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Ashley, Thomas Clarence (29 September 1895–02 June 1967), folk singer and instrumentalist, was born Clarence Earl McCurry in Bristol, Virginia, the son of George McCurry, a bartender, and Rosie Belle Ashley. Shortly before he was born, his father, who was locally known as an old-time fiddler, revealed that he had a second family and left to be with them; it was only years later that the young singer met him. The boy took the name of his mother’s family and moved with them to Ashe County, North Carolina, about 1896. In this remote mountain area he grew up, learning folk songs and the old clawhammer style of banjo-playing. By 1907 he had received his first guitar, an instrument only then becoming popular in the mountains, and by the time he was a teenager he was gaining his first professional experience by traveling with Doc White Cloud’s medicine show. Such shows, common in the rural South through the 1930s, featured a self-styled doctor who sold patent nostrums to the public; to attract an audience, the doctors hired musicians to play on a makeshift stage. Ashley played off and on in such shows for about twenty years, often portraying a traditional blackface comic character called “Rastus” in addition to making music. Later he helped train another young singer in the show, ...

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Boggs, Dock (07 February 1898–07 February 1971), folk singer and banjoist, was born Moran Lee Boggs in West Norton, Virginia. His father worked as a blacksmith and carpenter. He grew up in a family of musicians; three of his older brothers played the banjo and sang, two sisters were excellent singers, and his father could even read music and sing “written” music. Dock grew up attending typical Appalachian music-making events—square dances, molasses stir-offs, barn raisings, pie suppers—but the area’s mining and railroading enterprises also put him in touch with a large number of African-American folk musicians, from whom he learned the blues and other types of popular songs. In his own work later he sought to combine the two styles, the black and the white, creating a unique strain of “mountain blues.”...

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Bumgarner, Samantha (30 October 1878–24 December 1960), folksinger and instrumentalist, was born Samantha Biddix in Jackson County, North Carolina, the daughter of Has Biddix, a well-known local fiddler. (Her mother’s name is unknown.) She grew up in the hilly area southeast of Asheville, a region rich in fiddle and banjo music and in old ballads. Her father could, she recalled, make his fiddle “croon like a lovin’ woman,” but at first he would not let his daughter touch his instrument. She persisted and became adept at the fiddle; she also, like many mountain musicians of the time, developed skill on the banjo. Her first banjo was “a gourd with cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax,” but by the time she was fifteen she had learned to play it so well that her father bought her a “real” store-made banjo. She began to travel with her father as he went around the region playing for dances and fiddling contests. (Before the turn of the century, the guitar was rare in the Appalachians, and a mountain “string band” often consisted of a fiddle and banjo.)...

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Carson, John (23 March 1868–11 December 1949), early country fiddler, vocalist, and entertainer, known professionally as “Fiddlin’ ” John, was born in Fannin County, Georgia, the son of J. P. Carson and Mary Ann Beaty, subsistence farmers. Carson was raised on the family farm, where he learned the rudiments of music-making. His early education was spotty, and the extent of his training unknown. Although he worked as a professional entertainer, he also held odd jobs such as painter and carpenter and probably worked as a subsistence farmer. In 1894 he married Jenny Nora Scroggins (or Scoggins). They had at least nine children....

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Cockerham, Fred (03 November 1905–08 July 1980), banjo player, fiddler, and singer, was born in Round Peak, North Carolina, near the Virginia border, the son of Elias Cockerham and Betty Jane (maiden name unknown), subsistence farmers. One of seven children, Fred grew up among a musical family; many of his brothers played music, and his father played harmonica and buckdanced. His uncle Troy was a fiddler, as was his older brother Pate. Given such a musical background, Fred began playing music when he was about eight years old. On the banjo he was influenced by local players Mal Smith and Charlie Lowe, who both played in the traditional frailing style, although Lowe “dropped his thumb” from the fifth (drone) string to play melody notes, a method that also influenced Cockerham’s melodic playing. Cockerham’s interest in the fiddle was spurred by hearing ...

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Holcomb, Roscoe (1913–25 February 1981), singer and banjo player, was born in Daisy, Kentucky, near the town of Hazard, the son of a coal miner. (His parents’ names are unknown.) Holcomb remembered hearing music from the time of his birth and was particularly impressed by a neighbor who played the harmonica (which he called a “mouth harp”). He received his first banjo at the age of ten and began accompanying a local fiddler at dances. Holcomb worked as a farm assistant as a teenager and then as a coal miner; he was employed as a miner for several decades. During slow times, he would work laying ties for the railroad....

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Kazee, Buell (29 August 1900– August 1976), folk singer, banjo player, and minister, was born at the head of Burton Fork in Magoffin County, east of Richmond in eastern Kentucky, the son of Frank Kazee and Abijane Conley Helton, farmers. Kazee learned old hymns and songs from both parents, who “just sang by nature.” By the time he was five, Kazee had received his first banjo, and within a few years he was playing at the rural mountain “frolics” (dances) in the area. Up through his teenage years, Kazee led a lifestyle typical of many mountain musicians of the day. This changed, however, when he decided to prepare for the ministry; he went on to complete high school and attend Georgetown College in central Kentucky....

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Josh White Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115396).

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White, Josh (11 February 1915–05 September 1969), folk and blues vocalist and guitarist, was born Joshua Daniel White in Greenville, South Carolina, the son of Dennis White, a teamster and preacher, and Daisy Elizabeth Humphrey. The fifth of eight children born into a poor African-American family, White received little formal education. He later completed the sixth grade and may have attended high school for a time. As a child he was exposed to music through his mother, a leading singer in the church choir. At age seven he began to serve as “lead boy” (guide) for blind guitarists. His masters included John Henry Arnold, Blind Joe Taggart, and (possibly) ...

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Yankovic, Frank (11 August 1915–14 October 1998), musician, was born in Davis, West Virginia, the son of Andy Yankovic, a laborer, and Rose Mele Yankovic, a boardinghouse operator. Both parents were from Slovenia. When Frank was an infant, his father, who supplemented the family income by making untaxed liquor, fled from the West Virginia authorities to Cleveland. The family settled in the large Slovenian immigrant community of Collinwood on Cleveland's east side. There his father worked as a crane operator and later was a partner in a hardware store, while Rose ran a boardinghouse in their home, feeding, lodging, and laundering for half a dozen young Slovenian men....