Walk onto the grounds of a fiddler’s convention in southwest Virginia or northwest North Carolina some summer evening and listen. You find yourself in the midst of amateur musicians by the hundreds, and maybe a few professionals hanging out, recharging. As you wander around from one jam session to another, you hear everything from insipid solo renditions of classics like “Soldier’s Joy” to taut old time and bluegrass bands charging through antique and just-born tunes with uplifting power.
The soundscape is, by and large, comforting. The music tends to be safe in its melodic structure. The chords are familiar, and mostly major. You find the fiddling at ease within the pockets of phrases and measures.
And then, some distance away, you may hear something oddly discomfiting. It commands your attention and pulls you toward it.
It’s pretty clearly a fiddle, but it wails above the pleasant mishmash. You start to recognize a tune, but you’re slightly jolted by syncopations where you’d never expect them, blue notes oozing their way in, the bow changing direction in odd places, slides that don’t seem plausible.
As you stroll nearer the source, you expect to find, perhaps, a precocious teenager, or a black blues player you’d never heard of, or a long-haired, unkempt, unknown iconoclastic old hippie fiddler. But you see none of them.
A tall, elderly, gaunt, neatly dressed white gentleman wearing a sharp straw hat sits by a thirty-year-old Chevy van, pouring sound out through long, smooth bow strokes. He’s American Gothic, stone-faced, almost forbidding. Utterly lost in concentration, he stares down through thick glasses as the first two fingers of his huge left hand jump and slide to crazy positions. You notice with a mixture of amazement and bewilderment that the other two fingers do little or nothing. Two guitar players, a banjo picker, and a mandolin player are gathered with the fiddler, a steady, driving, pulsing backup band that lets the old man slip ahead of, behind, and right onto the beat as he pleases, without a worry in the world.
Welcome. You’ve just found Benton Flippen and his alternate musical universe. We have some clues as to how his cosmos was formed, and how it fits together. But some parts of the story will no doubt remain elusive.
James Benton Flippen was born in 1920 into a large farming family in Surry County, North Carolina. He was the seventh of eight siblings. He couldn’t see very well. As he tells it, his parents didn’t believe in glasses, and they kept him home from school. He farmed. He did chores that could be accomplished without detail vision. He listened to the radio and heard the fiddling hero of his generation, Arthur Smith, on WSM out of Nashville.
There was lots of music in Benton’s family. Father Sam, brothers and sisters sang and played banjo, mandolin, and guitar. Benton says his uncle John Flippen was a good fiddler who would visit occasionally from Thomasville, North Carolina, about sixty miles to the south. And anywhere there was a social gathering nearby, there was bound to be music for a child to hear. Surry County is, after all, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It includes Round Peak Mountain, home to one of the most intense fiddle-and-banjo traditions in the South. The Round Peak community produced renowned fiddlers Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and Earnest East, plus many others. Surry County borders southwest Virginia, where in Grayson, Carroll, and Patrick counties, the traditions of fiddle music, string bands, singing, and dancing run famously deep.
Benton says he took up the banjo when he was thirteen. He still has his first and only banjo, a resonator Kalamazoo model. He says he had a hard time with the traditional down-stroke clawhammer banjo style of the region, so he came up with his own thumb-and-forefinger picking style. He suited himself. That was a predictor of what he’d do on the fiddle when he started playing it at around age eighteen.
By his early adulthood, Benton was already a full-time apparel factory worker. He had acquired eyeglasses. He played his banjo in his off hours at fiddlers’ conventions, dances, and parties with the fiddler Esker Hutchins of Dobson, North Carolina. When radio station WPAQ went on the air in 1948, it opened up a new performance channel for Benton, Hutchins, and hundreds of other area musicians, professional and amateur. But Hutchins’ three-person band, including guitarist Leake Caudill, was among the best ensembles that WPAQ had to offer. Surviving disc recordings show the group’s music was driving, syncopated, tight, and a little hard-edged. It definitely got people’s attention, and the Hutchins band was a favorite of WPAQ listeners.
Benton practiced his fiddle, with Hutchins as his mentor. “I got my bow lick from him,” Benton says of Hutchins. “Couldn’t help but learn it, standing next to him all those years.” Hutchins’ fiddling was marked by strong syncopations leading into measures and phrases, a clear, bright sound, the occasional double stop, and slightly longer bow strokes than some of the area’s other fiddlers such as Tommy Jarrell, Ben Jarrell, and Fred Cockerham. It was not bluegrass, but Hutchins was definitely moving in some new directions, with a strong sense of chord structure, frequent slides, and a fair amount of variation and improvisation. Benton says Hutchins “had music all through him. He was a dancer, too, best flatfoot dancer I ever saw. He used to dance in the contests at the fiddlers’ conventions, and like as not win.”
By the mid-1950s, Benton had started to appear more and more in public with his fiddle. He joined another group playing on WPAQ, Glen McPeak and the Green Valley Boys. Surviving discs from their radio shows reveal Benton’s fiddling definitely contained elements of Hutchins’ style. First, there’s the syncopation. Second, the long, smooth bow stroke. Third, the clear, strong tone. And fourth, the slides.
But even in these early recordings, Benton’s fiddling takes off from there –– takes off as in a spaceship. It is even more syncopated than Hutchins’. It has less of the comfortable, in-the-pocket feel of the old traditional fiddlers, Hutchins included. The tone is even more clear, sometimes bordering on shrill. The music is swoopy, bluesy, and it sometimes appears to contain chords and intonation not found in nature. In the succeeding years, Benton steadily built on this beginning.
Benton says when he started fiddling, he couldn’t get the little finger on his left hand to go where he wanted it to. Because of that, he says, he came up with his own fingering. He simply did what came naturally to him, and no one told him not to. He found he was able to get to most of the notes he needed with the index finger of his left hand, using the middle and ring fingers much less frequently. “I get more notes with this first finger than with the other two put together,” he says with a faint laugh and smile. He kept working on the left pinky, and now uses it occasionally for high notes on tunes such as “Cotton Eyed Joe.”
Benton’s hands are unusually large, and it seems that made it easier for him to innovate in his fingering than it might be for another player. His D chord provides a good example. The conventional way to make a D chord on the two high strings in first position is with the index and ring finger. Benton forms it with the index and middle finger. He forms other chords in his own way as well. To move up and down the scale, Benton often as not simply slides a finger up and down the fingerboard in steps, stopping at just the place needed for that next note. It is, quite simply, an amazing thing to watch.
[For the rest of this article, as well as transcriptions of the tunes "Rachel" and "June Apple" as played by Benton Flippen, purchase the Winter 08/09 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
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[Paul Brown is a reporter, producer, and newscaster with National Public Radio. He has played old time music since childhood, starting with banjo, then adding fiddle and guitar. He has produced numerous acclaimed albums of old time music featuring both senior and younger musicians. He maintains a limited music performance and teaching schedule. He has known and played with Benton Flippen since 1978.]
Photo: Paul Brown