Ora Watson – Watauga County, NC Old Time Music – FRC720
Article courtesy of Old Time Herald, Volume 11, Number 1
By Mark Freed
Leaving my office in Boone, North Carolina, one afternoon in May, I drove to the western part of Watauga County for a visit with Ora Watson. I parked my car, grabbed a banjo from the back seat, and walked inside where I found my friend Cecil Gurganus visiting with Ora in the living room. Ora asked me to come closer so she could see me, so I got within a few inches of her face.
“You’re good looking,” she said, giggling as if a teenager. At 95 years old—96 by the time of publication—Ora Watson is Watauga County’s most senior mountain musician, but perhaps the youngest at heart.
Watauga County has long been a hotbed for mountain music and dancing. Doc Watson (of no immediate relation) and his musical extended family are perhaps the most well known. The county has also been home to Frank Proffitt, Stanley Hicks, Marion Reece, Tab Ward, and more contemporary folks like The Corklickers, Randy and Deborah Jean Sheets, Steve Lewis, and the up-and-coming young fiddler Meade Richter. The county has also been home to legendary music and dance parties at Robert Dotson’s dancing room, Jack Guy’s folk toys store, and Brian Yerman’s old house. Other folks known to Old-Time Herald readers who have spent time living or playing in Watauga County include Wayne Martin, Rafe Stefanini, and Andy Cahan. Of all these folks, none has spent more years contributing to the music and dance scene in Watauga County than Ora Watson.
Born Ora Mae Isaacs in the western part of the county on June 27, 1911, to Arthur and Mary Fletcher Isaacs, Ora was steeped in music and dance right from the start. Her father played old-time fretless banjo and some fiddle around the house and for parties.
“My dad was awful good on the homemade banjo,” she remembers. “He could play so good and sing.” Kinder Johnson lived in nearby Beaver Dam and made fiddles, banjos, and guitars. “My dad got one and put a cat-skin hide on it,” she says. “It’s thin and it sounds twice better than the other [groundhog].”
Her mother, a religious-minded woman, sang hymns, folksongs, and ballads, such as “House Carpenter,” which became part of Ora’s repertoire. Her mother sang in the church choir at the Cove Creek Baptist Church. When she was barely old enough to stand, Ora would try dancing on her mother’s lap at church when the music started.
“I was born a-dancing,” she told Cece Conway and Elva Bishop during the taping of their short documentary film on Ora titled Born A-dancin’ and Makin’ Music. Ora’s father was also a great buck dancer, and Ora claims to have gotten some of her steps from him.
Ora’s family lived on a 46-acre farm on Isaacs’ Branch, named after her family, where everyone was an Isaacs except two neighbors. “I used to help my dad on the farm in my early days,” Ora remembers. “Before I was big enough to do anything, I’d pull weeds out of the corn.” As she got older, Ora would help drive the horses to plow the fields, take corn to the old Cove Creek mill to be ground for meal, and take chickens and eggs to the local store to sell or trade.
Ora’s cousin Charles Isaacs was a fiddler who played for local dances and conventions and also helped out on the farm. Ora would watch him note his fiddle and try playing along with him. “He was a real good fiddler,” she says, “I learned a lot from him.”
By the time Ora was 11 years old, she had formed a group with her sister Emma and cousin Earle called the Isaacs Sisters Band. Earle played guitar, Emma played mandolin, and Ora fiddled with the group, though she was also learning to play banjo. Ora’s father would drive them around to perform at cakewalks, fiddlers’ conventions, dances, and other events. Ora recalls the group going to Elizabethton to play for a presidential parade (likely for Herbert Hoover on October 6, 1928).
Ora remembers the Isaacs Sisters Band playing at a fiddlers’ convention in downtown Boone at the old courthouse. “Back then there were more women bands,” she says. “There were the Cook sisters and the Gurr sisters. We all played in that fiddler’s convention.”
