The Old-Time music genre is rooted in the British Isles in centuries-old dance tunes, ballads, and folk songs. Pioneers in the Southern Appalachian Mountains brought the music with them when they came to America for a better life. They put their own designs on it when they played and sang about the Rights of Man, a Soldier’s Joy, and the Wife’s Lament. Their music blended with the music of other immigrants and African slaves and became the foundation of Bluegrass, Country, Rock’n’Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Jazz.
Searching through a box of photographs that belonged to my grandmother, I found a picture of two musicians that no one in the family could identify. The photograph was obviously a snapshot, slightly tilted. The building in the background looks like a very large house with a high-ceilinged porch. The musicians were standing on a large rock in front of the steps. The style of the men’s shirts and ties is typical of the 1920’s, which fits the look and condition of the photograph itself. That makes this picture almost a century old, and the people who would remember it are long gone. (The illustration here is cropped from the mentioned photograph. I like the shadow of the guitarist’s fingers on his guitar. I also like the way he rolled up his sleeves and flipped his collar up–shows a sense of style.)
My grandparents came from Surry County, N. C., so I did an online search of Surry County musicians and came up with a photograph of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters during the 1920’s.
The banjo player, James Franklin Jenkins, had a strong resemblance to the one in our picture. He was also known as “Fiddlin’ Frank” for his skill on the fiddle, which he played in his own band, the Pilot Mountaineers, which included his son, Oscar, on banjo, and Ernest Stoneman on guitar. His portrait with that band helped to confirm the identity of our banjo player to my satisfaction.
So, who is the guitar player in the picture? Comparing him to photographs online of Ernest Stoneman as a young man, I think he should be considered as a possibility, although I’m not convinced. I have made note of any old-time musicians who cropped up in my family history, but no one seems to be the guitar player in our photograph.
Frank Jenkins was born in Surry County, N. C., in 1888, making him the same age as my grandfather, Ed Oakley. He spent his life in the Marsh Township, south of Dobson, while the Oakleys lived north of Dobson, in the Round Peak area. Frank sometimes played music with a neighbor of the Oakleys, Ben Jarrell. Like the Oakleys, the Jarrells moved to Surry from Rockingham County. Ben also played with Houston Galyean, a relative of Ed Oakley’s first wife, Maggie Snow. Ed’s aunt, Matilda Oakley, married Gideon Moncus (1855-1943) who belonged to a family of musicians, the Moncuses and Prevettes. That family moved from Surry around the 1920’s and worked in the mills of Rockingham and Davidson Counties.
My mother once mentioned some uncles or cousins who played music and made a recording. I often feel that I am chasing ghosts in fragments of remembered conversation. Could the guitar player be one of those relatives? It may have to be enough that those musical ghosts whisper a fiddle tune in our ears once in a while, or pass on their legacy by inspiring a song.
Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander, including above photograph. All Rights Reserved.
Bob Carlin, String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004) pp. 24-25.
Tony Russell, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (accessed online at https://books.google.com/) p. 10.
Death Certificate of James Franklin Jenkins, North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976, database online at Ancestry.com; Original data: N. C. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death Certificates on Microfilm in State Dept. of Archives, Raleigh, N. C.
Census Reports on N. A. R. A. Microfilm, accessed online at Ancestry.com.