Photograph by Roby Cogswell
For someone with the impossible task of selecting a most exceptional, traditional banjo player, Virgil Anderson’s nomination would be as easy as any to defend. The evidence – two LPs featuring Virgil’s music (“On the Tennessee Line,” County 777; and “Music of Tennessee,” Heritage 042) – demonstrates his superb technical ability to pick delicate melodies, chord creatively, knock out syncopated dance tunes, utilize novel effects, and freely improvise. Even into his eighties, Virgil continued to learn and create new songs and to perform with enthusiasm and unconservative abandon.
“My mother failed to dish my brains out the back door when I was born,” is his own reasoning for his uninhibited condition. Other details of Virgil’s birth in 1902 are more certain. His birthplace was Palace, Kentucky, an edge of Wayne County bordering the Cumberland River. His father floated log rafts to Nashville, split barrel staves at company tent camps, and unloaded steamboats in Russell County in the years up to Virgil’s birth:
He was apickin’ that banjer biggest part of the time. And that black man [on the steamboat] would slp him whiskey, and just keep him about half drunk apickin’ that banjer He’d slip him different extra food, you know, cake and pie. The rest of ‘em wasn’t gettin’ it. He was the cook and he’d give him the very best, cause he’d pick that banjer.
Virgil soon joined the music-making and dancing: “I’d be in the bed, my mother said, until I was two or three years old aplayin’ the banjer – tunes that she could understand what I was playin’. I knowed nothin’ about it. Can’t remember nothin’ about it. It’s unbelievable. Ain’t nobody believes that, but my mother told it. Same way by dancin’. I never could hear a racket, if it was like an engine runnin’ or something another, I’d want to dance after it. That’s the reason after my great uncle Green Johnson achurnin’ with that old time churn. He was settin’ on the kitchen porch on the steps outside, setting there a churnin’. And that went so good to me, I had to get with it. I had to keep time with it. Well, he couldn’t stand it. “You stop that, Virgil!” Well, when he’d stop, I’d stop. When he’d start again, I’d hit her again. And he’d holler for my daddy. And he comes I had to “sell out, Doc!” I had to stop.
Virgil’s father soon took the family into the unsettled life of “following the public works,” moving to a different logging or stave camp every six months or so. At the age of eighteen, in a rough logging camp just north of the Tennessee state line, he had an eye-opening encounter with a prominent black Tennessee string band, the Bertram brothers.
The first time I heard ‘em, me and my dad was going through the camp. Big, long band mill camp. And we kept walking down there and directly he said, “I believe I hear music.” Got a little piece further and they was playin’ at the bandmill, where the lumber comes down on the shoots. And such a crowd, looked like the whole company was there.
We just crowded right on through ‘em, and got close to ‘em. See’d that they was colored people. Boys I’m atellin’ you they was singing. They’s getting’ that alto. Just almost make you cry. That guitar and banjer. Then they’d lay the guitar down and take the banjer and fiddle. Oh, just so handy as a goose going barefooted, you know. Well, I just tied right in with ‘em. I remember I bought an old guitar, but I didn’t know much about it. But when I see’d them agrabbin’ those chords just like that, I knowed to get with it. Just grab ‘em all at once. Naturally, it was awkward for two or three times trying it, but I see’d what had to be done. If I done it, I was gonna do it; if I didn’t I was out of it.
Virgil’s conversion was to a fuller, more sophisticated “chord music,” with a blues touch, and he was no longer satisfied with just “noting out” the simple dance tunes his father played. The blues and the Bertram’s chord music, represented by a wide variety of songs and tunes of both black and white origin, became Virgil’s love.
It’s the drive, and the time, and the beat that they have. They don’t get too fast or too slow… They look like they’re gonna get plumb off it, but they’ll never lose their time.
By 1931, the Depression resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill camps, so to earn money from some of his children’s winter clothing, Virgil recruited John Sharp and his brother in law Clyde Troxell to perform in the still busy coal camps as the Kentucky Wildcats. As Burnett and Rutherford were traveling the same route just ahead of them, Virgil would ballyhoo at the entrance of the schoolhouses they rented: “we’re come down here to pick up what they’re leavin’ out: it ain’t me atalking – we’ll prove it by these strings. It’s coming fresh off these strings to prove it to you, that we are pickin’ what they’re leavin’ out.”
