Ray Alden

Excerpts from the November 2003 Banjo Newsletter interview with Ray Alden

BN: Did you grow up with Appalachian music?

RA: Mountain music wasn’t exactly the rage with the southern Italians from my Bronx neighborhood.  Do-wop was the music I grew up with.  Just ahead of me in school were Dion and the Belmonts.  A guy in my class wrote “Barbara Ann,” later made famous by the Beach Boys.

BN: How did you discover Appalachian music and the banjo?

RA: I heard a Weavers record the summer of 1959 at Hartley Farm, a summer camp where I was working as a junior counselor.  Hearing that high banjo intro to “Darling Corey” played by Pete Seeger excited me as nothing else had.  The only idea I had of the instrument was the cover photo showing Pete’s long neck banjo.  Around 1963, at that same camp, a gal had a banjo and Pete Seeger’s “How to Play the Five String Banjo.”  I was then the waterfront director, giving me free evenings to go over to her cabin and practice the “elementary” strum on her banjo.  It never occurred to me that I would someday play in a banjo workshop with Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Revival.  After I came home that summer, I purchased my first instrument, a Harmony banjo.

BN: How did you get into old time music?

RA: We had just moved from the Bronx down to 26th street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan.  I heard of an old-time band that practiced at the Chaleff family apartment in my building.  Bill Chaleff, a fine blues guitarist, also played and sang in that band.  Bill and his hospitable family made me welcome during those practice sessions.  Andy Stein was on fiddle; he later played with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and then as a regular on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion.  Howie Krugman, another member, would probably have been a regular on Saturday Night Live if he were alive today.  This band played the New Lost City Rambler repertoire.  For several years I drifted musically, interested in bluegrass, old time and “folk” music.  But NYC bluegrass seemed more about competition than music, and urban folk music didn’t seem concerned with real folk music.

BN: How then did you become such a die-hard old time musician?

RA: What set me on fire was going to 78 rpm collector Loy Beaver’s New Jersey home for a small concert.  Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins stopped over on their way back from Newport in 1967.  The entire evening they sat in the living room playing and singing, much as they would at home.  I was just a few feet away the whole night.  Even though I had previously heard Fred, Earnest East and Kyle Creed at a Friends of Old Time Music concert, hearing it up close in a home atmosphere made a tremendous impact.  Although that night forever changed my life musically, I was stuck with the dilemma of having scarcely any time to study their style.  I was beginning the first of three years of night courses to get my second master’s degree.

BN: How did you resolve that dilemma?

RA: I had summers free and a few vacations as a teacher, so I headed south.  Diane (now my wife) and I went to the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention during my Easter Break in 1968.  We arrived there late Friday night to find a fiddler on stage showboating it up, it turned out to be Clark Kessinger.  On Saturday, I recall someone with an Orpheum banjo following Wade Ward around, years later I realized it was Walt Koken.  Neil Rossi and the Spark Gap Wonder Boys from Boston were jamming with the New Deal String Band.  L.W. Lambert, a local banjo picker, was playing great hard driving bluegrass with his band, the Border Mountain Boys.  I recall the Buffalo Ford Boys playing superb Charlie Poole style old-time music.  I hope to release some of my field recordings of them one day.  That Union Grove Festival lasted one remarkable weekend, then back to teaching.

BN: Was the trip to Union Grove in 1968 also the first trip to see Fred Cockerham?

RA: No, I made my first trip to study with Fred later that August.  I wrote him asking to come down to take banjo lessons, he answered, “Come on down.”  So, with my friend Dave Spilkia and many detours on incomplete Interstate 81, we finally arrived in Low Gap, North Carolina at Fred and Eva’s cabin.  Their son Odell lived with them; he was incapacitated after being hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat in a rough fight.  Eva cooked Crowder peas, potatoes and fried chicken on a wood stove while Fred played the fretless banjo.  I was in heaven.

However, I made a mistake; I had brought Fred a bottle of whiskey.  Back in New York, at their concert at Loy’s house, I noticed them proudly showing off some bottles of fancy whiskey they bought.  I didn’t realize that if Fred got a bottle, it pretty much went that day.  On all trips afterwards, I went to the store and bought food for the family instead of bringing liquor.

