By Jeremy Ray Jewell
A master of America’s instrument with an abiding love for the people and their traditions – – despite everything. This is Clifton Hicks.
When I talked to Clifton Hicks in his current home in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, he quoted from an interview he did while attending the Heidelberg Volksfest: “The military doesn’t like Clifton Hicks and Clifton Hicks doesn’t like the military.” It looks like “they already got your epitaph ready for you” I joked. The Q & A is in Peter Laufer’s 2006 book Mission Rejected: U. S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq Hicks, a traditional banjoist at a German folk festival, talked about his honorable discharge as a conscientious objector. Why? The desecration of corpses by wild dogs, as he told Laufer. And the killing of innocent civilians at a wedding party when their ceremonial explosions were mistaken for enemy fire. He spoke with unmistakable flickers of the vernacular of the US South; before the war, he “had never killed anything other than a raccoon or a ‘possum.” Hicks speculates that the wedding party members “were up on the roof, probably a little sauced up, happy there’s a wedding, and I guess Grandpa is up on the roof shooting off his rifle…” The heritage of rural Florida or Tennessee sitting in a Heidelberg hotel, articulated via Baghdad. It sounds like a wedding in my family, in fact.
Clifton and I were born in the same town; Jacksonville, Florida. From there, he moved onto Savannah and Tampa. Hicks was, like me, a teenager on 9/11. Also, like me, he is in a long line of Southern military folks stretching back to the Revolution. For him, there was little question that the Iraq War was a fight against “Islamo-fascism,” and that he and his kin were dedicated antifascists. Hicks had grown up on Civil War reenactments, playing his banjo for his companions while bivouacked under the stars. So when he enlisted at age 17 it was with his Deering banjo and a copy of Philip F. Gura’s America’s Instrument in tow. In 2004-5, in the Armstrong Barracks in Büdingen, Germany, a building haunted by its Nazi past, Hicks would record his first album: Germany, complete with the haunting track “German War”:
“I’ve lived a life of misery
And I’ve been where Death he roams
I’ll tell you from experience, boys,
You had better stay at home”
Like the song’s persona, Hicks was a disillusioned soldier. “We’re supposed to be here to rebuild this country, to help these people, and we just shot three people,” lamented the musician. “We just killed somebody’s daughter. And we drove off.” He went into more detail in an email home: “I myself saw a number of people killed and wounded in Iraq. All but one of them were unarmed Iraqis […] We’d like to spit in the President’s face, and tell all the Generals to go fuck themselves.” That burst of disgust “nearly landed me in jail for treason and dishonorably discharged.” Hicks eluded that fate by filing for conscientious objector status. The Iraq War, he told Laufer, was a fight for “filthy rich bastards too cowardly to do it themselves [being waged by] us, the masses of uneducated fools killing each other.” After returning home Hicks founded the Gainesville, Florida Chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. By 2007, Hicks would become the IVAW’s Southeast Regional Coordinator, where he told me he “tried to wrangle in Southerners, which was a losing battle.” Hicks would eventually leave the IVAW: “You could say the IVAW doesn’t like Clifton Hicks and Clifton Hicks doesn’t like the IVAW,”
Today his banjo rings in his ancestral Appalachian home as it once did in the sands of Iraq. He learned banjo from George Gibson of Kentucky, and Hicks sees himself, self-consciously, as doing what he can to preserve that musical legacy. At times he has advertised free banjo lessons to any child under 18 “who resides in, or has cultural ties to, the Southeastern U.S.” What’s more, he is not afraid of embracing the very digital technology that some fear is threatening the survival of tradition; his Patreon account gives supporters an opportunity to remotely learn from him and he utilizes YouTube to present his campfire/front porch lessons. Hicks is savvy to the potential for life such new formats provide; he comes from a generation of folk musicians who are just as likely to have learned a song from Dock Boggs via an mp3 than from an old man in the holler. His teaching videos also often highlight a new antique or homemade banjo, instruments that might be on sale. Of course, he continues to produce albums, available on Bandcamp, Spotify, and elsewhere. If that wasn’t enough, Hicks is also an Archaeological Technician, putting his love for his people and their past into action by recovering its material culture. Presently he is working on a survey of the original Trail of Tears roadbed for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The title of his new album, Banjo Heritage, is not a place name, as were most of his prior releases, but a statement of elemental purpose. Having mostly lived on the road until now, places were often on Hicks’ mind. Now, having been stationary for a while, situated outside of Copperhill, Tennessee, Hicks has found that stones what ain’t rollin’ tend to gather banjos. In Banjo Heritage, which only has 7 tracks, Hicks introduces us to a few of his instruments: two early gourd banjos and a Kentucky Mountain banjo (all made by the artist), an 1870 minstrel banjo, and an 1888 Luscomb banjo. The selected tracks reflect the half-subliminal, half-practical mindset of the typical campfire set list, but the tunes are all notable in their own right.
