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Carroll Best

 

My first exposure to melodic style came in the summer of 1970, when I and several other five string pickers lost the banjo contest at the Folk Festival of the Smokies in Gatlinburg to Carroll Best, the pioneering banjo picker from Haywood County, North Carolina. I had been struggling mightily trying to figure out how to play fiddle tunes with my Scruggs style rolls, and my version of Arkansas Traveler, the tune I played in the Gatlinburg contest, was far less than a success. I remember that Best blew us all away when he played Soldier's Joy in the key of D in open G tuning, without a capo. The notes just flowed from his banjo. He moved effortlessly around the neck in ways I had never seen before. It was an epiphany for me.

In an interview in the Banjo Newsletter in 1992, twenty-two years after I saw him, Best stated that he had come up with the technique which he called fiddle style in the mid-forties, which would mean that he was using the technique more than a decade before either Bill Keith or Bobby Thompson, the two banjo pioneers generally credited with its invention. Best apparently believed himself that Thompson, and possibly Keith as well, were first exposed to the flowing style through his playing. In the 1992 BNL interview, he said that he first showed Bobby Thompson some of his melodic style arrangements around 1955, when their respective bands played on the same show. Six years after the Best interview, in 1998, Trishka interviewed Thompson. Thompson told Trishka that he couldn't recall meeting Best. Still, one consistent thread can be found in both interviews. Best told Trishka that Thompson was playing with Carl Story when the two met, and later, Thompson told Trishka that when he was playing with Story, he had not yet begun playing fiddle tunes in melodic style. Thompson said that it was a remark made one night by Benny Sims, the band's fiddler, that got him thinking about how it might be done. He told Trishka that he finally worked the technique up later, when he was picking with Jim and Jesse. I think it is quite possible that Thompson could have come up with the techique later, without remembering where he first heard it, maybe without even realizing that he had heard it before. Our memories play tricks like that on us all the time.

Best was an amazing picker, a true original. What is very telling is the fact that he was playing melodic style for years, including in public performances throughout his area, but was unable to attract any real attention. It was only when more "connected" banjo players began using the technique, that the banjo community began paying attention, taking melodic style seriously. Best died tragically in 1995, before most of the bluegrass and old-time community had heard of his music, and realized his importance as a link between the two genres. As is often said, that's life.

There is a nice biography of Best on a website called Mountain Grown Music, celebrating the traditional music of Haywood County, North Carolina. A CD, called Say Old Man, Can You Play the Banjo, with 35 recordings, is available from Copper Creek Records. Amazon.com offers the entire Best CD, or any of the individual tracks as MP3 downloads. The Digital Library of Appalachia has 12 recordings of Best, playing with a variety of fiddlers. These are a free download, just type in his name in the Search for a performer box, and the results will list. There is a nice video on YouTube with Best in a jam session filmed in 1992.

 

(c) copyright 2009, by Donald J. Borchelt, all rights reserved.