On the next day, while Fred slept it off, Eva encouraged us to go to Toast, near Mt. Airy, to visit Tommy Jarrell.  Tommy played and sang his great solo pieces, pushing the hook in my mouth further.  Later that day, I brought Fred’s banjo up to Kyle Creed to have a plastic head put on, to replace his torn skin head.  Charlie Faurot told me I’d be forever branded for making that change, but I ended up taking care of Fred’s fretless banjo for over ten years, changing strings for him and working on it every summer.

BN: Did you get to have a lesson with Fred that trip?

RA: Yes, just before the bottle incident.  Mostly, the lesson was Fred playing tune after tune while I recorded the session.  For an hour before the lesson, Fred talked to me about how he had repaired his chimney, but I couldn’t understand him.  It took an hour for my ear to become attuned to his way of speaking.  Later, Fred told me about the mysterious banjo player “Serge.”  It turned out to be Blanton Owen.  At Clifftop this year, I got to meet Blanton’s nephew Jake, another fine banjo player.

BN: Did Kyle Creed influence your style?

RA: Absolutely, Kyle’s style on the fretted banjo was more accessible to me than Fred’s fretless style.  Kyle had a very linear approach with strong rhythmic elements.  His style fit with the powerhouse Camp Creek Boys band and provided a good foil to Fred’s driving fiddle technique.  Kyle’s style was for me an entry into economical and rhythmic southern banjo playing.  Kyle’s style also opened doors into Fred’s style.  Fred’s style on the fretless is looser, bluesy, with a powerful rhythm and a speed that he could notch up whenever he wanted.

BN: Fred played fiddle also?

RA: Yes, Fred was known as “Fiddling Slim” when he was on the road back in the 1930s.  In the 1960s, he alternated with Earnest East as fiddler for the Camp Creek Boys. I recommend everyone listen to Cotton-Eyed Joe on the Camp Creek Boys CD to hear Fred’s powerhouse fiddling, still available on County CD.

BN: For the uninitiated, who was in the Camp Creek Boys?

RA: Kyle Creed-banjo, Fred Cockerham-fiddle, Earnest East-fiddle, Paul Sutphin-guitar, Ronald Collins–guitar, and Verlin Clifton-mandolin, the only member still living.

BN: What was Kyle like as a person?

RA: Kyle was certainly a character who left me with numerous stories.  One day he told his wife, Percy, “Neighbor, I’m going out for a pack of cigarettes.” Six years later Kyle reappeared and took up where he left off as if nothing had happened.  In the 1940s, Kyle and Paul Sutphin were building Quonset huts for the Navy near Newport News.  One morning Kyle said, “Paul, come on with me to town to get some supplies.”  Kyle left Paul at a corner, saying “We’ll meet back here in an hour.”  Paul came back and waited; 1 hour, 2 hours, and after 3 hours it got dark.  Paul realized Kyle wasn’t coming back.  It took Paul hours to walk back to the barracks and, arriving around 1 am, found Kyle sleeping.  Paul, steaming mad, grabbed Kyle by the neck and pulled back his arm to punch him.  But Kyle woke up, snapped his fingers and said, “Shoot, I knew I forgot something!”

BN: What did you do away from these characters?

RA: I taught High School math.  Fred, Tommy and Kyle had become my idols, and I focused on the drop thumb Round Peak clawhammer style.  I’d play along with tapes I had made the summer before.  The little time I had for practice was harder because I was trying to shed an urban northern approach to banjo playing, which lacked the southern rhythmic sensibility.  Some of the time I spent writing about the marvel of southern music.  I wrote a long article in 1972 for Sing Out! magazine about Round Peak musicians.  I can remember Bob Norman, then Sing Out!’s editor, coming over to Stuyvesant HS to help edit during my entry-lobby assignment.  That article became a key signal to young musicians about Tommy Jarrell; soon many began pilgrimages to him.

BN: How do you define “Round Peak” style?

