Monday, July 15, 2013

West Virginia Coon Hunters String Band - Grand Daddy at The Bristol Sessions

In Search of Grand Dad's Music

View from the North Side of Big Walker Mountain
My grandfather, Wesley "Bane" Boyles was born August 5th, 1905 in a house on the north side of Walker's Mountain in Bland County, Virginia, just over the Smyth County line. Being one of seven children, he was the son of Geneva "Alice" Waddell Boyles and Alfred "Doc" Boyles. The family roots ran deep in the Appalachian Mountains since the late 1700's. His ancestors hailed from Western North Carolina to Southern West Virginia.
According to oral tradition, his father "Doc" Boyles played the fiddle and Bane at the age of three or four begged to be taught to play. His father thought him too young but his mother relented and allowed him to play his father's fiddle while his father was at work. His oldest sister said he was sawing out tunes by the age of six.

His mother related the story to his daughter Lena and said, "he always played the songs so fast in those days." One day she asked him why he was playing so fast and Bane told her he had to learn to play as many tunes as he could before his father got home.

Bane's father, Doc Boyles, in those days, worked for the Groseclose family (the very ones who began the Future Farmers of America Organization) at their store and on the Groseclose farm just outside of Ceres in Bland County, Virginia.

Bane, his brothers and sisters helped the family eke out a subsistence living on the small farm they were living way up on Walker's mountain. Bane Boyles always joked where he lived as a boy the mountains were so steep, his brothers and sisters were born with one leg shorter than the other, the cows had two legs shorter and when you planted potatoes, when it was time to harvest, you just had to dig a hole at the bottom of the hill and they would roll out.

The whole family was musical. According to his sister, my great Aunt Mable, the children all attended a church at Nebo called Zion Methodist Church just across the Smyth Co. line with their mother and her family.(There are five generations of family buried in that church cemetery including Grand daddy Bane.) All sang in the choir.

But Bane Boyles was a little different from the rest of the family. Music was his passion. By the time Bane Boyles was a teenager he had learned how to play all the old mountain reels and how to call a square dance. He was called on to play many a barn dance, or family get togethers in the area.
In the 1920s the family moved to Bluefield, West Virginia. Bane worked odd jobs and continued to play music at barn dances, bars anywhere he could but in a larger area around Bluefield. In August of 1927, he was playing with a band that called themselves the "West Virginia Coon Hunters'.  They all seem to live around the Rogers Street area of Bluefield at that time.

West Virginia Coon Hunters 1927, Standing Left to Right Fred Belcher, Clyde Meadows, Jim Brown, Vernal Vest Seated Left to Right: Dutch Stewart, Wesley "Bane" Boyles, Regal Mooney, Fred Pendleton, Joe Stephens. Image Courtesy of  Birthplace of Country Music: Gift of Denise Smith
Front row L to R Bane's sisters Marie, Mable and Annie
Back row his brother Tom and Bane. Not pictured is brother Brown.
I never really knew about his history with the West Virginia Coon Hunters. He never talked about it. We had always heard that Grand Daddy Bane had recorded a record but none of the family realized it was at the now infamous Bristol Sessions, in Bristol Tennessee. In 2002, my Great Aunt Marie, Bane's baby sister, came by the house for a visit. She was leaving her husband and moving to Las Vegas. A bit odd especially since she was pushing 80 years old but Aunt Marie and all the women in our family always were of a very independent mind.

On her way she wanted to drop off a large box of family photos for me. In the box was the picture of the West Virginia Coon Hunters. She just said it was a band that my grandfather had played in. It was a neat photo but I was more interested in the pictures of my great, great, great grandparents just after the Civil War. Talk about a boon to the family history project!

About a year later I was in the doctors office at the clinic and picked up a magazine called Golden Seal about West Virginia history. In it was an article entitled, "On the Trail of a Lost String Band: The West Virginia Coon Hunters" by John Lilly.

I opened the pages and lo and behold was a copy of the picture I had with even more pictures of my grand father with the band and the story of the West Virginia Coon Hunters.
They were looking for information on this band that played at the Bristol Sessions. They had his name as "Bone" Broyles because they could not make out the hand writing on the back of their copy of the photos. The actual record misspelled his name as W.B. Bayles.
I was at the clinic because I had chronic back problems from an old injury, but I was so excited that the Doctor was having a hard time getting out of me what was wrong. I was more interested in knowing if I could have this copy of this magazine!! They let me have it for my health's sake!
I knew absolutely nothing of the Bristol sessions but soon a little research found they are called the sessions that gave birth to country music. Grand dad and the West Virginia Coon Hunters recorded the same day as Jimmy Rodgers. They recorded two songs, Your Blue Eyes Make Me Crazy, and Greasy String. I was amazed I had never heard of grand dad at the Bristol Sessions nor how it was the beginning of the Carter Family and others. Being in tourism I had known about the Virginia Tourism The Crooked Road initiative honoring the music of our area but they took the route south through Galax and missed our neck of the woods. They recently added Big Walker Lookout to the least grand pap was born on that mountain.

String Band music had become popular in the 1920's. It was different from traditional music in that guitar was added, maybe a mandolin and it had a sort of bluesy quality to it.
Ralph Peer of Victor Records placed an ad in local papers stating they were looking for new talent. He was amazed at the response of the mountain folks coming out of the mountains down to Bristol, Tennessee to record. The Bristol Sessions it is said changed country music history.
Wesley Bane Boyles and Band Norfolk Naval Air Station
Officers Club Image Courtesy of Birthplace of Country
Music: Gift of Denise Smith
West Virginia Coon Hunter's playing of "Your Blue Eyes make me Crazy" is said to be the forerunner of artists such as Bill Monroe and others. Later for a brief time, Grand Daddy even played with Bill Monroe. So my grandfather and the West Virginia Coon Hunter's were there at the very beginning!