Competition at that convention ran high. Ora recollects a woman in another band stealing a fiddler’s bow and running it through her hair to keep the rosin from sticking. The fiddler got on stage and ran the bow across his strings, and it slid off without making more than a squeak. Later one of the women asked Ora if they could see her bow, but Ora had already seen the trick, and kept her instrument close at hand. The Isaacs Sisters went on to win the competition.
In addition to listening to family members, Ora heard a lot of good music around the community. Ora used to frequent the local music store on the occasions when Doc Watson played there. One time Doc asked Ora to get her fiddle and play a few tunes. Ora didn’t have her fiddle, so she said, “I tell you what Doc, play ‘Step It Up and Go,’ and I’ll go.” She remembers, “I danced out the door.”
Dock Walsh of neighboring Wilkes County was also Ora’s friend. One time the two were walking down the sidewalk in Boone when they came upon a fight. Ora noticed her father was the man on the bottom being beaten and choked. She asked Dock for his guitar.
“I took it by the neck, and it come down hard,” Ora remembers. “That brought [the attacker] off him. A policeman come up, and asked if I was the one that hit him. I asked him, ‘If your daddy was being choked to death, wouldn’t you have hit him?’ The policeman said he would, and he walked off without doing anything about it.”
Years later, Ora ran into the policeman at an event in nearby Foscoe. The man asked Ora, “Do you remember who that girl was who hit that feller in the head with the guitar?”
“I sure do,” she replied. “It was me!”
When Ora was 17, she slipped off to Boone with Dean Payne and got married. “I didn’t want my dad to know I was getting married,” she says, “because he wouldn’t have anyone around to help him work.” Ora and Dean had four children together, Virginia, W.C., Martha, and Dora Dean. Her husband died tragically in 1942 while Ora was pregnant with Dora Dean, and Ora was left to care for her growing family. Her preacher suggested Ora give the children up for adoption, but Ora said she would not, and she raised them with the help of her parents. Ora moved back to Isaacs Branch where she built a small house on a half-acre of land next to her parents’ home.
Ora raised a big garden and canned a lot of food, including creasy greens, beans, and corn. “I would take my baby and take a quilt on top of the mountain and hoe corn ‘til dinner,” she says, “then go down and make dinner. Then go back up there and hoe corn all day. That’s hard. I had a hard time.”
During this time, Ora did not do much performing, but she sang around the house and at church. Ora remembers playing music and singing at Henson Chapel with Rebecca Taylor, the preacher’s daughter. One time when Ora and Rebecca were the only two in the room, Rebecca started playing some popular music and asked Ora to dance. The two started cutting it up, but soon the preacher appeared. Rebecca quickly transitioned into “Amazing Grace,” and Ora stopped her shuffling feet.
In church, Ora learned to sing the alto harmony part, and when Thomas Burton and Ambrose Manning came to Watauga County to collect folksongs in the 1960s, Ora was playing a lot of guitar as well. In Folksongs II, Burton and Manning note, “The guitar, which she used to accompany all her songs that follow, is now Ora’s major instrument. She plays in her own style, sometimes with a pick, sometimes in the folk music way, with the fingers only.”
The songs Burton and Manning collected from Ora reflect only a small portion of her vast repertoire, but still present a nice variety. The collection includes songs she learned from her father (“The Old TB,” “Wild Bill Jones,” and “Careless Love”), her mother (“The Drunkard’s Hell,” “The House Carpenter,” and “Little Bessie”), recordings or radio (“Single Girl” from the Carter Family), songbooks (“Charlie Lawson”), and a schoolteacher (“Yellow Gal,” an old minstrel song also known as “Hey Mona,” which Ora performed for her class in blackface).
When Ora’s children were grown, she began to perform again and play out in the community. Jack Guy’s folk toys store was one regular music spot where Ora and other community musicians could be found playing on the weekends, and it is where she met her second husband, Arlie Watson. Arlie, a guitar and banjo player and singer, grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina, in a musical family.
Ora and Arlie were married in 1969, and they performed together and in bands for ten years, and made a few recordings as a duet. They were regulars at the Pickin’ Parlor in Johnson City, they played at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife and Busch Gardens in Florida, and they frequented fiddlers’ conventions. Ora and Arlie were also friends with Gaither Carlton, and they would visit at Gaither’s house to play music.
