Eller Chronicles Aug 94 p-

The Eller Chronicles


Page - 144

The Ellers of North Georgia:

Lawrence and Vaughn7 (Grady,6 Alfred Webb,5 Joseph,4 Susannah,3 Jacob,2 Jr. , Jacob1 Sr.)

Goin' to Georgia
The Eller Brothers and Ross Brown
(Submitted by EFA member Dorothy Newbold, P.O. Box 507, Ball Ground, GA 30107.)

(From a special insert in one of the LP 546 stereo recording produced by Flyright Records, 18 Endwill Road, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, by Art Rosenbaum, 1978.)

A small road heads north off the highway between Hiawassee and Clayton in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northernmost edge of Georgia. Pavement gives way to dirt as you head up into the increasingly beautiful country. It is known as "Head of Hightower," as Hightower Creek arises here, and the mountain called Hightower Bald dominates the landscape. Lawrence Eller also calls it "the garden spot of the world." and there is far more affection than irony in his tone as he considers the creek bottom, ridge and mountain country where his family has lived, labored, and made music for over four generations. He and his brother Vaughn have lived on the family land in this country all their lives with the exception of Lawrence's few stints doing industrial work in the North and Vaughn's hitch in the Navy during World War II. Most of the time they survived on subsistence farming, keeping bees, and doing work for others in Towns County, clearing land, construction, "work rougher than anyone else would do."

Now they live with their wives in houses about a quarter mile apart on the road-, their mother Laethe Eller, a spry, diminutive woman in her eighties, still able to sing old-fashioned gospel songs to her rolling piano accompaniment, stays in a third house between them with another of her sons, L.P., who can neither hear or speak, but is a fine traditional craftsman and chair-maker. Lawrence and Vaughn, with their old friend Ross Brown, were the main string band, the most called upon music makers in the county in the thirties, and they have recently been getting a good bit of satisfaction in seeing a revived interest in their music when they have played at the Georgia Mountain Fair in the county seat of Hiawassee, and at the Georgia Grassroot Festival in Atlanta. Their rough, honest, and intensely emotional mountain music can cut like a Barlow knife through audiences dulled by the shallowness of the ubiquitous Nashville groups and the pyrotechnics of the young bluegrassers.

Having felt that time and musical tastes have passed them by, they are vindicated by the recent successes that most animate their musical expression, but rather the wellspring of the music of their formative years, memories of their mother singing old love songs and ballads at the spinning wheel, of the lonesome sound of their grandfather's fife or song bow, and of the music they themselves learned and played during their courting years. Recently Lawrence was looking up past the near ridges and up toward the peak of Hightower Bald. "Used to be full of houses there. I could take you up there, show you rock chimneys yet. And every Easter Sunday, back yander when I commenced to pickin' the banjo, we'd go to the bald fields up there, a bunch of us, and they'd run a reel in that old field. And the whole field would be covered up, with young people. I'd pick the banjer and Vaugn'd play guitar, and they'd run a reel in that old field. That was in our best days."

Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

Lawrence Eller in the backyard of his home on Upper Hightower near Hiawassee, Towns County, Georgia.

Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

The Eller family settled in Towns County before the Civil War, having come down from Buncombe County, North Carolina. Family tradition recalls a hard simple life of clearing the land, building log houses, ploughing steers and raising corn on the hillsides which was hauled off in the old-fashioned sleds of a kind that Lawrence can still make. There was little enthusiasm for the Confederate cause in the mountain areas of Georgia during the Civil War, and Lawrence and Vaughn's grandfather, Uncle Alf Eller, hid out from conscription by the rebel cavalry in the brush along Hall Creek. Vaughn still treasurers his grandfather's Civil War fife and can sing some verses to an old song, a variant of "Fare You Well My Darling," that Uncle Alf played on it:

See how she rings her lily- white hands and mournfully does cry,
He's going to the army and in the war he'll die.

Uncle Alf (Alfred Webb Eller) lived until 1934 and was a strong musical influence on Vaughn, especially, who lived with him for a time: "Barbara Allen" was one of the old ballads Vaughn remembers his grandfather singing.