Made me wish I could have gone back in time and learned to play the mandolin he tried so hard to teach me. He did teach me a song or two and I am now working on trying to get his versions of a couple of songs recorded because they are not like other versions I've heard. His version of Copper Kettle does not sound like Joan Baez nor Bob Dylan's. Mainly they changed the dialect from the mountain version.

Shortly after recording at the Bristol Sessions Bane was caught transporting and manufacturing illegal liquor and sent to prison thus ending any chances he had of a recording career. The band West Virginia Coon Hunters went on to record several albums and existed for many more years. In those days you had to be pretty clean cut to be in the record business or at least it had to be hidden well. For the family moonshine tales click here.

Before he was arrested, Bane Boyles had fell in love with Stewart Burress daughter, my grandmother Hazel. He left her pregnant and not married when he went to prison. My mother Lena was born in 1929. Hazel, Bane and baby Lena were living with Stewart and grandma Mae in the 1930 Census and all three going by the name Boyles. But Bane Boyles did not marry my grandmother Hazel until 1931.

My mother was in her 40's when she learned the truth when she had to have a copy of her birth certificate. She was so upset she actually rounded her parents up and marched them both before a notary to get the name corrected on her birth certificate.

After prison Bane Boyles did his best to settle down in Bluefield. He learned several trades; he was a barber for a time, an electrical worker and a car mechanic. He just couldn't give up being a rambler playing music and it caused a lot of friction in his marriage with Hazel.

It was said he would work a job long enough to get enough money to hit the road to play music in another town. The marriage suffered between Hazel and Bane because he would travel to every opportunity to play his music, dropping everything, often leaving Hazel with six kids, little money, bill collectors and no word of where he'd left to. As my mother Lena said, "My daddy was a scoundrel, but he could play a damn good fiddle."

Lena Boyles, Wesley Bane Boyles, Jimmy Boyles (banjo) Bill Boyles
Image Courtesy of Birthplace of Country Music :Gift of Denise Smith
Lena was taught to play a guitar and her brother Bill to play the banjo and guitar and her little brother Jimmy was added. It was a time when it was the most settled she said she had ever seen her dad. He taught his children to play so he could take them with him at the area barn dances to help to support the family with his music. It didn't work out very well. The children revolted because of the late nights and not a lot of money really coming to them or the family.

Hazel and Bane separated in the 1960s. They never divorced. Bane continued to play music where ever he could. He was invited many times to play at the local radio stations in and around Bluefield WV with various local acts.

My favorite memory of my grandfather Bane was when my dad was in the military and every vacation we would head "Up Home" from where ever we were stationed to visit with mountain relatives. It is one of my first memories of my grandfather. I was 5 or 6 years old. Grand Daddy Bane was living in Ada, WV. My mother and father took me with them to visit.

The house was just a two-room shack with a porch up on a steep bank. Dad parked the car at the bottom of the hill because it had rained and you could hardly walk to the house much less drive to it. We slipped and slid walking up the hill as I heard the sweetest fiddle music I'd ever heard in my life accompanied by a guitar and a mandolin. When we got to the house I could see my grandfather through the screen door standing playing his fiddle. He always dressed very neatly and he was in a pair of dress pants with a white shirt and shoes so clean and shiny they sparkled.

I just thought he looked so out of place in this mountain shack on a muddy hillside. We stayed most of the night into the wee hours of the morning. Momma picked up the guitar and my daddy even joined in with his harmonica. Everyone picked and played all night, saying things like "Do you remember this one?" or "Have you heard this one?" and someone would begin the tune and the others just joined in.

I still remember jars of moonshine sitting on the kitchen table too. They passed round and round just like the music. I fell asleep on his bed on top of everyone's coats listening to that sweet mountain music as a lullaby.

Grand daddy Bane continued to play his music to his dying day. I remember all us relatives in his later years, taking turns to drive him to every fiddler's convention in the area and just dropping him off. Galax, Roncevert, Lebanon, he'd hit them all if we would drive him. He tell us not to worry he'd find a way home and he always did. Might be a week or three later but he would show back up.

I am still looking for some cassette tapes he told me he was making before I married and moved away. His goal was to record every song he knew on this little cassette player he'd bought at a pawnshop. The last time I visited him in a one-room apartment in Bluefield WV he had boxes of these tapes. No one in the family seems to know what happened to them. I pray they are still out there somewhere.

Bane Boyles died in the Spring of 1975. Grand Daddy Bane told my mother he was so afraid he would be found dead alone in his apartment. I remember she said she prayed with him that the good Lord not allow that to happen. He didn't. Instead Granddaddy Bane died on a creek bank, on a beautiful April day, sitting in a lawn chair fishing with one of his best, long time friends at Grose's Bottom in Bland county.

It was one of his favorite spots to fish. He sat in his chair and his friend thought he was asleep when his line went to bobbing. His friend called out to him but he didn't respond. His friend reeled the fish in and said he caught the biggest fish he'd ever seen come out of Wolf Creek. But Wesley Bane Boyles was dead and didn't get to see it.

Now his fiddle playing is being heard the world over on the Bristol Session series along with such greats as Jimmy Rodgers and Mother Maybelle Carter. He didn't get to see that either but at least I can set the record straight that he with others, were a part of something so big and in his part helped to influence so many and give birth to country music.West Virginia Coon Hunters Greasy String  And Blue Eyes Make Me Crazy

I would love to hear from the other members families and their stories. Also any comments are welcomed.