Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Conversations with ...
Kevin Donleavy's book chronicles old-time music
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Photo by Josh Meltzer,
The Roanoke Times
"Strings of Life — Conversations with Old-Time Musicians from Virginia and North Carolina," published last year by Blacksburg's Pocahontas Press, is a comprehensive histories of the old-time genre. It is the result of author Kevin Donleavy's 15 years of research about the musicians of Southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. Donleavy recently took some time to talk about the making of his book, a memorable afternoon jam with a nice sunset and some brandied peaches.
How did you get started writing this book?
Kevin Donleavy: It was in 1985. I played old-time music . . . and I heard some very nice banjo music. And it occurred me that it would be interesting to see what sort of work, what sort of books or articles had been written about old-time music . . . and I found that there wasn’t very much at that point — this was like 20 years ago. . . . So I thought . . . somebody needs to do this, and I could do it in a few years, interview a lot of old players, women and men, and let them speak their piece because I really believe in oral history for the working person. So I did, and I found almost no resistance at all . . . and I realized after a few years that it would be a hollow thing just to record conversations . . . about the music that all these people played for the simple reason that they didn’t learn from a vacuum. . . . And so instead of going forward, so to speak, or staying in the present, I found myself going into the past. So overall, I think out of 1,300 or so musicians that get covered only about 60 or 70 or so are people who I was actually able to interview, who were still alive. The rest of them were their predecessors or friends or ancestors. By far, the bulk of them have been dead for donkey’s years.
The musicians that you’re referencing, how far back do they range?
KD: I was able to find two musicians who were born in the 1700s.
And you bring it all the way up to people who are playing today?
KD: Right. I sort of arbitrarily cut it off. If you were born after 1930, you didn’t get stuck in the book because you were pretty healthy and somebody else should be interviewing you. So all the hot 20- and 30-somethings that are playing, they’re on their own.
But you weren’t planning on embarking on this book at that time?
KD: I just thought it was a gas to play the tunes, and I just got sucked into it. I don’t think I met a single old-time musician down there that I didn’t like. I found them very easy to get along with. There was only one person who was shy around the tape recorder and didn’t want to talk.
Do you have any anticipations for where the book will go from here?
KD: Well, two things. There’s going to be a review of it in that celebrated magazine “The Old-Time Herald,” which I believe is going to come out in February. . . . And I’m hoping that Dave Freeman . . . who started County Records maybe about 40 years ago . . . will like enough of the recordings that I made of some of these old folks that we could put our heads together and issue a CD.
Any particularly memorable experiences from the writing of this book you would be willing to share?
KD: Well, I remember pretty well this night up in Stokes County [N.C.], when somebody said, “Kevin, how would you like some brandied peaches?" . . . And so we all passed it around a little bit, and it was so good it was like drinking soda pop, so you didn’t want to think twice about it. . . . And I think that lasted for maybe a half an hour, and then we went out on the porch and played music for three or four hours, and watched the sun go down.
"Strings of Life" was partially funded by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and is available locally through Pocahontas Press of Blacksburg and at County Sales in Floyd.
From an interview with Curtis Bruner in "Strings of Life":
“There used to be a Tom Roberts who was a banjo player, and I played with him. And there was an Uncle Tom somebody-or-other who played. Both of them drank, and they both played for a frolic one night. Way about toward day they started home. Tom got in the saddle, and that Uncle Tom got in behind him, Tom picking the banjo and Uncle Tom playing the fiddle. The horse got running full speed! Near the woods there was a mudhole, and when they got to that, the horse jumped it. The horse went on over to Old Man Roberts’ then and went up to the gate.
“Tom said, ‘Uncle Tom, can you get down and open the gate?’ and nobody answered. Tom looked around, and he wasn’t there. Tom went back, and Uncle Tom was sitting on his behind in that mudhole.
“He said, ‘By God, Tom, are we in tune?’ ”