Old-time music experienced a great loss in February 2020, with the passing of banjo player Mac Benford. Mac had submitted this essay to the OTH a few months earlier, and we’re happy now to share it with readers in his memory. -editor
The recent release of Larry Edelman’s excellent documentary, Dance All Night, The Highwoods Stringband Story, has given me (and many others) the pleasure of revisiting those exciting days of yesteryear when the revival of old-time string band music was just building up steam. It has also made me ponder long and hard as to just what it was about the band and those times that allowed us to have such a powerful and long-lasting influence. It was certainly far from our minds when we five freewheeling characters decided to team up for a summer of fun in 1972.
It might help to consider just how special that year was. Conditions existed then which made possible what would be out of the question these days. It may be hard to imagine, here in the 21st century, but there was a time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when traditional music ruled the airwaves, record bins, and ticket sales. The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley,” Joan Baez’s “Silver Dagger,” and Pete Seeger’s “Darlin’ Cora” were the big hits among that generation which had asserted itself to become the dominant driver of American culture.
This so-called “folk boom” was on the wane by the time we came along, but the electric rock that had replaced it in popularity was, by and large, being played by ex-folkies. The music was louder, with more of a driving beat, but the aesthetics were not so different. This meant that taking an interest in old-time music in those days did not require such a huge leap away from the mainstream. In fact, with the back-to-the-land movement in full swing, a homemade, acoustic music, with roots in a culture of rural self-sufficiency, seemed particularly appropriate to many folks.
More importantly, it had left in its wake a nationwide network of venues that presented traditional music. Most cities of any size had a folk club or coffeehouse. Colleges would have a folksong society, which put on concerts. Folk festivals were still going strong. Thus it was possible (if never profitable) for us to tour and give performances all across the country. (And remember, this was before credit cards, cellphones, GPS devices, or ATMs.) It was fertile ground, and we had access to it, so were able to plant the seeds of introduction to old-time music for folks everywhere.
1972 was also when Rounder Records was first getting started. They were looking for new talent for their label, which was soon to become a major force in roots music. Founders Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton had attended Cornell and knew Walt Koken from the Ithaca music scene. In those days, they attended fiddlers’ conventions in the South, selling records from the back of their van. When they saw our effect on the crowds there, they offered us the chance to be Rounder artists. Back then, before DIY recording technology was available, a recording company’s support was needed to make a record. Having a label conferred elevated status, and gave you product to sell!
I should also add that, though it didn’t affect our success, it was to our great good fortune that in 1972 so many of the older generation of old-time musicians, who had been our inspiration, were still active and actually sharing stages with us. To be able to relate to them on a somewhat equal basis, unencumbered by notebooks or tape recorders, was a rare privilege. Their acceptance and encouragement made us feel we were on the right track—doing something worthwhile—in spite of the negativity we later received from some in the folklore hierarchy.
But without a doubt, the most fortuitous aspect of 1972 was that the featured state at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival happened to be Maryland. Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler, the director of the festival, had been favorably impressed by the Fat City trio of Walt, Bob Potts, and myself, back in 1971. When they heard we were back together as a five-piece unit, and that I as “band manager” was living in Silver Run, Maryland, they somehow managed to get us included, along with Ola Belle Reed and Fields Ward, as traditional music from the Old Line State. To be featured as performers at such a large and prestigious event, only four months after the five of us played our first notes together, was an unbelievable stroke of good fortune.
We made the best of the opportunity, and were probably the hit of that year’s festival. We made such a favorable impression on the crowds in general, and especially on those aficionados of old-time music, that we were immediately offered numerous festival and concert opportunities. The Smithsonian Institution wanted us to be part of their touring performance service. Suddenly, there was the possibility of becoming a full-time touring performing band! And what a hot band we were.