Grady Eller, Lawrence and Vaughn's father, died in 1975 at the age of eighty. Having passed on to his sons the traditional arts of log construction, shingle making, and other skills necessary to make do in an age of self- sufficiency. He was also a fine old time singer; played the organ for family gatherings, he also taught Vaughn how to fashion and play the mouth bow, or "song bow." His wife, Laethe, taught her sons several of the old songs and ballads, and gave them a sense of exuberance of mountain music. She still remembers a certain neighbor who would often ride back up the road from town, pretty well drunk, at midnight, stop and wake her up, and ask her to play "Little Brown Jug" on the organ. "And he'd dance'er," recalls Vaughn.

Lawrence Eller was born in 1916, Vaughn in 1918, into a large family: Grady and Laethe raised six children. There was more hardwork than schooling in their childhood but this was relieved by family and neighborhood gatherings at which music played an important part. "People back then used to visit each other more than they do now." Lawrence remembers. "The'd come in, and there'd be a houseful. They'd set and tell jokes.. they'd sing. I've heard my mother's brothers coming out there, and they'd sing, most of the night, them old songs."

In this musical atmosphere it was not surprising that the boys took up music-making at an early age. Lawrence began playing the banjo at about eight or nine. "I got ahold of one, had an old catskin head on it, a home-made banjo, didn't have no frets, but I could note hit, make it say the words plainer than this one here." Lawrence told me, between picking some tunes on the beautiful Bacon banjo that he had been playing for the past thirty years. Lawrence learned most of what he knows on the banjo from a man named Will Ogles who had moved into Towns from Fontana, North Carolina. Ogles was a chair-maker by trade, and word had it that he had been in some kind of trouble in his home state. He sang many of the old songs associated with the rowdy mountain banjo pickers. "Ground Hog," "Poor Ellen Smith," and others, and played in the typical thumb and finger style of Western North Carolina, with the index picking out the lead notes and then brushing up on one or two strings with his index, and sounding the fifth string with the thumb on the off-beat. Lawrence remembers that Ogles double-noted, that is brought the thumb over to the inside strings for additional notes, but Lawrence never incorporated this technique into his style. He did develop a servicable and distinctive personal approach with an emphasis on melody and embellished by chokes, slides, and work up the neck.

Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

HIAWASSEE, Ga. -- Howard Cunningham (left), with his guitar, and Ross Brown, his fiddle in his lap and harmonica in hand, demonstrate North Georgia's grassroots music. -- which they call fun. but which impressed the Smithsonian institution so much it is sending them to the Edinburgh international Festival in Scotland next month.

FRONT YARD JAM SESSION: Ross Brown (left) and Lawrence Eller whils away an afternoon.

Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

Vaughn started playing the guitar when he was ten or eleven, and his start was, like his brothers, typical for that time. He ordered a Sears Roebuck mail order guitar, and "set around and beat around on it, beat around on it." Pretty soon Vaughn and Lawrence were playing together, and by the times they were in their early teens, they were playing, not only for dances in Upper Hightower, but for the folks that would converge on the county seat on court week. People in Hiawassee still remember the two teenagers picking and singing for the crowds of people that would gather under the big oak trees on the square when court would recess at noon every Saturday. "I heard them talkin' the other day," Lawrence recently told me, "that they would long for Saturday to come., so they could come down and hear us." Usually it wasn't possible to catch a ride, as there were very few cars on the dirt mountain road, so the boys would walk the twelve miles to Hiawassee and back, with their guitar and banjo. They were also called upon to play in the new holiness churches that were coming into the country, and they could really set the people on fire at revivals with fast gospel tunes like "Honey in the Rock." Lawrence & Vaughn were raised attending the old-fashioned Baptist Church that wouldn't have welcomed this kind of music at its services.

In the early thirties Lawrence and Vaughn started ordering large numbers of records from the hillbilly catalogues, and the music they learned from this source greatly expanded their repertories, and influences their performances of many songs learned from family and local traditon. They learned the tight harmony style of "brother" teams like the Callahan Brothers and the Monroe Brothers; the Carter Family and Mainer's Mountaineers were other favorites.