RA: Definitions make for a slippery slope; it is tricky to find words distinguishing that style from all others.  Tricky also because, although rarely heard, Fred also had a “thumb-cocking” two finger style and Kyle a syncopated picking technique used on high neck chords that was distinct from their clawhammer style.  I have heard people use “Galax” and “Round Peak” styles interchangeably, but to me there is a difference.  Perhaps the best way to understand these differences would be to hear them on recordings.  The Round Peak banjo style was brought to its pinnacle with the playing of Charlie Lowe.  Fred Cockerham abandoned his “framming” style to play in Charlie’s fast but precise double- noting fretless banjo style.  Tommy Jarrell grew up hearing Charlie play with his father Ben.  You can hear Charlie Lowe play Ike Leonard’s Tater Patch tune on Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 3 (County 757).  Tommy’s, Kyle’s and Fred’s banjo playing is documented on several County recordings, such as “Come Go with Me,” “The Camp Creek Boys,” and “Tommy and Fred.”

Comparing the Round Peak sound with the 1937 Library of Congress Bogtrotters recordings, the Galax sound is much more genteel and relaxed.  On trips “up the mountain” to hear music, when I visited the Kimble and Shelor families, I heard similar “parlor” approaches.  In some of  Wade Ward’s 1937 banjo solos, I hear the speed of Round Peak, but the rhythmic syncopation is different.  The double noting style of Round Peak fills in gaps, adding a unique rhythmic component.  Within the Round Peak style you can hear differences; Fred’s sliding microtone slurs on the fretless are distinct from Charlie Lowe’s precise fretless style, or from Kyle’s sense of linearity on the fretted banjo, or from Tommy’s clear-cut driving style.  Yet I feel they are all bound by an unswerving logic to a common source.

BN: Aren’t we really talking about individual styles rather than regional ones? I mean, Tommy and Kyle were really innovators in their time, weren’t they?  I remember a Tommy Jarrell interview where he is asked about his style being regional and him responding no; he was the one who played that way.  And Kyle Creed feeling that at one time he was unique, but after younger folks started coming down, he was hearing himself play everywhere.

RA: One might not be independent of the other.  I think a regional style often originates and develops from the individual style of one or more influential local musicians.  In the early days before autos and paved roads, what a person heard came mostly from within the local community.  For example, although trips from Round Peak were made up the mountain to Galax, many times of the year the mud was so deep that wagons couldn’t get through.  It wasn’t until radio that styles from musicians like Earl Scruggs or Arthur Smith were able to become widespread.  Both Tommy and Fred were strongly influenced by Charlie Lowe’s local banjo style and, though they developed their own unique approach to banjo playing, they definitely shared a common logic with Lowe’s style.  This common logic may be partially explained by his “steady as a clock” rhythm and his extensive use of a distinctive “double-noting” banjo style rather than the more common brush technique used elsewhere.  Tommy sometimes called the other the “older style” found in nearby Virginia, while Fred called that style “framming.”  For tablature-literate Newsletter readers, I am sure the tunes found in Brad Leftwich’s book “Round Peak Style Clawhammer Banjo” will reflect the logic of this regional technique.

Kyle’s style differs somewhat from Tommy’s and Fred’s; he lived a bit further away from Charlie Lowe in the Skull Camp region.  Kyle learned much from his uncle’s banjo playing at all night tobacco-curing vigils in Winchester, Virginia.  Yet Kyle was bound to the same rock-steady timing and rhythmic power.  It is possible some of this reflects the way music and dances evolved in the Round Peak community.  When folks danced in Round Peak homes, Tommy told me, “I mean they didn’t just stand around, they went to it with a ven.”  I guess he meant with a vengeance, but I like the way he said it better.  Tommy told me that when the lead couple danced and everyone else was supposed to be inactive, no one could stand still, they all clogged in place, as if to punish the floor.  Perhaps some of the music’s rhythmic strength fed on this fuel.  Just imagine the intensity of dances in a two room cabin, with only fiddle and banjo, jammed with people and the overpowering sound of clogging.