First of all, our lineup was totally unique at that point in time. Among the string bands whom we heard competing at the Southern fiddlers’ conventions, two fiddles was a rarity. In those early days of the revival, it was hard enough to find just one competent fiddler for a band. And we had two! The powerful interplay between Walt and Bob has yet to be duplicated, in my opinion. Walt had a great ability to capture the exquisite phrasing of the older fiddlers, and Bob matched him, not note for note, but beat for beat. This created a sound way more exciting then the more standard twin-fiddle approaches of either perfect unison or carefully worked-out harmony lines.
We also pioneered the use of an upright bass in old-time music. The old-time bands that we were hearing at fiddlers’ conventions, and on the old 78 rpm records, did not use a bass. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, if you heard a bass at Galax or Union Grove, you knew for certain it was a bluegrass band. As we often competed against those bands, we thought the bass might help us have a better chance. Jenny’s perfectly timed slapping technique took our already powerful sound up a notch or two.
With that instrumental lineup, we had created a bigger, bolder version of old-time music – a sound that was clearly rooted in the past, but was also brand-new – a sound that had a power similar to the popular music of the day. This sound proved so popular that, for many years, two fiddles and a bass was a standard lineup for younger old-time bands. Even the older Southern string bands began adding a bass, but I believe we were the first.
We sure had rhythm. As I said in the film, the five of us shared a perfect sense of precisely where the beat belonged. This allowed us to play way up on the front part of the beat without speeding up. Oh, we could play fast all right, but the beat was rock-solid. At more moderate paces, we still created enough feeling of unstoppable momentum that audiences were left breathless. Even our vocal numbers had drive.
It was our special approach to the music and our performance style, however, that I think was responsible for our ongoing influence in the growth and direction of the current old-time music scene. The leading revival bands who preceded us were the New Lost City Ramblers and the Hollow Rock String Band. They both had presented old-time music as a wonderful but quaint artifact from bygone days. Their aim was to render with some faithful accuracy the variety of sounds of the musicians of the past.
Having learned in our earlier days as street performers that switching instruments ruined the pace of a performance, we choose a different path. We did Skillet Lickers tunes with our clawhammer banjo, Carter Family songs with our double fiddles, and solo Kentucky fiddle tunes with our whole ensemble. While we always tried to be true to the sounds and spirit of our sources, basically we were trying to create our own sound, rather than recreate the sound of some earlier band. This attitude that the music was our own and perfectly appropriate to the present was a powerful statement.
Our stage shows were a celebration, an entertainment and not an education – joyful rather than serious. We were quite a sight, in our jeans and Western hats, bobbing together, locked in the groove. Some people actually claimed to have seen us levitate. We were quite obviously getting high on the music, and we were bringing our audience along with us. I think it was maybe our example that reminded folks that old-time music—or any music really—was all about finding those transcendent states – that our generation was so enamored of. People who came to our shows could not help leaving with the desire to do that themselves.
And so, in our seven years of existence (same as the Beatles!). we managed to introduce loads of people to old-time music and provide, by our example, a style and approach to the music that rescued it from status as a relic and gave it relevance in the present and the momentum to continue into the future.
That future is now the present, and the revival of old-time string band music is certainly going strong. If we date the revival’s beginning as 1958, with the groundbreaking concert and recording of the New Lost City Ramblers, it has been going now for more than 60 years. This means that for a significant portion of its total history, old-time music has been in the hands of people who many folklorists have declared have no connection to the music’s tradition. But, the music has survived this kind of transition before – from slave quarter, to minstrel stage, to Victorian parlor, to mountaineer’s cabin – all a testament to the deep and powerful appeal of this combination of African rhythms and European melodies.
Of course, the music has undergone changes in its revival phase, leading to a situation in which a band like the Highwoods is no longer needed, or even possible. As the energy of the “folk boom” has run down, there are far fewer venues for traditional music than in our day. Being a long-term, full-time, nationwide touring band, as we were, is now barely feasible. This has made the music much more localized and participatory – more focused on the jam session than on performances. Changes in the premier events in the old-time world reflect these shifts. I was once quite outspoken in my belief that performances by “revival” bands at major traditional music events were crucial to the survival of the tradition. I seem to have been proven wrong.