The boys married in their early twenties, Lawrence to Ruby Hunter, who grew up on a farm that was half in North Carolina, and half in Georgia, Vaughn to Louise Allen. Lawrence and Ruby have no children; Vaughn and Louise, one daughter. Through the hard times of the depression they continued making music for Saturday night dances, sometimes joined by fiddler Ross Brown from Hiawassee. The dances would be held in people's homes up and down the creek, and there would usually be a caller who could call an eight-handed or sixteen-handed reel. If there was no caller , "they'd just get out and flat-foot'er." that is, individuals would tear loose in their own sorts of buck dance. There was little drinking and no trouble at these neighborhood dances, in contrast to their counterparts in other areas where there was often heavy drinking and fighting. When Vaughn was off in the Navy in World War II, Lawrence would often play all night for dances by himself

Community dances and music sessions declined after the War. People were moving away in search of work, and the influence of mass-produced music made inroads on the tradition. Vaughn pretty much neglected his music for nearly thirty years after his return from the Navy, though Lawrence continued to play for his own satisfaction. The music presented at the Annual Mountain Fair at Hiawassee has leaned more and more to Nashville and Bluegrass styles. Recently the Eller brothers have gotten back into playing together and have re-introduced mountain music most successfully into the local festivities. It took some time to get use to each other's "time" again, Vaughn having a slower, Lawrence a faster attack into the rhythm. Now their voices and instruments, are blending into their old sound.

In the thirties Ross Brown played for dances with Lawrence or both the Eller brothers, and would generally play a small number of tried and true breakdowns with them. Recently they have been adding his fiddle to a larger number of tunes and songs as they rehearse their old
Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

     Reared several miles .apart in the pre-Depression isolation of Towns County, Eller, 68, and Brown, 74, were brought up in a time and place of homemade bread and homegrown entertainment.
     Both fondly recall the days when large groups of kinfolk and neighbors frequently gathered to sing , dance and play music As boys, they learned their instruments by imitating their elders.

     "Back before radio and television, that was the main pastime," said Brown, his eyes blinking from under the large brim of a cowboy hat.
     The jokester of the group, Brown claims that be was inspired to learn the fiddle at age 12 by a sow that his family allowed to sleep under the house.

     "When she'd scratch her back against the floor joists, it would strike a tune somewhere between 'Amazing Grace' and 'Shout Lula.' I decided if I could ever Play that good. I'd be happy," Brown deadpanned while chickens clucked and scratched in Eller's front yard, adding a down-home touch to his cornball tale.
Eller credits his mother with a large influence on his music by introducing him to church hymns and an old-fashioned pump organ when he was a child.
     In 1980, with the help of Reynolds, who is a folklorist with the Foxfire Fund, the Eller brothers and Brown were invited to the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park near Washington, D.C. The next year they Performed at the Smithsonian's festival of American Folk Life, an annual summer event on the mall in Washington.
     But Vaughn's failing health forced him to retire from the group before the Washington honor, so they recruited Cunningham to take his place as rhythm guitarist and part. time vocalist. The four also have performed at folk festivals through. out the Southeast.

     Cunningham is the only member ever to pursue a professional country music career. Although he was brought up listening to the Elers, Brown and others around Hiawassee, he fell in love with the Texas swing of the late 1940s and early 1950s, touring the nation with a band. He soon returned home, where he has supervised the music portion of the Georgia Mountain Fair for 32 years and has become a local celebrity for his fiddle playing.
UPlaying at churches and dances throughout the Georgia mountains, Lawrence Eller said they never expected to be paid for having fun.
     "There ain't a feller in this world who's had a better time playing music than I have," be added with a chuckle.
     By the time Eller and his younger brother Vaughn were in their teens, the two were performing over much of Towns County and in surrounding mountain communities. The two soon teamed up with Brown.
     The first banjo I ever owned was a baner that had a catskin head and no frets. I believe I could play that one better than the one I've got now," Eller said.
     Over the years the Eller and Brown went their separate ways but usually managed to play together enough to maintain their musical connection.
     Meanwhile, Lawrence Eller memorized a repertoire of about 200 traditional mountain tunes.
     “There's been many a night that I came home at daylight with this here banjer in my hand," Eller said, holding up a Belmont banjo he purchased by mail order from Montgomery Ward in 1942.

