Where the Mountain Laurels Grow
The Blue Ridge Mountains of Northeast Georgia have long been home to some fine old-time musicians, few of whom have been tapped by commercial recording companies.
The Blue Ridge Mountains of Northeast Georgia have long been home to some fine old-time musicians, few of whom have been tapped by commercial recording companies. This music had strong family and community roots, and lives on in the 21st century, notably in the fine singing and picking of the Myers Family and Friends.
Through Joel Cordle, several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting four musical offspring of Albert Myers: John Myers, Helen McDuffie, Margie Roberts, and Molly Moody. Excellent singers and guitar pickers, the four siblings had picked up their interest in music from their father.
Adept on guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, Bert Myers moved back and forth with his family between Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and Apple Pie Ridge in Georgia’s Banks County. Home-made music was an integral part of life, whether at dances, in church, family reunions, or for family entertainment around home after a hard day of farm work.
In later years the Myers family did not let their music fall by the wayside, and about the time I met them, the sisters had formed a group, The Myers Sisters, with Helen’s daughter Leasie Whitmire adding her electric bass to their three guitars and voices. This group performed songs and tunes traditional in their family and region, as well as songs learned from recordings of the Carter Family and other groups. Moreover, they also were gifted at composing new songs in old-time style, some poignant and lyrical, others humorous, about their family and their beloved mountains.
The group performed at community gatherings and events like the North Georgia Folk Festival, and Joel Cordle and I produced a CD, “Music from Apple Pie Ridge: The Myers Sisters and Leasie” (Global Village Music, Global Village CD 314.) Sadly, in October, 2003, Margie Roberts and Molly Moody died in an automobile accident, and Helen was injured.
After recovering, Helen made good on the promise his children had made to their father to keep the old-time music going, and with her daughter reorganized a performing group, adding her niece Edna Mullinax, and family friend Sue Trotman, as well as old-time two finger banjo picker Ed Teague (to my knowledge the only actively performing old-time traditional banjo player in North Georgia.)
Ed, born in Rabun County, Georgia’s most northeasterly county, in 1927; his grandfather, Oscar Gibson, played music with Bert Myers. “Are you Bert Myers’ girls?” he told me he asked the sisters when he was surprised and pleased to run into them a few years ago— now his banjo adds the melody line to the rhythm guitars and bass of the “new group.”
When I asked Ed how he likes being the only man in a group of lady musicians, he replied, “I like that! They play my kind of music. I been knowing them so long, they’re like family.” Ed added, “I wish you’d have heard Bert and my grandpa play together.”
Helen started learning the guitar when she was too small to finger chords, so her father tuned a guitar to an open tuning, and Helen seconded his banjo or fiddle with a pocket knife slide. “Home music was all we had,” when they started out, Helen explains. In later years the radio and records expanded their exposure music from farther afield: the Carter Family was a main influence.
Sue Trotman is the daughter of James Richard and Oma Odessa Gordon from the “She Creek” section of Rabun County; she started learning the guitar at the age of eight, and today plays at church with her brother. Edna Mullinax is the daughter of Helen’s late sister Nora Myers Coley. The Songs and Tunes The three-part harmonies of Helen, Edna, and Sue, form the signature sound of their group, backed by the full chording of their three guitars along with Leasie’s bass line, and Ed’s fine and simple banjo melodies.
Their style is distinctively their own, but one cannot avoid hearing echoes of the Carter Family, with the guitars providing the rhythm, as did Sara Carter’s autoharp, and with Ed’s banjo carrying a clear melodic line, as did Maybelle Carter on her guitar (Maybelle Carter’s “scratch” or “church lick” of a melody note followed by a strummed chord and an up-picked high string derived from her first instrument, the five-string banjo.)
The songs in this collection are either traditional folk songs learned in family and local circles, or later country songs that have entered the old-time repertoires of the Myers family and their musical friends. “The River of Jordan” was written for the Louvin Brothers by Hazel Houser, and has also been recorded by Ricky Scaggs.
Sue Trotman learned “The Rambling Boy” (Laws L12) from her mother. Sometimes called “The Rake and Rambling Boy,” it originated as a British broadside and occurs in many versions in the U.S. Helen recalls hearing the Carter Family perform “There Was a Time.”
“Old Joe Clark” is certainly one of the best-loved American banjo, fiddle, and frolic pieces, with hundreds of verses; Helen says that all the verses in her version were sung by her father, to his banjo picking; Ed has known the piece since he started playing banjo.
“Going Down this Road Feeling Bad” is known in some form to nearly every Southern old-time or bluegrass musician, and is certainly of African American origin (a very early setting which I recorded from the playing and singing of black banjo picker Jake Staggers of Toccoa, Georgia, in 1981 can be heard on Art of Field Recording, Vol. I Dust-to-Digital,DTD-08); these verses were learned traditionally by the singers.
“Where the Mountain Laurels Grow” is a fine song composed by the late Bill Atkinson, who used to be the M.C. of country music shows at Hamby Mountain Park in Baldwin, Georgia. The present group got it from Ed Teague, a friend of Atkinson’s. Helen learned “Little Red Rooster” as a child from a cousin, Estes Myers; it is a comic folk song structurally close to “In the Mornin’ Soon” and “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”
“The Flame in My Heart” is a George Jones song that the group learned from Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper. “Foggy Mountain Top” was first recorded as “The Foggy Mountain Top” by the Carter Family in 1929. “Quit That Ticklin’ Me” was recorded by Uncle Dave Macon, and is related to “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” and “Whoa, Mule.”
“Spanish Two Step” is an instrumental that the earlier Myers Sisters group played, and has been recorded by many artists including Bob Wills—here Ed Teague handles the lead. “Five Pounds of Possum (in my Headlights Tonight)” is a humorous song recorded by several country and bluegrass groups including Don Reno and Red Smiley. “Have You Really Been a Friend?” is one of the Myers’ favorite old-time gospel songs.
Edna sings the lead on “The Crawdad Song,” a very wide-spread Southern folk song. Most old-time banjo pickers cite “Shout, Lulu” as the first tune they learned, but Ed Teague’s was “Cripple Creek,” still one of his favorites. The Carter Family recorded “On the Rock Where Moses Stood,” and this was the source of the Myers’ “Crying Holy Unto the Lord.”
– Art Rosenbaum, Athens, Georgia October 2007