Bobby Fulcher and Clyde Davenport, “Five Miles from Town” and “Sally Johnson” written by Clyde Davenport, performed by Clyde Davenport and Bobby Fulcher, Live at the Cumberland Festival, 1993.
Old Bangum” sung by Dee Hicks. Recorded by Bobby Fulcher in 1980. From "Five Miles Out Of Town - Traditional Music From The Cumberland Plateau, Vol. 2" (1988).
NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Bobby Fulcher: A lot of people have the notion that if you wander through the country, in strange country, people are going to resent you for that, but not if you have a banjo or a fiddle in your hand, you know. You’ll make yourself welcome wherever you go …
Jo Reed: That’s Folklorist, State Park Manager and 2019 National Heritage Fellow Bob Fulcher. And this is the Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
For over 40 years, Bobby Fulcher has been mining the folk culture of Tennessee, seeking out and recording traditional artists, creating programming around those artists to shine a light on their work, and serving as an inspiration and mentor to young folklorists of multiple generations. That Bobby has accomplished all this while working for the Tennessee State Parks really gets to the heart of his vision, the deep connection between traditional culture and the natural environment in which it occurs. To that end, he started the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project, a program that initiated cultural fieldwork throughout the park system. The program has trained many fieldworkers, created more than a dozen annual events and established an extraordinary body of audio and photography that explores Tennessee’s folklife. And that barely skims the surface of the work that Bobby Fulcher has done. He casts a wide net from creating music tours for these musicians to hosting the Cumberland Trail radio show. A banjo player himself, he organized The Tennessee Banjo Institute. He’s also formed a non-profit record label that focuses on this traditional music, and he regularly produces concerts that immerse the audience in both the culture and the natural environment of these musicians, in venues ranging from the Library of Congress to National Parks.
In all his work, but most obviously in his passion for finding, documenting and extolling traditional artists, Bobby brings an eager curiosity, an ability to listen and the capacity for wonder. It’s no surprise that Bobby Fulcher received the 2019 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, an award which recognizes 'keepers of tradition', the people who teach, collect, preserve and advocate folk and traditional arts". For Bobby, this advocacy is as natural as breathing, and as necessary. I spoke to Bobby Fulcher when he came to Washington DC to receive his award and I began by asking him to describe the Cumberlands, the place where so much of his work has taken place.
Bobby Fulcher: It’s on what would be considered the border of East Tennessee, you might say. It’s between the Smokies and the middle Tennessee area where Nashville is, but it is a block of sandstone uplifted above the Tennessee Valley and the interior of Tennessee in a mountain group that runs from northern Alabama all the way up and becomes the Alleghenies in the north on into Pennsylvania—well, into New York State, through West Virginia and such. It’s very dramatic landscape with deep canyons that are carved into this big sandstone block, so a lot of rock walls and racing waters, waterfalls, overlooks across large pieces of terrain. That’s the Cumberlands.
Jo Reed: Beautiful, just beautiful. I want to go back, back, back. What drew you to learn the banjo, which is another central strand <laughs> in your—in your career? Did you grow up in a family that had music in it? What—what drew you to that?
Bobby Fulcher: My family had a bit of music in it, not a whole lot of traditional music, but my father grew up playing the French harp, harmonica, you know, and I started playing the harmonica when I was eight years old and enjoyed that and I got a guitar when I was quite young. I was—my interest was in, you might say, popular music, and I didn’t fall for traditional music until I left my home, went to college and heard somebody close to my age playing the banjo. I thought, “Oh, that’s great. If I could learn that, I’d be happy every day there on out.” and so I undertook that. And then I discovered that many of the pieces my father played were old-time tunes. I discovered for the first time my grandfather was a fiddle player, though he died when my own father was quite young.
Jo Reed: So you—you discovered this family strand in music that you really didn’t know was there. That’s really interesting.
