Monday, October 21, 2013

Random thoughts on the Cas Walker song; some Zen moments at Don Pedi's "Tao of Dulcimer" retreat in Little Switzerland, N.C.; Carolina-style barbecue, Brother Jack's and other East Tennessee nostalgia

It's all in the bowin'. Learning the notes is fine, but ... -- Don Pedi

Some notes from Don Pedi's "Tao of Dulcimer" weekend Oct. 17-20 at Wildacres Retreat off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Little Switzerland, N.C. They're not in any particular order, and I made no attempt to cover the main points of the weekend. Instead, I jotted down notes when subjects came up that especially interested me. ...

Also a video clip of an iconic commercial touting Knoxville grocer Cas Walker's supermarkets that I played during a song-sharing circle the first night of the retreat. I promised to tab it out if anyone was interested.

Don is a T'ai Chi instructor in the lineage of T.T. Liang, and he's been conducting "Tao of Dulcimer" retreats for several years now. He bills them as a "relaxed, friendly, and non-competitive" weekend of traditional music and elementary T'ai Chi exercises. "Most people find these retreats fun, as well as a source of inspiration and rejuvenation," he says. And the weekend lived up to his billing

So there was a lot of music, philosophy, meditation and -- really -- a Zen-like quality floating around the mountaintop all weekend. A couple of highlights:

  • On simplicity. Traditional North Carolina musician Frank Proffitt's reaction to Earl Scruggs' famous bluegrass banjo style: "Boy, I'd like to know how to do that, and not do it!"

  • Zen philosophy, in seven words. "We live. We die. Get over it."
Frank Proffitt played a variety of instruments, including the mountain dulcimer, but he was especially known as a master of the traditional Appalachian fretless banjo. So his opinion of Scruggs' flashy but influential banjo-picking style carries considerable weight.

Other highlights follow. In no particular order of importance.

The Cas Walker song

For people of a certain age, Cas Walker's singing commercial was as much a part of the Knoxville experience as the Midday Merry-Go-Round, J. Bazzel Mull's Singing Convention, Krystal hamburgers, Brother Jack's or bluegrass night at Buddy's Barbecue on Kingston Pike. And driving through Knoxville on my way to Carolina put me in a nostalgic frame of mind.

So the Cas Walker song is what popped into my head Friday night at the dulcimer retreat when I got stumped during a song circle.

And I was really stumped for a minute there. I don't know the common dulcimer jam tunes in DAD well enough to lead them, but one of the folks from a Nashville-area dulcimer club had just played a Dolly Parton song (I forget which one), and the first thing that came to mind was the way Dolly Parton her start on Walker's "Farm and Home Show." So I blurted out, "Well, there's always the Cas Walker song." It goes like this:

Pick up your morning paper when it hits the street,
Cas Walker's prices can't be beat.
Try our Blue Band coffee and you'll ask for more.
Do all your (grocery) shopping, at a Cas Walker store (2x)

Cas Walker, who was a grocer, a flamboyant politician and something of an impresario, went off the air more than 30 years ago, but even today there's a Cas Walker tribute band fronted by a guy who played on the TV show. Here's footage by Keith McDaniel of Secret City Films in nearby Oak Ridge, of "Cas Walker" with David West and the Cider Mountain Boys:

A Cas Walker impersonator?!?

But it's not a bad likeness, and the song comes on at 0:25. Dolly Parton sang it on her 1994 Heartsongs album.

I remember the chorus as "do all your shopping at a Cas Walker store," but others -- including Dolly Parton and Knoxville Metro Pulse staff writer Betty Bean, who wrote a fine profile of Walker for the entertainment magazine in 1998 shortly before his death, remember it as "do your grocery shopping." She describes it like this:

... For anyone past the age of 25, no memory of an East Tennessee childhood is complete without a Cas Walker's Farm and Home Hour vision of Red Rector's Vienna-sausage fingers flying over the mandolin strings and Honey Wilds' big mitts whaling on the little ukulele he called his chili dipper. There were David West's hot banjo licks and, clear as yesterday morning, Curly Dan Bailey's high, lonesome tenor soaring on the "Do your grocery shopping" part of the Farm and Home Hour theme song, with yodeling Claude Boone calling out "Say that again," and all of them standing in front of the big painting of Cas treeing a whole family of coons and joining in to harmonize on the " a Cas Walker store" finale.

Contributors to a nostalgia thread "Can Anyone tell me what happened to Archies Restaurant and Cas Walker Supermarkets?" on the website, also remember it that way. But Knoxville blogger Jack Mabe, who heard it played not long ago at a senior center north of Knoxville, remembers it as I do: "When Larry hit the high notes on Cas's song (Do all your shoppin' at the Cas Walker store...), I looked around the room and saw nothing but smiles." Larry Mathis and Bud Brewster, who also played on the show, were the featured guests.

Mabe also repeats a characteristic story of Walker's days on the Knoxville City Council, about " the time Cas showed up late for a Knoxville city council meeting." He was recalled after a short while as mayor, was immediately elected to the council and served there for many years.

"Mr. Walker..." the clerk said as Cas walked in the door.

"I'm agin' it," Cas replied.

The clerk was calling the roll.

The Farm and Home Show was on WBIR-TV for many years, and I'll bet it was played both ways at one time or another.

[For a WBIR-TV news special "Thumpin' Good: Cas Walker's Legacy in East Tennessee," click here and follow the links to embedded highlights from his show. Almost as famous as the "Pick up your morning paper ..." jingle, especially toward the end of Walker's career in the 1970s and early 80s, was the "Thumpin' Good" watermelon commercial, here sung by amateur YouTube user 22fast.]

