One of the most fascinating of all the two finger pickers is a gentleman by the name of Walter Davis. Residing in Black Mountain, North Carolina, Walter, in his 75 years, has come to know most of the western Carolina banjo players such as Samantha Bumgarner, Mack Crow, Clarence Ashley and Dock Walsh. He was also acquainted with Jimmy Rodgers, who once lived in Old Fort, North Carolina, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who played on the streets of nearby Johnson City, Tennessee. He also knew Jimmy Davis, who came to visit his mother in a hospital in Morganton, North Carolina, and was friendly with fiddling Arthur Smith.
I first met Walter Davis after a concert of banjo styles held in Warren Wilson College, in Swannanoa, North Carolina. His stunning two finger renditions of some of the old tunes like “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” had me mystified. How could anyone get that many notes and sound so full and right using only his thumb and index finger? I had to find out. I approached him after the show and introduced myself. I found Mr. Davis to be an extremely witty and friendly gentleman, and was promptly invited over to his house for coffee and, of course, music. I accepted. The evening spent at the Davis’ house, and the many more that followed, was certainly a rare treat. Here was a man of seventy five years of age who still played much as he did thirty and forty years ago. Age has not seemed to dim his music, which remains full of life and musical creativity. Just like Walter Davis himself, his banjo is usually pulling musical jokes on you, tugging your ear sometimes this way, sometimes that. Certainly, some of his music is “traditional” in the sense that he often plays the old tunes. But each tune bears his personal signature almost as if he wrote it himself. Unlike most old-time musicians, he is not bashful to compose tunes. He has written some delightful marches, hoedowns, rags and blues.
After the coffee had settled down a few inches lower in our cups, Walter went into the bedroom and returned with his arms full of musical instruments: a guitar, a banjo, and a fiddle. As he sat tuning up his “imported” Japanese banjo, he recalled the expensive Gibson Mastertone that he used to own. “I used to have a Master Gibson banjo that the music store had to order special. I give about $500 for it back then; I bought it on the installment plan. It took me a year or two to pay it off! One time the Stanley Brothers, Ralph and Carter, were playing nearby, and someone told them about me and about how I had this Gibson banjo. They come over to the house, and wanted to see that banjo. Ralph, the one who picks the banjo, had a good banjo, but it wasn’t as good as the one I had. He wanted to buy it, but I guess it was a little too high priced for him.
“You know a lot of people are hot for the old instruments. I like them, but to get out there and play them in public’s a different story. I wouldn’t think about taking most of them out on stage, because they’ll give way on you, they’ll blow up on you. I know enough about them to know that. You take any kind of old instrument and they’re likely to give out on you. Pick them up and they’ll note perfect from one end to the other. But once you get them out on stage, they’re gone. It’s kindly embarrassing. You always have to be careful about playing another man’s instrument. There was a feller who was playing with us one time. He played left handed. We was putting on a program and I decided to fill in so I grabbed his guitar and went out there and found out that the thing was strung left handed! That boy just lay down and hollered. I said, “You dirty rascal, you knowed that.. Why didn’t you stop me?” He said he wanted me to go out there, the smart aleck.”
After playing several tunes together in Walter’s living room, I managed to turn our conversation toward Walter’s past. “I started playing the banjo in about 1914, when I was nine years old. I reckon that makes me an antique. My dad and I were living in Newport, Tennessee at the time. He had an old fiddle that he gave me, but I insisted that I wanted to play the banjo, not the fiddle. Although I can start a tune or two on the fiddle, I never could do much with one. My dad said I could play any kind of musical instrument that I wanted, so I traded that fiddle for a banjo. I believe that banjo I traded for was a Maybelle. I played that instrument for several years.”
It was his father who first taught the young Walter Davis how to play the banjo. The elder Mr. Davis was originally from Madison County, North Carolina, where he learned the two finger style of picking. Walter recalls that his father didn’t care for the clawhammer style, which he referred to. as “Boom-a-loom, boom-a-loom.” They had another name for the clawhammer lick: “fist and skull.” Walter explained that many of the dances in Madison County ended up in a fight, hence the name “fist and skull.” His music buddies would later kid Walter and call his two finger style “fist and skull,” but Walter didn’t care. He always enjoyed a good joke, even if it was on him.
Not long after his father had taught him the rudiments of two finger banjo playing, the young Mr. Davis was ready to ply his new-found trade on the world. At his urging, his father deposited him at the busiest corner of downtown Newport, Tennessee (population 250). There he entertained the passing shoppers and pedestrians with his banjo. After a day of street playing, the young Mr. Davis had amassed four or five dollars in his hat. He was rich.
