Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)
Stanley Hicks could have kept us entertained for months—if any of us had had the time. That, of course, is the frustrating thing about the kind of work we’re in. We seem to be always on the move.
Stanley and his family live on the top of a ridge far back in the mountains. From his little shop comes a stream of fine banjos and dulcimers, all the result of orders he gets from across the country, even though he never advertises his work through the many craft guilds and co-ops in the hills.
He learned how to make banjos from his father. Banjos, and lots of other things, for his father was one of those tremendously inventive mountain men we wish we had had the chance to meet. He made his own tools—many of which still hang in Stanley’s shop: a plane with a reworked file for a blade, a croze with a piece of a saw blade for its cutting edge. And with those tools and his imagination he made wagon wheels, chairs, churns, barrels, tubs, tables, baskets, cabinets, and corner cupboards. A piece of steel with two slots cut into it and driven into a log is what he dressed his white oak splits with. Drawing the splits through the slots in the steel smoothed them and trimmed them to uniform widths. Stanley even helped his father hew out and build log cabins. He remembers it all.
His mother was industrious too. She made soap, for example. Her ash hopper was a hollow log set on end with a spout cut in the bottom to one side and a screen strainer. She boiled hog innards and the lye from the hopper together in a pot to produce their soap.
And they made molasses, using a horse-drawn cane mill they had to crush the cane. “My grandma got her arm ground off in one. She was feeding cane and got it hung in there, and they didn’t know nothing about running the mill backwards to get it out, and they cut her arm off. Took it off right there [between her elbow and wrist]. You know, that was rough!
“Dad used to make ladles and spoons and forks [out of wood] and pack them across the Beech [Mountain]—put him a sack full and put them on his back and walk’em out. Be gone, maybe, till late of a night. And then we used to peel tan bark and haul it with a old yoke a’cattle t’Elk Park. We’d leave—take an old lantern—and it’d get cold sometimes, and we’d get in the wagon, and the old steers’ tongues would hang out about a foot. And we’d take a load of tan bark out there, and then we’d camp that night and get back in the next night.
“Sometimes them steers would cough and sull up. And sometimes they’d lay down and turn in the yoke. One’d be turned that way and one this’n. They went and sulled up on him once, and he went t’get some mud. He’d take and make up mud and pack it around their noses and then they’d come up. He wouldn’t beat on them, but he’d pack this around’em. I kind’a got ill at it myself, and while he was gone, I took and rook up leaves and rook it up right in here on their hind ends and took a match and lit it. And they come up, son! And they left with sled and all and run away with it plumb down to th’John Walsh’s Mill!
“And Dad come back and wondered what happened, and I told him I guess they wanted water …
“We dug up most of our ground. Right there’s an eye hoe that I used when I was a kid. He’d get an old yoke a’cattle and get’em broke, and times was so hard that when he got’em broke, somebody’d buy’em off him for fifty dollars. Forty or fifty for two. And then we’d have to go dig our ground up [by hand].
“And we went to the Beech and cut haw—it’s just a little old bush—to get our shoes. Mother made our clothes. We gathered galax, peeled cherry, all that. Got about eighty cents a pound for the haw, and about three cents for the cherry. Get about thirty-five cents a day. They used it for medicine —sell it to one of these here that buy herbs. See, they wasn’t no jobs until Whitings and Ritters [sawmills] come into this country in 1928—some-where’s along there. I worked for them two years for a dollar a day. They cut timber. And the first work I done was on the WPA building roads. We had t’build’em by hand. Take a drill, you know, and drilled’em ourselves. Hammered [the drill] and turned it, you know. One turned it and another hammered it, and then we’d take a teaspoon on a little old handle and dip the dust out. Then they put the dynamite down in there.
“Time off, me and my brother was courting. Had to walk about twelve miles each way. One time we was going to see our girls up there, and they was a trail that went through a big bottom. And me and my brother was going through there and here come a buck sheep and hit just turned him a flip-flop. And he hollered and it hit me but I got aholt of it. And ever’ time I turned it loose it’d knock us down. Big buck. We kept a’holding it—I’d hold it a while and he’d hold it a while. He’d go a piece and then I’d turn loose and run and time I got to him, he’d catch it and hold it.
