The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 8

Features
Rufus Crisp: Banjo Rapper By Stu Jamieson
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Rufus Crisp (1889-1956) rapping the banjo on his porch glider in Allen, KY.
Photo by Bruce Hartmann of painting by Leo Hansen

Don’t be misled by the title, Rufus Crisp was a “rapper” in the old sense of playing banjo by striking the strings downward with the nails, not by chanting couplets into a microphone. In ’60s citybilly terms some said he “frailed,” a misnomer I detested and tried to avoid using for there was nothing frail about his robust style. There was nothing frail in the sounds produced by many of the other old-style down-pickers, including Clarence Ashley—so maybe the term “flailing” or “rapping” might have been better. Rufus rapped his banjo; and boy howdy, how he rapped his banjo!

Rufus Crisp (1889-1956) was born on a farm five miles “up Beaver (Creek)” in Floyd County, East Kentucky. In 1905 he wedded his beloved Lula Mayo and they bore one son, Palmer. Though he credited his older brother Bill with being his model on banjo, Rufus showed so many creative flashes friends and kin felt that he surely must have enlarged substantially upon Bill’s style. He readily admitted gaining some knowledge from medicine show banjoists and contest opponents—often virtuosos—both black and white.

Rufus himself was an enthusiastic banjo competitor, tending to look down on all other banjo players and eagerly doing contest with every comer. He had been a coal miner and hated it, quit that to become a “saw-logger” catching logs in chest-deep cold spring flood waters and hated that. So he put his banjo to work and became a busker and banjo contestant, often going one on one with itinerant banjoists. He generally beat them all, winning a large regional contest by his late teens. According to his kinfolks, only Uncle Dave Macon bested him. Since the town always bet on him, Rufus won his hometown Allen, Kentucky a good deal of money over the years. As a busker he would show up at payday, sit on a “Co-Cola” box, lay down his straw sailor hat, salted with coins, right where the newly-paid would have to step over it, and entertain the long line of the not-yet-paid with strong vigorous banjo, penetrating tenor voice, and spectacular banjo tricks and flourishes.

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