Sunday, January 10, 1999

Exhibit shows off female banjo players

Clifton pair did academic project

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — For Geoff and Susan Eacker of Clifton, the offer was too good to pass up — leave their university jobs for a semester to search for women banjo players in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

        “We stopped in small-town music stores and other places and asked if anybody knew of women players,” Mr. Eacker said. “We followed leads and ended up interviewing 10 women and identifying a total of 35-40 from that geographic area.”

        The trips resulted in Banjo Women in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, a free traveling exhibit with photographs, text and music.

        It opens Jan. 17, from 2 to 4 p.m., in the Fitton Center for Creative Arts.

        Women interviewed for the project represent a diverse group of players, ranging in age from 19 to 90, said Nelly Bly Cogan, exhibition director. Some lived in remote areas of Appalachia, such as the Deadfall Mountains in Clay County, W.Va.

        No matter where he traveled, Mr. Eacker felt at home among the front-porch musicians.

        “My own interest in music started at a young age,” he said. “I began playing guitar at 13. My mother played piano; my father had a dance band in the late 1920s in New York. But when I was growing up, the music that attracted me was folk. I listened to rock 'n' roll, but folk music struck a chord — especially the Kingston Trio's music.

        “Soon I realized the performers were getting their songs from older sources. In time I started going back to the sources of these folk tunes. I became interested in old-time folk music — fiddle, banjo, dance tunes.”

        While attending high school in New York state, he made musical instruments.

        Fifteen years ago, Mr. Eacker started making and playing banjos. He worked 10 years as a commercial photographer, and continued to make acoustic guitars and dulcimers on the side.

        “I became very interested in banjo music,” he said. “I traveled to West Virginia to attend (banjo) classes at a college, and I met some older women banjo players, who were introduced as the masters. So I knew there were women banjo players out there. I just didn't know to what extent.”

        Last fall, he and his wife received a fellowship to study the musicians.

        The Eackers went to Huntington, W.Va., to become Rockefeller Foundation schol ars-in-residence at Marshall University's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia.

        “My interest in banjo and my wife's interest in women's history seemed a perfect fit for this project,” Mr. Eacker said.

        Mr. Eacker, 50, is the woodworking supervisor and Arts Center director at Miami University in Oxford. Mrs. Eacker is an assistant professor of history and director of women's studies at Morehead State University in More head, Ky.

        The couple found women banjo players such as Dora Mae Wagers of Livingston, Ky., who for 40 years played on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, a live Kentucky show, and Sylvia Cottrell O'Brien, who played for farm gatherings in the mountains of West Virginia.

        Performers at the Jan. 17 opening will include Cari Norris, granddaughter of Lily May Ledford of the Coon Creek Girls, and Myron Gabbard, grandson of Hamilton banjo player Pete Steele. (Concurrently, the Fitton will open an exhibit of Mr. Steele's music.)

        Mrs. Eacker, especially, enjoyed meeting so many rural women. She has conducted extensive research on Appalachian women's history.

        “Some of the women we spoke with are well-known; others are obscure,” Mrs. Eacker said. “But even well-known male musicians like Grandpa Jones have said they learned to play the banjo from women.”


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