Sanford banjoist Marvin Gaster wasn't old enough to drive when he played his first house party in 1948. But he remembers making music at neighbor Walter Wicker's house like it was yesterday. "We played in the hall, with the dance rooms on either side," Gaster says. "There were cracks where the floorboards were joined together, and I remember that as people danced, their feet all together in time," he thumps the floor, "lines of dust came up. I can see that right now in my mind."
Gaster, patriarch of the two-finger style of old-time banjo playing, is relaxing in a Raleigh hotel room prior to picking up his North Carolina Folk Heritage Award on Sept. 12. It's an auspicious occasion for him, and memories are heavy on his mind. Gaster was born in 1934, but his house didn't have electricity until he went to high school. So he listened to a crank record player--his Uncle Henry called it a "talking machine"--playing Red Rooster records with a glass needle. His father, born in 1915, had some eclectic tastes, ranging from big band music--Paul Whiting and Bing Crosby--to fiddle, harmonica and banjo tunes, including early songs of the Chuckwagon Gang. "It all sounded good to me," Gaster says, "and of course, some of the things that belonged to my Uncle Henry, I just wore those out."
It was a transitional time for Gaster as well as for music. His parents had moved to Georgia to find work, leaving him in the care of his Uncle Henry and Aunt Alice Perry. Music was social, and frequently connected with the seasons, but times were changing. "The corn shuckings, and frolics, and choppings [music accompanying land clearings] had just about played out," Gaster says--but the house parties remained.
"You'd take out the furniture, take the beds apart, slide the bed railings right out the window and just leave them propped up against the house, if the weather was warm," Gaster says. "I never went to a single one that went all night. But my grandaddy's generation, they'd work all day, and sometimes the women would cook, have supper, and dance till daylight. And they'd walk home. They'd feed the mule when they got there, and get some breakfast. After the mule had eaten, they'd put the horse on and work all day. It was tough."
Given the environment of the time, Gaster claims that picking up the banjo was inevitable. "There was nothing to do," he says matter-of-factly. "I had a brother, but he was with mama. There was no electricity. No TV. No Nintendo. No Internet. So what would you do? In the daytime, you could look out the window and watch the trees grow. You could watch the sky move. Or you could get something to do. And it happened to be that I latched on to the banjo."
Gaster's father died when he was 10 years old, so he learned by watching the two-finger playing of his uncle. "His style was finger-and-thumb, which was the same style as everybody else in that part of the world," he says, referring to Lee County. "I never saw anything else. I remember going to a formal dinner, and I watched other people to learn which fork to use--I knew that you didn't eat your salad with your spoon. That's how you learned, you watched other people do things. That's all the way there was."
For Uncle Henry, it was sink or swim. "His philosophy was, 'If you can learn it, you will. If it's not there, I can't get it out of you,'" Gaster says. "He was that way with everything that required a special skill--like curing tobacco, which is a real art. After I made my first crop, he wouldn't tell me what to do. I finally wheedled him into agreeing, 'If I tell you what I think I ought to do, will you tell me if I'm right or wrong?' He said he'd do that. I didn't follow his advice and I screwed up a barn of tobacco. And he said, 'Couldn't wait, could you?'"
Still, Uncle Henry was supportive of Gaster's musical inclinations. "He'd say, 'You want to go to Spivey's tonight and pick a little?' Well, what was the answer to that? I was already in the car by the time he got the period out."
Gaster's first "paying" gig as a teenager earned him 82 cents--not bad in an age when Pepsis sold for a nickel. But by the time he was a high school student, in the early '50s, playing a Friday or Saturday night square dance in Pittsboro or Goldston earned him more than carpenters' wages. "At most of them, the sign outside the door said, 'A dollar for the gents, and ladies free,'" Gaster recalls. "I got $18.75 one night for an hour and a half of playing--that's minimum wage now. A lot of people liked to dance. And I played in a lot of rough places."
Where exactly were those rough places? He shushes himself. "Anywhere you want them to be," he grins.
Gaster doesn't like to boast, saying his talent--particularly, his ability to memorize music--comes from the Lord. "I have a terrific power to memorize it so it sticks," he explains. "I can still go to a festival sometime, hear a new tune, drive home four or five hours, and still play it. Sometimes, the next day, I can't start it. But I remember it, and it'll come back, because it's in there."