During one gig at the Pickin’ Parlor, Ora was getting ready for a haircut, so she was wearing a wig. Arlie got up and said, “She’d look a lot better if she didn’t wear that wig.”
“So, I knew what to do,” recalls Ora. Arlie wore a cowboy hat to cover his bald head, so Ora pulled off his hat and asked, “Do you think he needs a wig?” They gave her a standing ovation.
In addition to playing as a duet, Ora and Arlie also helped form the Blue Ridge Ramblers with Arnold Watson, Paul Greer, Jim Earp, and sometimes Glenn Bolick. The group featured Ora’s fiddling and dancing, Arnold Watson’s two-finger banjo playing, and Arlie’s singing. The group played regular gigs at local square dances and at Simms Barbeque in Caldwell County, North Carolina.
Wayne Martin of the North Carolina Arts Council heard the Blue Ridge Ramblers perform at a fiddlers’ convention in Watauga County in the mid-1970s. “It was one of my introductions to North Carolina mountain music,” Wayne remembers. “Ora stole the show that night. She was the first woman I had met that was such a strong musician with a good band.” An excellent performer, Ora could raise the energy on any stage by playing fiddle and dancing at the same time, often to her favorite fiddle tune, “Ragtime Annie.”
Arlie died in 1979, but Ora continued performing with the Blue Ridge Ramblers, playing mostly bluegrass music with an occasional old-time fiddle tune. The group performed together until they disbanded in 1993. But, before Arlie passed on and long before the group disbanded, Ora forged another relationship that opened up more playing opportunities and chances to revisit the older music she played as a young woman.
Mary Greene, a Watauga County native, was a student at Appalachian State University when she first met Ora. Mary was playing guitar and dulcimer, helping with workshops and presentations of local traditional musicians. One of her professors, Bill Spencer, asked Mary to run a video camera on Ora and Arlie during one of these presentations, and the friendship began. Mary told Ora she was interested in local mountain music, so Ora invited Mary on trips with her to music gatherings. Mary traveled with Ora listening to her play mostly bluegrass music with the Blue Ridge Ramblers and other local musicians, but it was the occasional older fiddle tune or ballad that most interested her. Banjo player Richard Warren was another student interested in learning old-time mountain music, and he and Mary invited Ora to play some music with them.
“We started extracting old tunes and reviving that old-time repertoire, because that is what we were interested in,” Mary says. “We revived tunes in her memory she hadn’t played in years because no one wanted to hear them.” Mary had to convince Ora that people wanted to hear old-time music. “I think that was the start of her resuming that old-time identity,” Mary says.
Soon, Mary and another local musician, Beth Jones, started an all-woman string band with Ora, called the Cacklin’ Hens. (The group also included Barbara Bona for a short while, and eventually Amy Michels replaced Beth Jones in the band.) The Cacklin’ Hens performed at a variety of venues around the region, including dances, festivals, fiddler’s conventions, and other events. And Ora loved to perform.
“Ora dressed like Porter Wagoner,” says Mary, “And she always called performing ‘playing a show.’”
In addition to playing with the Cacklin’ Hens, Ora was also playing regularly at two senior centers in Watauga County, one in Boone and one in Cove Creek. For many years, she played at both centers weekly with good friend Ronnie Hicks and other members of the Watauga County Senior Center Band. In any given week, Ora would perform two days at the senior centers, give a Friday night performance, and play for a Saturday-night dance. She was quite an active musician, continuing to play and dance through her 70s, 80s, and into her 90s.
Ora was in her late 70s when Mary Greene introduced her to members of the Laurel Creek String Band, including at the time Mary, Cecil Gurganus, and Rick Stone. The Laurel Creek String Band provided an opportunity for Ora’s songs, tunes, and repertory to be featured with a supporting old-time string band. They began to book regular performances, and in 1994 the group made a recording. The recording was a catalyst for Ora becoming a recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1995, presented by the North Carolina Arts Council.