“Well, we was there in the trail, and here come an old man through there, and he said, ‘What are you boys doing?’
“And I said, ‘Will you care to hold this sheep till we get out here and get our rope?’ I said, ‘We’ve run it till we’ve give out, and we left the rope out here catching it.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah. I’d be glad to.’
“Well, me and my brother give him th’buck sheep, and then we went over the ridge into the river and then hid. And he turned it loose, and when he turned it loose it just turned him a somerset. And he’d look around one way, and then he’d grab it again. Well, directly he got him a rock and got it right between his legs like that and he beat that thing till snot come out its nose; and turned it loose, and boys, it went through th’field!
“And for a long time I see’d him—run on him, you know. And he’d look at me and look at me. One time he says, ‘Ain’t you th’feller that got me t’hold that damn sheep?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Why?’
“He said, ‘By God I’d a’killed you boys,’ he said, ‘if I’d a’got ahold of you.’ He said, ‘I see’d what you done.’
“I said, ‘Well, a man has to do something to get out’a th’way.’
“He said, ‘I may whip you yet.’ ”
“And that’s been five or six years. But we was courting. You’d have to walk for miles to see anything, and then, hell, you’d have to run your girls down atter y’got there t’catch’em. Hell, they’d run. Now, then, they’re running the boys!
“But I helped my daddy make banjos. I don’t know at the cats I got for him [for the hides]. But people got fond of’em. I had the best cat dog that could be got. I’d turn him loose and have my club tied right here [in a loop on his pants leg], and that dog would go to a house. I had him trained. He’d come to this house and run this cat away from there and take it to the woods and tree it. And I’d go climb the tree and motion about two or three times to it, and if it jumped, he’d catch it and hold it till I got down. He wouldn’t chew it up. I had him trained so he wouldn’t chew it! And then I’d get down and finish it off. I’d take’em in a sack and slip around through the woods so nobody wouldn’t see me. I couldn’t tell you how many I have took in.
ILLUSTRATION 22 For complete measurements, see ILLUSTRATIONS 78 and 79.
“But they got fond of’em. Back then they didn’t care, you know. They’uz too many cats anyhow, and they didn’t care much. But they just didn’t want t’see you come t’th’house!
“I wouldn’t get th’last cat a man had [laughing]. When I got down to one, I’d leave it fer’im!
“But I’ve been making banjos for about twenty years. That’s my hobby. I ain’t worked on a job in about six years. Kidneys went t’th’bad and I just do this for a hobby—and then it helps me out [financially]. And then I farm. My wife works every other day at the hospital.
“You have to be careful at this. I make my instruments to play. Sometimes I get a western one—that’s what I call it if I get something in there and it doesn’t work. Then you have to take it out. That’s the western type. I’ve took out some. Before I’d send you one, I’d take’em all out and make’em right [if I had to]. That’s what I make’em for is to play’em. You’ve got to check’em out, and when you get a western one, you’ve got to change it!
“They was a boy here one time—young like feller—and said, ‘What you get for them?’
“I said, ‘Sixty dollars.’ [Both Stanley and Tedra get about $100.00 apiece now.]
“ ‘God,’ he says, ‘I’m a’going home.’ Said, ‘I can get rich.’ Said, ‘I can make one of them in a day.’
“I said, ‘Y’can?’
“ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Said, ‘I can make one a day.’
“ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘when you get that, you come and let me know. I need to know how you do it. I need more money.’
“He never did get nary one together. Worked at it about four days and laid it down and quit.
“I sell mine myself. They come here [from a co-op], and I told them I just made mine for hobby and if I wanted to give somebody one, I’d give it to him. I don’t have to take their price and sell it to you. He said, ‘Oh, we’ll get you a lot more money!’
“I said, ‘Who gets the money? Me or you?’
“ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we get a certain percentage of it.’
“ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you’ll have t’go some’eres else.’ ”
In his work, Stanley is painstakingly careful. He refuses to be pressured. Of course, the other thing that slows him down is that every few moments, he stops to tell another story—like the ones following, told as he was sawing slots for the frets on a dulcimer fingerboard. If he had to stop telling stories, he’d probably have to stop making instruments also, for the two are inextricably linked …
Be about like one time they was an old man had a boy who was crippled. Been crippled for years and couldn’t walk. Come two old Irishmens along, and they was wanting something to eat, and asked something to eat, and the man said, “Well,” said, “my wife has t’take care of the crippled son.” Said, “She ain’t got much time.”
