Friday, May 19, 2017

Reflections on My Banjo-Fueled Friendship with Carroll Smith

Carroll Smith, a great banjo friend to many, passed away in mid May 2017.  I met Cas, as he was known to many of us, at Clifftop, the annual old time music festival in West Virginia, years and years ago. I bet it was Ed Haggard who introduced us. We kept in touch, emailed frequently, met occasionally at subsequent Clifftops. I really liked Cas - that's how he introduced himself for a long time, but eventually stepped away from that nickname in favor of his whole given name, as I recall.

In 2009 I interviewed him for an eZine, "Silver Strings" - an online publication for "Middle Aged Newbies Learning Banjo Later in Life."  

Carroll was articulate, astute, focused, and always helpful.  My interview brought out the depth of his thoughtfulness, but only a small part of his wide ranging interest and the intellectual, and emotional, power he brought to bear in learning about things that interested him.

A phone call, an email exchange, with Carroll was always an adventure.  I mourn his loss, and will think strongly, and often, about this fine Man.


Lew Stern



By Lew Stern

2009 Interview

originally printed in:
Silver Strings, February 2009,

I've been thinking back over the years of "banjo characters" I've encountered at festivals, collectors forums, jams, gigs, house concerts and other events on the margins of civil society.  Some have been fly-by-night encounters, and and others have turned into long lasting banjo-centric relationships.  My link with Carroll “Cas” Smith has been a long distance one, fueled by electronic transmissions, and replenished once a year at Clifftop. 

Cas is known to many as the keeper of BANJOCOM, a list server intended to present a vehicle for the mercantile instincts of banjo people.  Cas is also a frequent presence at select festivals and a loyal booth groupie who can be counted on to find a familiar place on Clifftop’s vendor road, pitching in by helping these tent cities friendly and inviting venues for banjo business.  He’s a persistent contributor to a variety of electronic banjo communities, known for his wit and word play, and his friendly, straightforward and consistently sensible advice about cleaning, repairing and replacing metal banjo parts.  And he’s a backyard collector of tunes, an amateur film maker intent on preserving valuable footage he’s collected of distinguished banjoists playing tunes and offering their recollections of early banjo life.

Lew:  Cas, tell me a little about your start in life.

Cas:  I was born in Fort Meade, Florida, son of a carpenter and his second wife, his first having died some years earlier.  My mother, now 95, still lives alone in good health.  I am her only child.  Fort Meade was then, and remains today a very small town in central Florida that started off as an outpost for the U.S. Army prior to the Civil War.  I grew up grounded in the Southern Baptist religion [that] I eventually abandoned after some dedication in my youth.  We moved not long after to Lake Wales, Florida, where I eventually graduated from high school having expended no detectable effort whatever. 

Lew:  Before we go any further, how did you get the nickname “Pops”? 

Cas:  “Pops” was bestowed upon me by Dwight Diller during his first weekend workshop in Brevard, North Carolina.  He would say, loudly, “Pops, cock your thumb.”  I called him “Junior”.  The good aura remains even though we have not corresponded in years.

Lew:  Did you study music as a child?

Cas:  My formal music training began and ended with four years in high school under the leadership of Mr. Otto Krauschaar in Lake Wales, Florida.  Kraushaar had been first bassoonist for John Philip Sousa before moving to Florida and he was a demanding teacher.  [The] Lake Wales High School band developed a strong reputation that persisted long after he departed.  We did Wanger and a full spectrum of classical works, and I loved it.  I played clarinet and bass drum.  There were some orchestras in the larger Florida high schools but band was all we had.  No banjo for sure!

Lew:  When did you first encounter banjo music?

Cas:  Oh, I was a bluegrass fan in the sixties.  Earl Scruggs would have to be the first I ever heard, recordings of course.  But the folk stuff was going on - Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers . . . banjo just popped up all over.  I loved it all.  I didn’t try to actually play banjo, but I was an enthusiastic listener.  And there was the four string stuff, too.  Mummers, Dixieland . . . it was all fun but I never tried to play any of it until years later. 

Lew:  Let me get you to recall the festivals.  What drew you to them? 

