The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 6

Feature
John Herrmann:
An Old-Time Musical Pilgrimage

by Brad Leftwich

I know I’m not the only old-time musician to say that John Herrmann is one of my favorite people to play a tune with—a lot of bluegrass, Irish, Cajun, and other musicians would say the same. John is best known as a banjo player, but he is also an expert guitarist, bassist, and fiddler, and has skills on other instruments as well. John seems to be everywhere, playing with everyone, not just in the U.S. but in places as distant as France and Japan. He has played with such notable bands as the Henrie Brothers, Ralph Blizard and the New Southern Ramblers, One-Eyed Dog, the Wandering Ramblers, and Songs from the Mountains; he and his partner Meredith McIntosh have been part of the Midnight Mockingbirds, Ida Red, and the Rockinghams—to name just a few. This article marks his 60th year; knowing about his Zen practice, I thought it would be interesting to hear how he relates it to his music. I interviewed him at Merlefest 2004, and I’m grateful to Dirk Powell and Ken Perlman for their permission to include material from interviews they conducted with John as well. Look for their interviews with him in an upcoming issue of Banjo Newsletter.-BL

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No one can deny the near-religious fervor that animates many fans of old-time music. In a lighthearted manner it even colors our language: We refer to the moment the music first electrified us as an “epiphany”or a “conversion”; we make “pilgrimages” to Southern fiddlers conventions like Clifftop, Mount Airy, and Galax; regard with reverence “gurus” or “masters” like Tommy Jarrell and Melvin Wine; and refer to the “mantric” effects of repeating a tune 30 or 40 times in a jam session. Among the bands registered for the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention in the early 1980s, we find Swami Tommy and the Round Peak Zen Boys, based in the fictional town of Nirvana, North Carolina. (I inquired on the Internet and traced that band name to a friend from long ago, Rena Rubin. She commented, “When I used to visit Tommy Jarrell back in those days, I felt like I was truly sitting at the holy lotus feet of my fiddle guru.”-BL)

Yet after the chuckling dies down, many are left with the feeling that there is more to the experience of playing old-time music than the pleasure of a social activity, that it transcends simple self expression, that it partakes of something—dare we say spiritual? That word carries a lot of baggage in our society. John Herrmann avoids it since it can convey unpleasant overtones of piety, and it commonly assumes distinctions between spirit, body, and mind that he doesn’t make. As he puts it, “the music comes from all that we are. But he will go so far as to say that when he’s playing well, the music comes from a place that is “beyond thought.”

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