Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hank Belew reports to Bexley on North Georgia Bluegrass and BBQ

Listen to the podcast of Hank Belew's dispatch from Rabun County.

Hank Belew reports from Rabun County, North Georgia. Hank is the Bexley Public Radio culture correspondent covering North Georgia and contiguous states.

Chilly mornings, lot of rain, and Chattooga River is up. This months rain is like the rain of yesteryears. Almost every day. Humidity. At night to get in bed, you’d lift the cover sheet up and let it fall and settle on you because the sheets were just too sticky from the humidity in the air.

Those were the days before air conditioning.

Now you have to have air conditioning, microwave stoves and two and three phone lines.

Hank said he used to grumble because Southern Bell kept changing the telephone area code in Rabun County. Hank grumbled until he realized that he has six telephone numbers himself. A fax, two cell phones, two land lines to the business and one to the house.

Hank began his culture dispatch with a comment that North Georgia Bluegrass jam sessions are firing up.

There are now five or six jam sessions a week in Rabun County.

Jam session are not concerts where people go to listen to specific bands and performers. Jam sessions are distinct from concerts. A jam session is where anyone who brings an instrument can play along or sing along. People go to jam sessions to listen, learn, play and sing.

The Bexley Public Radio culture correspondent said that people used to go across the Chattooga River to a little community called Mountain Rest to play in a Bluegrass jam session. The location was Cousin’s Store. Robert Lowery was the proprietor for years. The store closed for a while and now Bert’s kinfolks have reopened the store in the same location. When Hank was just learning Bluegrass, there was a jam session every Saturday night and people would drive hundreds of miles just to attend and participate.

At Cousin’s, there was always a core group of really good musicians. Students and beginners sat on the outside edges of the circle. Experienced musicians would sit in the “inner circle.” Next around would be the pretty good musicians, Then, the younger and inexperienced musicians would sit on the outside and at the edges of the circle where they could watch, listen and learn. As these beginners honed their skills, they could progress closer to the inner circle of experienced Bluegrass players.

[WCRX-LP editorial collective note: Most Google connections for “inner circle” make the following points and discuss “Esoterica. 1655, from Gk. esoterikos "belonging to an inner circle," from esotero, comp. adv. of eso "within." In Eng., originally of Pythagorean doctrines. According to Lucian, the division of teachings into exoteric and esoteric originated with Aristotle.”]

There are five or six jam sessions a week in Rabun County. Most are on weekend evenings or evenings near the weekend.

Besides jam sessions, there is also formal Bluegrass education in Rabun County. The Blue Ridge Music Academy offers courses of study. Founders of the academy are two musicians who perform with The Foxfire Boys Bluegrass band. Courses are conducted five days a week. Students range in age from five or six years old to at least one student in his seventies.

Tom Nixon and Dean English are associated with Blue Ridge Music Academy and are members of the Foxfire Boys. They have a jam session each Thursday night at their store in Clayton. The session is on a porch during most of the year and inside around a wood stove during cool summer nights and cold winter evenings.

The Blue Ridge Music Academy is located in Clayton and looks west over U.S. Route 23 as this highway passes through Rabun County.

The original Foxfire School music program was taught by George Reynolds, now a resident of Tennessee. The hallmark of Reynolds’ teaching was a chaotic school room. But his lessons kept Bluegrass alive for his students, and almost any musician between 24 and 44 was taught or at least heavily influenced by George.

Hank then continued his reflections on the types of Bluegrass songs. For this dispatch, Hank considered “Survivial Songs”

Living in the mountains isolated from commerce, people just had to rely on their own efforts and skills to survive. Even when playing music, their minds and feelings were on simple survival. The lyrics tended to be about what you did, day to day, morning to night. The subjects of Bluegrass songs were simple, direct and straight forward: Where you built your cabin, where you got your food.

Examples of this category of songs are “Cabin in the Lane”, “Little Log Cabin,” “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” and “How You Gonna Eat.”