Most of the songs came to Hicks from his mentor, George Gibson, a banjoist and historian. “Cackling Hen,” the first track, begins with the sounds of crickets and cicadas in the Tennessee night. It is usually a fiddle tune, and Hicks suspects it to have been a very early dance number parsed down over time: “My guess is that the tune is so old that the words were lost over time.” “Wild Bill Jones,” an old murder ballad, was learned by Gibson from Rich Kirby’s grandmother in Knott County, Kentucky. “Cackling Hen” and “Wild Bill Jones” are played on Hicks’ handmade early gourd banjos, both of which resemble the West African akonting, which only has four strings. These instruments do not lack the shorter thumb (or drone) string, but the fourth, the bass string. There’s the popular misconception that the thumb string was a New World innovation: however, there’s no documentation for the bass string before the “minstrel period” of banjo music (prior to the 1840s). In his essay in 2018’s Banjo Roots and Branches, Gibson described such gourd banjos as possessing the drone string, a “distinguishing feature of the West African plucked lutes, adding that “Appalachian whites played gourd banjos until the mid-twentieth century.”
“Hook and Line” resembles versions by Kentuckians Buell Kazee and Roscoe Holcomb. The tune here is played on Hicks’ handmade Kentucky Mountain banjo, built at the beginning of this 2020. It is an octagonal box framed instrument whose design was inspired by multiple east Kentucky sources. Unlike the more well-known North Carolina/Tennessee Mountain banjos (such as the Hicks/Proffitt/Glenn style) that are tin cans around which hides have been stretched, this Kentucky-style has more resonance and less “twang.” Hicks learned this song from Gibson as well, who heard it from his mentor, Orgus “Gran” Hudson. “Little Grey Mule” is also played on the Kentucky Mountain banjo; Hicks picked up the song from listening to Roscoe Holcomb. He picked up “Brogan Boots and Leggings,” whose melody recalls the more familiar “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” from the compelling Alan Lomax recordings of Kentuckian labor leader Aunt Molly Jackson. This one is played on an 1870 Minstrel banjo.
The finest moments in the album are the last two songs, both played on an 1888 Luscomb banjo. Both provide the album’s most lyrical moments. Hicks learned “Hard Times on Beaver Dam Road” from Watauga County, NC banjoist Josh Hayes while living on said road outside of Boone. He suspects that it was autobiographical, composed by Frank Proffitt, whose contributions to the folk canon include “Tom Dooley.” The Depression-era song is the story of setting up “a little copper still” when hard times meant no money and “no hog to kill.” When he is unable to find work and raise profitable crops, he resorts to distilling, that Old World inheritance of the Appalachian that has been criminalized since the 1790s. This centuries-old source of Appalachian income — corn liquor — leads to trouble: “Along come a man in a Chevrolet car, pickin’ on the fella with the ol’ fruit jar.” The narrative’s dark humor at the result of being caught is strikingly contemporary. Arrested, taken to town, and sentenced to hard labor making improvements on his own road, the man discovers the bitter truth that employment which might have already been made available to him only comes at the cost of his freedom and the disintegration of his home: “My wife sent a letter, said she’s fairing mighty good, got a man haulin’ taters and haulin’ wood.” The system is rigged. “Son of a bitch,” mutters Hicks to the man in the Chevrolet car.
“Trouble On My Mind,” comes from Gibson and “Gran” Hudson (and/or a 1940s recording by Rufus Crisp) and it is the perfect conclusion to the album. The infectious yet simple song (Can you fret three notes? You got yerself a knee-slapper!) is another tale of penal entanglement, this time set in Lynchburg, Virginia. The heart of the bad luck yarn lies in the lines: “I went down to Lynchburg to get a jug of wine, they hitched me to the whipping post and gave me ninety-nine.”
Hicks believes that this song is old. But how old? To answer that we must first ask a historical question about race. Who would be hitched to a whipping post in a public square? And for what? And in what period? Although Hicks strongly suspects there are connections to Black musical communities, he notes that, until a certain point, whippings of Black folks would have occurred on private, plantation lands. And it is not likely that it would be a subject for Black songsters to sing about — for fear of retribution. On the other hand, poor and working-class Whites were publicly whipped throughout the South, often under vague charges of vagrancy, until around the 1820-30s. “Strikes me as an antebellum song” about White man, argues Hicks, though he can’t help but speculate in an opposite direction: “or else it is a Reconstruction Black song.”
Hicks refers often to an old Kentucky adage he heard from Gibson: “If you can’t sing it, don’t pick it.” He remembers, painfully, that he was threatened with being disqualified from banjo competitions because of his singing. The orthodoxy of “old-time” — false standards reinforced by an increasingly commodified sense of tradition introduced by mass-produced records and tablatures designed for urban markets — demanded that the banjoist shut up, tune to the nearest fiddle, and play bluegrass. This despite overwhelming evidence that historical banjo cultures throughout America emphasized solo banjo/singing performances. So much grief has been handed out to more traditionalist players that some of them refuse to perform in public. Something like this tragically happened to another great traditionalist, Californian Frank Fairfield, who opted for anonymity rather than be a target of criticism by these purists for the sake of anachronism.
Despite this fact, most of the songs on Hicks’s Banjo Heritage are instrumentals. That’s because he is interested in probing the vaporous margins of the past. Words have been forgotten; retrieving an ancient melody from what has become a bluegrass standard won’t (in some cases) give us all that was. Hicks knows this, but he’s not giving up. As he walks the Old Unicoi Turnpike, retracing the original Trail of Tears, he knows that much has been lost. But, singing and picking around a campfire at night, we’re gettin’ pretty close.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.