Old-timers in East Kentucky learned to play by emulation; that is, they duplicated the sounds they heard by listening, by casual observation, and without formal training. Learning by emulation was probably prevalent at one time throughout the mountains. It stemmed from a strong cultural bias that prevented young mountaineers from questioning their elders closely about a task or skill. Children were expected to learn by listening and observation. For instance, I was putting gears on a team of mules and plowing by the age of twelve. I never asked my father how to do this – it was something I was expected to learn on my own.
Stuart Jamieson, who recorded Rufus Crisp in 1946, said Aunt Liz Hill of Floyd County was a talented banjoist who played a stroke style with the banjo lying in her lap. He also described the playing of Blind Hobart Bailey of Hippo, Kentucky, who sounded the fifth string by picking up with his thumb. Stuart was surprised to learn that I knew of other people who used this technique for picking the fifth string – he thought Hobart’s move was unique and developed only because he was blind. Picking up with the thumb is a result of learning by emulation, and occurs when a casual observer of stroke playing mistakenly thinks the fifth string is picked as the thumb moves up.
Learning by emulation produced a wonderful diversity of styles. Wiley and Little MonroeAmburgey, two brothers close in age, played very dissimilar styles: Wiley played a conventional stroke style, while Little Monroe played a very unusual two-finger style. They learned by emulation from their father, Jasper Amburgey, a banjo maker who played dulcimer as well as banjo. Old-time banjo players live in dispersed communities today, and are connected by the telephone, the computer, and gatherings at festivals and colleges, where old-time music is played and taught.