Ironically, some of these changes have made old-time music in some ways more like it was in its earlier days. There is not much thought about earning a living from old-time music, which has come again to occupy an important social function in many communities – dances, parties, and celebrations. Folks are again learning much of their music from family and friends. A generation has been raised in households surrounded by old-time music, where it has become a primary form of self-entertainment. I wonder what the folklorists will have to say about all this.
The old-time string band revival was originally an outgrowth of the “folk boom” with its emphasis on folk songs. In its earliest days, the New Lost City Ramblers reigned supreme. They were the guide and role models, and the template they established was followed by all aspiring string bands, right down to the obligatory tie and vest. Like them, we all looked to the wonderful old 78 rpm records issued now nearly a century ago as our primary original source material. These were the product, by and large, of accomplished or would-be professional entertainers. The numbers they performed were more often songs than instrumental tunes, and they were presented with a certain amount of country showmanship. These products of the so-called “Golden Age’ came to define what old-time music was.
The Highwoods made some major changes to the Ramblers’ template, one of which was placing a greater emphasis on instrumentals. But vocal numbers learned from the old 78s remained a large part of our repertoire. We also retained those elements of entertainment value – arrangements, medleys, stage patter, etc. – which we found made our performances more effective.
Following us, the current phase of the revival has continued the emphasis on tunes, which seem more appropriate than songs to large jam sessions. Non-commercial instrumental field recordings have now replaced the old 78s as primary source material, and as defining the music. The artists featured on the field recordings, while immensely talented, are rarely professional entertainers. Thus, those elements of country showmanship, not only out of place in jam sessions, are now seen by many to be compromising the “authentic purity” of the music. I have seen this anti-entertainment feeling carried to such an extent that a band on stage circled up, jam-style, with their backs to the audience!
There are certainly more accomplished players now than in our day, and possibly as many as in the old days. Today’s hugely talented fiddlers and banjoists know many times the number of tunes as were in the repertoires of the old masters. Most likely due to the widespread success of the Suzuki method, the current crop of fiddlers play with a smooth tone and sweet intonation that was not common among the older generation. The music seems to have lost some of the gritty, raucous quality that I, for one, was fond of.
Prime value is placed on never-been-heard, obscure material, rather than on the old familiar standards, which I always felt gave traditional music its emotional power. Much of this instrumental material is now being transmitted in a jam setting, often resulting in the spread of tune versions which are simpler and easier. The best players, however, are inspired to match the skill and subtlety of the old masters. Thus, it seems likely that the marvelous phrasing and bowing of players like Ed Haley and Marcus Martin will be passed along into the future.
I’m not so sure, however, about the unique vocal stylings of singers like Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb. It’s rare these days to find much singing in a jam session. The nearly exclusive focus on fiddle tunes has resulted in a greatly reduced number of songs in the common old-time repertoire. Gone with good reason are the numbers containing racist material, possibly to be followed by those ballads describing violence towards women. Also out of fashion are the sentimental tear-jerkers of the Victorian era, which were so popular on the 78s of the ’20s and ’30s. And, sadly to me, less often heard are those delightful ditties of barnyard nonsense. It’s hard to imagine a band these days doing a goofy number like “Who Broke the Lock.” But there was a time when exactly that was being requested. We happened to be there! And we delivered! That this music we love so much, with its roots in a small corner of our country and a culture long gone, once on the very brink of disappearing, should have grown to have relevance for people in these far different times spread all over the globe, has always seemed to me to be an amazing and noteworthy cultural phenomenon. I am understandably tickled and proud to have had a hand in that. The more of these old styles that are kept alive in our nation’s musical gene pool, the richer and more powerful the music of the future will be.