Bobby Fulcher: Well, that’s true, but that discovery wasn’t nearly as exciting to me as the discoveries I was making for myself and my own attraction to the sounds of—of traditional music. I found it to be so engaging, interesting, exciting, thrilling. I immediately tried to learn all that I could by learning from other people my age who were playing the music and playing with them. I went to the libraries and began to pour through their record collections and books and began to watch for opportunities to hear traditional musicians as they passed through my college town. And I heard a bit of that, but I was very fortunate to take on a roommate, at one point, who had actually gone out to meet traditional musicians. He took me with him to meet a banjo player named Commodore Tipton who lived on the edge of the Smokies—lived in an old school bus, you know, and he was a banjo player. And so, we just went up to his door, went on in—he started playing the banjo, we played a little bit, and I thought, “Oh, gosh. This is—this is easy, you know.” Musicians love other musicians, for the most part. A lot of people have the notion that if you wander through the country, in strange country, people are going to resent you for that, but not if you have a banjo or a fiddle in your hand, you know. You’ll make yourself welcome wherever you go. <Music> And so, that was the approach that I took when I got my first job in the Cumberlands.
Jo Reed: Well, I find it so interesting because you really make this connection between nature and culture. You were—you were in forestry. You were a ranger, are a ranger, and that really isn’t so readily apparent to a lot of people, though, of course, it is complete common sense. Can you just talk about that connection a little bit, because that’s so central.
Bobby Fulcher: I’ve found most every piece of the world to be very interesting, and I did start my academic career aimed at being a naturalist, and I got to be one—to look carefully at the plants in the forest and the animals and with a sense of discovery, every day. And I’ve had the same feeling when I took up the passion for music. It was all part of pursuing a life of discovery, every day and every moment that we grab hold on and find one, whether it was through people or through other parts of the world. And it’s made life great and wonderful, and I’m still looking forward to every day.
Jo Reed: That’s a great way to go through life. The Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project, which is something that you began, with an NEA grant, actually, which is field research, documentation, programming. What led you to create that program and what came out of it?
Bobby Fulcher: One of the very important responsibilities that I had from the first time I worked in State Parks, just as a seasonal worker—and it carried on into my career, was to present educational programs to the public. I valued that, enjoyed it, loved to see people light up by learning new things, being exposed to new things, whether it was music or birds or botanical pieces of the world. But I loved it also when folks could meet even their neighbors in a way that they hadn’t met them before and to appreciate their traditional knowledge and understanding. So, in developing the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project, I knew that programming—that the presentation of people in our parks, introducing our park neighbors to our park visitors would be a critical part of it. But, you know, I had been, since in college, running through libraries looking at these documents that had been prepared by the Library of Congress, the old album series that they’d done, and those had been my information up to that time. That was so important, and I knew that we needed to document what was happening. I loved libraries, and I wanted to enrich our Tennessee Library with material information that they could not get anywhere else. We’d have to do it, create it, and we’ve done that in a great partnership.
Jo Reed: I think you’ve also created generations of other folklorists, and that is a wonderful thing as well. If you had to think of the essential thing that is important for documenting folklife, what would you think that would be?
Bobby Fulcher: I think a personal passion for learning and for people, someone who loves to ask questions and hear answers and loves to explore. And it’s not so hard to spot that in folks who come to you looking for those opportunities. And we’ve had so many good people who have joined us and we’ve always had a stalwart group that would stay the course, who were intrepid and determined to cover terrain, to leave no door un-knocked upon, to meet people in the community that were known to have a deep body of traditional knowledge that wasn’t going anywhere unless they made that connection.
Jo Reed: So much knowledge just untapped.
Bobby Fulcher: There is. When we go through our documents, when we go through the interviews that have been done, there always is a sense of thankfulness to that person who created that document. Of course, we honor the tradition bearer above all and their lifetime of developing what they have for the world. But, a part of that chain that really is necessary for us is someone caring enough, whether it’s a family member or a university student, as we typically have worked with—who would take it down and preserve it in that modest form. But, it—its modesty grows into grandness when we <laughs> go beyond that artist’s life, and that’s what we have left so often, only that.
