February 1, 2010

Picking and singing on winter evenings keep Ocracoke’s music heritage alive


Sitting and picking around the wood stove at the Community Store is what’s happening on the music scene at Ocracoke Island this winter.

Young and old, professional and amateur, musicians who want to share their songs come together for two hours on Friday evenings, bringing with them their guitars, mandolins, drums, or whatever instruments they choose. They play folk music, blues, rock, or originals, calling out the chords so that all can join in. Others who just want to listen or sing along pull up chairs and enjoy the fun. Coffee and tea are available from the coffee bar, and as the store remains open during the music, snacks and other groceries can be purchased.

These gatherings are just the latest chapter in Ocracoke’s long tradition of music, dating back for as long as folks can remember.

 Sea chanties were surely brought to the island by sailors who stopped here, and one can only imagine what songs Blackbeard and the other pirates who visited here might have belted out.

During the 1800s, square dances and fiddle playing were the main entertainment on the island. One early fiddler was William "Wid" Williams. Ocracoke old-timer Maurice Ballance, a well-respected guitar player, recalled a story Homer Howard used to tell about Wid. When asked if the fiddle player was any good, he replied, "I don’t know if he’s any good, but he’s the loudest one I ever heard!" Wid’s son, "Keech" Williams, also fiddled and did some tap dancing.

Thomas O’Neal, better known as "Tom Neal," was a fiddle player at the turn of the last century. He would walk to the Pamlico Inn every Saturday night and play at the dance there by himself, according to Ballance. Robey Fulcher, who lived in Atlantic, and Ivy Scott from Harkers Island would bring their fiddles and play at the dances when they were commercial fishing nearby. Ansley O’Neal was also a fiddle player in those days.

According to Martin Garrish, one of Ocracoke’s finest musicians today and the great-great-grandson of Tom O’Neal, dances were the place where people of the island got together, not just to dance and listen to music but to visit and share ideas.

Many Ocracoke men in the mid-1900s owned and played musical instruments, especially guitars. They got together in their spare time and played in the woods, producing some exceptional musicians. Walter Howard, the son of fiddler Alonzo Howard, wrote his traditional song "Paddy’s Hollow" about a little village meadow where lots of music-making, meal-wine-making, dancing and drinking took place.
Edgar Howard learned to play guitar from his brother, Walter. He later began playing the banjo and went on to perform with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Milton Berle Review. He is responsible for continuing many of the oral traditional songs on the island, according to ethno-musicologist Karen Helms.

In 1973, Edgar wrote "Let’s Keep the Holler Alive," a musical plea to preserve the oral traditions and musical folk heritage of Ocracoke, in particular the spirit of fun and merriment that once filled the area called Paddy’s Hollow.

Many of the early songs recalled by Maurice Ballance were reels and marches. "Under the Double Eagle" and "Boil them Cabbages Down" are two examples.

Nathaniel Jackson, an Ocracoke native who died several years ago, recalled a song from the Depression era that was popular in the village. "People used to play it on their Victrolas. My mother had one with a hand crank, a megaphone, and a dog that barked. The song went like this: ‘Forty cents worth of cotton, 40 cents worth of meat, How the hell does a poor man eat?’”

Ocracokers also sang lullabies and hymns. Until recent times, according to Nathaniel Jackson, people got together at night and went to the homes of the elderly and sick to sing hymns and other songs. This tradition is still continued at Christmas. Singing was also an important part of church and camp services.

"A lot of the music we’re familiar with here on Ocracoke," said Martin Garrish, "was brought here when the Navy Base was established (in World War II) and put on USO shows...A lot were show tunes. Train songs were popular back then, even though there never were any trains on Ocracoke."

Some of Ocracoke’s early music was collected and preserved by Karen Helms in the 1970s on the Folkways album, "Between the Sound and the Sea: Music of the North Carolina Outer Banks." It was recently re-introduced as a CD and is for sale at the Ocracoke Museum and some shops. The songs recorded on it include a lullaby, ballads, folk songs, a mandolin medley by Lawton Howard, and a harmonica medley by Jule Garrish.

"Ole Tukey (Turkey) Buzzard," originally an old fiddle or square-dance tune, was sung as a lullaby on Ocracoke around the turn of the century by native Bill Wahab.  Elizabeth Howard said that she sang it to her children, and that it was often sung to sick children to make them laugh.

