(bluegrass music) (slow western music) - Hi, welcome to David Holt's State of Music.
I'm Zeb Holt.
In this special episode, we're gonna explore the life and career of our host, my dad, David Holt.
We're gonna look back over the last 50 years of him collecting, performing, and teaching the traditional music of the Southern Appalachians that he learned from families that have been passing it down for generations.
- One, two three, four (quick bluegrass music) ♪ Went up on the mountaintop ♪ ♪ Give my horn a blow ♪ ♪ Thought I heard my Cindy say ♪ ♪ Yonder comes my beau ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Gone forevermore ♪ ♪ Well Cindy was a rattlin' girl ♪ ♪ Cindy was a rose ♪ ♪ How I love that Cindy girl ♪ ♪ Lord A Mighty knows♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Gone forevermore ♪ (guitar interlude) ♪ Well went up on the mountaintop ♪ ♪ Cut me Load of cane ♪ ♪ Every time I cut a stalk ♪ ♪ I thought about Cindy Jane ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Gone forevermore ♪ (harmonica interlude) ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Whoop 'em up Cindy hey hey ♪ ♪ Gone forevermore ♪ - You were born in Texas and you were a really cute baby, by the way, I always like your baby pictures.
(laughing) - Thanks.
- Yeah, and there's definitely Southern music in Texas but in our family we had a special, pretty unique tradition.
- Yeah, and it was unique, one, because there weren't musicians in the family really.
My dad was an engineer, my grandad was a lawyer.
But they all played the bones.
They are just rib bones from a cow and you play 'em like this, just get a little rhythm sound, shake 'em like this.
(rhythmic tapping) But the other cool thing was that our great, my great great grandfather and your great great great grandfather made these bones during the Civil War.
And when he moved from North Carolina to Texas, he took these bones with him.
And they sound like this.
(rhythmic tapping) - Oh yeah.
- So at Christmas, we'd all get together.
And the men would take out the bones and you know, everybody clacking and, gah!
(laughing) Singing maybe, "O Susannah" or something like that.
And it just got my ear going for something that was different and rhythmic.
- I loved rhythm - Yeah.
- But it was also a different kind of music that you just didn't hear on the radio.
And that kinda got me going listening to other odd kinds of music.
- Yeah, I see you have a harmonica here.
Do you wanna try a little something with that too?
- Yeah, it's, - 'Cause I think people can only take solo bones for maybe those ten minutes.
(laughing) - Ten minutes, right.
So something like this.
(harmonica and bones music) - Those do get - Yeah.
- Really good rhythm.
- Yeah, it's great rhythm.
And very unusual rhythm.
- Your family left Texas when you were around middle school.
And you made it to California and you joined a rock and roll band.
- Started a rock and roll band, yeah.
This was back in the pre-Beatles days.
- [Zeb] Wow.
- So I was the drummer in the band and, you know, I really loved, again, loved rhythm and loved that early rock and roll stuff.
Then the Beatles came out and I was going to college and I kind of put that aside.
Fell in love with the banjo later on.
(laughing) I was going to college at San Francisco State University and I just by a total random act of violence got jumped by three guys, and beat up.
Broke my jaw, busted my face.
Left me for dead, basically.
And I was only 21.
And that just changed everything I thought about life.
It was like, death could happen just like that, just in an instant.
And if you wanna do something, man, you better, like, go do it.
- [Zeb] Yeah.
- And so I got interested in sort of healing myself through listening to the cowboy songs.
One of the teachers at the school where I was working had a big collection of old 78s.
And he had this song by Carl Sprague called "I Ride An Old Paint".
And one of the verses was, ♪ His wife she died in a poolroom fight ♪ ♪ And still he sings from morning to night ♪ ♪ Ride around little dogie ♪ I thought, man, either I'm gonna go down with pain and suffering of that being jaw-wired-together or I'm gonna be the guy that sings from morning till night.
And so, - That's profound.
- It was to me, especially at 21.
I went down to UCLA, where they had this huge collection of old 78 records and one of the great folklorists down there, Archie Green, said, "You know, Carl Sprague is still alive."
"He was the first guy to record a cowboy song back in 1927."
I said, "Wow, really?"
He said, "Yeah, he lives in Bryan, Texas."
I said, "That's right close to where my parents live."
So I went back to see him and he had ended up being the baseball coach at Texas A&M College.
He was so happy to see a young person that cared about his music, you know.
He hadn't really had a lot of attention.
And he spent the whole day with me, showing me the cowboy lick on the guitar.
And how to play the cowboy style of harmonica, which is, you know, you play the note.
(harmonica wails) Out of the side of your mouth and then you tap your tongue to get the rhythm.