Virgil finally settled down and took up residence in Griffin, Kentucky in 1937. The homesite’s remote location and the demands of farm life took Virgil away from the rough and tumble excitement of the public works, but he and his wife soon adjusted and raised a large family of musicians. One son, Dillard, became lead guitarist for Orangie R. Hubbard’s original Cherokees, a rockabilly group that recorded for the Lucky and King labels in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another son, Willard, continued to develop a blues guitar style, led by Virgil’s interest in the music.
Notes from “On the Tennessee Line,” County 777
-Bobby Fulcher, 1980
I was borned happy.
My dad and mother was that way, but I was the worst of the whole bunch for a cut up.
My wife, Mabel, always says, “’people always think you got no sense at all,’ but it’s just
hard for a man to quit when you’re borned that way.
Virgil Anderson may feel he needs an explanation for a life that has been so much fun, while surrounded by so much hardship. His friends often wonder why Wayne County, Kentucky’s premiere banjo player, buck dancer, and unabashed extrovert would tuck himself away in one of the area’s most inaccessible homesites. Backed up against the Cumberland Plateau and bordered by the “Wild River” (the Little South Fork of the Cumberland), a narrow swinging bridge is the only entry to Virgil’s domain. Puzzling as it may be, here he is content to entertain his family and friends at occasional fish fries, reunions, and Sunday dinners. Virgil, born 1902, has given this small but beautiful farmstead the name of Wildcat Rock City, from which no visitor should leave unfed or unhappy. Certainly no one could leave unexcited by the skill and flair of his banjo playing. In fact, his landholdings recently increased when a neighbor deeded him three acres for “pickin’ the banjer for him” and, no doubt, Virgil’s extraordinary musicianship left his neighbor well satisfied with the bargain.
The Monticello, Kentucky area has been home for a number of traditional banjo players uncommonly showy in style. For 75 years, Dick Burnett, a Columbia recording artist in the late 1920’s, enlivened the local music scene with banjo tricks that included drumming out wild rhythms on the banjo head in the midst of a tune, whirling the instrument above his head “without ever missing a beat,” and mixing together a variety of picking patterns that could bring train, animal or military sounds from the banjo. Clyde Davenport and W.L. Gregory demonstrated a wide range of picking styles on Monticello: Tough Mountain Music, including a unique bottleneck slide technique. No less distinctive is Virgil Anderson’s complex style of two-finger picking. His driving rhythms are accomplished by both up and down picking, both thumb and finger leads, all somehow gathered into a remarkably clean, sophisticated lick. In this “no holds barred” approach, Virgil often grabs a melody note from the open or fretter 5th string, while noting and chording the length of the banjo neck with ease. He can smoothly change rhythm and pace to add dimension to a tune. He may bend the melody line with impulsive, bluesy phrasing. He is a wholly impressive musician, a master of his style.
Virgil’s close friendship with the Bertrams, a black family of musicians, resulted in an early expansion of his style and tastes, introducing him to the traditional blues, from which he improvises. Rarely have the blues been adapted to the five-string banjo with the virtuosity and powerful originality Virgil reveals.
Virgil married banjo picking Mabel Troxell in 1923, his source for many tunes such as Wild Bill Jones, and the inspiration for many other original pieces. Her father, Jasper, taught Virgil a number of tunes as well. Her grandfather Al Davenport, a medicine show musician, provided the source of Rainbow Scottische and many other area standards.
Those who have met Virgil find it no surprise that his renown locally is not only as a musician, but also as an irrepressible wit. Conceded the center of attention in any gathering, Virgil delivers a rambling monologue, as spontaneous as his own banjo playing, and as entertaining. Virgil’s own story of his life is an impressive performance in itself:
I was borned in Russell County, but I was brought over here and raised in Wayne County. I’ve studied my head off tryin’ to remember the day I was borned. My mother always said I ought’d remember it—she said I was there! I commenced workin’ when I was ten year old at these lumber mills and stave mills. I’ve heard ‘em hollerin; “WAATER BOY!” so much to me. Well, my Daddy, he was all the time workin’ a bunch of men for these companies, just engineerin’ the timber and lumber business. And in my growin’ up I carried water for my Daddy’s men. We’d carry it in these two gallon kegs; I’d carry one up on my shoulder and one in my hand up these mountains, you know, and sometimes those stave cats’d turn loose on me—I’d have to dodge ‘em. Run. Black snake’d get after me and run me through that laurel and ivy, and I was little, too.
