When I think back the many years to the time when I went to the Galax Fiddlers Convention for the first time, one memory stands out. People were everywhere, walking, talking, playing music; venders were selling vintage instruments, food, t-shirts and anything else you can think of. As my friends and I walked through the throng taking it all in, we all stopped and stared when we got to one particular booth. A giant, beat-up panel truck sat behind an awning that covered tables of instruments, strings, and CDs. Hanging over the entryway was a wooden sign that read “Roger Sprung is Here”. My friends and I looked at the sign and then looked at each other. “Roger Sprung?” we asked each other. Since we had no clue who he was or why we would want to know he was here, we made our way under the awning to find out. A man, we supposed it was Roger Sprung, stood behind his wooden tables talking to people about music and instruments and selling things right and left. He wore a smart black hat, the kind you see people wearing on Mad Men and looked to be having a great time interacting with people who all seemed to know and love him. Knowing little more than we did before we walked under the awning, my friends and I turned around and went our merry way to discover whatever else Galax had in store for us.
When we finally all got home from that week of music and mischief I started investigating so that I could know who Roger Sprung was. It didn’t take me long to find the phrase “The Godfather of Newgrass Banjo”, which made me wish I had known that before I went to Galax that first time.
So, who is he? Roger Sprung was born in New York City in 1930, got interested in music through a love for boogie-woogie piano at an early age and found the music of Earl Scruggs at an important time in his life. Like many of us, once he became aware of bluegrass banjo he had to figure it out and apparently he did because he could soon be found playing it and folk music in jam sessions that were happening in New York City’s Washington Square. He quickly became well known as a banjo player and teacher (and as he was living in New York City, he probably stood out in the crowd because I don’t think there were too many others there!) He also started going to Asheville, NC to see Bascom Lamar Lunsford and other well-known Appalachian music stars.
Probably because of his frequent Washington Square appearances, Roger was part of a trio who recorded several albums on the Smithsonian’s Folkways label as well as several folk and other albums on various labels. He became a master of playing Scruggs-style banjo, clawhammer banjo and his own unique style of playing. His progressive playing set him apart from others and his teaching and playing in contests and in Washington Square helped spread his reputation and his “newgrass” sound. In 1970 he won the world championship banjo competition at Clifftop by playing Whiskey Before Breakfast. In addition to his playing, Roger is also known for selling vintage instruments.
Through the course of his career, Roger has worked with a cavalcade of music and entertainment people, Doc Watson, Willie Nelson, Jean Ritchie, Dean Martin, Guy Lombardo and many others. He has appeared many times at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
My birthday happened to be on one of the days we were at Galax that first year and my friends got the idea to take a birthday card around the park getting random people to sign it. I really enjoyed that and have kept the cards all the thirty-some years that have happened since then. A few months ago I ran across that card again and read over the names on it as I occasionally do. One name jumped out at me, Roger Sprung. I immediately thought of him standing behind his tables wearing his smart black hat. “Roger Sprung is Here” flashed into my memory. Since Galax time was approaching, I wondered if Roger was still going to Galax (and if Roger was actually still with us), it had been several years since I had last been.
When August 5th came and the Galax Fiddler’s Convention started, I decided to take a trip in one day that week to see if I could find Roger again. I brought along my son so that he could experience Galax a little bit. I think it can’t hurt to expose the kids to things I think are important and he always seems game for anything, so I strapped a banjo to my back and off we went to the 78th Annual Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention.
When we got to the town of Galax, we parked on the street and walked over the hill into Felts Park, amid a sea of campers, tents and cars.
The stage stood over to our left, empty and waiting for 6:00pm when the competitions would start again.
A few lawn chairs sat in the area in front of the stage and my old friends the cement bleachers sat silently waiting for watchers (or sleepers) too.
We walked around threading our way here and there between campers listening for people playing music, looking at venders offerings and generally taking it all in. Things were pretty quiet at that time, it was just after lunchtime after all and people tend to stay up most of the night playing music that week so there was probably still a lot of sleep going on in those campers. We could hear someone playing banjo and so we made our way in that general direction. I saw a tent with several wooden tables under it but there were no vintage instruments, so I didn’t think much of it but kept walking towards the sound. As I made my way around an RV I saw a man sitting in a chair playing a banjo….. wearing a smart black hat!
A few other players sat in front of him and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, so we came under the awning too. Roger looked over and smiled while he played. We felt welcome and I was happy to be there. I double checked and there was no “Roger Sprung is Here” sign this time but he was indeed here. We stood there quite a while just watching. Something new that I learned was that Roger is a real old-fashioned showman. He would tell jokes, sing funny songs and interacted with the folks in his tent. He looked directly at me and said “When I was young I was so poor……….. I got married for the rice!” then with a “ba-dah-bing” sort of gesture, he pointed at me and laughed. I couldn’t help but laugh too. There was no precursor to that joke, just out of the blue it came out, and then he immediately started playing another song. More people came to join in or to listen- that’s the way it went and that is how it has generally always gone at this sort of event, only Roger was making it more festive that other times I’ve experienced these sorts of things. Songs, jokes, talking, all the while making everyone feel like they were a part of it all.
Now part of the thing one “does” at Galax is play music with people. As I mentioned, I had a banjo strapped to my back and it was kind of heavy. After more time than I should probably have waited, I took it off my back and tuned it up so I could join in the jam. Roger was clearly in charge but being the gentleman he is, he would point to folks in the jam when it was their turn to name a song to play. If not everyone knew the song Roger would yell out the chords while the song was going so that we could all play and the person who chose the song would get to have their song played.
Roger pointed at me….. Red Haired Boy I called out (I hadn’t planned on it, I hadn’t actually thought about it much but when it was my turn it just came out). Bam! Just like that the song was going and I was thinking how cool it was that a bunch of folks who didn’t know each other and were from various places were suddenly all together in Galax Virginia under the tent of a kind-of famous guy from NewYork and playing an old Irish tune together. We all took turns playing our version of the song while the others in the group supported it musically. I have to tell you, it felt pretty good.
Some time and several songs later, I thought it time to move on and find something new to see or hear. I packed my banjo and put it on my back. As we walked away I looked back at Roger Sprung sitting at his table under his awning. A true showman, smiling, playing and making people laugh. He glanced over at me and smiled and nodded as if to say. “Yes, I am here and so are you.”