Final Notes, Ralph Blizard

 

Ralph Blizard, the great Blountville, Tennessee old-time fiddler, died on December 4, 2004, one day short of his 86th  birthday. Like many musicians of his generation, he had two musical careers, one before he married, and another after he retired. He began playing at the age of seven, learning from his fiddling dad, who started the boy out on a sturdy old mandolin. That changed quickly, since it became obvious that Ralph was very talented and mature enough to handle a fiddle. Among Ralph’s early influences were some legendary fiddlers from the Tennessee-Virginia-North Carolina border region such as Charlie Bowman, John Dykes, and Dudley Vance. By age 14 he was playing on Bristol’s WOPI; starting in 1938 he played on WJHL in Johnson City, Tennessee with his band, the Southern Ramblers. The band performed on the air from 1938 through 1942, switching to WKTP in Kingsport in 1940. In 1942 Ralph joined the military. After the war he returned to WKTP’s “Saturday Night Hayride,” and in the early ’50s marriage and family led him to a career with Eastman Kodak.

After retiring in 1980, Ralph returned to his fiddle, but always said he had to basically relearn the instrument after so many years away from it. Relearn it he did, and when he met up with some of the Green Grass Cloggers in 1982, he was playing in his inimitable, highly improvised “long bow” style. The younger musicians, with whom he formed the New Southern Ramblers, loved to say that Ralph “never played the same thing once.” In various incarnations, the New Southern Ramblers—which included Phil Jamison, Gordy Hinners, John Lilly, and John Herrmann—became a fixture in the old-time scene, producing great music at festivals and fiddlers conventions.

In his later years, Ralph remained very active and received a number of special awards. Winters in Florida brought him and his wife Mildred into the musical community there, and in 1984 Ralph was Guest of Honor at the Florida Old-Time Music Championship. Always fond of encouraging music with others, he started an ongoing jam session at the Anderson Townhouse in Blountville, Tennessee. In 2001 he was inducted into the North American Fiddler’s Hall Of Fame; in 2002, he received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award; and in 2003 he garnered the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts. Through it all, Ralph Blizard remained a modest man, always open to jamming with any and all comers. His favorite motto was, “It’s all acoustic music.”

-Bill Hicks, with thanks to Phil Jamison, Jim Strickland, Doug Orr, and John Herrmann.

Below is a link to National Public Radio five minute radio spot, “Remembering Fiddler Ralph Blizard,” concerning Ralph’s death in early December 2004. The sound clip is quite good and deals with his unique long-bow fiddle style, and includes one of his songs. I am so happy to see this fine gentleman get the national recognition he so richly deserves. Click on the link below and on the “listen” button to play the program. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4225339

-Bob Cox
Columbia, SC
A fine new heavenly old time string band

Ralph Blizard really amazed me the first time I saw him, with his speed and the unique way that he played the fiddle. He is described as a “long bow” fiddler, which is true enough, but that hardly gives any indication at all of what Ralph was up to. His early teachers included the great Charlie Bowman (and Ralph was, indeed, a bow-man), but then Ralph, like many in his generation, gave up music for work life and family, only taking the fiddle back up when he retired and finding, at that point, the true style he was meant to play. Like he said, “It’s all acoustic music.” With that philosophy it’s not surprising that he embraced the Green Grass Cloggers, and vice versa, and played in a band with younger musicians. Enoch Rutherford might or might not have played with Ralph Blizard. He did attend a few festivals where Ralph was also in attendance. Like Ralph, Enoch possessed a circle of devoted younger musicians. It isn’t hard to believe that Ralph and Enoch are getting tuned up tonight. Enoch played fast enough to keep up with Ralph. Ralph was influenced a lot by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and believed that you didn't play it the same way twice. But he and Enoch would know a lot of the same tunes, and if Enoch got tired of the endless variations, why he’d just stop in the middle. One thing for sure, these two wonderful old boys are going to wake up the Baptists Over Yonder.

-Bill Hicks,
Silk Hope, NC December 2004

 

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