Benton Flippen

“Benton Flippen was a one-time phenomenon. Ambling quietly forth from a musical family, he took the traditions around him and molded them into something unique to suit himself. […] He made notes the way no one else did. His syncopations were like nothing I’d ever heard. His drive would have sent a frightened mule right through a thicket of hackberries.” —Paul Brown, Benton Flippen’s friend and bandmate

Benton Flippen (1920-2011) was born on his parents’ tobacco farm near Dobson, NC in northern Surry County, the seventh of eight children. Living in the Round Peak area, Benton benefited not only from hearing his father, uncle, and older siblings playing music, but also from the community’s rich musical traditions. He first learned to play guitar, picked up the banjo in his early teens, and finally switched to fiddle when he was eighteen. His playing was most strongly influenced by his uncle, fiddler John Flippen, and by local banjo and fiddle player Esker Hutchins. He also knew and played with Fred Cockerham, Tommy Jarrell, and Kyle Creed.

Despite his interactions with so many well-known old-time musicians, Benton developed and maintained a strongly individual playing style. “Benton’s style of fiddling is unique to himself,” writes a scholar in a dissertation on Round Peak music. “He started out using only one of the long fingers on his left hand to note the strings, but gradually added the other three. His style still relies on many unusual placements of his fingers, and many bluesy slides. Though his eccentric left hand work is most striking, Benton’s bowing is equally important to his sound. His supple wrist provides wonderful syncopation.” He’s also known for his use of double stops and his “strong rhythmic bowing technique.”

Benton played in many bands, performed at music conventions all over the country, and won over seventy trophies in fiddle competitions, which he displayed on the walls of his house. He also received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 1990. He remained an active fiddler all his life, traveling to Berkeley, CA as the headline performer of a music conference at the age of eighty-eight, and playing music with his friends and neighbors up until the last days of his life, saying, “I guess I’ll keep draggin’ the bow until I just can’t do it anymore.”

“No point to sound just like the other man. Don’t even try, ’cause you can’t. You’ve got to sound like yourself, have your own style. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” —Benton Flippen on making music

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