(cowboy harmonica blows) I thought that was great.
- You can hear that around a campfire.
- You can hear that around a cowboy campfire, that's for sure.
And so what that taught me is that if you have your celebrities that you love who aren't too famous, you can go see those people.
You can go learn from those people.
And that changed my life.
- I can see how that would be an a-ha moment, like, oh, wow, these people are still alive.
I can go meet 'em and learn from 'em and that became your mentor's path.
- Well, I wasn't a folklorist so I didn't know how you find these people.
Later on I found out, there's a network how you can find these people.
But I went back to finish college at UC Santa Barbara and Ralph Stanley came and did a concert.
And my good buddy who was playing the banjo at the time, Steve Keith, and I went to the concert.
And after the show we went and said to Ralph, there were only a few people at the show so we could go right up to him.
And I said, "Where can I learn that clawhammer "style like your mother plays, that banjo style?
"I love that."
He said, "Well, you can go back to Asheville, "where there's a lot of music", he said, "Clinch Mountain, Mount Airy, Galax, "those are some good places."
So Steve and I left that summer, it was 1969.
Everybody else was going to Woodstock, we were going to wood stick.
(laughing) - But you were a hippie, right?
I mean, let's call it what it was, right?
- Yeah, we had a '52 Chevy pickup with no door handles and an old dog named Jezebel and we came all through the Southern mountains.
Every weekend we'd go to a fiddler's convention and in between we'd go to people's houses.
Because the mountain people would say, "Come stay a week with us!"
And we would.
(laughing) They were just being nice but we would stay and learn from these folks.
And we met literally hundreds of musicians, it was incredible.
The thing that excited me is these were people born in the late 1800s so they were closer to the pioneer ancestors than to the modern world.
Many of them like Tommy Jarrell and Dellie Norton and those people had their repertoires formed way before radio and television came, of course way before television.
But the radio and records came in '23, 1922, something like that.
And these people had already learned all their material when they were younger.
So to me that was, just getting a glimpse of a past that was going to be leaving, and we'd never see again.
- A more pure look into the past.
- Yeah, not a homogenized look.
It was a very, each hollow had its own little way of doing stuff, and singing stuff.
So we decided, Steve and I decided we would try to find the most remote place in the Southern mountains.
And it was Kingdom Come, Kentucky.
Where you had to drive up a creek bed to get to the town.
And if the creek was up or it was frozen you couldn't get to the place.
It was really way back there.
- What did you find back there?
- Found some musicians.
Arizona Bryant, as a matter of fact, was her name.
She played dulcimer and just an old-timey way of doing things.
Growing all their own food, making all their own music.
Didn't care about radio or television or any of that stuff.
- So did you find any other bizarre things on your travels?
- That became sort of the thing I really found fascinating because not only was it fun to learn.
Because these were people who were playing instruments like this mouthbow that I play.
They were doing it as a musical instrument, not just as a goofy gimmick or something.
They were just doing it for their friends as a useful musical instrument.
And so mouthbow was one of the first ones I came across.
From Jimmie Driftwood, the guy who wrote "Tennessee Stud" and "Battle of New Orleans".
And Carlock Stooksbury, another great player from up in Norris, Tennessee.
They could get so much music out of one string.
(moutbow twanging) ♪ Well have you heard the many stories ♪ ♪ Told by young and old with joy ♪ ♪ About the many deeds of daring ♪ ♪ That were done by the Johnson boys?
♪ ♪ You take and Kate I'll take Sal ♪ ♪ We'll both have a Johnson gal ♪ ♪ You take Kate and I'll take Sal ♪ ♪ We'll both have a Johnson gal ♪ (mouthbow interlude) ♪ Now they were scouts in the rebels' army ♪ ♪ They were known both far and wide ♪ ♪ When the Yankees saw them coming ♪ ♪ They'd lay down their guns and hide ♪ ♪ You take Kate and I'll take Sal ♪ ♪ We'll both have a Johnson gal ♪ ♪ You take Kate and I'll take Sal ♪ ♪ We'll both have a Johnson gal ♪ (mouthbow interlude) ♪ Now the Johnson boys were boys of honor ♪ ♪ They knew how to court the maids ♪ ♪ They knew how to hug and kiss them ♪ ♪ Hop up pretty girls don't be 'fraid ♪ ♪ You take Kate and I'll take Sal ♪ ♪ We'll both have a Johnson gal ♪ ♪ You take Kate and I'll take Sal ♪ ♪ We'll both have a Johnson gal ♪ - Retro interviews take nine (slate clacking) - Hi mom.
(chuckling) So after a couple of reconnaissance missions back and forth from California to North Carolina you decided to move to North Carolina and set up a new life.