Little South Fork, Kentucky circa 1925
Photograph courtesy of Gar Blevins
Along the Tennessee and Kentucky line they had these blind jacks, you know, a little eight or ten foot pole pen they’d build right on this state line. You couldn’t see this “jack” man that was sellin’ the whiskey, but here’d come this arm out of the blind jack when you asked for a quart. They was doin’ this to beat the law. Well, my Daddy’d take these men that’d worked so good to these little blind jacks. He’d put me up on a big white oak stump and tell me, “Keep that damn banjer agoin’, we gonna see ‘em fight in a few minutes.” He’d say, “Now, boys, you’ve all worked good here, and I’m gonna treat you, and get along if you can. But if you can’t, don’t take too much.” I’d keep that banjer agoin’ and it wasn’t long till they’d all be adancin’ and a fightin’. That’d please my Daddy, you know. Maybe just a whippin’ one another in the face with old black cats. Me a pickin’ and acryin’. I was afraid not to listen at him, I had to do what my Daddy said. I was agoin’ right on with that dance music, them just afightin’ and adancin’ right below that jack, maybe fifteen or twenty of ‘em, my Daddy just adyin’ laughin’.
from left: Grand pa Bailey Johnson (fiddle), cousin Zelma Wilson (pistol), Virgil Anderson (umbrella shaft), Maynard Anderson (banjo and pistol), Oliver Wilson (hand extended)
Slick Ford, Kentucky circa 1912
My Daddy he wasn’t a mean man, but he wasn’t no good man neither. These Anderson’s ain’t so good. The best Anderson ever I knowed, he’s dead and his Grandmother’s never been born.
I guess I’m the best one.
My Daddy tried his best to raise me right. There’s three things he always teached me against, that’s: lyin’, drinkin’, and stealin’. Said, never steal no more than you can carry, never drink more than you can hold, and when it come to lyin’, just tell it about a dozen different ways before you lie about it.
Everytime you tell it, tell it different before you lie about it. He proned that into me. I’ve trained my wife Mabel in the truth. When she dies, they’ll say, “There lies a body of truth,” because none of it never did come out. And my Daddy teached me to never be afraid of work. I’ve never been afraid of a job in my life. I’ve laid down a many of a time right around the work and gone to sleep. I don’t dread it at all.
So, I’ve had a hard time, and a good time, too. On the weekends, I’d make it up, go to these big dances. Couple big jugs of moonshine settin’ out beside the door there. They’d dance them couples out, everybody’d go out and tank up and come back in. I’d be aplayin’ part of the time for these dances; part of the time I’d be adancin’. Just whichever way it come handy, I was right there. I’d dance with the young women—sometimes I’d have to dance with a married woman, but she’d be pretty, too.
I don’t know how I learned to play the banjer. I was too young. I can’t remember. When I come to myself I was aknockin’ it down the line. I copied after other people some when I got about 17 or 18. I started playin’ with colored folks, Cuge Bertram, and Cooney Bertram, and Andy from Three Forks of the Wolf River, around Pall Mall, Tennessee. I played there a sight. Cuge and Cooney, they played a chord music. The most of this old time music was just noted out, but when I got in with them Bertram boys, they played by chord a whole lot. Course, they played the fiddle and banjer some by note, but they played a whole lot by chord. I picked up a lot of that. I thought a sight of ‘em. You get into playin’ music, you naturally like each other.
I always have ben as poor as Job’s turkey, and Job’s turkey was so poor, he shivered as he walked. Course, times is better now, in these days since God has increased his wisdom to us. Why, people know more than they did. Have to, or they wouldn’t a got to the moon. Well, I told ‘em ten years before, if they’d put a woman on the moon, man’d went to her. I tried my best to get ‘em to put a woman up there, but they wouldn’t listen. It pays to listen to a sharp man. I’m sharp enough to drive into the ground and grow, I guess.
It just suits me here at Green Ford. Population: one man and one wife; speed limit: fifteen miles a week. The road’s so crooked here, the black snakes jerk their heads off tryin’ to run ‘em. Drinkin’ this moonshine whiskey and dancin’s been my main occupation the biggest part of my life. Course, now that I’ve got to farming, I like to farm fine. You can be your own boss. Except for Mabel. She’s right smart of a boss, you know.
All photographs courtesy of the Anderson Family unless otherwise noted
Design by Rachel Boillot