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This is Aunt Zip from Sodom, North Carolina. She was 105 years old when I took this picture. She was always saying things that made me stop and think, like, "Time may be a great healer, but it ain't no beauty specialist." (Laughter) She said, "Be good to your friends. Why, without them, you'd be a total stranger." (Laughter)
Now you've got to picture Aunt Zip at 105 years old in Sodom, North Carolina. I'd go up and learn these old songs from her. She couldn't sing much, couldn't play anymore. And I'd pull her out on the front porch. Down below, there was her grandson plowing the tobacco field with a mule. A double outhouse over here on the side. And we'd sing this old song. She didn't have a whole lot of energy, so I'd sing, "Hey, hey!" and she'd just answer back with, "Black-eyed Susie."
This is Ralph Stanley. When I was going to college at University of California at Santa Barbara in the College of Creative Studies, taking majors in biology and art, he came to the campus. This was in 1968, I guess it was. And he played his bluegrass style of music, but near the end of the concert, he played the old timing style of banjo picking that came from Africa, along with the banjo. It's called claw-hammer style, that he had learned from his mother and grandmother. I fell in love with that. I went up to him and said, how can I learn that? He said, well, you can go back to Clinch Mountain, where I'm from, or Asheville or Mount Airy, North Carolina -- some place that has a lot of music. Because there's a lot of old people still living that play that old style.
So I went back that very summer. I just fell in love with the culture and the people. And you know, I came back to school, I finished my degrees and told my parents I wanted to be a banjo player. You can imagine how excited they were.
(Applause) Those last few pictures were of Ray Hicks, who just passed away last year. He was one of the great American folk tale-tellers. The Old Jack tales that he had learned -- he talked like this, you could hardly understand him. But it was really wonderful. And he lived in that house that his great-grandfather had built. No running water, no electricity. A wonderful, wonderful guy.
And you can look at more pictures. I've actually got a website that's got a bunch of photos that I've done of some of the other folks I didn't get a chance to show you. This instrument came up in those pictures. It's called the mouth bow. It is definitely the first stringed instrument ever in the world, and still played in the Southern mountains. Now, the old timers didn't take a fancy guitar string and make anything like this. They would just take a stick and a catgut and string it up. It was hard on the cats, but it made a great little instrument. It sounds something like this.
Well, it was 1954, I guess it was. We were driving in the car outside of Gatesville, Texas, where I grew up in the early part of my life. Outside of Gatesville we were coming back from the grocery store. My mom was driving; my brother and I were in the back seat. We were really mad at my mom. We looked out the window. We were surrounded by thousands of acres of cotton fields. You see, we'd just been to the grocery store, and my mom refused to buy us the jar of Ovaltine that had the coupon for the Captain Midnight decoder ring in it. And, buddy, that made us mad. Well, my mom didn't put up with much either, and she was driving, and she said, "You boys! You think you can have anything you want. You don't know how hard it is to earn money. Your dad works so hard. You think money grows on trees. You've never worked a day in your lives. You boys make me so mad. You're going to get a job this summer."
She pulled the car over; she said, "Get out of the car." My brother and I stepped out of the car. We were standing on the edge of thousands of acres of cotton. There were about a hundred black folks out there picking. My mom grabbed us by the shoulders. She marched us out in the field. She went up to the foreman; she said, "I've got these two little boys never worked a day in their lives." Of course, we were just eight and 10. (Laughter) She said, "Would you put them to work?" Well, that must have seemed like a funny idea to that foreman: put these two middle-class little white boys out in a cotton field in August in Texas -- it's hot. So he gave us each a cotton sack, about 10 feet long, about that big around, and we started picking. Now, cotton is soft but the outside of the plant is just full of stickers. And if you don't know what you're doing, your hands are bleeding in no time. And my brother and I started to pick it, and our hands were startin' to bleed, and then -- "Mom!" And Mom was just sitting by the car like this. She wasn't going to give up.