Said, “What’s the matter with’im?”
“Well,” said, “he’s been crippled for years.”
“Well,” said, “we’ll cure him if you’ll give us something to eat. We’ll cure’im.”
“Well,” said, “alright.”
ILLUSTRATION 32 As Stanley does, his father used to sew his groundhog or cat hide around a ring using thread cut from a squirrel hide. He had a log trough into whicl he would put four or five hides at once, with ashes and water, to remove the hair. Hi banjos were all five-string, fretless, and made mostly of poplar, although he also user maple and chestnut. He smoothed the wood with the edge of a piece of glass, or a rasp They sold for $2.50 each. The banjo has been modified to hold commercial pegs.
Old Irishmens, they went in and got’em something t’eat, “And now,” he said, “you’ll have t’cure my son.”
Said, “We’ll cure’im. Put him in a room where he can hear us at.” So they put him in a room by hisself, and the old Irishmens got one [right beside]. And got’em a butcher knife apiece, and they started then a’whettin’: “R-r-r-r-r, whetty-whet-r-whet whetty-whet r-r whetty-whet-whet.” Said, “Sharp enough t’cut his head off?”
Said, “No, not quite.”
Boy had raised up, y’know. Watched’em through a crack.
“R-r-r whetty-whetty-whet.” Said, “Sharp enough t’cut his head off yet?”
Said, “No, not hardly.”
Well, they looked through the crack and he’uz almost raising up in the chair. And they started again: “R-r whetty-whet whetty-whet r-r whetty-whet whetty-whet.” Said, “Sharp enough t’cut his head off yet?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I think we’re sharp a’plenty.” Said, “Jerk th’door and let’s go get’im.”
They jerked the door open, and he run out the other, and as fer as I know he’s still running yet! He just cleaned the door hinges off and got out of there!
That’s the way this is [sawing frets for his dulcimer]. R-r whetty-whet!
I guess a man would feel kindly funny, you know, them whetting on knives! They said that was true …
Then they was two more Irishmens going along the road and looked up in a tree and saw a boomer. Said, “You go get a pot t’cook it in and I’ll have it caught when you come back.”
Well, this old Irishman, he took off t’get’em a cook pot. And he got his pot and went back, and th’other Irishman’s layin’ down in th’road with blood runnin’ out of his mouth. And he looked at him right straight and he said, “You must’a been awful damn hungry,” he said, “t’eat it raw!”
He’d made a jump y’know, to get where the squirrel was at, and his legs wadn’t long enough and he’d hit the ground!
After he showed us the banjos, Stanley brought out a game he had made (ILLUSTRATION 38).
“We used to make these [pecking birds]. See, here it goes! [As he swings the paddle and the birds peck, he sings/chants the following]:
Chicken in the bread bowl peckin’ out dough.
Granny, won’t your dog bite? No, chile, no.
No, chile, no.
Chicken in the bread bowl peckin’ out dough.
Granny, won’t your dog bite? No, chile, no.
No, chile, no. No, chile, no.
“Watch ’em, now! Watch’em. Watch’em. Now, this’n here [pointing a slower one out], he got beat up and we had t’remodel his tail. Y’see him? He looks a little bit rough. Now they’s supposed to be corn in here, but I ain’t put any in yet. That one’s a little lazy [pointing at another]. ‘At’s a rooster. He’s just a little lazy, boys. Now them hens is smart, y’see? Now watch him. He’s a little ill there!
“But they’s a lot of things that way you make, you know, just while you’re beatin’ around at it. I’ve got a snake. And, let’s see, where’s my ‘moisture’ at [a paddle with a rough head and a crayfish claw nailed to either side (ILLUSTRATION 39)]. And I’ve got me a bird at the house. My wife, she wouldn’t let me keep the moisture at the house. And that bird and snake, I just picked up roots and made them. I’ll run down t’th’house and bring’em up here and let you look at’em!” (ILLUSTRATION 40).
Photographs by Ray and Steve Smith.