“I never did have to learn how to play anything. It just come naturally. It was just a gift, what it is. […So] anybody comes here who wants my music can get it. […] Anybody that wants to come, they’re welcome.” –Clyde Davenport on learning and sharing music
Clyde Davenport (1921-2020) was born on his family’s farm in Blue Hole Hollow, near Mt. Pisgah in the Cumberland Plateau of south-central Kentucky, “a western expanse of Appalachia marked by ridges and rugged terrain.”
Growing up in a musical family, Clyde absorbed old-time sound and technique throughout his early years. His grandfather, father, and three of his five brothers all played fiddle. Some of Clyde’s early memories are of his grandfather asking for his fiddle and playing tunes he’d learned as a Union soldier in the Civil War. Later, he listened to his father and neighbors play and memorized the tunes he heard, some of which had rarely or never been played outside the Cumberland Plateau region.
This musical atmosphere had an impact: When Clyde decided to start playing fiddle himself, he learned quickly without needing to be taught. He even made himself his first fiddle as a child, using materials he found on the farm:
“I was nine year old. My daddy wouldn’t let me have his fiddle – He’s afraid I’d break it. So, you seen these boards like they used to cover barns with, made out of white oak? I got me one of them. Just shaped it out like a fiddle, put me two keys on it. […] I stole two of my daddy’s fiddle strings and put them on it. Didn’t even have a fingerboard on it; just […] a flat board, you know.”
To make himself a bow, he had to use even more ingenuity, searching the woods and playing tricks on the family’s mules.
“I went to the barn, caught a mule’s tail turned to a crack – it was a log barn. I got what hair I wanted in my hand and I started that mule out, pulled the hair out of his tail. I went and cut me a dogwood stick, and just bowed it like a rainbow. […] Then I went in up under a cliff where the yellow pines grow. I got me a hard ball of rosin off of that pine and rosined my bow. […] In two or three hours I was playing two or three tunes. And that’s the way I started.”
Clyde later built himself higher-quality fiddles; he also built himself a fretted banjo and learned to play clawhammer-style. He and his brothers often traveled to play for local square dances, and since none of his brothers could play banjo, that job usually fell to Clyde. Both instruments came naturally to him.
As a young man, Clyde served in the infantry in World War II, returned to his family’s farm for a couple of years when the war ended, and then moved to Indiana to work in a Chrysler plant. He also played fiddle on a daily radio show, but he decided he didn’t want to make music his full-time job—although he could have succeeded, it didn’t feel enough like “real work” to satisfy him.
“I wouldn’t never have had to work no more, but I wanted to work. I was stout and able to work, then. Well, I was raised to work. Worked ever since I was big enough to pick up a hoe. Love to work. I had a brother’d work day and night if he could get to it. It was all of us wanted to work all the time, and me too. Was never laid, was never fired off a job in my life, never laid off of one.”
In fact, he stopped playing fiddle and banjo altogether from his thirties to his fifties—which, paradoxically, probably helped to preserve his playing style and his repertoire of uncommon tunes. If he had worked as a professional musician, he might have had to play bluegrass or country music, or might have focused on more common old-time tunes that bandmates would know. Although Clyde later said that he thought he’d lost some of his musical skill during those years, he never regretted forgoing a professional music career, and he was happy to still be playing in the old-time style. “There’s a lot of difference between [old-time fiddling] and bluegrass,” he said later in his life. “Bluegrass fiddlers, they don’t play nothing. They just run around over it. They don’t play a tune. The old-time fiddlers play the tune.”
Clyde and his wife Lorene, a Kentucky native who he met and married in Indiana, eventually returned to Wayne County, near where they’d both grown up. They first owned and worked on a farm, then moved to a house in the town of Monticello. While living in town, Clyde worked as a custodian and had a business building and repairing fiddles; he gained a reputation for being able to make a repaired fiddle sound better than it had before. It was during this time that Clyde began playing music again.
Clyde’s playing eventually began to get attention. He became known as possibly the best living example of the smooth, long-bowing technique typical of the Cumberland region distinctive style of playing, which he described as “good, clear notes and good, smooth bow usin’.” He knew over two hundred traditional tunes in standard and cross tunings, many of them rare or unique to him, including many “solo tunes” meant to be listened to rather than danced to. Folklorists came to record his fiddling and banjo playing throughout the 1970s; by the 80s, he was playing and teaching at festivals, hosting many visitors who wanted to learn from him, and recording albums of fiddle and banjo music.
In 1992, Clyde received a National Heritage Fellowship award, “the most esteemed award for excellence and influence granted to tradition bearers by the National Endowment for the Arts.” He “continue[d] to attract a nearly constant stream of devoted pilgrims to his home in Kentucky” until his death in early 2020.
“For many, the most rewarding aspects of Clyde Davenport are his role in disseminating his music to audiences nationwide and his immense generosity as a teacher[, sharing] recordings and memories of his knowledge, technique, repertoire, and outlook. […] As a teacher, he has selflessly passed on his musical heritage.” -National Heritage Fellows ceremonies, 1992