Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years.
Wade Mainer has long been an iconic figure in old-time and bluegrass music, as much for his remarkable longevity (he was born in 1907) as his bright, bell-like, two-finger picking. I know of no other banjo player who played at their own hundredth birthday celebration.
At the Fen ton Community Centre centenary event in his home town of Flint, Michigan, Wade picked away on his Gibson Mastertone banjo and declared: 'I just don't feel like I'm a hundred years old. I don't feel it and I can hardly believe it.' When you see him on YouTube, playing with such confidence and precision, in the series of interviews conducted by folklorist David Holt, it is indeed hard to believe that he has passed his first century. Equally impressive is his wife of over seventy years, Julia Mae, who, as 'Hillbilly Lillie', was herself singing on the radio as early as 1934. She still sings and fiat-picks a guitar with Wade in a family musical partnership that has been going strong since 1972 when Wade retired from a job with General Motors and got back into performing after a gap of some twenty years, during which time he had found religion.
Banjo on the Mountain is an excellent musical biography, enhanced by printed ephemera, Mainer's own autobiographical comments, and personal letters and photographs from every period of a musically long life. Musicologist, radio producer, and presenter Dick Spottswood has put together an attractive Mainer miscellany, an American musical gallimaufry. It is a welcome addition to this ever growing biographical genre. On the down side, it makes one only too aware of the countless opportunities lost by the early folk music collectors as a result of their preoccupation with texts, nines, and variants, to the extent that they frequently regarded performers as mere song and tune vehicles waiting to be unloaded by wiser collectors, who would sweep through rural communities hoovering up and interpreting what they heard.
An example of this lofty attitude is Alan Lomax's letter to Mainer of February 1941 telling him what to sing on the occasion of a folk song party to be held at the White House, organized by Eleanor Roosevelt:
Dear Mr Mainer, ... I should like your singing and playing to be as 'old timey' as possible and possibly you'll do 'The Willow Garden', 'The Arkansas Traveller' with fiddle, 'The Old Hen Cackled', 'John Hardy, 'Ground Hog1 and numbers of this kind.
There were, of course, exceptions to this early musical imperialism. Elisabeth Greenleaf, whose introduction to Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland (1933) set the songs in a sociocultural framework, 'embedded' herself in the Newfoundland community of Sally Cove and soon realized that traditional music doesn't exist in isolation but is one thread, albeit an important one, in the warp and weft of a musicians life. Spottswood's affectionate biography of Mainer does similar sterling work.
Mainer s life and observations cast a unique, personal, light on the development of bluegrass and modern country music, from its early, pre-radio, prerecord days, as old-time social music sung and played on the cabin porch or stamped out on the puncheon floor to help alleviate a harsh and precarious mountain existence, to the advent of sound recording and the proliferation of the countless local radio stations which developed a symbiotic relationship with the Southern mountaineer musicians.
Mainer s first radio work in 1934 was on WWNC Asheville and WBT Charlotte, with the four piece string-band J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers, sponsored by Crazy Water Crystals, a hokum cure-all patent 'health' drink. They played six days a week, were hugely popular, and received around three thousand telegrams and fan letters a month. The regular radio work, with its concomitant live gigs, enabled Wade and his elder brother, fiddler Joseph Emmett 'J-E-' > to give up their jobs in a Concord, North Carolina, cotton mill and hit the road as professional musicians. As a popular band with a broad fan base, RCA Bluebird label recording director Eli Oberstein had no hesitation in offering them a record contract, without the usual audition procedure which most old-time bands had to undergo in makeshift studios and audition rooms in furniture stores and suchlike places, when they came down from the mountains clutching banjos, fiddles, and guitars, determined to impress the record scouts with their hell-for-leather, ass-kicking, souped-up old mountain songs and frequently surreal band names.
Mainer is often seen as the link between the older style of mountain banjo music, with its Afro-American roots, which came into the mountains in the mid-nineteenth century, and the post-1940s bluegrass performed by such innovative performers as three-finger banjo picker Earl Scruggs, and the Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie, with their high energy, high speed, and high vocals. Wade was less than impressed with these bluegrass trailblazers: 'I heard Bill play so fast that you didn't know what he was playin', but they had good timing!'; 'If you listen to Earl, he ... well, he's a banjo player, I'll just put it that way. I don't say he's all that good but, when he got with Bill Monroe, why then he went places.'
Once Wade had perfected his two-finger picking, initially to fit with his brother's fiddling, he stuck to it. He did once try three-finger picking but felt that it messed up the timing of his songs. Whether he played thumb or index-finger lead, his intention was always vto play it as plain as 1 can1. He eschewed the chordal possibilities of the early standard C tuning, and the later bluegrass G tuning, for a flowing cascade of notes which followed the tune and the sense of the lyrics of the song. Not, maybe, as immediately impressive as Scruggss crowd-pleasing, machine-gun.speed of playing, bur perhaps, as Wade believed, ultimately more satisfying--from the heart rather than the head.
An added bonus in the book is a nine-page analysis of Wades playing by the noted player and banjophile Stephen Wade. This, in addition to a twenty-five-page discography--as near complete as you're likely to get--makes it an invaluable reference tool as well as a fascinating read, and it should be on the bookshelf of anyone with even a nodding interest in old-time and bluegrass music or in the development of popular American music. For the growing army of banjo players--many of whom, despite countless gags to the contrary, can and do read--this is essential and enlightening reading, and will perhaps encourage a few more two-finger pickers to counteract the unrepresentative dominance of clawhammer players in the old-time revival scene.
Wade Mainer died on 12 September 2011, at the age of 104.
DAVE ARTHUR Rattle on the Stovepipe String Band
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|Publication:||Folk Music Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 20, 2011|
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