When Walter played on the streets of Newport, it was by himself. Several years later, however, Walter’s family moved to Old Fort, North Carolina, and Walter found plenty of companions to play with him on the street. A favorite gathering place for musicians in western North Carolina was in front of Lackey’s Hardware Store in Old Fort, North Carolina. On any Saturday, you could find gathered in front of the store a whole assortment of local musicians. It was there that Walter Davis really learned to play. His mentors were none other than the best musicians in the area. On guitar and french harp was Gwen Foster. Also regulars at Lackey’s were Clarence Greene on fiddle and Roy Neal playing banjo in a three finger style. Occasionally, musicians from out of town, like Will Abernathy, who played the autoharp, would join the mob assembled on the front porch of the store. None of the musicians ever made much money from the hat that was left out front for bystanders to pitch a penny, but Lackey’s Hardware was an important meeting place for musicians none the less.
It was at Lackey’s that Walter Davis first met Gwen Foster. Foster was a good guitar player and an outstanding french harp player. With dark skin, and an oriental look to him, Gwen quickly acquired the nickname of “China.” The two musicians became fast friends and frequently could be found playing on street corners for pennies all across North Carolina. Walter remembers one time in particular when they were together in Morganton, North Carolina. “Me and Gwen were in Morganton one time broke, and looking for some way to make a little money. Gwen said he knew of a way to make some money fast. He was going to pretend that he was blind while we played on the street corner in front of the courthouse. He put on some sun glasses, and told me to pass the hat around. I told him, ‘no, you attach the tin cup to your guitar strap and people will sympathize with you more. I don’t want any part of this deal.’ So he played for a while and some lady came up and tried to put a fifty cent piece in his cup. But she missed the cup and the coin went rolling down the street. Gwen went right after that coin like a man who could see. That lady said something like ‘That boy don’t look so blind to me.’ At that point me and Gwen took off running, and I believe that was our last engagement in Morganton.”
“Playing on the street for a handout now ain’t what it used to be. The cops almost never bothered us then, but now they got laws again it.” Walter remembers that the best musician he ever saw play on a street corner was a blind blues singer and guitarist by the name of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Walter spent many hours listening in rapt attention to every note the street singer played. “That’s where I learned to play the blues, by listening to that old colored gentleman play. He could really play the blues, I want you to know. The musicians who played on the street were called ‘backlot musicians’ then. That’s because the musicians would sometimes play on the back lots where farmers would set up and sell their produce. People would come to get their vegetables, hear the music, and throw a penny or two into the hat. That’s the only way some of us had to make a living back then.
“We also used to gather and play in barber shops. I remember we used to go up to Elizabethan, Tennessee, and play in a barber shop there. They’d let a gang of us gather in there and play and pass the hat. There was a feller who used to shine shoes there by the name of Deford Bailey. He could really play the harmonica. He later became quite popular on the Grand Ole Opry.
“I guess I really got my start in the music business when I played one time with Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen and the Skillet Lickers. One day a bunch of musicians came by my house and asked me to go with them to play up in Cranberry, North Carolina. Among the group was Earl Johnson on fiddle, a banjo player by the name of Backston, Riley Puckett on guitar, and Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen on fiddles. There was also Clarence Greene, Bert Layne and Arthur Tanner, Gid’s son. Anyway, they came over and asked me to play guitar with them on this show they had lined up. I remember that when we reached Spruce Pine, North Carolina, Riley Puckett got mad at something and started walking off down the road by himself. He was blind, you know. We had to catch him and bring him back to the car. He was awful hard to get along with. When I saw him play he played with a thumb pick and a forefinger pick. People didn’t start playing with what I call a “fan pick” (flat pick) ’til way after I took up the guitar. And I never saw any grandbar chords (bar chords) when I first started playing the guitar either. I never did see that ’til some of them fellers from the north came down here. Anyway, we put on that show in Cranberry with that bunch. I never will forget the drive over there. There was a feller mowing hay down there beside the road where we were driving along. A bumblebee flew into the car and stung McMichen, who was driving. All of a sudden, he jerked the car to a stop and started to holler that something was eating him up. We about died laughing.”
It was after playing with the assortment of musicians who went by the name of the Skillet Lickers that Walter Davis and Clarence Greene decided to strike out on their own. “We figured that they had enough musicians without me and Clarence, so we decided to try to make it on our own. I was still pretty young, so Clarence had to ask permission from my dad to let me travel with him. He had to promise to bring me back in one piece. After promising that he’d bring me back safe and sound, me and Clarence started playing all over the country.”