Jo Reed: And putting it in this greater context, I remember years ago, my ex-husband was a computer scientist, so we were on the Internet early, early on. And I remember finding—and I think it’s—it was housed—no, it’s the Library of Congress, the old WPA interviews, and listening to Richard Wright interview a former slave. I almost fell off my chair. That continuation of history—it was so profoundly moving to me, and I was so grateful to the WPA, to Richard Wright, to the enslaved person who would share their story. What a gift.
Bobby Fulcher: There’s so much to learn from that and the work that was left there, what those people gave, and I agree with you, you know. Those, as they’re called, slave narratives are online with the Library of Congress, and I have to be careful, because once I go into them, I can’t bear to leave it. It’s hard to—to stop delving and reading and hearing that. It is powerful, and we have to be so thankful to whoever it was that envisioned that project, who envisioned the other actions of The Archive of Folk Song with Robert Gordon and his descendants in those positions down to Betsy Peterson now, who have taken on that charge to be sure that the future is left with documents as powerful as the ones that we’ve found now, our generation found, that was left by the WPA and other federal programs.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and you’re one of the first people who got a recorder from the American Folklife Center. You began recording way, way, way early on, practically when they began that program.
Bobby Fulcher: Right. My first recordings were for the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong and American Folklife Center, as the name had been changed. And so, I was so fortunate by their trust, almost unreasonable trust that they had <laughs> in loaning me wonderful recording equipment. I came to Washington, and Carl Fleischhauer gave me a short training on how to use a Nagra recorder, the Swiss-made recorder with beautiful mics, Sennheiser mics, and I took that out and went out to the people who I’d been meeting the past couple years to put them on these reels that I knew, eventually, would be protected by the Library of Congress.
Jo Reed: And some of the people you recorded including Dee and Delta Hicks—can you talk about meeting them and recording them? They’re just so wonderful.
Bobby Fulcher: I had no idea that I would meet someone like Dee Hicks. I had met an older woman named Opal Wright, and she worked throughout the county in sort of a works program, you know, to help folks. Her father had been one of the great fiddlers of the Cumberland Mountains, so she was raised in music, and she took me to meet a number of important musicians that meant so much in my experience. But, she took me to meet an old fiddler named Cotton Tipton, and he mentioned he knew a banjo player. And I ask him, you know, “Where the banjo players around here?” He said, “I know one, an old man. He plays a tune about the woods a-burning down.” I thought, “Well, that sounds like an interesting tune. I don’t think I know what that is. I’ve got to go find it.” I thought, “Maybe I’ll find a tune that no one has ever documented before.” That would be fabulous. And so, I did go in the direction that he suggested. And got to the house. It was full of big old bad dogs and chickens and—well lived-in, very modest house—and I knocked on the door. I had my banjo in my hand so they would know exactly what I was there for, and I began to ask Dee Hicks about banjo tunes. Right away, I turned on my tape recorder, my little cassette, and I can hear exactly what I always do, and he kept trying to tell me about old songs, and I kept trying to get him back on banjo. And he did sing a sketch of a ballad for me then, but I paid no attention to it. I asked him where the other banjo players were. He sent me on to one, and that fellow said, “You got to go back and hear little Dee sing ‘Old Bangham’ and ‘Rogers the Miller.’” And I did. And ‘Old Bangham’—it changed me immediately. I’d never heard anything like it. It was so intriguing, rich, fascinating. I knew it was of great antiquity, had to be. There was nothing false or presumptuous about it. <Music> It was just an exciting piece of someone’s ancient history. That’s just what it sounded like, or a most thrilling story out of the past. And from that point on, I was interested in ballads. I had never had such an interest. In fact, I thought that they were pretty frivolous. I never thought that after that moment.
Jo Reed: That’s amazing. Clyde Davenport, the fiddler, is someone else whom you recorded and whom you have a great relationship with.
Bobby Fulcher: Clyde’s still alive and still a good friend and--
Jo Reed: 97?
