musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Blanche Coldiron -- 8. Loss & New Beginnings

By the late 1980s, Blanche was taking care of both Carolyn and her husband, who had been severely affected by a stroke, which had damaged his brain, another invalid in the house, as her children described. He passed away in 1988. Upon his death, and then the death of Carolyn in 1995, Blanche experienced a bit of a musical renaissance, newly coping with the loss and all the time on her hands. Carolyn died, when she was 51. “She went for 51 years,” Sandy said; “of giving a person a drink every time they needed a drink, doing every thing for a person.”

“Every bite of food, every drink,” Jim said.

“If you’d do it for yourself, you’d automatically go do it a second time, because you’re doing it for her, too. We thought that mom would just simply die, when Sissy died,” Sandy said.

Her brother chimed in, “And if it hadn’t been for John Harrod getting her back into music, she…” “might have grieved herself to death,” Sandy finished.

She played a lot of music in Grant County, John Harrod remembered. She’d get out, he said, and play with the occasional local country or bluegrass band; stages at town festivals, local bluegrass festivals. She’d play dobro, guitar, mandolin, and banjo, a musician eager to play music at any opportunity. “She was somebody... who didn’t distinguish between bluegrass and old time music or country music. She loved Allison Krauss, she wrote some great songs, quite a variety of great songs, and if you listen to the tapes, she’s got some children’s songs that are wonderful. And then she made up some banjo tunes that sound like progressive newgrass banjo tunes, and then she could do that, all the way to the old time stuff.
John Harrod, a fiddler and scholar from Owen County Kentucky, was spending his time visiting with older Kentucky musicians; friends of his had told him about Blanche, and her music. So John paid her a visit. The two became friends, he eager to hear the tunes she remembered from her childhood, she, eager to play.

She hadn’t been the habit of playing regularly; she began playing more often, her children remembered. John Harrod, on one of his early visits, came to record Blanche, to hear her play some fiddle tunes. “He walks in, this day, and says, ‘Well, can you play me a tune or two on the fiddle?’ And she says, ‘well to be honest with you, I haven’t played the fiddle in years.’” Jim, recounting the day, said that his mother’s arms had been hurting her, making it difficult to hold her instrument. “’Well do you think you could get through one or two?’” John persisted. She played, then, got out her fiddle and played. Not well, as Jim remembered, or as she did; she had wanted to redo the recordings, which are available now in the Berea College Archives. But, Jim remembered her saying, “I could play the fiddle again’.”

“She was almost annoyingly self effacing,” John remembered. “Just one of those people that… you never knew what to say, you’d just kind of play along, and encourage her.” Encourage her he did, and introduced her to a whole community of encouraging musicians, and festival stages, eager to hear the music of older musicians like Blanche. She got back on stage, she began to play more often, to pick up that fiddle and banjo. She was, it seems, a woman reinvigorated and inspired to play music.

Among the musicians who embraced her and her music were the women of the Reel World String Band, a young old time stringband, their banjo player Sue Massek, who formed a particular connection with Blanche. “Course,” John said, “they were very much taken with her.” Her spirit, her music and, perhaps for a band of women out in search of heroines, taken with the story of an older woman musician, getting a second chance, as they saw it.

Of the renewed interest in her music, “She loved it,” said Sue. “It kept the circle from breaking, for her, brought her full circle back to what she loved.”

Sue became Blanche’s apprentice, learning banjo from her, in a program sponsored by the Kentucky Folklife Organization. She visited often, learning tunes, hearing stories and, Sue remembered, becoming Blanche’s friend. Jim and Sandy remember that Sue’s visits got Blanche playing, more often, to bring something new each week for Sue to learn.

For Sue, Blanche’s story was “the road not taken by Lily May,” a similar upbringing, one who pursued a musical career, the other who didn’t. “It was Blanche’s dream to be a performer,” Sue said. Of their teaching sessions, Sue remembered, “We’d play a song and she’d teach me how to do this and that with it, and we’d try to work our harmonies… sometimes I’d play guitar, to really hear what she was doing. And then she’d tell me stories, about what inspired her to write the song, lots of childhood memories about the place down there in the gorge. She really loved that place, and missed it terribly. She still has a lot of old friends who are down in that area. She said she was quite the tomboy, and would always rather be climbing trees and playing in the woods, than doing house stuff. So we had a lot in common, too. “

Blanche seemed quite taken with Sue, and the Reel World women, her children remembered; she insisted on getting a hat, just like the one Sue wore. She’d attend concerts of theirs; they’d shout out to her, from the stage, Jim and Sandy recalled, proudly. She would perform with them sometimes; sometimes, they’d back her up.

One concert, in particular, her family was proud to show me; it was a big concert in Lexington, lots of stage lights, on the Reel World String Band. They called special guests onto the stage for a version of the old Coon Creek Girls song, Banjo Pickin’ Girl, Grammy award winning musician Cathy Fink, and Blanche. And Blanche held her own, Cathy saying as much, a compliment, her kids said, that she never forgot.
Blanche performed, too, with her family band; Jim on vocals and guitar, Pat on vocals; and with Sue, as a duo. She performed at the Kentucky State Folklife Festival in Frankfort, at the Appalachian Traditional Music Festival in Cincinnati, the Seedtime on the Cumberland festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and at Berea College. She was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of fame, in Renfro Valley, where, in a glass case, one of her old banjoes sits, along with photographs and memorabilia of her careers.