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The Lost Recordings of Banjo Bill Cornett
by John Cohen
Bill Cornett was born in East Kentucky in 1890. He started playing banjo
at age eight. His musical flair, he reported, was inherited from his mother
who sang ballads to him. He operated a country store two miles outside
of Hindman. It is said that he’d rather sit and pick his banjo than
wait on customers. In 1956 he was elected to the Kentucky State Legislature,
representing Knot and Magoffin counties. A Democrat, he picked and sang
his way to his first term. “You know how I win? I get the young
folks with my music and the old-folks by fighting for old age benefits.”
He was proud of his composition “the Old Age Pension Blues”
which he sang on the floor of the Legislature. While serving in the House
of Representatives in Frankfort, at age 69 he died of a heart attack while
picking his banjo to entertain the customers at a downtown restaurant.
The following day, his banjo was banked with flowers at his desk in the
House chamber at the Capitol.
||Campaign poster for "Banjo" Bill Cornett
(courtesy Jim Bollman)
I first met him in 1959 at his home near Hindman,. Some officials from
the United Mine Workers had brought me to his house to hear his music.
I was in Kentucky to document local music and Bill was the first person
I recorded. Although he was reticent about performing for my tape recorder,
he respected the UMW men’s request and for about an hour, Bill played
and sang a bunch of songs which I recorded and eventually issued on Folkways
“Mountain Music of Kentucky”. He would often announce during
the song, that he was the performer and the composer of the music. He
claimed that some of his original songs had been taken from him and plagiarized.
He was wary of folksong collectors. He also told me that he had already
recorded his best material - it was inside on his tape recorder.
Banjo Bill Cornett died before “Mountain Music of Kentucky”
came out, and for many years I asked his family if I might hear Bill’s
own recordings. I tried several times during the first ten years, and
then gave up. In 1995 I visited the Hindman Settlement School, and asked
about memories of Bill Cornett. In 2002, forty three years after my initial
recordings I heard from Bill’s son Brode Cornett who told me that
he had listened to the tapes, and heard his father’s voice say that
he wanted his music to be heard. The original quarter inch tapes had been
destroyed, but eventually Brode sent me his own cassette copies of the
tapes. That is how these recordings came to light, so many years after
they were recorded.
Although the sound quality of the cassettes copies was worn and torn,
the music was excellent…Bill was a great singer and a powerful banjo
player. He was of a generation 20 years earlier than Roscoe Holcomb, and
his music offered some special insights into Eastern Kentucky music. He
had his own ideas about phrasing, used many different banjo tunings, and
had the odd practice of repeating a section of the melody on the banjo
right after he sung it. He had a variety of picking styles, from the old
frailing approach to picking lead notes with his fingers, or playing lead
with his thumb in conjunction with strumming the strings…something
akin to the Carter family approach to guitar. He also created an African
sound (like a griot approach) on the banjo… which accommodated a
few of his blues-like songs (Lonesome Road, Hustling Gamblers, and Old
Ruben. Throughout his entire banjo playing, Banjo Bill created a way to
retain the extended, idiosyncratic phrasing of his singing.
It is reported that he met Uncle Dave Macon at the Grand Ole Opry, and
that he got his banjo from him. It was a Bacon Belmont, with hand carved
ivory on the neck and tuning pegs.
In the 1950s his son Brode had loaned him a reel-to-reel tape recorder
which he had obtained while serving in Germany. As Bill put it, at this
time his children were into “honky-tonk and rock and roll,”
so he would play his banjo while they were out, and that was when these
recordings were made.
Bill Cornett had been a public figure in his home locale. During the
depression of the 1930’s he was known as someone who would supply
food to the needy: he’d bring lunch boxes and bags of beans to people
on relief, as part of the WPA program, where he was a boss/ administrator.
He also ran a local country store which sold furniture and supplies. Local
people would come listen to his music; old people would cry at his lonesome
songs, others would dance to his banjo.
His wife had been a weaver at the nearby Hindman School and kept traditional
patterns alive. She had been a student at the school when it first opened,
and had memories of waiting on school founders who came from Massachusetts.
When he won his seat in the Kentucky State Legislature, Bill Cornett
was already so well known locally that he never campaigned for office,
and he won the election with 83% of the vote. He composed a song about
the “Old Age Pension Blues,” and sang it on the floor of the
Kentucky Legislature, accompanied by his banjo (the song can be heard
on MMKentucky- Folkways). When he died, the Governor of Kentucky tried
to persuade his son Brode to fill his father’s seat in the Legislature.
There were many articles about his funeral in the local papers (which
provided much of the history presented here).
His nephew Otis Cornett recalls that Bill listened and learned songs
from Victrola records. In 1956 he performed in Saint Louis at the National
Folk Festival (and brought home a prize) John Hartford remembered seeing
him there. It was also reported that he played at Getrude Knott’s
Festival in Floyd County, at Jenny Wilder State Park. Jean Ritchie had
made some recordings of him in the 1950s. She was particularly impressed
by his version of “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” which
contained many verses with which she was unfamiliar. When I recorded him,
Bill told me that Pete Seeger had sat at his feet and learned banjo playing
from him. Pete remembers hearing him in Kentucky.
The wild vigor of his singing coupled with the intricate busy-ness of
his banjo- full of rapid dropped thumb and pull offs, produced a distinctive
sound…in which the melody appears slow and drawn out, in a lyrical
way that contrasts with the rhythmic, percussive banjo sound. Other East
Kentucky musicians share this approach, but with Bill Cornett it was most
pronounced. I recall from my brief time with him , that his banjo was
sometimes tuned low…which afforded him an easier time bending and
slurring specific notes (getting the sound of a fretless banjo), to echo
the blues-like quality of his singing. John Hartford & myself both
remembered that Bill’s banjo bridge was plastic, a bright fluorescent
One is tempted to compare his music to the 1939 Alan Lomax recordings
of Justice Begley, (who was the sheriff of Hazard)—to hear similarities
in the relationship of vocal and banjo styles. Bill Cornett’s repertoire
ranged from old ballads to mountains songs, banjo tunes, sentimental and
patriotic tales. Some contain elements of Broadside ballads, and some
reflect a nineteenth century Irish lyric.
His music adds another facet to the extraordinary range of banjo playing
and mountain style singing which emanated from East Kentucky. He joins
the pantheon of Buell Kazee, B.F. Shelton, Roscoe Holcomb, Morgan Sexton,
Hayes Shepherd, Pete Steele and Walter Williams.
Mike Mullins at the Hindman School
Pete Reiniger at Smithsonian Folkways for the transfers
Jean Ritchie for her memories
Banjo Bill Cornett appears on “Mountain Music
And “Back Roads to Cold Mountain” Smithsonian Folkways
For great contextual listening, hear “Kentucky Mountain Music”,
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