While few people still living can recount much about Civil War-era Appalachian music, turn-of-the-century blues or the true roots of roots music, blues musician and historian Scott Ainslie has spent his career studying and sharing a tradition that was rarely written down.
On his latest album, “The Last Shot Got Him,” Ainslie attempts to tell the story of his 1934 Gibson archtop guitar by capturing its sound in songs from its era by musicians such as Robert Johnson, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin and even Disney.
He’ll play it Friday during the Charlotte Folk Society’s Gathering at Great Aunt Stella Center (last year’s scheduled concert was canceled because of snow) along with his one-string diddley bow or cigar box guitar, patterned after the handmade instruments children were often given in Africa and the deep South.
“I felt like I needed to know what my teachers and mentors enjoyed about it,” he says, 20 years after crafting his first one. “It’s one of those instruments anybody can play. Nobody is afraid of a one-string instrument. It was a kid’s instrument. It would be the first thing you’d build if your father didn’t have a guitar or wouldn’t let you play it.
“They played them for years before they got what I, as a lower-class white man, would call a ‘real’ instrument. I thought I’d throw it on the junk heap after playing it for five minutes. I’m still playing it. The complexity of what I play has built over the years.”
Ainslie discovered blues around the time he discovered activism while living near Washington, D.C., as a teenager in the ’60s (“with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements right in my face”). He saw Piedmont blues guitarist John Jackson play during a concert by Mike Seeger (Pete’s brother) at his high school, and his path was set.
At Washington and Lee University, he accompanied a geology professor on rural trips to interview old-time, folk and blues musicians like West Virginia’s Hammons Family and Tommy Jarrell of Toast.
“In the early ’70s and late ’60s, there was this window to get to people who were born around the turn of the century,” Ainslie says. “In England, when English folk musicians watching the folk revival in America turned their attention to the traditional music of England, everyone in England was dead. (In America), we found Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. The Hammons and Etta Baker were still around. We could go and see how they used their hands, talk to them and get stories and a sense of what it was like for them before radio, electricity and indoor plumbing.”
While working as a visiting artist for the community college system in eastern North Carolina in the pre-Internet era, Ainslie would simply track musicians down at home.
“That’s where you could think there would be a great deal of animosity between elderly blacks, who suffered through lives in the Jim Crow South, and young white people – who think what they’re doing is simply wonderful,” Ainslie says.
“Out of 30 or 40 elderly black musicians that I worked with, only one was not simply delighted that you liked what they like. I’ve been welcomed with open arms. When you cross barriers in a culture – whether it’s race or education or economic class – the key to admission is love. It will carry you a long way, even in cultures that would be hostile to you.”