Mom, how did you feel about that?
- Well it wasn't my favorite idea.
David moved three months before I did because I had to spend the summer in Santa Barbara before I could make up my mind and then once I moved to Asheville and got over some of the culture shock coming from Santa Barbara in the 1970s and made a lot of women friends.
And then we had a lot of new friends and then I just loved it and I've love it ever since.
- And you were playing some music then.
- I was, I was playing guitar until about two days before you were born.
(laughing) And the guitar was way up here.
- Yeah, that looks a little uncomfortable, doesn't it?
And did you meet some of the people that we've been talking about?
- I sure did, in fact, dad and I, David and I were walking down the street in west Asheville and we saw a sign on a phone pole that said, a music festival in Sodom.
- Handmade, handmade.
- In Sodom.
- In Sodom.
- And we thought, we gotta check that out.
And we rode and drove and rode back through the mountains way back into Madison County and found this baseball field next to the dumpster as the sign had said.
And there was one person on stage and two people in the audience and us.
- And Sheila Kay Adams was one of the people in the audience and we sat down beside her and she said, "You're not from around here are ye?"
(laughter) And she said, I told her what I was interested in, the old music and the old people.
And she said, "Well let us show you, introduce you "to Dellie Norton."
The old ballad singer that had the ballads coming down her family for generations.
And Dellie just sort of took us in like a grandmama.
- Yeah, we drove up another little windy dirt road to her house at the top of the holler.
And it was also my first experience with an outhouse.
Which was something I never thought I'd be doing when I lived in Santa Barbara.
And by the time we left Dellie asked me if I wanted a dope, which turned out to be Coca-Cola.
And then she gave me a bunch of jam that she had made and asked me if I wanted a poke which I didn't know how to answer that.
But that turned out to be a paper bag.
(laughing) So it was quite an indoctrination into the local Appalachian culture up here, it was pretty amazing.
- Were there other festivals that you went to?
- Well, one of the main ones that brought me down here was the Mountain Dancing and Song Festival.
It's been going since 1928, Bascom Lunsford started it.
It was a big deal.
And after that festival on Saturday night, thousands of people would be in the parking lot of one of the shopping centers playing music, all playing music, it was great.
- And you remember your first gig in Asheville?
- The Asheville Public Library.
I realized that I really loved performing and I really loved trying to get these songs out to people, the old mountain songs.
- And there was a woman at that festival that had three little boys that she brought to that storytelling at the library.
And she decided later she wanted to hire David for her sons' birthday party.
And at the end David said, "That'll be $10."
And she said, "Oh, I'll give you 20."
(laughing) - High dollar worth.
- One of his first paying gigs.
- [Zeb] First raise.
- That's right.
- So some of the people you met, I remember them, meeting them as a little kid.
- Dellie Norton Walt Davis, Walt Davis was my favorite because he would sneak me fried chicken and chocolate cake while he was working on our house.
- There were so many of these great people like Wade Mainer, Grandpa Jones of course.
Roy Acuff, Tommy Jarrell, Morgan Sexton, Ray Hicks the storyteller, Nimrod Workman the ballad singer, Frazier Moss the great fiddler, Luke Smathers the swing fiddler, and of course Mike Seeger who was such an inspiration to me.
- What about Etta Baker?
- Etta Baker was very important to me because I would go down and see her, she only lived an hour away in Morganton, and she was happy to show me how she played the guitar which was this beautiful finger style of guitar that had come into the mountain music via the black community and she could just play it just as clean as could be.
She played every day from the time she was three till the time she was 93.
- For an hour.
So she was very clean and beautiful picking.
You could tell it was from another time but it was just lovely.
And so I knew her for 40 years and one day we were sitting on her couch and she said, "David, do you play my song 'Railroad Bill'?"
I said, "Sure I do Etta but I'd love to sing it.
"I know you don't sing but I'd love "to learn the words for it, do you know 'em?"
She said, "No, I don't really know the words."
She said, now she's 93 at the time.
She says, "But my old uncle does."
I said, "Your old uncle?
You didn't tell me you had an uncle that played music, I've known you for 40 years."
She said, "Well, he hadn't played music in 75 years."
I said, "Get your purse, get your guitar, we're going over to his house right now."
So we went over to Ralph Perkins' house and he was happy to see us and she started playing music and he went in the back room and got his harmonica and started playing "Railroad Bill" with us.
And sang all these verses of the old song "Railroad Bill".
- [Zeb] Ah, that's a great one.
