Wifi Networks Available

Roddy Moore points out the inscription on this 1832 dulcimer in the archives of the Blue Ridge Institute he directs.

While instrument making is an ancient art whose practice is alive and well along the Crooked Road, it has never been either a primary way of making a living in Southwest Virginia or the most common way that people here got their instruments. As Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College, told us the first U.S. Census to inquire about occupations (in the mid-1800s) listed no instrument makers in the Commonwealth of Virginia. On the other hand, Moore showed us a beautiful dulcimer inscribed “Floyd County, John Scales, Jr., August 28, 1832.” Clearly, people have been making instruments along the road for a long, long time.

Of course, as Moore explained, at the turn of the 20th century you could mail-order a guitar from Sears for the equivalent of no more than $20, so for quite a while it has been pretty inexpensive to buy a guitar from elsewhere. The same has been true for other instruments, and many of the old banjos that the institute has collected in the area over the years were manufactured by a company in Baltimore.

That economic pattern reflects a fascinating tension along the road between old-time culture and outside influence.

The tension itself is embodied in the person of Rob Yard, an instrument maker who describes himself as a “back to the lander” of the 1970s, who has lived in Floyd County for about 40 years. He grew up in British Columbia and went to college in the state of Washington. He went to school on a track scholarship as a pole vaulter. Having learned to vault in the days of bamboo poles, he developed a fascination with that material. Today he crafts beautiful bamboo flutes, didgeridoos, drums and other instruments in an open-air workshop next to the house he and his wife built.

His grown children have built houses of their own on the property that lies at the end of a long dirt road that dips beneath a stream before rising to the homestead. Though it feels like the end of the earth, and certainly way beyond our cell signal, when Martin looked at his phone he saw the indication, “wifi networks available.”

Birthplace of Country Music

We spent a fascinating hour or so with Jessica Turner, a member of the board of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in Bristol. (We weren’t sure whether we were in Tennessee or Virginia at the time. State Street sits on the state line.) Turner spoke with us about the role Bristol played in the early days of recording Old Time, Country and Bluegrass music, and about the deeper roots of that music. The alliance is building a museum in Bristol to celebrate the city’s music heritage, and to tell the stories of the people who made it and continue to create it.

BCMA’s offices, where we met Turner, are near the site of the famous ’27 Sessions, and across the street from the train station where Ralph Peer rode into town to capture the sounds of the mountains for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Those two weeks of recordings in a warehouse in downtown Bristol launched the careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers among others. Johnny Cashed called the sessions “the Big Bang of Country Music.”

We followed our late afternoon conversation with Turner with an evening at the Carter Family Fold. Rita Forrester, granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, graciously told us the story of her family back to those 27 Sessions and beyond.

Day 1

Production officially started today with our arrival at the Hotel Floyd. We will kick off our filming tomorrow when we interview Rita Forrester at the Carter Family Fold. Rita is the granddaughter of the famed AP Carter of the Carter family, and we expect to learn a good deal from her. We’ll keep you posted! 

These Hands

 

We met David Williams at a concert. Willard Gayheart and Bobby Patterson, the performers, asked him to perform this song he wrote for a documentary about the collapsing Appalachian furniture industry. The empty factories and mills and mines along the Crooked Road cause hard times, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that hard times breed good music.

Home Page … Sorta

Martin Lederle-Ensign is an 18-year-old musician and filmmaker who is taking a gap-year before beginning college at the University of Mary Washington in 2013. He’s using the year to make Crooked.
David Ensign has not been 18 since 1978. He is a writer, story-teller, and part-time Presbyterian pastor in Arlington, VA.

Obviously, this is a blog rather than a web site, so we don’t really have a traditional “home page.” But we wanted to create a single post that explains this project to folks we’ll meet along the way as Crooked grows over the coming months. So welcome to Crookedfilm’s home page.

A bit more than a year ago, as Martin began his senior year at Arlington’s Wakefield High School, he was trying to develop and focus a senior project that started with his desire to add the banjo to his repertoire of instruments that already included violin and mandolin. While learning to play the banjo was all well and good, in and of itself it wasn’t quite a senior project. So, inspired by a wonderful documentary featuring legendary banjo artist Bela Fleck‘s exploration of the African roots of the banjo, and a Smithsonian magazine article on Virginia’s Crooked Road, Martin decided to make a short documentary about the music of the Crooked Road as a contextual piece to take the senior project a bit beyond learning to play a new instrument.

David became the producer of the documentary part of the project. It turns out that “producer” means “the guy who produces the wallet when the bill comes due.” He was also driver, cameraman and caterer. (Don’t ask about the soup supper that one late night when the only thing open along the road was a small grocery store.)

More than that, though, he got the chance to spend a lot of time with his son while supporting a project that fed his lifelong passion for music, and his longstanding but previously unfulfilled desire to make a film.

The end result was Crooked, the short film that Martin wrote and directed.

Martin showed it to a few local audiences, and the near unanimous response was, “that’s great; I want to see more.”

With that in mind, Martin decided to take a gap year before beginning college and use the time to take Crooked way beyond a short student film, into a documentary length study of the music, musicians and instrument makers along the Crooked Road. Because it is no longer a school project, this time around dad gets to do more than produce the wallet.

Indeed, through the incredibly generous donations of more than 70 backers through a Kickstarter campaign, this time we’ll hit the road with equipment that is capable of capturing the fullness of the music as well as the beauty of the land and its people. We also have time to gather much more of that story, and time to put it together.

In the next several months we’ll make several trips down the Crooked Road to film local jams, interview musicians and visit with some of the remarkably skilled craftspeople who make world-renowned instruments from the maple and spruce that grow along the Blue Ridge. We’ll explore the deep roots of the music, and the social history from which it springs.

Along the way, we’ll use this blog to post clips, photos and stories from the Road. Come along for the ride!

Clawhammer

Old time is an acoustic dance music, and the banjo provides the percussion. Banjos have been a part of the music along the Crooked Road for at least two centuries and maybe longer. The banjos found along the Road these days trace their roots to African instruments, although similar instruments, whose histories are far older than the American banjo, are found in various countries around the world. All of which is to say, there are many theories about the roots of the banjo, but the singular truth at the end of them all is the joyous music that continues to entertain and inspire folks all along the road.