musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Blanche Coldiron -- 3. Picking Up the Banjo

Blanche began playing music at a young age. “I was six, seven, eight, maybe,” she said, in an interview with John Harrod. She remembered hearing Uncle Dave Macon on Grand Old Opry broadcast on their radio, inspiring her to play. “I would listen, and try to get that sound. That’s where I learned. Didn’t have anyone to teach me.”
 
Powell County, at the time, was filled with musicians, picking banjos and playing fiddles; it seems, though, that Blanche never came in direct contact with any prominent older players, when she was first learning to play. Her parents didn’t play music; as she put it, they “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it.”
Despite her parents, hers became a musical household, with the music of the siblings. Blanche’s brothers Ossie and Ray played music, guitar and fiddle; “there was always youngsters in our house, playing music.” Neighborhood children would come over too, bringing banjos, a double bass, more fiddles, and dancing feet.
 
“The boys… some of them smoked,” remembered Irene of her brothers, “and my mother had asthma and she wouldn’t let them smoke in the house, so they had to go outside and smoke, and when they’d go outside, Blanche would get on their instruments.” She’d sneak in, and work on the licks, the tunes, she’d heard them play. Eventually, Blanche said, “The boys would let me sit in with 'em, you know.” Blanche, Irene recalled, was especially connected to the music, saying that “I never saw anyone that loved it any more than she did.”
 
Irene never played much music, except under the encouragement of her sister. A friend, Dudley, left his bass fiddle at the house for a spell, she remembered. “I don’t know how come… and she stood me up in the floor, because she didn’t have anyone to play with. And I said, ‘Blanche I can’t play that thing.’ She said, ‘Yes you can.’ She showed me how to note it… And, first thing I knew I was slapping that old bass pretty good. But after she left, that was it for me.”
 
Their family was one of the few in their area with a radio. The music on it—the Grand Old Opry with comedy numbers and country duets and hoedowns, local morning round-up shows with banjos and fiddles sawing—was a source of inspiration to the kids. It was also a source of mischief—Blanche, of course, at the center of the schemes.
 
Irene remembered that a neighbor of theirs—“Mr. McIntosh was his name” was a particular fan of Uncle Dave Macon. So, one night they invited him over to listen. They hooked up the radio to a microphone, put the radio, and Mr. McIntosh, in the living room. Blanche and her siblings, trying to hold back giggles (as I imagine the scene) were in the kitchen, with the microphone. “They dedicated him a song, them in the kitchen and him in the living room, and Blanche was Uncle Dave Macon. Course he couldn’t see ‘em, it was coming through the radio,” said Irene, laughing. “I don’t know where they ever had nerve enough to tell him the difference or not.”