musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Blanche Coldiron -- 9. The Musician, the Performer, the Inspiration

Blanche was an exacting performer. I watched old videos of Blanche’s performances with her children—videos that are available for viewing at the Berea Archive; they noted her flaws, by looking at her face, a little smile and grimace coming across it when she flubbed.
She was fun to perform with, Sue remembered, though often nervous. “Really, really nervous. She was a perfectionist, she did not want to make mistakes. Once she got over her nerves,” Sue said, “she was just incredible. She was hot. Played fast. It was like whoa! I gotta get my forearm strengthened up for this Blanche gig. Kills you.
She was well suited to the stages of the folk festivals, her family said, venues in sharp relief to the stages of popular country music; she was a “very plain person,” Jim said. She loved playing and performing, but never went for glitz and glamour; “you wouldn’tve caught her wearing fancy dresses. She did, Sandy said, start wearing “a little hat… Sue always wore a hat, and mom had to have her one, too.”
A perfectionist on stage, she was the same, as she played at home, remembered those who played with her. She “liked to diddle, more than go through a song,” said Sue. She was a perfectionist, wanting to get each piece right.
Sue remembered that Blanche had written a number of fiddle tunes, one called Fox Chase, one called Blanche’s Breakdown. Blanche was a clawhammer banjo player, primarily, but could also finger pick the instrument; a technique beautifully demonstrated on a track on Rounder Record’s collection of Kentucky Banjo Music, Devil’s Dream, a collection put together by John Harrod and Mark Wilson. The style with which she played “just depended on the song,” Sue said. “And sometimes she’d switch right in the middle. She was so fluent; she knew every spot on that banjo. As she got older, though, it was harder for her to not make mistakes… I think that’s why she diddled. She’d play until she made a mistake, and then she couldn’t stand it and she’d stop. “
Fluent was a word Jim used, too, to describe her playing. Though she would make mistakes, due to lack of practice; they suggested Blanche had a comfort with the instruments, an ability to express herself, through the instruments, like a second language. “So the more she played, the more ways she could play, and she wouldn’t forget, but whatever come acrossed her mind, to go that direction, that’s the direction she would go. And it would tickle you, you could sit down and play the same song, like I said, for an hour—[and never play it the same way twice]” Jim remembered.
Brandon Godman, a fiddle student of hers, now playing and living in Nashville, wrote: “Blanche's playing abilities were masterful. Her fiddling was old-timey. I still use some of her licks in my playing. Her mandolin and guitar skills were equally as impressive, but her banjo playing was truly the best I've heard. Blanche could play all three styles: 3-finger (Scruggs style), 2-finger, and old time banjo (or frailing). I've never heard anyone play like she did. Alot of the old time players would play more rhythm based, however Blanche would get a little more melodic with it. I remember she would play the delicate melodies way up the neck that no one else would ever attempt. Songs like Washington County and Blackberry Blossom… It's a pure shame that more people didn't get to enjoy her music.”
Blanche had a huge repertoire, Sue remembers; old tunes from her childhood, those she had learned from Asa, and those she continued to learn, popular songs and bluegrass songs. “I just like music, any kind of music,” Blanche herself said in an interview recorded by John Harrod.
Another student of hers, Lisa Schaffer, now a songwriter in Nashville, wrote: “She loved all kinds of music. It didn’t matter if it was Bluegrass, Appalachian, Country, Rock, Alternative, or Classical. She loved great music. She loved anything from Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Alison Krauss, Patsy Montana, to the Osborne Brothers. While she loved all kinds of music, I always noticed a light would shine a little brighter in her when she would play old-time banjo songs. Some of the songs I remember her playing the most were “Hot corn, cold corn,” “Heathen Ridge Stomp,” “Lonesome Road Blues.” I also remember her playing old fiddle songs “Over The Waves,” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast”…which she always called, “Pepsi Before Breakfast” because she didn’t believe in drinking.”
“A lot of things she forgot, just nor normal everyday things she would forget. But she wouldn’t forget a thing about that music, not one thing,” Jim said.
“It was part of her body. I mean, it was just like it was part of her,” Sandy joined in.
“It was wired in her brain, that’s all it was… just wired in. she didn’t even have to think about it.”
As she performed at more festivals in the 90s, folks from the old time community would call, to pay her a visit and hear her playing, another enjoyment which came of her recovered career. “There wasn’t a day go by that there wasn’t somebody would call her on the phone, to interview her, or ‘can we come to your house, come and play with you,’ for two solid years,” Sandy said. “She loved it,” Jim said. “She got to live some of her fame,” said Sandy. Just a little dose of it, she said. Just the right amount.
Her new musical visitors, calling and asking to visit, worried her family, not used to the musical community that was embracing them. “If they’d talk about music, she’d invite them right in…. and we got a little concerned… she didn’t know those boys.” She assuaged their fears; if they knew the music, if they appreciated the banjo, then they had to be alright.