By Debbie K. Marshall © 1985
Issue: June, 1985
I became interested in "old time" music at an early age and taught myself to play the guitar. Recently, I was talking to 68 year old Abe Horton of Fancy Gap, Virginia, a veteran old time performer. He has a room full of trophies, ribbons and awards he has earned over the years. Abe has recorded three albums and I will give information at the end of this story about how to order them. The following story is taken directly from a tape I made of our conversation and the words are written exactly the way they sound when Abe says them to give you a feeling of the flavor of Abe's personality. I hope you will feel like you are sitting there listening to Abe yourself as you read it. I hope this interview will help to revive an interest in old time mountain music. This is his story.
Abe, tell me a little bit about when you first started out playing music.
"I'z 'tween 5 and 6 year old 'un I started playin' the banjer.”
Did you learn to play from any particular person?
"Well, my daddy played the banjer and fiddle both. And my mother also knowed how to play the banjer some, and she had more patience with me. I'z sick and so on and I couldn't go to school. Didn't worry 'bout going to school. My mother wasn't too interested in playing, you know, had too much other things to do. They's eight of us in the family. But, she'd show me how - which strings to pick, where to put my fingers on the neck of the banjer. Back then, you know, they won'nt no frets on the banjer. In old time music you don't need 'em. They right in your way."
Who do you feel influenced your music the most?
"Well, I been influenced by different old people. See, I mostly growed up playing with old people which if they's a-livin' now 'ud be way on over a hundred.”
Do you remember your first banjo?
"It uz an old banjer my daddy had there, prob'ly homemade."
How old were you when you learned to play the fiddle?
"I uz 'bout maybe 'tween 10 and 11. I could play hit the first time I ever picked it up. The fiddle I learnt to play on, my oldest brother had it."
Who are your favorite players?
"Well now, I had several favorite banjer players and fiddle players. I had 'em then and I got 'em now. They's just different ones. Lord, I played with so many - Reed Dalton, been dead for years... Orville Cox, my father Denny A. Horton, Ezra Martin... Now me and Orville Cox, lots o' times, we'd play 3 or 4 nights a week at people's houses. We'd start in at sundown and play til sunup. He'd play the fiddle a while and I'd play the banjer and then I'd play the fiddle and he'd play the banjer. Back then you didn't have PA systems like they do now. You just set down in a chair and played and let the people have all the room on the floor to dance. Orville used to tell some of 'em, said that me and him was the best on the river." [Referring to Big Reed Island Creek where Abe was raised.] There was also Walter Morris, he's still living, but he's not young [70's]. He was a good fiddle player. We's playin' with him when we started makin' albums. See, I played the fiddle all the time 'til we got him in on it...Roosevelt Marshall, he's dead now, but I played with his brother...Wiliam Marshall, he's still livin'...Rufus Joyce and a old man, Lee Vass, both deceased... Ross Martin, he was good... Bruce Cox, Orville's brother, he was darn good..."
As a little boy, growing up around old timers and their music, who do you feel influenced you most?
"Well now, my dad influenced me a lot 'cause he had told me how Annie Mae's [Abe's wife] grandad, old man Friel Webb's the best banjer player I guess the United States has ever knowed of. My daddy, I might tell you this, he would in the winter time when the weather 'uz cold, he always got up and started the fire, you know, in the fireplace and he'd build a fire in the cookin' stove. He'd get it started up and then he'd pick up his banjer and he'd play and sang 'bout 5 or 6 hymns. He done that 'bout ever mornin'. I'd still be in the bed. He'z a good sanger. He could sang while playing the fiddle and banjer both."
Do you remember the first song you ever learned to play?
"Fiddle - no, but banjo - Oh yeah, 'Georgie Buck'."
What about unusual tunes and where you learned them?
" 'Susan Pines' [It is on one of his albums.] That dar probably goes back to the 1600's at least. My dad knowed it. 'Little Darlin' seldom heard, but I've knowed it for years. Learnt it from Hazel Webb Delp. She's about 74 or 75 now. 'House Carpenter' - I learnt it from Dow Worrel. He's been dead for I don't know how many years. He had a brother, Charlie Worrell, who was a banjer player too, but I believe Dow could beat him. [Annie Mae adds that Dow and Charlie were midgets.]
What's your definition between clawhammer banjo and bluegrass banjo playing?
"Well, you see, in old time music, if you'll notice the strings just says the words. An' the bluegrass don't. If they didn't sang 'em [the words] you wouldn't know what they's saying [the strings]. I might say this too. They's no chords. You don't put no chords in old time music when it comes to a fiddle and a banjer. You see in bluegrass, you chord the banger and also the fiddle. See, that's what I'ze saying, the frets on a banjer for old time music, them frets is just in the way. You can get a better sound without 'em. But bluegrass, they got to have 'em 'cause they're chordin"em. Now in banjer 'secon style', that's your thumb and forefinger [A style Abe uses). In clawhammer, you usin' your thumb and all your fingers. Some people calls it frailin' the banjer, but that's the wrong word." Abe laughs, "I just call hit clawhammerin' the banjer."
