Music Credits: “Ida Red,” “Sally Anne,” and “Little Maggie” from the cd A Long Hard Ride performed by Daniel Rothwell
Thomas: When I'm dancing, I am that tune that they're playing. If I know that tune, I am that tune. I'm part of that band.
Jo: That’s buck dancer and 2017 National Heritage Fellow, Thomas Maupin. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Buck dancing is an Appalachian freestyle dance similar to, but older than tap dancing and clogging. In buck dancing, you literally dance the tune. There are no routines. It’s completely improvised and based on the music. It’s usually done solo, and you’ll never see two buck dancers dance alike.
Thomas Maupin is a master of the art. Winning over 70 competitions as well as a slew of awards, including the Folklife Heritage Award from his home state of Tennessee and now a National Heritage Fellowship. Just as importantly as his dancing, he has made it his mission to keep this tradition vibrant and to pass it on to the next generation. He’s traveled throughout Tennessee and across the country giving workshops and demonstrations of traditional buck dancing, often with his musical partner, his 24 year-old grandson, banjo player, Daniel Rothwell. Whose playing you’ll hear throughout this podcast. Both Thomas and Daniel were the subjects of a documentary, “Let Your Feet do the Talking.” Throughout it all, Thomas Maupin has raised a family, worked a full-time job, and remained rooted in the rural Tennessee community where he was raised.
Thomas: Well, I grew up in a small town called Eagleville, which is about 16 miles from where I live now. Close to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And ten kids, five boys and five girls and my mom's mom lived with us. It was so many people at our house. Our house was open. Sometimes we might not even know who was eating in our house. Our house was open all of the time to whoever wanted to come in. That's when you didn't have to lock your doors. Everybody knew everybody else and knew their business, but that's the way I grew up. My dad was a farmer.
Jo: What did he grow?
Thomas: He growed tobacco. We have five acres. He worked that whole five acres, all of it, by his self, or with the help of us kids, and he didn't ask us if we wanted to do it; he said, "Come on, let's do it." And we didn’t ask him how much he’s going to pay us either. He said, “Well, you’ll eat tonight.” But he worked all the time-- all the time. But he learned us to work, learned to be honest, and respectable. I think that was some good raising myself.
Jo: There was also some good dancing. A tradition that came down from both sides of Thomas’s family.
Thomas: My grandmother sticks out on my mom's side more than any, because a team would come on the radio and she'd be barefooted most of the time, and she had the best rhythm step that I can hear today. She stood straight upright dancing; her timing would be right on top of the music, and today I can remember hearing that. I never seen my mom dance. She didn't have time to dance really, she had so many kids, and grandkids too. I think she started 17 to school. When one got married, we gained one, and in ten months, we gain another one. So that's sort of the way it was. Then on my dad's side, my dad didn't buck dance, but he had good rhythm. He could two-step, round-dance really good, and his movement was good. And on his side of the family, I seen several of their dancers, on my dad's side. We had a similar body style, a similar dance step, only they danced to more of a country, down low and shaking your arms and stuff like that, you know? Sometimes I do too if I get a little excited, you know, and I make get out of shape a little bit. Just about all of us kids has danced one time or the other some a little different from others, but some similarity. And, I had one brother, four years older than me, that we were pretty similar in dance style, but our steps were different. I thought he was a good dancer. I've danced in competition with him lots of times, and one time I really thought he had me, and he did, he was dancing good. We was dancing at the national championship, and I wanted him to win. But I told him, I said, “I can't let up, and I don't want you to let up,” so he did a good dance. <Becoming tearful> But they gave me first place, but I really wanted him to win, cause I had won it before, and I knew how that feeling was, you know?
Jo: Thomas can’t remember not dancing, and he recalls the adults in his small town encouraging him even when he was little.
Thomas: I've always danced. When I was in school, every time they had some kind of music, somehow or another I would be in there dancing. Our basketball coach, probably when I was in second or third grade, every time he'd see me in the hallway or somewhere, he'd want me to dance, and as I've gotten older, I think maybe that may be a way he had of bringing me out. He'd seen something, and little town I grew up in, Eagleville, <laughs> I've danced up and down the streets that all the older people, they'd say, <laughs> "Hey boy, hit me a lick." So we'd have to dance a little bit. I think that was a way of bringing who I am out.
Jo: Music and Dancing were the way friends and neighbors socialized. They came together and created their own entertainment.