Another example is the Bill Monroe song lyric “ There’s a rabbit in log and I ain’t got my dog, how am I gonna get him out. I’ll get me a briar and I’ll twist it in his hair, that’s how I’ll get him out.” This is a survival song, pure and simple.

Hank then commented that “There’s ways to get your food if you need to” and then discussed wild meats, game and fowl. Rabbit, venison, possum, raccoon, bear, squirrel.

Hank said “These are foods that follow the old saying that ‘you can eat anything that can’t out run you.’”

As gourmand commentary, Hank said “Squirrel. All its good for is to pull it off the bone and make dumplings. There’s just not enough meat on squirrel. Possum is stringy. You have to boil it up to soften it and then bake it so it gets a little crust on it. It tastes better with a crust.” He also said that coon meat is an “elegant meat.” “Raccoon is a totally elegant meat with a slight gamey taste to it. Raccoon meat the ‘other, other white meat.’”

The culture correspondent continued with some observations on coon-hunting which he said has become an important sport. Coon-hunting used to be a survival skill but has become a major sporting activity. A visit to a sporting goods shops will display a surprising amount of coon hunting equipment. There are no special coon-hunting rifles. Most hunters use 22 caliber rifles because they are small and light, easy to carry through the woods.

The dogs that people hunt with are as specialized as thoroughbred racing horses. Hank said that years ago, a friend named Cliff went over to Alabama and bought a Walker coon hound. Cliff paid upwards of $25 thousand for the dog.

The friend was eager to show off his new and pricey hound to his buddies. Cliff telephoned his buddies and they got a troop together and went out coon-hunting just south of Rabun County. Rabun County is on the edge of the mountains so the next county south is much flatter. There are more rivers and a lot more coon down there. The next county is just better terrain for coon-hunting.

The hunters and the new coon dog tracked their prey to an old tree growing in the bottom land. The tree leaned out toward the river and had low branches that were not too steep. The coon was hiding in one of the lower branches. The $25 thousand Walker spotted the coon. The eager hound climbed onto the lower branch to confront the coon.

Suddenly, the dog became silent, lost his balance and dropped off the branch. The $25 thousand dog hit the ground dead.

Cliff took the dog to a veterinary doctor for a autopsy.

The cause of death was identified as a heart attack.

Cliff ended up paying for a fancy grave for his $25 thousand coon dog.

[WCRX-LP editorial collective comment: Now there’s a story that needs a Bluegrass lyric and song!]

Hank said that there are long breeding lines of hounds in the South. There are top show hounds and top hunting dogs. There is a lot of money in the breeding and training of hounds. But the hounds are not as expensive as fox hounds and the hunting thoroughbreds. Fox hounds are the “high dollar” dogs. Hank said that fox hunting is the sport of gentlemen. Coon hunting is the sport of “good ole boys.”

Hank continued his discussion of game meats and fowl. He said that there are coon and possum recipes in kitchens of Rabun County. He also said that the locals have stories about the medicinal and health-giving quality of wild meats, game and fowl.

As an example, Hank offered a story from John Hammonds, a resident of North Carolina. The story was about an old fellow named Parsons.

Parson’s home was the shelter under a rock, Parsons had the “sided-in” the shelter and raised his family there.

At the time of the story Parsons lived alone. Hammonds heard that Parsons was down and doing poorly with an undiagnosed illness.

The next time Hammonds was out hunting, he checked on Parsons to learn how the sick man was doing.

Hammond asked Parsons “What ails you?” Parsons responded “I don’t know what the problem is but I think if I ate me an owl, it would cure me.”

John Hammonds went off and took it on himself to catch an owl or two for Parsons. Hammonds said that year, the owls were pretty thick and plentiful.

Hammonds took his catch to Parsons and then went on his way back home.

Two or three weeks passed and Hammonds was back hunting and took it on himself to visit Parsons to see how the owl cure worked. When he got to Parsons house under the rock, the old man was sitting on the porch, getting up and around. Hammonds asked “How are you and the owl getting along?” Parsons replied “We are doing just fine. Mr. Parsons is up and around.”

