Music of Our Mountains: John Henry

Mac Traynham's Tune of the Week

I thought a banjo tune would be a good lift for this week. A while back I traveled to a picnic shelter near Boone’s Mill in neighboring Franklin County to meet up for a face to face fiddle lesson with young Cheyenne Grantham as we have done a couple of times before. Andy Buckman has been working with her brother Wyatt to learn the traditional clawhammer style of banjo. So we meet up with our masks on and with distanced seating for a double lesson, with the goal of showing how banjo and fiddle can be more effective together—especially for traditional dance tunes of the region.

This time we invited 90-year-old musician Rhoda Kemp and her son Barry to join us. Rhoda started playing when she was 8 years old, and I encouraged the kids to do the math to figure out how long she has been a player of old-time music.

Rhoda Kemp
Rhoda Kemp

Rhoda came from a musical family and is used to playing in the community. Like the rest of us lately, she has been very bored and tired of staying home so much. She has been getting out a little more lately and taking all the precautions to stay COVID-free. So we made a plan to get together with the kids.

Rhoda is most known for her brisk clawhammer style on the banjo but she is competent on guitar, autoharp, and bass. We had a nice socially distant jam in the cool of the morning. Andy taught Wyatt this tune the previous meeting while I taught Cheyenne a working fiddle part.

John Henry is a standard traditional banjo tune/song that has words about the story of the steel-driving man’s last stand against the steam drill.

Here is a recording of Rhoda playing John Henry with The Original Orchard Grass Band without a fiddle playing along. Her style is influenced by clawhammer banjo entertainers like Grandpa Jones and Stringbean. It’s not a dainty laid back melodic style but one that encourages hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and flatfoot dancing. 

She brought the 12” open-back banjo that she made with me in 2018 (at age 89) and played the tune with us for the kids. They’ll never forget it. At our age (mid-60s), Andy and I just hope that we don’t.

John Henry – Rhoda Kemp with The Original Orchard Grass Band from an LP recorded over 15 years ago.

Comment from Malcom Smith

Hey Mac!

Thanks for the ongoing joy during these troubled times.  Here’s a link to a great pic of Rhoda Kemp on the cover of the Old Time Herald, that was part of a feature story I wrote about her a year or so ago.  If anyone wants to learn more they can backorder the issue at the link!  I am a huge Rhoda Kemp fan!

Comment from Joshua Gilliland

Mac! Great choice as always

I just love it when Rhoda makes it out to our Jam on Wednesdays. The Covid has changed a lot of things, including that, but it was always a pleasure to play alongside her.

Hope everyone is taking good care of themselves.

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