GSMA in search of White Oak String Band members

Apr 16, 2014
While this quartet is not precisely comprised of White Oak String Band members, it does feature Haywood County musicians, from left, Billy Kirkpatrick, Carroll Best, Loyal Messer and French Kirkpatrick.

With a second CD of historic mountain music on the horizon, the producers of the Grammy-nominated “Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music” are searching for anyone with family ties or knowledge of the following musicians from the White Oak String Band.

The members included fiddler S.T. Swanger, rhythm and steel guitarist Don Brooks, and a guitarist (probably a woman) known only as “Joyce,” all of whom played with Carroll Best and an informal group of musicians that called themselves the White Oak String Band.

The goal, according to Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies and an American folk music instructor at East Tennessee State University, is to gather band member stories, performance photos, and hopefully conduct interviews with friends or relatives of Swanger, Brooks and “Joyce.”

Materials gathered could be incorporated in the liner notes of the Great Smoky Mountains Association’s new CD of music recorded in Haywood County, North Carolina by Joseph S. Hall in the 1950s.

The idea to produce a second CD of Hall’s recording began to take shape when Olson discovered in the Archives of Appalachia additional recordings made by the “song catcher.”

“What I uncovered are rare recordings of banjo master Carroll Best and some of his fellow musicians recorded in 1956 and 1959 at the home of Teague Williams in the White Oak community of Haywood County,” Olson said.

“As a co-producer of the upcoming CD, GSMA would like to acknowledge all the musicians involved and is interested in acquiring photographs and anecdotes about the musicians and these performances,” said Steve Kemp, the non-profit’s interpretive products ad services director.

Joseph S. Hall, a trained linguist from Southern California, was commissioned by the National Park Service to document the speech of the people being displaced by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Begun in 1937, his work continued and his appreciation for the people of east Tennessee and Western North Carolina grew into a four-decades-long mission to dispel the negative stereotypes of the region’s people through his recordings.

“Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music,” nominated for a 2013 Grammy in the Best Historical Album category, came about after Olson uncovered Hall’s recordings in a local archive. He and GSMA decided to make available 34 of Hall’s earliest recordings from 1939. Success of the first CD and a desire to make public more of the historically significant recordings made by Hall spurred Olson and the nonprofit association to move forward with a second CD.

The recordings from 1956 and 1959 are scheduled for released this summer. They feature 1994 N.C. Heritage Award winner Carroll Best and his friends from the Waynesville and Asheville areas. Known instrumentals and vocal accompanists include Carroll Best on banjo, S.T. Swanger on fiddle, Don Brooks on guitar and pedal steel, Billy Kirkpatrick on fiddle, French Kirkpatrick on guitar, and a person identified only as “Joyce” (last name currently unknown).

Vocals include Raymond Setzer on “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home”; Louise Best on “Y’All Come”; and Teague Williams, Carroll Best, S.T. Swanger and Don Brooks on “More Pretty Girls Than One.”

In its biography of Best, the N.C. Arts Council describes him as a Haywood County native and “a master of the melodic or ‘fiddle’ style of picking the banjo. He perfected an intricate finger-picking technique that allowed him to perform a variety of tunes - from complex hornpipes to breakdowns - with great precision and beautiful tone.”

They go on to say, “He wryly described himself as ‘a fiddle player who doesn't play the fiddle. Unlike many banjo players of his generation, who gravitated toward the fast, syncopated bluegrass banjo style popularized by Earl Scruggs and Don Reno, Carroll’s playing stayed solidly rooted in fiddle tunes.”

If you have any information about these musicians or their relatives, please contact Steve Kemp at steve@GSMAssoc.org or 865-436-7318 x227 or P.O. Box 130, Gatlinburg, TN 37738; or Ted Olson at Olson@etsu.edu or (423) 439-4379.

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