In the final episode of the second season of Pocahontas County Opera House Story Sessions, Mary Sue Burns shared the stories and songs that shaped her musical life, beginning with lessons as a child.
Burns was born into a musical family and was enrolled in piano lessons and music theory when she was in elementary school.
“When I was about seven, my mother decided that I should take piano lessons at the music school settlement and if you took piano lessons there, you had to also take music theory class,” she said. “I didn’t really like that music theory class much, and I didn’t really practice for my piano lessons much.”
Despite disliking music theory, the lessons stuck with Burns and when she hears certain phrases during jam sessions, she knows exactly what to do – for example, when someone says ‘stay on the five chord,’ she knows what they mean because of music theory.
Also in elementary school, Burns’ music teacher started a little orchestra and she began playing violin.
“He had a little violin class which I joined and there were about five or six of us that learned to play a little bit on the violin,” she said. “I remember taking my little violin and holding it in one hand and riding my bicycle to get to the other school district where the practice was for the little orchestra.”
When Burns was in the sixth grade, the family moved, and the violin found a resting place in her closet for a very long time.
It wasn’t until she was a student at Oberlin College that Burns was once again bitten by the music bug, but this time, it was in the form of folk music. It was then she decided to learn to play banjo.
She performed one of the tunes she learned at that time called Rockingham Cindy.
“At Oberlin, I was technically studying biology, but I probably put just as much effort into trying to learn to play the banjo,” she said. “I ran into some folks there – mainly because of the Oberlin folk music club – that have gone on to be quite eminent in the old-time music world.”
Burns became friends with David Winston, Brad Leftwich and Lisa Ornstein, who were all banjo and fiddle players, and the friends became part of the old-time music scene at the college.
“A couple of those folks, specifically David Winston and Brad Leftwich, ended up graduating and moving to Lexington, Virginia, and Lexington, Virginia in the seventies was kind of a hotbed of old-time music,” Burns said. “A lot of us that were still at Oberlin would go there on spring break or maybe in the summer or particularly at New Year’s to play music.
“A fellow that was quite influential in that scene was a geology professor at W&L [Washington and Lee], Odell McGuire, and the tune I’m going to play comes from that Lexington era, and I always think of Odell when I play this one.”
Burns played Going Up Town.
During one of those trips to Lexington, Virginia, to play old-time music, Burns met a fiddle player named Mike Burns, who also happened to be a banjo player. And, he later, became her husband.
Burns played Rock the Cradle, Joe, which was also from her time spent in Lexington, Virginia.
Before asking her husband to join her for a few tunes, Burns explained her style of banjo playing and her unique “chucking” sound that comes with her clawhammer banjo technique.
“I play with, hopefully, a lot of rhythm and, sometimes, I don’t feel compelled to play every single note that’s in the tune,” Burns said. “That’s the fiddle’s job.
“I think that the banjo is kind of like a bridge between the guitar players and the fiddlers, so you have some melody, but the main thing is that you’re kind of the heartbeat of the jam,” she continued. “When I play, a lot of times, you might hear this chucking sound, and it’s kind of a good and bad thing.”
Burns explained that when she tries not to do the chucking sound, the notes are clearer and you can hear more of the melody, but because she is more used to playing with a group instead of alone, she prefers to focus on the rhythm.
“I’m so used to playing with other people that I’m just really more focused on that rhythm part,” she said. “In fact, this is kind of odd for me because I’m playing by myself and really the only times I play by myself are if I’m learning a tune or I can’t get anybody else to play with me.”
That’s not a problem when you’re married to a musician. Husband Mike joined her onstage, and Burns gave the backstory of the instruments they were using. That violin that took up residence in her closet when she was a child is the fiddle that Mike plays. It is a 1953 Roth, and it is now his number one fiddle.
“Had to get married to get it, though,” he joked.
“It’s a good trade off because this banjo neck was made by Mike Burns,” Burns added. “It’s an old tubaphone pot, but he made the neck for me and I think I have the only banjo in the world that is inlayed with Paleozoic invertebrates, so there is that.”
The couple came to Pocahontas County for teaching careers and took a long hiatus from playing music while they taught school and raised their two sons. But they got back into the old-time music by playing at events and festivals in their band Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters.
The couple played two festival tunes called Crook Brothers Breakdown and Bonaparte’s Retreat.
Burns paid homage to her roots in Ohio with the next tune, Darlin Nelly Gray, which was written by Benjamin Hanby in 1856. The Hanby family was involved with the Underground Railroad and harbored escaped slaves from the south. Hanby was inspired by the tale of an escaped slave from Kentucky who was very sad that he had to leave his sweetheart behind. The tune was named for that sweetheart whom he never saw again.
Burns followed that tune with Shelvin Rock, which was played by the Hammons Family in Pocahontas County, but Burns thinks the version she and Mike play is from Braxton County, which was the first place she lived in West Virginia.
Being a woman banjo player in the 1970s was rare, and Burns wanted to talk about the importance of women who play the instrument. She went a long time before she saw another woman play the banjo and although she was looking for a woman to be an inspiration, she wasn’t sure the woman fit the bill.
“The first woman that I saw playing the banjo was Suzanne Thomas who played with the Hot Mud Family, which was a pretty well-known Ohio band at the time,” she said. “They did a lot of singing and a lot of old-time music. We went to a square dance up in Cleveland and the Hot Mud Family was playing for the square dance, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, a woman banjo player.’
“But it really didn’t help me much as far as a role model because Suzanne is an awesome, awesome musician – multi-instrumentalist – but there she was in her green lamé pants with her cigarette stuck in the peg head of the banjo, and there I was in my blue jeans and I just thought, ‘Well okay, there’s a woman banjo player,’” she added.
Now there are lots of women who play banjo and during the pandemic, Burns was able to learn a little more from one named Allison de Groot in a virtual workshop. The workshop was called the banjo tunes of Maggie Hammons, which immediately caught Burns’ attention.
“I saw that and I was like, what, wait?’” she said. “Maggie Hammons played the banjo? Because all my years in Pocahontas County, all my years hearing about the Hammons family this, the Hammons family that, I had never once heard that Maggie had ever played banjo.”
In the workshop, de Groot had field recordings of Maggie Hammons singing ballads, which she was famous for, but she was also recorded playing several songs on the banjo.
“What Allison did in her workshop was translate those tunes into clawhammer style because Maggie Hammons played an old-style of two finger picking, so what she did was try to emulate the sound that she made, but using the clawhammer style,” Burns said.
She then played one of the tunes, Jack of Diamonds.
The tune was in what is called the last chance tuning and Burns followed it with the tune Last Chance – for which the tuning style was named.
Burns switched to the fiddle, which she took up during the pandemic. Joined by Mike on guitar, Burns played Sugar in My Coffee-o and Sourwood Mountain.
Burns closed the session on the fiddle alone, with the tune Chilly Winds, from Tommy Jarrell.
“I got to meet him and play music with him, and that was super fun,” she said. “I’ve always liked his playing. It’s a little bit scratchy, but that’s okay with me, because I’m sure I play pretty scratchy.”
The video of Mary Sue Burns’ Story Session is available on the Pocahontas County Opera House’s Facebook and YouTube pages.