Review of “The Lost Recordings of Banjo Bill Cornett”

The Lost Recordings of Banjo Bill Cornett (FRC304)

by Art Rosenbaum

Reprinted here by permission of the Old Time Herald Magazine (April-May 2006 issue)

The Field Recorders’ Collective FRC304 CD is a self-recorded legacy of Banjo Bill Cornett, giving us what is arguably the finest very early-style mountain singing to banjo ever recorded.  Cornett did play for others and in public—he played his “Old-Age Pension Blues” on the floor of the Kentucky Legislature, and according to John Cohen, “died while entertaining at a restaurant in Frankfort,” but he emerges as being an introverted solitary artist.

Banjo Bill Cornett (1890-1960) was a Knott County, Kentucky, banjo picker and singer and politician—he served in the Kentucky legislature—whose music was first released to the public on John Cohen’s pioneering Folkways LP, “Mountain Music of Kentucky,” the issue that for many of us was a memorable introduction to the intense “high lonesome sound” of Roscoe Holcomb, singing to a driving two-finger banjo accompaniment.  Banjo Bill’s offerings on the disc, like the traditional song “Sweet Willie” and his activist political composition, “Old-Age Pension Blues,” showed him to be a master of rippling frailing banjo style and ornamented vocal line typical of his region, but seemed less powerful than Holcomb’s cuts.  In his notes to Smithsonian Folkways expanded reissue of “Mountain Music of Kentucky,” Cohen recalls that Cornett seemed apprehensive about an outsider recording his songs during their 1959 recording session—at once confident about his music and “gruff and abrupt” about it with regard to his visitor.  Cohen concludes, “In a tantalizing way, [Cornett] announced that he had tape recordings of his best songs in the house.”  In 2002, 42 years after they were made, Banjo Bill Cornett’s son Brode Cornett made those tapes available for release.  In these tapes nothing is held back, not in verve and inventiveness of banjo picking, not in power and variation in the vocal line, not in the total engagement of Cornett with his craft and his deepest feelings.

The artist introduces his recordings, on a track called “Banjo Bill Talks.”  “Now this is Banjo Bill Cornett, I’m at home today, 13th day of February, 19 and 58, here by myself…that’s when I usually play the banjo, sing, whatever.  My children grew up, they fell for this rock and roll music, honky-tonk music, whatever you call it.  I don’t like that.  When I catch them all gone, wife gone, then I carry on to suit my own self.”  He added that he intended to leave the tapes as a legacy for anyone who wanted to hear his “carrying on” (in two senses of the expression, I think.) George Gibson, a singer, banjo picker, and banjo researcher from Knott County, had heard Banjo Bill play and sing.  He told me that the banjo had been a dance- and courting- and song-accompanying instrument mainly enjoyed by young people, but by the post-World War II years it was seldom played in public.  Perhaps those who continued to play for themselves either maintained or intensified their artistry as their youthful courting and dancing years became poignantly more distant, and their sense of mortality more immediate.  Several of the elder banjo players I have encountered who never laid the banjo by, considered it a friend, a companion, an answering voice: Georgian Mabel Cawthorn, living alone, said her banjo kept “me company,” and another north Georgia singer and banjo picker, Lawrence Eller, said that when he’d “kindly get the blues” he’d “shear down on that thing. The man never played it that loved it more than I.”  And Kentuckian Shorty Ralph Reynolds, whom I recorded in the 1970s, like Cornett undertook to self-record his repertoire.  (He played and sang in his car, which produced an echo effect that he liked.)  If Uncle Dave Macon can be considered the greatest “outer-directed” banjo player-singer, with a performance style geared to entertain the public, then Banjo Bill Cornett may be the greatest “inner-directed” singer-to-banjo.  Cornett’s repertoire, while including some dance pieces, is richest in tragic British ballads, sad mountain love lyrics, and black-derived “rounder” songs of the rough-and-rowdy moonshiners, gamblers, and railroad workers.

Writers have too often either romanticized or caricatured Appalachian life and culture, but James Sill, a writer from the Kentucky mountains, hits the mark in his poem about his friend, titled “Banjo Bill Cornett”:

Singing he goes, wrapped in a garment of ballads,
And his songs are his own, and his banjo shaped
By his own skilled hands. This is his own true love
He grieves…

The banjo is a part of him, his waking and his sleeping;
It is his bread and meat. Here his heart’s peace lies.
It is his tongue for joy; it is his eyes for weeping.

If this seems lovely but extravagant, listen to Cornett’s “Barbara Allen,” which he sings to an old pentatonic minor melody, with the swoops, hesitations and grace notes or the old rubato mountain singing style, yet gently pushed toward a rhythmic forward movement by single string two-finger banjo work, sometimes doubling, sometimes answering the vocal lines.  Or the other Child ballad in this collection, “Love Henry,” sung with a vocal astringency akin to Roscoe Holcomb’s, to a frailing banjo rich in pulled notes and runs between the phrases of the song.  (Oddly, this cut begins in the middle of the story, where Henry’s jilted lover lures him into the house, where she stabs him—was this due to some technical flaw in the tape?—as Cornett’s texts are typically complete.)

