George Gibson – First Meeting
24 December, 2013
I just got back from a delightful field trip to visit George Gibson. George is a wonderful banjo player from the mountains of east Kentucky. I first heard about him from the Kentucky fiddler, John Harrod, who told me he credited George with bringing about a revival of otherwise forgotten banjo playing styles among some of fine younger old-time musicians on the scene; people like John Haywood, Brett Ratliff and Jesse Wells. This intrigued me, so I’m now doing some research into the music George plays and his influence. It was my first chance to meet him in person, though we’d already had quite a few phone conversations and a great deal of email correspondence.
George was born in 1938 in Burgey’s Creek, Knott County. When he was growing up, the migration of people out of the area to find work was immense. George told me that it was not unusual for 90% of a class to be gone within a few years of graduating. That left, he told me, a “broken”culture. Very few people remained who could play local traditional music, although at one time Burgey’s Creek had been famed for its musicians and a number of renowned folksong collectors, like Josiah Combs, gathered tunes there.
George was keenly aware that he was living through the death throes of a way of life and when he was around 12 or 14, he began playing the banjo and making a concerted effort to learn what he could from the few old musicians that were left. He often had to reconstruct songs from various sources, taking a few verses from one person and then a couple from another and so on. Even today, he tries to rebuild songs from fragments of memories.
The way George plays is extraordinary: his right hand just dances over the strings and with his left hand, he does an unusual amount of plucking. It’s the kind of thing you can’t pick up from a recording so I feel very blessed indeed to have gotten to watch him play over the past few evenings. You can, of course, resort to youtube (though it’s no real substitute for the live experience):-
George taught me a version of Shady Grove and I think that if I practice very hard for a year or so, I might actually get it to a state where it’s recognisable. I’m also pretty happy that I got to sample his cornbread – of which he is justifiably proud.