Thomas: I grew up going to square dances. Hitchhiking on the weekend. Wherever we could go to dance, we'd hitchhike and maybe get a ride there and maybe get a ride back. One of the first square dances I went to when I was just a young boy, they had it in a house. They moved the furniture out and we would square-dance in there, and I was probably 15, 16, something like that. But yeah, back then, back then that was the going thing cause people didn't have no money to travel much to start with. Back in the mountains, nobody had no money, nowhere to go. And little communities would meet at town that was there only fun they had was going to town and dancing and playing music.
Jo: The origins of buck dancing is something Thomas Maupin has spent a lot of time thinking about.
Thomas: Peoples is always asking me, "where did buck dancing come from?"
Jo Reed: Okay. Where did buck dancing come from?
Thomas: Where did it come from? You say, "Well, it came from Ireland." Maybe it did. If anything, I think it might came from Native American. Now, I have won a third place in Native American dancing. I was watching them and they-- these Native American dancers-- they jumping and whirling in the air. They'll always be back at the ground on top of that music, not behind it, but on top of it. There's a difference. It makes sense, the time you hear the music, time you react to it, you'd be a second or something behind it. It's being right on that music and being a part of that music, and Native Americans, they do that, and they come down, they hit a toe, a ball, and a heel and it looks good with the timing of the music, and I've always did that. Where it come from I don't know because I don't have any Native American far as I know in me, and so that's about as close as buck dancing before we knew what buck dancing was. Their dance is built around timing, built around body. Your body is a part of your dance, and you can have some really good steps, but your body's not a part of it. You're looking-- you're uncomfortable with it. Someone looking on that really knows dancing can tell that. Your body needs to be a part of your dance. You don't need to be jumping or kicking; you need to be playing that tune that they're playing. When I'm dancing, I am that tune that they're playing. If I know that tune, I am that tune. I’m part of that band. I think that's what sort of separates a buck dancer from a clogger.
Jo Reed: Can you describe the difference between buck dancing and clogging?
Thomas Maupin: Clogging is a higher, showier dance, it's louder. A buck dancer floats like a butterfly and he sting like a bee. You know, one, two, three. That's three notes right there. You put three notes over here, when the music's telling you to do it. I've been beaten by a man 93 years old, he got first place, he’s a buck dancer. Old-time flat-foot buck dancing. A clogger can’t dance like that when you get older. You get about 35 years old, you can't perform like that. Your body won't let you do it; your legs won't let you do it. So your dancing's pretty well over. But if you learn a good smooth dance, you can dance till you die, as long as you're not crippled up or sick or something. But clogging is a good dance. I can't do it. But it's a highly skilled dance too if you really do it good. But buck dancing is a highly skilled dance too if you do it good. You’ll never see two buck dancers dance the same. It'll be similarity, but won't be the same. It comes from out of you, the way you interpret the music, the way your rhythm is set up and timing is set up with the music. You got to put something in it. You got to play the tune that the musicians are playing. “Had a piece of pie an' I had a piece of puddin', gave it all away just to see Sally Goodin." You make your feet sound like it, and we're going to do a deal that's called "Shortnin' Bread". "Mama's little baby loves shortnin', shortnin'; mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread." Each one of them words is a note, and when it speeds up, "slipped in the kitchen, flipped up the lid." As the tune gets on in there, you go picking up a little bit. Then you put them notes in there, but you have to speed up a little bit to get them in there because you with the music. If I know the tune, I've got the tune in my head and it sends it down to my feet.
Jo: Talk to Thomas Maupin for five minutes. It becomes clear that this modest man could not be prouder of his grandson and musical partner, Daniel Rothwell, who’s a great banjo player in his own right. Winning the national competition in old-time banjo when he was just 17.
Daniel: Well, I first started playing when I was 11 years old, and I’m 24 now at the time of this recording. And I’ve been playing for quite a while.
Thomas: When he was learning to play the banjo, I think I helped taught him timing because I would just do, one, two, one, two and he’d keeping up with that. <beats on his chest> And when I heard him right with it, you know, that I would change up. <beats his chest>
Jo: And then Daniel would too.
Thomas: And he would too. We would stay there until he recognized that timing. I think I’m a part of that boy. <laughs>
Jo: Do you ever feel like you two are in conversation together when you're playing, Daniel, and you're dancing?
