Posts Tagged ‘Burnett and Rutherford’

Burnett and Rutherford

February 10, 2012


Richard “Dick” Burnett from Monticello, Kentucky was one of nine children. They were orphaned when Burnett was only twelve years of age. In his youth he worked as a logger and wheat thrasher then a driller and tool dresser in the oil fields in Aspen Valley. While growing up he sang and learned to play banjo, dulcimer, fiddle and guitar.

After he married and had a small child, an event happened in 1907 that would change his occupation and his life forever. Dick Burnett was walking home for his job at the barbershop in Stearns, Kentucky when he was robbed at gunpoint by a railroad tramp. Rather than lose his money, he rushed the robber and was shot in the face by a shotgun blast, leaving him blind. Unable to work at the barbershop, he decided to become a musician to earn money for his wife and small child. Soon after healed from the shooting, he began traveling from town to town playing on the street for nickels and dimes with a tin cup tied to his leg. When he could afford it he took the train, sometimes he’d walk.

By 1909 he was nicknamed Blind Dick Burnett (also the “Blind Minstrel of Monticello”) and was touring the South from Florida to Ohio, entertaining at fairs and schoolhouses. He sold ballets (single sheets with the words to the song ptinted on them) to earn extra money. In 1913 he earned enough money to publish his book of ballets in Danville, Virginia. It included “The Lost Ship” about the Titanic sinking of 1912, “The C & O Railroad” (Along Came The Wreck of the FFV), “The Reckless Hobo,” The Jolly Butchers” (which he claimed sold 4,000 copies); and the “Farewell Song” (known now as “Man of Constant Sorrow”). According to Charles Wolfe, the melody of  “Man Of Constant Sorrow” was based on an old Baptist hymn, “The Wandering Boy.”

By 1914 he had found a 14 year old boy, fiddler Leonard Rutherford, to accompany him on his travels. Rutherford was from nearby Sommerset and was learning to play the fiddle. Burnett was willing to teach him if Rutherford would help him get around and play with him. It was the star of a 35-year partnership with Rutherford playing fiddle and Burnett singing and playing banjo.

“Other people cut their music up,” said Burnett. “Me and Leonard, we played every note exactly together.” This unison style was typical of many early string band and country musicians.

Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford both came from south central Kentucky, a few miles north of the Tennessee border and about 60 miles west of the coal-mining belt. They spent most of their lives in Monticello, Wayne County, in an area rich in musical heritage. John Lair’s Renfro Valley settlement was only 50 miles to the northeast, and many of his musicians were drawn from the southern Kentucky region. Emry Arthur and his brothers, prolific recording artists in the 1920’sand 1930’s, were raised “just up the road” from Dick Burnett; other musicians from the area included banjoist Marion Underwood, singer-guitarist John Foster, the Walker string band, and fiddler Elmer Stanley.  Monticello itself boasted a stately old courthouse with a big shady front lawn, which was the Saturday gathering place for musicians from miles around. Even today the people of Wayne County have a strong appreciation of traditional music, and the songs of Burnett and Rutherford are still very much alive in the community in spite of the fact that fiddler Rutherford died in 1954 and Dick Burnett in 1977.

W.L. Gregory, a Monticello fiddler: “I was born in 1905 at a place called Rocky Branch, about 15 miles southeast of Monticello. When we were young, our family used to play a lot of music. My brother Jim- he’s dead now- was a good banjo player. As kids we would play on old homemade fiddles, syrup buckets, wooden necks. I’ve played on ‘em since I was 12 years old. Jim and I, we used to enter a lot of contests in the Monticello area, did pretty good too, up till along in the 1930’s. Then we stopped playing. Just got married off, got separated. Broke up playing, and that was it. Went to doing this veterinarian work about 1926, and I’d have to say that was my occupation. Music’s been a hobby, just played on the side. But I had stopped playing for 18 or 20 years there, and just started getting back to it here these last 6 or 7 years, playing with my grandson and then Clyde [Davenport] here.”

“The first time I saw Leonard Rutherford was in 1923. He was sure a better fiddler than I was – – I was young, and he had me worsted by 7-8 years. When I got in with him, got to playing, me with the fiddle and him with the bow, playing tunes together on the fiddle, that’s the way I began. I began to step it up, stepped it up in his style. I learned most of my style from him. Then I met Dick and travelled with him for a while about 1929-1930, sometimes sort of replacing Leonard; Dick would play banjo, I played violin. We would go out 75-80 miles, be gone a week at at time. We’d set up shows, sell tickets back at the door in those days; didn’t hand out bills, just advertised maybe in stores and restaurants. (more…)


Kentucky Country

December 31, 2011

“Kentucky Country,” by Charles Wolfe (University Press of Kentucky, 1996, 224 pages)

Charles Wolfe on Burnett and Rutherford:

Available here.