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Back to the Old Country

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The typical ethnomusicologist is an academic who travels to out-of-the-way places in distant lands, recorder in hand, capturing for posterity the exotic sounds discovered there.

Eric Davidson fits that bill perfectly--except that he’s a biologist and made his field recordings here in the United States.

Davidson teaches at Caltech in Pasadena and is a founding member of the Iron Mountain String Band, which plays Saturday at Ball Junior High cafeteria in Anaheim. He began making recordings in the 1950s in North Carolina and in a region of southwest Virginia centered on the town of Galax.

But make no mistake: These places were out of the way.

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“When I began collecting music, you could walk into a place, plug a recorder into the wall and record music that had been percolating there for 200 years,” Davidson recalled. “Earlier than that you couldn’t--there were no plugs. I came just after that, and it was like falling into a gold mine. Battery-driven recorders came later.

“In the beginning you could plug into the wall and hear things nobody [outside the area] had ever heard. It was quite an adventure,” he said. “A few years later, you couldn’t do that.”

It was 35 years ago that banjo player Davidson and fiddler Caleb Finch founded the Iron Mountain String Band, named for a long, wooded ridge in Grayson County, Va.; the pair met at graduate school in New York. At the end of the ‘60s, Davidson went west to Caltech and, purely serendipitously, Finch got a job across town at USC, where he’s now a renowned expert on human aging.

Brooke Moyer of Toluca Lake--a legal secretary by day--joined the group in 1974, replacing another guitarist. Davidson now considers her “our heart and soul. She keeps us all together.”

The trio re-creates Appalachian mountain music. Finch and Davidson learned that music firsthand from such “old-time” mountain musicians as “Uncle” Wade Ward, whom Davidson described as “a not-very-well-to-do country gentleman” and “probably the greatest banjo picker I ever heard.”

Ward’s playing had been documented in the late ‘30s. Davidson learned of him through the Library of Congress collections and one day showed up on his doorstep in Independence, Va.

“He never saw me before, but we got along really well,” Davidson said. “He’d take me around to these other musicians and say, ‘Give this fellow your music. Where you’re going, you can’t take it with you, and you might be going soon.’

“There were a lot of roughnecks around there. One day Uncle Wade said to me, ‘There’s a musician up on top of Park Mountain. I don’t know if I want to let you go; he’s a rough old fellow. But if you do go, and you come back, you’ll come back with some good music.’ Vester Jones was kind of a rough character, with his own crazy stories. It was a different world then.”

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Until the turn of the century, and in some areas even later, the only major instruments common to the southwest Virginia mountains were fiddle and five-string banjo.

Though Davidson first learned banjo from a girlfriend when he was 14, Ward taught him claw-hammer banjo (a rhythmic style that would be all but replaced by the three-finger banjo picking typical of bluegrass music). Finch learned fiddling from Ward and from another local musician, Glen Smith of Hillsville, Va.

“These guys lived 20-odd miles apart, they knew about each other, but musicians tended to be jealous of each other’s reputations,” Davidson said. “They both knew how to play both instruments. We got them together and had them re-create the Galax string bands of the ‘20s and ‘30s.” The greatest of those bands was the Grayson County Bog Trotters, of which Ward was an original member.

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In the tradition of the Bog Trotters, the repertory of the Iron Mountain String Band includes ballads, songs and “breakdowns,” fast dance music played at social functions such as weddings and wakes and during barn-raising, harvesting and husking bees.

It doesn’t include bluegrass, “a much faster, shinier kind of music” that supplanted the Galax style, Davidson explained.

“Radio came along. Bluegrass, country-western and commercial Nashville music to a large extent erased the older music,” he said. “Maybe 10% of the traditional literature you’d have found in 1935 survived in bluegrass literature. Ninety percent of bluegrass is more topical.

“But then the country itself completely changed,” he noted. “The interstate roads went through. You wouldn’t recognize a thing anymore, not a thing.”

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Much of the older music is characterized by drones, complex rhythms and modes other than major and minor; its roots can be traced to both Africa and medieval England.

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According to Davidson, there’s now a “tremendous” revival of that music.

“There’s a lot of local musicians making good music again,” he said. “They learned from the field recordings we made.”

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The Iron Mountain band may be one of the style’s more intelligent proponents; after all, two of its members serve on university faculties. But such considerations are purely academic, it turns out.

“We can’t help that,” Davidson said, laughing. “One reason we play music is so we can forget about that stuff, so we can think about trains and pretty girls and booze--the important things.”

* The Iron Mountain String Band plays Saturday at Ball Junior High cafeteria, 1500 Ball Road, Anaheim. 8 p.m. $10. Under 18 free when accompanied by an adult. Presented by the Living Tradition. (714) 638-1466.


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