Cordell Kemp, 96, Tennessee’s senior banjo master, passed away on July 15. A resident of the Defeated in Smith County, he was known in recent decades as the main living link to Uncle Dave Macon’s tradition of novelty songs, folk showmanship, and old-time banjo tricks. In addition to his music, he was a tobacco farmer, logger, and woodsman.
Cordell was born into a musical family and took up banjo at a very early age. His interest was accelerated by boyhood opportunities to hear and meet Uncle Dave Macon, who occasionally played at the Defeated schoolhouse where Cordell would years later serve as janitor. Throughout his life, Cordell was notoriously reluctant to travel too far from home, declining an invitation to participate in the 1986 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. He nonetheless shared his talents generously and influenced a number of players who sought him out, including Leroy Troy, John Hartford, and Stephen Wade. He also passed his banjo skills on to his grandson Shannon Kemp of Defeated.
In the 1980s Cordell gained wider recognition as the result of being featured in Korine and Dunlap’s documentary film The Uncle Dave Macon Program (aired on PBS in 1981), and on the Tennessee Folklore Society’s subsequent LP recording, Tennessee: The Folk Heritage, Vol. 2, The Mountains (TFS-103). He performed at the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair Folklife Festival and was a regular favorite in the early years of Murfreesboro’s annual Uncle Dave Macon Days festival. His involvement at the 1990 and 1992 Tennessee Banjo Institutes at Cedars of Lebanon State Park brought further exposure. Cordell and Leroy Troy performed together at both the 1995 Folklorists in the South Retreat at Red Boiling Springs and at the 1996 International Marbles Festival at Standing Stone State Park. In recent years he held forth for local audiences in regular jam sessions at Powell’s Tire Store in Defeated and at the annual Defeated Creek Bluegrass Festival. He was the subject of feature articles in the Nashville Tennessean in January, 2002, and in Banjo Newsletter in July, 2003.
Cordell Kemp was a well-loved and colorful character who showed remarkable vitality even in his 90s. In the last year of his life, local friend Barclay Rhea produced a long overdue CD recording of his music, and information aboutit is available online at http://sunset992001.tripod.com/id10.html.
Tennessee Arts Commission