Aunt Bertha Robinson

Here’s a photo of banjo player Aunt Bertha Robinson of New Market, Alabama. The photograph is by Rod Whited, likely taken for the Huntsville Times, circa 1979.

Aunt Bertha Robinson

Aunt Bertha was born in Jackson County, Alabama, near the community of Lem Rock, in 1904; the family moved to nearby New Market when she was seven or eight years old. She picked up and adapted her distinctive two-finger picking style from a local banjo player named John Benton, who’d himself learned the style from a pair of Mississippi brothers, John and Dink Clark. In the 1960s, Bertha became a fixture of the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, held annually in Athens, Alabama. She was a frequent winner and a beloved, dependable presence in banjo competitions across north Alabama and into Tennessee. Along the way, she carved out a unique role for herself as a champion and elder in a culture traditionally dominated by men. (In this distinction she was joined by the multi-instrumentalist Lena Hughes of Missouri, who appeared at many of the same competitions.)

Here’s Aunt Bertha in 1986, in a video posted to Youtube by Huntsville musician Bob White:

And here’s her “Soldier’s Joy,” with a little buck dancing on the side:

Aunt Bertha was a cherished older member of the Huntsville Association of Folk Musicians, founded in 1966. That group released one compilation album of music by its members — including one recording of Bertha, barely over a minute long, an old banjo instrumental called “Big Jim.” (I wonder if the tune had something to do with the Alabama Governor; the album notes indicate that Bertha didn’t recall anything about the tune’s origins.) Alan Lomax recorded a couple of her tunes at the fiddlers convention in Athens in 1969 and ’70. And you can stream some recordings of Aunt Bertha at Southern Folklife Collection’s digital archive, here. (The same reel-to-reel tape, digitized at the link, includes some good dulcimer playing, too — you may as well listen to the whole thing.) If anyone out there knows of other Aunt Bertha recordings, I hope you’ll let me know. And if anyone has memories to share of Aunt Bertha, I hope you’ll post them in the comments.

Bertha Robinson died in 1995. Here are a few more images in celebration of her legacy.

Aunt Bertha Robinson, Banjo Newsletter Oct 1979
Aunt Bertha Robinson, Banjo Newsletter (October 1979)
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Aunt Bertha Robinson, The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
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Aunt Bertha celebrating the Golden Anniversary of her marriage with a banjo-shaped cake. From The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
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On stage at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. From The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
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Aunt Bertha at the Sixth Annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. From The Devil’s Box (December 1971)

An unrelated P. S.: In honor of Little Richard’s departure this week, here’s a short post I wrote a year ago this month, about Little Richard’s brief early tenure as “Princess Lavonne” on the Sugar Foot Sam From Alabam road show. I encourage you to check it out. This Saturday on The Lost Child, I’ll be playing an hour of Little Richard’s music, including some classics and some you likely haven’t heard, plus interview snippets and more. I hope you’ll tune in.

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