Growing up in the Tennessee-Virginia border region in the 1930s, Ralph Blizard never had to go far to find old-time music. His own house was the scene of frequent "jam sessioning," giving the young musician a chance to listen and play along with some of the best fiddlers, banjo players, and singers in the area. He was still a schoolboy when he hit the radio airwaves along with the Southern Ramblers, launching a musical career that spanned two decades. Although he gave it up when he settled down to raise a family in the 1950s, he got the urge to take up the bow once again after his retirement. Since 1982, he has been performing with the New Southern Ramblers (Phil Jamison: guitar; Gordy Hinners: banjo; John Herrmann: bass; formerly John Lilly on bass). Their repertoire draws heavily from the tunes he played half a century ago, but the tunes are kept fresh by Ralph's constant experimentation with melodies and bowings. Gordy Hinners laughingly confided that once Ralph gets started on a tune, the band never knows where he's going to go with it!
It was a pleasure to run across Ralph at Jay Ungar and Molly Mason's Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp in the summer of 1997. One of the many high points of the week was a spontaneous jam session in which Jay and Ralph goaded each other further and further into uncharted musical waters. Wherever they went, Ralph unflappingly tamed the waves with his bluesy longbow style that has become his trademark sound. I managed to squeeze this interview into one of those rare moments when Ralph wasn't coaching a string band, playing for a dance, leading a jam session, or entertaining with the New Southern Ramblers.
Rumor has it that you go back a long time. I wouldn't guess that!
Over thirty-nine years. Gordy says, "Twice thirty-nine." He's been saying that for years, but he's right now.
It caught up with you... What was going on musically when you were growing up?
I was born and raised in Kingsport, Tennessee. From the time I was a kid, I guess a lot of the kids in my area, they were into music of all types, anything they could get to make a noise with little horns of any type, French harps mouth harps some people called them, jew's harp. And then of course we graduated to whatever we could get our hands on guitar or mandolin, or a banjo. I never did fool with banjo very much. But I guess before I got into fiddle, I started playing mandolin. I played all the instruments up till I got to fiddle. When I got into playing mandolin, I knew the noting coming in for the fiddle. So it wasn't all that much of a problem. The bowing and so forth was the main thing.
Were you playing for dances then?
I think I was fourteen when I had a band. And we were going pretty good. We just started playing for picnics and things like that around, you know, such gatherings as that. And then more people would call on us to do a little bit of a program. And where I ended up working, what was Tennessee Eastman-Kodak at that time, I played for some of the picnics that they had and sometimes there were engagements at the rec hall. Of course, we were starting to get paid at that time. And then we graduated from that, you know, and goin' in to play on the radio station, WOPI, in Bristol. After a little while, WOPI put a studio in the Homestead Hotel in Kingsport and we started playing there while I was in school. We'd go down there early in the morning. I believe it was about 6 o'clock we were on the air, and we would go in and do a program there before school.
What kind of music were you playing at that point in the band?
It was traditional. People called it old-time. I didn't keep any set lists, but recently I been thinking I know we played "Cindy." And a hymn, usually, on the program. Maybe two hymns sometimes. I remember we used to do one "Give me the Roses While I Live." I remember that one. And I know we did "Devil's Dream," 'cause I remember one time I was working at the Eastman at that time, that's after World War II I stayed in it a little while after World War II, and we were doin' this show down there and the announcer, you know, he usually dedicated the numbers to the people. And most of the time we didn't know which number he dedicated. So this friend of mine at the Eastman, he asked me to dedicate his mother-in-law a tune. And lo and behold, the announcer dedicated her the "Devil's Dream."
Let's hope she wasn't listening!
Oh, she was listening! I like to never heard the last of that! That's one I remember. That announcer, he got it, too. He heard about it, too.
I could play fiddle before my dad knew I could play fiddle. 'Cause he wouldn't let me play his fiddle. He was afraid I would tear it up. My mother slipped his fiddle to me. I'd played the mandolin, and I could play the fiddle pretty fast, before he realized it. How it come to him to find out about it, we was sittin' playing music one day and somebody asked for a certain number. My dad didn't know it, so don't she say, "Well, give your fiddle to Ralph. Let him play it." So my dad promoted me on the fiddle from that time.
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Spring 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]