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George Franklin Pegram - Banjoist


The first time I saw George Pegram he was holding forth in his own inimitable, gravity-defying manner. The usual crowd had gathered at his feet. He wore a smile of unadulterated bliss. Bobbing and weaving his head, he and a guitarist, accompanied by two female singers, were tearing along in high style on that great reliable, 'Old Time Religion.' " Anne Gilbert

Banjoist and folklorist Art Rosenbaum described Pegram's playing as a "raucous, hell-for-leather, driving style." Robert Black further mentions, to achieve this effect "George Pegram uses a technique much like the well known 'double-thumbing' style. It is a three-finger movement employing single notes; the melody is picked with the thumb and the drone Is alternated between the first and second strings, using the index and the middle fingers." 

George Franklin Pegram, Jr. was born August 5, 1911 and raised near Oak Ridge in Guilford County, the son of George (12/20/1881 or 1883-11/5/1955) and Phebe D. Henley Pegram (_1892-?). This farming community in North Carolina's Piedmont region was rich in stringband music.

Zack Whitaker (2/9/1876-11/3/1950), who taught music at the Oak Ridge Institute, was active in organizing area events. Whitaker promoted fiddlers' conventions and dances throughout George Pegram's upbringing, and, probably, it's those conventions that George attended when growing up. One of Zack Whitaker's musical compatriots was George's uncle, fiddler Clyde Pegram. A lifelong bachelor, Clyde Pegram lived at home with his mother and worked the family farm. George claimed that Clyde helped start him in music and that the two played together once George became musically proficient. George Pegram tells several different stories of acquiring his earliest instrument. Either his first banjo, which he started playing around the age of nine, was one discarded by his grandfather, or a cigar box banjo, which George made. Pegram continues: "My grandma drew a pension from the Civil War. I stayed with her, and she gave me a patch for tobacco. I said the first thing I was going to do when I sold my crop of tobacco, I'm going to buy me a banjo. I went down to Winston-Salem to a music store and paid $15 for a banjo a Silvertone. "I got to watching other banjo pickers. I'd pick it up. I'd go to school commencements, where there would be playing, and to fiddling conventions. I'd pick it up listening to others. "The first money I ever made in my life was for pickin' a banjo all night. I was just a barefoot kid and they gave me 15 cents. I tied it up in the end of a handkerchief and took it and gave it to my Momma." George evidently had fond memories of Oak Ridge. He would return there each year to perform at the horse show/fiddlers' convention that began in 1946. At the age of twenty-six, George Pegram married Dorothy Louise Dick (b. 1920) of Guilford County and moved to Statesville. The couple eventually had four children. Pegram professed to having served in the Navy during World War II, and to losing an eye in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. To support his family, George worked in the tobacco fields, sawmills and furniture factories of North Carolina and Virginia. " never paid enough to live on, and Pegram moved his family from job to job, from one small town to another, wherever he could find work and 'play a little music,' "  reported the Winston-Salem Journal/Sentinel. The man who would change Pegram's life was musician, folk song collector and festival promoter Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Lunsford had founded the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in June of 1928 as a part of Asheville's Rhododendron Festival. "In 1948," says Bascom Lunsford's biographer Loyal Jones, "Lunsford was invited by Dr. Ralph Steele Boggs of the English Department to start a folk festival at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which was held in June. In the same year Lunsford also established a festival for the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, in the month of August. Both of these festivals became popular events and made it necessary for Lunsford to locate new performers from places in North Carolina other than his native mountains. He traveled the hot and dusty roads of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of the Old North State, seeking talent for his new festivals." Pegram, possibly living in Denton at the time, recalled his first meeting with Lunsford: "The old man discovered me. Oh, it was 1949, I believe it was. He came down there and he had car trouble. He wanted to spend the night. I said yes I'd be glad for him to. He didn't know that I was a banjo picker a musician. He had one of these recording things to make records. We eat supper and all. I asked him what his business was. He said folk music. I told him that I played the banjo a little bit once in a while. He said, 'Go get your banjo then.' I got my banjo and played 'Cumberland Gap' and different ones. He said, 'Why, that sounds just fine. Just fine. Let me record that.' He did, and I was invited to the festival."  