Hutchins Library
Special Collections & Archives
North Carolina Banjo Traditions: J. Roy Stalcup

Picture of J. Roy Stalcup courtesy of David Brose, John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, North CarolinaWestern North Carolina banjo player, J. Roy Stalcup (1903-1990) is one of the many older generation Appalachian musicians documented in Hutchins Library's sound recordings collections.

J. Roy was born in the Martins Creek area of Cherokee County, North Carolina, near the town of Murphy, December 3, 1903. His father, Marcus Edgar Stalcup, whose Swedish forbearers came to America in the 1600s, was a subsistence farmer who supplemented the family income with work in the copper mines in nearby Copper Hill, Tennessee. J. Roy’s mother was a Hatchett from the Bellview area on the North Carolina-Georgia line. Her family had come from Alamance County in the 1850’s, headed west by wagon, but ended up settling in the Murphy area, working at farming, gold and talc mining.

J. Roy’s schooling included Murphy High School, the academy at north Georgia's Young Harris College, and Kentucky’s Berea College during which time he discovered an aptitude for engineering. Upon leaving Berea in 1930, he went to work for the United States Forest Service as a surveyor, working on establishing the boundaries of what was to become the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Further education in civil engineering led to a twenty-year stint with the U.S. Forest Service in Mississippi and then several more years in the private sector that took him to Japan, Cambodia, Iran, and Iceland.

Musically, J. Roy followed the lead of his father and two uncles, all banjo players. He remembered his father’s banjo as having “a cat skin head and a slick (fretless) neck.” Of the neighborhood dances they played for, he remembered, “they’d clear the floor at one of these houses down here and get a fiddle and banjo, that’s all they wanted…they could just dance to a fiddle if they didn’t have a banjo, but they preferred to have a banjo for rhythm…"

J. Roy got his first banjo in 1915 at age twelve, paid for in part from the door-to-door sale of homegrown vegetables around Murphy. The distinctive playing style he developed was something of a departure from the two-finger (thumb and forefinger) style he had seen and heard from his father and uncles. It didn’t require picks, “just naked fingers” as J. Roy once put it. The finger action which he called a strum was marked by picking up with the forefinger rather than down with it. He once explained, “I didn’t learn it from anybody, I just took it up. I couldn’t ever learn to play that way, (thumb and fore-finger) so I got on just dragging this finger across the strings.”

Selected J. Roy Stalcup Tune Recordings

The performances in this exhibit were recorded by Cashers, North Carolina musician, Lee Knight, in 1983. They document J. Roy at age 76 when he was semi-retired, enjoying his sizable banjo collection, and playing informally with friends and at such events as John C. Campell Folk School’s Fall Festivals and the Eno River Folklife Festival in Durham. He died July 1, 1990.

They document both J. Roy’s distinctive finger action and his bent for using a wide variety of tunings. Many were common ones used for numerous songs. Others he used for only one or two tunes and referred to them by their titles, such as the“500 Miles” key or “Sugar Betty Ann” key.

J. Roy’s banjo repertoire included songs and tunes learned from family and community and from radio or records. Those he learned first hand include “Georgia Buck”, “Free Little Bird”, “Old Joe Clark”, “The Johnson Boys” and “Sugar Betty Ann.” His source for the well-known “500 Miles,” a variant of “Ruben’s Train,” was the 1960s rendition by Peter, Paul and Mary. For songs such as “Fireball Mail”, “Eight More Miles To Louisville” and “Here, Rattler, Here,” he credits the likes of Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, and various other commercial artists.

500 Miles Going Down To Town
Back in the Country Here Rattler
Battle of New Orleans / Eighth of January Johnson Boys
Coal Creek March Last Gold Dollar
Cripple Creek New River Train
Cumberland Gap (the tune) Old Joe Clark (the tune)
Cumberland Gap (talk & the tune) Old Joe Clark (talk & the tune)
Darling Nellie Gray Sally Goodin’
Down the Road Shoot That Turkey Buzzard
Eight More Miles to Louisville Stay All Night
Fireball Mail Talking About His Banjo
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss / Sugar Betty Ann Talking About Stalcup Family History
Free Little Bird What Are You Going to Do With the Baby O?
Georgia Buck (talk & the tune) Wildwood Flower
Georgia Buck (a little talk, tuning & the tune)  

Text adapted from Lee Knight’s articles about J. Roy Stalcup that originally appeared December 13 and 20, 1979, in The Cherokee Scout & Clay County Progress, Murphy, North Carolina.

Photo courtesy of David Brose, John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, North Carolina.


Written inquiries may be addressed to Harry S. Rice, Sound Archivist, Hutchins Library, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Berea College, Berea, KY 40404.  Phone: 859-985-3249. E-mail: .

Home > Special Collections & Archives > Sound Archives > Old-Time Fiddlers and Banjo-Players