Thomas: Oh hey, we're connected.
Daniel: We can in a lot of ways tell what each other's going to do because we have been making music together for so long, and even, you know, before that. I've known him all my life, so we can anticipate what each other's going to do.
Thomas Maupin: Yeah. Yeah.
Daniel Rothwell: Not all of the time, you know, but most of the time we are in sync better with each other than we would be with just about anybody else because hearing him dance and watching him dance and going to these places with him, that's how I came up into this music. You know, he doesn't play any instruments, but in a way, I learned from him. He's my greatest influence, anything that I got into, he helped encourage.
Thomas Maupin: I think we are one in music.
Thomas: I can be dancing, and everything's fitting. I can get over close to him and go to really dancing hard; then he goes to playing hard. We communicate with each other. To me it brings out the best in both of us. So that's the part I like about it. He plays old-time. Old-time music is the best to buck dance to, but I could dance to ten o'clock news. If they'll put it in time, I can dance to it, and it don't have to be dance music, it don't have to be buck dance music.
Jo Reed: But it's hard to listen old-time music and not move something.
Thomas Maupin: You have to. Old-time music got a different beat to it, and old-time music seems like it comes from the heart. Dancing’s the same way. Dancing comes from inside of you, how you express yourself, and I think music is that way too, you know?
Daniel Rothwell: He doesn't have a routine. It's all just spur of the moment. And he's trying to match as close as he can what the instrument's doing, and I believe he might throw a little something in there every now and then to kind of push the musicians, myself, you know. I don't know whether he intends to do that or not. I think he does, to help kind of drive the music.
Thomas Maupin: Yes, yes. If playing a tune that I really like that I'm matching with, that fits my rhythm and stuff, I throw a new note in there, in between notes that he's playing. Toe, heel, toe, heel. Now that's four notes. Now when things really get going good, to put four notes in there, I can put six notes in there and make it come out, playing with the music. Just like a musician is throwing some extra notes in there to make it more skillful and make it fit with it, somehow or another I can do that.
Jo Reed: Your feet are an instrument.
Thomas Maupin: Yes. Yes.
Jo Reed: So, it's percussive and it's not just what we're seeing, but it's what we're hearing.
Thomas Maupin: Yes. See, I'm a musician with my feet. I have to hear. See, if I can't hear what my feet's doing, I don't really know that I'm matching what they doing. If they’re being _____(16:32), I could be a little bit behind it, a little bit ahead of it. If you can't hear what someone's said, they haven't said anything. So music is the same way. If I can’t hear the music, and if I can’t hear what my feets doing. I don't know what I'm supposed to change up, really. I'm just dancing a little bit in the blue. Not knowing just exactly where I'm at. Lot of competitions don't realize that. Every musician will get a mic. Well, dancing the same way, you have to hear what the dancer's doing.
Jo Reed: Thomas Maupin has been dancing for over 70 years. Yet, because he’s been willing to go where the music takes him, he can still be surprised by his own dancing.
Thomas Maupin: Sometimes when you really get wrapped up in the music and everything is fitting good and you feeling good, you really on top of that beat, you come up with a step, a sound, "Hey, where'd that come from?" You just so involved in it. I am that tune and I’m gonna try to add as much to it as I can that will fit that tune. And try to be as skillful as I can be, still be part of that tune, and you won't know where it come from. You just-- you get so lost in the rhythm and timing of it. It just came from the spur of the moment, you know. <laughs> it's a little hard to explain.
Jo Reed: Although Thomas began dancing at a young age, as he grew older he assumed responsibilities that made him put his dancing on the backburner for a few years.
Thomas Maupin: Well, when I was about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I started going to square dancing. And I was at a square dancing just about every Saturday night somewhere. Then I might this little woman <laughs> for 56 years. We got married. I was 22. And so it weren’t long until we had our first baby which is Daniel’s mom. And I didn’t dance probably fifteen years. And we started camping when our oldest one got about fifteen years old. We started camping at a Rusting Cave. And there’s a big cave in on the ground. And they had music and dancing there. So I borrowed a man’s shoes to dance in. I got second place. And we started going there every week or so camping out. So I got back into dancing more. They would go swimming, and I’d go dancing. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You worked in a factor for a long, long time.
Thomas Maupin: I worked 41.5 years at Ackraff Factory (19:20) in Nashville. And I retired at 61. Boat yards for nine years. Had a __________(19:27) operation. And then I’ve been raising a garden for four or five years, about an acre or better and dancing and working and whatever.
