Music. In each episode NC Arts Council Director Wayne Martin will unearth a field recording from the archive he built during his 30+ year tenure with our agency. Each song represents a different region of North Carolina.
"These pieces that I've chosen are part of the fabric of who we are as a people," says Wayne. "They are pieces that tell the story of North Carolina.
Arts Across NC is a podcast by and about the North Carolina Arts Council.