BN: This whole cycle of events put you onto a mission of meeting, preserving and respecting the folks we call “the old guys.”  Could you elaborate on that a bit?

RA: I was taken not only with the music, but as I came to know more about Southern culture and hospitality, I appreciated the warmth and acceptance of the people I encountered.  I often felt it easier to communicate with many Southerners, almost as a counterbalance to some of the aloofness I felt in the North.  In a sense, I felt like a musical orphan who had been adopted by a wonderful group of people, not just musicians.  If it started as a mission, it soon became more personal.  I certainly did not fit into the role of an “objective folklorist.”

BN: What about singing? On “Mt. Airy USA,” and other recordings of the older folks, they seem to sing a lot.  BUT the younger folks seemed to be only interested in the instrumental tunes.  How did this happen?

RA: The New Lost City Ramblers started and continue as a singing band. A change occurred when Alan Jabbour and the Hollow Rock String Band began their playing and research, the music became all instrumental.  The neighboring Fuzzy Mountain String Band continued the Hollow Rock tradition, issuing two influential all-instrumental LPs on Rounder.  Although the Highwoods String Band sang, the lion’s share of old time revival musicians, who I suspect didn’t grow up in a singing environment, remained rooted within the instrumental faction.  For myself, I love to hear the human voice and enjoy tremendously playing in that situation.

BN: Let’s get back to the time spent home up north.  Were you able to have any involvement with the southern music during the school year?

RA: In the late ’60s while advisor to the school’s folk club, I meet Dave Spilkia, who quickly became a fellow old time aficionado.  Dave came on many trips south with me thereafter; visits to the Kimble family, the Shelor family, Melvin Wine, Buddy Thomas, J.P. Fraley, the Hammons family, Delmar Pendleton, Roscoe Parish, and so on.  However we always returned, over and over, to the Mount Airy -Round Peak section of North Carolina to visit Tommy and Fred.  We both had Revox tape recorders and made many reel to reel tapes of our visits.  In the early 1970s in NYC there were bands like the Wretched Refuse and the Delaware Water Gap, featuring Hank Sapoznik and Bob Carlin.  Both Bob and Hank later came south with me to meet Tommy Jarrell.  However, other NYC old time musicians at that time were more insular; they didn’t seem to have much interest in traveling south.  One asked me, “You can learn everything you need from records, sp why do you bother going south?”  My explanations to him just drew a quizzical look.  Things began to change as new musicians entered the New York scene.

I can remember the night in January 1975 when Bruce Molsky walked into the Galway Bay Pub Irish, where old time sessions were held every Tuesday night, and asked me, “Is this session closed or can anyone play here?”  I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy is intense and really interesting.”  We became fast friends and played in a band called Ben Steel and his Bare Hands with Dave Spilkia.  I had just met James Leva in New Jersey and asked him to come in and join the band.  My old friend Bill Chaleff joined us.  Then Paul Brown moved to the city after finishing at Oberlin College, and he joined up.  After graduating from Hampshire College, Jim Miller and Woody Woodring moved to NYC and joined us.  It would have been one amazing group if we had then the knowledge and technique later acquired over the years.  Almost everyone went on to become deeply involved with old time music.

BN: What happened to the musicians from the NYC scene?

RA: In 1972, Bill Chaleff moved out to Easthampton, NY to practice architecture.  In March 1976, Bruce Molsky and James Leva moved to a cabin outside Lexington, Virginia, and became part of a scene that included Odell McQuire, Al Tharp, Brad Leftwich, Dave Winston, Chad Crumm and a slew of other musicians.  In 1979, Dave Spilkia went to the University of Pennsylvania Dental school.  Jim Miller went to Ithaca and got his PhD at Cornell, and Woody moved to Pennsylvania.  Jim later married Tara Nevins and now plays with her in Donna the Buffalo.  As I had done for Hank Sapoznik several years earlier, I introduced Paul Brown to Tommy Jarrell.  This influenced Hank and Paul in diverse ways.  Tommy asked Hank, “Don’t your own people play music?”  Hank thought about this and became a founder of the Klezmer music scene in NY.  On the other hand, Paul was influenced to move to the South, became an announcer for Mt. Airy’s WPAQ radio station, and now works for NPR in Washington, DC.  Andy Cahan, who was a regular at the NYC pub sessions, moved south and played with Earnest East’s Pine Ridge Boys, as I had done the summer of 1974.  Things were changing; it was a fluid time for the younger musicians and old time music in general.  Unfortunately for me then but fortunately for me now, I had on the golden handcuffs of a retirement system and continued teaching in NYC.