Jo Reed: With typical modesty, Thomas didn’t mention all the people he’s taught along the way. He’s run workshops across the country, and he serves as a mentor in Tennessee’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, working closely with his apprentice, Courtney Williams.
Thomas Maupin: It’s really quite an honor for me to just the old dance that I’ve always done all of my life. And at first, I didn’t know how to tell people about it, but I’m beginning to learn now more about how I feel, how it makes me feel inside. And I done some workshops, kids come up to me and want to dance, and what me to show them with flat-foot is, what buck dancing is. I’ve helped several people, Courtney Williams, she already had that in her. And she was understanding what I was saying about dancing that tune, cause she plays music too. It was already in there, in her body, she just needed someone to help pull it out, and understand it to dance the tune that’s being played. Not just going through a bunch of steps. It’s really not about the steps, it is, but it’s not. The timing of the music and the movement of your body has got a lot to do with it too.
Thomas Maupin: There’s no certain way to dance. To me, the only way you can dance wrong is dance out of time with the music. Let the music tell you what to do. Well, just a lot of dancers just go and do the same thing over and over. And she was understanding what I was saying, let the music lead you. A lot of times you can over dance the tune, you can be faster than the tune, all geared up, you know? And we all a little bit guilty of that. You want to hurry up and get it in there, you know? It’s harder to dance slow then it is to dance fast because you got to be more in control. If you over dance that, you can put so many steps, you can put so many sounds in there that it takes away from the tune. Cause this took me all these years to sort of know that. I think Courtney sort of understood that you know? That would be nice if I could leave here with somebody dancing like me, but I want them to dance like they dance. I want her to dance better than me. I want them to take part of me and be them. Put their self into it.
Jo Reed: You’ve won many awards. You’ve won over 70 competitions. You got the state Folk Life Heritage Award from Tennessee.
Thomas Maupin: Yes.
Jo Reed: And congratulations…
Thomas Maupin: Thank you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: … a National Heritage Fellowship.
Thomas Maupin: Thank you. Yes. I’ll be 79 years old in November. Never dreamed, never even thought about nothing like this. I have won lots of competitions that I’m really proud of. But this is something that I just couldn’t hardly believe. It made me cry a little bit. But as you get older, things mean more and you think about different things now when you get older than you did when you was younger. This is still the biggest honor that I ever got, never dreamed of it. But now where do I go? Am I supposed to quit dancing in competitions? And how is the other fellows going to feel about me winning this? And, they got me on stage at a competition in Franklin. I could talk about what I’d won. And I thanked all of these other dancers. I wanted them to feel a part of this because, you know, when I dance or when they dancing we want to win. So they push me. All of these other dancers they push me to look what’s inside of me to be the best that I can be. So, I thanked them for being a part of this. I’m proud of it. But I don’t want to be too proud that I’m not who I am either.
Jo Reed: Mm-Hm. So, what were you doing when you found out you got the award?
Thomas Maupin: Milking a goat. <laughs> I really was. And I came into the house and told my wife. I said, some fellow called me and said that I had won the highest honor you could win in the arts. It was a surprise to me. They told me not to talk about it until the 15th of June. And now, I just couldn’t wait. I just couldn’t wait because I felt so good. I was bubbling inside.
Jo Reed: So what keeps you dancing?
Thomas Maupin: <laughs> I want to leave Thomas Maupin here. I want to leave part of me here. That 100 years from now people will say that little old skinny man could dance. I want them to say something good. I want them to say something good. I’ve tried to live my life, a decent life. I tried to get along with people. I had rather be liked than disliked. That’s what I want to leave here. But that old skinny man could dance.
Jo Reed: Indeed he could. And I think that’s a great place to leave it. So many congratulations, Thomas. So many congratulations.
Thomas Maupin: Thank you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That’s 2017 National Heritage Fellow, buck dancer Thomas Maupin. Special thanks to Daniel Rothwell for his music and his insights. You can see Thomas dance and Daniel play at the National Heritage Awards concert, Friday, September 15th at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC. The concert starts at 8:00 pm and tickets are free. Find out more at arts.gov. And if you’re not in DC, no worries! We’re webcasting it live at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Artworks blog follow us @NEAarts on Twitter.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Making music with his feet.