Final Notes, Benton Flippen

Mount Airy, North Carolina fiddler and banjo player Benton Flippen died on June 28. In his 90 years, Flippen was revered both as one of the legends of Round Peak old-time music, and as the originator of a deeply innovative personal style that blended the generations-old traditions of Surry County with his own remarkable rhythmic and melodic interpretation. He learned to play music through the influence of his banjo-playing father, Samuel Flippen, and other family musicians, particularly his uncle John Flippen, a fiddler. He was also greatly influenced by fiddler Esker Hutchins, with whom he played in the Green Valley Boys.

In the 1960s, he succeeded Fred Cockerham as a member of the Camp Creek Boys, and from the 1970s until the last days of his life, performed with the Smokey Valley Boys. He appeared on numerous recordings, including the 1994 Rounder album Benton Flippen, Old Time, New Times, which combined newly-recorded tunes with earlier radio broadcasts. In 1990, he received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. 

Benton Flippen was a member of Old Orchard Primitive Baptist Church. For more than 60 years he was married to Lois Arrington Flippen, and they had a son, Larry, who is a musician as well. Both Benton and Lois retired from the Ballston Knitting. Lois passed in 2007. They are survived by Larry and his wife Ellen Flippen, three grandsons, and Benton’s sister Gracie Tolbert. Benton Flippen’s memorial service was held July 2 at Moody Funeral Home in Mount Airy, followed by burial at Laurel Springs Primitive Baptist Church. His longtime friend and bandmate Paul Brown was among those sharing recollections at the memorial service. Paul has shared the following remembrance with us, adapted from his remarks that day.

Here is a dictionary definition of the word “unique.” 

existing as the only one or as the sole example.

That goes for all of us in a number of ways, perhaps in hundreds of ways. 

But for some of us, our uniqueness stands out so strongly in specific ways that even it is exceptional.

Here’s another definition:

having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable.

The example given is: “Bach was unique in his handling of counterpoint.”

If the dictionary writers had only visited a fiddlers’ convention in Mount Airy, North Carolina, they might have written for their example, “Benton Flippen was unique in his handling of melody, syncopation, rhythm, drive, and phrasing.”

In 2008, I wrote an article about Benton for Fiddler Magazine.  I interviewed Benton. I asked him if he was he aware of the uniqueness of his sound.  And I asked him,  when he learned a tune, did he try to learn it straight after the person he’d learned it from? 

Right away he shook his head and said, “When I learn a tune, I learn it my own way. It’s near the way they play it, but it’s got my style. It’s got a different sound some way or another from the way other people play.”  Speaking of fiddlers’ conventions, he added, “People used to say if I was in the lot, they could pick out my fiddle.”

Not only did he not sound like anyone else on his fiddle, Benton Flippen came to understand he did not want to. He believed in the obligation to be one’s self while living the divine gift of life. I don’t know where he got that, but he believed in it. 

I was one of countless thousands of musicians from other places who heard Benton and were stunned by the sound.  He made notes the way no one else did.  His syncopations were like nothing I’d ever heard.  His drive would have sent a frightened mule right through a thicket of hackberries. 

When I first saw him play, in the 1970s, I was even more taken aback.  I couldn’t have imagined what he was standing right there doing with his fingers and his bow arm. 

I recall when I first played with him one night at the Fiddlers’ Grove convention in Union Grove, North Carolina.

Tommy Jarrell pushed us into it.  He practically shoved me over to Benton’s van, introduced us and said, “You all ought to play together,” then stood there and made sure we did.

I was a little apprehensive and nervous around this eerily quiet man. Before long I wondered if I’d been transported to some parallel universe.  Tunes I thought I knew I had to understand in a completely different way – and quickly. 

Benton hardly said anything that night.  He looked forbiddingly serious.  But behind it, he seemed shy, and I got an inkling maybe that was all it was. He played one tune after another, each one more difficult than the last, until I finally crashed and burned on either “Fiddler’s Dream” or “Sugar Tree Stomp,” I don’t recall which. 

Then he laughed softly in the darkness and said, “That wasn’t fair.  That’s a hard tune.”

I laughed too, sensing I’d passed the test, if only barely, and sensing the possibility of having a new friend.

We played on and off for the next 30 years.  I started arranging for Benton to travel to festivals, and produced albums of his music so as many people could experience it as possible.  I did these things because I felt very strongly that the world needed to hear this man who showed people how to think in new ways. 

