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 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.
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.
Also in this post: details about this Saturday’s Blues Potluck at The Jaybird, a fitting big finish to our beautiful Jaybird year.
1. First, the radio shows:
For the last two weeks on The Lost Child, we’ve dug pretty deep into the roots of Alabama music. Two weeks ago, Joyce and Jim Cauthen joined me to talk about their work, over the last 30+ years, documenting and preserving Alabama’s fiddle traditions and tunes. We listened back to some of their original field recordings, talked about some of their favorite old-timers, and enjoyed some of their own live music in the studio. We also investigated the history of “The Lost Child,” the tune that gives this radio show its name.
Last week, the show turned its attention to Alabama blues, with music from these great performers: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis, Jock Webb, Elnora Spencer, Rob Harris, and Sam Frazier, Jr. — each of whom you can hear at The Jaybird’s Blues Potluck this coming weekend (Saturday, 9/22/18). All the music in this hour was either recorded live at The Jaybird (thanks to Dennis Tyler for the recordings) or was originally performed and broadcast live on past editions of this radio show. It’s a special hour. On the Jaybird recordings, you can hear the energy, warmth, and good humor of that room; near the end of the show Elnora Spencer brings the house down. On the Lost Child segments, you can hear these players discuss the meaning of the blues, as well as their own personal roots in the music: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis describes growing up in Eutaw, Alabama, and having to decide between the blues and the church, while Jock Webb and Sam Frazier describe the rich music communities of Rosedale and Edgewater, Alabama, where they first encountered the blues in backyard parties and neighborhood shot houses. Along the way, of course, there’s a lot of great music.
And more Alabama music(!): since this week marks the 95th anniversary of the birth of Hank Williams, I’m posting once again the three-hour tribute I put together for Hank’s 90th. Included in this show is a mighty mix of rarities and classics, reminiscence from old friends, covers from a wide range of artists and genres (soul, gospel, funk, country, conjunto, 1960s Thai pop, and more), a look into the Hank’s musical roots, live and rowdy recordings, historic radio broadcasts, and other musical offerings. And, on a darker note, here’s my Hank Death Show, featuring excerpts from Hank’s funeral, songs about his death, and more.
For a long time I’ve been meaning to do a Beatles tribute show, and a few weeks back I finally did. Check it out here.
These radio hours posted online represent just a fraction of the shows we broadcast over the airwaves. You can hear new episodes of The Lost Child every Saturday morning (9 to 10, Central) and Tuesday night (11 to midnight) on Birmingham Mountain Radio. Thanks for tuning in. Thanks for telling your friends.
2. Back, now, to that Blues Potluck:
On September 22 of 2017, some friends (Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, Glory McLaughlin (my wife!)) and I kicked off a year of events at a new space we were calling The Jaybird. Our goal was to create a season of special events rooted in grassroots community, creativity, and the arts. We’ve had an extraordinary year of monthly concerts, bimonthly art shows, and much more along the way — poetry, zines, workshops, books, food, craft fairs, and other collaborations and gatherings. This weekend — on September 22 of 2018 — we’ll have one more Jaybird concert; it’ll be a doozy of a thing, and the perfect way to ring out our Jaybird year.
For Saturday’s Blues Potluck we’re inviting back to the Jaybird all the blues artists who have played our stage in in the last twelve months. The gates swing open at 5; music starts at 5:30; dinner will commence at 6. We’ll start with an acoustic set of music, outside. As the night gets darker and the music gets louder, we’ll move inside, from 7 ’til 10. We’ll probably hang out for a while.
I, for one, can’t wait.
To be clear: it’s a real potluck. If you’re in town and plan to come, bring a dish to get $5 off the $15 cover. (We’ll be eating all night, so even if you arrive after the dinner bell rings, I guarantee your food will still find a stomach.)
I’ll be writing more here soon about our Jaybird year, and about what you can expect from this space in the future. But I’ll end this post with some glimpses of the artists you can plan to see if you come out and join us this Saturday.
Here’s Sam Frazier, Jr., with his song “Inherit the Blues”:
Here are Clarence “Bluesman” Davis and Jock Webb at the 49 Navy Tavern in Pensacola:
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