Bobby Fulcher: He’s 97. He’s still got a smile on his face always, a little chuckle. Lives in Monticello, Kentucky, again. That’s where I met him. And he’s a pesky kind of guy, likes to have fun for his own amusement. Doesn’t care if anybody else gets it. And so, indeed, when I went to see him and ask about his fiddle tunes—I’d been told he’d been a good fiddle player. He said, “I don’t play any fiddle, you know. You need to go listen to this man and that man,” and—and I did. I followed his wild goose chase he wanted me to go on. And they kept telling me, <laughs> “You need to go back to Clyde.” When I did, he finally pulled his—he laughed and pulled his fiddle out, and he started to play tunes including ones that had remarkable qualities. I had heard—I was familiar with them from the old Library of Congress recordings. These were tunes that were played by the fiddle as a solo instrument with the fiddle most often, quite often, retuned to resonate and drone sympathetic strings so that if you’re playing on the top strings the bottom are ringing in harmony, or the bow can reach over and grab them open, and they’re—they’re going to enrich the melody that’s being played on top of it. It’s a distinctive style. If there is an American style of fiddling, it’s probably this style. It’s a frontier style, when the fiddle was by itself on the frontier without a banjo or guitar, you know. And so, the pacing and the timing of these solo pieces, it’s like in ballad singing. It’s up to that musician at that time about how long you want to sustain a note. And so, the richness of the old solo fiddle pieces is—I think is incomparable. I love it. And Clyde was—is perhaps the last living traditional practitioner of it who was raised with this style in his family, taken directly from his family. And he’s left a lot of tunes now that are—are scattered across the country. <Music>There are a lot more people playing in this style now than when I met Clyde Davenport. It’s been taken up by my generation and younger fiddlers than—far younger than me, who now accept that, have heard it. Modern media has spread this style of fiddling, whereas it had withered down and been winnowed down to just a few, few fiddlers when I launched out with my recorder.
Jo Reed: So that’s a change you’ve seen over the course of your career, happily.
Bobby Fulcher: I’ve seen, yes, many people take it up.
Jo Reed: I just don’t want this to be a who’s who or a what’s what of everything you’ve done because you’ve done so much, and I’m aware that time is a-wasting, but there’s certain things like the Cumberland Music Tour, which--
Bobby Fulcher: <laughs>
Jo Reed: --just brought these people out into the public and was such a gift for everyone.
Bobby Fulcher: Well, that was a great fun, and a couple of my friends helped so much with the arrangement. Roby Cogswell, the state folklorist in Tennessee—he did so much to help us fill a van full of my old friends, a ballad singer, Johnny Ray Hicks, a couple string bands, and Clyde Davenport, and to bring Cumberland music from Montgomery, Alabama, up to Vermont, you know, playing in Washington here, playing in New York City, quite an adventure for those very traditional people who were on the trip. And some of the younger ones, Virgil Anderson’s sons, you know, they had traveled around a little bit, but none of us had ever experienced anything quite like that—that and the Tennessee Banjo Institute was one of the biggest thrills in my life. There I had the opportunity to—first bring 35 great banjo players to one spot, to teach and show the banjo to a small group that we call members of the Tennessee Banjo Institute, folks that had paid us to get in the door. I first had to raise funding for it, but the idea seemed to appeal to a lot of different givers, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission. And—and then we grew to about 70 on the second year that we did this, and the third year I think we had 130 or more paid banjo greats. And not only banjo but the African players who were playing the precursors of the banjo. And it was the first time, to my knowledge, that African performers on the skin-headed lutes played beside banjoists in our country. Some of those griots had played as solo performers. Some harp players had played next to banjoists, you know. That was who was in town. But here we brought the banjo world together, folks playing the most progressive styles, the 19th century very formal styles that were orchestrated styles that preceded the Civil War time, African-Americans. It was the first gathering of African-American banjo players as well. We had a banjo meltdown.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Bobby Fulcher: And that’s what we called our concerts each year, Banjo Meltdown.
