Though you may recognize part of the popular minstrel show number "Mr. Catfish" from the folk song "Turkey in the Straw," the tune is actually believed to have origins in the African-American string band community. This recording—captured in the home of Big Fat Gap bassist and Shakori Hills organizer Robert Mitchener—appears on the upcoming PineCone compilation Going Down to Raleigh: Stringband Music in the North Carolina Piedmont 1976-1998.
Marvin Gaster, a Sanford folk musician and the 2000 North Carolina Heritage Award winner, sings and picks here, playing the disappearing two-finger banjo style, Mitchener supporting him on guitar. Gaster planned to participate in our discussion about "Mr. Catfish" and Piedmont stringband music at large, but he had a snag at the last minute.
Instead, we delved deeper into the history of stringband music and the recordings found on Going Down to Raleigh during an extended lunch conversation with North Carolina Arts Council Folklife Director, PineCone co-founder and folk music archivist and performer Wayne Martin.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: First, can you talk a bit about the context of this recording? Who is playing on the recording and when and where was it done?
WAYNE MARTIN: Most of the recordings included on the CD were made in peoples' homes between 1976 and 1998. "Mr. Catfish" was recorded in Chapel Hill [in 1994]. I went over to Robert Mitchener's house. Robert is a guitar player who's one of the younger musicians on the CD. He had asked Marvin Gaster to come up because Marvin was interested in making some recordings of his music and documenting his music. I had a portable tape recorder and took it over there and made a recording of Marvin playing in his two finger style of banjo and Robert backing him up.
I believe very strongly that field recordings have some advantages. You may lose a little bit of control over the sound, but by and large, the type of musicians I was trying to document are typically more comfortable in their own home environment. You get better performances.
Many of the tunes Marvin plays go back a ways in the piedmont area of North Carolina and are connected with African-American—or possibly minstrel show—origins. When you get back to that era, it's sometimes hard to know where it came from because those two areas kind of merge. A lot of the minstrel show performers of the mid-1800s were borrowing—or even what we would probably call plagiarizing or stealing—from African-American musicians in composing these songs. "Mr. Catfish" is probably an African-American piece, and I think Marvin learned it from a relative of his, who had learned it from a man named Will Gale. [Gale] was an African-American banjo player in [Gaster's] community that I think had been born into slavery.
A lot of those tunes that Marvin knew—the older pieces—had words. Nowadays, when people play tunes at fiddler's conventions, they'll just play one tune after another. But among the older people, the tunes often had words associated with them, and that's the case with this one, obviously. It's the case with a number of tunes like "Old Joe Clark" and "Cripple Creek". They all had words to them and the older players or the people learning from an older tradition often sing the words.
What initially spurred your interest in traveling around and doing these field recordings of folk and specifically string band music?
Initially, I made these recordings partly out of a selfish desire to learn to play music myself. I didn't have any of these musicians in my neighborhood, so I realized that if I was going to learn the music, I probably needed to make recordings and take those home and study them in order to figure out the techniques that these older players were using because they differed quite a lot from more modern forms of music or bluegrass.
Once I got into it and discovered that there was this strata of music in the Piedmont area, I realized that it was really necessary to do [the recordings] if we wanted any sort of record of these music traditions. I needed to go out there and do it because there were very few people at that time that knew about this music, or if they knew about it, they didn't have the resources, equipment or knowledge to actually go out and record. So it began to feel like it was something that had fallen to me to do. I just needed to do as much of it as I could while these folks were living in order to establish a record of part of our musical heritage.
If there weren't really any players in your area, how would you hear about or find these musicians that you were recording?
In the early 1970s, I—and other people I knew—were aware of the music traditions of the mountains of western North Carolina and western Virginia, so that's why we associated all this string band music as something from the Appalachian or Blue Ridge Mountains. That was my assumption for a while, but in 1974, I happened to attend a concert organized by some graduate students in folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill. The person they presented was this man named Virgil Craven. He was from Asheboro, which is about 90 miles from Raleigh, so basically a Piedmont town. He played the hammered dulcimer and the fiddle, and he had a banjo player and a guitar player backing him up. He was incredible. It was wonderful music. My friend Barry Poss—who went on to create Sugar Hill Records—decided it would be a good thing to make some recordings of Virgil, and he asked me and my wife if we would help him if a couple of sessions. That was my first introduction to this Piedmont music tradition.