(bluegrass music) ♪ Well Railroad Bill so mean and so bad ♪ ♪ Took a swing at his mama ♪ ♪ Took a shot at his dad ♪ ♪ Then he ride ride ride ♪ ♪ Railroad Bill Railroad Bill ♪ ♪ Lights his cigar with a ten dollar bill ♪ ♪ And then he ride ride ride ♪ ♪ Well called the doctor and the doctor came ♪ ♪ Said you're not sick Bill you're just insane ♪ ♪ And then he ride ride ride ♪ ♪ Railroad Bill Railroad Bill ♪ ♪ Lights his cigar with a ten dollar bill ♪ ♪ And then he ride ride ride ♪ (guitar interlude) ♪ Well Railroad Bill standing on a hill ♪ ♪ He never worked and he never will ♪ ♪ And then he ride ride ride ♪ ♪ Railroad Bill Railroad Bill ♪ ♪ Lights his cigar with a ten dollar bill ♪ ♪ And then he ride ride ride ♪ (guitar interlude) ♪ Railroad Bill Railroad Bill ♪ ♪ Lights his cigar with a ten dollar bill ♪ ♪ And then he ride ride ride ♪ - You know, one of the most important things that I learned from David actually is groove.
And how important that is to this music.
I mean, I grew up around fiddle players and banjo players and learned a lot of the melodies.
But for a song to really really make an impact it's gotta have a groove people can feel, like "I've Got Mine".
It's got that, just, driving groove that you just can't help but move your body to it.
- It's true, and the cool thing about that song is it shows that mix of African American and Anglo stuff in the music right here.
I learned that song from Walt and Ethel Phelps, they were two black street musicians who lived here in Asheville.
Walt was here through the 1930s up to the '80s when he passed away.
And he had learned from Blind Boy Fuller and a lot of the great, Reverend Gary Davis.
- And this was from Pink Anderson, he learned from Pink Anderson down in Spartanburg, this old tune called, "I Got Mine".
(blues music) ♪ Well I went down ♪ ♪ To a big crap game ♪ ♪ You know it was against my will ♪ ♪ Lost every doggone nickel I had ♪ ♪ 'Cept a twenty dollar bill ♪ ♪ There's a thirty dollar bet laying on the floor ♪ ♪ My buddy's point was nine ♪ ♪ The police come and caught all of us ♪ ♪ But I got mine ♪ ♪ Yeah I got mine I got mine ♪ ♪ I grabbed my money and out the back door ♪ ♪ I went flyin' ♪ ♪ Ever since that big crap game ♪ ♪ I been livin' on chicken and wine ♪ ♪ I'm a leader in high society since ♪ ♪ I got mine ♪ (guitar interlude) ♪ Now I went down to a turkey feed ♪ ♪ That dinner was supposed to be fine ♪ ♪ Fifteen minutes 'fore the table set ♪ ♪ All the gitterbugs standin' in line ♪ ♪ When they brought that gobbler out ♪ ♪ Everybody's eyes did shine ♪ ♪ Well you talk about a rascal grabbin' boys ♪ ♪ Well I got mine ♪ ♪ Yeah I got mine I got mine ♪ ♪ I grabbed that gobbler by the wing and ♪ ♪ Out the back door I went flyin' ♪ ♪ Well I tried to make it to a hidin' place ♪ ♪ Couldn't get there in time ♪ ♪ Some joker grabbed me by the coat and ♪ ♪ I got mine ♪ (guitar interlude) ♪ I went down to my gal's house ♪ ♪ The hour was just about nine ♪ ♪ I wasn't lookin' like old Henry Ford ♪ ♪ But you know I was feelin' just as fine ♪ ♪ Well I found her sittin' on another man's lap ♪ ♪ Whoo, I didn't like that sign ♪ ♪ Well I told that joker what I thought of him and ♪ ♪ I got mine ♪ ♪ Yeah I got mine I got mine ♪ ♪ I grabbed that gobbler by the wing and ♪ ♪ Out the back door I went flyin' ♪ ♪ That joker grabbed a shotgun ♪ ♪ And he used it mighty fine ♪ ♪ Well you talk about a rascal runnin' boys well ♪ ♪ I got mine ♪ ♪ Let me tell ya I got mine ♪ ♪ I got mine ♪ ♪ I grabbed that money and out the back door ♪ ♪ I went flyin' ♪ ♪ Ever since that big crap game ♪ ♪ I been livin' on chicken and wine ♪ ♪ I'm a leader of high society since ♪ ♪ I got mine ♪ - I have an old banjo that was made back in the 1860s and has groundhog hide for a head, has cat guts for strings, you know, no frets on it, totally homemade by some mountain boy after or during the Civil War.
And it's just got the sound of the banjo 130 years ago.
You can hear it in there, and you can hear the African and British isles mix in the tune and in the sound of the banjo.
(quick banjo music) (slide whistle down) (bouncing) (engine revving)