Smithsonian sending North Georgia grass-roots musicians to Scotland

By John Harmon
Special to The Journal Constitution


     It's grass-roots music - country music of an era before electricity came to the Georgia mountains and before pop-oriented Nashville dominated the airwaves.
    But when Lawrence Eller picks his banjo and Ross Brown makes his fiddle sing in sweet harmony with Eller's voice, they call it fun - the same fun they've been having together for more than 50 years.
    "It ain't nothing special. It's just the music I've heard all my life," said Eller, pausing between songs during a recent jam session in the cool midday shade of his front yard along remote Upper Hightower Creek about 10 miles west of here.
    Despite Eller's modesty, Smithsonian Institution considers their form of Southern Appalachian music special.

Eller and Brown, accompanied by guitarists Howard Cunningham of Hiawassee and George Reynolds of Rabun Gap, are one of seven American acts selected by the Smithsonian Institution to represent American Music at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland next month.
7nbsp;   "Their music is far from commercial. They go back to their musical. They go back to their musical roots," said Smithsonian spokeswoman Abby Wasserman.
    This is the first year the Smithsonian has sponsored Musicians at the three week Edinburgh arts festival, Ms. Wasserman said. Other styles to , be represented by the Smithsonian include jazz, baroque chamber music, Cajun folk and black gospel music.
    While Cunningham, 55, and Reynolds, 35, are accomplished folk musicians steeped in the Southern mountain traditions, it is Eller and Brown who are the elder statesmen of their North Georgia mission to Scotland Amg. 22-27.

Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

Page 24 Mountain Home Companion January 1989
Lawrence Eller
By Dale Thurman

     As I look out of my Georgia Mountain Fair office window, I see the stage that "Lawrence Eller and Friends" preformed on each day of the Fair. For many years Lawrence and his brother Vaughn shared their very unique form of mountain music with the many thousands of people that came to the Fair.
     Several years ago Lawrence had the honor of representing the U.S.A. in Edenbrug, Scotland, at the Festival of Festivals.

“Lawrence Eller and Friends” were one of the five groups from the U.S.A. that were invited to attend this event. When talking about his trip, Lawrence would fondly remember the new friends he had made in Scotland.
     With the passing of Lawrence Eller, a unique form of music is gone forever. He left an emptiness in our hearts, but I know he and Vaughn are back together entertaining an even bigger audience.

Lawrence's Grandfather From Hearthstones at Home, Col. I, 1983 – Edited by Jerry A. Taylor

Alfred Webb Eller, son of Joseph and Mariah Hedden Eller, was born June 18, 1843 in the Hightower community where he served in the local Militia district #1133 during the Civil War. On July 15, 1862 he went to Clayton, Georgia where he enlisted July 15, 1862 in Company F, 11th Regt. Cav., Georgia Vols., C.S.A. In his late years Alfred received a Veteran's pension for his service.

Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

pieces. Ross was born in Towns County in 1909, of a family that, like the Ellers, had migrated to Georgia from North Carolina in the early 1800's. A peach farmer and nursery-man most of his life, he still tends a small orchard adjacent to the comfortable brick house he and his wife Gertrude, a retired school teacher, live in outside Hiawassee. He is a comical man, a great jokester with a wild imagination, a skillful harmonica and banjo player as well as a fiddler, and a good flat-footed buck dancer. He vows that his family's talent for music never went beyond his great-grandfather's knocking his front teeth out in an attempt to play the jew's harp. He claims that his chief early inspiration in music came from an old sow who use to run under the floor of his father's house out in the country when he was a kid. "She went to runnin' her back against a splinter hangin' down from the floor board, and played a tune that was somewhat between "Amazin Grace" and "Weeping Willow." Ross will tell you that he has just about achieved his lifelong ambition to play music like that.

