Archive: Transitions

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December 2004

Ralph Blizard
As reported in the Kingsport paper, National Heritage Fellow Ralph Blizard passed away Friday, Dec 3, 2004:

BLOUNTVILLE - Ralph Blizard, a nationally known master long-bow fiddler who specialized in traditional Appalachian music, died Friday at his home here.

Blizard, 85, was a 2002 recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts and was inducted into the American Fiddlers Hall of Fame in 2002.

The fiddler was a co-founder of the Traditional Appalachian Music Heritage Association, an organization to preserve the musical heritage of the region. Blizard also was a recipient of the Tennessee Governor's Award for the Arts and had served as a member of the Tennessee Arts
Commission for five years.

Blizard learned to play the violin, or fiddle, at an early age. During a 2003 interview, he said he was playing the instrument by age 7.

But learning to play the fiddle was not easy for Blizard, not because of lack of talent, but because his father, Robert Blizard, did not want him to tear up his fiddle. So, he taught himself to play using a mandolin, and doing much of his initial practicing in secret.

Blizard said the mandolin had the same noting and he added the bowing movement with the help of his mother, Jennie Blizard.

Learning how to play the fiddle did get easier. Once Blizard's father discovered that his son was seriously following in his footsteps, he became a supporter of his efforts. But his father wanted Blizard to learn to read music, something his son spent little time on.

"Traditional old-time music is authentic, and to me, playing by note instead of by ear, was unnatural," Blizard said during a 2002 interview.

Blizard said his earliest influences were three local fiddlers -Charlie Bowman, John Dykes and Dudley Vance.

"They were my dad's age. They were the three best-known old-time fiddlers in the region. I played music will all three of them as a kid," he said.

Blizard began playing music at local radio stations in the early 1930s, appearing on Bristol's WOPI in 1932 and playing with his band, the Southern Ramblers, from 1938 to 1940 on WJHL, Johnson City. The band moved over to WKPT, Kingsport, where Blizard played until joining the military in 1942. Following his time in service, he became part of
WKPT's Saturday night show, "Saturday Night Hayride."

But following marriage and the birth of two sons, Blizard put music on the back burner in the mid-1950s while he worked on a small farm and took a full-time job at Tennessee Eastman Co., in Kingsport. After retiring in 1980, Blizard took up the bow again, but said he had to
re-learn how to play.

"I sort of scratched around. I practiced four, five, six, seven hours a day," he said. "I developed a fast method of re-learning by using a stereo with headphones. I'd play the tape and copy it."

Following his re-education, Blizard also got together with a new band. He met up in 1982 with the Green Grass Cloggers, and together they formed the New Southern Ramblers.

In the mid-1990s, Blizard helped start a weekly jam session at the Anderson Townhouse in Blountville. The sessions allowed musicians, no matter what their expertise, a chance to come together and play.

"It's all acoustic music," Blizard said. "We have the traditional music, and we have the bluegrass. The idea is for young people to come and learn music."

Blizard's funeral is scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m. at Hamlett-Dobson Funeral Home in Kingsport.