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Clawhammer Banjo Heroes

by Bob Flesher

Sometime in 1965 while owning and running THE OLDE BANJO SHOP in Long Beach, California, I met Bob and Don Durham, both younger brothers of the infamous Mel Durham who still actively picks in Southern California bluegrass and old-time scene. They took a liking to me, and were enthused about my style of frailing that was taught to me about 1960 by Bill Cunningham of Asheville, North Carolina, then living in California. They decided I had possibilities of being a real old-time banjo player if they spent some time with me, straightening me out, correcting the error of my ways, and teaching me the old-time ways they knew as boys in Southern Illinois. So they took me under their wing and helped me develop my own style of clawhammer banjo by talking to me instead of playing for me, so I could not copy their sound. This is the way old-time fiddlers used to teach by talking the student through it so he wouldn't sound like a copy of the master, but develop his own sound. Bob said I could be a real banjo picker if I would learn to drop my thumb.

One day Bob brought a couple of records by the shop to let me hear Wade Ward and Kyle Creed play clawhammer banjo. I put many miles on those records. Like many other young banjo players, Wade and Kyle became my banjo heroes somewhere back in that "mystical land" of Galax, Virginia.

After I got hired by Eastern Airlines as a pilot and moved to Connecticut, I decided to travel down to the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention in 1969 to see what it was all about. As I was exploring around this event for the first time, I spotted him right there before my eyes. The legendary Wade Ward, dressed in a white shirt, black ribbon tie, black derby hat and looking very jaunty and confident. He was accompanied by Peter Parish of England, who had come over to study with him. Peter was dressed exactly like Wade and they both had their banjos. Pete became an expert on Wade's playing and on the Ward family. He has since settled down in Piney Creek, North Carolina, and still competes at Galax. Wade played a Gibson RB11 resonator style banjo with a very bright sound which is now in the Smithsonian Institution. The fingerboard, peghead and back of the resonator was covered with "mother-of-toilet seat" pearl-a-loid. Later Ralph Epperson, owner and inventor of WPAQ radio station which is the longtime bastion of bluegrass and old-time music in the South, told me Wade Ward was the most popular figure in the area. Anytime a business wanted to draw a crowd they would hire Wade Ward to play and he would pack the place out.

Well, I finally worked up all my courage to speak to one of my heroes. I stepped up and timidly said "hello" to him, introduced myself, and asked how he was. His reply was very strange to my California ears when he said, "Oh, no 'count, no 'count at all". With the thrill of just shaking hands with one of my heroes, I didn't want to push my luck too far and sound like a fool, so I set out to explore further.

I ran across another old banjo picker named Ike Frost dressed in a new set of overhauls and chewing tobacco. He was a strange sort of fellow to my eyes. His eyelids sort of drooped and he looked like he was looking at you from the belt buckle down. He would pull out all these newspaper clippings and show you how famous he was. He also played a bright sounding banjo with a resonator. He was a past Galax winner, but his style of playing, to my uninitiated ear, was a little more like a prolonged car crash with his thrashing of the banjo. It was hard to pick out the melody, but he would play all day for you if you stuck around.

Another interesting character I met that same day was the notorious George Pegram. He had won at Galax several times and played a very bright sounding Vega resonator banjo. George played more of an old-time picking style, but not at all like bluegrass. He was a very raucous and rough style banjo picker. He would rear away back, lift his banjo high in front of him while he played, look straight up, and let out a yell. This would always excite the crowd.

As I wandered around, not knowing anyone, I asked if anyone had seen my other hero, Kyle Creed. Someone directed me to where he was playing. The first time I saw him and heard his picking, I knew I had saved the best for last. He was wearing a white shirt and a farmer's straw hat with a clear green visor built into the brim. He had the right leg of his britches characteristically half tucked into his boot. I would later learn this was his trademark. His other trademark was to greet everybody with a "Hi, neighbor!". He called everyone "neighbor". As a side light, several years later I was at his house in Galax for supper, he leaned back his chair and said to his wife, Percy, "How about another glass of milk there neighbor?" Her terse reply was, "Don't you call me neighbor!" There were two things about Kyle that impressed me very much. First, I thought he had the face of an old-time American frontiersman. His eyes were deep set and very penetrating. He smiled, but the intensity of his banjo playing showed in his facial expressions. Secondly, I had never seen anyone play up over the fingerboard instead of the head. There was no such thing as the proper "Round Peak Style " then. It didn't exist as far as my study shows, although there are those who will argue . I studied and recorded every banjo picker I could find that weekend. Kyle was the only person who played over the fingerboard and it sure got my attention. No one played the "Round Peak" style then. I know, I was there searching it all out and recording it.

After playing for an hour or so Kyle left the group with me right behind him. I stopped him, introduced myself and explained how much I admired him. I must have sounded like a young boy meeting his hero because his reaction was that of, "I'm no hero so why are you acting like I am one?". The next year we would meet again and become good friends. He was a unique character. One of the neat things about him was that he was his own man and stories abound about his humor and personality. Yes, he was my favorite banjo hero. While I was a partner at the Liberty Banjo Company, we supplied all of Kyle's metal parts for his banjos. I also engraved all of his pearl name plates with his name on them that he inlayed in the fingerboards of his banjos.

In those days, the Galax competition was held in front of the old wooden grandstands that sat where the tennis courts are now located. You had to compete with two songs, one on Thursday night and one on Saturday afternoon. So, with fear and trepidation, I mounted the stage twice so I could say I competed, and, of course, get my admittance fee back. Late Saturday night they called up to the stage the three winners, there were only three then, for the clawhammer banjo competition: Kyle Creed, Wade Ward, and Bob Flesher." I was so excited that I had gotten third place behind my two heroes that I must have run the distance to get to the stage in record breaking time. The announcer called out, "Third place goes to Kyle Creed." I was completely astounded! Then he called out, "Second place goes to Wade Ward." That was the only time in my life that I got dizzy and almost fainted. Both Wade and Kyle were so gracious to me that they grew another ten feet in my eyes. They acted the way real heroes act.

After such a long career and so many wins at Galax, Wade competed one more time in 1970. He passed away in 1971. My friendship with Kyle continued to grow and he remained one of my heroes until his passing in 1982. That same weekend I also met Paul Morrissey who became my long time friend and partner in the Liberty Banjo Company. Wade and Kyle were not only my heroes but the heroes of many other clawhammer banjo players, and were but another important facet in the history of the American 5-string banjo.

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