Folkways

If you want to trace the history of recordings of American folk music there’s no better place than Smithsonian Folkways, and there’s no better person to speak with than Folkways archivist Jeff Place. Jeff has won two GRAMMY awards (and been nominated two more times) for collections he has put together for Folkways, and he produced and wrote the award-winning 1997 edition of the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Early Carter Family recording

Early Carter Family recording

Jeff shared his knowledge and experience with us, and took us on a tour of the Folkways archives. Early Carter Family recordings for Victor sit alongside field recordings of musicians not only from throughout Appalachia but from around the world. The archives hold the Woody Guthrie papers and the original recording of This Land Is Your Land, in addition to tapes and films from each of the Smithsonian folk festivals held each summer on the National Mall in DC.

Wayne Henderson is included in that collection cooking squirrel stew on the Mall. Jeff told us that Wayne took note of the tamed nature of squirrels on the Mall and observed that it would be easier to catch them than the ones who live closer to Rugby.

Folkways was founded by the legendary Moses Asch in New York in 1948, and over the next four decades the label released more than 2,000 albums. Following Asch’s death in 1986, the Smithsonian acquired Folkways from his estate and has continue its mission of recording and documenting the “people’s music” from all over the world.

 

It’s been a while.

So it has been a long time since we updated this. Since the last update, we’ve begun the actual editing and writing process of this crazy project. Also, we talked to three-time Grammy award winner Dr. Ralph Stanley, which was pretty amazing. Sneak peek at that interview coming soon!

Perfection?

Wayne Henderson at work on #653 ... or maybe it was 654.

Wayne Henderson at work on #653 … or maybe it was 654.

Wayne C. Henderson has lived most of his days within a few square miles in the tiny burg of Rugby, Va., population 7. But the work he does there, crafting some of the most beautiful and sought-after guitars in the world and then playing them with his unique three-finger picking style, has taken him all over the world.

He made his first instrument out of a plank, a cardboard box and some fishing line, but moved quickly to finer materials. When still a teenager he sold one of his guitars for $500.

“I thought up the most ridiculous price I could imagine because I really liked that guitar and didn’t want to sell it,” he told us.

He took most of that money and spent it on better tools and another piece of wood, and a career in crafting guitars and, later on, mandolins was born. His instruments are played by some of the biggest names in country music, though perhaps his best known is owned by Eric Clapton. The story of that instrument is told in Allen St. John’s 2005 book, Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Make the Perfect Instrument.

Henderson hates the title, saying, “there’s no such thing as the perfect guitar.” At the same time, he’s clearly proud of the work and of the fact that an identical, sequentially number Henderson guitar sold at auction at Christie’s for more than $30,000, this highest price ever paid at auction for an instrument by a living artisan according to Henderson.

Such responses to his instruments inevitably draw comparisons to the world’s great instrument makers, and Henderson has set a personal goal that reflects the comparison: “I’d like to make as many instruments as Stradivari made.”

The Italian luthier made about 1,100 violins, cellos, guitars, harps and violas during his lifetime (1644-1737). Henderson has made a few more than 650 so far. Of course, the retired mail carrier notes with a chuckle, “Stradivari didn’t have to carry the mail for 32 years!”

Henderson makes all of his instruments in a simple brick garage next to his home which sits on a hillside overlooking a neighbor’s farm. Musicians and instrument makers up and down the Crooked Road drop in the visit and play. Henderson pointed out a cushion on the chair next to him and told us it was for Doc Watson‘s bad back. Henderson’s daughter, Elle, is learning the trade from her father and was working on a guitar for Watson at the time of his death earlier this year. She completed it just a few weeks after he died. (On her blog she tells a great story that ends with the Watson guitar being played by John Mayer.)

Elle wasn’t home when we visited with her dad so we’re going to have to go back to Rugby, where the music of the Crooked Road is rolling along to another generation.

Gracious Hospitality

The Crooked Road is Southern, so it’s hospitable. That doesn’t mean that outsiders are welcome as family, but it does mean that they’ll be made to feel at home while they’re there. The Road runs thick with a creative and productive tension between insiders and outsiders, and it takes more than living there for a decade or so to be considered an insider. Indeed, according to a story one seventh generation Floyd county resident told us of an old-timers thoughts concerning second generation residents, “just because a momma cat crawls up inside a stove to give birth don’t make the kittens biscuits.”

To be alive means change, and the culture along the road is alive. The shifts in music between Old Time, Bluegrass, Country, Blues and other styles that are played in venues along the Crooked Road bear witness to that vitality.

Creative tension can be rough around the edges sometimes, and that’s where the culture of hospitality smooths out the edges. That tension, as expressed in and through the music, is one of the narrative threads we’re exploring, and that hospitality is the reason we’ve been able to film so many rich stories thus far.

We thank everyone who has opened up their doors to us and made us feel at home along the Road, and we are especially grateful to the good folks at the Hotel Floyd. Who knew that Floyd had a certified green boutique hotel right in the middle of town? Well, they do, and it is an outstanding place to stay. It was our home base for the week, and we hope to make it so again soon.

Our home last week.

Our home last week.

What’s our next step?

Ralph Stanley singing a bar of “O, Death” would be good. 

But really, we’re going to take a look at the many hours of raw footage and try to assemble a rough cut. Then we’ll see what we still need, and make a plan from there. But for now, we’re weary and we need to rest.