Sunday, June 15, 2014

Slusher Dolls and Mars Hill '14

Early June is a wonderful time in the world of our music and fun every year.  2014 was especially good
as I was given a set of dancing dolls that were designed and made by the late R O Slusher of Floyd County.  His son and wonderful Old-time guitar player, George,  first told me about the dolls and how they worked a couple of years ago.  Last year I got to see them in action at one his family reunions and was duly impressed.  R O made about 30 pairs of the dolls in his later years as he slowly retired from cattle farming according to another son. Terry.  He had quite the pocket knife skills and painted them with amazing detail.

    As a teacher of claw hammer banjo and advocate for
traditional mountain music I have tried to tie in the local traditions of freestyle flatfoot dancing to the
JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) program that is in its 3rd year in Floyd County.   In the 1970's and 80's as I was learning about the older local styles of banjo playing, I was drawn to dancing events like the weekly
Sunday afternoon event at Mabry Mill where the sound of claw hammer banjo,  fiddle and guitar were united with the  percussive sounds of  flatfoot dancers who danced in a group on a simple dance floor in the shade nearby.  The music played by the local people was not a performance style like Bluegrass music is.  Rather, it was part of a social scene where people came together to visit, listen, and participate
in a fun activity.  Play parties and dancing have long  been a part of Floyd County's heritage of fun, thus, the Slusher Dolls were  no doubt inspired by people having fun with music.  RO himself apparently was a avid fan of country music and dancing traditions.  He and his wife  made music a big part of their social life.

As luck would have it, I was given a set of Slusher dolls recently and have been learning to operate them as R O designed them.  Clips of my early attempts are on Facebook.  The Mt Airy Fiddler's convention held this past June 6 and 7th was  where the dolls first got a lot of attention around the old-time community.  They were videoed many times and late on Saturday night even entered the dance contest naming the dolls  Richard and Barbara from Mt Airy,  for a popular couple from the local Old-time  scene. 
They won sixth place along with many other dancers as they attempted to put some more fun back into the  flatfooting contest.

Late last summer I was hired to teach intermediate level claw hammer banjo at the annual Blue Ridge Old-Time week held at Mars Hill College in Western NC just after the Mt Airy Fiddler's convention each year.
I knew that the Slusher Dolls would be a hit with the crowd there as well.  I featured  them in my 10 minute concert on Monday night where I named them for former director Hillary Dirlam and her partner Scott.  Of course, they drew a fabulous response as they wildly danced to my banjo playing.
During the week I took them to several of the evening jams and had lots of fun showing them to the

The Slusher dolls  are a challenge to get to dance well  but when I get them warmed up, it is possible to hear the sound of their feet just like with real dancers on the dance board that is a part of their operating equipment.  They are designed to be controlled by a single string looped around the 
musician's little finger which is moving rhythmically to the music.  A banjo in my case is being claw hammered with  two downstrokes per beat which activates the dolls who are suspended over the danced board.  By pulling the string and stroking the strings  simultaneously they tap and twirl about with rubber bands and fishing lure swivels to appear to be a lively dancing duo as long one keeps it up.
Its is rather realistic if I do say so myself.  I intend to take them along on gigs from now on.  Maybe you'll see more clips of their performances in the near future.