Well, the foreman could see he was in over his head, I guess. He kind of just snuck up behind us and he sang out in a low voice. He just sang: "Well, there's a long white robe in heaven, I know. Don't want it to leave me behind. Well, there's a long white robe in heaven, I know. Don't want it to leave me behind." And from all around as people started singing and answering back, he sang: "Good news, good news: Chariot's coming. Good news: Chariot's coming. Good news: Chariot's coming. And I don't want it to leave me behind." Now, my brother and I had never heard anything like that in our whole lives. It was so beautiful. We sat there all day picking cotton, without complaining, without crying, while they sang things like: "Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan" and "Wade in the water," and "I done done," "This little light of mine."
Finally, by the end of the day, we'd each picked about a quarter of a bag of cotton. But the foreman was kind enough to give us each a check for a dollar, but my mother would never let us cash it. I'm 57; still have the check. Now, my mother hoped that we learned from that the value of hard work. But if you have children, you know it doesn't often work that way. No, we learned something else. The first thing I learned that day was that I never ever wanted to work that hard again. (Laughter) And pretty much never did. But I also learned that some people in this world do have to work that hard every day, and that was an eye-opener. And I also learned that a great song can make hard work go a little easier. And it also can bring the group together in a way that nothing else can.
Now, I was just a little eight-year-old boy that day when my mama put me out of the car in that hot Texas cotton field. I wasn't even aware of music -- not even aware of it. But that day in the cotton field out there picking, when those people started singing, I realized I was in the very heart of real music, and that's where I've wanted to be ever since.
It was a few years ago, but I sort of remembered this story, and I told it at a concert. My mom was in the audience. After the -- she was glad to have a story about herself, of course, but after the concert she came up and she said, "David, I've got to tell you something. I set that whole thing up. I set it up with the foreman. I set it up with the owner of the land. I just wanted you boys to learn the value of hard work. I didn't know it was going to make you fall in love with music though."
Well, this is the steel guitar. It's an American-made instrument. It was originally made by the Dopyera Brothers, who later on made the Dobro, which is a wood-bodied instrument with a metal cone for -- where the sound comes from. It's usually played flat on your lap. It was made to play Hawaiian music back in the 1920s, before they had electric guitars, trying to make a loud guitar. And then African-American folks figured out you could take a broken bottle neck, just like that -- a nice Merlot works very well. That wine we had yesterday would have been perfect. Break it off, put it on your finger, and slide into the notes. This instrument pretty much saved my life.
Fifteen years ago, 14 years ago, I guess, this year, my wife and I lost our daughter, Sarah Jane, in a car accident, and it was the most -- it almost took me out -- it almost took me out of this world. And I think I learned a lot about what happiness was by going through such unbelievable grief, just standing on the edge of that abyss and just wanting to jump in. I had to make lists of reasons to stay alive. I had to sit down and make lists, because I was ready to go; I was ready to check out of this world. And you know, at the top of the list, of course, were Jenny, and my son, Zeb, my parents -- I didn't want to hurt them. But then, when I thought about it beyond that, it was very simple things. I didn't care about -- I had a radio show, I have a radio show on public radio, "Riverwalk," I didn't care about that. I didn't care about awards or money or anything. Nothing. Nothing. On the list it would be stuff like, seeing the daffodils bloom in the spring, the smell of new-mown hay, catching a wave and bodysurfing, the touch of a baby's hand, the sound of Doc Watson playing the guitar, listening to old records of Muddy Waters and Uncle Dave Macon. And for me, the sound of a steel guitar, because one of my parents' neighbors just gave me one of these things. And I would sit around with it, and I didn't know how to play it, but I would just play stuff as sad as I could play. And it was the only instrument that, of all the ones that I play, that would really make that connection. This is a song that came out of that.
