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Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...

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Ashby, Irving C. (29 December 1920–22 April 1987), jazz guitarist, was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of an apartment superintendent. His parents’ names are unknown. The family was musical and closely in touch with the world of entertainment: “ Fats Waller used to come by the house all the time,” Ashby told writer James Haskins (p. 57). Ashby taught himself to play guitar. At age fifteen he joined a band that played sophisticated arrangements for college dances, and, deeply embarrassed by his inability to read music, he began to learn chordal notation. He performed at a nightclub at Revere Beach while attending Roxbury Memorial High School. Ashby’s abilities as a classical guitarist won him a scholarship at an open audition for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but the school had no guitar teacher and thus the award went to the runner-up: “So that’s the extent of my conservatory background—in and out the same day,” he told writer Harvey Siders (p. 10). Having made his own ukulele at age twelve, Ashby helped to manufacture guitars at the Stromberg factory in Boston during a period when he was performing on a radio show on station WNAC....

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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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Atkins, Chet (20 June 1924–30 June 2001), guitarist, was born Chester Burton Atkins, the son of James Atkins, a musician, and Ida Sharp Atkins, at his maternal grandfather's farm near Luttrell, Tennessee. The family was poor, and James Atkins, who had formal music training, cobbled together a living as a gospel singer, piano tuner, and music teacher. When Chester—he did not receive the nickname Chet until adulthood—was in grade school, his parents divorced; each remarried, and his father moved to Georgia. Chester remained in Luttrell with his mother, stepfather, and numerous siblings....

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Chet Atkins in Washington, D.C., on 20 Sep.1980 Courtesy of AP Images

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Beck, Johann Heinrich (12 September 1856–26 May 1924), conductor, composer, and violinist, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Charles Beck, a businessman, and Rebecca Butler. He was one of five children, all boys, all of whom played the violin. He was educated in Cleveland and spent most of his life there, although he attended the Leipzig Conservatory from 1879 to 1882. He made his acclaimed European debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus as violinist in his own String Quartet in C Minor. His diploma read in part: “In Theory Mr. Beck possesses highly advanced knowledge, in practical Composition, ...

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Bergmann, Carl (12 April 1821–10 August 1876), conductor, cellist, and composer, was born in Ebersbach, Saxony, the son of middle-class parents. His talent for music manifested itself early, and he was a pupil of Adolph Zimmerman at Zittau as early as 1827 and later studied with the organist-composer Adolph Hesse at Breslau. By 1842 he was playing cello and occasionally conducting the orchestra in Breslau and in these capacities toured central and eastern European cities between 1842 and 1848. His early compositions, written before 1848, apparently included an opera and a symphony....

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Blanton, Jimmy (18 November 1918–30 July 1942), bass player, was born James Blanton in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Blanton is widely regarded as the most outstanding bass player of the late 1930s and early 1940s, almost single-handedly revolutionizing jazz bass playing both technically and conceptually. As a child, Blanton studied violin, making his first public appearance at age eight. Showing exceptional talent and a serious interest in music, he learned music theory from an uncle and later switched to string bass while studying at Tennessee State College (1934–1937). Precociously gifted on this instrument, Blanton was soon playing with local bands, including his mother’s (a pianist and bandleader). In 1937 he moved to St. Louis to play with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and ...

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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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Bond, Johnny (01 June 1915–12 June 1978), songwriter, musician, and writer, was born Cyrus Whitfield Bond in Enville, Oklahoma, the son of Rufus Thomas Bond, a storekeeper and cotton gin operator, and Anna May Camp. While the family had little money, they did own a Victrola player that Bond found fascinating. Inspired by ...

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Braham, David (1838–11 April 1905), composer, conductor, and violinist, was born near London. His father and brother were musicians, as were two of his sons and four of his nephews. In his teens Braham decided to become a professional harpist but, according to one source, gave up the instrument when a British coach driver informed him that he was welcome aboard but his bulky instrument was not. Shortly thereafter he began studying the violin and became an accomplished performer though he never aspired to a career as a concert soloist. As a youth he played violin in various London music halls....

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Braud, Wellman (25 January 1891–29 October 1966), jazz bassist, was born Wellman Breaux in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Nothing is known of his parents except that they were of Creole heritage, and it is not known when he anglicized his name. Braud began playing violin at age seven and later took up guitar. His earliest work was with string trios playing on the streets of New Orleans. During the 1910s he worked regularly at Tom Anderson’s cabaret, probably playing guitar in a group with violinist ...

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Bristow, George Frederick (19 December 1825–13 December 1898), violinist and composer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of William Richard Bristow, a musician, and Anna Tapp. His musical training began at an early age with piano and violin lessons from his father, supplemented by instruction from one of the premier violinists of the day, ...

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Broonzy, Big Bill (26 June 1893?–15 August 1958), blues singer and guitarist, was born William Lee Conley Broonzy in Scott, Bolivar County, Mississippi, the son of Frank Broonzy and Nettie (or Mittie) Belcher, former slaves who became sharecroppers. One of at least sixteen children, including a twin sister, he lived in Mississippi until age eight, when his family moved to Arkansas, near Pine Bluff, to try sharecropping. As a youngster he made violins out of cornstalks, learning music from an uncle, Jerry Belcher, and a local musician known as See See Rider. He and a friend began playing homemade instruments to entertain local children, though always out of sight of his parents—stern Baptists who frowned on secular music. The parental disapproval eased, however, when he graduated to a real instrument (supposedly bought for him by a white patron) and began earning money as a musician. When he was twelve, the family moved to Scotts Crossing, Arkansas, where he continued to play, mainly for white dances....

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Brown, Eddy (15 July 1895–14 June 1974), violinist and radio pioneer, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Jacob Brown, a tailor and amateur violinist from Austria, and Rachel “Ray” Brown (maiden name unknown) from Russia. His mother, who had a keen interest in Christian Science, named him after Mary Baker Eddy. The Brown family moved to Indianapolis when Eddy was four. He took his first violin lessons from his father and then studied with Hugh McGibney at the Metropolitan School of Music (later Butler University's Jordan College), giving his first public recital at the age of six. In 1904 he traveled to Europe and entered the Royal Conservatory of Music in Budapest to study violin with Jenö Hubay. His teachers there included ...

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Eddy Brown. Around the time of his London debut. Courtesy of John Maltese.

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Flyer for an Eddy Brown concert Courtesy of John Maltese.

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Ole Bull. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102595).

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Bull, Ole (05 February 1810–17 August 1880), concert violinist, composer, and patriot, was born Ole Bornemann Bull in Bergen, Norway, the son of Johan Storm Bull, an apothecary, and Anna Dorothea Geelmuyden. Musically precocious by age three, he was encouraged by his mother and his uncle, a good amateur cellist, who bought the child his first violin and persuaded the parents to engage an instructor, the closest brush Bull would have with formal violin study. Two years were spent with Johan H. Paulson, followed in 1822 by a six-year stint with Mathias Lundholm. Beyond this early foundation, Bull remained almost entirely self-taught, although he sometimes sought informal help from artists like Torgeir Augundson, the legendary Norwegian folk fiddler....

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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.)...