Cas:  I didn’t start going to festivals until I left the university and moved back to Lake Wales.  Florida has a lot of festivals of various types.  Bluegrass was popular but it was “folk” that captured our attention.  The Florida Folk Festival is the longest continually running folk festival in the United States I am told.  We eventually performed on their stages but that is getting ahead of the story.  My family and I went to our first Florida Old Time Music Championship in 1985.  It was started by a professor at St. Leo’s College in San Antonio, Florida, named Ernie Williams.  He told me later that his goal was to get a lot of people together and have a good party.  He was successful then, and they still do [it].  It was there that I first heard “old time” banjo.  I had to learn to do it!  Something about the sounds, the rhythms, that just sucked me in!  I was hocked.  Still am!

Lew:  I’ve got a photograph of you taken by Bates Littlehales.  Your hair and goatee are white, so it’s not an old photo, and you are test driving what I believe may have been one of the first Wildwood banjos.  Can you date this photo?  Do you recall the banjo?

Cas:  That was taken at the last of the Hammons Gatherings mentored by Dwight Diller.  Lo Gordon and I went together from Brevard, North Carolina.  The Gathering was in a West Virginia National Forest as I recall but I just don’t know where, or exactly when.  I don’t think it was far from Diller’s home.  A beautiful place.  We camped very casually and played out under the trees and starts.  I still have the banjo.  It is a Wildwood with the vine of life inlay on the beck.  The provenance that came with it was that it was one of two made by Marc Platin as samples when he was just trying to go commercial.  That probably means late 1960s or early 1970s.  I wrote Marc about it a few years back but he didn’t remember when it was made.  His necks are different now.  The banjo sounds good.  Lo refretted it and it plays much better now, but heavy-handed clawhammer just overwhelms it.  That is why I now play it only occasionally. 

Lew:  Focusing on the great guidance you’ve offered in a variety of banjo discussion for a, let me ask this:  How do you know so much about metal work?

Cas:  While I was attending the University of Florida’s School of Engineering getting a degree in Chemical Engineering I took courses in metallurgy and coatings technology.  They served me well many years later.  I also later became a goldsmith and jewelry maker which draws on the same skills and knowledge.

Lew:  There’s  a lot in the way of frequently repeated conventional wisdoms that can steer home workshop banjo tinkerers wrong, especially in the metallurgical part of banjo science.  What is your best advice on fairly common problems such as cleaning banjo related metal parts?

Cas:  Most of the metal parts of banjos are made of steel (J-hooks, for example), zinc (“pot”) alloys, and brass or bronze (copper with zinc or copper with tin).  Most are played with copper (base coat), nickle, chromium, or gold.  Plating provides a measure of corrosion resistance and an attractive appearance.  For cleaning I always start with the mildest treatment first.  Scrub with a good detergent.  The move to a mild metal cleaner, then to a stiff brush, then to a metal brush keeping in mind that copper brushes sometimes leave some copper behind.  Over-the-counter cleaners usually work fine.  Just remember that some cleaners can be quite abrasive and may leave marks of their own or remove thin plating entirely.  If the plating has stripped away or spalled off then you have to make some serious decisions whether to re-plate or to just accept things as they are part of the character of the instrument. 

Lew:  Polishing gold?

Cas:  Gold plated surfaces, particularly after they are worn, have microscopic holes that are pervious to skin oils, acids, sweat moisture, all of which combine to corrode and cloud the shiny surface.  Polishes remove oxides and in the process some of the gold as well.  Jewelry supply houses usually have polishing cloths that contain sealants and preservatives.  Regular application of wax will help preserve the plating.

Lew: Plating?

Cas:  It is possible to plate most alloys.  Various gold allow solutions are available to the jewelry trade.  Silver is one of the easiest metals to use in plating, but coatings are subject to tarnish.  Nickel is also easy to use even though it is very toxic in solution.  Chromium is more resistant to corrosion but its appearance is less than pleasing.  German silver, or copper nickel allow, is not a good plating solution because plain nickel is a superior and more coast effective plate, and perhaps because NI and CU ions migrate at different rates, causing problems in the plating process. 

Lew:  Your assistance over the years has guided many of us away from potentially costly metal related mistakes and toward common sense solutions to problems.  I thank you on behalf of the broad masses of banjo tinkerers. 