You've played for a lot of square dances, etc. Anything you'd like to tell me about the differences between the style of dancing back then and the way it is now?
"Well, now, when I'ze just a kid, my mother and daddy would let me go if I'd just stay in the corner and just play music. That 'uz back when they danced the Virginia Reel. This square dancin' they do now is not like it was back when I'ze young and makin' music. I've played for many a square dance. I wouldn't want to start in to try to count up how many I played at. Back then, if you won'nt a good flatfoot dancer, you just won'nt in it. [Yeah, Annie Mae adds, because when you went around the reel and you come down through and you got down here to the end, you had to dance, and if you couldn't flatfoot, you couldn't dance.] "It's much prettier than what they have now."
What about something interesting that might have happened to you when you were playing music?
"The first 'un [dance] I went to, back in an old log house - 2 big rooms you know - they moved all the stuff in one room, in the kitchen and they had the other room to dance in. And they's havin' a workin', a wood gettin' and a dance that night. Oscar Cruise, he wanted to practice flatfooting a little bit an I stayed in the kitchen. My daddy gave me orders to stay out of the way [of the dancing] in order to let me go. I'ze about 12 year old. So, Oscar Cruise come in there 'un brought somebody's banjer. I don't know who's it was and he wanted to practice some dancing while he's takin' a break. So many would dance and they'd take a break. Most of 'em would step outside if the weather won'nt too cold and let so many more go in and dance. It 'uz his time off and he come in the kitchen and he says to me, Abey, take this banjer and play me a few tunes. I just gotta practice up a little bit on my flatfootin' for I get in that dance. Well, I'ze just small and he picked me up and set me up on top the cookin' stove. And just different ones got to coming in there. The first you knowed, I had a bigger crowd in the kitchen than they had in the dancin' room!"
When did you start playing fiddler's conventions and other musical competitions. I notice you literally have a room full of ribbons and awards. Do you remember your first ribbon?
"I never went to a fiddler's convention til they had one up here at the V.F.W. I believe me and Annie Mae went up there to that 'un maybe around 1971 or '72. So the next year, they had one out there at the old school house grounds. We 'uz playin' (the band) and you know, I'ze so nervous. I played the fiddle and we come in on that one. The first time I ever played the banjer at a fiddler's convention, I got second place. A lot of times they didn't give ribbons, they give up money. I played the 1977 National Folk Festival near Washington, D.C. [The song "House Carpenter" is featured on that album.]
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Harold Hausenfluck, the blind old time musician from Richmond, Virginia.
"We met at a fiddler's convention at Saltville, Virginia in 1972. We just got to playin' around a little. Now Harold, he plays old time music, that's one thang about him." [Note: Abe speaks fondly of Harold. They cut two albums together, the latest in 1984.]
You were in service in World War II for sometime. Did you play any then?
"Well, I sold my fiddle to a boy when I got ready to go overseas and I got overseas an' after so long a time over there, I looted me one. I wish I'd a brought 'at thang home. That 'uz a real outfit. You know in Germany there they made fiddles. I carried 'at thang with me ever where I went. I tell ya, I've had even the battery commander call me up time an again, you know we had telephones that go back to the battery exec. pit, they called it, and many a time he'd get so blue, he'd call me up an have me play a tune on the fiddle. An jus' different other ones 'ud do that - officers, corporals - they'd jus' get so blue and I'd set in the fox hole and play that fiddle to 'em over the phone. They'd listen at it over the phone."
What do you feel is keeping old time music alive today?
"Well I tell you what I think is they's just a whole lot of people just don't go for other kind of music. You'd be surprised when you go to fiddler's conventions, don't care where you go to, like Galax, that's the biggest. They got far more old time bands than they have bluegrass. When I first went, they won'nt but about 7 or 8 clawhammer banjer players there at Galax. Oscar Hall, he begged me and Calvin Cole to come 'cause they's about to run out of old time banjer players. They's givin' three places. I come in 4th. Calvin Come in 6th. [Abe laughs.] But the young people's the ones gettin' in to it now. You see these little young girls and boys - The banjer looks like it's bigger 'n they are and they out there playin' old time banjer and fiddle too."
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started in old time music?
"If they like ole time music and enjoy and like that an just feel like they'd love to do that theirselves, then get out with somebody who knows the music and watch 'em and listen to 'em and they can learn a few thangs."
The name of Abe's three albums are: Abe Horton and Harold Hausenfluck "Sweet Sunny South"; Harold and Abe "Cornbread, Molasses and Sassafras Tea"; and Abe Horton, "Old Time Music From Fancy Gap". They were recorded by Heritage Records, Galax, Virginia and may be ordered from:
Abe C. Horton
Rt. 2, Box 111
Fancy Gap, VA 24328
The cost of the records are $6.00 each, but it would be nice to include a little extra to cover the cost of postage and handling. Abe said, "Howard Cox, he lives in Minnesota, called me and wanted me to send some more albums and he says, Abe, you're sellin' your albums too cheap. I just charge $6.00 for 'em you know. He says that "Old Dan Tucker" is worth $6.00!" Then Abe laughs. Your intuition tells you that these albums were made for the love of old time music.