He did begin playing the fiddle at thirteen. He is left-handed but started to play right-handed, and accomplished the feat of relearning the fiddle restrung for left-handed playing after three years. He learned old tunes like "Snowbird" from a local blind fiddler, Uncle Joe Swanson, and now has a large repertoire of interesting old tunes. He started picking a borrowed fretless banjo; now he plays a freeted banjo upside-down, double noting with thumb lead to acheive the characteristic regional style. Two of his best tunes are "Coal Creek March" and "Weeping Willow." In his younger days he would travel through the mountains on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and was known to cut up a bit when "feelin good" at a dance, playing the fiddle over his head, behind his back, and the like. These days he is a bit more sedate, but still has a great time making music and will take any occasion to play, whether it be on the stage of the Georgia Mountain Fair on a show m.c.'d by his brother-in-law and fiddling protege, Fiddlin Howard Cunningham, with a gospel group, or in the place called the Long Cabin, east of Hiawassee on highway 76, where weekly string music jam sessions take place in good weather. His musical relationship with the Eller brothers is warm and enthusiastic, though he is not above criticizing Lawrence for picking too hard, a habit Lawrence got into when he started to wear a thumb pick and a methal finger pick to make himself heard at dances in the thirties, before the day of mikes and amplifiers. Lawrence in turn will comment that Ross doesn't bear down enough on the bow, but the driving banjo line, backed up by Ross's thoughful and moody fiddle and Vaughn's tightly melodic guitar bass form the unique sound of the band. Most of their admirers would not wish it to be different.

Vaughn Eller is a quiet and reflective man who can still put tremendous energy into his music, despite some recent heart trouble. He has composed several lyrical and "blueyodel" style songs of his own. I asked him about the unique quality of mountain music, and he said, "It has a special atmosphere about it. It rings clearer here than it does in the flatlands." Lawrence is a more exuberant and demonstrative person, and equally passionate about mountain music. He will play for hours once he gets started for others, or simply for his own satisfaction. "I love that old mountain music." he told me. "There's some times , I'm at the house. I'll take the blues, kindly, and get on the porch there, and I just pick the fire out of that thing! Lot of 'em hear me a-sing down the creek. I really get the blues, that's when I shear down on that thing. That man ain't livin' that loves it more than I do. That man never picked it that enjoys it more than I."
Eller Chronicles Vol. VIll-3 August 1994

Our thanks to Dorothy Newbold for this information.

(Eds.) Many descendants of the early pioneer Eller families of Rabun and Towns Counties, Georgia are members of the EFA. On September 4, 1994 Ed Eller, and his kinsmen are hosting the First North Georgia Eller Family Reunion (See back cover). Ellers of other lines and branches are invited to attend and some from North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Ohio are planning to be present.. Those who attend will hear lots of Eller family country music and old time gospel hymns. Also, they will see one of the most picturesque places in the Southeast, a computer demonstration of Ed Eller's extensive data base on the immigrant Jacob Eller line, and will meet many Ellers.

Music was a constant in the lives of the North Georgia Ellers, just as for many branches of the Ellers known to the EFA. A talent for music is definitely a common Eller trait - not universal with all individuals - but present in most branches. I know from personal knowledge that this is true for those whose ancestry traces back to Buncombe County, N.C. We saw it in full swing at the Eller Reunions in Crowley, Texas and Skiatook, Oklahoma last year. I grew up hearing Eller music from my relatives in Graham County, North Carolina where I was born with little talent - I can carry a tune if someone else leads) but some members of the Graham County Ellers were truly gifted with musical talent.

( JGE: Incidentally, I grew up only a couple of hours from Hiawassee, Georgia, but never know of my north Georgia relatives until after the EFA came into existence. The Georgia branch of the Jacob Eller line left Buncombe County, N.C. in the early 1800's, while my grandfather did not leave that county until around 1885., By that time the two branches probably had lost all knowledge of their kinship.)

A list of the more famous Eller musicians of the North Georgia clan includes Teddy Gentry of the popular group ALABAMA. His mother was a descendant of a north Georgia Eller. More stories on North Georgia Ellers will be appearing during the next several issues.


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