Cas:  Thank you, Lew.  I have had a lot of fun doing this. 

Lew:  Let me shift to your interest in banjo history.  A long time resident of Florida, you have delved into local “banjo roots,” and come up with some interesting observations. 

Cas:  Actually, my “observations” are based on a chance encounter with an elderly fiddler, and a chat that didn’t last very long.  My impression remains that elderly fiddlers with whom I have spoken did not identify a tradition of pairing banjos and fiddles as a salient element of old time music in my part of Florida.  At least one, from Hardee County, who had played all over the state, recalled that fiddlers provided the music for dances, and if something more rhythmic was required, they’d break out the fiddle sticks.

Lew:  Can you comment on the notion that banjo-fiddle pairings are the product of recent musical trends, not a strain of old time music tradition?  Does this observation about Floridian old time music mean anything in efforts to map the banjo-fiddle duet in earlier music elsewhere? 

Cas:  Looking for something and not finding it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen necessarily but I have been unable to come up with much pre-modern (as in post-Civil War but before radio) presence [of banjo-fiddle duet pairings] in Florida.  The combination of a melodic instrument and a rhythm instrument is a rather natural combination but I can’t find any instances of it in Florida.  Curiously enough, brass bands were very popular after the Civil War in Florida.

Lew:  You have speculated that there was a tradition of black and white musical interaction involving banjos, correct?

Cas:  I located a photo in the Polk County Museum showing a phosphate survey crew in the 1920s, where a young black laborer is standing on the margins of a posed group of white professionals and black laborers, bearing a large minstrel banjo.  All one can do is study the photograph and make some logical guesses based on the landscape, the dress style, the automobiles, and the appearances of the people in the picture.  The librarian who brought me to that picture said it appeared to be a phosphate survey crew in the late 1920s somewhere nearby in Central Florida.  I concur with his suggestion.  I did not see any other musical instruments displayed [in the photo.] 

Lew:  You have offered a view that the fiddle, a European instrument, would have been acceptable in late 19th-early 20th century Florida, but the banjo, more clearly associated with “black culture,” would not have been.  However, you draw a distinction in talking about how bluegrass would have been received in the 1940s and 1950s [in Florida.]  Could you comment on this?

Cas:  Bluegrass, arriving as it did by radio and automobile, played by nicely dressed people on an instrument that hardly looked or sounded like the minstrel banjo, would have most likely bypassed the racist perception.  However, as a patter of perspective, in my childhood both “country” and “bluegrass” were looked down on by much of my family as unworthy of attention.  My generation – fresh from the farm and first generation college graduates – was open to new ideas and sounds.  We found Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger, along with blues, jazz and “race music,” and all those wonderful things.

Lew: So there would have been little basis for an old time southern music tradition in Florida?

Cas:  It appears to have not happened.  The entertainment imported into the resorts on the Florida coasts were most likely entertainment for Northerners by Northerners.  The ones that stayed behind longed for dignity and sophistication, so they brought pump organs, pianos, violins and organized brass bands to play on Sunday after church.  There was not too much of a basis for an old time tradition in this context. 

Lew:  And even less of a basis for a banjo playing tradition?

Cas:  Here’s another data point.  Zora Neal Hurston, the first black writer from Florida, writing about her return to Florida in “Of Mules and Men,” recounts many instances of fiddle and guitar being played in the black jook joints, but she mentions banjo only once and that is in reference to someone else’s story that she never retells,  We are left to conclude that even among black people in Florida in the 1920s, banjo was relatively rare.  On the other hand, Stetson Kennedy, the author that penetrated the Ku Klux Klan and lived to write about it, knew Zora and expressed to me that Zora might well have turned a blind eye to the banjo in Florida because of its connection to “plantation” culture.

Lew:  I’d like to get you to talk about your attempts to document the banjo playing of Stu Jamison.

