Cultures around the world face the problem of losing their traditions when younger people don’t take interest in their heritage. But among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, an exceptionally dedicated generation of young tradition bearers, men and women in their twenties and thirties, are both learning and teaching the culture of their ancestors. One of the most prominent members of this generation is language preservationist, musician, and storyteller Matthew Tooni.
For more than a hundred years, folklorists and other scholars have been visiting the community of Beech Mountain, North Carolina. Perhaps the most prolific collector of the community’s music and stories was himself a native of Old Beech.
In the 1960s, Jack Guy began selling mountain handcrafts and folk toys to tourists, helping local artists make a living through their heritage crafts. He operated his business out of a small log cabin, selling classic mountain toys like limberjacks and gee-haw-whimmy-diddles, alongside many other items, including musical instruments made by renowned local luthiers.
And while he was at it, Jack created a venue for Beech Mountain’s musicians to perform, share their music, and be recorded for posterity. He hosted many concerts and informal jams at the shop, featuring great local bands, solo musicians, and storytellers. As they performed, Jack was often at work in the background recording the music on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. He created an enormous archive of Beech Mountain music and folklore.
Soon you’ll be able to visit the North Carolina Folklife Institute’s website, ncfolk.org, to listen to more than 100 audio tapes of mountain music, accompanied by hundreds of old photos of life on Beech Mountain, recordings and stories by the artists who carry on Beech Mountain’s traditions today.
It’s not unusual for traditional musicians to influence artists in other styles, and that kind of cross-pollination was especially common in the 1960s and ’70s, as pop and rock musicians mined the depths of old-time, blues, and other folk styles. But few traditional musicians of that era had quite such a long, strange trip into the world of pop culture as North Carolina’s Byard Ray and Obray Ramsey.
Ray and Ramsey were cousins from Madison County, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Asheville. Madison County has been home to renowned traditional ballad singers and instrumentalists for generations, and the two men were part of the network of families whose musical heritage has made the county famous. Obray Ramsey was a banjo player with an old-time three-finger picking style and a smooth, high singing voice. Byard Ray was a skilled fiddler whose musical roots drew from the playing of some of the early fiddlers of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, including J. D. Harris, who influenced many other great musicians of the region.
The Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia have produced legendary bluegrass and old-time guitarists. Presley Barker is the newest member of the lineage of virtuosic flatpickers inspired by Doc Watson. Presley first started to learn the guitar in 2012, when he was only seven years old. It didn’t take long for the traditional music community in his native North Carolina mountains to take note.
While Earl Scruggs is often credited as the originator of bluegrass banjo, he was actually an innovator within a broader tradition of three-finger banjo playing. Predating bluegrass, it was made famous by banjo players from the hills and mountains of the Carolinas, all of whom had their own personal takes on the style. In addition to Scruggs, these pioneers included Wade Mainer, Smith Hammett, Snuffy Jenkins, and Don Reno.
In 1948, when Don Reno heard that Earl Scruggs had left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, he took his banjo to a concert that the band was giving in North Carolina, and without invitation or warning, joined them on stage. Monroe welcomed him, and for the next year Don toured as a Blue Grass Boy.
Though playing banjo for the Blue Grass Boys was in many ways a dream gig for a young musician, leaving that band cleared the way for Reno to form the band in which he would find the greatest success, his partnership with fellow Carolina mountain musician and veteran Red Smiley.
In Jackson County, North Carolina, the Queen family has long played, sung, and shared the music of their native home. The matriarch of the Queen family was Mary Jane Queen. Her father, James Sylvester Prince, born in 1876, was known as a great banjo player. Mary Jane also absorbed many old songs from her singing grandmothers, and one of her brothers was said to be the first person in the Caney Fork section of Jackson County to own a guitar. Though the old music was always in Mary Jane Queen’s memory, it wasn’t until later in life, after she’d raised eight children and become a widow, that she began to focus on singing and sharing the old songs that she’d grown up with.
It all began when David Holt was a college student at UC Santa Barbara. At a campus concert, he heard Ralph Stanley play the clawhammer banjo, the driving style Ralph’s mother played. After the show, David approached Ralph and asked him, “where can I learn to play the banjo like that?” Ralph told him, “You’ll have to go back to the Southern Mountains where I grew up. Go to Virginia go to North Carolina.” That’s just what David Holt did.
Fiddler Lillian Chase is young–she was born in 2003–but she is the steward of a centuries-old musical tradition of her native Blue Ridge Mountains. Raised in a family that has been living in the mountains for six generations, Lillian had an early ear for Appalachian music. At the age of four she decided that she wanted to play the fiddle, and two years later, began to learn the instrument. Now an accomplished musician in a variety of genres – including old-time, bluegrass, and classical – Lillian exemplifies the stylistic versatility for which musicians around Asheville, North Carolina, are known.
Back in 1969, while still a college student, Joe Sam Queen, grandson of legendary dancer Sam Love Queen, was asked by the town of Waynesville to call a square dance on the streets of downtown. The square dance became the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival and this Labor Day weekend, in 2019, it celebrates 50 years.
It’s not unusual for a mountain musician to be a part of several different musical traditions. A Blue Ridge fiddler might play in a mountain swing session on Friday night, sit in with an old-time band playing for a square dance on Saturday night, and sing in the church choir on Sunday morning. In this respect, Carley Arrowood is in good company. But Carley stands out in her youth: few artists as young as she have already mastered so many genres. She plays, sings, and writes bluegrass and gospel music, and was a classical performer as a child.