“Singing he goes,” signals the paramount importance of the song in the work of an artist like Cornett (thanks again to George Gibson for the reference to Sill’s poem).  Everything is sung here, even the frolic tunes “Cumberland Gap” and “Cripple Creek,” but the concentration on the use of the banjo to respond to and intensify the sung text and tune is the key to Cornett’s brilliance.  Many of the fine mountain singers-to-banjo set up a regular pattern on their instrument, “noting” or doubling the melody on the banjo (or, more recently, using a chording accompaniment), at times playing repetitive phrases between lines and/or breaks between verses—think of Clarence Ashley, B. F. Shelton, or even Dock Boggs.  Cornett ratchets up the inventiveness of his performance by setting up complex interplaying of voice and banjo.  The listener is pulled into the performer’s poetic and emotional engagement with the song’s narrative or lyric, moment by moment.  This is not the false over-dramatization of the concert singer’s approach to folk song, nor is it the poker-faced, regularized if powerful delivery of many mountain banjoist-singers.  My belief is that Cornett’s emotional intensity in interweaving voice and banjo stems in large part from the African-descended chordophone-griot singer roots of the banjo and its early repertoire.  George Gibson’s research has revealed that there were black banjo player and singers in east Kentucky (as there were elsewhere in the Appalachians) long before the Civil War or the influence of minstrelsy.  These players mingled with neighboring white musicians and shared not only banjo techniques but repertoire and approaches to performance.  Alan Lomax has written that in the Appalachians the five-string banjo provided the first viable instrumental accompaniment in centuries to the old British ballads—and it would follow that African singing modes would move along with the instrumental styles into the mix.  This melding of African and European sounds worked so well partly due to gapped scales common to both traditions.  I recorded African American Primitive Baptist Deacon Tommy Tookes of south Georgia singing riffs that sound very close to Cornett’s rendition of “Hustling Gambler” in syncopation and variation, in a lined-out hymn—the hymn being of British origin.  Most readers of the OTH will know Dock Boggs’ great performance of “Hustling Gamblers” which was released as “Country Blues.”  Boggs (himself influenced by black banjo players) set up a constant steady vocal and instrumental rhythm, while Cornett’s singing was so improvisatory that he played the banjo only between the verses, in a single-note recap of the vocal line—allowing the voice to carry the verses alone.

Banjo Bill Cornett’s repertoire, and least as presented here, came from the old stratum of Appalachian tradition, almost entirely uninfluenced by popular and electronic media: Child ballads (“Love Henry” and “Barbara Allen”) and broadside ballads from the British tradition (“The Rambling Boy”), mournful lyric mountain love songs like the splendid performances of “Fair and Tender ladies” and “My Dearist Dear.”  These are the kinds of songs that the British collector Cecil Sharp sought and found in abundance in remote mountain districts some 90 years ago.  Sharp was less interested in, but did encounter, frolic songs and what he called “street songs,” his example of the latter being “Wild Bill Jones,” here sung with breathtakingly dramatic vocal leaps by Cornett.

Cohen comments on Cornett’s “driving east Kentucky banjo [including] frailing, up-picking, and thumb lead coupled with an arsenal of tunings.”  The tunings work with the various melodies and moods, “atmospheres,” as Wade Ward famously had it.  The picking can be full and tumbling, or very sparse, as the song and setting demand: the frailing replete with left-hand pulls sets off the drawn-out singing of “The Rambling Boy,” while a sparse two-finger with stretched and choked “bluesy” notes accompany the wrenchingly mournful “Look Up and Down that Lonesome Road.”  Cornett plays an extraordinary “Cumberland Gap,” where almost every melody note is syncopated—not very danceable, but a very arresting treatment of a familiar melody.

The likes of Banjo Bill Cornett will not be heard again.  He was a highly creative musician personally rooted in the richest soils of 19th century Appalachian folk song— tragic ballads, poetic love-lyrics, and rough “rounder” laments—set to a fusion of African and white American musical forms on the 5-string banjo.  Sill’s fine poem could be part of his memorial, or else perhaps the last line of “Hustling Gamblers”: “I don’t want no bawling and squalling, round my grave carry on/ Just lay me down in the cold, cold ground, saying ‘Another good rounder gone.’” Not that Cornett was a rounder type—by all reports he was a socially conscious and upright man—but he was able through his singing and playing to put himself into the zones of sadness, strife, and lost love that are embedded in the human condition.  These no longer lost recordings are his intended gift to those of us who want to hear.