Ora was featured in an Old-Time Herald Dance Beat article by Phil Jamison in the fall of 1995. The article was in part a response to Ora receiving the Heritage Award, and of course it focused on her unique dancing. “I found an energetic 82-year-old who was eager to share her music and dance,” wrote Jamison. Describing her dance style he wrote, “Her feet slide on the floor in a smooth flat-footed style with a lot of the Charleston blended in.” Indeed, as a younger woman, Ora won many dance contests, including at least one Charleston competition.
I first met Ora during one of her performances with the Laurel Creek String Band about four years ago. After the performance, at ten o’clock at night, Cecil Gurganus brought Ora by my house to play some music. Of course, I was quite impressed to have a 91-year-old musician playing tunes with me so late into the evening. And I was floored when she picked up my banjo and played a bluesy version of “Shortning Bread” far up the neck in a two-finger up-picking style.
Over the past few years, I have had the good fortune of making a handful of visits to Ora’s house with Cecil and Mary Greene. Ora will make comments like, “I just can’t remember like I could back in my 80s,” or “It’s bad when your thinker goes out on you.” But once instruments are pulled out of their cases, high spirits, laughter, and lively tunes always follow. I am always amazed at her vast repertoire, and she constantly pulls out tunes or songs that even Cecil and Mary have not heard her play before. For example, during my last visit, Cecil asked Ora if she played “Liza Jane,” and Ora commenced to fiddle a similar tune to that of Marion Reece, who lived in the same area of Watauga County. After playing with Ora for 20-plus years, Cecil had never heard her play that version.
A song list Ora keeps in her fiddle case lists 58 pieces, and in researching for this article, I have found at least 30 tunes not on the list. Listening to some home recordings borrowed from Mary Greene, I have heard Ora play “Freight Train” on the guitar, “Little Brown Jug,” on the fiddle, sing “Turn Your Radio On,” and pick out or clawhammer “Cindy” on the banjo. She plays waltzes learned from the radio, sacred songs learned from singing in church, folksongs learned from family members, traditional fiddle tunes, and songs written by musicians she has known throughout her musical career, such as “Bulldog Down in Sunny Tennessee,” from Dock Walsh. She is also amazing at adapting to the tune or situation, playing in whatever key the banjo player is tuned to despite where she might normally play the tune. At jam sessions and forming repertories for her various bands, Ora’s musical ear allows her to improvise masterfully, and instantly adapt to the tune.
In the liner notes to the recording made with the Laurel Creek String Band, Mary Greene writes, “It was onto the older layers of fiddle tunes, ballads, folksongs, and hymns, learned in her home and from relatives, that Ora added the hits of the country recording industry, shape-note hymns published by the Stamps-Baxter and Vaughan publishing giants, and later bluegrass standards. Ora developed a multi-faceted musical identity that reveals much about the esthetic choices of the traditional home musician as well as the practical choices that govern the life of a working musician.”
My only concern in writing this article is that words cannot do justice to the amazing life and spirit Ora embodies. Of course, there are numerous quips that convey a bit of her lively personality:
“I’ve had a lot of fun, and a little trouble too.”
“Lord, don’t go for the good looks every time. Good looks will get you in trouble.”
Or, “I never was sick before I went to the doctor.”
But quips and quotes can’t replace a visit with Ora, hearing her laugh, tell stories, and try to dance right out of her seat while playing “Ragtime Annie.” At 95 years old. Ora doesn’t do much dancing these days, and she hasn’t performed publicly in a few years. So I feel fortunate to know a couple of her good friends and get to visit with her at her house on occasion. And I’m most happy to honor her musical legacy with this article. Ora is a strong woman and a survivor, outlasting generations of musical companions with a vitality I didn’t know existed before getting to know her. Thank you, Ora, for the inspiration, tunes, and laughter.
Mark Freed is a Folklorist with the Watauga Arts Council who lives in Boone with his wife Sunnee and their dog Etta.
This article could not have been possible without the ongoing help of Mary Greene, Cecil Gurganus, Amy Michels, Lynn Salsi, Wayne Martin, Dora Dean and Buck, and of course Ora Watson.