Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

Ernest Hodges

A talented fiddle and banjo player and a fine instrument maker, Ernest Hodges was once dubbed “the Stradivari of the Appalachians.”  Whether it was ragtime or bluegrass, Scottish hornpipes or sweet sonatas, Hodges could just about any kind of music.

Born in 1907 near Banner Elk, N.C., Hodges learned to read music before he started attending school. His father, who was an old-time singer and music teacher, gave Hodges an early interest in music. By the time he was 12, Hodges, with the help of his grandfather, had built his first banjo out of a gourd with horse hair strings.

Hodges entered fiddle contests and picked up classical tunes and traditional melodies while traveling throughout the Southeast with bands. At the peak of his playing, he was heard on 72 radio stations across the country. He moved to Atlanta to study at the renowned Leffingwell Violin School where he studied for nine years under a master violinist. However, after succumbing to pneumonia that resulted in several operations that removed eight of his ribs, Hodges had lost the energy to become a concert violinist.

Never one to sit idly, Hodges began teaching music, writing as a music critic, crafting instruments (which won him international acclaim) and, of course, playing the banjo and fiddle. He and his wife, Darlene, represented the state of Georgia at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of Folk Life in Washington, DC When the couple moved to Waynesville, NC, they continued to share their music as teachers and performers. Ernest Hodges was a key figure in starting the first Smoky Mountain Folk Festival in Waynesville (now performed at nearby Lake Junaluska) and served as the grand marshall of the event until his death on Oct. 27, 1984.

Ernest Hodges
Hodges - The Smoky Mountain Folk Festival

Waynesville looked like a beautiful place to have a music festival, Ernest Hodges wondered.

He and his new wife, Darlene, had just moved to Waynesville in August 1971 and started teaching guitar and banjo lessons for the town's Parks and Recreation Department.

That summer, the town had celebrated its centennial with a street festival, and those who were involved with the celebration thought the same thing Hodges was thinking.
The centennial had been such a hit, the town could have a cultural festival as a tourist attraction, explained Bob Brannon, then chairman of the Waynesville Recreation Commission.

Brannon had served on the Centennial Commission and made the motion to the Town of Waynesville board to form the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival. The town provided an initial $5,000 grant to start the festival. Hodges, meanwhile, gave the event a bona fide, well-known musical talent and served as the grand marshal.

"He really did add an extra umph to get the thing started," said Joe Sam Queen, now the festival's director.

Queen, who was then an architecture student at N.C. State University, helped with the dancing part of the festival. Promoters advertised it in regional newspapers and sent out flyers. The festival offered fiddle, banjo, band and square dance competitions, and arts and crafts were sold in the school cafeteria.

"It was well attended," Darlene Hodges said.

Local and regional performers came to the three-day event, which was held Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The first festival was broadcast on radio, Darlene said, recalling with laughs the time she was playing a song and one of her fiddle strings popped.

"My g-string broke!" she blurted out to all those radio listeners.

Radio announcer Cliff Hannah emceed that first festival, and as a way of thanking him for his work, Ernest Hodges honored the deejay by composing and playing a song called Hannah's Hornpipe.

That first Smoky Mountain Folk Festival had a relaxed atmosphere like a family reunion, Hannah recalled.
"It was a wonderful celebration," he said.

For the second year of the festival, organizers moved part the show inside to the gym to avoid the threat of rain.
"Which was a disaster acoustically," Darlene said.

Nevertheless, the event continued to flourish with tents set up outside for jam sessions. Today, it has become one of the premier folk festivals in Western North Carolina, held every Labor Day weekend on Friday and Saturday. It usually draws local dancers and musicians as well as performers come from Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

Over the years, the big names have included legends like Luke Smathers and his string band, Quay Smathers and his family's band, master fiddlers like Bard Ray and Tommy Hunter, buck dancers like Bill McElrath, charming singers and guitar players like Red Parham and Jimmy Haynie, and young guys like David Holt and John McCutcheon who achieved national stardom.

The competitions at the festival eventually were eliminated after the first few years, and it became more of a music and dance festival where folks would come to hear their favorite performers.

According to Queen, the spirit of the festival, that welcoming spirit and respect for different kinds of music, came from Hodges, who served every year as grand marshal of the festival from its inception until his death in 1984.

"People would come just to be with him," Queen said. "And we just had a good time."

It has since been moved to Lake Junaluska. This year will be the sixth year the festival has been at the lake, according to Queen. To catch a glimpse of the festival's enduring tradition, the legacy of mountain song and dance, just take a look at the Trantham family. There's balladeer Jim Trantham, his guitar-playing son Doug, and Doug's children, Adam and Emily. The festival is still a place where young talents study music alongside masters.

"It's trained a new generation—and it'll train another," Queen said.

Leaving a legacy in music - Ernest Hodges
By Michael Beadle

There's an old story about legendary bluegrass mandolin player Bill Monroe getting a visit from fellow musician Ricky Scaggs. The two proceeded to get out their instruments and play for an hour or so. When they were done, one said, "Well, we've had a good conversation."

But they hadn't said anything—except through the language of music.

