On today’s show I speak with Eastern Kentucky banjo player George Gibson. I was lucky enough to catch up with George when we were both participating in The Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC in March. George hails from Knott County, Kentucky where he learned to play old-time banjo from his neighbors as well as from his father back in the early 1950’s. One of the local banjo players that George met growing up was “Banjo” Bill Cornett, one of my favorite musicians, so it was a thrill to get to hear a personal account of Banjo Bill. George Gibson is a wonderful banjo player and singer and is also a noted banjo collector and historian of the music from his region. He has served as a bridge between the old generation of musicians such as Banjo Bill, who’s music and culture was dying out when George Gibson was growing up and a new crop of young Southern old-time musicians who are coming up today. George has gathered around him and served as mentor and teacher in an informal sense to a number of very talented young musicians from around the South including Clifton Hicks (Boone, NC), Brett Rattiff (Knott Co, KY), John Haywood (Knott Co. KY), Matt Kinman (Bethel, NC) and Jesse Wells (Knott Co. KY). Check out the 2008 Interview I did with Brett Ratliff here in the Down Home Radio archives.
And be sure to check out George’s album, “Last Possum Up the Tree” on the Appalshop label. Below are some of George Gibson’s excellent notes to that album:
“The Possum CD contains some of the banjo songs and stories I learned as a boy in the Kentucky mountains ca. 1950. I was born in 1938 at Bath, in Knott County, Kentucky. Bath was a rural post office, now discontinued, on Little Carr Creek, which was known by local people as Burgey’s Creek. I learned to play and sing the old songs, in the old tunings, from my family and neighbors. I left Knott County in the 1960’s, taking with me a Kay banjo and a Vega Whyte Laydie guitar banjo. I have been mostly a couch banjo player since leaving. I believe that continuing to play banjo was my way of holding on to a past that I glimpsed only briefly. That past is part of a world and time in Knott County that has vanished forever. As far as I know, I am the last person left playing the old Burgey’s Creek banjo music. I am the last possum up the tree.”
“A few academics and revival musicians from outside the mountains wrote the banjo out of existence in pre-Civil War Appalachia. This is one example of cultural strip mining that I thought should be reversed. Therefore, when I was afforded the opportunity to write the liner notes for the Possum CD, I included evidence of a banjo tradition in Kentucky prior to the Civil War.”
“Most of the banjo songs were played on a ca. 1907 Bacon ff Professional 5-string banjo. Tracks 7 and 20 were recorded playing a ca. 1924 Gibson GB-4 trap-door guitar banjo, which has a 14″ head.”
For more of George Gibson’s writings from the notes to this album, as well as lyrics, click here.