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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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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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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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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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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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Callahan, Walter (27 January 1910–10 September 1971), country musician who, with his brother Homer Callahan, formed the duet the Callahan Brothers, was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the son of Bert Callahan, the postmaster of Laurel, North Carolina, and Martha Jane (maiden name unknown). Bert Callahan played organ and taught singing, and Martha Jane Callahan also played the organ and was an accomplished singer. Walter and Homer Callahan began as one of the brother acts of the 1930s, along with the Monroe Brothers and the Allen Brothers. They were both good vocalists as well as multi-instrumentalists: Walter played guitar and string bass, while Homer played guitar, string bass, mandolin, ukelele, violin, and five-string banjo. Along with a penchant for duet yodeling, they were adept blues artists, relying on flat-pick guitars or mandolin and guitar to achieve the “white” blues sound....

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Carlisle, Cliff (06 May 1904–05 April 1983), pioneer country musician and songwriter, was born Clifford Raymond Carlisle in Mt. Eden, Kentucky. Many members of his family were musicians, and his younger brother Bill would later join Cliff in the ranks of early professional musicians. Cliff attended several rural grade schools near Wakefield, Kentucky, eventually transferring to larger schools in Louisville, Kentucky, between 1921 and 1924. Unlike many early musicians, he did not serve an apprenticeship in another field before taking up music; from his earliest days he aspired to be a professional musician, and he emerged as one of the first such professionals in the field of country music....

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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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Carter, Maybelle (10 May 1909–23 October 1978), country-music singer and instrumentalist and matriarch of a music performing dynasty, known as Mother Maybelle, was born Maybelle Addington around Nicklesville, Scott County, Virginia, a few miles north of the Tennessee-Virginia state line. Both of her parents, Hugh Jack Addington and Margaret Elizabeth Kilgore, had deep roots in rural Scott County. Maybelle was one of ten children, many of whom grew up playing various stringed instruments. Maybelle’s mother was a banjo player, and when Maybelle was still a child she joined in as the family band played for local square dances. She played the autoharp as well, but her real fascination came when she was about twelve and one of her older brothers gave her a guitar. “I started trying different ways to pick it,” she later recalled, “and came up with my own style, because there weren’t many guitar pickers around.” The guitar was just becoming popular in the mountains, and the style Maybelle came up with—what would become known as the “Carter lick” or “thumb-brush” technique—allowed the thumb to pick the melody on the bass strings while the fingers keep rhythm downstroking the higher strings. This permitted the guitarist to pick a melody and keep rhythm at the same time, and eventually it became the most copied guitar style in country music....

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Chambers, Paul (22 April 1935–04 January 1969), bassist, known as “Mr. P. C.,” was born Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr., in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his parents and early life. After his mother died, Chambers moved to Detroit, Michigan, with his family when he was thirteen. In high school he played the baritone saxophone and then the tuba, but sometime in 1949 he began to play the string bass. He was soon working professionally with guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter ...

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Choates, Harry (26 December 1922–17 July 1951), Cajun musician, was born in Rayne, Louisiana. He grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, where he received no formal education, steeped himself in the local honky-tonk scene, and learned to play fiddle on a borrowed instrument that he purportedly never returned. He also played the guitar, steel guitar, and accordion....

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Christian, Charlie (29 July 1916–02 March 1942), musician, was born Charles Christian in Dallas, Texas; his father was a blues guitarist and singer, his mother a pianist (their names are unknown). The family moved to Oklahoma City when Christian was five, and he grew up there amid the diverse musical styles of the Southwest. Itinerant blues guitarists and singers played everywhere, and the young Christian also would have heard Texas blues bands, ethnic dance music, cowboy songs, rural banjo pickers, and white and black fiddle players, both in person and on radios and jukeboxes. Oklahoma City was home to ...

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Cobain, Kurt Donald (20 February 1967–05 April 1994), guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the rock band Nirvana, was born in the working-class lumber town of Aberdeen, Washington, the son of Donald Cobain, an auto mechanic, and Wendy Fradenburg Cobain, a waitress. Cobain remembered his early childhood as happy, but his father and mother struggled financially and divorced in 1976, devastating Cobain. By the time he reached high school, Cobain was engaging in petty delinquency and was arrested for vandalism and vagrancy. He began staying with various friends in Aberdeen, including Dale Crover, drummer of “grunge” progenitors the Melvins. He did not finish high school....

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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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Cooley, Spade (17 December 1910–23 November 1969), western swing bandleader and fiddler, was born Donnell Clyde Cooley in or near Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma, the son of John Cooley and Emma (maiden name unknown). Some sources indicate that he was born on 22 February 1910 in Grand (or Grande), Oklahoma. The family moved in 1914 to Oregon, where at age seven Cooley received his first musical instruction in classical violin, though soon he was applying his musical talents by fiddling at local dances. As one-quarter Cherokee Indian (from his father’s side), Cooley attended Chemawa Indian School, at which he played the cello in the school orchestra. It was also at Chemawa that Cooley acquired his nickname “Spade” during a poker game in which he drew a number of spade flushes....

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Cooper, Stoney (16 October 1918–22 March 1977), fiddler and singer, was born Dale Troy Cooper in Harmon, West Virginia, the son of Kenny Cooper and Stella Raines, schoolteachers. Cooper and his twin brother Dean grew up on a large farm, where they assisted the family in many of the daily chores. As a child Cooper was fascinated by his older brother’s fiddle playing. With some help from his brother, Cooper began to teach himself to play. As young Cooper listened to the Grand Ole Opry, he was greatly influenced by the fiddling skills of ...