It's the sort of story Darlene Hodges calls to mind when she remembers what her husband, Ernest Hodges, gave her.
More than teaching her how to appreciate each note in a song, more than passing on the knowledge of making violins, he shared that nonverbal, intangible, unmistakable feeling in music that brings people together.

When people hear a new kind of song for the first time, it's like opening up a new world, Darlene explained.

Ernest Hodges, who died of a heart attack in 1984, was once dubbed the "Stradivari of the Appalachians" for his international acclaim making violins. He was the kind of performer who played the works of classical composers like Bach and Paganini on his banjo. He was a man who could convert a classical music fan to country and vice versa, Darlene said.

"He was an absolute master," recalled Cliff Hannah, a deejay for WPTL radio station. "He could play anything."

Whether it was ragtime or bluegrass, Scottish hornpipes or sweet sonatas, Hodges found a way to bring so many styles and genres of music into his banjo and fiddle playing.
Born in 1907 near Banner Elk at the bottom of Beech Mountain, Hodges learned to read music before he even attended school. Tagging along with his father, who was an old-time singer and music teacher, young Ernest gained an early interest with music.

By the time he was 12, his grandfather helped him make his first instrument, a banjo crafted out of a gourd with horse hair strings.

A few years later, Hodges was entering fiddling contests. Listening to some of Kentucky's master fiddlers of the time—Leonard Rutherford, Doc Roberts and Clark Kessinger—Hodges grew into a talented musician himself.

After high school, he joined with banjo players Frank Lewis and Bailey Briscoe and traveled throughout the Southeast, picking up classical melodies and traditional tunes along the way.

In 1928, Hodges, his guitar-playing brother Robert and banjo player Johnny Blane formed the Hodges Brothers Band, which played around Kentucky and on the radio in Cincinnati.
At one point, Hodges was offered a record deal, but it didn't include his band members, so he rejected it, his wife recalled.
Nevertheless, at the peak of his playing career, he was heard on 72 radio stations across the country.

By the 1930s, Hodges had moved to Atlanta to study at the renowned Leffingwell Violin School, where he studied for nine years under a master violinist to become a concert violinist.

But his performing career and his life nearly came to an end when he fell ill with pneumonia. His heart and lungs shifted out of position, and he had to have eight of his ribs removed in four operations. He caught the virus while in the U.S. Army, and as he recuperated in a veterans hospital, he was given massive doses of penicillin for 120 days straight. Back then, penicillin was a newly available drug, so dosages and treatment were still experimental.

Hodges recovered, but he had lost the physical strength needed to become a concert violinist.
"So he had to settle for teaching," his wife said. "But, you know, he was strong even with that."

Living in Atlanta and then Gainesville, Ga., Hodges co-owned a music store, where he repaired, made and sold stringed instruments. On the side, he taught music lessons, raised chickens and grew corn on a small farm, and wrote for the Atlanta Constitution as a music critic.

Hodges met his wife Darlene through a music class. She had been enticed by her friends to come meet this incredible banjo and fiddle player, so she drove 90 miles to Georgia to see for herself.

"He was really sharp as a tack,"Darlene said, recalling him as a true entertainer. "I guess he's the best all-around musician I ever saw."

The two were married in 1970, and moved to Waynesville in August 1971. When they started out, Darlene remembered being intimidated by Ernest's attention to detail.

She would be practicing upstairs, and he'd be downstairs, and when he would come up the stairs, she'd hear him say,

"Up bow! Up bow!"

Without even seeing her play, he knew how she was holding her bow.

"So it took me a few years to get over that,"Darlene said, but she went to him for tips.

Blessed with an excellent ear and a natural bow arm, Hodges had gifts for music that were hard to teach, she said.

"If you don't have a fine ear, you might as well stay away from a violin," Darlene said. He once practiced for eight hours a day, playing pieces over and over again to perfection.

"And I don't know how you can maintain your mental alertness either," Darlene said.

The Hodges were quite a team—Ernest on fiddle and Darlene on guitar.

In the summer of 1971, they represented the state of Georgia in the Smithsonian Institute's Festival of Folk Life in Washington, D.C.

During a break from playing before the huge mall audiences of 750,000, they were invited to play a trio of rare violins held in the music department of the Library of Congress.

For violin players, getting a chance to play a 1658 Amati, a 1704 Stradivari and a 1734 Guarnieri might as well be like holding crown jewels in your hands, the wealth of craftsmanship captured in the carved beauty of the instruments.

"It's an odd feeling to put one of them under your chin," she said of the violins.

The quality of wood and varnish on these stringed instruments still made them look as clean as a newly minted coin, according to Darlene.

After moving to Waynesville, the Hodges started teaching music lessons in conjunction with the town's Parks and Recreation Department. By the summer of 1972, Ernest was a key figure in organizing the first Smoky Mountain Folk Festival and served as the grand marshall of the event until his death.
For a young principal named Tom Posey, who helped organize the festival that first year, getting a chance to meet a living legend was amazing.

"He knew so much and had so many varied experiences," Posey said. "But he was so humble."

The Hodges' home was often a place where musicians and fans were welcome, where even the family dog got into the action. Hodges would play an "A"note until his dog Pluto would make a howl to the tune of "A",

Ernest Hodges lived his life like the songs he played—to the fullest. Each note was precious.

"If it belongs, then make it sparkle," he would say.


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