Friday, December 29, 2017

What is Roundpeak Style?

This Blog note references a discussion on Banjo Hangout, a platform for all banjo obsessive-compulsives.  See:

This morning I went through a couple of years of notes on a range of issues, notes developed while writing a book on Dwight Diller, and interviews/notes compiled during a year of work on a book about Tommy Thompson. 

A good deal of those jottings spoke to Roundpeak and a good percentage of those discussions revolved around the heroic efforts of my interview subjects to try and clarify my confused understanding of Roundpeak as a style. 

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Grayson County, VA - especially a small area called Whitetop that is about an hour and a half from Surry County (where Round Peak is located) - was home to alot of the younger revivalists who modeled their playing after Kyle Creed and Tommy Jarrell. 

Some of the locals carried on their sound, and some from surrounding areas carried on the music of the people in their own communities, basically underscoring the extent to which local and regional music ends up being a goulash of sound rather than any one coherent tradition. 

One interview subject pointed to “tons of homegrown musicians” in the surrounding areas, all who had their own unique personal styles. He emphasized that the fiddling and banjo playing from Grayson County and the Galax areas is very much different than the fiddling Tommy Jarrell did or the banjo playing that Kyle Creed did.

Most of the people who grew up within an hour of that epicenter of old time music generally don’t use the term Round Peak.  They seem to play some of the same tunes, but not in what is generally accepted as that style.

Many musicians who grew up in that tradition said that there were many different styles even within the "Round Peak" area.  They made the case that the “revivalists” latched onto to Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, and Fred Cockerham.  That is, there were people born and raised in that area that did indeed carry on those styles but for any number of reasons never entered the orbit of revivalists, did not come out to play the way Jarrell did – maybe lacked that gregariousness that welcomed the steady march of visitors.

Several people made the case that using the "Round Peak" label for alot of the southwest VA and northwest NC music distorts things or glosses over the extent to which the music of these areas is more of an ensemble music than what the Hammons played and what was typical of a lot of the other solo based old-time from West Virginia, for example.

One interview subject stressed that the old time music from his region is more geared towards dancing, which was and is a very popular thing still today, and that bands and competition were also a distinguishing feature because there were and are many fiddler's conventions that essentially encouraged band formation, and made for good contests. 

Bill Hicks, a North Carolina fiddler who, with Tommy Thompson and Jim Watson and Mike Craver, constituted the Red Clay Ramblers, visited Jarrell, played with him, learned from him, and thought a good deal about Roundpeak.  He made this clear to me: 

“While there is a very accepted view [. . .] regarding Round Peak style, I think close listening to [. . .] that style of playing will yield clear and obvious differences.  Tommy Jarrell, who in a sense is the master player of that area, would improvise subtly in his tunes, and over the years played the tunes differently.  His favorite fiddler was Kenny Baker.  I do agree that the driving style of the Round Peak banjo/guitar and often bass instruments dominated the sound, particularly when experienced in contests or performances.  The most powerful practitioner of the Round Peak sound was surely Benton Flippen and his band.  In Benton's playing the tunes were sort of smoothed out somewhat.  They also played very fast.”  (24 January 2015 (933 AM) email from Bill Hicks to Lew Stern.)

Hicks seemed to agree that the Round Peak "sound" is a band sound, and that people who think about these things tend to look at West Virginia players as more individual.  Hicks wondered whether that might reflect something about the moment when various people wanting to learn the music came in contact with the various musicians.  It was important to Hicks to stress that Round Peak is a very small area relative to West Virginia.  So, NC rural music from the Piedmont and Appalachians would probably be as varied as West Virginia music. 

Jimmy Costa grew up in a family where not much old time music was played, but in a community that was full of the old sounds.  His recollection is that he first became attentive to old time music when he was ten or eleven years old, in a neighborhood at the foot of Bluestone Dam, where the Greenbriar and New Rivers converge.  He recalls the fiddling of Marvin Lacy, and remembers first learning clawhammer from Wilson Ballard who was born in 1876.  The harmonica was the first instrument he learned to play.  He took up the banjo around age 15. 

Costa’s take on the notion that Round Peak music represented one sound, one specific technique: “If you think there’s a specific Round Peak style, you’re mistaken.”  While he acknowledged that technically, stylistically, it is possible to distill a music into its constituent parts, and characterize it by these elements, the truth of the matter is “because [Round Peak] is such an interpretive type of music, everybody had put their own mark on it.”

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Now, these are notes, random records of pieces of conversations – not a coherent argument regarding what I think Roundpeak represents.

The notes are not necessarily reflective of what the interview subjects might offer as their views on Roundpeak – we were, after all, discussing other regional traditional music styles; Roundpeak came up, tangentially, as a way of contrasting West Virginia old time mountain music with other regional evolutions. 

That is, these discussions fed into other lines of inquiry, and the Roundpeak thing was often subsidiary to those other discussions, digressions from my main quarry. 

On the basis of all I absorbed about Roundpeak, I’d still say I still have a lot to learn, and I haven’t reached any conclusions – except that this remains a pretty interesting, and also confusing, piece of old time music history, especially when one weaves in the variable represented by “revivalism” and all that represented for the area.

Play hard,


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