Then I took a job because there was a grant available at that time to tour these kinds of musicians into schools. The first school performance was scheduled for Asheboro. I knew there were a few local musicians who were available, so they did the concert. I met the fiddler named Lauchlin Shaw, and he invited me to his jam sessions. I said, "Where are they?" and he said "They're in Harnett County," which is not more than 45 minutes from my house in downtown Raleigh. So I started to become aware that there were all these musicians scattered in the central Piedmont. A lot of them knew each other, and through Lauchlin's jam sessions, I got to know them. Through going out and talking to people and doing some performing myself, I was meeting people just by asking and going out and playing. That's kind of how it all started to come together. I realized that this was important to do.
At that point, did you start focusing only in the Piedmont? How far and how often would you travel to make these recordings?
We were making recordings all the time, but most of the recordings that people made back then were on a cassette recorder. Those tapes, while valuable as a learning tool, were woefully inadequate as far as presenting those recordings on an LP or later a CD. They just didn't sound very good. So a lot of it was dependent on getting good equipment. For instance, in 1976, when I went with Barry, he had managed to get some good recording equipment for that session. That's the earliest recording that's included on these CDs. The next earliest recording is 1988 because that's when I went to work for the Folklife Program at the North Carolina Arts Council. I came into the office and the director at that time said that there was a nice tape recorder that no one ever uses, but it's supposed to allow for studio-grade recordings, so I learned to use that. Once I got access to that recorder, that enabled me to go out and make these real high-quality tapes between 1988 and 1997.
Obviously, there's a huge oral tradition involved in folk music. Any particularly good advice on how to keep the music alive while paying respects to the traditions?
Well, my advice would be that, in a bigger sense, it's very important for the arts and cultural infrastructure that we've built in North Carolina to recognize that these homegrown arts are kind of the foundation, the building blocks, for what we have and what makes us distinctive. I think that learning about that and figuring out ways to present that back to the public is important.
For younger people that are getting into the music, my advice would be to seek out folks who you think have something to offer musically and, in addition to learning the music, to pay attention to the stories and other kinds of information that go along with the tune itself. This music is not just an art form. I think it's quite extraordinary, compelling music, but its importance is that it's connected to particular people at particular places and has stories around it.
Paying attention to those stories is paying respect to the people that played the music and taught it to others. Those old players often wouldn't just teach you the tune, but they'd tell you about the people who played it. They'd tell you about the place and what it meant to the place. In this day and time, it's really important to connect cultural assets—music, in particular—to a place, to a soil, to a place in the Piedmont. It gives those physical spaces in the land even more importance so we don't just feel like we can go in and change it all the time without any sense that we're affecting our cultural heritage.
This probably interrelates a lot with your answer to the last question, but what is your goal for this compilation? What do you hope that it accomplishes?
My biggest hope is that it would help people in this region understand the music traditions of the place that they live in. I think there are many folks who live here who have no idea about the depths of traditional culture in this area. You think of Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill in the sixties when these cities began to rebrand themselves as the Research Triangle. Before that, Raleigh was very much tied to smaller towns and outlying rural areas. That's why I entitled the album Going Down to Raleigh. People from smaller towns—Garner and Fuquay and Lillington—were often working in agriculture but came to Raleigh and shopped there, but for a long time they also brought their music to Raleigh. There were connections there that people today were really unaware of, so my big hope is that people who don't know about this music will be introduced to it for the first time.
In your opinion, what makes a song a good folk song?
For me, a good folk song tells a story or creates a feeling. A good folk song will tell a compelling story or leave you with a very strong emotion. Sometimes, those two get tied together when you have a song that has powerful lyrics to it and the musical accompaniment is also compelling. It makes for very powerful music. Folk music is really about stories, both articulated in words or through feelings, and those stories are associated with people or places. That's what makes it powerful.
Martin and Gaster—along with Piedmont stringband musicians Rich Hartness, Margaret Martin, Gerry Overton, Glenda Overton and Evelyn Shaw—perform at the North Carolina Museum of History in a pre-release event for Going Down To Raleigh. The free concert begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11.