BENTON FLIPPEN & THE SMOKEY VALLEY BOYS
Rural musicians were once a vital part of the community, providing the sound track to social functions, but today that task is often relegated to DJs or the radio, playing the same music everyone else in America is hearing. Musicians who carry on the old traditions are often forced to become careerists, making records and touring, their regional quirks diminished by overexposure and industry pressure. This sad state of affairs, however, makes it all the more exciting to hear someone like fiddler and banjoist Benton Flippen. A septuagenarian from Surry County, North Carolina, Flippen plays old-timey music with stunning exuberance, from square-dance reels to raucous bluegrass breakdowns. He's not only a bona fide regionalist--certain elements of his playing, though I'm not qualified to say which, are apparently unique to Surry County musicians--but also an innovator in his own right. Having found the clawhammer banjo style difficult and the three-finger bluegrass style not quite suited to his needs, he developed his own heavily syncopated two-finger picking style; having big hands for a fiddler, he worked out ways to navigate the instrument's narrow neck with two digits where most folks would use four. Except for the occasional festival gig, Flippen never plays away from home, where he worked in a hosiery mill for 37 years. When he became a father, he put down his instruments for more than a decade. Flippen's made a few records over the years, but most of his performing's been done on local radio station WPAQ and at various social gatherings; a terrific 1994 CD on Rounder, Old Time, New Times, spans more than 40 years of his career, from late 40s radio transcriptions to recent studio work. These rare appearances are part of the University of Chicago Folk Festival. Friday, 8 PM, and Sunday, 6:15 PM, Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, 1131 E. 57th; 773-702-9793 or 773-702-7300. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.