Before long, Walter Davis and Clarence Greene had added several members to their growing band. “We picked up Gwen Foster to play the guitar and french harp, and Will Abernathy to play the autoharp. We traveled around the country playing anywhere we could find. We often played at filling stations. We’d pull up and take out our instruments and play right there near the pumps. It wouldn’t be long ’til we gathered fifty or seventy five people there, and we’d really put on a show. Then we’d pass the hat and usually did pretty good. Most of the time the gas station attendent would set up and sell candy and gas to the crowd that had gathered, and sometimes he’d show his gratitude and fill up our tanks, and off we went.
“One time we teamed up with Mack Crow, who billed himself as the “King of the 5-String Banjo Players.” We did several shows over in his territory near Hickory, North Carolina. We heard there was going to be a banjo contest down there, so we went down to see if we could maybe take home a little prize money. Mack, he usually won every contest that he entered. I’d played the banjo since I was 9 years old, only not many people knew I played the banjo, ’cause I usually followed the guitar. So I decided to enter that contest, and wouldn’t you know, I won first place. Mack Crow couldn’t believe I beat him, cause he didn’t know I even played the banjo. I played “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” I really believe it was the novelty of the way I played it and that the fact that the judges were surprised that I played the banjo at all that caused me to win that thing.
“We used to go to all the fiddler’s conventions in our part of the country. I went to one near Bristol, Virginia back in the twenties where I met Charlie Poole. I never did play too much with him, but I heard him play. We entered the contest but Charlie was hired to play, so he didn’t compete. Dock Walsh was there too. He played in a two finger style. I guess you could say he played a little like Charlie Poole, but people didn’t pattern after each other like they do now. You’ve got to have your own style. Let them pattern after you.
“I remember one fiddler’s convention that they had in Asheville, North Carolina. We went down there, and so did Jimmy Rodgers, who was living in Old Fort, North Carolina, at the time. He worked for the railroad out of Old Fort and used to play music in a restaurant there in Old Fort. We’d have to get together and play together some. So Jimmy went down to this fiddler’s convention and played. Clarence Greene, who was a fiddler, went and he played guitar in that contest and won first place over Jimmy Rodgers. Clarence played “The Chattanooga Blues.” I never will forget that.
“Speaking about the blues, there was a fiddler who came through town one time that kind of had a blues lick on the fiddle. That was fiddling Arthur Smith. I’m all the time kidding musicians and I remember when I saw Smith I went up to him and handed him a nickel. He asked me what that was for and I told him that if ever I saw a man uglier than I was I’d give him a nickel. He said, ‘Wait a minute, I think I’ll give it back.’
“We used to have some times back then. I remember that George Morris and I used to buddy around together quite a bit. George is Zeke and Wiley’s older brother. George more or less learned off of me, and his brothers, Wiley and Zeke, more or less learned off of him. They were the ones that came up with that song ‘Salty Dog.’ I made some records, but never made much money off of them. I did some recording with Gwen Foster as ‘The Carolina Twins.’ We recorded several numbers for Columbia including a song we called ‘This Morning, This Evening, Right Now.’ Art Satherly was the man in charge up there. I also recorded with Gwen, Dock Walsh and Bill Short for Romeo. We called that group The Blue Ridge Entertainers. I can’t remember the names of all the songs we recorded, but I do remember recording ‘Bring Me a Leaf From the Sea’ and ‘Corrina.’ I also recorded two guitar solos. One number I wrote called the ‘Crooked Creek Blues’ and the other was called ‘Going Back to Coney Isle.’ The last record we made was recorded in New York. We had Clarence Greene, Tom Ashley and Will Abernathy along, with us. We acted like we were going to put on a fiddler’s convention in Tom’s house. We had a little skit worked up where Tom had some whiskey and I said something like `Give me a drink of that whiskey.’ Then Tom barked like a dog and asked his wife to put the dog out. I played the guitar on that record. I believe that our skit about drinking whiskey came out way before the Skillet Lickers started doing theirs.
“After I got married, I settled down, and never really wanted to try to make it as a musician. Carpentering’s my trade. After I got married, I did organize me a band and had regular square dances for about a year. We had a dance team, cloggers, and a stage show booked into the Carolina Theater in Spruce Pine. I used different fiddlers, because no one fiddler would want to stay put that long. J.C. McCool played the guitar for me. We still play together occasionally.
It wasn’t long before our conversation drifted back to the instruments sitting idle on our laps. They’d grown cold sitting quietly there, but now were warming up as we began playing some good old tunes.
For more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s popular book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.