Bluegrass heritage owes debt to presidential native son
by Dee Grano
Musician Marilyn Meacham Price says, “Music is like anything, it evolves.” This was especially true of North Carolina music in the 1840s, when early songs of Appalachia were born of a country in transition.
The age of American bluegrass owes much to a kid from Mecklenburg County who became the best president you’ve never heard of.
“The Art of Music in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” at the President James K. Polk State Historic Site will feature old-time string music from the period of Polk’s administration. In addition to enjoying performances and sing-a-longs, visitors can make their own instruments at the event Saturday, June 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This latest installment of the Polk State Historic Site series “Second Saturdays” is free and open to the public. Visit www.nchistoricsites.org/polk for more information.
“It’s a nice low-key day in which musicians and other folks are scattered around the site,” said Tom Hanchett, historian of the Levine Museum of the New South and fiddle player for the band Flat Possum Hoppers who will perform at the event. “As you wander under trees and through cabins, you’ll happen upon people playing and sharing with neighbors.”
“This event gives people an opportunity to listen to music they may have never heard before,” said Courtney Rounds, who coordinates programs and volunteers for the Polk State Historic Site. Both the site and the event are family-friendly. Though no concessions will be sold, patrons are welcome to bring a picnic lunch.
Located just off Lancaster Road in Pineville, the Polk State Historic Site sits on 22 acres of land once owned by the parents of the 11th president of the United States. After the Polk family moved to Tennessee, the land was parceled and sold but later reclaimed by the state of North Carolina. The Polk State Historic Site opened in 1968.
As the only presidential historic site in North Carolina, President James K. Polk State Historic Site’s mission is to educate the public on James Polk’s childhood (1795 to 1806) and presidency (1845 to 1849). In addition to outdoor exhibits and the Visitors Center, the site features reconstructions of typical period homestead buildings that are authentically furnished.
“You could be back 200 years even though you’re only five minutes from I-485,” Hanchett said.
Polk has been called an “overlooked president” (Newsweek 2009.) Scholars have ranked him highly for his ambitious single-term accomplishments: leading the country through the Mexican-American War, the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute and the annexation of California.
“Polk’s administration was a major transition period for America,” said Tom Estes, past president of the Charlotte Folk Society, banjo player for the Flat Possum Hoppers and regional history buff. Estes said before Polk’s time, “American music tended to themes and songs of Europe, like the stiff fife and drum tunes from the British Isles.” Though the Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783) resulted in American independence, stateside colonial culture took time to evolve.
Westward expansion beyond the original 13 colonies was an official priority for Polk. “With the growth of a culture, all our gifts and differences become one unified whole,” Estes explained. Though closely identified with Southern music, the banjo is an African instrument brought to America by slaves. Appalachian clogging is a combination of European, American Indian and African dancing.
“The attitude of the country was changing,” Estes said. “America was becoming America.” After Polk’s administration ended, tensions mounted in the Civil War (1861 to 1865). While a devastating blow to national unity, the war furthered the homogenization of American music. Soldiers exchanged songs around the campfire and brought them home. Traditional tunes changed dramatically, laying the foundation for bluegrass and “the seeds of what would become big band, blues and rock n’ roll,” Estes said.
At Saturday’s event, visitors to the site can play various instruments courtesy of Marilyn Meacham Price, long-time musician, music teacher and founder of the Charlotte Folk Society. She will show parents and children how to make instruments out of household materials and teach the crowd songs everyone can sing together. “Learning from others informally helps the music continue,” she said.
Hanchett and Estes will join other Flat Possum Hoppers John Cone and Ruth Kee Wherry to perform pre-bluegrass tunes, as well as Bill Monroe’s “Rabbit in the Log,” Uncle Earl’s “Walkin’ in my Sleep,” and the Carter Family’s “Gold Watch and Chain.”
“As long as it’s simple we know how to do it,” Hanchett said.
Music will continue through the afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. with The Celtic Slow Jam of the Charlotte Folk Society.
At a time of great transition, America responded with music. “Art influences culture and culture influences art,” Estes said.
Enjoy music unlike any other at “The Art of Music in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” and learn how it got that way.
Beyond Polk: the birth of bluegrass & Charlotte’s 1930 music boom
Trained as a classical pianist at 14 years old, Marilyn Meacham Price fell in love with the “old time string band music” of the 1930s and 1940s. She remembers: “Back then every community had its own high school where everyone would gather for a dance on Saturday nights. A live band would play Appalachian music, with lots of fiddle, bass and guitar.”
Price says these gatherings produced more than a simple soundtrack for social gathering. Local musicians would improvise, creating new sounds and songs. “This evolved eventually into bluegrass,” added Price, “which is more up-tempo.”
Passed down in oral tradition, very little of this music was transcribed into sheet music. “Music is a gift from God,” Price said. “The most joyful music played is the kind you don’t have to read, when you play it from your head.”
With the boom of the textile industry in North Carolina and success of the mills, workers had money to spend on live music. Consequently, Charlotte became a performance hub for legends like Bill Monroe (known as the “Father of Bluegrass”) and The Carter Family (in which June Carter Cash performed as a young girl).
“In the 1930s Charlotte became a place for major record labels to record traditional music,” added historian and musician Tom Hanchett. “Field recording teams would set up wherever they could find space.” RCA Victor recorded at space at 212 Tryon St. in a building which no longer exists. Other recording hotspots included Hotel Charlotte and Hotel Andrew Jackson. The latter still stands in downtown Rock Hill.
For more on this colorful musical heritage visit www.historysouth.org. Under the music tab, select “Recorded in Charlotte.”