Oh, I think I've got time to tell you about this. My dad was an inventor. We moved to California when Sputnik went up, in 1957. And he was working on gyroscopes; he has a number of patents for that kind of thing. And we moved across the street from Michael and John Whitney. They were about my age. John went on, and Michael did too, to become some of the inventors of computer animation. Michael's dad was working on something called the computer. This was 1957, I was a little 10-year-old kid; I didn't know what that was. But he took me down to see one, you know, what they were making. It was like a library, just full of vacuum tubes as far as you could see, just floors and floors of these things, and one of the engineers said, some day you're going to be able to put this thing in your pocket. I thought, damn, those are going to be some big pants! (Laughter)
So that Christmas -- maybe I've got time for this -- that Christmas I got the Mister Wizard Fun-o-Rama chemistry set. Well, I wanted to be an inventor just like my dad; so did Michael. His great-granddad had been Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. So we looked in that -- this was a commercial chemistry set. It had three chemicals we were really surprised to see: sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal. Man, we were only 10, but we knew that made gunpowder. We made up a little batch and we put it on the driveway and we threw a match and phew, it flared up. Ah, it was great.
Well, obviously the next thing to do was build a cannon. So we went over into Michael's garage -- his dad had all kinds of stuff, and we put a pipe in the vice there, and screwed a cap on the end of the pipe, drilled a hole in the back of the pipe, took some of our firecrackers, pulled out the fuses, tied them together, put them in the back there, and -- down in that hole -- and then stuffed some of our gunpowder down that pipe and put three ball bearings on the top, in the garage. (Laughter) We weren't stupid: we put up a sheet of plywood about five feet in front of it. We stood back, we lit that thing, and they flew out of there -- they went through that plywood like it was paper. Through the garage. Two of them landed in the side door of his new Citroen. (Laughter) We tore everything down and buried it in his backyard. That was Pacific Palisades; it probably is still there, back there.
Well, my brother heard that we had made gunpowder. He and his buddies, they were older, and they were pretty mean. They said they were going to beat us up if we didn't make some gunpowder for them. We said, well, what are you going to do with it? They said, we're going to melt it down and make rocket fuel. (Laughter) Sure. We'll make you a big batch. (Laughter) So we made them a big batch, and it was in my -- now, we'd just moved here. We'd just moved to California. Mom had redone the kitchen; Mom was gone that day. We had a pie tin. It became Chris Berquist's job to do the melting down. Michael and I were standing way at the side of the kitchen. He said, "Yeah, hey, it's melting. Yeah, the sulfur's melting. No problem. Yeah, you know." It just flared up, and he turned around, and he looked like this. No hair, no eyelashes, no nothing. There were big welts all over my mom's kitchen cabinet; the air was the just full of black smoke. She came home, she took that chemistry set away, and we never saw it again. But we thought of it often, because every time she'd cook tuna surprise it made -- tasted faintly of gunpowder.
So I like to invent things too, and I think I'll close out my set with something I invented a good while back. When drum machines were new, I got to thinking, why couldn't you take the oldest form of music, the hambone rhythms, and combine it with the newest technology? I call this Thunderwear. At that time, drum triggers were new. And so I put them all together and sewed 12 of them in this suit. I showed you some of the hambone rhythms yesterday; I'm going to be doing some of the same ones. I have a trigger here, trigger here, here, here. Right there. It's going to really hurt if I don't take that off. Okay. Now, the drum triggers go out my tail here, into the drum machine, and they can make various sounds, like drums. So let me put them all together. And also, I can change the sounds by stepping on this pedal right here, and -- let me just close out here by doing you a little hambone solo or something like this.
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Folk musician and storyteller David Holt plays the banjo and shares photographs and old wisdom from the Appalachian Mountains. He also demonstrates some unusual instruments like the mouth bow -- and a surprising electric drum kit he calls "thunderwear."
Four-time Grammy Award-winning folk musician David Holt is a born troubadour. Behind his energizing musicianship (often featuring unusual instruments like "the paper bag") is a deep love of hidden Appalachian wisdom and storytelling that shines on every stage he takes. Full bio »