Richard Farina

Don, who got his start playing the dulcimer when he heard Richard and Mimi Farina in concert in Cambridge, Mass., says Farina played the dulcimer mostly in DAA, and mostly with a noter. But not always. Don demonstrated -- on "Hamish" (?) -- how he'd dog-nose two-note chords. It's as much a way of getting more texture in the drone as it is chording, and "dog-nosing" probably isn't the correct term for it; that's what I called it in East Tennessee when we played parallel thirds by fretting the melody string with the index finger and trailing it two frets down on the middle string and strumming across all the strings. It also works to play parallel fourths or fifths in different tunings.

Some North Carolina tunes

  • "Asheville" -- a variant of "Flop-Eared Mule" but faster -- at least the way Don plays it -- and with more embellishment.
  • "Take the Train to Charlotte" -- essentially the same tune as "Going Down Town" or "Going Down to Lynchburg." Played in G, but sometimes traditionally in D.
  • "Christmas Goose" -- Don composed it one time in a recording studio, early in his career, to fill out a cassette tape. Aeolian mode.
  • "Sheepy and the Goat" -- Children's song. Pentatonic? DAD. Don taught it at a junior high school in western Carolina, came back a year later and the kids had all learned it from each other. Like a revival of the oral tradition.
"Sheepy" is a traditional song from western North Carolina (Watauga County?), anyway. It's on a CD of Doc Watson's family songs, at any rate. Don taught it at the spring "Tao of Dulcimer" retreat; it's one of those tunes that just get into everybody's head, and you can't get it out. I wanted to learn it after it came up Friday night at the song swap, but I didn't dare ask! The folks who were there at the spring retreat made it clear that anybody who got it started up again would get murdered, and no jury would convict.

Bum-ditty -- to the dump, to the dump ...

Don wishes the dulcimer clubs hadn't popularized the bum-ditty strum. He says it sounds mechanical, and it gets in the way of learning the actual rhythmic pulse of traditional Appalachian music. Which is less like BUM-ditty than ditty-BUM and sometimes more like this:

To the dump
To the dump
To the dump dump dump
... think: the theme from the "Lone Ranger" or Rossini's William Tell Overture. But try not to think too much about it. And don't try to reproduce it exactly. Don't try to reproduce anything note for note. It's all in the bowin'.

The rhythm is subtle. Don describes it as "an underlying current." And if it sounds like anything, it's more like ditty-BUM and diddley-BUM varied to fit the words and maintaining the underlying pulse of the tune with regular stressed in-strokes on BUM to keep the beat.

Don credits Nashville session fidder Tommy Jackson, who backed artists like Hank Williams Sr., Bill Monroe and George Jones in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, with popularizing it in the old-time and country music world. But Don doesn't find much evidence of it in the older traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes he collects.

Don's recommendation to us: Don't pay much attention to other dulcimer players; listen instead for the syncopated pulse in country and old-time Appalachian string band music; and subtly incorporate it into our playing. "The 'diddley-BUM' will fit in a club that's playing 'BUM-ditty' but not the other way around."

As far as Don knows, the term "bum-ditty" was first used not by a traditional musician but by folk revivalist Pete Seeger in a banjo instruction book he wrote in the 1960s. Jean Ritchie got dulcimer players to using it in her 1963 instruction book.

Tai Chi links and readings

Don's webpage has more, along with stick figures for some of the box exercises we learned at Wildacres, at But when I asked between sessions, he especially recommended two books:

  • T'ai Chi Ch'uan for Health and Self Defense by T.T. Liang -- at "In 1971 I took my first T'ai Chi lesson with Master Liang. In August of 2002 he passed on, at the age of one hundred and two. This book was written when Master Liang was in his seventies." (Don's webpage)

  • The Dao of Taijiquan: Way to Rejuvenation by Tsung Hwa Jou -- at "In depth presentation by an inspired teacher." (webpage)

When I asked Don at Wildacres, he also recommended T.T. Liang's Imagination Becomes Reality, but it lists for $120 new and from $45.63 used on Amazon.

Unrelated footnote on Brother Jack's barbecue

Nothing to do with the retreat, other than the fact I think about barbecue whenever I'm back home, but posted here so I don't lose the link. On a blog called The Meatwave, a recipe for an eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce that has all the essentials (and then some) -- vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper (but, please, *no ketchup, no matter what the recipe says) -- that I remember. They put theirs in a plastic squeeze bottle, which I would never do, and I'd boil it up with a big dollop of cooking oil and use it to baste meat on the grill. Link here:

It will never replace Brother Jack's, which I remember as Carolina-style barbecue that somehow made it over the mountains to Knoxville (and maybe picked up a a hint of cloves on the way). Link here and here for oblique hints at the secret recipe. But it will suffice.


* See the comments on the Meatwave recipe by Chris, "The fact that you added any ketchup will get you beat up by East NC diehards (ha ha). ...," and Ben, "Chris is correct. Typically, Eastern NC sauce only consists of vinegar, sugar, salt and hot sauce/peppers. So the ketchup is a no-no for Eastern NC style, if you want to stay traditional. I live in the piedmont, west of Charlotte, so our sauces normally consist of vinegar and ketchup."

All barbecue, to slightly misquote legendary U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, is local.

I remember it both ways in restaurants around Knoxville, but much prefer a thin sauce without ketchup. If I recall correctly, people used to say Bro. Jack's had "Carolina style" barbecued chicken. The cooking oil gives it the texture it needs for a baste.

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