BN: How did you keep track of those folks?

RA: I’d see them at festivals such as Brandywine, Galax or on other trips south.  I recall many stays with Al Tharp at the original “Chicken Farm” between Natural Bridge and Lexington, Virginia.  Al got free rent in return for cleaning the place, which had been used to roost chickens for many years.  I don’t think you can ever get the “chicken” out of a place once that has happened, but it was fun staying there.  Back then, Al was the banjo player for Plank Road; now he’s the bass player in Beausoliel.

In 1984, I got a spring term sabbatical from teaching and used the time to travel around and record young musicians.  This project resulted in a double-LP called “The Young Fogies,” now on a Rounder CD.  In 1994, on a two month cross-country trip with Bill Dillof, I recorded Volume 2 in that series along with a broader series of traditional music called “The American Fogies.”  The “American” series has Cajun, blues, bluegrass, old time, Tex-Mex, Latino, ballads, Texas-Polish music. and even some Klezmer tracks with banjoist Hank Sapoznik and mandolinist Andy Statman.

BN: Were there any commercial recordings released of the old timers you recorded?

RA: The first work in the 1970s was to record the old timers.  I issued three LPs on Heritage: “Music from Round Peak,” “Eight Miles Apart,” and “Visits,” which was a double-LP one half old-timers, the other half young musicians.  These recordings documented people including: Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Jesse and Clarice Shelor, Taylor and Stella Kimble, Dan Tate, Buddy Thomas, Fiddling Doc Roberts, Forrest Pick, J.P. Fraley, and many others.

BN: What recordings do you appear on?

RA: Of all people to start with, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham on a 1974 LP called “Music from Round Peak.”  In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t done that, as I wasn’t ready to play in their league.  But Fred encouraged it, and I was young and enthusiastic.  One great thing that happened at that recording session was when I ushered Verlin Clifton and Ronald Collins into the studio to record Logan County Blues with Fred.  Now that I feel comfortable in that style, many musicians in the old time scene treat the Round Peak style as passé.

On “Young Fogies Volume One,” I wrote a song called “Visits,” where I play mandolin to Al Tharp’s old time clawhammer banjo and Bobby Patterson’s bluegrass banjo picking.  Tommy Jarrell sang some verses that I wrote that went, “I watched my Daddy like a hawk and I learned to rock that bow / Playing all them Round Peak tunes, all night with Charlie Lowe.”  From 1988 to 1990, I played banjo on three cassettes on Larry MacBride’s Marimac label; first “Old Time Friends,” later with the Kimble Family on “Pine Knot School Rowdies,” and finally with Mac Snow, Scotty East and Richard Bowman on “The Round Peak Band.”  Recently, we recorded
“MountAiry.USA.”  This CD paired the great singers Mac Snow and Scotty East with fiddlers Brad Leftwich and Bruce Molsky, plus Meredith McIntosh on bass.  On some tunes, Bruce fingerpicks the banjo in old time chord-style while I clawhammer the fretless, giving a sound somewhat reminiscent of DaCosta Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters.

BN: In a way, “MountAiry.USA” brings it full circle AND ties it together?

RA: Yes, it did for me. It is wonderful that musicians Brad Leftwich, Bruce Molsky, Tom Sauber and Andy Cahan became comfortable enough to join with musicians from the South, and Southerners in turn with them.  Years earlier, John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz backed up many old time musicians like Cousin Emmy, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dewey Balfa.  This helped fill a gap, since most children of old timers who continued with music usually did so with the currently more fashionable forms of bluegrass, country and rock.

BN: You mention “new” old time musicians, what impact did they have?