The "Ballad of Tom Daniels" is thought to have been composed by Horatio Williams II n the late 1800s and handed down as folk music. It tells the partial story of a confrontation, thought to be true, between a group from Core Sound and some Ocracokers. The Core Sounders came one evening to a fishing and hunting camp on Ocracoke called Quork Hammock to "firelight" and were chased away in flat-bottomed skiffs.

The song "Matilda Jane Lee" was written around 1900, probably by Alexander Garrish or his brother Callas, according to Helms. It is a nonsense song, composed of parts of different songs, including Matilda Jane Lee and her lover, the P.T Barnum Circus, and a wife’s plan to collect her husband’s insurance money.

One of the favorite old songs, "The Booze Yacht," is believed to have been written on Harkers Island, but has long been part of Ocracoke’s music heritage. It relates what happened when a ship filled with illegal whiskey ran ashore off Cape Lookout during Prohibition times, and the "amazing two weeks that followed."

Roy Parsons, recently deceased, was another well-loved musician from earlier days. Called "Ocracoke’s greatest yodeler," he played guitar, banjo, and harmonica, joining in with Roy Rogers and the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He traveled throughout the east, performing at Madison Square Garden, on radio shows, and at nightclubs.

During the 1930s various Ocracoke musicians would gather in the woods near an old graveyard to play music. They included Jackie Garrish, Robert Lee Garrish, and Charles Garrish on Spanish guitar; Ansley O’Neal on the fiddle; Junior Garrish on the Hawaiian guitar, and William Bryan Hunnings on the harmonica. They became known as the Graveyard Band. Maurice Ballance played with them in the 1940s, and he said that they got their inspiration from Jimmy Rogers, the "father of hillbilly." They listened to music on the old radios and Gramophones and then practiced the songs themselves. "Waiting for a Train" was one of the favorites.

As the years passed, new members joined and replaced the original Graveyard Band musicians. George Jackson, Jule Garrish, Lawrence Ballance, and Lawton Howard all played in the band. Edgar Howard, once hailed as the world’s greatest four-string tenor banjo player, joined them for a while. They played at square dances, at the Spanish Casino, and at the Pamlico Inn Dance Hall, making lasting contributions to Ocracoke’s musical heritage.

The Graveyard Band was reincarnated in 1964 when Martin Garrish began a band with his brother Clinton, Wayne Garrish, and Johnny O’Neal. They called themselves "The Cousins" at first, then "The Graveyard Band Revived," finally dropping the word “revived.’ Their version of the Graveyard Band played mostly rock and roll, blues, with a little country thrown in. Other musicians, such as Michael O’Neal, David Styron, and Jackie Willis later played with the band, usually at the Three Quarter Time Dance Hall and private parties.

Since then Ocracoke has provided the inspiration for all kinds of music and musicians. The Ocracoke Rockers, Molasses Creek, the Ocracoke Jazz Society, and Coyote are popular groups, and Martin Garrish, founder of the Graveyard Band Revived, still enthralls listeners with his renditions of traditional songs and originals.

In 1998 The Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) sponsored the production of the "Ocrafolk Music Sampler," a collection of various examples of Ocracoke music by 23 musicians.

Gary Mitchell recorded it at his Soundside Studio here at Ocracoke. It was such a success that three more samplers have since been produced. There are also a number of CDs put out by individual musicians and groups for sale at Ocracoke.

During the summer, weekly performances of the "Ocrafolk Opry" are presented at Deepwater Theatre, featuring island musicians, and the weekend-long Ocracoke Music Festival held in June includes local and out-of-town performers. Ocracoke guitar player and song-writer Jule Garrish, born in 1922, and young Katy Mitchell, just out of Ocracoke’s high school, played and sang in the recent feature film, "Nights at Rondanthe."

Only a handful of Ocracoke’s talented musicians are mentioned here, but depending on which night you drop by, many more can be heard at the Community Store. The Friday evening gatherings were coordinated last year by Gary Mitchell, with the help of store owners James and Susan Paul.

 The village of Ocracoke was overjoyed when the historic Community Store, which had been closed for several years, re-opened two years ago. The combination of the old store’s history and ambiance with today’s music and camaraderie is magical.

Everyone is welcome to come and play and or listen.

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