Ralph Blizard Born in 1918 in Kingsport, Tennessee, Ralph grew up in the musically rich Tennessee/Virginia border area, surrounded by fiddle music and old-time singing. His father played the fiddle and taught singing schools. He took Ralph with him to jam sessions and musical gatherings at the homes of local musicians, including the Carter Family, Charlie Bowman, Dudley Vance, and John Dykes. By the time he was 14 years old, Ralph was fiddling. He formed his first band, the Southern Ramblers, in 1932 and began playing on local radio stations. During the early to mid-1930s, old-time music enjoyed regional and national popularity, and Ralph Blizard and the Southern Ramblers were in the thick of it, playing radio shows almost daily before attending school and traveling on the weekends to play for square dances, concerts, and other bookings.
After putting down his fiddle to start a family for 25 years Ralph had to retrain himself through long dedicated practice hours to play again. Upon deciding he could once again play the way he had years earlier he met and started a band with Phil Jamison, Gordy Hinners, and Andy Deaver. For the next 20 years, Ralph and his band, which eventually included John Lilly and John Herrmann, redefined old-time music. With a repertoire incorporating traditional dance tunes; early country songs from the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith; and original compositions, the New Southern Ramblers drove their music in a way few people had ever heard.
Ralph’s “Appalachian Mountain Longbow” fiddling stretched the bounds of traditional melody, stringing together soaring streams of notes with one stroke of the bow, creating music that seemed to come from deep within. He never played a tune the same way once, his band members liked to say. Equally compelling was Ralph’s heartfelt and rich singing, and his fiddle accompaniment to old-time, gospel, and country songs.
Audiences responded to Ralph’s transcendent stage performances, and he received invitations to play from California to Florida to New York to Alaska to Scotland. He won contests, recorded several albums, made a live-performance video tape, and appeared on national television and radio. What probably meant the most to him were the opportunities he had to visit and “jam session” with musicians ranging from internationally known folk and bluegrass artists, to symphony musicians, to rock-bottom beginners. No matter who the musicians were or what the situation, Ralph was always kind, welcoming, and poised to learn. In so doing, he became a profound teacher. He was a regular instructor at workshops across the country, where he always encouraged his students to “play yourself,” meaning they should reach down within their own feelings to find their own personal style of playing.
Fortunately, Ralph was widely recognized for his gifts while he was still alive and was able to appreciate it. He received numerous awards and honors, including the 2002 National Heritage Fellowship, for which he was immensely grateful. He had big plans, right up to the end. He was the picture of a fiddler, a model of a life well spent, and a true friend and gentleman.
A youth scholarship fund has been established in Ralph Blizard’s honor at the Swannanoa Gathering.
For more information, write to Warren Wilson College, CPO 6211, PO Box 9000 Asheville, NC 28815.