Banjo player and traditional Cherokee singer and dancer Walker Calhoun passed on March 28, at the age of 93. He was an elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and a National Heritage Fellow.
Walker Calhoun was born in 1919 in the Big Cove community of the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee tribal lands) in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Cherokee was his first language, and he heard English for the first time when he was 12 years old. It was not until he served in World War II that Calhoun became fluent in English.
His father, Morgan Calhoun, was a banjo player whose favorite tune was “Shoo Fly.” 13-year-old Walker began learning to play the banjo in the clandestine way of so many old-time musicians: by playing an older relative’s instrument when no one was listening. According to the National Endowment for the Arts,
Walker started teaching himself to play using his older brother’s instrument. This bothered his brother, and to keep Walker from playing his banjo, he hung it high on the wall, safely out of his younger brother’s reach. But when the brother went to work, Walker pulled a chair under the banjo and climbed up to play with the strings. Soon, Walker was able to practice chords on the banjo without taking it down from the wall. Finally, he took the instrument from the wall and played with it, but he was careful to hang it back on its hook before his brother came home.
The first tune he learned was “Cripple Creek.” Calhoun played in a three-finger style, sometimes with picks.
Calhoun was the nephew of Will West Long, an important medicine man, dancer, and singer. He learned his uncle’s extensive song repertoire, as well as the ceremonial dance forms that Long preserved. Calhoun played a crucial role in keeping these traditions alive into the present day. Decades after Will West Long’s death, Walker Calhoun and his family founded the Raven Rock Dancers, and he was also a founder of the Warriors of Ani Kituwah. In addition to the traditional Cherokee songs, Calhoun sang Christian hymns, in both English and Cherokee. In his latter years, he taught the Cherokee language at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina.
For his contributions to the living heritage of the Cherokee Indians, Walker Calhoun received the first Sequoyah Award in 1988, presented by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In 1990 he received the North Carolina Heritage Award, and in 1992 the National Heritage Fellowship. He is survived by five sons and two daughters, 34 grandchildren, 53 great-grand-children, and seven great-great-grandchildren.