I found out that Benton was far more than a powerful and unique musician. 

I observed him with his family and friends, and came to appreciate him at a very deep level.  I’ll help you understand why.

Here’s a definition of devotion:

profound dedication; consecration. earnest attachment to a cause, a person, etc.

I have never seen greater devotion than Benton’s to loved ones and friends. His was unshakable.  Benton could sometimes express profound hurt if a friend or relative disappointed him, but he nearly always seemed to pick up the pieces and put them back together, forgive, and move along with his people in his quiet, earnest, graceful way. 

As a farm boy, Benton needed glasses.  His parents did not give them to him.  He told my wife Terri McMurray one day in 2009 that not getting the glasses had made him angry.  He had wanted to learn to read.  He didn’t get the chance, and it marked his life.  

But despite that, devoted to being his best rather than to blaming others, he made a life for himself as the world entered a modern age in which reading was very important.  

He was a pioneer of local radio, performing in tests of Radio Station WPAQ in 1947, before the station formally began broadcasting.  He played at WPAQ for all the decades after, and was present for its first online program.

He worked hard, first at farming, then for decades in a hot, unforgiving sock mill, saving devotedly for his family along the way.  

Thinking of all the socks he’d boarded in 37 years, he cracked to me once, “I’d hate to be in a room with the whole pile of ‘em!” 

He built and bought his house for cash, so his wife and son could live in security.  He told me, “When they gave me the key, it was mine.”

Right to the end, he plowed his garden with a horse, not a tractor. 

He was devoted to his Lord, and became more so as he grew older.  His faith carried him through. From time to time he would talk about it. 

His uniqueness as a musician became known around the world – as did his hours of practice, a sign of his devotion to being an excellent and not merely good player – and his quiet devotion to other people.

Here’s how the admiration came across, far from Surry County. Suzy Thompson of California, who had Benton and Frank Bode and Terri and me out to her festival there, wrote this:

I’m listening to my recordings of him - besides being such a wonderful player he also was so self-effacing and shy, but also warm. He really served the music and I admired that about him so much.

Thousands of miles away, from New York State, Jeff Claus wrote, 

In 1976 or so, in the days of LPs, I used to play the Smokey Valley Boys’ LP on automatic … for hours... Then we’d watch and listen for hours when we saw them at festivals... R-I-P and thanx for the many years of great musical joy and inspiration...

Thinking of Benton’s individuality, I wrote this in the notes to the retrospective album I produced, Benton Flippen, Old Time, New Times.

One night late, after a fiddlers’ convention at Lowgap School, a crowd of ebullient musicians gathered in my kitchen to play into the early morning.  Robert Sykes fiddled awhile, and then, in the almost courtly tradition of the area, yielded to Benny Jarrell, who handed off to Benton when he came in.  Benton played awhile and finished up with “Sally Ann” just as Tommy Jarrell arrived. Tommy sat right down by the woodstove and immediately cut into “Sally Ann” himself … sounding just as powerful as Benton yet very different.

Benton stood by the sink in the crowded kitchen.  He was listening appreciatively to Tommy and gazing vaguely off into the distance, well past the back wall of the house, it seemed. Then he said, “No point to sound just like the other man.  Don’t even try, ‘cause you can’t.  You’ve got to sound like yourself, have your own style. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Like the old man said, it’s all creamed ‘taters, just fixed a little different.”

Benton’s uniqueness carried him to multiple victories at the Union Grove fiddlers’ convention.  It carried him to hundreds of victories elsewhere.  It no doubt helped him win a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award.

Here’s another remarkable part of the story: the very style that was so distinctive was partly a product of hardship and limitation.  Benton told me he’d developed his odd fiddle fingering technique because when he first tried the fiddle, he couldn’t control his left ring finger and pinky very well.  He came up with a new way of playing employing mostly the first two fingers.  He turned something that could have become a great liability into a strikingly effective tool for expression.   He did similarly on the banjo.  He said he created his two-finger right hand style after finding he was not comfortable with either bluegrass or clawhammer playing. 

From humble beginnings, and struggling through a shyness he said late in life that he wished he’d been able to get over but realized he never would, Benton Flippen managed to speak loudly for love and the obligation to be true to one’s self and others.  I think he didn’t really intend to at the outset, but this farmer, factory worker, husband, father, banjo picker, fiddler, and friend brought his unique message to thousands of others – if they were able and willing to take notice and hear it. 

-Paul Brown

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