Ben Hutcherson: Fiddle and Banjo
By Jim Hornsby
Benjamin Franklin Hutcherson was born on June 27, 1918, in Jingo, Tennessee, a small Williamson County settlement that was later renamed Fairview. He grew up during the Great Depression, working on farms to help support his family. He served in the Army during World War II and fought throughout Europe from the time of the Normandy invasion until the war ended.
After the war, Ben returned to Nashville and became a woodwright and home craftsman, an occupation he has enjoyed for half a century. He and his wife, Jean, live in south Davidson County not far from where he was born. He built their house himself and he built most of the beautiful furniture that fills it.
He began playing banjo and fiddle in his early years around Jingo and was an active player in the 1930s. Music has been an important part of his life, and in addition to playing, he has built dozens of acoustic instruments over the years. At 92 years of age, he is active in his woodworking shop most every day, and he plays fiddle and banjo with an old-time band. I visited with him on January 17, 2011, and asked him about his life and his music:
In Ben’s Words
“My father was a sharecropper all his life. I was the eldest of his 12 children. We moved around Davidson and Williamson Counties with the crops, and I had lived on 16 different farms by the time I was 16 years old. I had a whole bunch of kin. My uncle Tom Hutcherson had 8 children. The depression didn’t affect us as much as city people, because we didn’t have much to begin with, but times were tough, and we all did what we could to help the family. I quit school when I was 15 so I could work full time. A kid could earn about 25 cents a day then doing odd jobs.
“Life was mostly hard work and little play, but I did get enjoyment from music. I was about ten years old when my uncle Joe Stenson brought over a banjo and began to show me how to play. He bought that banjo from Sears and Roebuck for $2.50, and it was a grand thing. I couldn’t afford a banjo, so I made one from the bottom of an oil can. I didn’t own a real banjo until about 18 years ago when I built the one I play now. Uncle Joe showed me the old two-finger style of playing, and that’s what I play today, that old style.”
“I began playing fiddle when I was about 16. I admired Arthur Smith, and I always tried to play like him. He was my fiddler…….. and still is! I would hear one of his tunes and I’d have to go work to learn it. Sometimes I couldn’t remember the tune very well and ended up composing my own tune around what I had heard.
“I learned about the CCC camps* from the older boys. It sounded great to me. The work paid thirty dollars a month and gave board and a place to sleep. The camps had hot and cold running water, a shower and a generator for electric lights. I didn’t have any of those things at home.
You were supposed to be 18 to get a job with the CCC, and I was only 16, so I fibbed a bit to get in. But no one checked; they didn’t really care. We were all just guys who needed work to make ends meet. I worked at the rock crusher all day loading rocks into a wheelbarrow with a shovel and hauling them to a building site. It was hard work, but I was used to hard work since I was big enough to work. I liked it there.
“I had my fiddle with me and played when I had the chance. Sometimes girls would come out from town, and we would have a dance in the dinner hall. There were three of us who played: me, a guitar player and a fellow who played the spoons:
‘I was seeing Nelly home. I was seeing Nelly home,
It was from Aunt Dinah’s quilting party, I was seeing Nelly home.’
“We only knew about six tunes, so we would play them over and over. But people loved it, and we would play and sing until one in the morning.
“I went overseas in 1944, about five months before D-Day. I had a little band at my first training camp, but it soon disbanded and I didn’t play music again for twenty years. I don’t know exactly why I quit playing; I just lost interest in it. I didn’t start playing again until about 35 years ago when my son gave me a fiddle for Christmas. After I played fiddle for a while, I wanted a banjo, so about 18 years ago I began building banjos and other instruments. I’ve built a lot of them since then — all kinds.
“I learned to play by ear and I’m glad I had the chance to grow up listening to such good players. Uncle Joe was about the best banjo player around where we lived, and he played with a fine old fiddler named Druid Buckley. Mr. Buckley played a real old style. He was an old man when I knew him, and he played tunes that were older than he was, so the tunes they showed me went back a ways.
“I love to play the old music; I could play all day long. I get together with my old-time band about once a month, and sometimes we play at nursing homes. Our band doesn’t have a name, but Jean has suggested ‘The Has-Bens’.”
Flop Eared Mule
*The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a national public work relief program for men, ages 18-25, during the Great Depression. It offered jobs related to conservation and natural resources, and from 1933 to 1942, over 2 million CCC volunteers constructed more than 800 parks nationwide, planted nearly three billion trees, upgraded forest fire fighting methods and built a network of thousands of miles of public roadways. In Tennessee, 70,000 men served in the CCC and contributed to the construction of 17 state parks and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An annual reunion of CCC workers is held at the CCC museum in Tennessee’s Pickett State Park. – The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.