musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Blanche Coldiron -- 7. The Musical Family

Her music career was set aside, busy taking care of her daughter. But theirs was a household filled with music, Jim and Sandy remembered.
Blanche played the banjo, and also the fiddle, the mandolin, the guitar—anything with strings on it, her children said. Jim insisted that there wasn’t an instrument she couldn’t pick up, and, within five minutes he said, begin to work out a tune. In addition to an adept banjo player, who knew her way around the instrument, up and down the neck, with dexterity, their mom, said Sandy, was “a beautiful fiddle player. She could play the Orange Blossom Special, and some of those [tunes] to where you would think that the fiddle was going up in smoke…. She could just smoke the fiddle, she could just smoke it! I mean, you’d expect it to go up in flames! She played the mandolin too; “runs… you would not believe,” in Sandy’s memory.
“As she got older, she said the fiddle wore her out more, and her interest went more to the banjo,” said Sandy. She’d pull it out, on occasion, at home, and then at festivals she performed at. Banjo, though, remained her favorite instrument, and the one she played with the most fluency.
As soon as her children were able, the family began to play music together. “Mom always complained about not having nobody to play with, cause she always had to stay home with Carolyn,” Jim remembered, of his mother when he was a young boy. And I said, ‘Well mom, learn me how to play and I’ll play with you.‘ She says, ‘you wanna play?’ And I said, ‘yeah.’ So she started me on the mandolin… for a very little bit, and then she started me on the guitar.” He picked it up, and stuck with it, singing too, and performing. Jim learned how to play guitar, backing his mother up, and singing with her for all her life. “I kinda dropped out,” Sandy said. “I started thinking about boys,” she said with a whisper and a giggle.
As young children, Sandy, Jim, and Blanche would sit and sing songs together; “that was all we did. We didn’t run around as kids. We set at home, sat around in a little circle and sang and played. I mean, this was our whole world.” Sessions that they sometimes recorded, on a Bell and Howell reel-to-reel tape recorder, and are now being processed and digitized by the Berea College Archives.
Their father never played music. Sandy, chuckling, noted that he’d play the spoons, during their family jam sessions. Sometimes, too, the harmonica; he sang, too, along with the rest of them, a striking bass—just like the way he talked, a man who “never talked gently,” as his daughter would say. “He didn’t play, but he very good to back up her playing,” said Jim. “I mean, if he found an instrument that he thought she would like, he would get it for her…. At one time, had a whole room filed… it was full of instruments.”
Working various jobs through his lifetime—for General Motors, and in highway construction—he was, consistently, a trader, always involved in some deal, exchanging one thing for another. Never making very much cash, as his children said, but procuring, among other things, a number of fine instruments for his wife. Playing with Sue Massek, who played a Whyte Ladye Banjo, Blanche wanted one of her own; she traded her old Gibson, to get it.
He would call upon his kids to play music, to perform for guests; “whether my lip was quivering or whatever, I had to sing the song,” Sandy recalled. “It might have been what turned me against music, a little bit.”
Blanche would jam with neighbors, sometimes, bluegrass, oldtime, gospel, known in the local music communities. “All the jam sessions, and everything that they used to do, mom was the leader of the pack,” said Sandy. They didn’t mean to brag to me, Jim said. It was a simple matter, he explained—“there wasn’t nobody in the county back then that could come close to her.”
She wrote a number of songs, as well as the traditional and bluegrass songs she played. A banjo tune called the Heathen Ridge stomp; a few songs, some, about her childhood home, since destroyed to make way for a highway. One about her daughter, Carolyn. “I loved that song,” remembered Jim. “It was sad. I mean, I couldn’t sing it without crying, hardly.”
She was, her children said, a woman full of music. “If you can think of a person that loves music,” Jim said, “the person that you know that loves music more than anybody in the world, mom probably loved it a little better. She loved that music that good.”
For all her love of music, Blanche never was one to play regularly; presumably, this was because of the other demands of her life. “She’d lay it down every two or three months and not play it,” said Sandy. 
Blanche worked on instruments, as well as played them, a self-taught luthier. She’d take the ebony from old pianos, collect scraps of pearlized abalone, to make inlays on fretboards. She’d install new tone rings into banjoes, repair them and bring them to working condition. Never made an instrument from scratch, said Sandy, but could’ve--- “I really don’t know anything that she wasn’t capable of doing.”
Blanche, in her children, had two of the biggest, proudest fans any musician could ask for. The woman they told stories about, us sitting on Jim’s living room floor for nearly seven hours, was a bit of an invincible superhero, in their mind. “It’s just,” said Sandy at one point, in the midst of another long gushing story of her mother, “we love talking about her. It keeps her alive.”
Jim and Sandy grew up, started families of their own, mere miles from each other, up on Heathen Ridge. The family continued to play music together. Jim’s wife Pat, was a singer; they began to play, and went on to perform together. “I guess we sang a long time,” Sandy said. “I did, the rest of my life,” said Jim. He noted, “I’m not that talented, really… but I had rhythm and timing.”