Brown and Tate: Sequatchie Valley Traditional Music

 

Ed Brown, of Dunlap, has earned a reputation as one of Tennessee’s most innovative and enduring banjo players. Along with Fred Sullivan and other top notch acoustic musicians, Ed released two groundbreaking albums, Magnum Banjos and Sequel to Magnum Banjos, in the 1970s. The albums showcased some of the most exceptional and advanced double and triple chromatic banjo arrangements on record in that early progressive era. Though released on Ed’s independent, regional Sequatchie record label, the albums quickly became cult classics and remain highly sought after. 

Ed has not slowed down since then and has remained among the region’s most active and important musicians. He plays with The Cumberland Band across the region at countless theaters, churches, festivals, and The Ed Brown Show on Valley TV Channel 18. He established a community amphitheater, launched the Dunlap Coke Ovens Festival, and has performed at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Ed delved deep into the Sequatchie Valley’s musical roots. While Ed is primarily known for his banjo playing, both his father, Ray “Georgia Boy” Brown, and his grandfather were well-regarded old time fiddlers. Ed was steeped in the traditional stock of regional fiddle tunes and has played the instrument himself since the 1960s. He retains a rich appreciation and knowledge of the regional music of such players Bob Douglas, Ed and Lewis Hartman, Eddie Dennis, Lum Thomas, Ray Brown, and Clark Lewis. As a bearer of traditional fiddle music, Ed passed on Sequatchie Valley traditional tunes to a young fiddler from Dunlap. 

In apprentice Rebekah Tate, Ed saw a musician with great promise for carrying on this distinctive tradition. “The art of traditional fiddling is very rare for youth in the Sequatchie Valley and surrounding mountain communities,” Ed explained. “I believe the musical arts give value, character and distinction to the culture and community, as well as to the individual.”

“I play the fiddle that belonged to my great-grandfather, who was a life-long musician,” Rebekah said. “I would like to learn some traditional, old-time bowing skills, and to play the old songs in the way they were originally. This music is important in my family and community. It is important to preserve this style of music for its cultural and historical significance. Mr. Brown is a talented musician, and the opportunity to learn from him would be helpful for me, as well as my family.”

Field Notes, January 2020–

Ed Brown grew up in Luptin City, a neighborhood on the north bank of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. Ed’s parents were both raised in Sequatchie County. In 1942, his father followed steel mill work to Pennsylvania and took his family with him. In the late 1940s, they moved again, this time to Michigan. It was in Detroit in the late forties and early fifties that Ed was exposed to country and bluegrass music through radio shows. He attended his first Flatt and Scruggs concert in 1955. While his father was working at the Hudson Motor Car Company, he was surrounded by a burgeoning bluegrass scene. Ed’s father played with twins Wade and Wiley Birchfield and Arthur Smith. This rich musical backdrop made Ed the player he is today, combining both the traditional tunes of the Sequatchie Valley with bluegrass stylings of the mid-century Detroit music scene. Ed moved back to Tennessee in the 1960s and built the studio next to his house in 1980. 

Ed is a meticulous record keeper. In addition to the troves of cassettes, records, and burned CDs, Ed keeps a journal of every performance. He has a spreadsheet where he charts each visit with apprentice, Rebekah Tate, and each tune they work on.“We’re doing two of my dad’s songs,” Ed explained. “One of them is called–Bob Douglas played this one all the time with him. It’s called the ‘Meridian Waltz,’ named after Meridian, Mississippi. I don’t know why he didn’t call it the Dunlap Waltz. Try a little bit of that!” Ed taught Rebekah the tunes by putting in a CD, and then he and Rebekah would play along. Ed wove stories in with his fiddle instruction, interpolating his requests for her to “try a little bit of that tune” with recollections of players like Louis and Ed Hartman and Curly Fox. Ed’s memories and knowledge of the people and the music they played form a colorful tapestry of regional musical heritage. 

Rebekah’s family is also deeply embedded in their community. They own the Dunlap Restaurant, renowned for its home cooked-style meals. Rebekah and Ed’s background are similar in many ways. Both food and music are regionally specific and community-based. Through these rich traditions, they celebrate and preserve Tennessee’s cultural heritage. 

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.

Folklife staff visited Ed and Rebekah in January 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day. 

Media:

Further Reading: 

  • Decosimo, Joseph. “Clint Kilgore: Fiddler from the Sequatchie Valley.” The Old-Time Herald – A Magazine Dedicated to Old-Time Music, vol. 10, no. 6, 2006, pp. 10-15.
  • Doc Cullis and Ed Brown.” Banjo Hangouts, discussion forum. March 2, 2014. 
  • Fulcher, Bobby. “Sequatchie Valley: Seven Decades of Country Fiddling,” booklet insert to Sequatchie Valley: Seven Decades of Country Fiddling by Bob Douglas, Tennessee Folklore Society TFS-109 (LP, 1990).
  • Phillips, Casey. “Coke Ovens Bluegrass Festival celebrates 30 years of music.” Chattanooga Times Free Press. June 2, 2016.