RA: Their fresh approach to the music helped draw new young people into the old time community.  Young people seem to need to feel something is “cool” to do it, and seeing a peer doing it helps with the transition.  I’m sure that Ritchie Stearns and Jeb Puryear had that influence around Ithaca.  Good this has happened, because many of us are getting to be old geezers fast.  It is also wonderful to see Southerners like Kirk Sutphin, Riley Baugus, Jimmy Costa, Richard Hartness, Scotty East, Mac Snow and Kinney Rorrer influence other young Southern musicians to join in.

BN: You now have your own CD label?

RA: Yes, Chubby Dragon, a name suggested by Jim Garber after the Bacon banjo peghead inlay.  Previously, I had done work for Heritage and licensed recordings to Rounder.  If you work for other companies, every year you typically get a royalty statement that says “negative $2,000.”  So I figured, what the heck, I can easily compete head-to-head losing money with the best of them.  I now have ten CDs on the Chubby Dragon label, and, to my surprise, I occasionally break even.  Some CDs featured festivals such as the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop or the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention; others featured groups such as the Primitive Characters, Palmer and Greg Loux, Vulcan’s Britches, and the MountAiry.USA band.  Other CDs feature ethnic music of the metro NY area.  I even recorded a Zydeco CD featuring Roy Carrier and his Night Rockers.

BN: You also worked with Larry MacBride of Marimac recordings.  “Old Time Friends” is one of my all time favorites.  What led you two to work together?

RA: Larry initially formed Marimac to re-issue old time 78 rpm records, mostly from Frank Mare’s collection.  When I was recording the Young Fogies in 1984, I invited Larry to join me on the Midwest segment of my recording schedule.  Larry was with me when I recorded Garry Harrison’s Indian Creek Delta Boys in Illinois, Jeff Goehring’s Red Mules in Ohio and Dan Gellert in Indiana.  Dan’s daughter, Rayna, now a fiddler of some renown, was then a young girl in pigtails.  That trip encouraged Larry to go beyond issuing 78 rpm recordings and to record contemporary old time musicians.  In fact, Larry used some of my recordings from that trip on his first cassette issues of young musicians.  In 1988, we worked together on “Old Time Friends.”  In 1990, Larry joined with me to record Doris and Ivery Kimble in Virginia, and stayed to record the Round Peak Band in North Carolina.  Larry passed away from cancer several years later.  The label is languishing, despite a Marimac anthology I later helped put together for Rounder.

BN: What are you currently involved in, Ray?

RA: Recently, several big projects have come about.  I am currently finishing a book for Audio Amateur Press to be called “Speaker Building 201,” to help enthusiasts design and build speaker systems.  Also, I try to play with friends whenever possible.  I sometimes find myself in a band with two fine vocalists, Gil Sayre, from West Virginia and Dave Howard, from Connecticut.  Ambrose Verdibello, a fine fiddler, plays with me in this band.  A CD with this band is in the works with Tim Brown’s Five String Productions and is scheduled for a Fall 2005 release.

I am also in the beginning stages of a huge mastering-CD project involving several field collections that we hope to issue later this year.  I have been in touch with other collectors and musicians who made field recordings, such as Peter Hoover, The Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, and Susie Goehring, about releasing material recorded from the 1950s to the 1990s.  Tim Brown, a Pennsylvania banjo- and guitar-playing computer whiz, helped to secure a website URL called www.traditional-music.net.  In the spring of 2004, we hope to have about 5 CDs from each collector available as a beginning.  Musicians entering the scene today will never get to spend time with the older musicians; they are now almost all gone.  If you ask musicians new to old time music ,”Where did you learn that tune?” many will say, “From so-and-so at such-and-such a festival.”  If you are familiar with the source, often their version seems completely removed from the source, watered down and homogenized.  John Cohen once told me that sometimes the most radical thing you can do to move ahead is to go backwards.  I hope that the field collectors group can leave a legacy for future travelers, repaving the old time highway to reconstruct this music with the old timers as guides.  In the end, I can only say it was a treasure for me to be shown this direction by them.