Cas:  My video taping of banjo players started with my taking lessons from Tammy Murray of Gainesville, Florida.  I could arrange only about one lesson per month because it was a three-hour drive from Lake Wales to Gainesville.  Leave my daughter at school, drive straight to Gainesville, take a lesson from Tammy, grab a bite to eat, drive straight back just in time to pick my daughter up and take her home.  That is a seven hour turnaround and I couldn’t do it very often.  So I bought the cheapest VHS video recorder I could find at a local pawn shop and hauled it up there and back.  I still have the tapes.  I took that same recorder to the last Tennessee Banjo Institute in Murphysboro, Tennessee, and videoed anything that moved and looked like a banjo!  It was there I first saw but did not meet Stu Jamieson.  I tried for years to make our paths cross and failed until he retired in the Orlando area, having given up his sailboat for an apartment.  Later I was able to tape his extensive knowledge of the playing of Rufus Crisp.  That was complicated by the onset of Parkinson’s disease but Stu soldiered on and we got some useful stuff.  Stu was focused on getting Rufus’ playing documented. 

Lew:  Have any pointers for those trying to accomplish documentation in video format on the cheap? 

Cas:  What I am trying to do is to get whatever I have accumulated into Quicktime movie in DVD format with some sort of usable editing [capability].  The technology is getting easier and cheaper but that does not mean it is either easy or cheap.  I am mostly working at the “consumer” level that has some restrictions that chafe.  Digital processing consumes great quantities of storage and computing capacity.  My goal is to put together some documentation that can be archived for future study and be shared with the banjo community in some noncommercial manner. 

Lew:  What does the term “Old Time Music” mean to you?

Cas:  Of late, I have been giving some thought to the meaning of “old time music” as it is done today, as compared to what we know of the music at its origins.  The spirit of the music continues but current technologies allow us to share our music on a much grander scale.  I have started thinking in terms of the “New Old-Time Music” played by contemporary musicians.  That music is similar to the root music, but also different in ways that appear to represent normal progression in the making of music over time.  For example, space age technologies are impacting on the life of this music, how it is distributed and listened to, and enjoyed.  In particular, we share out music differently and we overcome large distances using the technologies available to us.  Looking toward the future I dream of online real time jams with, say, a banjo in Florida and a fiddle in North Carolina, and the bass out in New York somewhere.  It appears to be possible and may have been accomplished already using specialized very high-speed lines in academic facilities.  The possibility is intriguing.

Lew:  Can you offer a sense of the practical impact of some of this technology on where we find Old Time Music, what we do with it, and how accessible it is now thanks to these technologies?

Cas:  We can distribute audio, graphics and video with remarkable facility with off-the-shelf technology.  It is possible, for example, for anyone with modest skills and readily available technology to produce their own “radio show” and distribute it via the Internet in such a way that anyone with internet access [could] download it and listen at their own leisure.  That brings us to RSS (Real Simple Syndication), digital radio, and “Podcasting.”

Lew:  We go to festivals, live out of tents, eschew modernity in order to get closer to this music, sometimes in its natural habitant.  Is going high tech compatible with the culture that old time music seeks to celebrate?

Cas:  I know people who would not buy a CD player because phonograph records were good enough.  What binds us is the music itself and the sobering fact that it still takes hard earned skill to learn how to make it work.  The electronic enhancements compress time and distance and allow us to share across great distances.  But people make old time music, not i-Tunes, Peak Pro, Garage Band, podcasting, or the Internet.  Old time music is naked music, no loops, no samplers, no compressors, no lip syncs, no drum machines.  That will never change.  Interpretations do drift, though, and there will be endless arguments about them.  And there are the occasional dramatic departures such as the band called The Horseflies.  They started out as a band in 1981 and took old time, bluegrass, and folk and turned it on its head into a new sound entirely.  Once the shock wears off they can be very addictive.  But this isn’t Old Time.  It isn’t New Time.  It is just the Horseflies.  They have described as “demented, post-modern mountain music.”  A got a chance to spend some time with Judy Hyman (fiddle) and Jeff Claus (banjo uke) one year at Swannannoa and never had such fun.  Wonderful musicians and, yes, they can play old time the old time way, too. 

Lew:  Where should we look for you this coming festival season?

Cas:  Clifftop, if the creek don’t rise.  We will  be at the Florida Old Time Music Championships, the Florida Fiddlers Convention, and the Will McLean Festival. 


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