Banjos, moonshine and a 'nest of singing birds'
'Have you seen the film Deliverance?' asked the man behind the counter at the American Embassy in London, a wry smile on his face. This seemed to be a common reaction to the idea of spending two weeks in the Appalachian Mountains, in many ways the crucible of American folk music, with the aim of seeking out and recording an older generation of banjo pickers, fiddle players and ballad singers for Radio 3's World Routes programme.
As a poor fiddler and a worse banjo player, I'd always been fascinated by this heady concoction of pickin' and scrapin', of mountain music and fiddlers' conventions. Contrary to my experience of English folk music, the crossing of the Atlantic seemed to have rid the music of its genteel roots, and created a rough-hewn, high energy music, as rugged as the mountains in which it was born, and as troubled as the history of its inception - as in all elements of American history, the story of Old Time music runs alongside that of European settlement, slavery and Emancipation.
First stop in North Carolina was the Mt Airy Fiddlers Convention, not the biggest by any means, but one with a fiercely loyal Old Time contingent. Old Time music is the American folk music of the late 19th Century, forged from the combination of the European fiddle tradition and the African banjo brought to the country through slavery. It's the music of the southern Appalachian mountains, the music that sustained these isolated communities before the arrival of the radio and the gramophone, and that entertained them at square dances or frolics.
Amongst the profusion of string bands, banjo players, and folk singers at the Fiddlers Convention; the beefburger stands, deep-fried Oreos, and moonshine sneakily consumed from jamjars, what stood out was the total lack of recorded music. Almost every attendee, it seemed, had arrived with an instrument, if not to compete on stage, then to play, night and day, with others who had come for exactly the same reason. Soldiers Joy, Cumberland Gap, June Apple, Cindy Girl, John Henry.. a roll-call of tunes that resounded from all corners of the campsite, and at all hours.
It was in Mt Airy too that we got our first taste of real Southern hospitality. For anyone with a hint of liberal sensibilities, the South's profusion of Rush Limbaugh bumper stickers and rifle shops can make you feel a little ill at ease, but sitting around the breakfast table with our new friends from local radio station WPAQ 740AM, devouring piles of biscuit and gravy, country ham and grits, their warmth and generosity overwhelmed us.
We also had the opportunity to meet and interview Mike Seeger, that great figure of the 1950s folk revival. He was part of a generation of musicians from the urban areas who are committed to keeping alive the music of the rural south that they had heard on the 78 records of the 20s and 30s, through documenting and performing the music anew. Mike was incredibly generous with his time, and the sad news of his death only months after we returned left us all shocked and saddened.
Leaving Mt Airy, we ventured across the state to try and track down some of the musicians who could trace the roots of their craft to a time when the music and songs were still part of a strictly oral tradition. In the case of 89-year-old fiddler Benton Flippen, his tales of going to the local store, buying a rifle, shooting off a few rounds, and then swapping it for a banjo talked of an earlier age. He learnt tunes from his father and uncle, men born at the turn of the century, and the spirit of that music lived with him.
We had started the trip knowing that we were treading in the steps of pioneering English folk song collectors Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles. When we met ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams, that link became abundantly clear. Her great-great aunt, Mary Sands, first met Sharp in 1916, and from her Sharp collected over 30 songs. Once again we were received with a generous welcome, and eating fresh baked cornbread on Sheila Kay's porch as she sang songs that came from the 'Old Country', we could understand why Sharp had remarked of her forebears, that he had found a 'nest of singing birds'.
About 200 miles east of Sheila Kay's home in the mountains just outside of Asheville, we met Joe Thompson. At 90 years old Joe is thought to be the last living African-American string band player. A deeply religious man, Joe's stories of his childhood were peppered with reminders that one day we would all have to meet our maker, and that we should start getting ready for the day. His rendition of 'Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone', a song that his mother sang when out picking beans in the field, is one of heart-rending beauty, and one that will stay with me.
Travelling around North Carolina, I think we discovered that there is a vital musical culture that is intertwined with both the geography and history of the area. With every musician we recorded and interviewed, we gathered more and more insights into this rich past, and caught a glimpse of how life used to be lived. Hopefully we have managed to convey some of that incredible experience through these programmes.
Peter Meanwell (producer)