He's a regular on the festival circuit--Clifftop, the Appalachian String Band Festival, Mount Airy, Sparta, Allegheny County and Elk Creek. He and his wife have been going to Fiddler's Grove since 1976. But he says he's gotten away from the famous Galax festival, although he attended this year to fill out a friend's band. "It's just gotten so big, and it's sort of a bluegrass dungeon now," he says of the festival. "You find a lot of really cheap music there today, including old-time. The first time I went to Galax, 189 old-time bands played. Now, there's something like 47 old-time bands and 125 bluegrass bands."
Though he speaks glowingly of Earl Scruggs and Don Reno, Gaster never has been able to warm up to bluegrass--"I learned to up-pick, but I couldn't learn that roll"--or to bluegrass players. "They're like, 'I've got to play this exactly like you do, or it's no good,'" he laments. "I'll just quote a good friend of mine who said, 'If I think I'm playing it like somebody else, hell, I'll change it.'"
Still, there was a time, in the late '50s, when Gaster stopped playing altogether. He laid off his instrument for 11 years, and can't even remember if he turned on the radio to hear his beloved Grand Old Opry. "I was raising a family, all the old people were gone, and the old music was gone, so what was I going to do?" he says. All of that changed with a revival of interest in music played "the old way" in the '60s and '70s.
Gaster, who claims he never rehearses or plays alone, loved meeting and jamming with the old-time music revivalists--particularly the Northerners who came down and "discovered" people like him. "I didn't know I was lost," he laughs. "But I'll tell you one thing, all jokes aside, I appreciate what those Yankees did, because it was gone. The music was gone. I was ashamed of it--'Play that old mess?'"
But interest and enthusiasm, no matter how well-intentioned, do not an old-time musician make. Nor does an extensive repertoire alone. There's still the issue of playing it the old way. And for Gaster, the tunes make the style and provide the feeling. "Some of finest banjo players, and the finest men and women I know, cannot play some of the tunes I play--it does not suit their style. And I cannot even come close to playing some of theirs, cause my style does not suit their tunes. That's why they don't bake cakes in frying pans. What I call 'festival tunes'--I can't hear those things. I can hear the tune, but it means nothing, it don't have the feeling."
To get that feeling, Gaster conjures up memories of players rooted in the past--particularly, to an African-American fiddler named Will Gales, who died around 1900.
"I heard my grandaddy talk about him, over and over and over. That was his favorite banjo player. Gales had been born a slave, but he went to the white folks' frolics, because he was the best banjo player. Some of the tunes on Uncle Henry's Favorites [Rounder 382] were played by him. I can hear one of those songs, and it does something for me; it doesn't do anything for other people. The few people that it does do something for, they can't play it, they can't mock the sounds. But I can imitate the sounds, because it's in me."
Gaster gets the same feeling from making music with Mebane fiddler Joe Thompson, who won a Folk Heritage Award in 1991.
"We sort of agree," he says of Thompson, "that we're just two old you-know-whats, and we love to play. He's a very primitive fiddler; I'm primitive in a lot of ways, but I may be a little more stylish, because I've played around so long with other people from other places. But he's one of the very few. He's the kind of a fiddler who makes me still have shivers up and down my spine when he plays something like 'Cindy Gal,' which I heard as a boy." Gaster says that a third of the music he plays today comes from the black community.
While many of his contemporary friends will be in the audience tonight, and jamming together afterwards back at the hotel, it's the past that's on Gaster's mind. He tells of nearly drowning as a teenager, while trying to rescue a struggling swimmer. His life didn't pass before his eyes at that moment--but it's an effect he's experiencing tonight as he prepares to pick up his Folk Heritage Award.
"At times like this," he says, stopping abruptly as his eyes overflow with tears, "a lot of people flood through your memory. That's what's been happening to me. They're all gone. The ones that counted the most, they're gone. Like I'll be; I don't know when. But I will be. And that doesn't bother me a bit either, 'cause I don't have too much to be ashamed of."
Still, if Gaster had to admit to being ashamed of anything, it might be the 230 banjo jokes he's collected.
"There was this young boy about 14," he begins, "who told his daddy that he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. His daddy said, 'That's good, what do you want to be when you grow up?' And he said, 'I want to be a banjo player, Pop.' And his father said, 'Son, you can't have it both ways.'"