This account seems likely, although some of its details aren't correct. Since Pegram appeared at the first Festival, Lunsford must have visited George in 1948. Hoyle Bruton, publicity director for the 1948 festival, described talent scouting trips with Lunsford in the spring, and thinks that Lunsford had heard about Pegram before he went to see him. Arthur Palmer Hudson, reviewing the 1948 Carolina Folk Festival in the Southern Folklore Quarterly, mentions Pegram, "a broadaxe-finished mountaineer under a ten-gallon hat" as vying "with Clegg Garner of Randolph for honors as banjo soloist. George's 'Good Ol' Mountain Dew' a 'special request' number on every program after the first. A natural clown, with an excellent repertory of banjo songs and solo dance numbers, and with an inexhaustible fund of showmanship, George was the individual star of the Festival." Pegram also played "John Henry." The Asheboro Courier-Tribune reported that "One member of Garner's band, tall and lanky George Pegram, brought down the house with his rip-roaring rendition of 'Good Ol' Mountain Dew,' a number written by Lunsford in the style of the authentic folk songs. The large crowd, stacked up in the north side of Kenan stadium to the back wall, city folk and all, got the swing of folk music as George sang and whole assembly was soon clapping and swaying in rhythm." This event seems to be, outside of local community events, one of Pegram's first appearances as a professional musician. Although George Pegram would continue to work at a variety of manual labor jobs, from this point on, he would attempt to make a part of his living at music. Subsequent newspaper photos and recollections of area residents show Pegram still playing with Clegg Garner's band for dances at Denton (Davidson County) and Farmer (Randolph County) in the 1950s. And, a recording of the Okie Mountain Boys made at the 1948 event sounds like Pegram was also a member of that aggregation. In the late 1940s, George Pegram additionally performed with Corbett Bennett and His Mountain Dudes, both in public appearances and over radio station WTNC-Thomasville. Throughout his musical career, no matter what Pegram's band affiliation, George was always straining to take the spotlight. Pegram was such a singular performer, with his own style, that it was hard to play and share the stage with him. 

The Pegram family moved to Union Grove at Bascom Lunsford's instigation around 1951, to a small white house off NC 115 near the Wilkes County line. With some of Lunsford's relatives living close by,  Bascom may have been trying to take care of George or to keep an eye on him.  By that time, George Pegram had become a favorite performer of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who used him on the many events he later organized in the 1950s. Pegram played at the State Fair,  the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival and the Burlington Centennial Festival (in 1949).  He was a regular at the Carolina Folk Festival until its demise in 1956.  And Lunsford subsequently put Pegram together with harmonica player Red Parham. Walter "Red" Parham ran Bascom Lunsford's farm and played at Bascom Lunsford's many events, including the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Pegram and Parham had begun performing together by 1955, when they appeared at the Carolina Folk Festival. In 1957, Red and George were recorded by Kenneth Goldstein for Riverside Records at Lunsford's home in South Turkey Creek, Leicester, NC.   George Pegram and Red Parham also appeared on several Riverside Records anthologies: Banjo Songs of the Southern Mountains and Southern Mountain Folk Songs and Ballads. The act ceased active performing when booking decreased, and financial necessity caused Parham and Pegram to appear on their own. No matter how much Lunsford valued George as a performer, the latter's lack of constraint caused friction between the two men. Loyal Jones relates that, "For a while, he would not have George Pegram on the festival. Pegram became so popular that the crowd would often break into chants of  'We want George,' and Pegram, somewhat heady over this popularity, might just come forward without Lunsford's nod. This was the sort of thing that Lunsford, creator and boss of the festival, would not tolerate. However, Pegram held an affection and respect for Lunsford."  