Highwoods String Band

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Any time the word "revival" pops up in connection with a given style of music, it often seems to be the case that a certain tension develops between those who take an academic, preservationist approach,…
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Any time the word "revival" pops up in connection with a given style of music, it often seems to be the case that a certain tension develops between those who take an academic, preservationist approach, with recital-style performances, and those who seek to recapture the original spirit of the music as something that was done for the sheer joy of it. In the case of the resurgence of interest in the old-time string band music of the Appalachians that took place in the '70s, it would be unfair to say that even the most serious and academic of the folklorists and collectors weren't also having a good time playing the music, but when it came to making sure everyone was having a good time, there was nothing quite like seeing the Highwoods String Band. As banjo player Mac Benford liked to say, it was, "all about fun -- fun for us and fun for our audiences."

Any discussion of the music scene in San Francisco during the late '60s certainly brings to mind images of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and many others, but a vibrant mix of many varieties of street music was also an integral part of that era in the Bay Area. Among the bands that eked out a living busking on the streets were All-Skate, a band that performed on stilts and that included fiddler Bob Potts; Dr. Humbead's New Tranquility String Band, whose banjo player was New Jersey native Benford; and the Busted Toe Mudthumpers, featuring fiddle and banjo ace Walt Koken, a New York native. When their respective bands dissolved at about the same time, the three of them came together as Fat City, specializing in driving fiddle-and-banjo tunes from the repertoires of such early country recording artists as the Skillet Lickers and the Georgia Yellow Hammers. Having two fiddles in the band was unusual enough, but the ability of Potts and Koken to play differing yet complementary styles made Fat City one of the more distinctive outfits in the Bay Area, and all three of them had wry, wisecracking stage personas that added much to the entertainment quotient.

Their profile outside California began to grow when they appeared at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1971. When Koken returned to his Ithaca, NY, stomping grounds in 1972, Potts and Benford followed a short time later. The metamorphosis from Fat City to Highwoods String Band took place when they added a driving rhythm section to the band in the persons of guitarist Doug Dorschug and bassist Jenny Cleland. The guitar as rhythm backup had been a part of old-time music for decades, but as John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers would later note, Dorschug's playing often contained an element of ragtime that lent even more character to an already potent musical sound. Cleland's pulsing bass, on the other hand, was an almost radical departure from tradition after all. Bass fiddles weren't exactly something every Appalachian family regarded as a necessary part of their household d├ęcor. It all added up to a mix of attitude, showmanship, musicianship, and entertainment bang-for-the-buck that appealed strongly to the remnants of the '60s counterculture who had become jaded with rock and heavy metal.

As festivals like the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention began to spring up around the country, the Highwoods String Band became the marquee act for these events (or, they would have been if these events were the type that had marquees) for most of the '70s until road weariness and family responsibilities caused them to disband at the end of that decade. Benford formed the Backwoods Band and cut an album for Rounder Records before that band broke up in 1981. After heading up Mac Benford's Old Time Band for a few years, he formed the Woodshed All-Stars in 1990 and toured with them for most of the '90s. Walt Koken released a couple of solo banjo albums on Rounder in the early '90s before forming Mudthumper Music with Benford and releasing another solo album, Finger Lakes Ramble, in 1998. As of 1999, all five members of the Highwoods were still living in the Ithaca region and still playing together occasionally on an informal basis. Their legacy is that, more than any other band of their time, they were responsible for drawing a legion of new, young fans into old-time music by the force of their musicianship and the fact that they were having such a damn good time at it. Looking back at their '70s heyday, Walt Koken summed it up by saying, "Ironically, the more well-known we became, the less necessary we were to the growing old-time music scene, since one of the messages is to do it yourself -- unplug it, and take it home!"