Jo Reed: That’s a great name for it.
Bobby Fulcher: Oh, my goodness. We did try to absolutely overburden everybody’s mind that was there with banjo music, and it was exhilarating and exhausting. And those two things together—Hey, no one’s ever forgot it who attended.
Jo Reed: You also present concerts, and you—you really developed a model for this. Can you share what that model is?
Bobby Fulcher: I’d say that model is based upon park interpretive model in that our goal is to reach, first of all, appreciation and then a devotion to protection. And so, as we present a concert, we want to invest cleverly in interpretation, in enticing our audience to understand the context and be prepared for the qualities of the music that they’re about to hear. And it’s a fine line to jump on because you can’t overburden someone who’s come to a concert for its music. So, we’ve used imagery to fill a screen with context, either geographical context, you know, the landscape that surrounded the musicians, of course, historical photography, those sorts of things. So, we try to fill the room up with that visual context, and then we try to give a few hints as to what lies behind what folks are about to experience and then get out of the way and let the musician speak for themself. Let them perform the music so that folks are using some analytical tools beyond what they might have had when they came in the door. And we found it to be very successful, that it has led folks want to follow every note and not fade out, but to know that every note, every word, every verse has got some real importance and is a part of a story. We focused on music that tells specific stories, often little-known pieces of music that will all leave our language and our history with the audience and not strange to them, but something that they feel like they understand then.
Jo Reed: It’s so interesting that so much of this is done under the auspices of forestry and—and the Park Service, and I just think it’s so wonderful because we so often see culture, nature, and the twain does not meet. And what you’re doing is taking two of the fundamental pieces of our lives and not just bringing them together but showing how they’re so inextricably linked.
Bobby Fulcher: Well, they always have been, and it’s not always appreciated, the extent at which people from our region of the Cumberlands have appreciated and loved their mountains and expressed their love for them. You know, a lot of times folks could come in from the outside and say, “Well, look what they’ve done, you know. They—they have no appreciation, no respect for the mountains. They’re out there hunting the deer and doing this and that, mining coal or whatever.” Yes, that is true, that happens, but there is a context for that. That’s important for people to understand, and a love of nature does lie within so many of the people, just like it does with folks who visit our beautiful places and say, “Oh, I love this.” Well, the folks who’ve lived in it, they have loved it, too, sometimes in a bit different ways, but we ought to appreciate each other.
Jo Reed: Tell me, the National Heritage Award, it adds to the multitude of awards <laughs> you already have. But I wonder what the meaning of the National Heritage Award for you. You knew Bess Lomax Hawes, and you’re winning the Bess Lomax Hawes Award.
Bobby Fulcher: <laughs>
Jo Reed: That has to have a special resonance for you, I would imagine.
Bobby Fulcher: Well, it does, of course. Anybody who met Bess Hawes knows how wonderful she was, just ebullient, you know, and intelligent and insightful. I really cherish my memories of—of being with her and the conversations that we had. I—I wish I had had many, many more. But, I found out about the National Endowment for the Arts grants program by going to Memphis, driving to Memphis, Tennessee, where Bess was there to present this new grant program, and so I met her from the get-go, you know. I have all the respect that I could muster for anything, for what this program has meant. I’ve followed it since the beginning, you know, and had great interest, always, in learning about the recipients. I have written to support nominations, have been a nominator of folks who I’ve admired. And so, at this point I can’t even imagine that this is actually real, but I have great gratitude, of course, to have this amazing honor, and—and I will try to—to use that opportunity to—to do some good things for the places that I love and—and the people that are so important.
Jo Reed: Bobby, thank you so much. I really appreciate you giving me your time. I know how busy this is for you, so thank you, and many, many congratulations.
Bobby Fulcher: Thank you, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was Folklorist, State Park Manager and 2019 National Heritage Fellow Bob Fulcher. Thanks to Bradley Hanson, the director of Folklife at the Tennessee Arts Commission, for his insight.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do, and leave us a rating on Apple because it really helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.