When Frank George was very young, he had perfect pitch and could pick out melodies on a piano. His mother sent him to a piano teacher, Mrs. Ella Holroyd (whose name Frank points out means holy cross). Mrs. Holroyd taught Frank a piece, which he learned by ear. He heard another student playing the same piece, and told Mrs. Holroyd, “She’s playing my tune but in a different key.” Mrs. Holroyd told Frank’s mother, “This one’s going to be trouble.” I had come across West Virginia’s Frank George before, and had enjoyed his playing on several occasions, but I finally got to sit down with him at the 2013 Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention for a good chat about his “musical family tree.”
I was born William Franklin George on October 6, 1928, near Bluefield, West Virginia, at the very southern tip of the state, one mile from the Virginia line. It’s an agricultural area; you have to go ten or twelve miles away to find the first coal mine. Anywhere you go to the west, in Kentucky, it’s all coal, except it’s all busted now; it’s ghost towns. It is coal country.
My dad was born in 1891 near Ingleside in Mercer County, close to Bluefield, in a one-room log cabin on the north side and east of the mountain. The post office was Ingleside, but that was just a stop on the railroad to water the locomotives. There wasn’t anything there but a post office. He was one of seven children. My mother was a nurse from Tennessee. She was born in Berlin, Tennessee, in 1892, and she went to nursing school in Louisville, Kentucky. She was registered in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. We’d have starved to death if she hadn’t been a nurse.
My dad was briefly a union organizer for the Carpenters and Joiners of America. He and his brother got a local thing established because they were working for very low wages and no benefits. My granddaddy on my father’s side was from Greenbriar County; he was an orphan. His mother died when he was three, and the black folks raised him. If not for that, I wouldn’t be playing the banjo like I do. He learned from slaves or ex-slaves….
It was a family affair, all these Georges. My people came from Wales, way the hell back, 1720 or something, probably on a convict ship. They came to Virginia very early and then migrated up into the mountains to what is now West Virginia. West Virginia was formed because we didn’t like the damned plantation owners down South, and we sure didn’t like the damned Yankees from the North. We wanted to be left the hell alone; it didn’t happen that way. Most of us sided with the rebs. Anyway, that’s getting political.
There’s always been music on my dad’s side of the family. We just passed it on down. Nobody reads music. Nobody studies music. Like Melvin Wine said, somebody asked him, “Can you read music?” He said, “I never was paper trained.” Written music and that kind of instruction didn’t exist. It was all in the home and in the community. So, that’s how I got started. I couldn’t help it.
My dad made me instruments in the 1930s. He made me a homemade banjo first when I was about five years old. I still have it, small thing but very playable. It’s got a groundhog hide, and it’s maple and walnut. My grandpa was a big influence but not at first. My grandmother died, and then he came to live with us. So, my dad got me started and taught me how to hold it and tune it and a few tunes. He played banjo, fiddle, and harmonica but he was busy. He wouldn’t play, especially if somebody was around.
When Grandpa moved in with us, we had it made. We were right with it. My mother worked sometimes on the day shift and sometimes on the night shift and she slept in the day. We were pretty much on our own. He’d fix our meals, and we’d practice. Then we’d go squirrel hunting or something like that. So, I got an awful lot of tunes from Grandpa.
I was in the service from 1950 to 1952; I was drafted into the army. I was in Germany in the Occupation. I went to Scotland on my own. I went to Stirling Castle – the Argyle Sutherlands – and got some pointers on playing the pipes. I had already been interested in the highland pipes. I’d already learned how to reed them and tune them and keep the bag going, but I needed some technique so I went up there and spent about ten days. They even put me in a room and fed me. I know that country pretty good. I’ve been over there three or four times. This piping thing was kind of an insanity thing, but it happened. The first time I ever heard them, I said, “God, that’s real music.” The great pipes, the war pipes. They’re considered an instrument of war. The British banned them.They killed men for speaking Gaelic. They had a 5-pound price on MacGregor’s head, and that’s my clan on my mother’s side of the family. I don’t know whether that had any influence on me or not. Maybe there was a gene that drifted down, the pipe gene, but that’s all conjecture. I just loved them; it’s like an obsession, a disease. It’s like fiddling; it’s a disease and there’s no cure.
[For much more of this interview, including lots of information about Jim Farthing and John Hilt, as well as a transcription by Clare Milliner of “The Twenty-eighth of January” as played by Franklin George, purchase the Summer 2014 issue
[Steve Goldfield writes for Bluegrass Unlimited, Old-Time Herald, and Fiddler Magazine. He is also a board member and the Old-Time Music Coordinator for the California Bluegrass Association.]
First: Corbin Pagter
Second: Fred Coon. John Hilt (fiddle) and Franklin George (hammered dulcimer) at the "old" Tazwell Flea Market in September 1967.