By the late 1950s, George became a fixture at both the Galax, Virginia and Union Grove, North Carolina Fiddlers' Conventions.  At these events, he was often associated with Wayne Johnson's Brushy Mountain Boys of North Wilkesboro,  featuring fiddler "Lost John" Ray (_1917-?).  Pegram's first award at the Galax came in 1959, when he won first prize for the "Novelty" category.  One of the pieces he played that year was "On Top of Old Smokey."  He took second prize on banjo in 1960, and first in 1961, rendering  "John Henry" for his first place win. The Brushy Mountain Boys took third prize in the band competition for 1960 and 1963, performing "Turkey in the Straw" and "Hitchhiker's Blues" during the later year's convention.  In 1963, Pegram also played on the program, executing "John Henry," "Arkansas Traveler," and "Old Rattler." The Band possibly attended the 1966 event, when George won "Outstanding Individual Performer," which he won again in 1969. George's Galax performance of  "John Henry" from either 1961 or 1963 was recorded for the Folkways Records' 1964 release, Galax, Virginia Old Fiddlers' Convention . The Brushy Mountain Boys appeared at the 1961 Union Grove Fiddlers' Convention as a seven-member band. The band was included on the 1962 Folkways album The 37th Old Time Fiddlers' Convention At Union Grove North Carolina, and were mentioned as "one of the wilder bands and the winner of this year's (1961) band contest" in the album's notes. It is unclear if Pegram was with the Brushy Mountain Boys at this convention. Photos of the band, which at least sometime included Wayne Johnson's sons, show a different banjoist. However, the banjoist on the Folkways recording of  "Hitchhiker's Blues" closely resembles George. George Pegram also appeared with fiddler Lost John Ray at the 1967 Union Grove Convention.  Wade Walker financed the record, featuring George and Lost John, for his "Wade" label. The issued tunes were "Mississippi Sawyer" on one side of the record, backed with "Cumberland Gap" and "Arkansas Traveler."  Sometime in the mid-to-late 1950s, Wade Walker had became acquainted with Pegram at the Farmer Grange dance, where George was playing. Pegram and Walker became good friends, and George was a regular at Wade Walker's music sessions from then on until George Pegram's death. Beginning at this time, as Mark Walker, Wade's son reports, "Pegram worked for the Southern Railroad as an entertainer at their conferences and meetings, traveling all over the country and even to Hawaii. They bought him a banjo, one of the last ones that he had.  But I think he pawned it off when he got hurting for money. It was one of the Earl Scruggs models. They'd buy him new clothes, you know, before they'd take him on those trips. He wouldn't even have decent clothes, you know, to take with him. And when he'd come home, he might come into work at the sawmill or somewhere with them good clothes on and they'd have to buy new ones again then." By the late 1960s, the Pegram family had migrated once again, living for several years near Galax, Virginia. The following article appeared in the Galax Gazette, July 24,1969, and aptly describes Pegram's public appearances. "A perennial favorite at the convention is George Pegram of nearby Fries, Virginia, located like Galax, near the line separating Carroll and Grayson Counties. "Pegram, grizzled and balding and with only one good eye, is a virtuoso of the bluegrass banjo style. He is a showman, too, likely to put aside his instrument and dance into a loose-joined shuffle.  "As he attacks the chorus of 'Cumberland Gap,' his lean old body tilts backward from the knees until his beaten black hat stands parallel to the ground and he is face to face with the August moon. He hoists his banjo high, fingers plucking louder and louder around the melody and a guttural hum hurtles from his throat into a piercing howl guaranteed to boil the blood: "'MmmmmYeoww! Way down yonder in Cumberland Gap!'"  David Holt, the well-known banjoist and host of radio and television shows (including Mountain Stage), also witnessed his first Pegram performance that summer. "I will never forget the first time I saw George Pegram play. It was 1969 at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. He came out on stage grinning from ear to ear, eyes darting around the auditorium like he was getting ready to play a hugh practical joke. He was bowlegged and slightly stooped from the weight of his banjo hanging around his neck. You sensed right away this guy was the 'real thing.' "Harmonica player Red Parham blew a couple of high, piercing notes to start 'Cindy.' George grabbed at the strings of his banjo as though he were trying to catch up with Red. Then all of a sudden they hooked into each others timing and were in perfect sync. It felt like an electric current went through the audience. Spontaneously the entire crowd began hollering and hooting. The music was so raw, so real and so damn good, you couldn't help it. They played through the tune like they were trying to hold onto an out of control freight train. It was one of the most exciting musical experiences I've ever had. And to this day, every time I play 'Cindy' I think of how George Pegram made that song come alive."  