Hooked on Bluegrass

Frank Wakefield

When I was playing for the snake handlers, I heard all those people singing. A person would get up and sing solo and a couple people would get up and sing some harmonies. When I started hearing them I was right involved with it. They was real billhillies. You could call it Bluegrass because they would do songs like “You go to your synagogue and I’ll go to mine” you’ve heard of that one. (laughs).…or was it “you go to my synagogue and I will go to my church”?

Then me and my brother started singing duets. We heard “The Blue Sky Boys”. They played mandolin and guitar. Then after that I started hearing Bill Monroe. I thought all of that was Bluegrass, even “The Blue Sky Girls”. (laughs) My brother in law had a guitar who said, “you aught to play a mandolin”. I had never seen one of them before I had got toward maybe 16 years old. He showed me a mandolin, a tater bug, and he showed me some chords. Then he showed me some tunes like “Flies in the Butter Milk”. It was then that I started taking an interest in the mandolin.

Then a year later I was fooling around with it and there was a bar around the corner. I went in there and heard a mandolin there on the jukebox. I went in to look at what it was and it was Monroe playing “Get on your knees and pray”. I heard the mandolin break in that and I really liked it. When I heard that me and my brother and his wife started singing it after that. We would mostly sing in church. We didn’t actually go in bars. This was in Dayton, Ohio.

Then after that I left the snake handlers and started playing on the radio station WING and WIHO in Dayton, Ohio. I played at about five in the morning and about nine in the morning. I played for the preacher of The Church of God, the holy rollers. They would let you play the fiddle or anything in their church. You would think that coming from Tennessee that there would be where I would have heard Bluegrass, but Dayton, Ohio was where it really was. That was where most of the people from down in Kentucky and Tennessee went to get jobs. That was where all the industry was, there and Detroit. So after that I was sitting in the yard and Red Allen come walking by, he had a Martin guitar. He talked me into going down to his apartment. I went down there and the first song he sang was “I’m a stranger here”. I had never heard it, but I liked it. It was a pretty song. Actually, he showed me how to take a break on it… on the mandolin. Then he would sing things like “Six white ack jasses”… or six white donkeys… most people know that as “Six White Horses”. Then after that Red came by and said, “Lets go out and play at the bar”, so we did.

Some banjo player, I don’t even remember his name, played claw hammer until Red showed him how to use his fingers to play rolls. And that’s what really got me turned on to Bluegrass mandolin. Then I started to put a hurt’n on it. I remember when I was playing six months somebody said, “Man your better than Bill Monroe”. I said, “aw shucks”. They said how long you been playing? I said, well two or three months. I was so afraid that I was not doing it right, but actually I was doing it right. I didn’t think I was as good as Bill Monroe at six months. That was a good feeling though.

Then I was still under age, getting toward seventeen at that point and they let me play in the bar. You were not allowed to unless you were eighteen, but since I was a musician and I have always been a bad talker. I could tell the truth about my age and I always managed to get the owner interested.

(posted 12/17/2005)

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