Remembering NC Old Time Musician Benton Flippen

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Old-time fiddler Benton Flippen died of a massive heart-attack on Tuesday night, June 28, 2011. He was one of the last surviving members of a generation of performers born in the early 20th century playing in the Round Peak style centering on Surry County, North Carolina. His contemporaries included Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, and Earnest East.

In 1990, Flippen received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, an annual award that was presented by the NC Arts Council to recognize traditional NC artists. He was an innovator of a distinctive style of old-time string music, utilizing double-stops (playing two notes at once), slides and a strong rhythmic bowing technique. Some of the best old-time string bands have adopted several of his tunes. Flippen is also renowned for his original compositions which include "Benton's Dream," "Fiddler's Reel," "Sally in the Turnip Patch," and "Smokey Valley Breakdown."

Flippen was raised on a farm in Surry County, North Carolina, where he first played the banjo during his childhood. His father was an accomplished old time banjo picker, as were his uncles and brothers. As a youth, he visited his fiddling uncle John Flippen and quickly turned to playing the fiddle. Soon after, he started playing with the area's noted bands and musicians, among them the Green Valley Boys led by Glenn McPeak, and Esker Hutchins and Leak Caudill. Hutchins became an important influence on Flippen's fiddling style, which includes a heavy bow shuffle and bluesy notation.

In the late 1960s, Flippen was invited to fiddle in the Camp Creek Boys after Fred Cockerham's departure. From the 1970s on, Flippen belonged to the Smokey Valley Boys, an outfit that has preserved Flippen's unique musical abilities on recordings. The band also earned awards at numerous fiddling competitions before disbanding in 1985. In the late 1990s Flippen reorganized his Smokey Valley Boys with new and previous members. The current lineup of his band often includes Frank Bode singing and playing guitar, William Flippen (Benton's grandson) on guitar, Kevin Fore playing banjo, Verlin Clifton on mandolin, and Andy Edmonds playing banjo and guitar.

Flippen was a celebrated fiddler in his own right, earning first place in numerous fiddle and band contests, including the Old Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, Virginia; Union Grove/Fiddler's Grove, where he won Fiddler of the Festival three times; the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention, and many others. He also played at the Newport Folk Festival; the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee; the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes; the Smithsonian Institution; the Library of Congress; the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, Fayette County, West Virginia; and many other highly esteemed venues. He headlined the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention in California just three years ago at the age of 88!

His CD Fiddlers' Dream is available on CD Baby; he had six CDs to his credit, starting with 1972's The Smokey Valley Boys on the Heritage label. He also had Benton Flippen: Old Time, New Times with Rounder Records. Fiddler's Dream, his last studio album, was produced by Music Maker. He and the Smokey Mountain Boys gathered at the historic mountain music radio station WPAQ in Mount Airy, NC to do some recording, a night captured on the CD Benton Flippen & the Smokey Mountain Boys: An Evening at WPAQ, 1984.

Please join PineCone in honoring the memory of one of the last old time musicians of his generation. His legacy, and that of his generation, will continue to endure.

Benton Flippen obituary

David Holt interviews Benton Flippen, & Flippen plays "Cripple Creek" on the banjo

Benton Flippen plays "Benton's Dream"

Read more about Flippen from the Winter 2008/2009 Fiddler's Magazine

Music Maker Announcement of Flippen's death

Banjo Hangout Discussion

Benton Flippen Photo Credit: David Bragger