The recordings heard on this compact disc were made by Charles Faurot (called "Farout" in the original album notes), well known for his tapes for County Records of Carolina/Virginia stringband music. Originally offered to Ken Davidson's Kanawha label for release, this became the first record on the fledgling Rounder label in 1971. Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin, two of the three current partners in Rounder, had become interested in traditional music during the early 1960s through the recordings of Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. As undergraduate roommates, they followed music in the Boston area, often attending shows at the Club 47 in Cambridge. In 1966, their senior year in college, they both began attending the southern fiddler's conventions at Union Grove and Galax. After one such Galax event, Irwin was picked up hitchhiking (those were the days!) by Ken Davidson. He spent a few days at Davidson's home in West Virginia, visiting area musicians. Davidson's Kanawha operation made a favorable impression, and, upon his return to Boston, Irwin commented to Nowlin that they, too, should start a record label. In 1969, in the company of the third Rounder, then Marian Leighton, Ken again visited Ken Davidson, now relocated to Florida. Davidson played the tape of George Pegram heard here, and mentioned that he wasn't going to put it out. Since Irwin and Leighton were familiar with Pegram from his earlier lp with Parham and his star status at Union Grove, they jumped at the chance to acquire the tapes for their new record label (for $125!). Fred Cockerham (11/3/1905-7/8/1980), at the time living in Low Gap, North Carolina, is the best known of the musicians accompanying George Pegram on this disc. A fiddler and banjoist famous through his association with Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed, Fred can be heard on many County releases. Jack Bryant, nineteen years old when these recordings were made, was an auto body repairman from Galax, Virginia. Clyde Isaacs, a musical compatriot of Fred Cockerham in the Virginia-Carolina Ramblers, and a retired painter from Galax, was sixty-seven years old on the occasion of these sessions. Around the fall of 1969, the Pegrams relocated to Cedar Grove Township outside of Asheboro, North Carolina. The move took George closer to his friend and patron Wade Walker, and to a job with the State Dept of Transportation, overseeing gravel spreading crews for Randolph County. About this time, George Pegram reunited with Red Parham, and the duo played the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, Berea College and the Union Grove Fiddlers' Convention. One of George's last appearances was with Parham at the Asheville Folk Festival, in August of 1974. A late 1973/early 1974 show by Pegram at Gardner-Webb College is described by Mark Walker: "He played before the Mission Mountain Wood Band. But George just put on a real good show and I remember after the show there, he went down one side of the bleachers there and I believe he kissed or hugged every girl on that one side down there. And the crowd really did like him." "But just, you know, sitting in the living room playing, I mean, he was a different person, almost, the way he'd play. But he would put on the dog in front of a crowd, especially if they got to hollerin' some for him and all. That just egged him on then." George Pegram died September 12, 1974, of bone cancer. He is buried at the Back Creek Church in Randolph County. "Wade" relates his son Mark, "went to a lot of people that we would invite when was at our place a playin', and so many enjoyed hearing him play and went to all these people and asked them if they would give a little donation toward buying George's stone and some of Wade's family, they all give a donation and pretty soon, why, they had enough to buy it." "He was just, you know, one of the best entertainers, I guess. About anywhere he would go, he would just make a crowd go wild." 

Source: Excerpts from liner notes by Bob Carlin,  Lexington,  NC,  9/15/94 With permission of the author and Rounder Records; From the CD notes to Rounder 001.