Hank offered the commentary “That wild food is good for you. Maybe.”

Hank said that the “Survival songs” of Bluegrass can also be categorized as “Wild meat songs”, “hunting songs” and “dog songs.”

Hank then reminded listeners that the Georgia state BBQ championship and 13th annual Bluegrass festival are fast approaching. The championship and festival are held in Dillard, Georgia just down U.S. Route 23 from Columbus, Ohio. The championship and festival are scheduled for July 31st and August 1st. See for details.

Bluegrass music that is booked includes New Horizons, Foxfire Boys, Crowe Brothers, Mississippi Sawyers, Volume Five, Heaven’s Echo, Curtis Blackwell and the Dixie Bluegrass Boys, The Bluegrass Revue and others too. The festival encourages “parking lot picking” too.

The festival is a short eight hour drive from Bexley down Highway U.S. 23. High Street in Columbus, Ohio. After you cross the North Carolina state line into Georgia, take a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, hold that breath, count to ten and you’ll be in Dillard, Georgia for the events.

Hank also reported on the organic market 8:00 to noon on Saturdays on Main Street in Clayton.

This market sells the produce of the seven or eight Rabun County organic farmers. This market is on Main Street in downtown Clayton. One of the businesses on Main Street has given over its front sidewalk area to the market. The market has been in full swing with early crops for three or four weeks.

Main Street in Clayton was the old US Route 23 until that federal highway was moved east about half a mile and widened to four lanes.

Only pricing information that Hank offered for the Clayton organic farmers market was the note that corn is going for $75.00 per gallon.

Hank also noted that liquid corm is another subject of much Bluegrass music. Making liquor and corn whiskey. You couldn’t haul corn down to the city and make any money but you could haul corn liquor to the city and make some money.

Hank also discussed the roots of Bluegrass music. He said that the International Blue Grass Music Association monthly newsletter mentions European Bluegrass band competition. Bluegrass is huge in Europe. Two of the top three bands in the European contest were from the Czech Republic. One of these Czech bands is named “G-runs and Roses” a reference to a rock n roll band named “Guns and Roses.”

As further explanation of the unusual name of the band, Hank said that the phrase “G-run” is a very popular Bluegrass lick.

The roots of Bluegrass music include Scots Irish songs, English folk songs and American influences from jazz to Gospel, folk music and rock n roll all have connections to Bluegrass.

Hank also said that when you focus on the Bluegrass instruments like the fiddle, the bass viol and guitar, you begin to understand the music’s connection to Eastern Europe.

But in all these music specialties, the culture correspondent said there are noticeable differences. In Dixieland music, all the instruments play the lead break at the same time. They don’t take turns so much. Same with the Scots Irish music. The penny whistler and the fiddle play the lead together all of the time. The musicians don’t take turns with the lead. But when you get to Bluegrass, one instrument takes a lead break and then another instrument follows and takes the lead break. Similarly, in eastern European music, the lead progresses from the violin to the accordion or concertina, then to the guitar and so on through all the instruments..

The European music is folk music and is about day-to-day living and it’s about survival, loves and liquor, eating and fighting.

Hank also noted a Banjo camp in Munich. France has a country music festival including American Bluegrass, Americana, Western Swing, Cajun, Tex-Mex, and Rock-a-billy

Europe’s discovery of Bluegrass and other American genres is just “going up the music family tree.”

Hank completed his dispatch for Bexley Public Radio with a brief review of a new banjo CD by Steve Martin. This is the same Steve Martin who is actor and comedian From Saturday Night Live. Martin is a serious banjo player. He has performed with Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The CD is titled "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo."

Martin co-wrote the fifteen tracks on the CD issued by Rounder Records.
Other musicians on the CD include Mary Black, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Tim O Brien, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.

As a departing salutation, the culture correspondent said “See you in the near future, and if I don’t, I’ll meet you in the pasture.”


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Design is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Bexley Public Radio Foundation. Text is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Hank Belew.

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